Monday, November 09, 2009

Brushed by the Hand of Death-Black Rain

Black Rain is Director Imamura Shohei’s award winning 1989 film of the August 5th, 1945 atom bombing of Hiroshima and the survivors of the blast. Based on a story by Ibuse Masuji, it stars Tanaka Yoshiko as Yasuko, Kitamura Kazuo as Shizuma Shigematsu, and Ichihara Etsuko as Shizuma Shigeko. Imamura was known for his over the top films, but Black Rain is a subdued masterpiece. Shot in black and white, it resembles both in tone and style many films released during the 1950’s, giving it a real period feel. While Black Rain’s many awards are too many to list here, they range from the Japan Academy Prize to the Cannes Festival and include multiple wins for Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress, and Best Screenplay. It’s an excellent new addition to Animeigo’s growing DVD lineup of non-samurai Japanese films.

The film begins with young Yasuko being sent to the county near Hiroshima to live with her aunt and uncle, Shizuma Shigeko and Shigematsu, to avoid forced conscription into factory labor. Mr. Shizuma boards a train and heads off to work, although the city has been blanketed by leaflets from American planes heralding upcoming destruction for the city. When the American bomber Enola Gay drops the first atomic bomb at 8:15, Shigematsu is on the fringes of the blast and fireball. He survives with some minor burns and returns home to his wife. Being further away from ground zero, their house is damaged but not completely destroyed. They decide to wait and see if Yasuko will attempt to join them, and make plans to escape the battered remnants of the city.

When Yasuko’s face is streaked black (the black rain of the title, being contaminated by the radioactive ash thrown up by the blast) in a rainstorm as she is attempting to join her aunt and uncle by boat, it gives one the eerie feeling that the hand of Death has just brushed her face. The scenes of the devastation in Hiroshima and the attendant chaos as burned survivors try to pick their way through the rubble of the city are appropriately nightmarish. They’re made all the more sobering and chilling by the fact that, unlike most post-apocalyptic films, these events really happened-and the historical reality was much, much worse. The mushroom cloud that puzzles onlookers, the almost surreal devastation of the city, the deadly live wires that seem to hem the characters in at every path, poisoned water, and the blackened corpses of burned victims everywhere rival anything from the worst horror movie. The scenes of devastation, the hospitals full of burn and radiation victims, and the air of stunned hopelessness also bring to mind similar ones seen in the original 1954 Godzilla (particularly the original Japanese ‘Gojira’ without Raymond Burr). Flashbacks of the post-bombing Hiroshima (focusing on the Shizuma’s escape, rescue efforts, and Shigematsu’s hasty recruitment as a makeshift Buddhist priest to hold services for the dead) continue to appear throughout the movie, much like a recurring nightmare-shadowing the omnipresent threat of radiation sickness the survivors face.

Five years later, Mr. and Mrs. Shizuma and Yasuko all appear to be fine, although Mr. Shizuma (as being primary victims of the blast) has been told to not engage in any strenuous activity. Mr. Shizuma spends his days fishing for carp with other hibakusha (‘explosion affected people’) who have received the same instructions, and a favorite topic of conversation is the rarely-seen giant carp that has lived in the lake for years (interestingly enough, drinking the blood of a carp is presented as a homeopathic cure in the film). Besides the flash (the name given by Japanese to the blast) survivors, there are other victims of the war in town. Yuichi, a member of the Nikaku (Japanese soldiers strapped full of explosives who would sacrifice themselves to destroy American tanks), relives a harrowing episode when an Allied tank passed right over the top of him in battle whenever he hears the sound of an engine. This causes trouble for the townspeople in addition to putting Yuichi’s life at risk when he throws himself in front of all manner of vehicles. His neighbors display a high level of compassion when dealing with him, as he’s a harmless sculptor of Jizo statues the majority of the time. The Shizuma’s lot is made more difficult by the increasing senility of their elderly mother, who believes Yasuko is her daughter. They fear for her health, not knowing that soon she’ll be the healthiest member of the household.

The primary focus of the Shizuma is to find Yasuko a husband before their radiation sickness claims them. The status of the family as flash survivors causes them to be social pariahs on one level, Yasuko in particular being treated as damaged goods. The family even takes her to a doctor and has her health certified as perfect in an effort to remove the doubts from potential bridegrooms and their families. While most of Yauko’s omiai (meet and greets, part of the old fashioned style of arranged Japanese marriages) suitors fall by the wayside as soon as they find out she’s a survivor of the flash, she eventually does find a man who’s willing to accept her as she is-but while Yasuko is more than happy with him and the prospect of marriage, he isn’t quite what the Shizuma had in mind for her (class distinctions were still an issue in Japan at this time). However, they are won over both by Yasuko’s feelings for him and the devotion he shows to her.

The secondary victims (soldiers who had entered the city in a rescue effort) in the town die, leaving Mr. Shizuma to wonder why he and his wife are still alive, having been primary victims. Meanwhile, Yasuko has fallen victim as well-she secretly attempts to treat an ulcer on her body so as not to worry her aunt and uncle. Her radiation sickness begins to become more and more obvious, with swatches of her beautiful black hair falling out. More villagers die from sickness. Yasuko struggles out to the lake with her Uncle and witnesses the fabled giant carp leaping out of the water-sending her into a delirious state of excitement and bringing her sickness to a peak. Some will find the eventual resolution of her situation and the resultant ending a bit frustrating, but it encapsulates the film’s message well-that of an uncertain future where humanity has some difficult choices to make. Perhaps this is illustrated best in the scene where Mr. Shizuma is listening to a radio broadcast giving the hourly news as Yasuko is treated for radiation poisoning. It announces that US President Harry Truman isn’t counting out using the atom bomb against the Chinese in the Korean War and that he’s leaving the decision over its deployment to the general in command. Shizuma resignedly turns off the radio and mumbles that ‘Humans are obstinate creatures’.

Any “horrors of war” movie carries with it the risk of lapsing into over the top melodrama, but that’s not the case with Black Rain. The performances are for the most part wonderfully under control and understated, lending them an air of authenticity and realism. Simple actions such as the Shizuma’s daily ritual of setting their clock to the nightly news symbolize the efforts of the survivors to bring a measure of normalcy and control back to their lives. But even then, there are constant reminders as the news is filled with stories of warfare in nearby Korea and the anti-nuclear Stockholm Proclamation of 1950. A subplot concerning a ‘party girl’ returning to the village to escape her yakuza boyfriend illustrates a growing disconnect between the war survivors and a new generation of more self centered and privileged Japanese youth who have never known suffering. The score by Takemitsu Toru fits the mood of the film perfectly, the composer having written it to specifically match each scene. It makes great use of silence and doesn’t feel the need to fill every moment with music. The focus is on the plight of the radiation victims (many of whom were only exposed when entering Hiroshima after the blast in rescue efforts, becoming ‘entry victims’) and how they deal with the fate that they suspect is coming their way. They have the unenviable fate of having to live with its effects every day of their lives-in effect, being biological time bombs who don’t know when or if the radiation will take its toll on their bodies. To its credit, Black Rain doesn’t attempt to take the easy way out and paint the Americans as evil or the Japanese as innocent victims-the closest it comes to this is when one character asks another why the Americans felt the need to use the bomb. It isn’t so much ‘Why did they do this to us?’ as it is ‘Didn’t they realize we were already defeated?’. As Mr. Shizuma aptly sums it up, ‘An unjust peace is better than a just war’.

Adding to the package is the incredible collection of extras Animeigo has put together. There are of course the detailed historical notes that one has come to expect from their discs, along with the requisite still gallery, cast and crew bios, and trailer. The historical notes give an in-depth perspective of the bombing of Hiroshima, the rescue efforts afterwards, strange side effects of the atom bomb (such as the ‘shadow pictures’ left upon objects by the flash), and the efforts by the US military to keep the effects of the bombing under wraps. There’s also a Multimedia Vault that collects several films and newsreels produced during the war and immediately afterward, both for public consumption in the US and for the Armed Forces. If Black Rain didn’t bring the bombing home, these clips surely will. Interestingly enough, while the media produced for public consumption involves large doses of gloating over the defeat of the Japanese and the destruction brought down upon them, the films done for the military are sober, serious, and respectful. In particular, ‘My Japan’ (a War Bond drive film made by the US Treasury, ostensibly narrated by a stereotypical evil Japanese) is brutal to modern eyes. ‘Our Enemies the Japanese’ and the Universal Newsreel ‘Atom Blast at Hiroshima’ are not far behind (however, it should be pointed out Japanese propaganda films were just as racist and jingoistic-as well as every other nation’s during WWII). Rounding the vault out are some photos of the destruction, US President Harry Truman’s radio speech concerning the atom bomb on August 6th, and the US Army-produced ‘A Tale Of Two Cities’. Finally, there are interviews with Assistant Director Miike Takashi and actress Tanaka Yoshiko. An interesting point brought up in Yoshiko’s interview is that director Imamura kept them all sequestered in the small town where filming took place in an effort to keep them from eating well in the city. This maintained Yasuko’s starved and radiation wasted appearance.

Perhaps the most interesting extra is the alternate ending. Most alternate endings on DVD’s are pretty short and basic, but this one runs almost 20 minutes. It’s shot in color to give it a more ‘contemporary’ feel since it takes place 15 years after the main body of the film. Yasuko has survived her bout with radiation poisoning but health problems have continued to dog her, and she seems to have a massive dose of survivor’s guilt as well. She decides to leave the man she loves and embark upon a pilgrimage to honor the souls of the victims of the flash-a pilgrimage that she seemingly does not expect to return from. Accompanied by another presumed survivor of the flash, they set out upon the famous ’88 temple’ circuit on the island of Shikoku. Watching the two’s progress is truly heart-wrenching. On the way they are harassed and ridiculed by their own people and their health deteriorates at a steady pace. Dirty, disheveled, and with bleeding feet they struggle to make it from one stop on the circuit to the next. The last stop on the journey is pulled off in a touching and almost surrealistic way that seems to bring peace to everyone-but the final scene shows that perhaps even the people of Japan have begun to forget and trivialize the bombing. While the alternate ending certainly delivers an impact, we believe the correct choice was made in keeping the one the film uses. Some things are best left unresolved and left for the viewer to work out for themselves.

Black Rain is an important film that everyone should see-just as a reminder of the very real cost to humanity that warfare entails. It puts a face on what all too often are glossed over and depersonalized as cold statistics on a report. 70-80,000 were killed instantly (30% of the city), with that number rising to 90-140,000 by the end of 1945. Perhaps 200,000 had fallen victim by 1950. But the story of these three people somehow brings things into focus more clearly. There are still many hibakusha alive in Japan today, and still suffering. In a day and age where original documentation by American combat photographers of the destruction of Hiroshima was found in a trash heap, Black Rain is a powerful film that will stay with you long after the ending and give the viewer much to reflect upon. Give it a try when you’re in the mood for a serious, thought provoking movie. You can get Black Rain directly from Animeigo or through Amazon.

1 comment:

  1. An excellent review of both the film and the history. I've been fascinated by this story for a long time. The decision to drop the bomb paired with the decision to not sue for peace by the Japanese has always been interesting to me. I think in many ways the Samurai death cult met it's ultimate moment with the atomic bomb attacks and that in the end Japan still stood.

    I've personally witnessed the effects of propaganda as my Grandfather fought the Japanese in WWII. You should have seen him the day my brother drove up in a Mitsubishi to his house one day...

    That said, it is remarkable how, in spite of these events, we've come together as friends in a harmonious relationship.