Animego’s DVD release of Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain includes as a bonus feature a selection of World War II-era anti-Japanese propaganda films. Sponsored by various U.S. government bureaucracies, most of these shorts traffic in the usual sort of wartime racism and paranoia which, depending on your sensibility, you will find either disturbing or amusing.
The most egregious of these is something called My Japan, which features an actor in yellow-face hectoring the American audience into buying more war bonds by boasting that Japan won’t be defeated through aerial bombing, island-hopping and U.S. industrial might alone.
Interesting though these may be as artifacts, I can’t help feeling as though their only purpose in this context is to prod the contemporary viewer’s sense of lingering post-Hiroshima guilt. By the terms of the film itself, this is inappropriate: inasmuch as Black Rain contains any social criticism, it is aimed at Japan, not the United States (which gets a passing mention in only one scene).
Victimological axe-grinding is really beside the point here. While Black Rain is superficially about the aftermath of the world’s first nuclear strike, it is more generally concerned with the ways in which a community tries to reconstruct life after historical trauma - not just the war, but all of the intrusions and dislocations of the modern world.
Black Rain begins as three Hiroshimans - Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura), his wife Shigeko (Etsuko Ichihara) and their niece Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) - wake to find themselves caught in the sudden mayhem of the morning of August 6, 1945. Yasuko, initially further out of town during the blast, is exposed to the precipitation of the title. They cross the devastated city on their way to safety, witnessing graphic examples of the bomb’s human toll.
These opening scenes are fine bits of choreographed mayhem, as Imamura conveys the chaos of the scene with clever blocking and inventive use of off-screen sound. For sharp-eyed viewers, these opening scenes are a demonstration of the deceptively subtle technique that lay behind Imamura’s taste for the violent and outré.
The rest of the film, however, should remind us that Imamura’s work cannot be so easily reduced to those qualities. After a five-year flash-forward, the three survivors have settled into a life in the country, and Black Rain suddenly becomes a domestic melodrama.
The conventional marriage plot is given a topical twist, as Shigematsu’s efforts to find a husband for Yasuko are stymied by widespread fear and suspicion of those who witnessed “the flash.” Potential suitors (or their families) fear that Yasuko’s health may fail as a result of exposure to radiation. To make matters worse, they may be right: Shigematsu and Shigeko, only in late-middle-age, show signs of premature wear, as do their fellow survivors in the community.
Once the film settles in, Imamura mostly abandons his usual grotesqueries and urban dropouts - the only prostitute here is a bit player; likewise the film’s sole gangster, who’s sent packing by a shell-shocked young soldier.
Almost a pastiche of his own countrymen’s humanist films of the 1950s, Black Rain is rife with long takes and tableaux, punctuating its scenes through the movements of the actors or very occasional, very restrained editing. This is bracing stuff coming from the director of Vengeance Is Mine, who, up to this point, had made a name for himself by rebelling against this aesthetic.
Imamura announces his thematic concerns early on with a quick shot of a train station clock blasted into debris by the explosion. Later, Shigematsu and Yasuko are shown dutifully resetting the clock in their living room to official time every evening. Though it takes place in a rural idyll far away from the modern, mechanized world (the movie’s attitude finds expression in the aforementioned traumatized veteran, who is driven to mania whenever he hears the sound of an engine), Black Rain isn’t so naive as to appeal for a return to a peaceful golden age.
While the film laments society’s attempts to suppress the past (in the form of the stigma attached to the survivors), it also ridicules the purely reactionary impulse, depicting Shigeko’s later fascination with séances, gravesites and the ghosts of deceased relatives as a morbid fixation. The pastoral surface of this movie conceals – and eventually reveals – a deep concern for the possibility of building a humane future. This is what is at stake in Yasuko’s marriage ambitions, which are more than once framed as hope for familial and generational continuity.
Once raised, Black Rain doesn’t so much frustrate these expectations as ignore (or possibly forget) them; at the exact midpoint, a character recites a funereal Buddhist sutra regarding the transience of all existence, and this cosmic theme takes over from the petty human concerns which dominate the first half. It must be admitted that the film becomes much less compelling after this, though it still contains some well-done scenes, and Shohei Imamura’s sure stylistic hand is at least enough to keep the mind alive.
But Black Rain is perhaps best thought of as a deliberate departure for Imamura; a dry run for his later, better Unagi, which also features a small ensemble cast going about its (considerably more light-hearted) business in the Japanese hinterlands.
Black Rain is not a failure – its general quality and serious intentions are enough to certainly recommend a look – but I’d also hesitate to call it entirely successful.
Animego’s release features superb sound and image quality, a huge step up from the first Region 1 release of this film about ten years ago. They have also included a nifty feature that I’ve never encountered on a DVD before: two sets of English subtitles. One simply translates the dialogue, while the other provides additional short explanations of the etymology of certain Japanese slang terms, place names and other uncommon words as they occur in the dialogue. Useful for students of the language, somewhat distracting if Japanese is all Greek to you (but the explanatory notes are, thankfully, removable).
Also of note is the inclusion of the film’s alternate ending, which, interestingly, and unlike the rest of the film, is shot in color. Assistant director Takashi Miike and actress Yoshiko Tanaka are featured in interviews, while the usual trailers, notes and photo are included as well in this excellent package.
© Dan Erdman
Kuroi ame / Black Rain (1989). Dir.: Shohei Imamura. Scr.: Shohei Imamura and Toshirô Ishidô; from Masuji Ibuse’s novel. Cast: Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, Shoichi Ozawa.