Images from Imamura's Black Rain

Shigematsu reads sutras for Mr. Ueda, a victim of Hiroshima the day after the bombing

The funeral of Shokichi

The funeral of Yasuko’s Aunt Shigeko

Yoichi suffering post-traumatic stress disorder

Yasuko and Yoichi in the sculptor’s studio

Hiroshima reenactment: Yasuko comes upon charred bodies

The unreleased ending: Yasuko as a Buddhist monk

The unreleased ending: Yasuko becomes a statue

Hiroshima reenactment: the exploded clock

Hiroshima reenactment: the clock stopped at 8:15

A homecoming in the village: the clock shows 8:15

The monk Yasuko secretly looks in on Yoichi


Although this is a film about trauma, in many ways it attempts to move beyond the static fixation of the trauma image. It does so by exploring the multiple moving parts of the complex family drama and thus normalizing atomic fears as something that can be discussed. This becomes clearest as the judges are deliberating and Dr. Harada expresses his second thoughts about delivering an insanity verdict against Mr. Nakajima:

“His anxiety about the atomic bomb is something we all share; we just don’t feel it quite as strongly. We don’t build underground shelters or plan to move to Brazil—but can we claim that this feeling is beyond comprehension? The Japanese all share it to greater or lesser degrees.”

The film does not entirely fit within the genre of family melodrama since, as in the Brechtian epic theatre, the protagonist (in this case Dr. Harada) is portrayed as someone who can learn and change his attitudes. That no solution is given encourages spectators to reflect on the circumstance that, in the atomic age, there is no safe haven. An aspect that is rarely commented on by critics is the way that Kurosawa foregrounds the summer heat, punctuated by thunderstorms: people are continuously fanning themselves, wiping off sweat, or sitting inside during the heavy rains. In this way the psychological stress is given a corresponding expression in physical discomfort.

Finally, there is another way to look at Kurosawa’s protagonist Mr. Nakajima, who might be considered the embodiment of an existentialist hero. What John Whittier Treat writes about Kenzaburo Oe’s discussion of the hibakusha in Hiroshima Notes applies to Kurosawa’s hero as well:

“The annihilation of their city has rendered them acutely aware of their emptiness, their anguish, and thus potentially of their freedom.”[17] [open endnotes in new window]

Treat also comments on Oe’s depiction of a grandfather who goes insane after he is unable to help his hibakusha grandson:

“Oe may feel sorry for him, but he also describes him with admiration, perhaps because he too recognizes insanity as a ‘brave’ choice in a world which has, after the ‘rational’ decision to drop an atomic bomb, so devalued sanity.”[18]

Kiichi Nakajima strives to do what he considers the proper thing for his family though he lives without hope; although some might see him as a dominating patriarch, there is another way to read his actions—as the ultimate rebellion against the false sense of security of a conformist society.

Imamura’s Black Rain:
the hibakusha as outcast

The fear of contamination is a recurrent theme in literary and fictional works that deal with the difficulty that young hibakusha women faced in finding marriage partners. “The House of Hands,” a story by survivor Mitsuharu Inoue and anthologized by Kenzaburo Oe in The Crazy Iris, relates the fate of four young women who had taken refuge in a village after radiation exposure.[19] A marriage proposal to one of them, Rie, is brusquely cancelled once her history becomes known. The children of another, Shigeno, have both died in childhood; in the course of the story, Seiko, a third, dies from bleeding after a miscarriage. The prospects for the fourth, Junko, seem dim after the fate that befalls the others. The village wants to prevent new refugees from coming, fearing that it will become known as a village of outcasts, and that their own (unexposed) daughters will be marked as unmarriageable.

The burns caused by the bomb healed with raised and reddened scar tissue called keloid (from the Greek khele, claw). Many women who were marked with keloid scars preferred to live hidden away from society. Oe states that there were still over 1,000 such women in 1964, and that men also found that their scars made them undesirable as marriage partners.[20]

Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (Kuroi Ame, 1989), adapted from the novel by Masuji Ibuse that was serialized in the literary journal Shincho in 1965-66, centers on the marriage prospects of Yasuko, who has no visible scars but who was exposed to radiation along with her aunt and uncle after the bombing while traversing the city in order to get to safety. The uncle suffers from chronic fatigue (a frequent ailment of bomb survivors), while the aunt has remained apparently healthy. Ever since, Yasuko has lived with the aunt and uncle (her mother died after giving birth to her). The issue is the discrimination Yasuko faces once marriage prospects suspect that she was exposed to radiation.

Like Hersey’s novel, Ibuse’s is based on survivor testimonies and even incorporates much of an actual diary by Shigematsu Shizuma (whose name is not changed in the novel, and who appears in the fiction as the uncle figure). In order to counter rumors about his niece, Shigematsu decides to recopy her diary of the days of August 6, 1945 and after; and to complete her narrative with a copy of his own diary. His plan is to offer these to prospective bridegrooms to allay the fears of the family. In the wider context, the couple and Yasuko have moved to the country village of Kobotake where the uncle is involved in a fish farm with some fellow survivors.

Ibuse’s novel was enormously successful in Japan. Here was a novel that showed how the normal rhythms of village life, of marriage and ritual could go on despite the threat of a traumatic break with the past caused by the bomb and the Japanese defeat. John Whittier Treat has called the novel ideologically conservative, in that it seamlessly integrates the historical break occasioned by the atomic bomb within Shigematsu’s efforts to stitch up the past into a coherent picture, and to provide continuity with the present.[21] Along with the return to ritual, Shigematsu emphasizes the salutary forces of nature. After Yasuko belatedly falls ill with radiation disease, Shigematsu interrogates the sky: “If a rainbow appears over those hills now, a miracle will happen,” he prophesied to himself. “Let a rainbow appear—not a white one, but one of many hues—and Yasuko will be cured.” Yet at the same time this vision is disturbed by a double consciousness, an awareness of the catastrophe that this is not to be:

“So he told himself, with his eyes on the nearby hills, though he knew all the while it could never come true.”[22]

Shigematsu embodies the traumatized split self, who holds on to the rituals of the past even while disbelieving that they have relevance for the present, what Robert Jay Lifton has called the “doubling” of the traumatized person.[23] Neither his transcription of the diaries, nor his attachment to the rituals of the agricultural countryside have brought about a reintegration of his fragmented self. Instead, his state of mind recalls that of survivors who have asserted that they feel themselves to be different persons before and after the bomb.[24]

Imamura’s film version, made some 20 years after the publication of the novel, brings some of Ibuse’s themes forward into a changed social landscape. While some of the elements of the narrative are maintained, there is also considerable expansion and even transposition. I would argue that this is not only due to the need for the adaptation of Ibuse’s story into the language of images, but that the Japanese processing of the collective memory of the bomb had also undergone significant changes—some of these, of course, due to the influence of such works as the novel Black Rain itself. As John Whittier Treat has written, Ibuse’s novel and especially his use of the diary form covered over the historical fissure created by the bomb with the account of ordinary people going about their lives:

“against the destructive power of the bomb stands the constructive power of words, language, writing.”[25]

The photographic basis of film makes it uniquely suited for this portrayal of the everyday; at the same time filmmakers can resort to visual illusion to suggest almost any imagined reality. Imamura’s film moves between these two poles, tracing the country life of the village on the one hand and offering reenactments of the diary entries of August 6-15 (the day of the surrender and the radio address of the Emperor acknowledging Japan’s defeat) on the other.

For the country episodes, Imamura introduces several new elements. Shigematsu’s two fellow survivors and collaborators in the carp-breeding project, Shokichi and Kotaro, fall ill of radiation sickness and are buried according to Buddhist ritual in the film version. This is one of many funerals that punctuate the narrative (in the first of these Shigematsu is ask to read sutras for a colleague who has died in the bombing; the last funeral is that of Yasuko’s aunt). The funeral scenes serve both to visually emphasize the uncle’s reliance on ritual and to bring the theme of death—a constant presence in the minds of those who have (temporarily) survived—into the foreground.

The most radical change is the introduction of Yuichi, a young man about Yasuko’s age who suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. When he hears any vehicle approaching the village—truck, bus, or motorcycle—he rushes out and throws himself under it to stop it in its tracks. In a way Yuichi is a modified version of the young soldier Iwatake, a soldier whose diary entries appear toward the end of Ibuse’s novel and whose miraculous survival despite major injuries and serious radiation illness symptoms is meant to lift Yasuko’s spirits and revive her will to live. From this character, Imamura takes only the circumstance that he was drafted into a squad of soldiers who were trained to crawl under enemy tanks with explosives—basically a suicide mission. In the novel, Yasuko and the soldier Iwatake never meet, whereas in the film Yasuko befriends Yuichi, with whom she shares an outsider status. He brings her some of the Buddhist Arhat and Jizo statues that he sculpts from stone and lines them up outside her house. Arhat Buddists are those who have attained superior wisdom; the Jizo Buddha embodies the aspiration to alleviate suffering. He is regarded as the protector of women, children, and travelers. These statues are found on roadsides all over Japan (one of the preserved markers of the Hiroshima bombing is a damaged Jizo statue).

Imamura also recreates on film the characters’ experience of August 1945. The problem with such reenactments is that spectators are able to remind themselves that these are achieved by means of filmic illusion (and accompanied here by the piercing musical strains of Tôru Takemitsu) whereas the sufferings of the actual victims were all too real. Kurosawa wrote that he had not seen Imamura’s film, but that he felt that the experience of the bombed was impossible to film:

“That state of destruction and of such terrible human anguish does not belong to the realm of the presentable…it is better to evoke and nurture the imagination; this is far more terrifying.”[26]

This may be where writing has the advantage over film, in leaving the visual details to the reader’s imagination. Nevertheless, Imamura found at least a partial solution in transposing the intertextual and collage structure of the novel into his images by recreating on the screen some of the artwork created by survivors of the bombings. Over 900 artworks by survivors were solicited in 1974 by the Japanese Broadcasting Corporation, exhibited at the Peace Culture Center in Hiroshima from August 1 to August 6, 1975, and subsequently published. Like Ibuse who could rely on actual diaries for his novel, Imamura also had images of the bombing and its aftermath created by actual survivors. Such images as the woman trapped under the tiles of her roof, the charred bodies of the dead, and people who walked with outstretched arms from which their burned skin hung down, all shown in Imamura’s reenactment of the catastrophe, are consistent with the drawings of the victims.[27]

In the first ending Imamura proposed for the film, Yasuko chooses to become a wandering Buddhist ascetic; she feels she has no right to personal happiness when so many others have suffered. Yuichi is unable to dissuade her and spends his life waiting for her and continuing to sculpt his statues. Imamura visually eternalizes the image of the wanderer by assimilating Yasuko to Arhat and Jizo statues. Toward the end of the film Yasuko happens upon some fellow penitents in a wooded grove. As she steps in to join the group, they are all turned to stone and transformed into statues. This ending was filmed in color, whereas the rest of the film is in black and white—a choice that brings the story forward into the modern era. Yasuko appears as a ghost from the past as she wanders into the modern city. She also spies upon Yuichi who continues to sculpt his figures at a Buddhist temple, but she does not speak to him.

This ending did not satisfy the filmmaker and he called the actors back to the set after shooting was supposedly finished. Instead, the film was released with an ending closer to that of Ibuse’s novel. After Yasuko sends away her last suitor, and becomes ill with radiation disease, it is Yuichi who carries her to the ambulance, leaving the uncle behind who, as in the novel, interrogates the sky for a rainbow. Yet Imamura leaves out the last sentence that expresses Shigematsu’s doubt and divided mind. This could suggest that the film, as officially released, ends on a more hopeful note than the novel.

There are several elements in the film that disturb this (somewhat) hopeful ending to the officially released version. For one, the repeated rituals of death suggest that radiation disease will continue in its inexorable way to claim victims. Other images add to the overall gloom. A clock explodes in the reenactment scene and later, as Yasuko returns to Hiroshima in a boat, the oarsman picks up another scorched clock in the water showing 8:15, the exact time of the bombing. In the country house Yasuko’s job is to set the grandfather clock each evening at seven when the news is broadcast; it is at this precise moment that Kotaro arrives in a panic to announce the death of Shokichi. In yet another instance, when a minor character arrives home in the village to visit her mother the clock in the home shows the time of 8:15. These film images serve as repeated reminders of the catastrophe and work against what has been criticized as the cultural conservatism of the novel that seeks a bridge across the historical fissure wrought by Hiroshima through ancient ritual, relations to nature, and a patriarchal family system.[28]

In the original ending that was later scrapped, Yasuko’s rejection of her family ties, of her friendship with Yuichi, and indeed of her whole community is much more radical. It expresses the liquidation of human relations and the destruction of community and family ties brought about by the bombs. Yasuko’s transformation into a stone statue then stands as an emblem of what Treat calls the “depersonalized death” of the victims.[29]

With Black Rain we have moved beyond the early phase of reaction to the bomb—a phase characterized at once by the fixed trauma image and heroic attempts to overcome it. Imamura portrays, instead, the psychological struggles of individuals who have lived though the experience and are trying to find continuity in their lives despite the near impossibility of doing so. They are faced with both internal conflicts and external manifestations of rejection and suspicion. In recent decades these issues found renewed resonance with the radiation leaks from the nuclear facilities on Three Mile Island (1979), Chernobyl (1986), and most recently Fukushima (2011).

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