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October 20, 2009

Black Rain

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Kuroi Ame
Shohei Imamura - 1989
AnimEigo Region 1 DVD

In discussing the challenges of translating Masuji Ibuse's novel from Japanese to English, John Bester writes, " . . . the author invariably balances the horrors he describes with the wry humor for which he has long been famous." Those words can also be applied to Shohei Imamura although the filmmaker's own wry humor is more subdued here, in what is probably the most serious, and saddest of his films. Black Rain is at times a very difficult film to watch as well as write about because of its subject matter which can not, nor should not be trivialized. It is also daunting to encourage anyone who has not seen Black Rain to view the DVD without it seeming like there is the force feeding of spinach, "because it's good for you". Bester also discusses how some critics complained that Ibuse "played down" the horrors of the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath. Some of Imamura's images are extremely disturbing, rightly so, without being exploitive, and yet I get the feeling that what I saw was less horrifying than what happened in real life.

Most of the film follows three survivors, a young woman, Yasuko, and her aunt and uncle, Shigeko and Shigematsu. The main narrative takes place in 1950 when the effects of radiation, even on those who had little immediate injury, we still being understood. The aunt and uncle are struggling to get Yasuko married, in spite of rumors regarding her health. The three live in a small, rural community, where in spite of the distance, everyone's lives are affected by World War II as well as the ongoing war in Korea. Ibuse's novel and Imamura's film are not simply about the destruction of a Japanese city, or the physical and psychological effects of the bombing, but how Japanese society underwent changes. Similar to what had happened in Great Britain after World War II, was a shift in Japanese class consciousness in Japan. Shigematsu and Shigeko hold on to their last vestiges of their aristocratic history. The one man that Yasuko almost marries, Yuichi, is a veteran suffering from what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Yuichi's mother apologizes for broaching the subject of marriage due to class difference. For Yasuko and Yuichi, it is two injured souls finding temporary solace with each other. Black Rain is about people seeking their own sense of place in an environment that is indifferent, if not hostile.

Even for those who have seen Black Rain in its original theatrical version should see the DVD because of one very significant extra. Imamura had written and filmed an ending, in color, different from the one in the novel. After second thoughts, that ending was scrapped in favor of ending the film as Ibuse had written. Imamura's ending follow Yasuko through 1967, divesting herself of all material comfort, becoming a mendicant, perpetually on pilgrimage from shrine to shrine. The scene is Imamura criticism about how survivors of radiation poison are often avoided because of their existence as reminders of the bombing. That Hiroshima was virtually destroyed by a bomb that has only a fraction of the destructiveness of current weapons has become a very abstract idea, underlined by Imamura with a shot of people selling what are claimed to be rooftop tiles from the bombing in front of the building that has served as a memorial, followed by a shot showing the memorial building as virtually lost amidst the modern, flourishing Hiroshima. Rather than being judgmental on which ending should have been used, the inclusion of the unused ending points to a discussion on the degree to which a filmmaker honors the literary author's original vision or asserts his own ideas.

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The DVD also provides some insight into Imamura's working methods with interviews conducted by Imamura's son, the screenwriter Daisuke Tengan. Takashi Miike served as a Second Assistant Director on Black Rain, often running afoul of Imamura's darker moods during the course of making the film. Previously working on the film Zengen, working under Imamura also served as the springboard for Miike and Tengan's own collaborations, most famously with Audition. There is a brief interview with Yoshiko Tanaka who won several awards for her portrayal of Yasuko. In spite of the honors, it seems incomprehensible that Tanaka followed up her performance with roles in two "Godzilla" movies. There are also documentaries from World War II which illustrate the extent to which the Japanese people were demonized for an American audience, as well as further DVD notes that explain further some of the references used by characters in the movie.

Shohei Imamura's filmography has been inconsistently served on English subtitled DVDs. This past year has seen the recent release of three Sixties films available from Criterion, with Black Rain as the fourth title made available this current year. Between the readable colored subtitles, as well as occasional explanatory titles, plus the extras mentioned above, Imamura has been well served by AnimEigo. The first twelve minutes are graphic enough that I saw people leave the theater when I first saw Black Rain in 1989. At a time when various, sometimes risible ideas of horror exist as entertainment, an enactment of history serves as a reminder of horror of worst kind.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at October 20, 2009 12:30 AM


Peter - I'm really happy to hear about this DVD. I saw this film about 10 years ago on VHS, and it has stayed with me ever since. It's what I think of when people bring up the title, even though they are invariably referring to the Ridley Scott film, which I have never seen. I think this is perhaps the best look at a horrifying event that I know of and deserves the full-on DVD treatment. I'll be getting my hands on this directly. Thanks!

Posted by: Marilyn at October 20, 2009 10:49 AM

I didn't have the dough to see this back when it came out and it has lingered in my mind - what little I know of it - for almost 20 years. Time to catch up with it at long last.

Posted by: ARBOGAST at October 26, 2009 12:43 PM