Director: Shohei Imamura
Writer: Ibuse Masuji (story); Toshiro Ishido
Cinematographer: Takashi Kawamata
Producer: Hisa Iino
by Jon Cvack
I experienced a strange coincidence in finishing David M. Kennedy’s "Freedom From Fear" (1999), part of The Oxford History of the United States (a series I heavily recommend) which provides a gripping account of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. A little known fact is that while those two events killed over 50,000 people, American forces would kill over ten times that many by numerous bombing runs that would create firestorms, burning so hot they suck the oxygen out of the air and suffocates people to death (see the bombing of Dresden).
Not to be confused with Ridley Scott’s Michael Douglas neo-noir action film Black Rain which came out the same year, Black Rain is about the first year and change following the bombing of Hiroshima. It opens up moments after, shot in black and white, as the city is now on fire and countless numbers of charred bodies surround the streets. Ozu’s influence is immediately discernible, utilizing locked down wides; the camera positioned low to the ground, allowing the action to play out while our eye wanders. Unfortunately, eyes also pose the biggest problem for the opening scenes, as aside from the cheap charred corpse props, the designer also decided to use what look like plastic eyeballs you could buy at the dollar store during Halloween. Somehow it avoids becoming a distraction due to how powerful the rest of the images are - of bodies floating down a river, flesh peeling off the skin, and a brilliant moment when a husband and wife meet a man deep in the forest, far outside the city, who admits his child and wife burned to death, and the father has no idea what to say in response.
Aside from a few other flashback, the horror doesn’t last long and we move into the meat of the story, which follows a father Shigematsu Shizuma (Kazuo Kitamura) and his wife Shigeko (Etsuko Ichihara); survivors of the bombing who care for their niece Kasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka). Shigematsu and Shigeko have now abandoned the city, now living in the countryside where they hope to start a successful rice farm.
One of the most striking resemblances to Ozu is the diverse range of supplemental characters; including a neighbor Yuichi (Keisuke Ishida) who struggles with severe PTSD, in which any time he hears a motor he puts on his straw hat and grabs his broom, acting like an armed soldier, demanding drivers abandon their automobiles.
The greater comparison is the story of a family trying to find Kasuko a suitor. Unfortunately, many members of the family and community are starting to experience the effects or radiation poisoning; including Kasuko, who struggles to hide the truth from her potential husbands. After an older man dies from what appears to be stomach cancer, the others accept their plight. For as much as they wanted to return to a normal and regular life, the event has stuck with them; none are sure who’ll suffer next, though they’re all aware of its inevitability. Watching Kasuko attempt to find a partner who knows that she perhaps can’t have children, and at worst, might die soon is as heartbreaking as any Ozu film.
There’s no one film about the bombing of Hiroshima or Nagasaki that captures the terror and tragedy of what occurred (I’m talking per the likes of what Saving Private Ryan (1998) did for WWII or 12 Years a Slave (2013) did for its subject). Having seen only the tip of the iceberg of post-war Japanese cinema, I’m left wondering how others expressed the environment. To imagine a city in which 50,000 people were slaughtered instantly by one of man’s worst inventions is difficult to reconcile. So many films appear to be about trying to maintain normalcy; with just the slightest elements of tradition, culture, or family off center, attempting to be corrected. To think of an entire generation that suffered such a tragedy, in which the vast majority of deaths were innocent civilians, all sacrificed as a warning - arguably even an experiment in modern warfare - seems like something which could take centuries to recover from. It’s a testament to the country that they had the strength to move forward; to overcome the pains for generations after as the consequence spread through its country’s blood. It’s a filmmaker like Imamura who allows us to both remember and understand.
*Which coincidentally isn’t even rated high enough on Netflix for me to usually check out
BELOW: All the videos I'm finding are from the Michael Douglas film so you'll just have to rent it
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