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Film Club: Black Rain (Imamura, 1989)

Black Rain
Our Akira Kurosawa Film Club’s movie for February will be Shohei Imamura‘s 1989 film Black Rain. It looks at the consequences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and is thematically related to the two works that we will be watching and discussing in the coming months: Kurosawa’s Rhapsody in August (March) and Studio Ghibli’s animated Grave of the Fireflies (April). In terms of content, the following three months may well be the bleakest stretch in our film club’s seven year history.

Since our recent and long overdue foray into the social media world has brought us a few hundred new followers and visitors, here is a quick introduction to the workings of our film club:

  • Each month, there is a film that we watch which is either by Kurosawa or somehow related to his works. We currently have films scheduled until July this year.
  • At the beginning of the month, a short introduction to the film of the month is posted here.
  • Anyone wishing to participate in the discussion watches the film whenever they have the time to do so. You are responsible for finding a copy for yourself.
  • Everyone is warmly welcome to discuss the film either in the introductory post’s comments section, or by opening a new forum topic (this is recommended if there is something specific that you wish to explore). You can even join the discussion after the month is over.
  • All of this is done in a friendly and open-minded atmosphere.

For more information, including past and future schedules, see the film club page.

Now, let’s briefly look at Black Rain (黒い雨, Kuroi ame) to get us started for this month. It was director Shohei Imamura’s 18th film, and his second after the 1983 The Ballad of Narayama, which we watched and discussed last year. The two films share similar themes and concerns as both works are framed by death, although whereas in The Ballad of Narayama death is a certainty that one prepares for and controls, in Black Rain it is unpredictable and disease-like. In the earlier film, death is quite literally removed from society, while in the latter it invades it from the outside.

Despite showing the devastating consequences of war, Black Rain was not intended as an anti-war film, a position that it shares with both Rhapsody in August and Grave of the Fireflies. Yet, in all three cases many viewers have chosen to interpret the works as such, or even as attacks on those who dropped the bombs.

Black Rain was based on Masuji Ibuse‘s 1965 novel with the same name. The book has been translated into English and is in print — in fact, the book’s availability in the English speaking countries appears to be better than the film’s. The film won multiple awards, including nine at the prestigious Japanese Academy Awards, and it was also in competition in Cannes on the year of its release. The film is notable for having been filmed in black and white, and many have naturally pointed to Imamura’s training as an assistant director under Yasujiro Ozu when discussing the film’s compositions and camera use in depicting a 1940s and 50s Japan.

There are also a couple of Kurosawa connections. The actress playing the senile grandmother, Hisako Hara, appeared in Kurosawa’s first post-war film No Regrets for Our Youth, playing Itokawa’s mother. The doctor is Hideji Otaki, who played the role of Masakage Yamagata in Kagemusha. Also, the score is by Toru Takemitsu, who also composed music for Kurosawa’s films Ran and Dodesukaden.

The home video availability of Black Rain is worse in the English speaking world than one would expect for a film of its stature. For purely English releases, there is only the region one DVD by Animeigo which appears to be more or less out of print. In fact, the best bet for an English speaker would probably be the French region two release, which also comes with English subtitles. There is also a Spanish release, but it has no English subtitles.

Fortunately, at least in some countries the film also appears to be available on Netflix and other similar services, and one would imagine there to be a fairly good chance of a well-stocked home video rental shop carrying it — provided, of course, that such places still exist in your area.

I do hope that all of you will be able to hunt down the film (if not, you may want to do a YouTube search), for it is more than worth watching if you haven’t seen it. The floor is now open for comments and thoughts. And do remember that the full film club schedule can be found on the film club page.


Discussion

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Longstone

This is a very interesting film , I will try to watch it again this month, luckily I have a copy of the Animeigo DVD. It’s a real shame if it’s out of print as it contains an alternate ending as a bonus that was filmed in colour. They call it an alternate ending but not only is it in colour but it’s 20 minutes long and is set a few years after the end of the standard film. In it the lead character Yasuko embarks on some sort of pilgrimage which if I remember correctly is quite harrowing and is presumably meant to portray something of the attitude of the Japanese people to survivors a few years in the future from the rest of the film.
Having said that I think the film works fine without it so I guess Imamura or his editors realised that. I have no idea who made the final decision to leave it off.
Another interesting bit of trivia is that the lead actress playing Yasuko ( Yoshiko Tanaka ) was a very famous singer as part of the 70s idol group ” Candies” and more well known as ” Sue-chan ” to her fans which made her an interesting choice for the role.
Here is a rather splendid film of them in action
Candies video
Yoshiko Tanaka passed away in 2011 after a struggle with breast cancer.

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Longstone

I’ve just found this interesting review of the Animeigo DVD but if people haven’t seen the film it contains a lot of plot description so you may wish to hold off reading until after viewing the film.
DVD review

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Vili Maunula

Thanks for the links, Longstone! I sadly don’t have the alternate ending, but it was fascinating to read about it. Based on your link, the extras on the AnimEigo release actually look really interesting — I hadn’t even realised that Takashi Miike was worked as an assistant director on the film until I saw the list of DVD extras. It’s a pity that those video extras are not easily available, but at least AnimEigo’s detailed liner notes can be found on their website.

This was my first time watching Black Rain, and I must say that I was very impressed with the film. It felt very different from The Ballad of Narayama. Much gentler and I think more contemplative. I guess its subject matter also translates better across cultural boundaries.

Black Rain is also one of the best black-and-white films that I have seen made after filmmakers began to switch to colour stock. Even when they depict historical events, most modern black-and-white films tend to have a very different feel to them compared to films made in the golden era of black-and-white. But in this case, if I didn’t know about the film, someone could easily hand me a copy of Black Rain and tell me that it’s from the 1950s or 60s, and I would probably believe them.

And it specifically feels like a film from the late 50s or 60s, not one from the late 40s or early 50s — the time period that it depicts. While there probably are several reasons for that, I would like to think that one such reason may have had to do with the source novel having been published in 1965. I may well be totally mistaken here, though.

Since Imamura worked as an assistant to Yasujiro Ozu, I was naturally also wondering how much of Ozu there is in Black Rain. I haven’t really been able to find anything on the subject online, but there is an intriguing sentence that comes up on Google Book Search’s preview of the Cinematheque Ontario Monographs book Shohei Imamura, which appears to quote someone involved in the production (Imamura himself?) as saying “We had to keep telling each other not to shoot Black Rain like an Ozu film” (see here). So, apparently Ozu was at least at the back of their minds while shooting. Unfortunately, I have no access to the book and Google has no full preview for the page in question, so I have no context for this sentence.

To add to my fascination with Imamura’s technique here, this is also one of those films that have very painterly moments. Just look at the screenshot that I used for the introduction: whether intended or not, the shot has a very strong vibe of Christian iconography going on. It is truly a pity that so little appears to have been written about Imamura in English. I would love to read about Imamura’s approach to shooting this black-and-white film, written by someone with an eye keener to such detail than mine.

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Longstone

My memory may be playing tricks on me but I read somewhere that for a long while Imamura was dismissive of Ozu as being “old fashioned” in style so perhaps tried hard not to copy him or be too influenced by his films. He later said he learned a lot while working with him ( again this is if my memory serves me right ). I will try and find the relevant interviews although they may have been extras on one of my DVDs.
A while ago I collected and watched as many Imamura films as I could find with english subtitles and I thought the only one that seemed to have echoes of Ozu was Black Rain, for exactly the reasons you mention Vili i.e. a more gentle and contemplative style than any of his other work that I’ve seen. In addition being wonderfully filmed in black and white I totally agree it doesn’t feel like you are watching a film from the late 80s at all but it really does feel like a 50s film.
My observation was it’s a story about a family and a search for a spouse, themes Ozu used many times but Imamura didn’t seem to explore in the same way at all in the other films I’ve seen so I thought Black rain must be influenced by Ozu.
I suspect it’s just as hard to find but Animeigo also released the film as part of a box set called Japan at War in exactly the same edition as the individual DVD. The set also contains 3 other films including Japan’s Longest Day featuring a few Kurosawa actors ( Mifune and Shimura among others )
It seems quite cheap from Amazon.com at the moment
Amazon link

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Ugetsu

Longstone

My memory may be playing tricks on me but I read somewhere that for a long while Imamura was dismissive of Ozu as being “old fashioned” in style so perhaps tried hard not to copy him or be too influenced by his films. He later said he learned a lot while working with him ( again this is if my memory serves me right ). I will try and find the relevant interviews although they may have been extras on one of my DVDs.

I remember reading something similar – I think it might have been in Mellons book on Japanese cinema. I think it was in the context of saying that the post Golden Age generation of directors all seemed determined to distance themselves from Ozu (in particular) and also Kurosawa, but usually ended up making their own Ozu film in later life. Imamura I think was particularly scathing about Ozu and Kurosawa at his rebellious peak, and then became something of a grand old man of cinema himself in later years and paid tribute to them in various ways.

Thanks for the link to Amazon, btw, for once, they actually ship to this side of the Atlantic, so I’ve just ordered it – those other films look interesting too.

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Longstone

I watched the film again over the weekend , I really do like it a lot.
Here is one of the interviews I was thinking of, Imamura talks about Kurosawa and quite a bit about Black Rain .
Imamura interview

I still think he was being influenced by Ozu due to the nature of the story, but if he says he was trying not to shoot it in an Ozu way it seems to me he makes the characters more down to earth and introduces a bit of lust on the part of one of the prospective suitors to give it a feeling of his own style rather than Ozu’s.
The male in question falls in lust with Yasuko to the extent he forgets any worry that she might have radiation sickness. Thus Imamura makes lust override the more common social stigma that causes the parents of other potential husbands to reject Yasuko as a suitable wife. It is Yasuko herself who makes sure the relationship doesn’t continue.

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filmantrop

Oh, but I definitely think I spotted a few “Tatami” shots inside the house, and also quite static ones as Ozu more than likely would have done it.

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Vili Maunula

Hi filmantrop and welcome to the group!

And thanks for the link, Longstone! It’s a really interesting interview. Imamura’s comment on Mifune being “a ham” was hilarious. Also, my (admittedly light) background reading on the film gave me the impression that Black Rain was not intended as an anti-war film, but I am not sure if Imamura’s comments in this interview don’t suggest otherwise.

I have now been reading a little into Imamura these past couple of days, and the word “anthropology” seems to come up quite a lot. It is probably because of this, but if I now had to put into words how I think Black Rain, as a very Ozu-like film, differs from Ozu, I think that I would start with that term, “anthropology”. Now, I haven’t seen as many Imamura films as I should in order to speak with any authority, but my impression of the films has been that Imamura is interested in groups of people and the cold truths that he can derive from their interactions. The importance of truth in his work is something that he also talks about in the interview linked to.

Although Ozu is famous for his “slice of life” films, he is not a documentarian in the same way. As effortless as they feel, Ozu’s films are clearly meticulously planned and calculated, and I think Hollywood’s influence on his narration should not be underestimated. Ozu’s films tend to serve character and story first, and they often play with film conventions, whereas for Imamura the primary point of focus seems to be the group, and his films don’t seem similarly interested in being in cahoots with the audience and winking at them about the open secret of what is shown being fiction.

So, although the story of Black Rain is framed on marriage arrangements in the same way as, say, Ozu’s Late Spring is, it would seem that with Ozu this film would more strongly concentrate on the dynamics between Yasuko and her adoptive family, whereas Imamura’s focus is on a wider group, that of bomb survivors.

Ultimately, it is of course impossible to say what Ozu would have done.

To change the subject somewhat, there was an interesting question on reddit’s AskHistorian’s subreddit earlier this week, which asked What was Japan’s immediate reaction to he Atomic bombs?. Especially the current top response by user restricteddata is interesting reading.

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Longstone

To change the subject somewhat, there was an interesting question on reddit’s AskHistorian’s subreddit earlier this week, which asked What was Japan’s immediate reaction to he Atomic bombs?. Especially the current top response by user restricteddata is interesting reading.

Interesting link and question Vili ,
I’m currently reading Paul Ham’s book “Hiroshima Nagasaki The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and their Aftermath”
I’ve reached the point where the second bomb is dropped so maybe need to read a few more chapters to fully comment on the question above, however a few points might add to the discussion.
Firstly according to the book the Japanese press were forbidden to report that the Hiroshima bomb was atomic immediately after the attack, there were a lot of leaflets dropped by the Americans to warn of imminent destruction as propaganda but Japanese civilians were forbidden to pick them up.
Although the Atomic bomb damage at Hiroshima was huge many other Japanese cities including Tokyo ( where more people died in one night ) had been destroyed by conventional firebombing, so perhaps the general populace away from Hiroshima were used to huge scale destruction and didn’t immediately realise the difference.
In addition the Russians invaded Manchuria between the two bombs beating the Nagasaki explosion by only a few hours I think ? This was according to the book a more concerning and shocking development for the Japanese cabinet who were meeting in secret to discuss the Potsdam declaration. The government and military were also accustomed to cities being destroyed by firebombing.
So from my little reading it seems the press were not conveying the message about the atomic nature of the bomb to the civilian population for them to react much prior to the eventual surrender which happened only 6 days later.
My interest in this subject started when I visited Nagasaki for a day trip while on holiday in Japan. I thought it was a wonderful city, rich in history but I was intrigued by the fact that a new city had risen up to replace the atomic devastation with almost no trace.
It was a very strange and moving experience to stand at the exact spot under which the bomb exploded, there were groups of Japanese children of all ages on school trips being shown the memorial, then a gentleman who could easily have been old enough to have been a survivor asked my friend and I if we were Americans, we explained we were from England so he asked if we were historians, I have never felt so strange to be a tourist. It made me wonder about the feelings of local people about America yet after visiting the Atomic Bomb museum the overriding message was one of peace and that never again should people anywhere in the world experience an atomic bomb, there was no hint of anger.
I hadn’t seen Black Rain before that visit but I had seen Rhapsody in August, plus the original Godzilla and I live in Fear , which all resonated more after experiencing the memorials and museums.
A few years later I visited Miyagi prefecture in Japan two years after the tsunami , I stood in the space by the sea where 24 months earlier the town centre of Onagawa had been , the rubble had been removed and all that was left were the roads and empty spaces. This was a natural disaster but the feelings were similar to those I had felt in Nagasaki, how can someone from England understand what it is like to live with the threat of earthquakes and tsunami, the threat that you could wake up one day, a survivor, and your entire town was destroyed. On this occasion it was possible to see how the people coped first hand , how they were working to rebuild the town and open shops and restaurants in shipping containers and temporary wooden sheds. But since I returned from Nagasaki previously I had tried to find a book about how the city was rebuilt , what happened in the weeks, months and first few years after the war ended .
I’ve read plenty of eye witness accounts from survivors about their injuries and the immediate hours after the bomb but couldn’t find much in English about rebuilding the city. I am interested in Japanese photography as well as film and I became interested in works by Japanese photographers inspired by the atomic bombs, particularly the works by Shomei Tomatsu on Nagasaki and the harrowing photos taken on August 10th 1945 by Yosuke Yamahata. There is also a recent book which although sad is quite wonderful and makes me think of Yasuko in Black Rain, it’s called from Hiroshima by Ishiuchi Miyako and you can see a video of the book here photo book video

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Ugetsu

Longstone:

I’m currently reading Paul Ham’s book “Hiroshima Nagasaki The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and their Aftermath”

That looks interesting – I must admit to a fascination with the period around 1945-47 in Europe and Asia. There is of course a mountain of historical writing about the run-up to the European and Pacific Wars (I always prefer to follow the historian Norman Davies and consider them as two entirely separate conflicts), but its surprisingly hard to find any evidence of consensus among historians about the period at the other end. Partly, I think, because for obvious reasons much of the historical record is incomplete or destroyed, but also I think because the interpretation of events is so politicised there is a reluctance by many historians to directly confront the key questions and events. In the case of Japan, I’ve read books and various monographs which give the following interpretations:

1. The Japanese establishment and people were genuinely determined to fight to the last man and woman on Japanese soil. The direct use of nuclear weapons by the US was motivated by a desire to hasten the end of the war and minimise US casualties. (this might be called ‘the mainstream view’). Militarily, it could be seen as following the lead of Sherman in his burning of Atlanta.

2. Although divided, key elements of the Japanese establishment had been seeking some type of honourable surrender from around 1944 when the Japanese fleet had been destroyed leaving Japan helpless. The US government had concluded that the surrender of Japan was a foregone conclusion, and was already strategising how to ensure the Soviets did not get a foothold in the Pacific in its aftermath (the assumption being that after the fall of Berlin Stalin would turn his attention to Asia). The use of nuclear weapons on Japanese civilian targets was intended as a demonstration of the US’s determination and ruthlessness to use nuclear weapons for strategic purposes.

3. The third view, which I’ve read from historians who have focussed on the Manhattan Project, is that the extreme secrecy surrounding Manhattan Project meant that key players in the US military were ‘out of the loop’ in discussions surrounding the strategic implications of nuclear weapons. In this view, the developers of the atom bomb always assumed it would be used as a tactical military weapon – i.e. used against Japanese (or German) navy and military bases, and only used against civilian populations if the Japanese government refused to surrender following clear demonstrations of its effectiveness. Control of the Manhattan Project was mostly civilian and political, not military. But the bombs were transferred to the Air Force, who simply saw it as a bigger, cheaper and better way to firebomb Japanese cities and used as such. It was only after the bombs were dropped that most military thinkers realised that this was a fundamentally new type of weapon. In this view, the secrecy surrounding the Project meant that there was never a clear idea within the US establishment as to how or why the atom bomb could or should be used. The attitude of the Japanese establishment is irrelevant to this view.

I’m just outlining those three views without further comment, as I do not know enough about the primary sources to be able to say which one is correct. View 3 has a ring of truth to it – it would explain (which is never satisfactorily explained by most conventional historians) as to why the atom bomb was used initially on civilian targets rather than on military ones, which was certainly the assumption of scientists like Oppenheimer.

Independent of this is of course the question of whether the Japanese establishment was really trying to find a way to surrender. My understanding of the structure of the Japanese government of the time was that it was much more decentralised than that of any other combatant – the Navy, Army, and various other Military and governmental structures were virtually independent bodies, with the Toho led government being little more than an overseeing committee (I believe Tojo’s descendants still maintain that he was a scapegoat, just a figurehead who had little knowledge of war crimes). Secrecy during the war, combined with a desire to save face, meant that even very senior Japanese government officials may well have been genuinely unaware of just how bad the military situation was. However, senior figures in the Navy (which was considered a stronghold of the less extreme, more ‘realist’ political factions) would certainly have been aware that there was no possibility of turning the tide militarily. In these circumstances, it does seem to me to be possible (as writers such as Gore Vidal have alleged) that individual parts of the Japanese government and military had been reaching out through intermediaries for peace talks, but had been rejected by the US which was seeking a defining victory which would allow the US to maintain control over the entire Pacific (including of course China). Both sides were particularly concerned to ensure that the Soviet Union did not end up the final victor over Japan.

Now that has this to do with Black Rain? Well, I don’t know yet, I only just got my dvd this week! It came in a pack of three other Japanese films looking at the immediate end of the war, which I would imagine would give a good context about what might be termed the ‘conventional’ view of what happened from the Japanese perspective. But I think it is always useful to look at these in the context of minority historical views – and of course Imamura, as a politically radical film maker, would have been well aware of these.

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