Life in Suspended Animation: Shōhei Imamura's Black Rain (1989)

While there were a number of people who died immediately in the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima, either from the blast itself, or injuries sustained from the explosion, there were a great amount of people who died afterwards from complications of radiation poisoning. Information on what radiation sickness was and the long term effects on an individual's health were unknown, and so many people suffered in silence from a variety of ailments. These poor victims were known as hibakusha which loosely translated from Japanese means, "person affected by nuclear exposure". These hibakusha were subjected to discrimination from their fellow Japanese due to their frail constitution and fear that their condition was contagious and/or hereditary.

In Black Rain (1989) we follow the tribulations of three hibakusha who survived the bombing of Hiroshima, but unfortunately were exposed to large amounts of radiation while making their way through the devastated city. Yasko (Yoshiko Tanaka) is a young woman who was caught out in the "black rain" which is rain saturated with the fallout from the blast. Her aunt and uncle (who were also exposed) take her under their care and the main narrative of the film is about their efforts to arrange a marriage for Yasko. Due to her status as a hibakusha, parents are unwilling to consider her proposals.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Black Rain is director Shōhei Imamura's decision to film the movie in black and white. If one didn't know that it was filmed in the late '80s one could mistake it as a film from the '50s. The effect is has is twofold: it makes the film feel more like a period piece and it also reinforces the theme of a life drained of all joy and color. The entire film is somber and understated as we watch Yasko's life ticking away due to events that were not under her control.

The narrative is split between present day (1950) and flashbacks to five years earlier when the bomb was dropped. Yasko's uncle decides to make a copy of her diary in a desperate attempt to clear her medical status in order to convince a suitor's family, and as he reads her diary the film periodically flashes back to the day of the blast. These flashbacks are incredibly horrific with scenes of gruesomely burnt and injured people and the general mayhem and destruction of the city. It is tragic that even though they survived this terrible situation, they still bear the scars and stigma of the war even years after the event.

Yasko finds herself drawn to a young man who was a soldier during the war and who suffers from extreme PTSD. Any time he hears the roar of a car engine he freaks out thinking he is being attacked by tanks. When he is not having an episode he is a quiet and sensitive artist and Yakso finds solace in their shared trauma. 

As the film progresses Yasko's health worsens and her symptoms become more pronounced: she tires easily and her hair starts to fall out. The film ends on a note of uncertainty as Yasko falls gravely ill and is whisked away in an ambulance--her final fate unknown. Imamura shot a twenty minute alternate ending in full color that does show what happens to Yasko, but at the last minute decided not to use it. While it is satisfying to see her fate, I think the film works much better with the ambiguous ending as it makes the audience empathize with the feeling of helplessness that the characters have to endure.

Black Rain is a touching tribute to the plight of the long suffering hibakusha, a group of people who did not receive compensation or pity from their own country until a decade after the war.

--Michelle Kisner