An uncompromising chemical reaction between Ozu-esque balance, ghostly Mizugochian afterglow, and the tremors of Kaneto Shindo’s mid-’60s horror social disturbances, Shohei Imamura’s 1989 release Black Rain revises cinematic assumptions about trauma away from fiery holocaust to a more hauntingly ashen storm hovering overhead for the duration of life itself. Hiroshima isn’t a Godzilla-like destructive catalyst in Black Rain, but a distantly raging existential void within which one’s sense of being and becoming are threatened completely. The world is not only out for vengeance, but it becomes unknowable; time folds in on itself, and your life becomes a separable ghost floating away from you. Not to be confused with the lightweight Ridley Scott film of the same name from the same year, Black Rain envisions catastrophe as a perpetual, everlasting terror. Moments of shock and awe – the in-the-flesh horror of destruction we take to be the prime of the bombing – would be, if anything, a respite from the cold nothingness of life living in the emptiness of the bomb’s wake.
Black Rain is not the story of the physically wounded or the initial victims of Hiroshima bombing freed from this life early; instead, it is a swirling maelstrom of slowly encroaching deceit and denial as Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) returns from the bombing, seemingly unhurt, to her village only to bear the brunt of her townsfolk’s suspicions. Over the ensuing years, they live physically unburdened but mentally distraught lives, their souls contaminated by fear and surreptitious anxiety until their bodies grow frail and weary and develop the lesions of fallout and radiation. Yasuko becomes their central scapegoat, an individualist foil to blame for the all-consuming terror of an existential, lingering dread. Physical radiation, the very thing everyone fears, becomes a self-actualizing radiation-of-the-soul in the minds of people who tear each other apart over the fear of contamination.
Mizoguchi’s bruised vision of the phantom of crisis weighs on Black Rain immeasurably, proposing a vision of internalized pandemonium that might have formed the girders for the bedlam embodied in many of Imamura’s earlier films, set after Black Rain when the rotted carcass of fever had already subsumed Japanese life. The blast itself is a ferocious one-and-done catalyst whose brutality is only underscored by its swiftness and Imamura’s nearly-silent expression of catastrophe as something which exists at a remove from one’s self. It is devastating precisely for its troubling, extraterrestrial nature as well as the more obvious bodily conflagration it causes. But life in mortal fear of the blast’s after-effects – life disrupted by any kind of perturbed, flesh-crawling anxiety – is the subject of Black Rain, rather than the corporeal violence of Hiroshima in the moment.
The actual event of the bombing is initially atomized in singular shots of crisis, but Imamura’s skill is the centrifugality of his vision of people torn away from their daily habits of being by the blast over time. What seems like an atomized event, depicted through unforgiving and essentially absurdist imagery like an adolescent doubting that a disfigured child is actually his brother, eventually spools outwards until it cannot be reckoned with or defined in any one moment. It slowly shifts from a singular event to a years-long blanket of emergency and calamity that is hidden by the very social denial and ostracization that tries to cement over the still-lingering crisis with a phantom version of social order. The mental-fixedness embodied by people who only know to confront crisis by doubling down on ancestral ways of life is Imamura’s chief target.
Although Black Rain is intimately experiential in its view of a Japan on the verge of modernity, it isn’t atomizable to simple discussions of the bombing and of life in the ’40s and ’50s itself. Imamura’s vision is far more timeless, concealed in diorama-like shots of a society desperately trying to recreate a social order as a shield for the river of their lives having been bludgeoned and shot-through with enough holes to turn it into a swamp-tarnished system of chaotic tributaries. It’s much like how Ozu’s old visual poems about Japanese society exhibited far more than a concern over tensions between traditionalism and modernity (an incomplete reading rooted in content and not the form of the films). That director instead relied on teetering, disruptable visual symmetries as expressions for life itself as a continually threatened series of social balancing acts. Similarly, Black Rain always feels precipiced on a vision of social order embodied in the very symmetry of its visuals, symmetry that is always fluxional and tested by humans entering and leaving the frame, destroying that which was once holy and replacing it with a more heretical vision of social order turned into tattered fragments of people living around one another but never with one another.
Which is to say, although Imamura seems particularly concerned about the distended terror within Japanese society (sublimated into the souls of the people who hide the tragedy from themselves as a way of coping), this is no white-hot screed. Melodrama is plucked out, leaving the film’s toxic tension without a release valve and no potential for abrogation. All the grisly imagery in the world – there’s a truly zombie-like cadence to the sequences of direct fallout in the film – escapes into the internal hearts of people whose seeming physical well-being only belies their walking-zombie lifestyles as people trying to forever forget that which is unavoidably central to their lives. The rampaging depth-of-field evident in the explicit chaos of the bombing itself is literally curtailed in the less open-ended, more limited visuals that depict life after the bombing as a shell or a curbed version of its former self. The sense is that all the explicit carnage of the event is internalized in people who desperately wish to find regularity and order afterwards, but they are denied the forward-thrust of progression as they move instead toward suffocation and stagnancy. Ancestral life becomes a shield to hide behind and a weapon to wield against others, even if, like Ozu, Imamura’s vision is more weary for people who can’t move forward than ever truly angry at them.
For all the sharply monochromatic horrors on display in Black Rain’s most outre moments, the film is at its most disheveled and vulnerable in its quieter moments. The mortal coil of life can be articulated in the elegance of a pairing on screen upended by one character leaving and the other left by their lonesome. This is the irradiation of Imamura’s vision, a holocaust of a more disturbing variety because it affects our core beings rather than merely the body we present to the world.