War is always a collective historical event that survives in official government records and propaganda as well as mass media images and academic and popular writing. Of course, not all individual experiences can be captured by the collective memory, national consciousness and official interpretations of events, and in some cases governments and established elites attempt to censor and repress collective memory. With Hiroshima and Nagasaki, collective denial, cover ups and repression of public memories occurred for decades after the war, while many veterans who returned to Japan in 1945 were deeply dissatisfied by the official version of collective memory and sought to alter the national consciousness. In Black Rain, the family patriarch would also like to repress and deny the events of the recent past, but his niece and lover were so obviously victimized and damaged by the war that in the end he is simply unable to do so. During the Cold War, ruling elites in Germany, Japan and the U.S. all attempted to repress and alter the collective memory of the Second World War since they were now in an alliance against the Soviet Union, but this effort was only partially successful because too many personal and individual memories of profoundly damaging and disconcerting events still existed, both among soldiers and civilians.
Black Rain (1989) was a nuclear film about a family of survivors of Hiroshima suffering from radiation sickness and all doomed to eventual death. Filmed in a documentary and cinema verite style, it resembled the real documentaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that were suppressed for decades after the war by the U.S. And Japanese governments as too graphic and upsetting for general audiences. Indeed, color footage of the aftermath of the bombings and the survivors sat in the faults of the Pentagon, classified top secret, until a lawsuit forced its release. In Hollywood, the actual bombings were not part of collective historical memory, either, but sublimated into film noir and science fiction, “where disintegration, invasion, violence, and secrecy are frequently associated with nuclear fear” (Cavanaugh 251). Japanese cinema also dealt with the subject obliquely and indirectly, such as films like Godzilla and other creature pictures in the 1950s and 1960s or in the postwar, post-apocalyptic Rashoman in 1951. Yet by the late-1980s, with the relaxation in Cold War tensions and renewed arms control discussions, Black Rain reflected a new confidence and openness about the hidden past in Japan, and became one of “the few films in Japan dealing with nuclear reality” (Cavanaugh 252). This had not been possible in 1966 when Ibuse Maiusi published the original novel by the same name in 1966, when the Cold War was at its height and Japan was firmly in place as a U.S. satellite.
Most of the film is set in 1950, with only brief flashbacks to life in Hiroshima to August 6, 1945, just before the atomic bomb was dropped. Shermayura Shigematsu is attempting to arrange a marriage for his niece Yasuko, whose three previous engagements have failed because she is terminally ill with radiation sickness. He knows this but is in denial about it at the same time, and almost to the end of the film, when she is clearly near death, he still imagines that she will be happily married and live on after him. Unlike the novel, in the movie Yasuko meets Yuichi, a former soldier still suffering from combat psychosis, and using his sculpture and street theater as a form of therapy. In contrast, Yasuko conceals her illness out of shame, even though her hair is falling out and she has to cover her lesions. Symbolically, she is a spiritually pure virgin but her “body is violated by radiation” while Yuichi has had “his mind violated by war” (Cavanaugh 262). Shigematsu also received the same dose of radiation that she did, perhaps more, but is never shown with any visible signs of the sickness, while he seems to both remember and forget the events of the bombing, with denial and memory “continually recycling and replenishing the other” (Cavanaugh 257). Yuichi acts out his battle memories in public, however, and others join in to play parts in the drama, and later his stone Jizo statues, with faces “anguish, terror, pain” serve as his silent audience (Cavanaugh 265). Many survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki also used art, sculpture and writing to preserve memories of the bombing that were denied and covered up by official sources.
Yasuko also has flashbacks to Hiroshima immediately before the bombing, such as loading her grandmother’s kimonos on a truck and celebrating a tea ceremony, while her uncle recalled boarding a commuter train that morning. Black Rain does not address life in wartime Japan at all and from an ideological point-of-view regards Yosuko and Yuichi as having both been victimized equally by the conflict. When the bomb goes off in the morning of August 6th, it “interrupts not an ordinary breakfast but a sacred and timeless ritual with strong domestic and religious connotations” (Canvanaugh 256). This old continuity is never restored, although Shigematsu keeps making the attempt to return to some type of normality, but in the end the world is too sick and disjointed. Only when Yosuko is clearly about to die does he realize that his attempts to suppress and deny memory are futile.
Yuichi resembles the generation of postwar poets in Japan, usually veterans with terrible experiences of the war, who did not intend to have their experiences denied or diminished in the name of a new Cold War alliance. As usually, novels and poetry reflected these personal experiences that opposed the official, collective memory and ideology far more than mass media like film. Even though war is a national event and a collective human experience, poetry also describes the type of experience that “eludes fixation in words and appears irrevocably lost” (Sakai 178). These postwar poets (sengo shi) resembled the British poets who returned sick and disillusioned by the First World War, and even wrote about the “Arechi” or “Waste Land.” In Germany and Japan, collective history preferred to restore some type of continuity with a prewar — or at least pre-fascist — past, but these war poets demanded discontinuity. Unlike the official propaganda during the war, thought glorified heroic death and sacrifice, Tamura Ryuichi demanded that “we have to kill all those we are familiar with” rather than attempting to restore the old society (Sakai 183). This is certainly what occurs in Black Rain as well, although Yuichi survives to portray it in his art. Ehara Tsurao opposed all attempts at collective representation that concealed conflict, death, destruction and defeat, as both the U.S. And Japan attempted to do with Hiroshima, and also called upon audiences to “resist the fiction of collective sympathy” (Sakai 184). Tamura also stated that no country on earth was worth dying for, and that death creates a “critical situation that is not masked” (Sakai 181). They would have opposed official or collective attempts to deny the reality of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or of the war in general, in favoring of allowing those who experienced these events to tell their stories openly, without censorship, shame or government manipulation and propaganda.
Cavanaugh, Carole, “A Working Ideology for Hiroshima: Imanura Shohel’s Black Rain” in Dennis Washburn and Carole Cavanaugh (eds). Word and Image in Japanese Cinema. Cambridge University Press, 2001.
Sakai, Naoki. Translation and Subjectivity: On “Japan” and Cultural Nationalism. University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
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