Named for the radioactive fallout which fell from the skies after the bombing of Hiroshima, Imamura’s Black Rain is a war film, but it doesn’t look at heroic soldiers on the battlefield. Instead, the film looks at the after effects of World War II on a small rural town outside of Hiroshima. The movie primarily follows Yasuko (excellently played by former ’70s J-Pop idol, Yoshiko Tanaka), a victim of the rain, as well as her Uncle Shigematsu (veteran Imamura actor Kazuo Kitamura) and Aunt Shigeko (Etsuko Ichihara), three survivors of the bombing whose post-war attempts at normalcy slowly erode. The two elders, in a promise to Yasuko’s parents, are trying to marry off Yasuko without luck because her radiation sickness scares potential suitors. Meanwhile, Shigematsu, Shigeko, and the residents of the town they live in are slowly succumbing to their own mental and psychological ills caused by the bombing.
Black Rain looks and feels like a movie released decades before it actually was, but with themes resonant in any time period. Imamura, a director associated with the Japanese cinema “New Wave” movement in the ’50s and ’60s, taps the anti-war sentiments of that era and crafts a movie that is reflective about, rather than angry at, man’s capacity for self-destruction. However, Imamura generally stays away from melodrama or shock value (though there is one disturbing scene of a boy whose skin is hanging from his skin due to the effects of the bomb a la Barefoot Gen) to achieve this. Instead, he presents the story in a very matter of fact manner which from afar, and partially due to Imamura’s choice to shoot the film in black and white, resembles an Ozu family drama at times. The effects of the war and, more specifically, the radiation poisoning on Yasuko is slow but insidious, like a spreading cancer until everyone in the film becomes affected either directly or indirectly. This is Imamura’s triumph and probably his masterwork; it dispenses with canned anti-war messages, and instead ponders on the aftereffects of war and the human will to survive against the odds.
The recent and long overdue AnimEigo DVD reprint of Black Rain has a slightly olive-colored tinge, but the movie has never looked better and is certainly miles ahead of the terrible and long out of print Image Entertainment release. Included with the standard DVD extras (including an interview with then-Assistant Director Takashi Miike) is a full-color alternate ending which was removed from the theatrical release. This was probably a wise decision because, though it brings the film to a clear conclusion, the sweeping nature of the alternate ending’s final image unnecessarily alters the film’s perspective.
With either ending, Black Rain is a work of tragic beauty and highly recommended.