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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Black Rain (1989)

Throughout history cities or places where significant events happened become a watch word, often for something very unfortunate. Hiroshima and the ensuing nuclear aftermath need no introduction, and this what our review this week is about. As most children brought up in America know little to absolutely nothing about the immediate carnage and lasting aftermath of the bombing beyond what we were told and almost immediately forgot in school, this film makes for an eye opening experience. The story of the hibakusha (this is the Japanese term for survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attacks, which literally translated means "explosion affected people") is something seldom touched upon in history books, and this film is a lasting testament to their struggle.


Plot synopsis: The film separates itself between 1945 and the present day of 1950. The story focuses on Shizuma Shigematsu, his wife Shigeko, and their niece Yakuso. Shigematsu is obsessed with finding a husband for his niece, who was covered by the infamous fall out ridden "black rain" that fell from the sky shorty after the attack. As Shigematsu goes back through his diaries in an attempt to prove that Yakuso is not ill with radiation sickness, his diary entries (related to us via flashbacks) illustrate the horrific events of August 6th through 15th, 1945 weaving past and present into a tapestry of destruction and agonizing death as he and the rest of his fellow hibakusha await the inevitable.

As you might have guessed, this film is pretty far from being light viewing. But as I was saying in the introduction to this review, many of us know very little about those who survived this. There are of course US Army Signal Corps films and photos made of burn victims of all ages but that is only one side of things. There are those outside the immediate blast radius who dealt with something just as insidious and deadly, but for them the effects of the bomb might not hit for years after. Their story is just a poignant (and rather misunderstood) as the stories behind the events themselves. Many hibakusha still survive to this day, and are still subject to severe discrimination in Japan. A lot of this is due to the lack of knowledge of how radiation sickness effects people, leading many to believe it is hereditary or even communicable. Try finding that in your high school history textbook and get back to me.

I could write all day about the politics faced by the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the myriad of difficulties they face (including some sufferers facing refusal of recognition by the government even to this day), but this is a film we are talking about here so I need to get back on track. All manner of documentaries have been produced about this event but this is the only theatrical effort (insofar that I am aware of, if you know of others please leave a comment at the end of this review or email me directly as I am very interested) to be made about Hiroshima not utilizing a documentary like stance, by that I mean a "here is the whole story behind this" type of movie.

While this does not make the struggles of our characters any less than compelling, it's nice to have a film maker handle a subject we all know so well already so that we can skip the history lessons and focus on the smaller things that fall through the cracks (which in this case lie directly underneath the surface). Choosing to shoot the film in black and white is a stroke of genius. I wouldn't be surprised if Spielberg saw this as an inspiration for Schindler's List, but I could easily be mistaken. The film score is minimal, and instead we are treated to a soundtrack composed mainly of the sounds of rural Japan. Cicadas and songbirds make a fitting (and mournful) backdrop indeed. This film is all about atmosphere (as you very well know by now, my favorite film element), and considering the subject matter I believe this is about as close to a true to life horror story as one could possibly get.

I firmly recommend this this film to everyone. Though the atomic bombs were dropped nearly 70 years ago, they are no less significant in how the modern world has been shaped. The aftermath of these weapons is no less serious and this film showcases that in a context everyone can grasp. The ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will always be over our shoulders as a warning to be heeded, and this film is as fine a tribute to their struggle as any memorial of stone.


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