Black Rain is one of the most powerful works of literature in any language dealing with the aftermath of a nuclear catastrophe. Comparable, at least on the surface, with American author John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), Black Rain by Japanese author Masuji Ibuse (1898–1993) deals with the events of August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Whereas Hersey’s work is based upon the experiences of six survivors of the atomic blast, Black Rain is primarily the story of Shizuma Shigematsu and his family. Although based on diaries and testimonies of the bombing victims, the prevailing tone used throughout is novelistic and, were it not for the documentary material Ibuse includes, could easily be assumed a work of fi ction. The work began life in serial form, published in Showa from January 1965 to September 1966 and then in translated form in Japan Quarterly in 1967–68, before being compiled into a book under the auspices of publisher Kodansha.
What sets Black Rain apart from other recollections of the tragedy at Hiroshima is the humanity central to the story. Written some two decades after the war, the novel’s overarching story is concerned with the attempts to get Shigematsu’s niece, Yasuko, married. She is having problems because of the stigma attached to those who suffer radiation sickness (in postwar Japan, there was a social underclass of those affected by the radiation called hibakusha). Although Yasuko shows no symptoms, Shigematsu and his wife, Shigeko, must produce evidence that she is unlikely to suffer any lasting effects from her exposure to radiation. So begins the rationale for the story, as Shigematsu, Shigeko, and Yasuko rewrite their diaries for the days immediately following the event. This technique (called an “embedded” or “framed” narrative) allows the reader to vicariously witness the bombing and its results while also distancing them from the actual event. It also allows Ibuse to insert secondary materials from other survivors, providing a more complete picture of those days, as well as a more “objective” view based on historical and scientific research conducted after the war.
One of the most remarkable points about Black Rain is the way in which Ibuse describes the bombing. Rather than call it an “atomic bomb,” and thereby assume a later perspective, Ibuse builds up a picture of the bomb’s effects slowly, using the characters’ descriptions of tragedy. The account begins with characters talking about the flash and eventual appearance of the large, now famous image of a mushroom cloud. Confusion abounds as to what this is: Yasuko believes it is the result of a powerful “oil bomb,” while others believe it is merely the result of a quantity of concentrated high explosives. The macabre descriptions of burnt bodies and symptoms of radiation sickness are met with confusion by characters and official reports alike. When people who survived the blast and the subsequent fires that decimated the city begin dying, it is assumed that the bomb had poison mixed with explosives.
One of the most poignant accounts of this ignorance is the description of the “black rain” that began falling a few days after the initial blast, giving the book its title. Shigematsu and his family, traipsing through the ruins of Hiroshima, tripping over rubble and dead bodies, feel it raining and discover that the rain is black. They are later told that the rain is not harmful, but the reader is aware that with each drop that strikes them, the Shizumas are being exposed to potentially lethal radiation. When Yasuko later becomes ill with radiation sickness (in the novel’s “present”), the full tragedy comes home to the reader: Although she had never before exhibited symptoms, she suffers years later—like the rain, the destruction caused by the bomb continued past the initial devastating blast. Shigematsu says: “When she first told me about it, in the living room, there was a moment when the living room vanished and I saw a great, mushroom-shaped cloud rising into a blue sky.”
What the reader might see as naïveté is in actuality a very human response to an incomprehensible and unprecedented event. Rather than tell the reader that an atomic bomb exploded and then deal with its aftermath, Ibuse narrates the characters’ growing concern as the full extent of the horror becomes known. In fact, Shigematsu only discovers the proper name of “atomic bomb” a week after the blast and very late in the text. This clearly reveals that the “bomb” is not the main focus of the text, although it is obviously an important part of it. Rather, Ibuse’s primary concern is to paint a picture of wartime Japanese society alongside the bomb’s effect on the Shizumas, the city of Hiroshima, and Japanese society.
Black Rain, therefore, does not shy away from confronting issues only tangentially related to the bomb. Aside from Shigematsu’s carp farm, which he and his friends start because of their intermittent bouts of radiation sickness, the text also provides a picture of daily life in wartime Japan, talking about issues such as rationing and the relationship of civilians to military personnel. The book is also not partisan, as it does not demonize the Allies and celebrate Japanese involvement in World War II. Rather, the novel portrays Japanese society in an evenhanded manner, mentioning the war profiteering that occurred in Hiroshima after the devastation, the waste of human life in the formation of the kamikaze suicide pilots, and the incapacity of the military to give appropriate civilian aid.
Among depictions of mass crematoria and decaying corpses, Black Rain manages to convey something fundamentally human. The prevailing message of the text is that war, and especially atomic war, is never positive. At the conclusion of the tragic story, Ibuse writes, quoting from the emperor’s declaration of surrender: “[T]he final result would be to bring about not only the annihilation of the Japanese race, but the destruction of human civilization as a whole.” When coupled with the fact that the reader leaves the text assuming that Yasuko will not survive her radiation sickness, it is clear that Black Rain is a sobering yet not sombre account of the inhumanity of war.
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