Black Rain (黒い雨, Shohei Imamura, 1989)

Caught in a moment of transition, post-war Japan struggles to free itself from the lingering feudal legacy and the trauma of the immediate past in Shohei Imamura’s contemplative adaptation of the novel by Masuji Ibuse, Black Rain (黒い雨, Kuroi Ame). As many things change others stay the same, the Shizuma family burdened not only by the anxiety of a ghostly illness symptomless until it isn’t and the unfair prejudice of a wounded society, but the pressure of outdated patriarchal social codes along with a sense of filial failure in the inability to protect their ancestral estate. 

Imamura opens on the fateful morning the atomic bomb struck Hiroshima, voiceovers from 20-year-old niece Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka) and her uncle Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura), a soldier severing at a factory in the city, detailing what they were doing on that very ordinary day. What unfolds is a scene of hell, the train Shigematsu is riding on blown apart while he crawls free and tries to look for his wife, Shigeko (Kazuo Kitamura), packing up their house preparing for evacuation, eventually reuniting with Yasuko who had come into town to find them. Hoping to get to the factory, they make their way past charred and hideously warped bodies, a woman cradling her carbonised infant, a little boy overjoyed to have found his big brother only to go unrecognised because his face is melted away while skin hangs painfully from his forearms and fingertips. The brother only accepts him after checking his belt which has somehow miraculously survived. The trio eventually make it to comparative safety at the factory with relatively few injuries, only later learning of the implications of having been in such close proximity to the blast. 

Jumping ahead five years, the Shizumas are living quite comfortably in their ancestral home on a mountain estate largely spared the post-war agricultural land reforms because of its location, though Shigematsu attributes his mother’s dementia to an inability to accept the changing times not only their loss of a semi-aristocratic status but the essential failure of having proved unable to protect their ancestral lands. His immediate problem is however the marriage of the now 25-year-old Yasuko. We see him triumphantly leave a doctor’s office with a certificate stating that Yasuko is in good health he hopes will reassure her current suitor’s family in the face of persistent rumours that she too was a direct victim of the “flash”, rather than an indirect victim simply of the rain which Shigematsu mistakenly believes to have been less dangerous. 

At 25 this is Yasuko’s last chance, she’s aged out of the arranged marriage market. She has also had a promising job offer from the local post office but is minded to turn it down in the hopes of being married. Taking the post office job may be the most sensible option, but it also seems like defeat, an acceptance that she is unfit for marriage and a clear sign that Shigematsu and Shigeko have failed in their patriarchal duties to ensure that Yasuko finds a good husband and will be well looked after for the rest of her life. In this age, it is difficult for a woman to support herself alone even leaving aside the social stigma of being an unmarried woman. A marriage is therefore also a job, and the families fear one Yasuko may not be able to perform if as the rumours suggest her exposure to radiation may have left her unable to bear children. The situation is further complicated seeing as Shigematsu and Shigeko were not able to have children of their own, and with Yasuko’s mother Kiyoko having died young Yasuko is the last of the Shizuma line even if she technically may not bear their name. 

Lost in old memories and mistaking Yasuko for her mother, grandma (Hisako Hara) may have it right when she tells her not to marry for marriage only leads to death. Yet in an odd way, Yasuko’s liminal status perhaps grants her the right to turn away from these old-fashioned patriarchal expectations in making her own decision not marry even if she orients herself back towards the filial in requesting to stay with the aunt and uncle who raised her in order to care for them should they suddenly begin to experience symptoms of their exposure to “the flash”. Shigematsu continues to treat the notion of radiation sickness with an almost supernatural mentality, convinced that having seen the light or not is all that matters constantly trying to provide evidence that Yasuko was not there when the bomb went off while ignoring her exposure to the black rain which fell afterwards even while himself filled with the anxiety of not knowing if he may someday become ill even if he and Shigeko are in otherwise good health. 

He watches friends with secondary exposure become ill and die before him, recalling being asked to read sutras for the dead in the aftermath of the bomb though feeling himself unqualified, while some in the village perhaps jokingly accuse them of playing on their status as bomb victims as if they are merely lazy rather than actively sick. Meanwhile, across the way a young man with intense PTSD suffers flashbacks every time he hears an engine running and is compelled to throw himself in front of it as if it were an enemy tank. Yuichi (Keisuke Ishida) is ironically enough “a veteran of the suicide squad”, otherwise alright if fragile spending his days carving Buddhist Jizo statues may of which have grotesque, anguished expressions in contrast to the comforting, almost cute faces such statues usually bear. Just as the wider society distances itself from the survivors of the bomb, so they reject men like Yuichi. When Yuichi’s mother comes to propose an unlikely marriage between the two lonely youngsters who have become close after bonding through their shared anxieties, Shigematsu is offended, resenting the implication that they must believe Yasuko is a poor catch if daring to suggest she marry a man of a lower social class who is also in need of assistance in living with his mental illness. 

Yet her marriage continues to weigh heavily on Shigeko’s mind, feeling as if she has failed the Shizuma family in being unable to provide an heir and subsequently failing to secure a match for Yasuko. It is perhaps this anxiety that finally makes her ill, taking strange medicines provided by a dubious Shinto priestess who tells her it’s all her own fault for not being able to visit Kiyoko’s grave because someone has to stay at home to look after grandma. Only Shigematsu sees the writing on the wall, advising Yasuko that after grandma dies she should sell the estate and take the money as her dowry freeing her from the feudal and familial legacy and giving her permission to move into the modern post-war future even as she begins to doubt that the future has a place for her. 

Shooting in black and white and in a much more classical style than that which is found in his other work, Imamura adopts the aesthetics of Golden Age cinema to comment on the contemporary era now perhaps feeling itself sufficiently distanced from the toxicity of wartime trauma, suggesting that the entire society is in a sense soaked in black rain its inability to confront the recent past a poison slowly eating away at its foundations. “An unjust peace is better than a just war” Shigematsu is fond of saying, quoting Cicero dismayed by the heated geopolitical debates he hears on the radio he uses to set the clock, his friend dying without ever really understanding why the bomb was dropped, why on Hiroshima, why at that particular moment. Imamura denies us closure too, leaving on a note of anxiety if tempered with an all but forlorn hope for signs of a miracle on the horizon that the sickness can be healed and a better world will someday arrive.


Black Rain screens at the BFI on 28th December as part of BFI Japan and is also available on blu-ray as part of Arrow’s Imamura boxset or to stream in the UK via Arrow Player

Poppoya (鉄道員, Yasuo Furuhata, 1999)

img_0The late Ken Takakura is best remembered as cinema’s original hard man but when the occasion arose he could provoke the odd tear or two just the same. 1999’s Poppoya (鉄道員) directed by frequent collaborator Yasuo Furuhata sees him once again playing the tough guy with a battered heart only this time he’s an ageing station master of a small town in deepest snow country which was once a prosperous mining village but is now a rural backwater.

Otomatsu Sato has spent his life in service to the railway. Like his father before him who believed the key to the modernisation of Japan after its defeat in the second world war was in its transportation network, Sato started as an engineer before being promoted to station master. Morning and evening in the freezing cold he bid in and sent out each passenger and freight train travelling through his one track station. However, though he clearly loves his job Sato has experienced a great deal of personal tragedy in pursuit of his career. He wasn’t there when his baby daughter died, nor was he there when his wife lay dying in hospital. He was where he always is, on the platform until the last train goes out. Now, however, the mine has closed, the town is full of old people and there are no passengers on the train so the line will be closing. Having given his life to something which will be so unceremoniously erased, what is a man like Sato to do now?

In true Takakura fashion, Sato appears tough and fairly unapproachable on the outside but actually he’s quite well respected in the town and even if some of the other residents bemoan his rigid ways, they grudgingly respect him for being the way he is. He takes his duties seriously and would never countenance breaching them for something as trivial as personal concerns, even when those concerns are something as understandable as the death of a family member. The way he sees things, this is his duty and must be fulfilled, properly each day no matter what. This may seem a little obsequious in Western eyes, though many of the other (particularly female) characters also agree Sato takes things much further than he needs to, but dedication to one’s duty is, after all, an admirable trait.

However, now it’s all been for nowt. The railway line is to be closed, the land will engulf it once again erasing the years of Sato’s work just as if he were never there. He’s sacrificed final moments with his wife and child – not even that, just sacrificed moments. He’s given all to the railway and now there’s no place left there for him. His best friend, the father of a son also in the railway business, is to take another job at a hotel complex but Sato is a railwayman through and through – he’ll work on the tracks or not at all.

Around this time Sato also starts seeing some strange new children around. He assumes they’ve come to stay with grandparents in the village, this being the time of the New Year holiday. The little one has a strangely old fashioned looking doll that reminds Sato of one he bought for his infant daughter only she never really had the chance to enjoy it. Then he meets an older sister who’s kind of a live wire before meeting the oldest – a high school student dressed in an old fashioned looking uniform who really reminds him of someone he used to know. All these strange encounters force Sato to further re-examine his past, reliving old regrets and assessing a life lived in service to an ideal at the expense of the joy he might have felt as a happy family man.

Beautifully photographed with picturesque shots of trains against the deep snows of Northern Japan, Poppoya was Japan’s submission for the 1999 Oscars and does have all the trappings of a prestige melodrama. It unabashedly pulls at the hearts strings and even if the rather sentimental score takes things too far, Poppoya does nevertheless manage to draw the odd tear for Sato’s lonely, regretful old age. Sentimental yet genuinely affecting, Poppoya is an effectively crafted weepy which serves as a timely reminder to embrace the things which are most important to you while there’s still time.


The Hong Kong blu-ray release of Poppoya includes English subtitles (though they are a little “imperfect”).

Only trailer I can find has Korean subs: