Black Rain: Hiroshima and the Cold War

Kuroi Ame (Black Rain)

Directed by Shohei Imamura
Produced by Hisa Iino
Written by Ibuse Masuji & Toshiro Ishido
Starring Yoshiko Tanaka, Kazuo Kitamura, Etsuko Ichihara, and Keisuke Ishida
Distributed by Hayashibara Group, Imamura Productions, and Tohokushinsha Film Co.
May 13, 1989

“Today is already yesterday.”

Shohei Imamura’s 1989 film Kuroi Ame, based on a 1965 novel by Ibuse Masuji, is a haunting meditation about trauma, sickness, death, and the bombing of Hiroshima. It follows an older man named Shizuma Shigematsu, who survives the bombing and is exposed to the radiation, along with his wife Shigeko and niece Yasuko. The film moves between the day of the bombing in 1945 to the present day in 1950, when Shizuma and his family have relocated to a rural village outside of Hiroshima. There they attempt to find some peace, but with half the village suffering from radiation poisoning, death is omnipresent, and the past becomes increasingly inescapable.

Imamura shows us a quiet resilience in the villagers, determined as they are to move on with their lives. Shizuma fishes, Shigeko tends to the paddy fields, and both work to find a suitable husband for Yasuko. Kuroi Ame is above all an empathetic film, particularly in its treatment of the hibakusha (Hiroshima survivors). While the images of carnage and hysteria on the day of the bombing are horrific, it’s the quiet scenes of Shizuma spending time with his dying friends, of the villagers protecting a man with PTSD, and of Yasuko struggling to find a husband with her health in question that all underscore how Hiroshima did not just leave physical scars, but mental, social, and emotional ones too.

Many of the scenes in the present day veer close to being a light-hearted drama, but the peace doesn’t last. Time, we quickly learn in Kuroi Ame, is merciless. On the day of the bombing, Yasuko finds a blasted off clock face in the water, the hands singed in place — an omen of how enduring the effects of Hiroshima will be. In the present day, Yasuko winds the clock in the kitchen every evening to keep the hands moving. As the movie progresses — as more villagers die and Yasuko’s marriage prospects dwindle — Yasuko needs to be reminded by Shizuma to keep winding the clock. Time keeps freezing, over and over again, and while Shizuma and his family try to jump start it and push it forward, there’s a sense of futility here, that Hiroshima is an event they just can’t move on from. 

“Today is already yesterday,” Shizuma recites at one of his friend’s funerals. Like time, death is fickle. Some characters who exhibit symptoms throughout the film manage to live until the end. Others fall ill and die suddenly. The sickness sometimes takes the young before the old, the ones exposed to the fallout before the ones who walked ground zero. “It may be you or me who departs, today or tomorrow,” Shizuma chants at another funeral. “Youth in the morning may turn to white bones in the evening.”

We are all mortal, Kuroi Ame tells us, but what of unnatural deaths? Shizuma’s Buddhist sutras teach us that death is inevitable, but the illness that befalls all these characters has a manufactured origin. How does one accept a death brought about by war? By politics? Can one accept that?

“Tell me something. Why did America use the bomb when they were winning?” One elderly character, in the last stages of radiation poisoning, asks Shizuma. “Some said it was to end the war quickly,” Shizuma responds. “Then why not Tokyo? Why Hiroshima?” “I don’t know.” “How can we die without knowing the truth?”

Hearing that admission of “I don’t know” is just one agonizing aspect of being a present day viewer of Kuroi Ame and seeing the suffering and helplessness the characters are all subjected to. Today we do know. Thanks to interviews and memoirs published in the intervening years, we now know the truth: the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not driven by military necessity.

Fleet Admiral William Leahy, the highest ranking military member during WWII, wrote in his memoir I Was There that “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender…wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.” (As shown in the film, Hiroshima was populated largely by civilian women, children, and the elderly, as the soldiers were already away at war.)

In a November 1963 Newsweek article, former President Dwight Eisenhower, who was Supreme Commander of all Allied Forces during WWII, said “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

And The New York Herald Tribune wrote on September 20, 1945 that Major General Curtis E. LeMay, famous warhawk and commander of the Twenty-First Bomber Command, said that the atomic bomb “had nothing to do with the end of the war.”

Shigeko, Yasuko, and Shizuma in the present day © Kuroi Ame (1989) Hayashibara Group, Imamura Productions, & TFC

So why drop the bomb? As notes, Hiroshima can be considered the first shot in the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia. In a May 1945 meeting with Manhattan Project scientist Leo Szilard, Truman’s Secretary of State, James Byrnes, told Szilard that he was concerned about “Russia’s postwar behavior…[and thought] that Russia might be more manageable if impressed by American military might, and that a demonstration of the bomb might impress Russia.”

The idea that Hiroshima was meant as a show of force to the rest of the world is correlated by the documents from the bomb’s target committee. The target committee stated that one of the psychological goals of deploying the bomb was “to make the initial use sufficiently spectacular for the importance of the weapon to be internationally recognized.”

The bomb was deployed four days after the Potsdam Conference, a meeting between the U.S., Britain, and Russia that was meant to be peaceful, but ended up heightening tensions between the U.S. and Russia. David Holloway, a Political Science Stanford professor, said in an interview with KQED that:

“Stalin and the leadership basically saw Hiroshima as directed against the Soviet Union…it was seen as a kind of sly, or cunning anti-Soviet political move…not only in order to deprive the Soviet Union gains in the Far East, but generally to intimidate the Soviet Union. You know, look what we have. We have this bomb which is so powerful that with one detonation, we can destroy a city. And you better behave yourselves. You better be more tractable, more amenable in the dealing with the post-war settlement in Europe. And I think that’s very much how Stalin interpreted Hiroshima.”

The characters of Kuroi Ame of course know none of this, and many end up dying “like guinea pigs,” as one character puts it. There are many tragedies surrounding the bombing of Hiroshima, but the idea that thousands of of (markedly non-white) civilians suffered and died to further the rivalry between two (majority white) countries is a deep, deep wound. And this truth — that nearly all major U.S. military leaders during WWII were against deploying the bomb — is rarely taught in classrooms, leading many Americans to believe that the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was completely justified.

Near the end of the film, Shizuma hears on the radio that the U.S. is considering deploying the atomic bomb yet again in the Korean War. Although we know now this never happens — and in fact Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain the only instances of nuclear bombs being used in open warfare — the U.S. did conduct 1,054 nuclear tests between 1945 to 1992. We also know that because of Hiroshima, Russia rushed to create weapons of mass destruction of their own. In 1949 they created their first atomic bomb, and by 1961 they created Tsar Bomba, a bomb with 1,400 times the power of the ones used on both Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.

After the Cold War ended, the U.S. ceased production of new nuclear weapons, and reduced its stockpile by half. Time and funding was then put into anti-nuclear proliferation programs — a sign that maybe, the U.S. understood the dangers of nuclear weapons. And yet, a month ago, current U.S. President Trump tweeted that the U.S. “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability.”

“Human beings learn nothing,” Shizuma says after hearing the news about the U.S. wanting to use nuclear weapons again. At this point in the film, several of his close friends have passed away from radiation poisoning. His wife is experiencing seizures and Yasuko’s hair has begun to fall out. “They strangle themselves.”

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Gretchen Smail

Gretchen Smail

Part time Bay Area journalist, full time loungewear enthusiast