Kuroi Ame (Black Rain), by Masuji Ibuse, was hailed in Japan as the first true work of art to be inspired by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The title refers to the radioactive rain and fallout from the explosion.
Ibuse began serializing Black Rain in the magazine Shincho in January 1965. On the publication of the work, Ibuse received the Order of Cultural Merit, Japan’s highest honor to a writer.
On that morning – the morning of August 6 – the Service Corps of the Second Middle School in Hiroshima had been listening to an exhortatory address on Temma Bridge, or some other bridge in the west of the city, when the atomic bomb fell.
In that instant the boys were burned from head to foot, but the teacher in charge had got the whole party to sing, pianissimo, a patriotic song: “Lay Me Beneath the Waves.”
When they had finished, he gave the command “Dismiss!” and himself led the way in jumping into the river, which happened to be running high with the tide at the time. The whole party followed suit.
Image: Robert Motherwell, Beside the Sea #24, 1962
Black Rain is based on contemporaneous diary and journal entries of the bombing. We follow the principal narrator Shigematsu, in the days after the destruction of his home, when the black rain begins to fall. Shigematsu begins re-writing his poignant journal of the events in the hope of finding a husband for his niece, Yasuko, who has been scarred by radiation sickness. Shigematsu, his wife Shigeko, and Yasuko reassure prospective husbands that Yasuko was not affected by the radiation, although she was under the black rain that followed the destruction. Shigematsu reads his wartime diary to understand his own life, and Yasuko gives up all hopes of marrying and falls ill with radiation sickness.
The talks on my niece Yasuko’s marriage, which were rapidly approaching an agreement, have quite suddenly been broken off by the Aonos – the young man’s family. Yasuko has begun to show symptoms of radiation sickness. Everything has fallen through. By now, it is neither possible nor necessary to go on pretending. Yasuko, it seems, has sent the young man a despairing letter saying she has started having symptoms. I wonder whether it was love for him that made her decide on this honest course? Or did she do it in despair, on the impulse of a moment?
Her sight has deteriorated rapidly, and she complains of a constant ringing in her ears. 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. I saw it quite distinctly.
Black Rain is never melodramatic.Sometimes his characters criticize the wartime government but otherwise Ibuse expresses his views at an everyday level. Subtly, Ibuse tempers horror with gentle humour. Alongside the horrifying wastes of the ruined city, he sets the gentle Japanese countryside with its unchanging people and traditions. Against the threat of universal destruction, he sets the small, unimportant – and hence infinitely touching – human things which triumph in the end. The narration alters between Kobatake, a rural hamlet some distance from Hiroshima, at a time several years after the end of the war, and Hiroshima itself in the days immediately after the bombing.
Shigematsu fastened this account away as an appendix to his “Journal of the Bombing.” Then, at Shigeko’s request, he set off for Kotaro’s place with rice dumplings for The Mass for Dead Insects. The lacquer box containing the dumplings was inside the metal wash-bowl in which Kotaro had brought the loach, and the whole was encased in a wrapping-cloth.
The Mass for Dead Insects was a rite performed on the day after the festival, when farmers would make rice dumplings as an offering to the souls of the deceased insects they had inadvertently trodden on as they worked in the fields. On the same day, custom also demanded that they should return any articles that they had on loan from their neighbours.
Image: Pamela Bannos, Perils of Time 1899/1999, 1999
The book’s microscopic view initially seems to avoid the larger political and moral questions that surely such an atrocity demands, but a more nuanced understanding soon dawns: these larger questions cannot be asked of any situation if one cannot comprehend simple human misery and pride.
Black Rain’s awful beauty is brilliant.