Black Rain: Reflections on Hiroshima and Nuclear War in Japanese Film

By Feleppa, Robert | Cross Currents, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Black Rain: Reflections on Hiroshima and Nuclear War in Japanese Film


Feleppa, Robert, Cross Currents


In the literature on atomic bomb-related themes in Japanese cinema we find a number of trends. Some films--surprisingly few--are intended as open social protests of America's use of the bombs. There are critics who see the bombings as the key stimulus to entire film genres, including the works of Yasujiro Ozu and others, concerned as they were with rapid post-war social transformations and their related spiritual costs. There are others who see the science-fiction genre, especially the Godzilla films, as the main cinematic legacy of the bombings and identify in this genre--and its natural extension into anime films--deep insights into transformations in Japanese attitudes and social relations. Finally, there are those films which perceive in the experience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki indications of broader spiritual and social dynamics with very real, apocalyptic potential. It is the films in this latter category that I wish to consider here, since they evoke a cautionary attitude best suited to the spirit of Hiroshima--one I believe is especially important to encourage in our students, given America's growing emphasis on aggressive foreign policy and technological war-making. (1)

The lack of protest films in the 1950's and subsequent decades primarily resulted from the suppression of Hiroshima protest films during the occupation, the reluctance of directors to be associated with the political left, and the policy of Japanese distributors to show protest films infrequently, in remote venues, with little promotion. Also significant, Donald Richie argues, are certain cultural factors: while Western and other non-Japanese critics of the bombings saw them as atrocities, the Japanese saw them as closer in species to earthquakes and other natural disasters. Richie remarks that the basic view of the bomb in early documentaries (2) was

      ... in effect "This happened; it is all over and finished, but
      isn't it too bad? Still, this world is a transient place and this
      too is sad; what we feel today we forget tomorrow; this is not as
      it perhaps should be, but it is as it is." This awareness of
      evanescence and the resulting lamentation has a term in Japanese:
      mono no aware [translatable as "sympathetic sadness" or
      "inescapable sadness of living"]. It indicates a feeling for the
      transience of all earthly things; it involves a near-Buddhistic
      insistence upon recognition of the eternal flux of life upon this
      earth. This is the authentic Japanese attitude toward death and
      disaster (once an interval has passed). (Richie 1996, p. 22)

This is certainly one reasonably effective form of reconciliation and integration. However, note that Richie calls this a "near-Buddhistic" attitude, and being a man who chooses his words carefully, I think he indicates that there is reason to see this attitude as falling short of a genuinely Buddhist one. To be sure, Buddhism advises against attachment to things in ignorance of life's transience, and against adding to the sufferings by pointless ego-expressions like resentment. But from a Buddhist--and humanistic--point of view, if, as the Four Noble Truths make plain, the reduction of needless suffering is paramount, then such passive acceptance is not desirable if it perpetuates or threatens to perpetuate suffering.

The films I have chosen to highlight do not rest with mono no aware reconciliation. They force us to feel a deep and unsettling sense of unfinished business, if not outrage. And they beg us to channel these feelings toward the reduction of suffering. In their ways they rebel against the notion that we should get over all this, because, after all, suffering is inevitable. Yet, on the other hand, they avoid what I think Shudong Chen was right to characterize in an earlier paper in this conference as a myopic, nationalistic emphasis on victimization. Three major films dealing directly with Hiroshima in the Japanese popular cinema have reached Western audiences: Record of A Living Being and Rhapsody in August, by Akira Kurosawa; and Black Rain, by Shohei Imamura. …

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