Survivor's Tale of Japan's `Black Rain'

FILM: REVIEW

A FEW months ago, Hollywood released a movie called ``Black Rain'' about a New York policeman chasing a Japanese criminal. Now another film with the same title has arrived on American screens, but this one comes from Japan and deals with a very different subject. The phrase ``black rain'' refers to the radioactive fallout that poured from the skies, with devastating results, after an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and on Nagasaki at the close of World War II. Many artists, from Japan and elsewhere, have dealt with that tragedy either as a metaphor (as in Hollywood's recent ``Black Rain'') or as a historical event.

The new treatment comes from Shohei Imamura, a respected Japanese filmmaker. His movie was among the most controversial and actively discussed entries in last year's Cannes Film Festival, and prompted more talk during the New York filmfest. Now moviegoers on a wider scale have the opportunity to make up their minds about it, although it's so quiet and subdued that it probably won't be shown in theaters everywhere, and you may have to hunt a bit to find it.

The main character is a young woman named Yasuko, who's caught with her aunt and uncle in the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. They are all survivors, coming through the blast in pretty good shape, unlike so many others who are killed or mutilated.

But their story is just beginning. After the war has ended, radiation sickness begins to take its toll - an effect never expected by people who thought the disaster was behind them. Yasuko is in her early 20s and wants to marry. But the black rain has brought to Japan a new set of social behaviors and conventions. No one wants to marry a survivor of it, even when her uncle gets a certificate stating she's in perfect health. Overcoming objections from her family, she strikes up a relationship with a soldier who has been traumatized by his own wartime experiences. But when her health does begin to fail, even this match fades away.

``Black Rain'' tells an unhappy story, but one that shouldn't be ignored. The movie takes its plot and characters from a celebrated novel by Japanese author Masuji Ibuse, who used actual diaries and interviews as the foundation of his book.

Just as important, the film is never sensationalized. It's less wry and ironic than the book, but it's still exceptionally understated, except for brief scenes when we revisit the nuclear bombing itself - and even these moments are bearable, partly because the movie is photographed not in color but in delicate shades of black and white.

Mr. Imamura's films usually deal with strange and violent subjects, reflecting a pessimistic view of human affairs. The very titles of his movies (from ``Vengeance Is Mine'' to ``The Pornographers'' and ``Pigs and Battleships'') signal his gloominess, which found one of its most complex expressions in ``The Ballad of Narayama,'' perhaps his most widely praised film.

``Black Rain'' maintains Imamura's usual grim outlook, but it has an unexpected subtlety that both strengthens and weakens its impact. On one hand, the filmmaker deserves credit for shedding light on an important historical subject, and doing this through remarkably quiet performances and photography. Yet the movie is so airless and static that it's hard to get deeply involved with its unhappy characters.

I know thoughtful and insightful cin'eastes who consider it a masterpiece. But they can't sweep away the shortcomings of the film itself.

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