Masuji Ibuse: Black Rain – Kuroi Ame (1969) Literature and War Readalong July 2012

Reading Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain was an intense experience. Beautiful and horrifying. In all honesty though I have to say the horror prevailed and I have to contradict those who say it’s not depressing. For sure, Ibuse isn’t a manipulative writer, he doesn’t strive for emotional reactions in his readers, but still, I couldn’t help being affected by what I read as no amount of toning down – something Ibuse has been accused of – can minimize the atrocity of what people had to endure on August 6 1945, in Hiroshima and the days and months that followed the bombing.

I think one hast to call Black Rain a documentary style novel. In order to write the book Ibuse has used real diaries and notes of victims and incorporated them in his book. Additionally the descriptions are so detailed and often matter-of-fact that the book reads in parts like a non-fiction account.

The main story is the story of Shigematsu Shizuma’s niece Yasuko. She would like to get married but a marriage is endangered as there are rumours that she got in the Black Rain after the bombing of Hiroshima and suffers of radiation sickness. Shigematsu himself is afflicted by a mild form of radiation sickness which he tries to fight by eating as healthily as possible and with mild exercise and a lot of rest. At the beginning of the novel which starts a few months after the bombing, Yasuko shows no signs of sickness at all. In order to help his niece and to prove that she didn’t get in the Black Rain and is not ill, Shigematsu starts transcribing his niece’s and his own diary covering the days before and after the bombing. The diaries are meticulous and incredibly detailed accounts of those days. The novel moves back and forth between the diary entries of August 5 – 15 and the present in which the entries are copied.

I have seen pictures of Hiroshima and read a few things but never anything like this book which was absolutely overwhelming in its details and the way it captured human suffering. The descriptions always move back and forth between individual and collective experiences. There were descriptions of people who had only mild burns and some whose whole body was an open wound. Some died in agony, some in grotesque positions. There were descriptions which showed how some people afflicted by radiation sickness a few days or weeks later died suddenly while others agonized for months. Towards the end there is a real account of a doctor who served in the infantry and was almost directly under the bomb when it exploded. It was unbearable to read about the suffering he went through.

I was surprised to see what an important element food is in the book. We read detailed accounts of what food was available during the war, how it was prepared and how they had to substitute a lot. Food is also one of the major elements in a successful treatment of radiation sickness. It was fascinating and sad to read.

What shocked me more than anything else, more than the descriptions of the wounded humans and animals and the ensuing total chaos, was the utter helplessness which was expressed in the way how they spoke about the bomb. They had no clue what had happened. They knew it was something unheard of,  never used before, but they didn’t know anything specific. What were the effects? Were burns the only thing or would there be more to come later? How did you treat radiation sickness? Days later they find out what had hit them.

“The name of the bomb had already undergone a number of changes, from the initial “new weapon” through “new-type bomb” to “special high-capacity bomb.” That day I learned for he first time to call it an “atomic bomb”.

The confusion and helplessness of the people is terribly sad. Even more when you read how they started to realize that even people who were not in Hiroshima on August 6, but part of rescue teams who came later, all died. This meant that each and every person who had been in Hiroshima on the 6th or came later would have to wait, sometimes for months, to be sure they were not affected by radiation.

After having read all this you will probably wonder why I called this book “beautiful”. I thought it was beautiful because the way Ibuse describes the Japanese culture, Japanese sensibilities, the descriptions of the food, the habits, some customs and many details of things we are not familiar with is full of beautiful moments like this description of Shigematsu’s childhood.

As a boy, Shigematsu had seldom come to the flat rock to play, but he had often been to play under the ginkgo tree at Kotaro’s place. When the frosts came and the ginkgo tree began to shed its leaves, the roof of Kotaro’s house would be transformed into a yellow roof, smothered with dead leaves. Whenever a breeze sprang up, they would pour down from the eaves in a yellow waterfall, and when it eddied they would swirl up into the air – up and up to twice, three times the height of the roof – then descend in yellow whirlpools onto the road up the slope and onto the oak grove.

Of course the same culture which had such a lot of beauty was also trapped in a destructive system of total obedience which is mentioned more than once in the novel. It takes a masterful writer to be able to convey so much insight into a culture and render a tragedy the way he did it. While Black Rain was not an easy book to read and has to be absorbed in small doses, I think it’s an outstanding book.  Without ever accusing anything or anyone Ibuse shows drastically that in the case of Hiroshima the end didn’t justify the means.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

Rise (in lieu of a field guide)

Older reviews

Mel U (The Reading Life)

Gary (The Parrish Lantern)

The review is my first contribution to Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Challenge 6.

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Black Rain was the seventh book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Aaron Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim. Discussion starts on Friday August 31, 2012.