Vivid details make 'Black Rain' a moving account of life after Hiroshima

April 12, 1991|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Sun Film Critic

'Black Rain'

When: April 14, 7 p.m.

Where: Baltimore Museum of Art, Art Museum Drive.

Tickets: $6; $5 for Film Forum and BMA members.

Call: 889-1993 for information on these and other screenings. Shohei Imamura's "Black Rain," which shows Sunday night at the Baltimore Film Festival, is a haiku from hell. Delicate, almost ethereal, the movie is also one of the most searing ever made. It's an account on a single instant and how it colored and evenstually destroyed the lives of the few who survived it. The moment can be fixed in time -- 8:14 a.m., Aug. 6, 1945. Welcome to the atomic age, Hiroshima, Japan.

Imamura's reconstruction of the atomic bomb blast is staggering; it makes "The Day After" look like the day before. Yet it's not overdone: Imamura, one of the world's few remaining great directors, re-creates the apocalyptic event once directly in a brilliant 20-minute opening sequence and then in periodic flashbacks, but this is less an accumulation of numbing gore and wreckage than a collecting of vivid details. The charred bundles of broken pots by the wayside, we soon realize, are corpses; the frozen statues in the wreckage are also corpses; the dazed wanderers are the soon-to-be corpses. Death is everywhere, even in the anguished, jangled memory of a father who remembers his trapped son screaming, "Daddy help me," from inside a burning building. But the father's real enemy is himself: He had run away, and we understand that he, too, is dead.

The film, derived from a well-regarded Japanese novel which itself was derived from diaries of the hibakusha, as the bomb-survivors are called, is less a documentary account of that day than it is an examination of consequences. Quickly, it moves forward five years in time, chronicling the domestic adventures of the Shizumas, a village family who lived on the outskirts of the city and, despite a horrifying journey through the epicenter of the crematoriums, managed to survive. Now, life should be good.

And, superficially, it is. Imamura's camera work is delicate and sweet, and in slow, stately rhythms it captures the serenity of the village life, and of people living unremarkable lives of quiet dignity. Except that these people were saturated with black rain, the inky droplets that fell from the sky in the aftermath of the blast, the black rain of slow death by radiation.

Perhaps that is why the naturalistic imagery is so vivid and bright with life; people who know they are dying will see with much more sensual observation than people for whom life seems to last forever. The immediate difficulty is the marriage of Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka), who keeps losing suitors when her exposure to radiation is discovered, even as she is learning she is falling in love with a war-ravaged veteran who is of a social caste beneath hers.

The gentle patriarch of this doomed clan is her uncle, Shigematsu, played with heart-breaking decency and optimism by Kazuo Kitamura; he reminded me, in his humble need to do well by his family and his sense of duty without attracting a lot of attention to himself, of Major Delaplane, in Tavernier's great "Life and Nothing But," which was screened at the festival last week.

Imamura, who also directed the brilliant "Vengeance Is Mine," isn't a polemicist and in a curious way he's not bitter so much as wise. This isn't an exercise in finger pointing and moral superiority of victim over victimizer, but an exercise in memory. "Hiroshima has vanished," the city's dazed survivors mumble as they stagger through the ravaged city, but Imamura's point is to make certain that it never does.

(Tonight, the Film Festival will show "Lonely in America" at 7:30 and "Blackeyes" at 9:15. Tomorrow, the films are "Robot Carnival" at 7:30 p.m. and "Bakayaro" at 9:15 p.m. For ticket information, call 889-1993.)

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