‘Black Rain’ by Masuji Ibuse (Review)

Earlier this week, before our adventures in and around Tokyo, we spent some time in Nagasaki, a city inextricably linked with today’s destination, Hiroshima, for obvious and melancholy reasons.  While it doesn’t make for the happiest of stops for our January In Japan travels, today’s choice takes us back to the days after the dropping of the first atomic bomb, providing an eye-witness account of the horrors of the explosion, and the aftermath.  Let’s head off, then, on another journey, one where we need to watch out for both fire and rain…

Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain (translated by John Bester, published by Kodansha International) is a book that’s been on my radar ever since I started reviewing online, but for a number of reasons (including the novel being temporarily out of print at times), I never quite managed to get to it.  However, if I’m honest, there was probably a slight reluctance at play, too, knowing what Ibuse’s story was about and not really looking forward to diving into it.

And let’s be frank here – if you’re looking for a pleasant, light read, this isn’t it.  Instead, Black Rain uses a number of documentary sources wrapped around the story of a family living in a village outside Hiroshima to show us the full horrors of the atomic attack.  The story begins shortly after the war, with Shigematsu Shizuma and his wife, Shigeko, worried about the marriage prospects of their niece, Yasuko.  One match has already fallen through, and another is in jeopardy owing to rumours of her suffering from radiation sickness, so to set the story straight, the uncle decides to copy out Yasuko’s war-time diaries, allowing the potential in-laws to decide for themselves.

Having taken on this task, however, Shigematsu decides that it’s also time for him to make a fair copy of his own, lengthier diary.  This ‘Journal of the Bombing’ is to be kept for posterity at the local library, and as he copies out the events of August 1945, the memories come flooding back.  Meanwhile, as we’re to see, memories aren’t the only reminder of the time – even years later, the effects of the bomb continue to make themselves known.

Shigematsu was caught in Hiroshima some distance from the epicentre, and his confused first accounts tell of the destruction of the train station he happened to be at and the panic and confusion that ensued.  Once he manages to pick himself up and make it outside, slightly the worse for wear, he looks up at the sky only to see the ominous mushroom cloud rising above the city:

It was an envoy of the devil himself, I decided: who else in the whole wide universe would have presumed to summon forth such a monstrosity?
p.55 (Kodansha International, 2012)

Still, there’s little time to waste on the cloud, and he carries on staggering through the streets, past flattened buildings, dead bodies and survivors with horrific wounds.

Later, as he wanders through the rubble and firestorms of Hiroshima with his family, we see the total chaos of a city decapitated, where all organisation and supply chains have been destroyed.  This is an unprecedented event in human history, and it shows, with nobody really understanding what has happened.  Only much later does the truth start to dawn on everyone, especially when it comes to radiation sickness and the effect on those who weren’t even in Hiroshima at the time of the blast.

It all makes for grim reading, but luckily Ibuse is skilful enough to ration out the suffering, if that’s at all possible, by focusing on another side of the disaster.  Despite his own injuries, Shigematsu is soon back at work, trying to organise affairs at his factory (where clothes are made for the military), and there’s a dark humour to the middle of the book as his efforts are thwarted by the Japanese obsession with following rules to the letter.  Even in the city’s apocalyptic state, petty jobsworths refuse to bend rules, demanding authorisations from departments that were vaporised by the bomb.  In fact, Shigematsu’s own boss is no more flexible, counting on Shigematsu to complete his paperwork just in case somebody should ask to see it – this on the morning of the surrender…

It’s not only in the work environment that this happens, though, and a notable aspect of Black Rain (for the modern western reader, at least) is the critical eye it casts over Japanese society.  There’s the marriage investigation, of course, but also the reaction to Shigematsu’s own issues resulting from radiation exposure.  While he needs to rest from time to time, that’s not quite as easy as it sounds:

The doctor had suggested doing light jobs about the place, supplemented by ‘walks’.  Unfortunately, it was out of the question for the head of a family, to all appearances in the best of health, to stroll idly through the village.  For someone to ‘go for a walk’, in fact, was quite unheard of.  A ‘walk’ was unthinkable in terms of traditional custom, and thus unthinkable in principle. (p.27)

The proof of this comes early on when a local woman berates Shigematsu and a friend for fishing, accusing them of idling around.  Mind you, Shigematsu himself isn’t completely above this judgemental behaviour, on occasion mentally reproving his wife for showing a bit of leg and wearing a short kimono…

The title is taken from a scene depicted in Yasuko’s diary, after the initial explosion:

When I looked in the mirror, I found that I was spotted all over with the same color except where I had been covered by my air-raid hood.  I was looking at my face in the mirror, when I suddenly remembered a shower of black rain that had fallen after Mr. Nojima had got us in the black market boat. (p.34)

Thinking nothing of walking through the sudden, unexpected shower, Yasuko has been covered in fall-out, dirt that is almost impossible to remove.  This rain caused by the explosion will have long-lasting effects, but again, those affected will know nothing about it until it’s too late.

Rather than simply recounting his story from start to finish, Ibuse cleverly constructs the novel with Yasuko’s stories, the old diaries and various other accounts (including Shigeko’s description of a typical war-time diet), moving back and forth between the days around the explosion and years later.  It doesn’t always quite work, though.  Towards the end, the story becomes slightly fragmented as Shigematsu’s focus shifts, and it can be a little dull in places when the old man drags himself from one organisation to the next.  However, whenever this happens, a sudden jolt brings us back, whether it’s the impromptu cremations in dried-up riverbeds or simply the mounds of disfigured bodies lying in the streets.

I can’t pretend Black Rain is a book I enjoyed, but that’s not really the point.  It’s a sobering account of a moment in time, and of what came after, and, as is the case with the Holocaust, it’s important to keep the memories of the tragedy alive, even as those directly involved pass away.  In that sense, the picture of the dome on the cover is a fitting one – a physical reminder of something we hope never happens again.

6 thoughts on “‘Black Rain’ by Masuji Ibuse (Review)

  1. It’s decades since I read this, but it’s stayed with me all this time. You’re right Tony – it’s impossible to say you enjoyed it. But it is brilliantly written, and a chilling reminder of what happens when human beings mess with stuff they shouldn’t. I read it alongside John Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and the two books complemented each other perfectly. I do think everyone should read both books if they can bear it.


  2. Did my BA thesis on this and other books about the war by Japanese authors and, although it’s been decades since I read it, it has really stayed with me. Did you know Ibuse was also friends with Dazai Osamu?


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