Masuji Ibuse – Black Rain book review

January 20, 2009 at 3:51 pm (Uncategorized) (, , , )

Masuji Ibuse – Black Rain (Original: 黒い雨; Kuroi ame)

300 pages

Translated by John Bester

Black Rain

Black Rain

Facts are what survive any calamity. It’s with facts and numbers that students of any age learn about the world. But Ibuse’s Black Rain dispenses with scientific fact in the interest of exploring Hiroshima’s bombing with characters that cry, laugh, limp and lament. While political and statistical information is missing, the human characters reveal a different “truth.” Ibuse collected the stories of many people from Hiroshima and related them in a work of fiction that is every bit as important in 2009 as it was decades ago.

Black Rain’s structure is phenomenal. In overviews of Japanese fiction you’ll read of “I-novels” (私小説, Watakushi shōsetsu) in which the author relates realistic stories about himself. This literary form was popular in Japan, and Black Rain’s translator John Bester situates the novel in this category during his introduction. The narration, however, is not from the author. The primary narrator is Shigematsu Shizuma whose post-war life is hampered by the radiation sickness that erupts after any difficult physical labor. In an ingenious literary move, Ibuse has Shigematsu “copy” his journal from August 6th through August 14th, allowing us to see life during the bombing in addition to life after. Other viewpoints are woven into the text as well, including the gruesome story of a draftee who survives the blast, Shigematsu’s niece, and other characters that he meets. A formative moment in a country’s history will be engrained forever in the mind of people both collectively and individually. They will remember the moment through the lens of their own experience, and Ibuse captures the need for humanity to hear and tell their own version of what happened through this narrative technique.

The novel’s “present” setting tells the story of Shigematsu, his wife Shigeko and their niece Yasuko. Yasuko was brought to Hiroshima by Shigematsu to keep her safe from the air raids. This error causes a great deal of guilt for Shigematsu. There are several instances that cause Shigematsu undue stress, and the reader will be awed at Ibuse’s portrayal of the delicate intra- and extra-societal forces that shape all human societies. Black Rain succeeds in examining Japanese society in tandem with human culture as a whole.

Shigematsu and some of his friends are hindered by the radiation sickness that flares from too much activity. Yet they are also told to be as physical as possible. This results in one of the most poignant vignettes in the story: Shigematsu and Shokichi are fishing from a communal lake in an effort to occupy themselves and remain healthy when they are belittled by a woman on the shore.

“Both fishing, eh? Some people are lucky, I must say, seeing how everyone else is so busy.”

Shokichi retaliates that “. . .I’d only be glad to do some work, I can tell you—any amount! But people like us only have to do a bit of hard work and their limbs start to rot on them. This damned disease starts to come out.” The argument escalates to obscenity and name-calling, but the most painful remark was surely the woman’s first. For Ibuse to write a scene in which survivors of the bomb are ridiculed for laziness so soon after the bomb shows a keen, painfully acute understanding of stigma and prejudice.

Black Rain portrays the difficulties of military and political bureaucracy. Any government and military large enough to invade other countries will have its own bureaucratic structure with which it is able to shuffle responsibility, guilt and aid around. Ibuse portrays this in Shigematsu’s partly comedic quest to obtain coal for the factory where he works. He presses multiple bureaucrats regarding the vanishing of the designated coal supply company. Their replies are polite, oblique and always unrealistic.

His persistent quests to find coal for his factory bring him through the desolated areas of Hiroshima. The text’s pace grinds to a halt as Ibuse relates the detailed routes that Shigematsu takes. This overbearing amount of detail may create a deeper realism to a Japanese reader, but to foreigners it is a mess of superfluous names. To maintain or eliminate the mess of train lines and locations would be a difficult choice for editors and translators, but I felt that it hurt the story’s pace.

The power of the prose is also hindered by sentence structure. Open to any page and you will see many commas that cause the text to lurch instead of flow. The translator walks a fine line between textual fidelity and smooth English, though I’m not sure how the original reads. I understand that Japanese is capable to skip punctuation all together. Here the paragraphs are broken by persistent and easily reworked comma breaks. One of the many reasons I lament my inability to read the original Japanese is that I hate to blame the wrong person (Ibuse, John Bester, editor, etc). So I will conclude my criticism of style by reiterating that the novel is incredibly moving and structurally well-written despite the hindrances of detail and hyper-punctuation.

I’ve written to this point without mentioning the carnage that Shigematsu witnesses. I certainly wouldn’t know where to begin describing the details of such horrific sights and commend the author for his style. Ibuse balanced perfectly the importance of detail for realism against using too much detail which would result in a pointlessly macabre novel. Shigematsu’s reaction to the littered corpses and corpse-removal teams differs often. Ibuse has subtlety detailed how one might react to such overwhelming horror: numbness, repulsion, and many in-between states. There are several images that will stick with you after the book, and while Ibuse was delicate in his descriptive imagery, there are several very upsetting passages.

The immediate wave of deaths and torturous radiation disease, woven with the bureaucratic and political stubbornness, produced a question that has haunted me since I finished the novel. Almost no human being would inflict these deaths and disease single-handedly on so many other human beings. In other words, I doubt the pilot and crew of the Enola Gay would be capable of inflicting such agony on Japanese families and soldiers if they were face-to-face. Therefore, the military and political structures are to blame for the incredible amount of suffering inflicted during the war. But without those same structures, modern life would be primitive, with less distribution of medicine and technology, education, civil protection, and so on. Where does that leave the citizens of countries run by immensely powerful governments wielding frightful technology? Citizens who are always subject to propaganda? Forgive me if I sound naïve or un-initiated in struggling with this. It is a testament to good fiction’s place in society for Black Rain to have raised such a lofty and essential, if rudimentary, question.

I only hope there are authors who are now creating works that will allow future students to learn from our actions, listen to the stories of others, and question the world that they live in. Masuji Ibuse has certainly done his part by creating the sad, yet dignified, story of the Shizuma family and the aftermath of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.


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