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Book Review: Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse

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It is amazing that whenever a book deals with “serious” subject matter, be it genocide, the Hiroshima bombing, or lynching, it will often receive rave reviews, regardless of how well the said subject is executed. This is because the majority of readers do not critique a work on its craft, but more due to its politics or heavy-handed subject matter. Then, whenever someone attempts to point out the flaws, the reviewer is immediately accused of being “unsympathetic” and a Nazi, and pro-death, etc. All of this, of course, is nonsense. I bring all this up because the Amazon review page of Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain has one of the highest ratings for Japanese novels I’ve ever encountered. (Usually there are a fair number of negative reviews — people claiming how boring the book was and how nothing happens.)

The truth is, Black Rain is a good book, but not much more than that. The story is fairly straightforward, the prose is rather standard and it’s pretty much accomplishes what it sets out to, albeit in a more linear way than the best of the Japanese works. On the plus side, the novel is based on a number of diary entries and interviews with those who survived the blasts, so one could praise this for its historical accuracy. The Black Rain of the title refers to the literal color of the rain after the bomb hit Hiroshima. The tale involves a family that moves to Hiroshima in an attempt to avoid the draft, though soon they learn this probably was not the best choice, as it doesn’t take long before an atomic bomb wipes out the whole city.

Much of the novel is then focused not so much on the characters as internal beings but the events around them. The suffering, the burns, the injury, are discussed and all are handled in a non-mawkish way. This emotional distance is one of the novel’s strengths, for the author does not commit the crime of PC writers today, where readers are told on every page about the agony and pain. Instead, Ibuse trusts his audience to know that the presence of agony and pain is obvious, so no need to Oprahfy it. The approach is more detached and journalistic, and this is what heightens its power.

Black Rain is a good book, but not as great as the best war novels, such as All Quiet on the Western Front or Ooka’s Fires on the Plain. Black Rain simply lacks the philosophical and character depth to be ranked along side of those two, but that does not mean the book does not have merit of its own. In addition to the lack of condescension and the historical details this is based on, the details are another thing that works for and against the narrative. On one hand, the description of the aftermath and the rubble and fires that follow are powerful and expressed well, but by the end of the book readers are given what feels like a laundry list of people’s burns and sufferings.

Just to give a sample of the writing:

“But today, even the lotus pond had a dead body lying in it. Beside the pond, I noticed a white pigeon crouching in the grass. I went gently up to it and took it in my hands, but it was blinded in its right eye, and the feathers above its right wing were slightly scorched. For a moment, I felt a sudden desire to eat it broiled with soy, but I let it go, tossing it up and away from me into the air.”

This is one of the more memorable moments (and metaphors) in the book, and as it is shown, the prose is fairly straightforward and not dashingly lyrical. The narrator then goes on to note how the bird twirled up a bit, only the fall back down into the pond.

Black Rain does a good job capturing the death that occurs at all levels, be it human, bird, plant or insect. And while the focus is on the bombing of Hiroshima, there’s only a very slight mention of the second bombing upon Nagasaki — the city that always seems to get overshadowed by the first. Unfortunately, there were some families that suffered the bombing in one city and then migrated to the other, only to suffer the same fate a few days later. Also what is interesting is the description of what happens to someone upon radiation poisoning — the aches, the hair falling out, the teeth loosening. After the second bombing, Japan surrenders, albeit the Emperor’s human voice that echoes over the radio and startles many of his countrymen never actually mentions the word “surrender.” Instead, citizens weep and wonder if surrender is what they must do, all the time believing they will be tortured and imprisoned by the Americans.

There’s no doubt that this novel does an excellent job capturing this event, and does so with very readable prose.

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About Jessica Schneider