J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Vengeance is Shohei Imamura: Black Rain

These days, fifty-five is a relatively young age to pass, especially for a former pop idol. For the family and fans of Yoshiko Tanaka, it would be a tragic case of symmetry.  Justly lauded for her role as a “hibakusha” Hiroshima survivor, Tanaka succumbed to cancer in 2011. Although not exactly the sort of wrong-side-of-the-tracks noir that made his early reputation, Shohei Imamura’s Black Rain (trailer here) will make a fitting capstone to the Asia Society’s Vengeance is Imamura retrospective when it screens tonight (for free).

Yasuko was not in Hiroshima proper when the bomb was dropped, so she should be unaffected by “the flash.” However, she was caught in the “black rain” during the immediate aftermath. Despite her beauty, that is enough for most parents to put the nix on inquiries from her marriage broker.

Frankly, her matchmaking woes are more painful for her uncle Shigematsu Shizuma and his wife Shigeko. They had taken their niece into their home for safe keeping during the waning days of the war, promising to arrange her betrothal. Her potential old maid status grieves them personally and represents a potentially loss of face with their family and ancestors. Yet, as Yasuko’s prospects dim, she becomes increasingly devoted to the ailing Shizumas.

Imamura served an early apprenticeship with Yasujiro Ozu, so it is not so surprising to see his mentor’s influence imprinted on Rain. Like many of Ozu’s signature films, which focus on fathers and daughters or uncles and nieces, Rain is defined by the relationship between Yasuko and old man Shizuma. The way their bond steadily deepens is absolutely beautiful and agonizing to behold.

As Yasuko, Tanaka is exquisitely beautiful, profoundly moving, and in retrospect, sadly eerie. Likewise, Kazuo Kitamura is a wonderfully complex figure of strength and pathos. Their screen rapport is real and affecting.

Rain is also impressive on a technical level, vividly recreating the chaos and destruction of Hiroshima. Nevertheless, it is a far cry from an Irwin Allen picture.  It is also world’s removed from Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, which was also partly set in Japan and released in the same year. However, it makes much of the criticism leveled at The Wind Rises look largely misplaced. While Miyazaki’s animated feature addresses the repressive tactics of the militarist government’s secret police, Black Rain presents the Japanese war experience entirely in terms of passive victimhood.  Yet, its overt anti-nuclear sentiments earn it a pass.  Regardless, Black Rain is a mature and engrossing work from a master filmmaker. Highly recommended, it concludes the Vengeance is Imamura series tonight (2/1) at the Asia Society.

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