This book started as a serialization in the magazine Shincho (Shinchosha Publishing Co, Ltd) in January 1965. Masuji Ibuse used historical records and the diaries of survivors to reconstruct the experience of the devastation caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
Black Rain switches between the time & immediate aftermath of the bombing, covering the timeframe August the 6th to the 15th (1945) via the main protagonist, Shigematsu Shizuma’ s diary entries and the present (several years after).The book opens with Shigematsu’s concerns with his niece, Yasuko and her three failed marriage matches, the reason for which seems to be due to rumours about her health and whether she was exposed to the “Black Rain” fallout from the atomic bomb. In fact Shigematsu compiles a journal with the express aim of proving that she couldn’t have been exposed and thus didn’t have radiation sickness. We soon learn she has.
Although the translator John Bester, posits this book firmly within the tradition of the I-Novel (私小説 Shishōsetsu, Watakushi shōsetsu), the narrator is not Masuji Ibuse, but the primary protagonist Shigematsu, through whom we follow a period of his life as though it were laid out for our inspection – Shigematsu’s original reasoning for his journal is to prove his niece hadn’t come into contact with the black rain. By having Shigematsu write out his journal, Ibuse in a clever move, has used the I- Novel tradition to portray a realistic view of the narrator’s world, allowing us to perceive his life during the moment of the blast and the consequences that followed in the days, months and years after. Ibuse also shows us other viewpoints, by weaving them through Shigematsu’s tale, we learn of other survivors, the hibakusha*, whether family members, neighbours or other characters he meets on his journey and via their tales we learn more about this point, this ground zero that will be forever rooted deep in this nations psyche.
In his notes, John Bester writes
“ Black Rain is a portrait of a group of human beings; of the death of a great city; of a nation crumbling into defeat. It is a picture of the Japanese mind that tells more than many sociological studies. Yet more than this, it is a statement of a philosophy. Although that philosophy in its essence, is neither pessimistic nor optimistic, it seems to me to be life-affirming. Dealing with the grimmest of subjects, the work is not, in the end depressing, for the author is ultimately concerned with life rather than death, and with an overall beauty that transcends ugliness of detail. In that sense, I would suggest, Black Rain is not a “book about the bomb” at all.”This is a fascinating quote and one, that with hindsight, I totally agree with, it wasn’t my original response, I think that was a feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer horror and yet beauty of this book, of trying to come to terms with moments of absolute hell, and don’t let anyone tell you Hell is all fireworks and fiery extravaganza, it’s not. It’s watching your world disintegrate, a loved one slowly mutate and die and then there were moments of sly humour in the descriptions of the everyday reality, in the tender relationships between the characters. This is a book where nothing and everything happened, where everything changed in an instance, one giant exclamation mark decimated all that was known, and yet life in some form goes on.This is a book that the very idea of screams horror and yet where there is humanity, there is humour- where there is life you’ll find hope.
MASUJI IBUSE was born in Kamo, Hiroshima Prefecture, in 1898. He majored in French at Waseda University and joined the School of Fine Arts to pursue a serious interest in painting. His first story, "Salamander," was published in 1923, when Ibuse was still a student, and by the early 1930s his eloquent use of dialect and his unique prose style had established him as one of the leading figures in the Japanese literary world. In the years since 1938 he has been awarded almost every literary prize in Japan, and on the publication of Black Rain (1966) Ibuse was presented with both the Cultural Medal and Japan's highest literary award, the Noma Prize.
Japanese film director Shohei Imamura adapted the book into a film in 1989. The film moves between Shizuma Shigematsu's journal concerning Hiroshima, following the dropping of the atomic bomb, and the present (1950). Shigematsu and his wife Shigeko are the guardians for their niece Yasuko, charged with finding a husband for her, she has already been declined three times due to concerns over her exposure to the "black rain". As the story progresses, Shigematsu sees more and more fellow hibakusha, with his friends and family succumbing to radiation sickness. With Yasuko's prospects for marriage becoming more and more unlikely, she forms a bond with a poor man named Yuichi, who carves jizo* and suffers a form of post-traumatic stress disorder where he attacks passing motor vehicles as "tanks."
Masuji Ibuse - Authors' Calendar (1898-1993)
*The surviving victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are called hibakusha (被爆者), a Japanese word that literally translates to "explosion-affected people". Many victims were Japanese who still live in Japan, but several thousand, Japanese and non-Japanese, live abroad in Korea, the United States, Brazil and elsewhere.
*In Japan, Ksitigarbha, known as Jizō, or Ojizō-sama as he is respectfully known, is one of the most loved of all Japanese divinities. His statues are a common sight, especially by roadsides and in graveyards. Traditionally, he is seen as the guardian of children, particularly children who died before their parents.
An interesting fact, Masuji Ibuse is well known amongst Japanese people over 20 years of age, as one of the translators of Hugh Lofting’s (1886–1947) Doctor Dolittle stories, which he worked on with Momoko Ishii. After reading the series Momoko Ishii who was a famous translator & writer of children's book, considered Masuji Ibuse as best suited to the work of translating these books from the original English dialect into Edokko Kotoba (Tokyo dialect). Hearty Thanks to Sumit (@Owl59) for this wonderful piece of trivia.