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REVIEW: Black Rain

Matthew Clark — August 1984

Masuji Ibuse. Translated by John Bester Kodansha International

As this novel opens, Shegimatsu Shizuma, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing, is worried that his niece, Yasuko, will not be able to find a husband because of rumours that she is a victim of radiation sickness. Shegimatsu himself does have a mild case of radiation sickness, but because Yasuko did not enter Hiroshima until later in the day of the bombing, she has no symptoms. Nevertheless, the rumours persist, and her marriage seems impossible.

In order to prove to the matchmaker that Yasuko was not in Hiroshima at the moment of the bombing, Shegimatsu makes a copy of Yasuko’s diary, and he decides to make a copy of his own diary, as well, so that the matchmaker can see the difference. These journal entries take up most of the book and it is through them that we learn of the effects of the bombing.

Thus it is not through direct narration, not through memory or even flashbacks that the story is told, but through the mediatiot) of an already literary form, and at a remove of several years. The effect of this distancing is complex: The author allows the horror of the events to speak for itself and thereby manages to control the emotions of what could have been a melodramatic and sensational account. On the other hand, he forces us to see not just the events of the day, but also their effect for years afterwards.

Black Rain is not simply an important historical and moral document; it is also a brilliantly constructed novel. The author constantly tests the reader’s response through subtle and shocking juxtapositions. “In the playground of the First Prefectural Middle School in the city… there was a reservoir of water for firefighting purposes. Around it, hundreds of middle school students and’ voluntary war workers lay dead. They were piled up at the edge of the reservoir, half-naked since their shirts had been burned away. Seen from a distance, they looked like beds of tulips planted around the water. Seen closer, they were more like the layers of petals on a chrysanthemum.”

I am not a squeamish person -yet, at times I found this book hard to read. Ibuse does not sensationalize, but he does not spare the readers feelings. Black Rain is a most effective reminder of what happened at Hiroshima — and we must remember, if we are to prevent another occurence of the tragedy, multiplied many times. “The tragedy of war is with us every day, somewhere in the world, producing horrors only superficially different from those of Hiroshima. “ involving us in the story of Shegimatsu and Yasuko, Ibuse also reminds us that war is not made of weapons and casualty statistics, but of people.