Most of the film takes place in 1950, five years after the war ended. Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka), the young girl from the opening sequence, is living with family friends Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun) and Shigeko (Etsuko Ichihara, also in Imamura's The Eel), all of whom were exposed to "the flash" and, despite the false comforts of doctors, are awaiting their death. Meanwhile, Shigematsu and Shigeko are trying to find a husband for Yasuko, whom no "healthy" family will consider because of circulating rumors about her radiation-induced sterility. Yasuko, on the other hand, alternates between wanting to start her own family and staying with her surrogate parents; so anxious is she about the possibility of her own illness that she can only be comforted by others with the same condition.
If this narrative about the marriage process reminds of Yasujiro Ozu, perhaps it is because Imamura got his start as Ozu's assistant on such films as Early Summer, The Flavor of Green Tea Over Rice, and Tokyo Story (all of which deal with, in some form or another, matrimonial issues). Since Imamura had been vocal about his disagreements with Ozu's style (consider the perverse voyeurism of his The Pornographers versus the formal congruity of Ozu's An Autumn Afternoon), perhaps his overt insertion of post-war politics into the archetypal Ozu scenario can perhaps be seen as a criticism of his mentor's films, and what he perceived as the latter's avoidance of crucial, timely issues. As the director intimated in James Quandt's book Shohei Imamura:
"I show true things using fictional techniques but maintaining truthfulness—that's where my approach differs from Ozu. He wanted to make film more aesthetic. I want to make it more real. He aspired toward a cinematic nirvana. When I was his assistant, I was very opposed to him but now, whilst still not liking his films, I'm much more tolerant."
While Ozu's visual style emphasized patterns and repetition in order to convey a sense of universal fatalism and a circular trajectory from life to death, Imamura's is at once realistic and delirious. Nothing expresses the illogic of his style more than the final shot of the movie, in which a character's hope rests upon the specific colors of a rainbow—seemingly an impossibility in a black-and-white film such as Black Rain. The failure of cinema to fully contain a chaotic world, however, is one of Imamura's enduring themes. Some people, and some events, can't help but defy the limits of the movie screen. In approaching these subjects, Imamura smartly left a little bit of mystery still intact, just enough so that the last word is never spoken, but still lingers on after the film is over.
Also on DVD this week:
Fados (2007) (Zeitgeist, Region 1) - Carlos Saura has build a career out of evocatively capturing dance and music on film in such films as Blood Wedding (1981), Sevillanas (1992), and Flamenco (1995). His latest film investigates the Portugese genre "fado."
Ichi the Killer (2001) (Tokyo Shock, Blu Ray Region 'A') - Takashi Miike was the assistant director on Black Rain. Perfect excuse for a double feature.
The Moon in the Gutter (1983) (Cinema Libre, Region 1) - Jean-Jacques Beineix directs this adaptation of David Goodis' masterfully bleak novel, which stars Gerard Depardieu as a dockworker haunted by the murder of his sister.
The William Castle Film Collection (Sony, Region 1) - Just in time for Halloween, a five disc box-set from one of the legends of horror cinema. Includes 13 Frightened Girls, 13 Ghosts, Homicidal, Strait-Jacket, The Old Dark House, Mr. Sardonicus, The Tingler, and Zotz!