June 2003

Sanford May

big in japan

A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall

Radiation sickness has always impressed me as a very clean, precise way to die. Anyone who knows the basics of human biology will tell you that this is not the case, not by far. And I understand this fact from behind a logical lens; but still, in many ways, this initial impression is hard to overcome. Perhaps it has something to do with the antiseptic nature of radiation. After all, it is used to sanitize crops; we use it to prepare our food in microwave ovens; it has various medical and scientific uses. But it's an awful way to die. Simplistically, death by radiation can be described as cooking from the inside. Yet there is a great deal more to it than that. Radiation changes the body at the cellular level and yields symptoms that medical science still doesn't fully understand. Physicians can't with any surety tell you why some people sicken and die almost immediately; others linger, developing sores and blisters, worse, both internal and external, while still others recover quickly, though they suffer chronic, inexplicable ailments throughout their lives, comparable to the recurrence tendency of malaria. We can establish, despite my misguided initial notions, that radiation sickness is a bad way to die and indeed not a particularly wonderful way to live. Almost unimaginable that such a hideous condition can inspire the small work of wonder that is Black Rain, a novel by Masuji Ibuse.

Ostensibly, Black Rain is about Yasuko, a young Hiroshima woman who is exposed to the radioactive precipitation -- the novel's namesake -- that fell after the American bombing of her city on August 6, 1945. But Yasuko serves only as a catalyst for clarifying independent chronicles of the bombing and its aftermath. She is merely the germ around which the entire organism is built. Yasuko is of marriageable age, and in seeking to make for her a good marriage, her aunt and uncle, with whom she lives, go about attempting to prove to her best suitor that she does not suffer any ill effects from her exposure to the atomic bomb's devastation. Yasuko's daily journal seems to her uncle, Shigematsu, the most direct way to dispel rumors that she was working near ground zero on the day of the bombing. He directs his wife to copy out his niece's journal on good paper, to clean it up for presentation to the family of her intended. And by his wife's efforts, he is inspired to recover and revise his own journal so that he may establish a permanent record of his post-bombing Hiroshima experience. It is chiefly through Shigematsu's recollections that a very personal story of the first use of an atomic bomb in war unfolds.

It's almost impossible to read Black Rain right now without considering the current post-war environment in Iraq. There are those who would argue - rather loudly and adamantly - that politics and art should not be mixed, but this is a thing that is already done; the two are truly inseparable and we are remiss in our analysis if we ignore the connection. With that in mind, Black Rain is undeniably an antiwar testament. Though Shigematsu is an intelligent and informed man, he deems the values of territorial control, alliances and conquests an encumbrance to any common man trying to etch from this earth a content if not exceptional life. He is both patriot and dissident -- as are most of us -- in that he loves his country, his people and his way of life, yet he abhors the war and suffers his own tortures and those of his fellows. The novelist Ibuse draws a strict distinction between country and government when a soldier remarks that he wishes that he "lived in a country and not a state." The author is not quick to forgive either side in his book. Perhaps surprisingly, he is most specifically antiwar and not anti-American; he is possibly anti-government, at least toward most of the forms government takes in the modern world. Ibuse's anti-government sentiments may seem striking when one considers that he is Japanese and his people are known for their adherence to tradition and structure. But he is neither anti-structure nor untraditional, yet he cannot reconcile his traditions with the calamity that is war. His novel is however free of direct accusations; it is more a lament than it is an indictment. Through Shigematsu, he contemplates that perhaps an unjust peace is better than a just war.

Ibuse's prose speaks of Japan itself: It is both sparse and lush all at once, in every phrase spare and rich in equal measure. In translation, especially when the source material derives from such a distinctly foreign language, it is impossible for someone not literate in both languages to discern exactly how much the translator has influenced the work. In this case, at the very least, John Bester has left Ibuse's work unblemished and possibly has added with his English a beautiful dimension to an already outstanding novel. Ibuse's descriptions of post-bombing Hiroshima are so tight they fairly crackle with atomic energy on the page. They are most reminiscent of Ian McEwan's descriptions of war-torn France in his Atonement. Indeed, there is enough similarity that I wonder if McEwan was inspired by Ibuse's much earlier work, or if it is only the intersection of two masters laboring over the same forlorn landscape. Though Shigematsu's recollections predominate, Black Rain is crowded with several minds, including Shigematsu's wife, Shigeko, and late in the novel, Iwatake, a physician stricken with a severe radiation illness. Each character has his or her own distinct voice but the overall tone of the novel, the precisely crafted prose, never varies. There is a sweet, tempered sort of wisdom underlying each character's chronicle, and it runs not like a thread but as a stout rope through the entire work.

Look: I've run away from young Yasuko, as the novel does almost immediately and stays away from her most of its length. But Yasuko is not well, and her aunt and uncle will never prove that she is, for she eventually succumbs to the effects of radiation, the exposure to tainted rain that fell from an otherwise unremarkable August sky. Though far from ground zero on that day, she cannot escape the bomb. She suffers and develops boils as the country of Japan, indeed much of the world, suffers and develops ulcers of the spirit. Young and lovely, she is no longer marriageable; she will perhaps never have children, or if she does they too may be trapped by the less tangible wreckage of the atomic detonation above Hiroshima. After all, buildings and streets can be healed long before human souls and anatomies have even begun to recover.

After reading Black Rain, relishing its supremely detailed accounts of places and events, it's not astonishing to discover that Ibuse based his novel on interviews with Hiroshima survivors and study of their personal journals. Shigematsu is not wholly fictional: This real man's journals provided the foundation for the novel. Iwatake, the half-dead physician, recovers and goes on to resume his real life in Hiroshima, practicing medicine and possessing only a ringing the ears in addition to his burn scars to remind him of August 6, 1945.

If you let it, Black Rain is the sort of book that can forever change your outlook, shift your perspective without raising your blood pressure. It does not kidnap, it coaxes. Black Rain is not a demonstration or a picket line, but a scripture, a holy writ that wise men and women cannot ignore. Those predisposed to war-making may take from the novel an imminently valid portrait of the true wastes of violent human conflict, while those doves among us have acquired a charm to clasp, a cut and polished gem to remind us that perhaps our idealism is sanctified.

Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse
(translated by John Bester)
Kodansha International, 1969