Jan 26, 2009

Black Rain by Masuji Ibuse (And hooray!)

Black Rain is set both several years after the end of WW2 and in the days following the bombing of Hiroshima. Shigematsu Shizuma’s niece, Yasuko, is not yet married, and rumours that she was hit by poisonous black rain after the Hiroshima bombing, and is now suffering from radiation sickness, lower her chances of finding someone. When someone makes inquires about her, her uncle decides to copy his diary of the days after the bombing so that he can set the record straight about what the family went through. Black Rain alternates between long passages from his diary and episodes set in the character's present.

Confession: I mooched and began to read Black Rain completely convinced that this was in fact The Ash Garden by Dennis Bock (a book about one of the scientists involved in the making of the atomic bomb meeting one of the survivors from Hiroshima). I’m not sure how I got the books mixed up. I guess there’s the fact that they’re both about Hiroshima, of course, and also that I first heard of both at tanabata’s blog. But anyway, I spend the first chapter of Black Rain being confused and waiting for the scientists to be mentioned. Then I realized my mistake, felt stupid, and began to read the book I actually had in my hands rather than the book I thought I did.

Black Rain is not about the political or social implications of nuclear warfare. Rather, it’s about its everyday consequence, its direct impact on people’s lives. A lot of the story deals with the practical consequences of the war. What did people eat? How did they treat their burns after the bombing? How did they react to seeing large chunks of their skin fall off? A lot of it is not for the faint of heart, but the writing style is as undramatic and subdued as it could possibly be. And I think this matter-of-factness made it even sadder.

The sections set in the present deal in part with long-term consequences of radiation, and with how the lives of so many people were permanently changed. There was a part I found particularly interesting, about how these people’s treatment clashes with their traditional way of life:
There had been a dozen or more people suffering from radiation sickness in the village, but now only three survives – mild cases, of which Shigematsu was one. All three had checked the progress of the disease by taking care to always get plenty of food and rest. Where the rest was concerned, however, it was not enough—nor was it tolerable for the patient himself—simply to lie in bed all day. The doctor had suggested doing light jobs about the place, supplemented by “walks”. Unfortunately, it was out of the question for the head of the family, to all appearances in the best of health, to stroll idly through the village. For someone to “go for a walk”, in fact, was quite unheard of. A “walk” was unthinkable in terms of traditional custom, and this unthinkable in principle.
Black Rain is a very moving book, but like I was saying it’s written in a very quiet, restrained tone. This is something I actually associate with Japan. Normally I shy away from making generalizations of this kind about entire nations or cultures, but from what I know of Japanese literature and art in general (admittedly not very much at all), I do get the impression that emotions tend to be expressed in more subtle ways than in the West.

Black Rain is actually not a depressing book. There are a lot of horrific things happening, but there are also moments of humour and beauty. I’ll leave you with this great passage from the introduction by the translator, John Bester:
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 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 with death, and with an overall beauty and transcends ugliness of detail.
Other Blog Reviews:
In Spring it is the Dawn
Everyday Reads

(Let me know if I missed yours.)

Very exciting news! The Graveyard Book won the Newbery Medal and Nation is a a Printz Honor book. Full list of winners here. Go Neil! Go Terry! A happy day :D


  1. I've had that happen before, the mixing up of books. Technically, it wasn't exactly the same. I went to reread The Painted Veil by Maugham after several years, and had a vivid memory of an entirely different ending. I even had dialog and such clearly defined in my mind, and it turned out no such thing happened. I know I must have read the ending I'd imagined in another book, but have no idea which one. It's too bad, because I liked that ending far better than the actual end to The Painted Veil.

  2. Great review. I've marked this book so I will remember it. My father was stationed in Japan about a decade after WWII ended. He is gone now and never talked much about this aspect of his life, but I sometimes wonder about what he saw and experienced. I do have his photos of 1950s Japan and they are intriguing. I could make up stories just looking at some of them.

  3. Well, I have to admit I'm glad for your mistake...otherwise I may never have heard of this book. It sounds so beautiful, so powerful. It's going straight to the wish list...and so is The Ash Garden, as that sounds like quite a book, too.

  4. I did read THE ASH GARDEN I liked it a lot. I think you would to.

    BLACK RAIN is sitting in my bookcase waiting to be read.

  5. Hooray indeed!!! I really couldn't be more thrilled! Well it would've been nice to see Pratchett win the Printz outright, but I'll settle for an honor book ;) All of the Printz books are on my wishlist right now! Can't wait to read them. They always pick such great books.

    Black Rain sounds pretty good. I hadn't even heard of it before, but I'll have to check it out.

    And one more time....YAY!!!

  6. Amanda: It's always disappointing when that happens! Fortunately in my case the real book turned out to be good too.

    Terri B: It's hard to imagine what those who were over there might have seen, isn't it?

    Debi: I'm glad too, because this was actually a book I also wanted to read. And I can always read The Ash Garden for the next Japanese Lit challenge!

    Madeleine: I think I will too. I'll definitely keep it in mind for next time.

    Chris: It would have been nice indeed. But I still have hopes that Nation will get the Carnegie medal. The actual Printz winner was the only one that had escaped my notice completely funnily enough. And did you notice that Tender Morsels was an honor book too? I think I'll order myself a copy to celebrate. Yes, I'm hopeless like that :P One more YAY indeed :D Have you also been stalking Neil on twitter? Seeing his reaction was great. I first got suspicious when he twittered complained he had been awaken at 5am by Loraine because he had an urgent phone call, and then was all like "Oh...nevermind" :P

  7. I actually had this book on my own shelf once, many many years ago. I tried to read it when I was about, maybe, fourteen and struggled mightily. Gave up before the first chapter was over. I could not make heads or tails of it! I think now I'd like to try again. I had completely forgotten of its existence until I read your review.

  8. this sounds interesting, great review.
    you always review the most unique books.

  9. This sounds fascinating--I've added it to my list!

  10. I pretty much am interested in anything related to Japan and its very long history so this looks good. Thanks for the excellent review, as always.

  11. LOL about the mixup. Enjoy isn't really the right word but I'm glad you enjoyed this one. I think I said that in my review too how the matter-of-factness made it all the more horrifying and real. Great review, Nymeth.

  12. Thanks for a great review. I'm adding this to my list. The atomic bomb and the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project seem to be cropping up frequently recently.

    After reading Surely, You're Joking Mr. Feynman, I was listening to NPR on a Sunday and the opera was Dr. Atomic, which features Oppenheimer and what was going on at Los Alamos at the time.

  13. I do follow Neil on Twitter :) It was great fun. I'm still not entirely convinced that he actually realizes that he won, lol.

  14. I visited Nagasaki (the other bombed city) when I lived in Japan and went to the Atomic Bomb Museum. They had a lot of pictures and stories about how people lived after the bomb. Very sad. Not sure I could handle a whole book about it after that.

  15. I have always wondered what hapenned to the people living in Hiroshima and Nagasaki after the nuclear bomb attacks. This one sounds like a good read. Thanks Nymeth for the review.

  16. sounds very interesting. As does the one you mixed it up with! I tend to read about Europe when I read WWII books and today I've picked up 4 or 5 recommendations for the Japanese/American side of things. I must admit it's a side I know next to nothing about...

  17. This sounds like a really interesting book. On a slightly related topic, whenever I'm reading a book featuring Asian characters I am constantly worried that I am pronouncing (in my head) the names wrong.

  18. This sounds like a good book with many angles to it. I like books like that. :)

  19. This sounds interesting. Not something I would normally read, but I like the practical angle that you discussed, and will be putting it on my wish list. Thanks!

  20. Well, I can see how you would have confused the book - I've done that before but shh, don't tell anyone :)

    this sounds like a really powerful book. Your review makes me want to read it even though it does sound like it could be hard going at times.

  21. Jeane: I bet I'd have struggled at that age too. Actually, I was pretty confused during the first chapter too, but that was at least partially because I thought I was reading a different book :P

    Naida: It seems that this one is really well-known in Japan. I only heard of it last year through another blogger, though.

    Charlotte, I hope you enjoy it!

    Amy: Me too. I find it fascinating.

    tanabata: It really did...and that's often the case with books about difficult topics like this.

    Jenclair: I read somewhere that there's more about Los Alamos in What Do You Care What Other People Think?, the sequel to the Feynman book. I must read them both!

    Chris: Don't you just love Twitter Neil? I really like how he sounds more relaxed and playful there. Maybe those aren't the right words, but you hopefully know what I mean. Also, you know when he was twittering all those pictures of Cabal in the sunshine? I kinda had to fight the urge to make a Twilight-inspired "IT SPARKLES!11" loldog :|

    Lenore: I can imagine how actually having mean there would make it even more difficult.

    Violet: The saddest thing is that people had no idea what had happened, they didn't know that the effects of radiation went on for long after the actual explosion...so tons of people rushed to the site looking for surviving family members and died themselves some time later.

    Joanna: Yeah, most of the reading I've done was about Europe. But the war had a huge effect in Asia too.

    Joanne: I actually don't worry about that too much because if I did I'd worry ALL the time. I bet I pronounce half the English names wrong too :P

    Alice: So do I :)

    Zibilee: Yes, I really liked the everyday approach too.

    Iliana: I won't tell :P And there are some gory bits, but it was actually less difficult to read than some other WWII books. Like the translator said, ultimately it's not a bleak book.

  22. Sounds like a powerful book! I'm quite interested to read more of the war stuff especially after reading Fallen Skies by Philippa Gregory. I thought this book sounds great, even though it seems dark.

  23. This sounds a bit like Alas, Babylon. Well what I remember of it anyway.

  24. its nice that theres a book like this that just looks at the human every day angle of this event.

    i'm personally a bit reticent to read about it at the moment, 'cause its so horrid. but every now and then i'm deeply interested and when i get in one of those moods perhaps i'll pick this up.

    it also seems quite central to the japanese psyche, so from that perspective it'd be very interesting to read.

    and double hooray for our faves neil and pterry!

  25. Melody: Yes, this would be particularly interesting in comparison with other books about the same time period.

    Ladytink: I'm not familiar with that one, but I shall look it up!

    JP: It is nice...because I'm more interested in that than in the political implications (not that those aren't important, of course). And yeah, it does seem that its effect in Japan can still be felt today in many ways. I see that in particular when reading Murakami, for example.

    Double hooray indeed :D

  26. Sounds like a fascinating read and I'll have to remember it for the JLC 3. Two out of the three I read were really emotionally reserved, but I didn't know if it was because they were older books. I didn't think that Kafka was quite as reserved, but that only makes three. I'm loving learning more about Japanese literature through this challenge!

  27. That sounds really good - thanks for bringing it to our attention.

  28. Trish: I'm loving it too! I've seen exceptions to that rule too, but I do think there's a bit of a cultural element to it. In the introduction, the translator talks about how certain scenes in the book seem much more moving to Japanese audiences, because they know how much emotion is behind a subtle gesture.

    Bermudaonion: I hope you enjoy it if you decide to pick it up!

  29. Just to let you and your readers know that they can have a chance to win a copy of Black Rain over at my blog. Enter here.

  30. At least the mix-up wasn't so bad in the end. This sounds like a powerful book and one that would be perfect for the WWII challenge. Would it be okay if I linked to your review on the challenge blog?

    Diary of an Eccentric


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