Based on the novel of the same name by Masuji Ibuse, Shohei Imamura's (The Ballad of Narayama, Zegen) heart-rending revisiting of the tragedy of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki through the eyes of an ordinary household of hibakusha survivors is seen as among the least characteristic of the director's works and has drawn comparisons with the home dramas of Yasujiro Ozu, the legendary filmmaker under whom he began his career.
In 1950, middle-age couple Shigematsu (Kazuo Kitamura, Tora! Tora! Tora!) and Shigeko (Etsuko Ichihara, The Eel) lead a tranquil village existence with Yasuko (Yoshiko Tanaka, Ringu 0), the 25-year-old niece they have taken in as their own daughter. While Shigematsu seeks solace whiling away the long summer days with his companions and fellow bomb survivors at the local carp fishing pond, the dark oppressive clouds of the devastation of five years before loom ever present, as the couple find their repeated attempts to find a suitable marriage match for Yasuko fall through due to the suspicion that her blood is tainted by the blast.
The striking black-and-white imagery of Black Rain harkens back to the Golden Age of Japanese cinema of the period in which the film is set, and resulted in a Best Cinematography Award for Takashi Kawamata (Cruel Story of Youth, Zero Focus) at the 1990 Japanese Academy Awards, where the film swept the board with prizes for Best Actress, Best Director, Best Music Score, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actress, while Black Rain was recognized by the Ecumenical Jury at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival.
The third title in Arrow Academy’s box set, Survivor Ballads: Three Films by Shohei Imamura, is the filmmaker’s 1989 film Black Rain, presented here on its own dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Toei supplied the high-definition master to Arrow, which in turn was scanned from the 35mm original camera negative.
The good news is that the end results are nice, but the bad news is said results could still be better. The clean-up and restoration work is impeccable, clearing out most of the damage that was there in comparison to what I remember from one of the original North American DVDs I viewed (I rented it from Netflix back in the day and can’t recall whether it was the Fox Lorber or AnimEigo edition I'm sad to say), with only a handful of minor blemishes remaining. The image is very clean and stable, and the blacks and whites look solid with nice blending in the grays. Black levels are pretty deep and stay consistent throughout.
Where the presentation falls short is that—like the first title in the set, The Ballad of Narayama—Toei appears to have gone a little off the rails with digital filtering. This has scrubbed away some of the grain (though not all of it) and it does flatten the image. Though detail levels are still pretty high, with some sharp looking shots around the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing and then long shots of the farms and surrounding fields, the image comes off pretty textureless and flat in the end. It’s not as bad as Narayama but it’s still apparent. This is especially noticeable in comparison to the set’s other film, Zegen, which has been restored by Arrow, who chose to leave the grain intact (and it looks amazing); it's a night and day difference. On top of this there is one odd shot early on in the film, shorly after the explosion: a long shot of a boat on the water looks to have come from a video source and not a film source, the picture looking fuzzy and analog. It’s possible the materials weren’t available, and Toei had to go to the best available source, though it actually looks worse than DVD.
At any rate, this is still the best I’ve seen the film look, and it’s a big upgrade over my recollection of the whichever DVD I viewed. It’s just a shame Arrow couldn’t have handled the restoration work themselves.
The film comes with a monaural soundtrack presented in 1.0 DTS-HD MA. This one can get a bit edgy when the music swells, and distortion is evident during some of the film's louder moments. But outside of that it has been cleaned up decently enough, though I feel filtering is a bit more obvious here.
This ends up being the more stacked edition in comparison to the other films in the set, though it has more to do with the fact the film had previous editions with special features and Arrow is simply porting those over. As they did with the other films in the set Arrow has film critics and Japanese film experts Tony Rayns and Jasper Sharp come on board to talk about the film, Rayns providing an onscreen interview and Sharp a commentary. Sharp’s track covers a little around the actual bombing of Hiroshima and the research that had to go into recreating the event in the film (there is very little documentation about what it was like on the ground) before getting into the American occupation that followed Japan’s surrender, which then leads him into talking about the state of Japanese films after the war, Imamura’s place in that, and then other films around the bombing (he also talks about Ridley Scott’s similarly titled, though very different Black Rain that came out the same year). There are a couple of laughs to be found (I chuckled at an Office-like reference where Sharp explains that now-filmmaker Takashi Miike wasn’t so much an assistant director on the film but rather an assistant to the director) but I ended up being more annoyed at his segues and focus on the actors this time around. To be sure, Sharp does spend a lot of time talking more about the people involved with the films on each respective track he provides throughout the set, leading to a number of not-directly related topics to the film in question, but I found it very exhausting this time around. Sure, there is some good analysis and history around Japan’s film output around this time, but it almost felt like he was treading water this time around.
Rayns’ contribution focuses more on the film’s subject matter and the film itself, providing a far more satisfying analysis, which also ends up being his longest contribution to the set, running 57-minutes. He starts out by explaining how the financial disappointment of Zegen led to Black Rain (feeling that Imamura wouldn’t have made the film if Zegen had actually done well) before getting into the novel on which the film is based, by Masuji Ibuse (Sharp gets into the novel as well, though confesses he hadn’t read it yet). Rayns then contextualizes the film a bit in relation to the time period it takes place and the time period it was made, how the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki changed the country, how it caused such uncertainty, which was to be renewed with the 2016 tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster.
As I said, it’s a far more satisfying look at the film from a number of angles, with Rayns also recalling how he first heard about the film’s alternate ending from Takashi Miike. Arrow also includes that ending here, which was originally edited together in standard-definition for previous DVD releases (Rayns explains that Imamura abandoned the ending and it sounds as though he never actually edited it together). The ending, which is in colour, is more of an epilogue that appears to take place around 1989, when the film was made. Avoiding spoilers, it shows that a character is still hanging in there, but their uncertainty around what the future holds for them keeps them from taking certain steps in their life. The reasons for the ending being cut are explained in the interviews found on this release, and I guess I agree it wouldn’t have worked, but taken on its own, as a short film, it’s effective. The ending runs about 19-minutes.
Arrow then ports over two interviews recorded for previous DVD editions, a 6-minute one with actor Yoshiko Tanaka and an 8-minute one with assistant to the director and future filmmaker Takashi Miike. Though there is some general discussion around making the film (Miike explains he was really just an errand boy), the bulk of each interview focuses on the alternate ending, Tanaka explaining the difficulty in shooting it (only to have it dropped) and Miike explaining why he thinks Imamura could have made it work. The disc then closes with the film’s theatrical trailer and a small image gallery presenting around 10 production photos. Similar to the disc for The Ballad of Narayama, Arrow also includes BD-ROM content in the form of the film’s original press kit, which is a 72MB PDF found in the root folder of the disc. Like Narayama the booklet is in Japanese, but it is loaded with a number of photos and goodies. The book also looks to have been taken care of, so the scans come out looking really good.
In all it doesn’t appear like a lot of content, but I really enjoyed Rayns’ contribution and the material around the alternate ending.
Though Toei’s use of filtering impacts the image to a disappointing degree, the restoration work and final presentation are still improvements over previous editions. Rayns’ lengthy analysis of the film and content around the abandoned ending make this one of the more satisfying titles in Arrow’s new Imamura box set.