Masuji Ibuse Essay - Critical Essays

Ibuse, Masuji


Masuji Ibuse 1898–

Japanese novelist and short story writer.

Ibuse's works have enjoyed popularity and critical approbation in Japan and elsewhere. Black Rain, considered his masterpiece, elegizes the citizens of Hiroshima in the aftermath of the 1945 atomic bombing.

Robert Jay Lifton

Kuroi Ame (Black Rain) marks a new dimension in "A-bomb literature." A portrayal of the intrusion of the atomic bomb into the ordinary rhythms of a small farming village, its special blend of "the usual" and "the unprecedented" enables it to transmute that experience into significant artistic form. The violence and conflict surrounding the bomb are illuminated by means of a leisurely chronicle of seemingly inconsequential everyday events, in the manner (as one critic put it) of "an old-fashioned family novel." (p. 543)

As a survivor of holocaust Shigematsu does not believe that any record, least of all his diary, can convey what really happened ("Not even a thousandth of what I really saw is described in it"), but he persists in recording small details as well as large scenes…. However he demeans his own efforts, he sees value in the information as such: "The style of my writing is bad realism. But facts are facts." Carrying out one's responsibility to history is the only way to recover meaning and vitality….

In this sense one can understand the novel as depicting the gradual individual movement, however hesitant and incomplete, toward mastery of the A-bomb experience. Shigematsu's initial psychic stance is that of numbing: at the time of the bomb, as we have observed; and shortly afterward, when people's insistence upon talking to him about bomb horrors results in his being "drawn into those actual feelings" and experiencing "an unpleasant form of fear" which makes him "feel like running away."… Caught in the dilemma of trying to conceal the unconcealable, he can react only by "fuming" (puripuri). But as the book proceeds the urge to "run away" is replaced by a determination to stand fast and record everything….

[Shigematsu moves] away from denial toward transcendence. His form of transcendence is a combination of incessant recording and continuing attention to the obligations of a family head in a Japanese village—always against a background of the timelessness of everyday rituals and of nature's perpetual re-creation of life and beauty (his wife refers to his eager inspections of his carp pond as "acts of homage"). And the sense of timelessness is stylistically reinforced by the multiple layers of flashback made possible by the intricate use of diaries. (p. 551)

Not that the A-bomb is "defeated."… But what has been demonstrated is that one can undergo the survivor's ordeal with honor and dignity; through records one can achieve that most difficult level of expression, authentic protest.

The book's ending is enigmatic. Shigematsu's diary told earlier of a bad omen in the form of a "white rainbow" seen by the factory chief during the worst days of the bomb, just prior to the Emperor's surrender...

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John Bester

[Black Rain] is woven from many different strands. Given such a theme, a lesser author might—to borrow a metaphor from music—have produced no more than a steady, discordant fortissimo. In Black Rain, we have a subtle polyphony. That is not simply to say that Ibuse weaves together, around a central theme, the stories of several different people. More important, he creates an interplay between varying moods and between his main and secondary themes. It is from this interplay, rather than from the significance of its theme, that the work derives its value as literature. (p. 6)

Against its basic theme, the work creates many contrasts. These serve to give the work variety; they are also, I feel, the essence of its success as art. It is the distillation of these conflicting elements that gives it its depth—its beauty, even. A typical example is the way the author invariably balances the horrors he describes with the wry humor for which he has long been famous. At times, the effect this creates is quite indescribable; indeed, until one has become attuned to the characteristic flavor of the work it is sometimes difficult, almost, to accept the humor as really intended. In the same way Ibuse, with infinite nostalgia, sets against the violent destruction of the city the beauty of the Japanese countryside and the ancient customs of its people. Against the mighty, brutal purposes of state, he lays the small, human preoccupations and foibles. Against the threat of universal destruction, he sets a love for, and sense of wonder at life in all its forms. Significantly, it is often at the points in the narrative where one feels these contrasts most strongly—where humor and horror, gentleness and violence come into sharpest conflict—that there occur those moving human vignettes that linger so strongly in the memory after one has finished reading.

It is a truism that the...

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Clive Jordan

Black Rain, by Masuji Ibuse, does more than convey the horror of what it meant to be at Hiroshima on 6 August 1945. It makes the event a tragedy with the entire Japanese civilian population as its hero—but a tragedy without heroic postures, because the only possible ambition, confronted with the monstrous fact of the Bomb, is survival.

This is a 'documentary' novel, in the sense that it incorporates genuine factual material about the explosion and that some of its characters are drawn from life—including the middle-class businessman, Shigematsu Shizuma, whose journal of the holocaust provides the bulk of the narrative. But this is more than an immensely skilful reconstruction job. The documentation has an essential function in the finely imagined plot—to rebut the charge, years later, that Shizuma's niece has radiation sickness and so cannot marry. Great ingenuity is used (on the whole successfully) to keep Shizuma moving around the shattered city. The detail and nature of the documentation develop with the needs of the plot, as the girl's true condition emerges and the narrator casts off restraint.

Shizuma is no cypher but a living character, humble, decent, uncomplaining, whose reticence makes the Bomb's obscene rending of the everyday fabric stand out in sharper relief. He clings stoically to what survives of the old values, raising carp and hoping for the future. This novel, with its subtle ironies and noble, unsentimental pity, is a reminder of the strengths of Japanese fiction. (p. 193)

Clive Jordan, "D-503's Diary," in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 79, No. 2030, February 6, 1970, pp. 192-93.∗

Henry Tube

[Ibuse's] documentary novel Black Rain describes in unemphatic detail the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima, his own birthplace. The book, drawing extensively on eyewitness accounts, seems to belong to that Japanese fictional tradition … of sticking close to life, except of course, that the subject is so monstrous as to be scarcely recognisable as life, but rather to be the sort of lurid nightmare one expects from surrealism or science fiction.

If one could think of the event as not having happened, I doubt whether the novel would be worth reading except by those who like tales of horror without much imagination in the telling. As it is, imagination is the one thing which would be quite out of place and Mr Ibuse has most wisely put it to bed, leaving the appalling to speak for itself and contenting himself with the delicate business of arrangement and construction. I would recommend Black Rain to every reader, even the squeamish, and above all to our beloved leaders, of whatever nationality…. (pp. 341, 343)

Henry Tube, "Made in Japan," in The Spectator (© 1970 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 224, No. 7394, March 14, 1970, pp. 341, 343.∗

John Bester

The work of Masuji Ibuse is an acquired taste; not in the sense that it is difficult to enjoy on first reading, but in the sense that extensive acquaintance with it deepens one's pleasure and understanding of its art….

The range of themes, as the ten stories in [Lieutenant Lookeast and Other Stories] show, is wide. (p. 7)

Despite the variety of themes, the stories share certain characteristics of technique and manner. There is the absence of extended descriptive passages, of "fine writing" for its own sake. Characters and physical settings are sketched in with a few details that are concrete and particular. Around them, there is space. The effect is to give the characters...

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The Times Literary Supplement

One might suppose that the Hiroshima holocaust had been so well documented … that nothing new could be said. But Masuji Ibuse is not a mere producer of documentary. He is a novelist, and a considerable one; and in Black Rain he has achieved, from eyewitness accounts and journals and with his own skilful gifts of construction and vivid sympathy, one of the finest postwar Japanese novels we have seen in this country.

The outer framework of the book is the determination of the elderly Shigematsu to prove that his niece and ward, Yasuko, escaped—contrary to rumour—the after-effects of the atomic bomb, its "black rain" and radiation disease. If he is unsuccessful, her chances of marrying will...

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Janet Burroway

Masuji Ibuse, the author of Black Rain, writes of rural Japan in a style that can only be described by paradox: it is richly dry, profoundly diffident. The excellent short stories of Lieutenant Lookeast conform to no Western expectations of the tale. There is conflict but no resolution, sometimes a beginning but rarely an end. They are not 'slice-of-life', because they deal not with revealing routine but with crisis, which may be the humiliating sexuality of a cow, the madness of a veteran, the imprisonment of a salamander or the trials of a mild policeman in a violent village. In English short stories these crises would most likely be 'turning points'; in Ibuse they simply pass out of range, usually...

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The Times Literary Supplement

To appreciate [Lieutenant Lookeast] fully it is necessary to have some knowledge of the background of Japanese modes of life and thought. Moreover, several of these pieces are not so much short stories in the accepted sense as character or descriptive sketches, evoking people, an atmosphere and a place. Looked at in this light, however, they have a brilliance and humour which is frequently memorable.

The title story, written in 1950, describes the peculiar behaviour in a postwar Japanese village of a former lieutenant of the Imperial Japanese Army and tells of the ironic circumstances in which he lost his sanity in Malaya during the Second World War. The writing is satirical, at times biting,...

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J. Thomas Rimer

The novel Kuroi Ame (Black Rain) was written in 1966 by the highly respected author Ibuse Masuji…. It might be expected that, for a man whose tastes and attitudes were formed in the earlier part of this century, his literary style and philosophical outlook would remain somewhat more traditional than those of younger authors. Such, in certain ways at least, is the case; yet Ibuse was among the first major writers to face up to the meaning of the word "victim," in the largest sense, for in Black Rain, he was able to treat the horrors of atomic war—the bombing of Hiroshima—in an artistic way. For such purposes, he required a certain objectivity toward his theme. This he provided by giving himself a...

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