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||Masuji Ibuse (1898-1993)|
Japanese novelist, who gained world fame with Kuroi ame (1965, Black Rain), which drew its material from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The title refers to the radioactive rain and fallout that fell on people.
--"If a rainbow appears over those hills now, a miracle will happen," he prophesied to himself. "Let a rainbow appear... and Yasuko will be cured."
Ibuse Masuji was born into an old family of independent
farmers; he was the second son of a Hiroshima landowner. His childhood
Ibuse spent in the country, in the village of Kamo in eastern Hiroshima
Prefecture. "When I recall my memories as a child," Ibuse wrote once in
an essay, "they are on the whole not unpleasant, perhaps because they
are so faded". Ikuta, his father, died in 1903; he was distant and
cold, Ibuse has recalled, but had also published a Chinese poem under a
pen name and loved literature. However, he insisted that none of the
children should pursue a career in literature. The real storyteller of
the family was Ibuse's grandfather Tamizaemon, who was a conservative
custodian of traditions and collected antiques, a hobby which Ibuse
later shared. Ibuse's vision was poor and at school he was teased for his thick eyeglasses.
While still at school, Ibuse wrote a letter to the famous author Mori Ogai (1862-1922), who noted that the brush strokes were very "like [those of] an old man." As an adolescent he was more interested in art than writing. After attending Fukuyama Middle School near Hiroshima, Ibuse moved in 1917 to Tokyo, where he began studies at Waseda University. During this period he adopted new ideas from surrealism to Marxism, that swept through Japan. Although he specialized in French literature, Ibuse became interested in Russian writers, chiefly in Tolstoy, a favorite of Ibuse's generation, and Chekhov. Ibuse's close friend at that time was Aoki Nanpachi, who died suddenly in 1922. Feelings of guilt haunted Ibuse for decades.
Ibuse's early stories, written under the influence of the Western writers he had studied at Waseda University, appeared in the beginning of the 1920s. Yu hei (1923), Ibuse's first book, did not gain much success; it was not until the publication of Tajinko mura (1939-1940) when he was able to make a living as a professional writer. When Japan's perhaps most influential modern critic Kobayashi Hideo praised Ibuse's talent, saying that his works are "complex and conscioisly constructed in every detail," his stories started to gain recognition.
The short story 'Koi' (Carp) marked Ibuse's turning to the
more traditional techniques of his homeland. He used the subjective
Japanese "I-novel" mode, in which narrator and author are one. The
rustic countryside of southern Japan inspired his story 'Tangeshitei'
(1931). It depictied two colorful characters, a master and servant, in
a remote mountain valley. Ibuse's wry humor and psychologically
sharp but sympathetic characterization of villagers, peasants, doctors,
fishermen, and other "unchanging people" became the distinguished
traits of his style. Among Ibuse's prewar works were the historic
novella Sazanami gunki (1930-38) about the final defeat of the Heike
clan in the 12th century. The long story Tajinko mura
(Tajinko Village), written in the form of a diary, portrayed life
country village. 'The River,' a novella completed in 1932, is
Ibuse's first longer work of fiction. In spite of living in Tokyo more
than three-quarters of his life, many of Ibuse's stories had rural
When Japan entered the WW II, Ibuse served in propaganda units. Along with the Japanese army, he travelled as a war correspondent through Thailand and Malaya to Singapore. Hana no machi (1942, City of Flowers) was about Japanese propagandists in occupied Singapore, where Ibuse spent one year in the offices of the city's English-language daily the Strait Times, renamed the Shonan Times under the Japanese administration. He also lectured on history at a Japanese language and culture school. While City of Flowers portrayed the relationships between occupiers and Singaporeans in a jovial manner, Ibuse later said that he stopped writing in his diary because "a diary kept with military censorship in mind seemed idiotic. I clearly realized more and more that though Singapore had falled, the war would not be over."
Ibuse witnessed the end of the war and annihilation of Hiroshima in Kamo. Ibuse did not write much during this period, but his unwilling induction into military service probably inspired his biting satire of army drills in the story 'Yohai taicho' (1950, Lieutenant Lookeast). Ibuse's distate of the military also showed in his other works, such as Black Rain.
After the war Ibuse started literary collaboration with Osamu Dazai, whose suicide in 1948 deepened Ibuse's views how fragile the life is. Although they eventually drifted apart, Ibuse was his patron in Tokyo literary circles, tried to persuade him to stay away from the drugs, and interacted with his family. In 1944, they were evacuated to the same village. According to Ibuse, his friend already seemed prepared to die. Ibuse's works from the 1940s include Jon Manjirō hyōryūki (1940, John Manjiro, the Castaway), which traces the checkered life of the "drifting people." This historical novel was awarded the Naoki Prize for Literature in 1938.
Hyomin Usaburo (1954-55) also dealt with experiences of men who left Japan and drifted along strange paths during the last years of the Tokugawa period. In the allegorical short story 'Noriai Jidosha' (The Charcoal Bus) Ibuse tells about a journey in a bus, five years after the war. "We crossed a bridge over a dried-up river; beyond the rice fields I could see the slopes of a barren-looking mountain. As we passed a Shinto shrine by the side of the road, the conductor removed his cap and wiped the perspiration from his forehead. As he did so, he bowed his head slightly, and I wondered whether this was intended as a mark of respect for the shrine. Such reverence had been unfashionable for some time after the war but was now gradually coming back into favor. The conductor's gesture seemed deliberately ambiguous." (from 'The Charcoal Bus' in Literature of Asia, 1999) The bus has been painted but it still has to run on charcoal. Quarrelling passangers push it four miles to start the engine. Finally, at a crossroads, the narrator decides to take another bus, so does some other people. The rest say that they continue pushing.
When Black Rain appeared, it was generally thought that Ibuse, the elder statesman in the Japanese literature, was on the verge of retirement. On the publication of the work, Ibuse received the Order of Cultural Merit, Japan's highest honor to a writer, and the Noma Prize. However, Ibuse was not interested in being labelled a champion of political causes and later, when he was asked to speak about the novel, he responded that he had nothing to say. Before his death of pneumonia in Tokyo on December 1993, Ibuse produced still several works, including the autobiographical Hanseiki (1970). Debate over Black Rain has continued after its publication. Among others the Nobel laureate Oe Kenzaburo has seen Ibuse's fiction as an attempt to humanize the inhuman. However, Black Rain has become perhaps the world's best known Japanese novel.
Ibuse Masuji began serializing Black Rain in the magazine Shincho in January 1965. The novel is based on historical records of the devastation caused by the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. However, Ibuse do not refer to social or political considerations that led to the atomic holocaust. Sometimes his characters criticize the wartime government but otherwise Ibuse his view on everyday level. In the depiction of ultimate act of violence, Ibuse uses contrasts between horror and humor, destruction and beauty, the state and the individual. The narration alters between Kobatake, a rural hamlet some distance from Hiroshima, at a time several years after the end of the war, and Hiroshima itself in the days immediately after the bombing. The protagonist, Shizuma Shigematsu, a real-life person, tries to find a husband for his niece, Yasuko. Shigematsu, his wife Shigeko, and Yasuko reassure prospective husbands that Yasuko was not affected by the radiation, although she was under the black rain that followed the destruction. Shigematsu reads his wartime diary to understand his own life. Yasuko gives up all hopes of marrying and falls ill with radiation sickness.
For further reading: "Black Rain," Death in Life by Robert Jay Lifton (1967); Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, ed. by K. Tsuruta and T. Swann (1976); Pools of Water, Pillars of Fire by John Treat (1988); A Critical Study of the Literary Style of Ibuse Masuji by Anthony Liman (1992); Writing Ground Zero by John Treat (1995); Studies in the Comic Spirit in Modern Japanese Fiction by Joel R. Cohn (1998); Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, vol. 2, ed. by Steven R. Serafin (1999); 'Ibuse Masuji (1898-1993 Japanese novelist. short story writer' by William George Slocombe in The Facts on File Companion to the World Novel: 1900 to the Present, ed. by Michael D. Sollars (2008); Ibuse Masuji: A Century Remembered by Antonin Vaclav Liman (2008) - Other works about the devastation of Hiroshima: Hiroshima by John Hersey (1946); Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Marguerite Duras (1959, screenplay, film directed by Alain Resnais)