Black Rain (1989) is a product of the late 1980s, a time when America was reeling from Japanese industrial success, and a fear that Japan had overtaken the US technologically, that the US was in terminal decline; a spent, lazy nation, that had grown complacent. What remained of American big business and Wall Street was greedily selling out its own people for a quick buck (as exemplified by the film Wall Street released two years earlier). In the words of Matsumoto Masahiro, the Japanese Detective working with the two American Cops in Black Rain:
Perhaps you should think less of yourself and more of your group, try to work like in Japanese. I grew up with your soldiers; you were wise then. Now — music and movies are all America is good for. We make the machines, we build the future, we won the peace.
Black Rain first reaffirms this view and then undermines it through a story of American resilience, the ‘American spirit’, and the American hero’s ability to adapt when facing adverse challenges. This comes through when the US detectives find trust, loyalty and friendship in a fellow Japanese Cop — and succeed through their ability to forge new relationships. What doesn’t change however is that Japanese criminals, Japanese gangsters (the Yakuza) are, like American criminals, bad, brutal and willing to use extreme violence.
The storytelling world of Black rain is a Bladerunner-esque future world, a world that exists now, with a baffling, alien culture, a culture that is as confusing and mysterious to the two detectives as a society from another planet. This is very much the story of a journey into a strange world.
The film fits neatly into a post-war history of American storytelling about Japan and Japanese culture, one that precedes the Second World War. In WW2 propaganda films the Japanese were ‘the baddies’ an ‘evil race’ intent on world domination through violent conquest. After the end of the Second World War Hollywood began to view Japan as a less dangerous but nonetheless ‘exotic’ world, with different customs, but through a more humanised context. The Japanese were no longer the ‘monstrous enemy’, but ordinary people.
In Tokyo Joe (1949) the Japanese were still viewed with suspicion, but by Sayonara (1957) a US Airforce pilot falls in love with a Japanese woman, and together they experience discrimination and racial prejudice, leading to a tragic ending. 1974s Yakuza sets the bar for an American protagonist in Japan, facing a foreign culture, but gradually able to comprehend it. Like Black Rain it also features the yakuza, and learning to ‘do business’ ‘the Japanese way’. And, like Black Rain a new relationship is formed between the American protagonist and a Japanese character based on understanding, trust and true partnership. Lost in Translation (2003) returns to cultural differences, but does so affectionately, and The Last Samurai (2003) surgically inserts an all-American hero into Japanese history, once again returning to the formula of the adaptable foreigner who finds success by learning to think like the Japanese.
The message of Black Rain is mostly a celebration of seeking understanding between cultures and forming friendships based on mutual respect. The American Detective is only able to triumph because he has the complete trust of his Japanese counterpart. And, in the end, instead of allowing himself the satisfaction of killing the Japanese antagonist, he hands the man over to the Japanese police, allowing his friend to save face, and retain his dignity.
Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) goes full circle by telling the story of Japanese soldiers in a bloody Word War Two battle, from the Japanese perspective, emphasising the empathy in the way contemporary Hollywood views Japan, which is far removed from the old black and white war films produced during and after the war.
Black Rain is more than a dumb ‘Cop movie’, it fits into a history of US-Japanese storytelling, and while it encapsulates a time when America was fearful about Japanese technological dominance, and was preoccupied with its economic decline, it celebrates friendship and mutual understanding. The economic rivalry of America and Japan in the 1980s and 90s eerily parallels America’s relationship with China today.