Barefoot Gen
Proof that animation is every bit as powerful as any other medium for telling us about real-life horror
Barefoot Gen
Directed by Mamoru Shinzaki
Japan, 1983
I was first introduced to Gen in the summer of 1985. While browsing for mutants at the comic book store, I happened upon a translated manga, an issue of Barefoot Gen. In it, Keiji Nakazawa, through the character of Gen Nakaoka, related the story of his surviving the bombing of Hiroshima.

Nakazawa's plan was--and still is--an ambitious one: to help make sure that what happened at Hiroshima never happens again, anywhere. How? By telling his story in manga form, and having his work translated in various languages and kept in print (Barefoot Gen was first serialized in 1973; in collected form, it spans about 2,000 pages.)

The movie, a condensed retelling of the manga, was released in Japanese cinemas years ago, and only recently released domestically on video by Streamline and Orion Home Video, along with a limited theatrical release.

Gen is the second youngest child in a poor Japanese family. The movie opens shortly before the dropping of the bomb, with the family hungry for food as their rations dwindle. Enduring this and other wartime hardships, the family is still happy, secure in their love for one another.

Then the bomb drops, decimating Hiroshima and killing Gen's family, save for Gen himself and his pregnant mother. Shortly after they get to relative safety, Gen's mother goes into labour and Gen's sister Tomoko is born. Gen and his mother then set about the business of survival. The movie ends on a more or less positive note, as the life after the war starts to settle down, and signs of life start returning to the countryside.

Doesn't sound so bad for a nuclear holocaust, does it? Of course not; I've left out a lot of gory details. I leave that task up to the film itself, which brings the horror of Hiroshima home much more adequately than I could. Watching the first twenty minutes of the film is agonizing, but only in terms of suspense; we know what's going to happen, but of course the people in the movie don't. It's worse when the camera focuses on the date August 6 on a calendar. From there, we know it's only a matter of minutes. After the event itself, Gen and his mother experience nightmare piled upon nightmare; things which, unimaginable to us now, were even more unimaginable at the time. And through it all, the narrator explains events (such as black rain and radiation poisoning) that made no sense to the Nakaokas as they experienced it, but which we understand in hindsight.

One admirable aspect of Barefoot Gen is the lack of finger-pointing. There is far less interest in placing blame than in saying, "No one should ever have to experience this. There must be an alternative to war." The manga has more time to develop this, looking at Gen's father (a pacifist in a very nationalist wartime Japan), and the scorn his family endured as a result. The manga illustrates how war affects people beyond body counts: how people can turn on one another, how families and communities can be driven apart, how a country's war machine can chew up its young and spit out the bones. Compared to the manga, the movie only touches lightly on these themes, as it is constrained by its running time from fully exploring them. Still, the message is there: people can endure and survive just about anything. But they shouldn't have to.

Originally printed in fps #7 (Autumn 1995)
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