Recently, I've had an ongoing online conversation with some friends at the seminary I am attending on the subject of "just war". The central argument revolves around this question: can a Christian support war in any form and still remain true to the teachings of Jesus? And if war can be supported, what are the boundaries that cannot be crossed? It's a long and complex discussion, but one with major ramifications, and one part of it has revolved around whether or not the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary, ethical, or moral in any sense. It's pretty easy to theorize about it, but how does one comprehend the utter devastation that the nuclear holocausts created? Barefoot Gen, a film based on the manga writings of a Hiroshima survivor, gives us a harrowing look at the event close-up. It isn't nearly as powerful as Grave of the Fireflies, its later successor, and it has some notable flaws. However, it is a disturbing, important film that is not as simple as it seems on the surface.
Gen lives on the outskirts of Hiroshima in 1945. His mother is pregnant and near term, yet she tries to save as much food as she can for her family, who is too poor to buy even the limited provisions available at the market. Yet Gen has hope for the future, fueled by a young boy's naivete. He and his little brother try to make the best of it, encouraged by their father and older sister. Father is baffled at why the emperor hasn't surrendered, as Japan's economy and populace sinks towards disaster. The air raid sirens keep them aware of the possibility that Hiroshima will be the next city to be firebombed. But as August 6, 1945 arrives, life continues as normal as it can during wartime. As a lone bomber crosses the city, the sirens don't even go off...what could one airship do? Hardly anyone notices. As Gen heads to school, the Enola Gay releases its payload of fury. From this point, the film turns directions as we head into a vision of hell itself as Gen's family is caught up in the chaos.
Barefoot Gen was released in 1983, and the animation style looks dated at this point. Part of the reason is that the show was faithful to the manga's artistic design, which means that it has a cartoon-like feel. I am sure that some may attack the film based on this; indeed, one doesn't expect to see a nuclear holocaust in a movie that appears to be for children. And yet, this is a part of Japanese history that affected millions of people, and so perhaps the Japanese feel it is appropriate for young people as well. It is so horrific, though, that I don't believe those younger than teenagers should see it.
There are some limitations to what this film accomplishes, and some have to do with its format. The film is not told in sections per se, but it feels like we are witnessing many vignettes from the manga placed together, and they don't overlap much. There are times when I wished that the story had more interconnection, rather than bit after bit after bit without reflection. You don't typically think of chapters during a film, but here I did. Storywise, some of the vignettes aren't that good, frankly. We also lack a certain connection with Gen. Perhaps his character is a little young to be the central figure; he's too little to have any significant insight or thoughts about what is happening around him. That said, his innocence is still important to the film.
It is a testament that the movie can stand up to a horrible dub job. Although I know there have been re-releases of the film, the copy I had was an old Streamline job under the talents of Carl Macek, and it's not awful, but it is bad. Gen's voice actor is simply obnoxious in the role. Mother occasionally sounds like an American trying to pull off an English accent, which makes no sense. The dialogue is OK, but the acting? Yikes.
There are still plenty of good things to say about Barefoot Gen. I am not sure that I have ever seen a portrayal of the ground-level horrors of Hiroshima. Even in Romero's goriest zombie flicks, we do not enter the level of terror that the images in Barefoot Gen provide. From what I have read, it is very accurate. Many people became the living dead, with skin and eyes melted off, living just long enough to get a drink of water. One person kneeling next to another might stand up after the blast only to find their companion's face gone. Barefoot Gen reveals these ghastly sights realistically, but not in a sensationalistic way. I am not sure that anyone could willingly submit themselves to a faithful recreation of that event. Yet, because of the "cartoon" nature of Barefoot Gen, we see it, are shocked by it, and understand it, but can still manage to watch. But even then, the squeamish will be repulsed. Even as I write this two days after watching the picture, the shots of the victims coming out of the fires are still vivid in my mind.
The film also captures the chaos of the moment. Where once were streets and buildings is just ashes, wreckage, and flames. I genuinely felt fear for the survivors who tried to find refuge. I am not sure why the film so struck me this way, but I felt as trapped as those struggling to escape the carnage. The film gives a strange sense of claustrophobia after the attack that is very effective.
Though Barefoot Gen is famous, it isn't the best film about the Japanese in WWII. Is it still worth seeing? Absolutely. I don't know of any other anime that deals with the nuclear holocaust of Hiroshima directly, and for that reason alone it should be seen. If the film sounds too gruesome or you want a more moving (and more emotionally devastating) story of children in WWII, both Grave of the Fireflies and Who's Left Behind? are excellent. However, any student of WWII should see Barefoot Gen, and I'd recommend it to anyone seriously discussing the justification of war and its consequences. Its important message needs to be remembered.
Barefoot Gen -- brief rude humor, non-sexual nudity, graphic and disturbing violence, disturbing subject matter -- B+