In 2010, I had my first experience of watching Studio Ghibli’s ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ (1988), focusing on 2 orphans struggling to survive following the fire-bombing of Kobe at the tail end of the 2nd World War. The experience was a hard one to endure and one I could not keep to myself so I wrote about it in a review. This year, I am reviewing another anime set towards the end of World War 2. The name of this anime is Barefoot Gen, focusing on a young boy and his mother struggling to survive in the aftermath of the Atomic Bomb ‘Little Boy’ that was dropped on the city of Hiroshima, Japan on 6th August 1945.
Based on the real life experiences of the late manga artist Keiji Nakazawa, ‘Barefoot Gen’ focuses on his alter-ego, 6-year-old Gen Nakaoka whose family are already struggling to make ends meet as it is. Although Hiroshima is still standing for now whereas most if not all of Japan’s other major cities lie in ruins due to the fire-bombings, the citizens are still not safe from the famine and poverty the war has brought with it. As Gen’s mother Kimie struggles with pregnancy and malnutrition and is looked after by Gen’s older sister Eiko, Gen spends his days in the family wheat fields with his younger brother Shinji and their pacifist father Daikichi. Such is the family’s struggles that Gen and Shinji at one point are forced to steal carp on advice from their neighbour Boku Pak from an old man’s pond and stand up to the old man, despite being beaten for their troubles.
After several air raids that turn out to be false alarms, Daikichi wonders with a growing sense of dread what the invading American forces have in store for Hiroshima. Those feelings prove to be far from unfounded as one day, Gen is on his way to school and bumps into a friend, when a single American B-29 Superfortress bomber, the ‘Enola Gay’, flies ominously over head but no air raid sirens go off. The enemy aircraft proceeds to drop the Atomic Bomb. The unsuspecting Gen is promptly blown out of his getas as the city of Hiroshima is engulfed in a blinding flash of white-hot Uranium-235.
In an instant, many buildings are destroyed and torn from their foundations, people and animals are either incinerated (or vaporised – I really did not want to say that) where they stand or crushed by collapsing walls or slashed by shards of glass before the whole city finally erupts into an enormous mushroom cloud. Gen is saved by a collapsing wall before the blast can do any harm to him and recovers to find the city destroyed and on fire, and roaming with horribly burnt and disfigured people. A whole cavalcade of these unfortunate souls coming towards him, while his friend and most of his fellow citizens are dead or dying. Gen tries to find his family at their destroyed and burning home and manages to get his mother to safety but is unable to save his father and siblings as the blast is followed by a devastating fire-storm. With no help forthcoming, Gen is forced to look after his mother as she immediately gives birth to a baby girl whom they eventually name Tomoko, meaning ‘friend’.
Over the next few days, Gen and Kimie bravely venture out into the devastated city in search of food and supplies whilst helping their fellow citizens as much as they can, even if it means getting into fights or causing their deaths. At one point, Gen tries to help a dying soldier who is cold and going bald from radiation poisoning while Kimie is attacked by a grieving mother who then relents upon seeing Tomoko. Gen soon goes bald himself but thankfully suffers no more symptoms and soon finds some rice for himself, Kimie and Tomoko. Such is the remaining Nakaokas’ selfless nature that they take in an orphaned boy named Ryuta Kondo despite the poor youngster attempting to rob them for he looks and behaves just like Shinji.
With another mouth to feed and Tomoko becoming increasingly ill from malnutrition, Gen and Ryuta decide to go out and find work just to earn enough money for food. They proceed to get a job looking after a young man named Seiji who has been brutally wounded and scarred by the nuclear blast to the point that his family refuse to help him in case he contaminates them. He initially proves to be spoiled and provocative only to relent when Gen slaps him in retaliation. Proud to finally receive human contact, Seiji soon becomes good friends with Gen and Ryuta.
Understandably for most of the film, it seems like everything is all doom and gloom but through it all, young Gen does whatever he can to put on a brave face and make things better for himself and his mother which is all he can do. The gruesome reality of what has happened to his home and his family is only compounded further when Japan finally surrenders but Gen continues to be the bigger person and tries make the best of a bad situation. Indeed, the film begins with a somewhat ominous review of how the war situation between Japan and America has unfolded, starting with Pearl Harbour and concluding with the spectre of the Atomic Bomb and how it’s existence is yet to be revealed. It is all too easy to make these assumptions based on what you actually see in the film, especially the devastating immediate effects of the bomb but there is still that one ray of hope as Hiroshima’s crops start to grow again along with Gen’s hair to prove that.
The sequel, Barefoot Gen 2 (1986) is slightly more light-hearted in tone but is still littered with harrowing reminders of the effects of the atomic bomb. It is now 1948 and the city of Hiroshima is still littered with half-wrecked buildings and sick and wounded people slowly dying from radiation poisoning and the river is littered with human remains. The film even begins with a flash-back to the events of the day of the bombing as depicted in the first film, only for Gen to wake up with a start and realise it was just a nightmare.
The now 9-year-old Gen continues to rebuild his life. By this time, he has only his mother and Ryuta for company. He has gone back to school but even that is still in ruins. He also has to cope with the fact that his mother is suffering and slowly dying from the lingering effects of the radiation that continue to affect the citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to this day. The condition is a complete unknown to the Japanese and therefore cannot be cured. Kimie has at least managed to find work to earn some much-needed funds. Despite obviously lacking the intense emotional effect of the original film, the sequel still conjures up plenty of emotion on its own as the city is now occupied by American troops, a fact that Gen and Ryuta struggle to accept throughout the film. In one scene, they notice the Americans performing a (improper by Japanese standards) mass burial and chastise them for the devastation they have caused, before running away.
To prove that Gen and Ryuta are not the only ones still suffering, they encounter a gang of orphaned youths led by the strong but well-meaning Masa. The youths have no home and no family and spend their lives hiding out in abandoned shelters and shacks and running from the American troops, lest they be beaten and taken into care or left for dead. Gen and Ryuta soon manage to befriend the youths and take particular pity on a girl named Katsuko, a hibakusha who is chastised (thought to be contaminated) by all who know her for the scars she bears as a result of the nuclear strike but she is by no means alone.
Gen and Ryuta eventually inspire their new friends to build an all new home for them to live in and even take in an old man who has slipped into depression having lost his entire family to the nuclear bomb. They also attempt to grow crops the way Gen and his family used to do and find an old ammunitions store to sell for scrap. In spite of all this, there is still no escaping the reality of the situation Gen and his friends are in as one of their members is killed during an attempt to raid a local farm and their raft sinks whilst trying to steal scrap metal. But all this does is to help Gen to learn to cope with this reality as he also has to learn to accept that his mother is increasingly gravely ill and yet through Ryuta and the gang, he still has something to live for.
On the whole, the two films are a stark reminder of the most fateful day in the history of Japan, and how the citizens of Hiroshima (and Nagasaki though that is only briefly referenced in the first film) began the long road to recovery. The experiences of Keiji Nakazawa inspiring the original Barefoot Gen manga series in 1973 which eventually led to the creation of the most powerful war themed anime prior to the release of Studio Ghibli’s ‘Grave of the Fireflies’ five years later. Unlike that film in which the main protagonists stand by each other when no one else will, Gen and his fellow survivors quickly realise they have no choice but to stand by each other, a point that is particularly emphasised in the sequel. But at the same time, the film and its sequel go on to prove that even in the most darkest of times, mankind will always do whatever they can to triumph in the face of adversity come what may. This in turn makes the two films surprisingly more bearable to watch than their Studio Ghibli counterpart despite the far more graphic content. Aside from the sketchy 1970’s/early 1980’s style animation of the first film and the somewhat sudden conclusion of the second, they both at least go someway to showing that mankind should never give up and remain as upbeat as possible whatever happens. Rest in Peace Keiji Nakazawa.
Post Script: The manga series upon which these films are based has already spawned a 3-part series of Live-Action films released in 1976, 1977 and 1980 and a recent 2-part feature-length television special in 2007. The latter is available only on YouTube and only in its original Japanese format.