The Nihon Review - Anime Reviews & Editorials

Barefoot Gen

Title: Barefoot Gen aka Hadashi no Gen
Genre: Drama
Company: Madhouse Studios
Format: Movie; 85 minutes.
Dates: 21 Jul 1983

Synopsis: It’s the summer of 1945 and the war has been lingering on. Food is in short supply in Hiroshima and families are struggling to get by. Gen, a 6-year-old boy, keeps his spirits up despite his empty stomach by playing with his younger brother and getting ready for the arrival of another new sibling. Times are hard, but they will make it through, so his father tells him, until the day the atomic bomb drops and everything changes. With his city and his family in ruins, Gen has to survive and rebuild.

The Highlights
Imagery: Horrific and brutal.
6-year-old protagonist: Gen isn’t able to fully comprehend what’s happening around him.
Tone: Intense but not dark enough in some scenes.
Realism: Not afraid to show the devastation of the bomb.

Telling a story about war is incredibly difficult. Such tales have to find a delicate balance between showing the horrors of war and being absolutely crushing to watch. Like the better known Grave of the Fireflies, Barefoot Gen elects to tell a personal story based on the experiences of someone who actually lived through it. Though not directly autobiographical, it does lend a sense of weight to know that the images of the destruction of Hiroshima are borne from reality.

These images are what Barefoot Gen is most famous for. After the atomic bomb hits there is an extended scene of buildings collapsing and the skin melting off of people as they scream in pain. It is shocking and frightening and absolutely horrifying. It takes what up until that moment was a kid-friendly film and transforms it into something else entirely. After that moment, there is no turning back. Barefoot Gen does not shy away from showing death, pain and suffering. The destruction is absolute and unimaginable.

This is tempered by the protagonist, Gen. As a 6-year-old, he does not fully grasp what is happening around him. He witnesses awful things and seems to shrug them off in many cases, laughing as he plucks maggots from wounds and staring in amazement as the victims he brings water begin to die around him. Perhaps blocking the shock is all he can do, but it creates a strange divide between what the viewer is seeing and how Gen reacts. Indeed, the film does need some lighter moments to provide relief from the sadness, but the harsher scenes often lose their edge because Gen doesn’t quite know how to take them seriously. It creates distance between the viewer and the reality and severity of the situation. The film would also benefit from some quieter moments of reflection, but Gen and his younger siblings are loud and yelling incessantly for most of the film. Despite these drawbacks, a young protagonist is an important tool in telling such a story. The perspective of a child is valuable in demonstrating the sheer brutality of war and also in finding the humour and happiness in what is left behind when many adults cannot.

This film was made just 38 years after the event it is retelling and presents a critical perspective of the war and Japan’s then leaders, with Gen’s father being an outspoken opponent. In the aftermath of the bomb a man is shown weeping, yet he weeps not for the loss of life, but because Japan has surrendered to the enemy. The original manga apparently goes into more details about surviving in the demolished city that the film skips or touches on just briefly and some of which is examined in the sequel. Barefoot Gen should be on the watch list of any anime fan who wants to understand how animation can be utilized in a powerful way to retell such an important part of our history.

The Rating: 8

Reviewed by: Kaikyaku

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