Barefoot Gen

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“I dug my father, sister and brother out of the ruins. Their skulls and other bones were intact. I thought humans became like that when they were burnt. When my mother’s body was cremated however, there were very few bones. It made me shake with anger that the atomic bomb radiation deprived my mother, who had survived for 21 years, of even her bones. I vowed never to endure wars or atomic bombs”

(Taken from an interview with Nakazawa Keiji, the creator of Barefoot Gen, by Jonathan Clements.)

On Monday, August 6th, 1945, the US bomber Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb known as “Little Boy” on the city of Hiroshima, Japan. The explosion killed around 70,000 people immediately, with almost as many again dead from the resulting radiation by the end of 1945.

Nakazawa Keiji, the author of Barefoot Gen, was 6 years old at the time of the bombing, and is one of the survivors of the destruction of Hiroshima. The bomb was responsible for the death of his father, his sister, and his brother. At the age of 6 he and his mother dug their remains out of the ruins of their home. In 1963 Nakazawa moved to Tokyo to become a manga artist, but returned to Hiroshima in 1966 to attend his mothers funeral. It was his discovery of the true impact of the radiation from the bomb that inspired him to risk becoming a social pariah by openly discussing his experience of the bomb with the first of his “Black” series, Beneath the Black Rain.

Barefoot Gen is the autobiographical account of his experience of the bomb and radiation. The manga was fraught with problems because of it’s nature and content, and was effectively sidelined by mainstream publications. In 1976 however, a volunteer group called Project Gen was formed, and they took on the task of producing English translations of the manga. In truth, Barefoot Gen was the first manga to be translated and published in English.

The story was later adapted into three live action movies, two animated features, and a TV series, however the first anime movie adaptation remains, to this day, one of the most harrowing versions because of its counter intuitive nature.

As the story in Barefoot Gen is predominantly autobiographical it is difficult to consider it in terms of a normal story. The anime loses out to the manga in certain respects because sections had to be left out, however this in no way takes away from the story which remains an reasonably accurate, if abbreviated, account of Nakazawa’s sof the bomb and its aftermath.

The art style is unusual in that it adopts a more “cartoony” approach compared to other anime, however the movie manages to attain a certain ethereal quality that the manga cannot match, especially in its depiction of the results of radiation sickness. The atomic blast is rendered with shocking clarity, and the transformation of people into “monsters” (from Gen’s perspective), is horrifyingly realised.

Although production values may be dated (the anime is over 25 years old now), the movie should not be marginalised on the basis of “poor” animation. The cartoon like quality of the characters only adds to the emotional impact, as it is a stark contrast to how “normal” cartoon characters are depicted.

Sound is another area where the movie shows its age. The effects, although well used, can sometimes be overwhelming for the viewer, while at other times the various noises are relegated to the background. This can give the movie a slightly “off-kilter” feeling for some viewers, but for the most part the sound and visuals work well together.

The music is generally good throughout the movie. The various pieces used to enhance the impact of a given scene are generally appropriate and fairly well choreographed, especially during the more foreboding scenes. The variety of tracks complement the pervading atmosphere of the film, and most surprising are the scenes where music, noise and visuals combine to give the viewer a truly visceral experience.

The characters are a bit of a tricky subject in Barefoot Gen, as they are generally taken from the people that Nakazawa met before, during and after the bombing, whilst Gen himself is Nakazawa as a child. Granted, there is obviously a degree of artisitic license with both the design and the portrayal, however this in no way diminishes their impact of the overall movie. Because of this things like character developmentand interaction are difficult to consider, especially given the fact that this is mainly a factual account, and in the absence of of evidence to the contrary, I prefer to think of the characters as “real” – at least, for this movie.

Watching this movie is a truly harrowing experience. There is no real way to “enjoy” this in normal terms, especially given its history and content. Very few movies, especially animated ones, are able to convey the level of emotional impact that Barefoot Gen achieves, and only Grave of the Fireflies or Ushiro no Shoumen Daare can be considered equal in terms of content and viewing experience (although the former deals with the aftermath of the firebombing of Kobe, and is semi-autobiographical in nature, and the latter is more of a historical fiction).

Although there are similarities between those two movies and Barefoot Gen, there are major differences as well. It is extremely difficult to compare any other anime or manga to Barefoot Gen as no other work is taken directly from real life. If you decide to watch Barefoot Gen then you cannot compare it in any way to shows like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Death Note, Akira, Code Geass, or any other popular movie or series. You cannot use normal standards to judge this movie.

In all honesty, Barefoot Gen isn’t something to enjoy, even though it ends on a hopfeul note. This is a movie to be experienced, as it is the story of a boy who has literally seen hell. It is both a lesson and a warning for future generations of the true horror of nuclear and atomic weapons, and I urge everyone, whether you’re a fan of anime and manga or not, to read the books and watch the movie.

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