Barefoot Gen

Barefoot Gen


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

With no advance warning, on the morning of August 6th, 1945, an American B-29 dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Around 100,000 people were killed in the initial blast and subsequent firestorm of what the Japanese came to call 'Pika' - and many thousands of the survivors (and their rescuers) would later die from the effects of radioactive fallout. The US decision to bomb Hiroshima, and Nagasaki three day later, was without doubt one of the most significant and controversial acts of the 20th century, hastening the end of one war only to usher in a new nuclear age where Pika would cast its dark shadow of fear and insecurity over the whole planet.

Occasionally the drama of Mori Masaki's Hadashi no Gen, (or Barefoot Gen) is interrupted by a voice-over offering a rudimentary background context, but the film's real power rests in its portrayal of the Hiroshima bombing not from the point of view of politicians or the military, but through the eyes of a humble Japanese family which is disengaged from, and blameless of, the imperialist belligerence of its nation.

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Mr Nakaoka, a smallhold farmer and shoemaker, is labelled a traitor by others for his pacifist views and his criticisms of the leadership and the military, while his sons Gen and Shinji and his daughter Eiko are just children and the youngest member of the family, Tomoko, is still in her mother's womb when the bomb falls - making them all unequivocally innocent parties in the catastrophe that engulfs them. In this way, Barefoot Gen avoids the pitfall of taking sides in the Japanese-American conflict, instead focussing entirely upon the great suffering created by war in general - and by the A-bomb in particular - for ordinary civilians.

Adapted from Keiji Nakazawa's successful 1972 manga of the same name and based closely on Nakazawa's own experiences as a six-year-old in Hiroshima, Barefoot Gen uses the stylised strokes of animation to show what would otherwise be beyond the bounds of cinematic representation, much like When The Wind Blows (1986) and Grave Of The Fireflies (1988) did after it.

People ignite and fall apart, a city is devoured, hideously half-melted victims stagger and groan with their eyeballs hanging out, and other tableaux of unspeakable horror unfold before the uncomprehending and helpless young Gen, himself protected from the full force of the blast by a collapsing wall. Yet the film places equal emphasis on the days before the bomb, as the family fights malnourishment in beleaguered Japan, and on the aftermath, as Gen and his surviving mother Kimie struggle to come to terms with what has happened, and to keep the new-born baby Tomoko alive - and with her the hope for some kind of renewal in a life that has otherwise been torn apart forever.

In any other film, the finger-clicking pluckiness of protagonist Gen might have proved too irritating to be engaging, but here all his positivity and resourcefulness are quickly rendered useless, so that their continuing presence only adds to the poignancy of Gen's circumstances - and when the ever-chirpy hero himself finally succumbs to despair, there could be no clearer signal of just how truly terrible things have become.

Of course, by this point most viewers will long since have been reduced to whimpering wrecks by his harrowing ordeals - and it is this reluctance to ignore the realities of human suffering that makes Barefoot Gen such a compelling and important contribution both to the nuclear debate and to the annals of 20th century history.

Reviewed on: 22 Dec 2005
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Animation outlining the evils of the atomic bomb as told through the eyes of a young boy who survives the Hiroshima attack.
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Director: Mori Masaki

Writer: Keiji Nakazawa

Starring: Issei Miyazaki, Masaki Koda, Seiko Nakano, Takao Inoue, Yoshie Shimamura

Year: 1983

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: 12 - Age Restricted

Country: Japan


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