The following review contains many spoilers, due the inability to talk about it in any great detail without mentioning several important factors. If you don’t wish to know how this film plays out then please skip to the DVD section and subsequent overall remarks.
Keiji Nakazawa was just seven years of age when he witnessed the bombing of Hiroshima, during the summer of 1945. Until 1972 he rarely had the opportunity to talk about his experience; in fact most of Japan was hushed with regards to the subject. But it was Hadashi no Gen, otherwise known as Barefoot Gen that opened the eyes of millions of readers when it was serialised as a manga. It became the first manga to be translated overseas, upon which it was greeted with mixed reactions. Despite accusations that the manga caused anti-American sentiments, Nakazawa claimed that it wasn’t about pin pointing any blame; it was just about telling things the way they were. For the first time since that haunting day the bombing of Hiroshima was truthfully discussed and through Nakazawa the world saw the horrifying reality of its progression. In 1982 the manga was developed into an animated feature and was released in Japan in 1983, with a sequel following in 1986.
Barefoot Gen is an animated account of life at the time, drawing upon Nakazawa’s real experiences. Part one follows the journey of a young boy named Gen, who lives with his mother and father and siblings, Eiko and Shinji. His mother is expecting a baby while his father works hard to earn a suitable income. Air raids are frequent and the family take care of themselves by staying in their shelter. One day, while Gen is returning home he sees a plane and wonders how it got through Japanese airspace without any sirens being issued. Moments later it drops an atomic bomb, levelling Hiroshima, killing 200,000 citizens upon impact and inflicting a horrific disease that would still linger to this day. Gen miraculously survives the blast, but around him he sees nothing but flames. His father, brother and sister are killed, leaving just him, his mother and her unborn child. Now they must make their through Hiroshima and find food and shelter, but what they discover is hell itself.
To use words like “harrowing” and “horrific” really wouldn’t be too far off the mark. By no means is Barefoot Gen an easy film to digest; it’s relentless in its depictions of destruction which is a good thing, despite it being gruesome. Imagery like this was rarely seen prior, aside from photographs that documented the war. In Barefoot Gen the sense of horror is escalated to a point that the viewer begins to see things that they could never expect to be true, and yet they were; the experience is often heartbreaking. The after effects of the A-Bomb took its toll on the Japanese citizens, some became so terrified that they referred to many of the disfigured victims as “monsters”, which sets up part of the feature‘s theme of discrimination - which I‘ll get to for the second film. But of course there were no monsters, aside from the bomb itself. However the blast also created paranoia; many people became wise to the black rain that followed, they feared that those who contracted radiation poisoning could easily pass it on to others. Japan was in a state of shock and panic and this much is captured for the film. As the radiation progressively worsened medical staffs were forced to treat only those who looked like they were going to make it; leaving the worse off to rot and die.
Barefoot Gen could have easily been a jingoistic piece of filmmaking, but it refuses to take the simple route of petty side taking. What it does do is ask questions as to why it happened and the simple answer in the end is that Japan’s government system was fucked. America retaliated with an unprecedented action - three days later despite the US warning Japan to deliver an unconditional surrender - Japan refused and was hit hard in Nagasaki. Gen’s father brings up his views early on in the film, sighting the government and military as being wrong and admitting to his own unpatriotic nature. He has no interest in a country that acts in such a horrendous way as Japan did, and he reminds Gen that the only thing worth caring about is peace. The reflective nature of Gen’s father’s attitudes to war increases Barefoot Gen‘s social relevance; it’s something that not many people would care to talk about and rather focus their energy on blaming the US for dropping “Pika”. Of course that’s not to say that it’s justified, but it’s a side to Nakazawa’s story that is refreshing to see. We end up with a tale that stresses how this should never happen again; granted it isn’t the first time that a film like this has preached it cause and nor will it be the last to say that we should never forget the atrocities that Hiroshima faced, but nevertheless it speaks volumes.
The film ends up going deeper still. By large this is a character drama about survival and facing responsibility. Young Gen is forced into a situation that requires him to take on duties that would ordinarily be fit for an adult. Everything he held dear to him was taken away in a flash and those he has left he must fight his hardest to protect. His family life is set up early on, which gives us enough time to get to understand the way in which he lives and so we can sympathise with him when his family pass on. His strongest relationship is with his brother, Shinji so when he dies it leaves Gen with a void. His mother ends up giving birth to a girl who Gen names Tomoko. Now his responsibilities are greater and he must find a way to provide them both with food. Soon a kid of the same age named Ryuta walks into his life. Gen and his Mother offer to look after the orphan, taking him on as family. Gen and Ryuta form a deep bond and together they decide to work together so that they can look after their only parent. When they’re placed into a situation such as this it creates a compelling turn of events. Now Gen and Ryuta must take on horrible tasks, one of which includes looking after a victim named Seiji; a seemingly rude and hate filled man who detests anyone trying to help him and refers to the boys as “vultures“. But Gen and Ryuta are being paid 10 yen a day to look after the cantankerous fool. Soon he learns the error of his ways, and despite his cursed injuries he learns to move on in life. So Nakazawa reinforces the idea that no matter how hard you get hit you have to get back up and carry on; it’s hard coming after such a tragic event that caused so much depression and in many ways it is perhaps easier said and done, but in the end if the future generation are to learn anything then it’s to follow prior examples and not fall down in the face of turmoil.
Things get tougher for Gen when he notices his hair beginning to fall out - a result of radiation poisoning from the explosion or subsequent black rain. He is uncertain as to what will now become of him, but he thinks only of his family. Sadly his hard work proves to be in vane when Tomoko dies from malnutrition. As the film approaches its finale Gen begins to get better; his hair grows back and he sees it as a sign of Tomoko’s good will; that she gave her life to him. It’s perhaps one of the weaker elements to the film, relying far more on spiritual connotations than it does in trying to explain how Gen can suddenly be cured from a potentially fatal disease without medical assistance. There’s barely little time to dwell on this aspect and Nakazawa makes no effort to do so. Rather his interest then lies in giving Gen future hardships to get through. And so Barefoot Gen ends on a rather uplifting note, tainted though by what the future will bring.
Barefoot Gen 2
Three years have passed since the bombing and Gen, Ryuta and his mother are still living in the same old shack. Gen’s mother is sick; suffering from the radiation poisoning left behind and Hiroshima is in a decrepit state. Gen has been attending school for a while now and he’s found his own way of making ends meet. Things are still difficult and matters aren’t helped for him when the US troops are in circulation. Gen soon makes some new friends who will carry him through adolescence as more trouble looms for him and his family.
The second part of this tale is noticeably lighter in tone. Although the after effects still linger in the air, Barefoot Gen 2 concentrates just as much on Gen’s growing up and learning about life and living. Hiroshima is now filled with American troops and several sanctions have been imposed; the controlling nature of US forces on the island is enough to drive Gen crazy. He only wishes for a free life, which is proving to be impossible in light of current events. However he strives in order to be free and thus we see Gen and his adopted brother, Ryuta take off and search for new ways to entertain themselves. They eventually get into trouble when they run into a local gang of orphaned children, who threaten them unless they get off their turf, which is situated at the black market. Gen’s fighting spirit eventually spurs him on to stand up to the gang leader, Masa which earns him respect. From here he befriends the other children and becomes drawn to a young girl named Katsuko. She is badly scarred and introverted, but Gen and his friends see past her looks, where most elders don’t. Nakazawa does what many viewers don’t expect, and that is to show just how disgraceful a large majority of Japanese citizen's attitudes were to some of their more unfortunate fellows; referring to Katsuko here as a “ghost“. He also address the “street hunters” who were officers ordered to tracked down orphans and place them into care. By doing so the children could never live the life that they desire; to make their own decisions and live as normal people. They only want to go to school and learn, envying Gen and his given opportunities. They want to learn about maintaining peace from the same class that Gen attends but they’re denied. In order to better their lives they decide to band together and build a house, which brings us a slightly forced piece of Nakazawa’s ideals, pertaining to punching adversity in the face. Still, watching the children interact proves to be an emotional experience as they grow spiritually; a result of their actions.
Gen and his friends eventually run into US troops and witness them burying the dead. Once again the reality seeps through and these moments are captured and displayed as bluntly as you could expect; it’s a very disturbing look at reality that only further causes grief when those who eventually die are buried in mass graves, or have their bones crushed; which in turn goes against Japan’s religious beliefs that if the victim’s bones aren’t taken care of in the respectable manner then they may never rest in peace.
As if God himself was testing Gen his mother gradually deteriorates and passes away. Faced with so much personal loss he his left with unanswered questions, but ultimately what does he learn from his experiences? He learns that life should be respected, that the world should be well preserved and that - like the very roots that his name refers to - he should ground himself and be as strong as nature. What do we learn? The same things. Nakazawa’s message is universal; though it largely applies to Japan its sincerity in portraying honesty and truth means that it reaches out to a wider audience, and if perhaps we all sat and took notice of films like this then the world might be a better place. Barefoot Gen‘s message might only reach a few people in the end, but if that means a few less tormenters then Nakazawa has done his job admirably.
Optimum Asia have put out both films on a single disc. The DVD could have certainly benefited from a commentary or interviews but what we have is a nicely presented film despite the lack of extras.
Both films are presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios from a restored print. Clarity is quite superb, with great colour and pleasant contrast and brightness levels. There’s some noticeable compression however, along with Edge Enhancement and ghosting. Marring the transfer that little bit more is the NTSC to PAL conversion.
For sound we get the only option we need; a 2.0 Dolby Digital Japanese track. Naturally most of the action is centred as well as dialogue. This is all handled admirably well, aside from the occasional inherent flaw which seems to have been overlooked which is the odd spot of hiss or crackle. No major distractions however.
Optional English subtitles are provided, which read well but contain a few grammatical errors such as “three years have past”. During the air raids at the beginning of the first film there is some English dialogue that is not subtitled. There are also several marvellous songs in the film that Optimum have failed to provide subtitles for.
War Child (00.36)
This is a promotional video for the War Child organisation, currently operational in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Balkans and the democratic Republic of Congo. Proceeds from Barefoot Gen will be placed into this programme to help children affected by war.
Barefoot Gen is an important piece of work that shows an honest portrayal of a nightmare event as seen through the eyes of an innocent young boy. Its subject matter is graphic but poignant and its contrasts between humour and drama are great. Barefoot Gen 2 is a far more emotional experience than the first, which was in contrast a much more visceral piece of film making. Thematically they are of course similar but they are about progression; moving on but never forgetting.