It is August 1945 in the quiet town of Hiroshima, Japan. World War 2 has put the town in anticipation from Air Raids from American forces. Our tale follows Gen, a 10-year old boy who lives a regular life during the war period with his little brother Shinji, elder sister Eiko, his hard-working father Daikichi and his mother Kimie, who is pregnant and expecting a baby soon. Food becomes difficult to come by and people don’t give as much respect to Daikichi because he has an unpatriotic attitude for the war. Despite these problems, on the morning of August 6th, it becomes apparent that for Hiroshima, the worse has suddenly arrived. A B29 Aircraft passes over Hiroshima, yet the Air Raid Alarm doesn’t go off, moments later the aircraft drops a nuclear bomb and the entire town is succumbed to the devastating blast. Both Gen and his Mother are fortunate to survive the blast, but the rest of the family is not. Now it is up to both Gen and Kimie to fight for survival along with their new born baby, and try to manage a new life, after the bombing of Hiroshima.
The man who created the story was acclaimed manga writer Keiji Nakazawa, an actual Hiroshima survivor who witnessed the devastation when he was only six years old, his mother and baby sister were the only other surviving family members who didn’t evacuate. This makes Barefoot Gen a personal story to him but it wasn’t the first time he used the infamous bombings in his stories. His mother passed away in 1966, and soon after he made the five volume manga series “Struck by Black Rain” and then in 1972 Monthly Shonen Jump published a one shot manga called “I Saw It”, which was his literal biographical account of the disaster, and his history into becoming a manga artist. Barefoot Gen was written immediately after finishing I Saw It, and while this time only loosely based on his real life events, and spanned 10 volumes and was shown in Weekly Shonen Jump from 1973 to 1985. Prior to the anime film, it was adapted into three films directed by Tengo Yamada. In 1983, Barefoot Gen was theatrically released in animated form, with animation done by MadHouse and was directed by Mori Masaki.
In terms of 1980s standards, the animation in quite good, character movements are simple and realistic, expressions and dialogue are clear and precise. The use of shadows and positions are standard for kids anime series which makes the earlier scenes very light hearted and innocent, then the scene of the Hiroshima bomb hits and wow does the animation improve, it’s smoother, more detailed and more graphic. It’s kind of surprising to see this kind of inconsistency in a theatrical release; it makes me think that Madhouse only improved the animation for a dramatic effect. The art style is pretty basic, character designs are slightly exaggerated and the backgrounds are nicely water-coloured but there isn’t much detail, given the time that this was released.
The music is pretty generic and unmemorable, the tracks vary from up-lifting melodies like in My Neighbour Totoro to dramatic orchestral scores in the scenes of fire and destruction, but they aren’t really ground breaking. There is one really good piece that uses what I believe is a pan-pipe to a very peaceful and lovely melody, but it isn’t impressive beyond that.
The voice acting in the Japanese dub is actually quite good, the child actors like Issei Miyazaki, really emphasise the love and care of the light hearted scenes and the fear and pain of the destructive and dramatic scenes. The adults also do a good job, most notably Yoshie Shimamura as Kimie, who is portrayed as a very emotional woman who cares a lot for her children and Takao Inoue who portrays Daikichi as a serious, hardworking and responsible father.
Believe it or not, up until I began writing this review, I had no idea there was an English dub, and there is one if you look hard enough. In seriousness, it’s not worth your time, most of the actors aren’t bad, but they aren’t as good as the Japanese cast in comparison. Some of the rarely emote properly, and most of the actors playing child roles are more whiney. On the other hand, the voice actor playing the Mother is really good, and really emulates Shimamura’s portrayal quite well. Sadly there isn’t a cast list but she might have been portrayed by either Barbara Goodson or Wendee Lee.
What I’m going to say might make some people mad, so please let me explain this. As a Japanese war film, I think Barefoot Gen is better than Grave of the Fireflies. Like in Grave of the Fireflies, the story really gives the experience of World War II Japan. It is really moving and sad, but when it gets dark it’s traumatic. When I bought this on DVD and watched this I had no expectations, but I did know what would happen in the film from looking at the back of the box. So when I watched the scenes of the destructions it actually horrified me, it looked almost traumatising, I literally almost got upset. The only problem I think is that after the bomb hit and the initial destruction, it’s is only half of the film and I think it’s difficult to actually keep to that level of writing. Sure the latter half of the story does have its ups and downs, including this one plotline of a badly injured survivor living with his wealthy brother’s family, who pretty much despise him, and when you know how badly people treat him and how he feels when Gen has to take care of him, it’s really moving.
Yes, Grave of the Fireflies is a powerful war film and it has its sad moments but for me, Barefoot Gen pulls it off better and ends up being more of a dark and serious film. The quality of the film isn’t as great as Grave of the Fireflies and it doesn’t have more of a following. But it is a great and effective film that takes a young child’s memory of a disaster and makes it into a well written piece that is certainly worth a watch.
Barefoot Gen was available from Streamline and soon after Geneon but it’s currently available from Manga Entertainment. The original Manga by Keiji Nakazawa was originally published by Educomics, became out of print, and was then saved by Last Gasp Publications. The one-shot manga “I Saw It” also by Nakazawa, was directly based on his biographical accounts of the incident and is considered a predecessor to Barefoot Gen was available from Educomics but it’s out of print so you’ll need to do a bit of searching. Before the animated film, Barefoot Gen was adapted into three live-action films, subtitled Part 1, Explosion of Tears and Battle of Hiroshima; however none of them have had an official released in Western countries. A sequel to the animated film, simply titled Barefoot Gen 2, was also available from Geneon is also currently available from Manga Entertainment but it’s not a great follow-up in my opinion, and I’ll save it for another review. Barefoot Gen was also made into a TV Drama by Fuji Television but has also not been released in Western areas.