Reviewby Theron Martin, Aug 21st 2006
In the waning days of World War II, first-grader Gen lives in Hiroshima with his younger brother, older sister, father, and pregnant mother. Food is scarce, but the Allied bombing that ravaged northern cities has so far spared Hiroshima, so Gen and his brother are able to play and live a safe, if often hungry, life. Everything changes on August 6th, 1945, when the Enola Gay drops the first atomic bomb ever used in warfare. In an instant the city is obliterated and most of its citizens are killed or horribly injured. In the wake of the bombing Gen must learn to survive without most of his family and despite the horrors that surround him.
Barefoot Gen 2
Three years have passed since that fateful day and Gen, who still lives with his mother and adopted little brother, is now a fourth-grader. Hiroshima is still a ruin, and Gen must scrounge for scrap metal to help keep himself and his family fed, but at least commerce has returned to the land. As his mother gradually grows ill from radiation sickness, Gen and Ryuta befriend a group of orphans led by a tough-nosed older child and including a girl who still bears ugly burn scars from the day of the bomb. An old man suffering from depression is also drawn into the group as they come together to support each other and form a makeshift family. Reality is still harsh, however, as many orphans still die lonely deaths and the grim reminders of what happened linger everywhere.
Barefoot Gen will never achieve the same standing as Grave of the Fireflies, the other prominent anime movie about the Japanese home front during WWII, because it suffers by comparison in production values, shows its age much more (though dating to 1983, it looks older), and isn't as tightly-written. It also has taken much longer to achieve its initial DVD release. That makes it no less important or powerful a production, however, and it's a film that anyone serious about understanding the devastating consequences of warfare should see.
The movie begins typically enough as we see Gen and his family struggling to get by in Hiroshima in the summer of 1945. The narration sets the scene and provides a brief account of Japan's situation in the war at that point, but most of that is well beyond the comprehension of Gen and his brother, who are as playful as any boys their age. They think the soldiers are kind of cool and know their father doesn't like or agree with Japan's military identity, but their main concern is having fun and how hungry they usually are since food is scarce.
And then Little Boy drops.
Anyone who's been through high school-level history has probably seen historical footage or recreations of the bombing of Hiroshima, but nothing quite like this. Even if you've been inured to extreme graphic content through more recent ultraviolent titles like Ninja Scroll or Elfen Lied, this one may still shake you up. The slow-motion scenes of what happens as the bomb goes off are shockingly blunt and harsh; if the scene with the mother collapsing over her baby as both burn to a cinder doesn't get to you, the scene with the dog probably will. What comes afterward is even more difficult to watch as Gen, who survived only because he happened to be crouching down when initial heat wave struck, wanders through the horror-story wasteland of the dead and nearly dead. And nothing can really prepare you for what happens with his family.
The story at this point has a fantastical, almost unworldly feel to it, but the fact that everything seen here is based on the real-life observations and experiences of writer Keiji Nakazawa keeps things grounded. Although further tragedy remains, Gen and the orphan he and his mother adopt show the resilience that children can have even in such ugly situations, which allows the movie to end on a hopeful, almost upbeat note. No matter how bad things get, the ending seems to say, human spirit can persevere and grow again.
Because of that, Barefoot Gen isn't quite the sorrowful tearjerker that Grave is, although it certainly has its moments. Its writing also isn't as smooth, as at times it seems incongruously cheery and some scenes feel like they're in there just for the sake of being in there rather than because they're a cohesive part of the narrative. However, the story definitely delivers on what it needs to for getting its point across: that a bombing such as this should never be allowed to happen again.
The artistry is one of the places where Barefoot Gen shows its age, as the character designs are very typical of other late '70s/early '80s anime titles and are sometimes a bit on the goofy side when showing healthy individuals. Its depiction of bomb and radiation-ravaged bodies, especially the walking half-dead, will remind many a viewer of classic anime depictions of zombie hordes, but the fact that these people are still (barely) alive makes their appearance much more horrifying. The visuals are unrelenting in their images of the dead and dying, some of which blend into the background art. That and the awful and painfully detailed depictions of what victims go through in the initial atomic blast make this production far, far too harsh for younger audiences. There's even some nudity, but absolutely nothing is titillating about what is shown. Background art varies in quality but is generally good, while the animation is much better than the norm for the time period but not up to the standards of the cel-based technical masterpieces of the later '80s.
The antiquated musical score and sound production also is a tip-off about the title's age, as it initially sounds almost like a wartime propaganda film, the opening and closing numbers sound like something out of a '70s anime TV series, and musical numbers during the movie are little help towards enhancing the scenes. Fortunately the story and visuals need no musical enhancement to have their impact at key moments. The lack of audio quality in the mono track may be jarring for those used to recent digital surround sound productions, but the original Japanese dub (which is unlikely to be regarded as a quality job) has been retained. It also sounds like the original real-life radio broadcast of the Emperor declaring Japan's unconditional surrender to his people was used for that key scene.
Geneon's production and release of the movie provides it with a remarkably clean and apparently restored print, unlike the much rougher-looking rerelease of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross currently being produced by ADV. The movie can only be viewed in subtitled form, as an English dub is not provided, unlike with its much earlier VHS release. The only English in the whole film is a few lines spoken by the Enola Gay pilots and military communications with them. Extras are sparse, as only a profile of Keiji Nakazawa and photographs of pre- and post-bomb Hiroshima are provided. However, the follow-up movie Barefoot Gen 2 (see below) is also included, which totals to an impressive 170 minutes of film – as much as seven full TV episodes.
Most viewers will not care to watch Barefoot Gen a second time, and that's perfectly fine. If it doesn't achieve its full impact on a single viewing then it never will. This movie has too long been absent from the ranks of American DVD releases, so Geneon deserves praise not only for finally picking it up but for offering such a great value by presenting both it and its successor on a single disk at the standard single-volume price.
Barefoot Gen 2
Although it begins with a sampling of the bombing of Hiroshima scenes from the first movie, this 1986 follow-up takes place three years after the events of the original. And what a difference three years makes in its production values! The artistry and animation are great improvements over the original, almost on par with what would be seen a couple of years later in Grave of the Fireflies. Beyond the opening sequence it's also a far less graphic work which concentrates much more on everyday life than the bombing and its immediate after-effects. The writing flows better, and while it doesn't carry the weight or impact of the original it still has several telling scenes, such as the way the burn-scarred girl is ostracized, the way orphans are treated, and a couple of scenes involving the remains of victims of the bombing. Unfortunately the soundtrack is still lame except for its upbeat closing number. As with the original, this one is only available subbed, but at least it is finally available.
Note: The ratings below are for the first movie. The second movie instead scores an A- in both Artistry and Animation.
Overall (sub) : B+
Story : A-
Animation : B-
Art : B
Music : C
+ Hard-hitting story based on the writer's personal experiences, excellent value.
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