Barefoot Gen

Director: Masaki Mori

I've been meaning to put in an anime review on this website for some time, though I wasn't sure what kind of anime I should first review. "Anime", of course, is the term used for Japanese animation, and if I was Roger Ebert, this would break off into a lengthy explanation as to what anime is all about. (A reliable way to pad out those reviews, eh, Roger?) I finally selected Barefoot Gen, thought I don't think it's one of the best examples of the genre (though it is not a bad movie.) I chose it, because, since this is the first anime to be reviewed at this site, I thought that I would review a title that might make a good introduction to someone who is not familiar with this kind of animation - both in the style of the animation, and in the kind of stories used.

Barefoot Gen is nothing like Disney; there are no musical numbers, anachronisms, animal sidekicks, villains falling to their deaths, lovers trying to get together over all obstacles, etc. It not only takes place in the 20th century, but is also based on the real life experiences of Keiji Nakazawa, a Japanese manga (Japanese comic book) artist/writer, who lived through the atomic blast at Hiroshima when he was a child. Not exactly the subject matter that Disney would cover, nor the manner that Disney would use with any subject matter. Barefoot Gen pulls no punches in depicting the destruction the bomb caused during and after detonation; we see adults (as well as children and infants) being burned and vaporized by the blast, burnt corpses, and people losing hair and bleeding from the bowels from radiation. This movie is not for children, and even some younger teenagers may have a problem with it.

Strangely, the first 30 minutes of this movie are not to do with the atomic bomb, but focus on the lives of young Gen and his family in the period just before the fatal day. Gen is a very mature boy, no doubt due to the struggle his family (parents, older sister Eiko, and younger brother Shinji) goes through every day to find enough food. The pregnancy of Gen's mother adds to the struggle, and Gen and Shinji spend much of this time trying to find more food for her. Still, Gen is fairly happy, especially to have a younger brother who alternately idolizes him and gets into fights with him.

Then, the bomb drops. Gen and his mother survive, but everyone else in the family is killed. The stress of the bombing causes Gen's mother to give birth, and now Gen finds himself in the unenviable position of taking care of his mother, plus his new (and sick) sibling. The remainder of the movie details Gen's attempts to do these things, and also to keep himself alive and healthy at the same time.

Overall, I liked this movie and I was glad to have rented it, but I had a few problems with it at the same time. There are some characters that are created, yet have little to do with the movie. Eiko, for instance, hardly says a word, and we don't know anything about her or what she feels, even though everyone else in the family gets enough time to be established. I could tell from the name of the next door neighbor (Pak) that he was of Korean origin, since I taught English in South Korea for a year, and recognized the name. His character and ancestry are never established, and after we see him survive the blast intact, he simply disappears and is never seen (nor spoken of) again.

It can be a real problem adapting a long story such as this into a movie, so material with potential like this had to go in order to present the bare bones. Too bad; I suppose this is why the second part of the movie is a collection of vignettes, though they are compacted into incredibly short lengths of time. One part of the movie has Gen seeking work to get money, and takes on a caretaker role of an embittered, selfish man who was badly burned by the bomb. While this job obviously took longer in the manga, it's almost over before it begun. I have a feeling that Barefoot Gen would have done better as a short television series, with each half-hour show devoted to one or two episodes involving Gen. Though if otherwise done the same manner as the movie, it would still be criticized over some of its style; despite its overall serious tone, there are scenes where people cry cartoonishly like they have water sprinklers in their eyes, or we see stars around people when they are fighting. I don't object to his kind of buffoonery in anime, when the subject matter and tone is light-hearted. But surrounded by grim subject matter, it just doesn't fit.

Despite these distractions, there was still enough to appreciate here. It was interesting to see what a Japanese household was like during this period, and what life was actually like before the bomb was dropped. The moments when the bomb is dropped and the subsequent blast are genuinely horrifying. None of the vignettes are the least bit boring, even if they are rushed at times. And I liked the character of Gen; I'm glad that the movie, though showing he was a very mature boy, didn't forget that he is not an adult (one scene has Gen selfishly complains to his mother one night about the irritating groans of the dead and dying around them.) I really cared about Gen and his mother, and I was hoping that they would survive this ordeal, though they did seem to recover more quickly than I anticipated. The movie ends at a point when you know how they'll do in the future, and I wanted to see more, to see both what happened, and how they would handle it. In fact, there was a sequel to this movie (Barefoot Gen II), though it seems no North American video distributor has decided to pick it up.

I think most people, whether they are into anime or not, will find Barefoot Gen a worthwhile movie. In fact, I think I would have enjoyed it even more, if I hadn't seen a better anime earlier, which also dealt with Japanese children in wartime. That movie is called Grave of the Fireflies, and it's one of the best movies I've ever see, animated or not. It's also one of the most heartbreaking movies I've seen, and I was almost bawling at the end. That's why I think in some cases, Barefoot Gen might be a better way to introduce some friends to anime, because Grave of the Fireflies just may give them too much to handle in their initiation. You may have to play it safe at first - but it's the end result that matters.

Check for availability on Amazon (DVD)
Check for availability on Amazon (Blu-Ray)
Check for availability of the original Keiji Nakazawa comic book

See also: The Last Unicorn, Willy McBean And His Magic Machine