The exploration of World War II in Japanese media provides a fascinating contrast with its portrayal in Western media with particularly notable examples being the first anime feature film ever released, Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, Studio Ghibli's Grave of the Fireflies and Production I.G's Giovanni's Island. However, my first thought when it comes to anime and World War II is actually the 1983 film Barefoot Gen, an adaptation of the first four volumes of the manga of the same name. Written by Keiji Nakazawa, it's important to note as I discuss this film that the manga which it's based on is a semiautobiographical work about his childhood experience in Hiroshima.
Barefoot Gen is set in Hiroshima in 1945 and follows Gen Nakaoka who lives with his brother Shinji, his sister Eiko, his father Daikichi and his pregnant mother Kimie. They and the many other residents in Hiroshima frequently hide in bunkers during air raid warnings but continue on with their life, struggling with severe rationing, working to make a meagre living etc. It's noted by a few of the characters that Hiroshima has so far been relatively untouched compared to the devastation caused by Allied air raids in other Japanese cities but they don't think too much about it as they have other concerns that they have to deal with. Then, one morning, a lone bomber is spotted in the skies above Hiroshima, the Enola Gay, which proceeds to drop the atomic bomb.
I've always found the way the opening of the film is structured to be ingenious with the spectre of war hanging over the heads of everyone but their only recourse is to carry on with their lives. We spend some time with the Nakaoka family and, even within the relatively short time that we spend with them, they exude a charm that makes you care for them. There's even a point early on where, upon my first time seeing the film, I forgot about the bomb and just absorbed the character's relationships, their struggles and how they keep moving on with their lives. By the time the bomb is dropped, you're emotionally invested in these characters which makes the devastation and carnage hit even harder. I won't spoil who survives the bomb but I think it's fair to say that not everyone does.
The rest of Barefoot Gen follows the survivors as they try to make sense of what happened and to live. Besides the fantastic opening, the thing I appreciate most about this film is how it shows you many aspects of the atomic bomb that are often overlooked. While we see people die from the explosion, we also see that many were killed from the force exerted with buildings collapsing on residents, glass windows breaking and sending shards into people like they were bullets or shrapnel, burned alive by the fires that broke out etc. Beyond that, radiation sickness is ever-present and the destruction of food storages as well as the contamination of the water supply led to a crisis that saw many suffering from severe malnutrition.
As you can gather, this film can be quite a harrowing experience but, thankfully, the film doesn't bog itself down in pure misery and suffering. Gen, while dealing with the horrors and trauma, manages to remain lighthearted at several key points in the film, something that helps to relieve the audience of some of the discomfort that they may be feeling. However, a few moments of this lightheartedness can feel a little jarring and almost tonally inappropriate while I've also always had a little problem with the introduction of a certain character later in the film.
As for the animation, the film was animated by Madhouse and is generally very good. Of course, the standout animation-wise is the atomic bomb sequence which slows time down so that we can see the sheer destructive impact and features some horrifying imagery which is delivered through some very smooth animation alongside some aggressive but masterful use of colours. Besides this stunning animated sequence, character movements are well-executed, the backgrounds feature enough detail to make you appreciate the beautiful moments while also presenting you with disturbing imagery that pulls no punches and character designs are pleasant and contrast greatly with the bodies of the dead and injured.
The music of the film, as you can imagine, changes quite a bit throughout. The beginning of the film, prior to the dropping of the bomb, features some relatively lighthearted and jovial music as the characters get about with their lives while the music, after the dropping of the bomb, shifts and becomes more ominous, reflecting the change in tone, and while there's some lighthearted music later on, it never reaches the levels prior to the bomb. I also have to commend the fact that the bomb sequence plays out with no music, simply featuring superb sound effects that hammer home the devastation.
There was an English dub produced for the film by Streamline Pictures but the UK release of the film by Optimum Releasing only contains the original Japanese track. You'll be happy to know that the cast generally does an excellent job of navigating the shifts in tone and contributing to the emotional impact. I do confess that the voice of Gen, who was voiced by an actual twelve year old, grates my ears slightly but this has to do with the pitch rather than his performance and is purely my own personal taste. Additionally, it's also worth noting that the Americans who drop the bomb deliver their lines in English and sound quite stiff and awkward. It's a very small part of the film as it's only a couple of lines but it'll be immediately noticeable and is the easiest part of the voice performances to criticise.
Optimum Releasing's release is a little barebones but does include the sequel, Barefoot Gen 2, which is quite nice. As I mentioned before, this release lacks the English dub produced for this film and, while I'm unsure of the quality of said dub, it would've been nice to include. Trailers for the film are present and the box claims that a booklet with information provided by Jonathan Clements is provided but I don't recall my own copy coming with it. It's a sufficient release but, considering the importance of these films, it would've been nice to see some additional extras included.
Barefoot Gen remains as fascinating to watch today 40 years after release and I'd encourage fans of anime and animation as well as those that are interested in World War II to seek out this film and witness a story that is all too often tragically untold.