Friday, May 2, 2008

REVIEW: Barefoot Gen - Mori Masaki (1983)

Reviewed by Chris MaGee

Famed manga artist Keiji Nakazawa was only 6-years-old on August 6th, 1945, the day that the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. In an instant his life was changed forever. Only he and his mother survived the bombing, but after his mother’s death in 1966 he had a revelation about his horrific past, “I realized I'd never thought seriously about the bomb, the war and why it happened,” he said in a 1988 interview, “I decided from then on, I'd write about the bomb and the war…” Through the late 60’s and early 70’s his manga dealt with the nuclear attack, but it wasn’t until 1973 that he produced his true masterpiece: “Barefoot Gen”. Basing the lives of Gen Nakaoka and his family before, during and after the bombing on his own experiences it has been re-printed around the world, spawned two live action television adaptations and two animated films directed by Mori Masaki and produced by a company founded by Keiji Nakazawa himself. It’s the first of these two films, “Barefoot Gen” (1983) that I’ll cover here.

For the most part Gen is your average boy: loud, rambunctious, cheerful. He spends his days working with his father, a geta (wooden sandal) maker, attending school, and rough housing with his little brother Shinji. I say for the most part because most boys don’t have to go hungry, or have a malnourished mother who worries about the health of her unborn child, or whose family has to deal with almost daily air raids. Life during war time is hardly fun, and it’s certainly no game. With the Allied Forces firebombing most major cities throughout Japan, Gen and his family head to the bomb shelters at the first sound of the siren. Something doesn’t sit right with Gen’s father though, “Why hasn’t Hiroshima been attacked?” his father wonders, but on what seems like just another sunny August morning Gen’s family finds out why.

Isao Takahata’s “Grave of the Fireflies” tends to jump out for most people as the serious anime statement on the horrors of war, but “Barefoot Gen” while maybe not as technically polished as Takahata’s film will still have your jaw dropping and the tears pouring down your cheeks. As in Nakazawa’s original manga Masaki pulls no punches when depicting the utter destruction and absolute human misery unleashed on Hiroshima by the bomb. The moments where he shows men and women stumbling like zombies, their skin and organs hanging from their bodies or babies still suckling on the breasts of their dead mothers… well, I just found myself having to look away from the screen. The hardest part of “Barefoot Gen” for me, though, was seeing Gen lose his father, older sister and brother Shinji, in the bombing. As Gen is forced to pull his mother away from her trapped family I couldn’t help remembering early scenes of the family laughing together or of Gen and Shinji stealing a carp from a rich man’s pond so that their mother could eat.

A film about the bombing of Hiroshima is certainly not going to be a feel good affair, but “Barefoot Gen’s” real accomplishment is how it shows hope in the face of terrible adversity. In the days and months after the bombing, his hair having fallen out due to “pika”, the name used by the Japanese at that time for radiation sickness, Gen still follows through on his promise to his dying father and does everything he can to take care of his mother and new baby sister Tomoko; he even takes a hellish job cleaning up after a boorish bomb survivor so he can buy powdered milk for his sister, but all the while his youthful enthusiasm isn’t diminished. Hardships still befall Gen and his mother, but like the shoots of grass appearing around a city that some thought wouldn’t sustain any life for over 70 years we leave Gen at the end of the film knowing that he will continue to thrive even after the darkest day in human history.

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