Monday, August 8, 2011

Barefoot Gen

Hadashi no Gen; animated drama/ disaster film, Japan, 1983; D: Mori Masaki, S: Issei Miyazaki, Yoshie Shimamura, Takao Inoue

Hiroshima, World War II. Gen is a young boy who helps his family in search for food. His little brother Shinji, older sister Eiko and father are all concerned about their pregnant mother. In the early morning hours of 6 August, US plane Enola Gay drops an atom bomb on the city, causing utter destruction and mass mortality. Father, Shinji and Eiko all die in the burning house, while mother and Gen, who was outside during the explosion, survive. Mother gives birth to a baby, but radioactive rain, corpses and lack of food make the survival unbearable. The baby dies, but Gen finds a little boy who resembles Shinji and adopts him in the family.

Atomic bombing of Hiroshima, which killed at least 70,000 people in only 10 seconds, was for the longest time a taboo topic in Japan's society, yet its catastrophic effects stayed in the subconscious and were sensed in numerous films. Various documentaries showed the explosion only from the American perspective, i.e. just showing the bomb dropping from the airplane, yet "Barefoot Gen" is one of those rare stories that actually show the event from the perspective of people who actually lived through it. This anime actually has additional weight because the author Keiji Nakazawa actually experienced the explosion as a child himself and lived to tell the tale. "Gen" is without a doubt one of the most terrifying movies of the 20th Century: the first third revolving around the struggling family with a pregnant mother, when everything is quiet and tranquil, slowly creates an intense mood of uncertainty whereas the sole 5-minute sequence of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima is a sight of unforgettable horror.

The camera shows at first just small hints of the upcoming disaster: ants mysteriously rush into the house, Gen and a girl observe a plane high in the sky while shots of a clock are ominously ever-present. The virtuoso sequence of the explosion, where buildings, streetcars and trees just get blown away, is corroborated by human tragedy when it shows how people decompose on the streets from heat and how Gen survived just because he ducked behind a wall to pick up a rock on the floor. Even more devastating than "Grave of the Fireflies", "Gen" abounds with shocking scenes (a man who is covered by maggots, for instance), but they do not seem fake, cheap or perverted but honest precisely because they constitute an honest story that shows the way things were back in those days. Despite everything, this is a monument to hope, peace, the message that life will find a way even in the darkest times and fight for humanity, which makes it somehow positive in the end, and it is one of those rare movies that are both vicious and gentle at the same time. The ending is one of the most touching, emotional ones in the history of anime - among the ranks of "Only Yesterday", "Utena", "Sailor Moon" and others - precisely because it managed to make the viewers so genuinely care about the characters.


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