by John Whitehead
Advocates for the Consistent Life Ethic would do well to mark and reflect on the 75th anniversaries of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6th and 9th this year. One way to remember and mourn these massive acts of violence is by watching a Japanese portrayal of the Hiroshima bombing, the animated movie Barefoot Gen (1983).
Directed by Mori Masaki and based on a manga series, Barefoot Gen tells the story of Gen Nakaoka, an elementary-school-age boy who lives in Hiroshima. Gen is the second child of a poor cobbler and his wife, with an adolescent sister, Eiko, and a toddler brother, Shinji. Their mother is pregnant with a fourth child when the movies begins.
Roughly the first third of the movie is devoted to scenes of Gen’s life in the summer of 1945. We witness the family’s poverty and their struggle, amid rationing and other hardships of the Second World War, to obtain enough food. Keeping the mother and her unborn child nourished and healthy is a particular concern. We see other effects of the war on daily life: the movie begins with the Nakaoka family huddled in a bomb shelter to avoid an American air raid; later, we see a small, flag-waving parade of people send a soldier off to the war.
Despite these hardships, Gen behaves likes an ordinary rambunctious boy, running around town and fighting with his younger brother. One memorable episode involves Gen and Shinji trying to get food for their mother by stealing a fish from a wealthy man’s pond. In the movie’s warm early scenes, we get a sense of the members of this family and how much they love each other.
When we reach the morning of August 6, 1945, Barefoot Gen cuts back and forth between the Nakaoka family starting their day and the Enola Gay’s flight to the city. Masaki and his animators use a different style to depict the plane and its crew, who look rather like images from an American comic book. The different visual style emphasizes the sense that this plane represents not only a different nation but a radically different reality that is about to intrude on the people below.
On the ground, tension builds as Gen walks to school. He and a schoolmate notice the plane overhead and pause to watch it. The Enola Gay releases the Little Boy bomb, and for almost 20 seconds we watch it slowly fall toward Hiroshima.
To call what follows “nightmare fuel” would be an understatement. Time slows down as we witness the bomb’s effects. The flash of light briefly turns everything into a kind of photo-negative image. Windows shatter, buildings collapse. We see a series of tableaux in which various inhabitants of Hiroshima—a child, a soldier, an old man, a mother with a baby, a dog—are incinerated. The sequence, which lasts about three minutes, ends on an animated recreation of a famous photograph taken after the bombing.
Two details from this sequence especially stick in my mind. One is how, as the mother and her baby burn up, the woman falls on top of the child in a vain attempt to save her. The other is how, as Gen and his schoolmate are hurled through the air by the explosion, we briefly see that half the schoolmate’s face has been burned away.
Scenes of the bombing’s aftermath follow, and the filmmakers pull no punches in their depiction. We see the dying and wounded, and those who try to come to their rescue, sometimes only to suffer similar fates. Gen is confronted with a wrenching personal choice, yet he must find a way to survive and struggle on.
The fact Barefoot Gen is animated is crucial to the power of these scenes, which would not work as well as live-action. A live-action recreation of this extreme level of death and destruction would risk coming across either as something out of a splatter flick or just as fake (consider the rather cheesy scenes of nuclear devastation in the otherwise very fine TV movie The Day After).
When done as hand-drawn animation, however, the violence has an eerie power that induces a kind of horrified silence. I was reminded of the drawings by Hiroshima survivors reproduced in the book Unforgettable Fire.
Despite its undeniable power, Barefoot Gen is also a seriously flawed movie. In the later scenes, dealing with post-bomb, post-war life, the filmmakers strain to find the right tone, veering uncertainly from grim to sentimental or even comic and back again. Sometimes this seems intentional, as when a moment of seeming triumph is undercut by a cruel loss. In general, though, the movie’s final third suffers from this inconsistency and doesn’t evoke emotion as effectively as the earlier sections.
Multiple elements of the movie echo the Consistent Life Ethic. As I have described, war’s terrible effects are prominently displayed. Moreover, the anti-war critique is aimed not merely at the United States but also the Japanese government, which continued to fight the war far beyond all hope of victory. Unlike their neighbors, Gen’s parents oppose the war. His mother warns, “If it doesn’t end soon, our country will become a wasteland.” His father echoes this view and counsels Gen and his brother, “Sometimes it takes a lot more courage not to fight than to fight, to not want to kill when all around you are calling out for blood. That’s real courage.”
Other consistent-life themes turn up. The family is deeply concerned for their youngest, unborn member, and Gen and his brother bond with their sibling in the womb. An episode late in the movie, involving a man terribly maimed by the bomb, shows how disability need not mean the end of someone’s life.
While by no means perfect, Barefoot Gen is an impressive piece of filmmaking that indelibly depicts the terrible consequences of war. Those concerned with defending life and building peace in our world should see it.