Title: Hidashi no Gen / Barefoot Gen
Length: 1 x 83 minute movie
Genre: Drama, war
Year of release: 1983
I always try and anticipate what the reaction to my reviews will be. It’s good practice. I want to make a positive review that even haters will think is credible, and vice versa. I don’t want to be called a ‘fanboy’ for being positive about something lesser known, a hater for criticising something mainstream – you know? I say this because this review is going to require me to be delicate. I don’t want you to call me heartless.
That’s because Barefoot Gen is an anti-war movie, with a message thoroughly rubbed in. Seeing its one-sided angle can make this almost ironic from a Western perspective; the only blame given to the Japanese powers, politically, is failing to surrender, rather than the war-crimes, massive human sacrifice and siding with facism – but, in the absence of an anime depicting (or even accepting) the horrors of Nanking, we find ourselves with Barefoot Gen, another generalist, wishy-washy anti-war slice-of-life movie. Much like the overly-focused and narrow-minded Grave of the Fireflies that would come a few years later, Barefoot Gen capitalises, highlights and rings the word Tragedy, and, Whoops! accidentally covers up all the context, development, plot, characterisation – all the things that make slice-of-life movies, well, life, and tragedy movies tragic.
For lack of a better term, it’s the ‘killing a cute puppy’ of war movies. Your attachment to its sad scenes isn’t its hard gruelling work to make scenes sad, it’s because they chose scenes already sad.
Barefoot Gen finds a niche in this perfunctory genre solely aimed against the nuke. Gen and his family are just about making ends meet in 1945, on the outskirts of Hiroshima. Gen’s mother is pregnant and malnutrition is keeping her bedridden, his father adamantly refuses to go to war, his sister is trying her best to help the family in their time of need and Gen and his younger brother are doing their best but fail to see the bigger picture. It’s only a matter of wartime slice-of-life before the bomb drops.
And that is terrifying, captured in three stomach-churning minutes of cinematic achievement. Barefoot Gen’s centrepiece is undoubtedly the animation of the bomb-dropping. It focuses so intently on the minute, of a mother cradling her baby in the hellfire, of a dog trying to outrun it, and this contrasts with the gruesome horror of eyeballs exploding from sockets and skin withering in slow-motion seconds. When the bomb-dropped, I sat in awe. The bomb dropping may well be the most jaw-dropping sequence of animation to come out of Japan – like, ever.
It’s a shame, then, that much of the movie struggles beyond that point. The rest of the movie focuses on Gen surviving in the next few days in a sketch-oriented fashion, but the script regularly fails to capture the nuance required. In fact, dialogue can be outright odd after the bomb drops – even adults fail to show sympathy in their dialogue choices, with Gen’s mother seeming to rejoice, claiming ‘I’m so lucky!’ that her baby can be breastfed by a mother who was grieving the loss of her own. Thanks for rubbing it in. That’s just one example of the script failing to capture real people and empathy within a small cast, but there’s many other examples of sheer inconsideration going unnoticed by the screenwriters and actors, and that’s to say nothing of the heavy exposition dumps by adults to Gen, a child whose age is precariously portrayed at best.
The film fails to foreshadow beyond its short sketches of war-horror, too. It can become frustrating seeing something brought up there-and-then to become a minor plot-point, explained dully (and always explained, rarely ever truly depicted without an apologetic annotation of its meaning), and subsequently resolved within seconds. The film not only fails to flow because of this, but feels convenient in its depressing imagery. The five-odd minutes of movie-time that Gen works with a rich family, caring for a brother-in-law, is infested with plot-holes, but worse, only serves to show us the extent of the bomb and one soppy attempt at sentimentalism.
Barefoot Gen captures the horror of nuclear war loudly, and propels an inexplicit message of nuclear disarmament, but that’s all it has going for it. Being a movie is secondary. And thus, I fear I’m being heartless to the terrible human tragedy that befall Japan. My own heart cries out that I, calling Barefoot Gen out, am unsympathetic to the sheer loss of life that must never be repeated. But, at the end of the day, a call for an end-to-arms via tragic loss of life shouldn’t need to be convincing, it does not need to be depressing: it’s a message already convincing, a reality already depressing, and these are things Barefoot Gen manages on fantastic animation, real-world-context and principal, not on movie-making skill.