February 29, 2024

Atomic Bomb Anime Unforgettable

The world changed forever on August 6, 1945. Towards the end of World War II, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima – the first time a nuclear bomb had ever been used in warfare. Three days later, America dropped the second atomic bomb on the nearby city of Nagasaki. Japan surrendered on September 2, and the war finally ended.

The employment of nuclear warfare changed the fabric of society. The Cold War continued soon after World War II, with the world living in fear of nuclear destruction and mass genocide. Although the Cold War technically ended decades ago, with nine countries are reported to possess nuclear weapons, there is still plenty of paranoia about the outbreak of nuclear war. Despite the constant threat of nukes destroying everything, for the vast majority of the world, the scale of the atomic bomb is completely unrecognizable.

That is not the case for Keiji Nakazawa, who was just six years old when an atomic bomb was dropped on his hometown of Hiroshima. As an adult, full-time cartoonist Nakazawa decided to write down his irreplaceable memories through his art. The first volume of his manga Barefoot Genbased on Nakazawa’s own childhood, in 1973. The series ran for more than a decade and was adapted into three live-action films and two anime films – the best of which, also known as Barefoot Genfirst seen July 21, 1983. That was exactly 40 years ago this week, and exactly 40 years before the release OppenheimerChristopher Nolan’s new film about the man known as “the father of the atomic bomb”.

The film, directed by Mori Masaki and written by Nakazawa, also follows the first half of the manga. It follows the young General Nakaoka and his family in Hiroshima during the second part of World War II. The country has been consumed by the ongoing war, with people forming long lines of cordons to secure their meager rations. Restless sleep is impossible, thanks to air alarms every night.

Like the manga, Barefoot Gen a fine balance between the joys and discoveries of youth and the harsh reality of living through war. As the film’s title drops, we see Gen and his younger brother Shinji running joyfully through their family’s wheat field, their smiles reflecting the unfathomable innocence of youth. But that hope only goes so far – the next time we see them running together (a few minutes later), they’re racing to find a doctor who will save their mother from dying of malnutrition.

In another scene, Gen and Shinji chase each other through the house, fighting over who gets to eat the family’s last potato. Seen through the eyes of children, it is a pleasant, almost jovial scene of tussling brothers. His older sister, Eiko quickly interrupts him, telling them that they must let their mother eat the potato, or the baby growing inside her will die.

The Nakaoka family lives a life full of challenges, but Masaki’s film looks carefully at the love this family has for each other. There are details that are closely observed, like a quiet moment when the boys put their heads on their mother’s lap and when they feel the baby kicking, they are bursting with tenderness. Despite their circumstances, their love for each other cannot be extinguished.

Image from the film Barefoot Gen

Everything changes on August 6. The film’s depiction of what happens is terrible: There is not a cloud in the sky on this wonderful day. Children go to school, farmers tend their land, and people wait for the bus. But Kentarō Haneda’s distressing score begins to take over, getting louder and louder. Strange things begin to happen: ants enter houses in droves, and a B-29 plane is seen in the air.

And then it happens. The atomic bomb explosion i Barefoot Gen It is one of the most terrifying, unforgettable sequences committed to film. The score lasts in complete silence. All color is drained from the scene when the bomb hits – except for a sinister red mushroom cloud that rises from a bird’s eye view of Hiroshima.

[Content warning for the clip below: graphic bodily harm and potentially triggering images.]

In a very dark moment, we see a young girl with a red balloon. Comes up, and the camera zooms in on her shortly. Her hair and clothes are torn, her eyes fall out of their sockets, and her skin melts to ashes. We see the same thing happen to a postman, an elderly man, a mother and her newborn child, and a dog. The repetition doesn’t make it easier to digest, but instead forces you to look at some of the countless lives lost in the blink of an eye. Images of destruction continue: Buildings are destroyed, families are trapped under rubble, and all that can be heard is the overwhelming sound of a devastating explosion.

The atomic bomb explosion is handled with artistic mastery of components and emotional devastation, but the aftermath of the explosion is even more poignant. An explosion lasts a moment, but the result lasts a lifetime.

After the bombing, Gen wakes up under a pile of rubble, death and destruction all around him. People walk around like zombies, skin melting, eyes falling out. “Ghosts! They’re all ghosts!” Gen said, terror filling his lungs. It’s a truly apocalyptic vision, but instead of theorizing what it might look like one day, Barefoot Gen a harrowing personal account of an unspeakable tragedy. This becomes even more impactful when you remember that screenwriter Nakazawa himself lived – this is fiction taken from real life.

Gen goes home to find his brother, sister and father inside their house—with the fire all around, Gen and his pregnant mother, who happened to be in the right place at the right time, have no way to save the rest of their family. They have no choice but to leave them behind. In a broken moment, Gen promises his father that he will protect his mother.

Barefoot Gen delivers a cavalcade of other disturbing images. Multiple babies try to drink their mother’s milk, not knowing that they have died. Prey crawls into the open wounds of people who are still alive. Black deadly rain falls from the sky. A sharp zoom-out reveals that death involves both Gen and his mother. No matter where they go, they cannot escape the horror of the bomb. The effects of radiation are dealt with head on—there is no cut back to the aftermath of the bomb on the Japanese people, or the reality of their situation. The fact that it is all seen through the eyes of a child is terrifying, and gives us a vital insight into the conflict on a scale the human mind can barely comprehend.

The story of Barefoot Gen it continues after the war ends. When Gen’s mother is told by a neighbor that the war is over, she is beside herself screaming, “What do you mean the war is over now?” She then kneels over the skulls of her dead family.

Despite the misery, there is an undercurrent of hope in the film. Gen and his mother live on, and although it seems impossible, there is a future for them after the bombing. A young boy even enters his life who bears a striking resemblance to Shinji—under the most likely circumstances, Nakaoka’s family can grow, just like the grass that begins to grow again at the end of the film.

Barefoot Gen it not only presents an apocalyptic vision of the devastating consequences of the atomic bomb but also paints a portrait of Japan’s resilience and resistance in a moment when such things must have felt impossible. It’s challenging to sit through, and its imagery will haunt you for days, even weeks after you’ve seen it. But underneath the horror is a capable human element, as this family lives to survive in unimaginable circumstances. It’s as quintessentially a portrait of warfare as you can get, full of terror, resistance and humanity.

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