Reviews of Barefoot Gen (1983) and related work

Barefoot Gen (1983Moving picture, 83 minutes)

Kawajiri Yoshiaki (key animator).

Lieutenant Colonel Paul Warfield Tibbets Junior from Quincy, Illinois, loved flying. His first ride in an airplane was at the age of twelve. Tibbets designed the modifications of some Boeing B-29 bombers that would allow them to carry single bombs at greater altitudes than Japanese anti-aircraft guns could reach. He named one such plane the Enola Gay after his mother. At 8:15:15 local time, the morning of August 6, 1945, Tibbets dropped the object codenamed ”Little Boy” from the Enola Gay. It fell to an altitude of 1,900 feet in less than a minute, according to plan. Below it was the city of Hiroshima, where no warning sounded because the army assumed that the three planes were merely observers, like their predecessors.

Tibbets did his job, like the stubborn soldiers of Japan. More importantly, what happens to people when the President of the United States decides that their city should be hit with the instantaneous equivalent of 15,000,000 kilograms of TNT in one radioactive package?

An important anti-war tragedy attempting to show the short-term personal effects of the atomic bomb. Childish goofing around, with idolized parents, uneasily combined with extreme horror. Autobiographical, based on a comic. Filled with naïve energy, this is a good feel-bad apocalypse movie.

More historical side notes: The emperor and Japanese high command, with the exception of some extremists, were willing to surrender in the spring of 1945. US leaders knew this, having intercepted Japanese communications. In July, prime minister Suzuki had received an American ultimatum and sent a response indicating he needed more time. This was misinterpreted for Harry Truman by a translator who described the response as “silent contempt”. Stupidly, the Japanese had tried to arrange meetings with Russian diplomats to apply for peace while saving face. At the Potsdam conference, just a few days before the bombings, the Russians pushed their gains in eastern Europe, reinforcing the need for the USA to prove that they had a new weapon going into the Cold War. On the 8th, two days after Hiroshima, the Russians entered the war against Japan, as the Americans knew they would.

Hiroshima was not a target of special military importance. The army command unit stationed here was probably replaceable, despite rapid deterioration. Its defences were inadequate to prevent accurate conventional bombing, which had been effective against other cities. Hiroshima was saved for testing. The bomb was not aimed at its factories, which lay on the outskirts of the city. The timing of the explosion coincided with a lot of people being on their way to work and school.

Japan’s Longest Day (1967) illustrates why the Japanese allowed all of this to occur. The emperor had become a figurehead. He later said he was afraid the bombs would wipe out his people, but the precise importance of this fear is tantalizingly unclear. The Japanese surrendered when the Americans had clarified that they would not hurt the emperor. It is a stinging irony that hurting the emperor would have been contrary to US interests. His survival and entrance into a more public sphere as a gentle old gardener helped legitimize the US occupation in the same way that his supposed divinity and isolation had been used to legitimize the native military regime.

The atomic bombs—another one at Nagasaki on the 9th—were not militarily crucial, and not meant primarily to scare the Japanese leadership, which had already lost hope. They were useful tests, resolving an office-political liability resulting from a major sunk cost into R&D, and finally warnings to the Soviets and to the rest of the world not to interfere with the risen USA.

The name “Gen” in the title is written phonetically as ゲン. Common kanji for the sound are 原, meaning “origin”, “foundation” or “raw”, and 元, also meaning “origin”. The compound 原爆, genbaku, means “atomic bomb”. The story of pseudo-biographical Gen, like the story of Tetsutani Shinichi and his spurious tricycle, open up the significance of these historical events on an emotional level.

References here: “Don’t mention the war!”, Threads (1984), Anime from Akira to Princess Mononoke: Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation (2001/2005).

moving picture animation Japanese production fiction

Barefoot Gen 2 (1986Moving picture, 85 minutes)

Kawajiri Yoshiaki (key animator).

Three years after the attack, Gen and Ryūta still live as brothers. The family’s survivors no longer huddle in a shed, but life is still hard. The brothers collect scrap and climb the abandoned building which will later be known as the atomic bomb dome, looking for nests with eggs to eat. Ryūta swallows his pride and runs after an American jeep shouting “Hungry! Hungry!”, receiving bars of chocolate thrown by a smiling American soldier. Gen’s mother is perilously light and may die. Gen is strong enough to carry her, and meets a gang of orphans who are providing for themselves by helping the mob.

The people of Hiroshima are now referring to the event as pikadon; cf. “Pica Don” (1978). This sequel is realistic, less naïvely stylized, with older children and less central parenting. There is no atomic blast and hence no expressionistic horror, except insofar as some footage from the first film is repeated as an introduction.

I visited the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1997, less than a year before they closed the final version of an exhibition showing some of the restored fuselage of the Enola Gay. The silvery trophy of antipathy had a small plaque reporting “the facts”. I visited the atomic bomb museum in Hiroshima in 2004, which was very different. Hiroshima is now a normal Japanese big city, as shown in “Pica Don”. Some bright minds in the rubble saw the opportunity to widen the streets in anticipation of rapid population growth, straight in the face of the bomb.

moving picture sequel animation Japanese production fiction