Animation Isn’t Just For Kids, as Told by a Child’s Narrative

In this column, Amos Lamb will take you through the wonderful world of animation. Exploring what makes it such an appealing genre/medium for all ages, with the focus spanning from the mainstream animation studios like Disney & Studio Ghibli, to more obscure animation such as Japanese OVA’s, British claymation, Czechoslovakian stop-motion and everything in-between. 

Content and Spoiler Warning: In this column there will be discussion of important scenes from Barefoot Gen 1&2 as well as discussion of graphic violence to do with the Second World War and the dropping of the atomic bombs.

Whether you’re a fan of shows like Deathnote, Neon Genesis Evangelion, The Boondocks, Steven Universe or even My Little Pony, every animation fan has been faced with that question: “isn’t this for children?”. To which the answer varies between: “no” and “well yes but it’s still enjoyable for adults”. So when thinking about what to write about for my column, I couldn’t think of a better topic than tackling this idea through the help of two anime films that use their childish aesthetic to discuss the adult themes of war and the dropping of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima. These films are; Barefoot Gen (‘Hadashi no Gen’ in Japanese) and it’s sequel, Barefoot Gen 2 (‘Hadashi no Gen 2’).

Barefoot Gen and Barefoot Gen 2 are based on the seminal manga of the same name by Keiji Nakazawa, which was a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s own experience living in Hiroshima during the war and eventual bombing. With the first film’s screenplay being helmed by the mangaka himself. The main character, Gen, serves as a stand-in for Nakazawa with some events being expanded and fictionalised, but others coming straight from Nakazawa’s own experience. The first film explores Gen’s life living in war-time Japan, with regular trips to the air-raid shelter and his family’s struggle for food. Gen is the middle child out of his three siblings, old enough to understand the situation (he points out spy planes, and knows the trails of B-52 bombers) but young enough to remain innocent and childlike, but also sometimes naive (fighting over the sweet potato with his brother when his mother is pregnant). Meanwhile the second film follows a slightly older Gen, 3 years after the bombing it shows Gen’s attempt to rebuild with his mother and surrogate brother Ryuta, in the aftermath of the war. While it’s a lot less horrific than the first film, it also continues the idea of contrasting and juxtaposing the childish aesthetic and tone with the adult struggle for survival in the wake of the devastation.

My own history with Barefoot Gen starts with Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies, another anime film that deals with the subject of the bombing of Hiroshima. That was *probably* my first experience of an animated film dealing with such a heavy topic. I was used to Ghibli films such as My Neighbour Totoro & Kiki’s Delivery Service, as well as Western animation like Disney and Cartoon Network, which are about as far away from the topics covered in these films as you can get. So of course my young mind was opened to the idea of these darker themes within the colourful world of animation, so after reading various lists of graphic & dark anime, the name that kept popping up was Barefoot Gen. 

This was years ago and I’ve seen many graphic animated films since, but the one thing that stuck with me from Barefoot Gen is its aesthetic. The style of animation is reminiscent of the 1970’s Doraemon adaptation and similar child-centric anime, especially in its soundtrack and character design. The curved character design and exaggerated features of Gen, alongside the bright colour scheme and playful soundtrack evokes the feeling of a children’s narrative, which is ultimately used to juxtapose with the horrors and atrocities of the bombing of Hiroshima that are eventually shown. Even the film’s opening sets up this juxtaposition with the grave opening narration setting out a brief history of the war, before transitioning into the colourful aesthetic of Gen’s world. Which opens onto a beautiful scene of Gen, his father and his brother playing in the wheat fields. Director Mori Masaki instills this scene with a sense of pure unbridled joy, playing off the audiences expectations and knowledge of what to come. Even within the scene the interplay of this theme is present, with Gen’s father passing down wisdom about surviving hardships, which Gen and his brother interrupt, clearly being told this many times before. Not completely dismissing the advice, but clearly misunderstanding why their father is so persistent in this idea. The imagery of wheat and the advice from his father is an important motif that recurs in both films, especially in terms of Gen’s development into a man.

As the film continues, we see the trials and tribulation of war-time Japan all through the cartoonish style and the childish worldview. Grown men fighting over rations comes across on one level like a Popeye-style fight, Gen & his brother sing playful songs about their lack of food, and the intrigue at the bomber plane/spy planes that Gen shows all highlight what Masaki & Nakazawa are trying to get across. There’s a lot of emotion and genuine human connection in this early section of the film, the family bond is beautiful and there’s some wonderful moments of humanity in between the sorrow (the Carp scene specifically). This all comes to ahead in that scene.

For those of you who have seen Barefoot Gen I’m certain you know what I’m talking about, for those who haven’t, it’s probably the most (in)famous scene in the film: The moment where the atomic bomb drops. Leading up to the scene in question, we see Gen heading to school with a classmate, before the focus switches to the American pilots; shown in a scratchy and harsher aesthetic that is a stark contrast to the rest of the film’s animation style. As the bomb drops all sound fades to silence, we get a blinding flash of light as the cast of characters turn completely black in the shadows of the initial blast. The camera moves in on a small girl, holding a red balloon. The balloon pops, her shirt rips off of her body, her skin becomes discoloured, her eye drops out of her head and her body burns to a crisp. It’s horrific. It unapologetically shows the devastation of the bomb. Then we’re treated to similar scenes of soldiers, old men, mothers and infants, animals, cultural landmarks, and finally, Gen’s family all either disintegrated or cut by shards of glass and debris from the blast. Gen’s life is upturned in an instance, protected by a wall, he turns to see his classmate with half of her face disintegrated by the blast. It’s an intense sequence that is one of the main reasons the film earned its notoriety. After this scene, the whole tone of the film shifts, the core themes of humanity and hope are still present; and Gen’s childish view of the view, while altered, is still at the core of the story, but from here on out, it’s a tale about the atrocity of the atomic bomb, the struggle to survive, and the horrors that the people of Japan had to face. Thus coming to the main statement of this article. Whether or not Barefoot Gen is suitable for children isn’t a topic I’m going to discuss, but the hill that I am willing to die on, is that despite it’s aesthetics and style, Barefoot Gen is a film for adults. The carnage of the fallout is as brutal as it is sorrowful, mothers with dead children, half-dead citizens walking around like zombies looking for any relief, children drowning in the rivers as they attempt to soothe their pain. All of these stories, despite how fictionalised they may be, reflect the true horror of what the Japanese people went through. Gen’s story isn’t a made-up one, it’s drawn from the real horror that Nakazawa went through and saw with his own eyes. What happens to Gen’s family actually happened to Nakazawa, it’s a truly harrowing, which is what makes his message of hopefulness and strength in the face of everything is a universal message. 

Despite its significant step down in quality from the first film, the same points still stand for Barefoot Gen 2. Gone is the grotesque imagery of the war, but in its place is the turmoil of post-surrender Japan. Despite being more grown up, we still see the world through Gen’s adolescent eyes. While on the surface scenes such as the building of the orphan’s house and the fishing in the river scene come across as joyful experiences, underlying them is a heartbreaking realisation that this was a horrible truth that followed the atomic bomb. Families displaced, lingering effects of the radiation affecting scores of people, and a town & people scared to the very core by the awful events. But the way that director Toshio Hirata approaches such topics is done through the hopeful nature of the next generation, healing the scars of the war. We see this through some clever imagery, the house that Gen and his friends build is made through the remnants of an Army outpost, literally rebuilding the community out of the remnants of the war. At other times in the film we see Gen and his friends healing more literal scar of the bomb, this is shown through Katsuko, a girl who has suffered serious burns across her body as a result of the bomb. She’s shy and bullied because of how she looks, but alongside the gang of orphans, she is treated as an equal. While the other kids haven’t suffered the same physical scars as Katsuko, they all share in a common connection having all suffered in the devastation. There’s a beautiful scene where Gen licks her wounds, as a way to soothe the pain and to help her. It’s a moment of pure acceptance and love, highlighting the important message of hope and rebuilding that the film tries to get across. Once again these universal themes that could & should easily resonate with adult viewers, even if the film (and this one is much moreso) aimed at children. Going forward with this column I really want to highlight some of the best, the unique and the weird that the medium of Animation has to offer. But what I wanted to, and hopefully did, highlight in this piece is that despite what the nay-sayers will say, Animation is not just for children. There’s a whole range of adult animation that goes unnoticed because too many people think its just for kids and dismiss it. And even in animation that is possibly aimed at children (the BBFC rated Barefoot Gen as a ‘12a’ rating but some would argue the grotesque imagery would require a higher rating than this), there is a wealth of depth that is just as relevant, if not more relevant, for adult audiences. Even if Barefoot Gen and its sequel could be mistaken as childish by its style and aesthetic, it’s a deeply harrowing film that, I would argue, is an important watch for Adult viewers to understand the horrors of the Atomic bomb, as well as to understand what animation can achieve.

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