Friday 19 July 2019

100 Essential Films That Deserve More Attention - 51. Barefoot Gen

People embrace the enchanting glow of the big screen for all manner of reasons; to journey to faraway places they could only ever imagine, to experience the escapism of a captivating story, or maybe to indulge in an obsession with the world of cinema. For me, all three of these reasons apply - and many more - but first and foremost is the satisfaction of recommending obscure films to other like-minded individuals who adopt them as their new favourites.

With over 100 years worth of films to choose from, and many of these now available at the click of a button, it can be extremely difficult to narrow your choices down to pick a film to watch. Although cinema has been around for over four times longer than my life on this earth, I have spent what some may consider an unhealthy amount of these years delving into the history of films to discover some of the best hidden gems out there.

This series of articles aims to highlight the overlooked masterpieces that I have unearthed whilst exploring the forgotten recesses of cinema. Take a gamble on any one of these films and I guarantee that you will be eagerly awaiting all future instalments in this series. You may well have heard of a number of these films; my aim isn't merely to shine a spotlight on the most obscure films out there, but to share my enjoyment of those films which don't have the cult following I believe they deserve.

Barefoot Gen
Director - Mori Masaki
Country - Japan
Year - 1983
Runtime - 83 minutes

Barefoot Gen is one of the most horrific animated films I have ever seen. It lulls you into a false sense of security with its sad but fairly innocuous portrayal of a poverty-stricken family in  war torn Japan in August 1945, a few days before the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Their daily struggles and hardships are affecting but these pale in comparison to the soul-crushing scenes of devastation we see in the wake of the bomb when it comes crashing down on the city. The first on-screen death we witness following the explosion is that of a young innocent girl clutching a doll as the intense heat rips her skin from her bones and her eyeballs are torn violently from her sockets. The shock of this impact leaves you reeling but the film continues to assault your senses with a barrage of disturbing imagery that would not feel out of place in a horror film. The ensuing carnage is genuinely unsettling and the overwhelming sense of dread is exacerbated by the emotionally draining scenes of death and destruction which befall Gen and his family.

The use of animation allows the film-makers to depict the ferociousness of the initial explosion and the subsequent fallout in ways that would not be possible in a live action film, and this enables the animators to showcase some incredibly dark and troubling scenarios. Make no mistake, this is a far cry from a Studio Ghibli film, with scenes of unflinching brutality that will sear their way onto your retinas and leave an indelible scar on your psyche like the unforgettable bombing at Hiroshima that continues to haunt its inhabitants today. The heavy themes it explores and the heartbreaking story it tells are clearly aimed at a mature audience, even though we experience the harrowing circumstances of the bombing through the struggles of a young boy. A boy who is thrust into the realm of adulthood far too early by virtue of the horrific ordeal he faces.

Gen is fortunate enough to belong to a loving family comprising of doting parents, a caring older sister, and a younger brother that he playfully fights with over any scraps of food they can get their hands on. His mother is heavily pregnant and his father is desperately trying to provide for the family in a society where food is scarce and the population is starving. This is a family unit that stick together through the hard times but nothing can prepare them for the life-altering events that will completely destroy any semblance of leading a normal existence ever again.

The stirring voice acting provides a real indication of the horror experienced by Gen and those close to him, making it a prerequisite for the original Japanese audio to be favoured over the jarring English dubbing track. Issei Miyazaki brings an endearing naivety to Gen's voice that is soon unseated and replaced with a raw sense of the tragic situation which engulfs him. As is the case with a lot of anime films the character's expressions are often exaggerated and this serves the emotionally distressing nature of the film well, heightening the impact of those scenes which resonate the most; particularly during the intimate heartbreak as Gen is separated from members of his family.

A traditional Japanese soundtrack instills the film with an evocative soundscape that chimes with the humble nature of Gen's upbringing as we are introduced to his family's simple way of life. This eventually gives way to a crescendo of ear-splitting explosions that leave an eerie and uncomfortable silence in their wake. When we move into the final third of the film, the score becomes awash with haunting melodies that tie in with the overwhelming regret and pain that consumes our devastated protagonist throughout his attempts to survive this living nightmare.

The visions of hell that Barefoot Gen depicts are pure nightmare fuel and you will certainly be haunted by the unforgettable scene when Gen utters the memorable line 'What hell is this? during a moment of pure terror. It makes you reflect upon the travesty of the human race's proliferation of violent and callous weapons of mass destruction, and strikes fear into your heart that advancements in weaponry continue to pose a dangerous threat to humanity.

The tragic tale of Barefoot Gen is a bleak and relentlessly harrowing experience to endure and the heartbreak continues in the sequel directed by Toshio Hirata. It briefly recaps the events of the first film before showcasing Gen's continuing struggle for survival as the effects of the radiation poisoning continue to ravage Hiroshima. Whilst not quite as impactful as its predecessor, it is still a worthy companion piece that serves to enhance our understanding of the aftermath and is essential viewing for those who are touched by the poignancy of the first outing.

Barefoot Gen offers a powerful and devastating history lesson in a beautifully realised film and it hits home in ways that you might never expect from an animated war feature. Its depressing subject matter is handled with a real care and is faithful to the prominent Manga series it is based upon. The trauma and grief resonates deeply as Gen traverses the dark and disturbing aftermath of the shocking incident that befell Hiroshima, ensuring that this exceptional piece of film-making will stay with you forever, even if you try to push aside the haunting imagery that makes this such a powerful work of art.

If you take the time to watch Barefoot Gen then it would be awesome if you could also take the time to let me know what you thought of it, either by commenting below or tweeting me @filmbantha. Thanks, and enjoy!

For previous instalments in the series click here

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