The exact moment the atomic bomb stopped being abstract, a symbol of America’s cultural and military superiority, was partway through my first and — so far — only viewing of the anime adaptation of Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen. I don’t remember exactly when I saw it, but I googled around and it was probably around 1994 or 1995. I’d have been a pre-teen at the time, old enough to rent movies but not old enough to have my own money to rent those. I cajoled my mom into bringing that one home because the other options were probably some Masami Obari flicks with sexy girls on the cover. Barefoot Gen was the safest choice, I guess because it looked like a movie for kids. It had a little boy running on the cover, right?
It’s about Gen, a young child living in Hiroshima, and it chronicles his life before and after Little Boy was dropped on the town. It’s really good, but I’ve only ever watched it once. I dubbed it off onto a tape after, and I later bought it on DVD, because I feel like it’s a movie that I need to own. It feels important.
It feels important because it devastated me as a kid. It’s been long enough that I don’t remember every little detail, or even how it ended. But I do remember the shots of the plane flying over the town, the way the map of the town snapped from color to black and white with a bright orange cloud once the bomb went off, and the horrors that followed. Humans flashing to dust, melting in the heat, and dying slowly in their own homes while begging and praying for someone to help their children.
I still don’t really cry at movies, but I sobbed my guts out watching Barefoot Gen and probably would if I watched it again. The last movie to give me that reaction was Spike Lee’s When The Levees Broke. I got so mad and sad at the utterly pointless loss of life and needless trauma that I just couldn’t take it. I bought the sequel, God Willing And Da Creek Don’t Rise, like 18 months ago and still haven’t watched it, because I figure I’ll react the same way again.
Barefoot Gen is an important movie to me because it turned an abstract idea concrete. “The atomic bomb is awe-inspiring and amazing, a true triumph for America!” turned into “The atomic bomb is awful. We murdered innocent people and the effects are still being felt today.” I’ve spent most of my life on or around air force bases, and as a kid, war was exciting. Fighter pilots, right? Glamorous. Awesome. But I didn’t understand the cost. I didn’t understand collateral damage, acceptable losses, and war crimes.
I was a kid then. I’m glad I learned better.
Keiji Nakazawa died of lung cancer on 12/19/2012. He was born on 03/14/1939, and was in Hiroshima when Little Boy was dropped out of the Enola Gay at 0815 on 08/06/1945. He survived, but many of his family members didn’t. His baby sister survived the bombing, but died later.
Barefoot Gen is on DVD, but it looks like prices have skyrocketed since Nakazawa died. If you can find it at a price that works for you, give it a watch.