Barefoot Gen is a historical drama about the bombing of Hiroshima at the end of World War II. It is loosely based on the experiences of Keiji Nakazawa -- the author of the original manga and survivor of the Hiroshima attack. It tells the story of Gen, who lives a hard but happy life with his family; but when the Alona Gay flies over and drops its nuclear payload, his life is changed forever.
This movie does not pull any punches when it comes to showing the full effects of the bomb's explosion. First off there is the explosion itself -- all shown in slow motion giving it an intense realism. Then you see its direct effects on people when men, children, pets, and even mothers holding their babies are all hit by the radiation blast and their bodies disintegrate in gruesome slow-motion detail.
The aftereffects of the blast are just as disturbing. Gen, who has miraculously survived, stands up to notice that the girl he had been walking with just a minute ago is now nothing but a corpse. He sees people walking toward him, but once they get close he sees that they look like zombies with melting flesh and who are totally unresponsive as he looks for help. When he reaches his house, he sees that it has collapsed and his family is trapped under the rubble. The only person he can rescue is his pregnant mother but the rest are buried and burned alive.
In the days that follow, Gen, his mother, and the newborn baby struggle to survive. Eventually they take in an orphan named Ryuuta because he reminds them of Gen's recently deceased brother. Their situation is made even more urgent by the fact that Gen's mother can't nurse the baby because she's had to nothing to eat and all she's had to drink is water.
It's a surreal experience to watch the whole thing unfold, but the the fact that the story was written by someone who was actually there helps to keep it grounded in reality. During the entire movie I kept wondering just how much of Gen's experience is a true-life reflection of what happened to the writer. For instance, did he really help his mom deliver her baby and did they really take in an orphan like it shows in the movie? Stuff like that really kept me paying close attention.
As much as the story was about hardship, Gen's youthful energy and attempts to make the best out of everything keeps the tone from growing too heavy. He keeps a forward-looking and cheerful attitude as he does various jobs to earn (and sometimes steal) money and food. Despite the somewhat disjointed and rushed feeling of these sub-stories, they help to raise the tone and make the story much easier to digest.
The second movie takes place three years after the end of the first one, and tells about Gen, his mother, and Ryuuta. Gen also meets up with some orphans and they work together to earn money to support each other and support Gen's mother whose health is steadily declining.
This second movie is driven more by the characters than by events, so it is not as shocking as the first. It does however show that there hasn't been a lot of improvement to things over the years since the bomb hit. Classes for children take place in the rubble of a school building, people are still dying daily from radiation sickness (called Pika), and human bones can be seen lining the river bottom.
As far as the animation is concerned, both movies show their age to a degree, but the first movie is definitely much lower quality. (At times it reminded me of something from a Charlie Brown cartoon.) The animation in the second movie is much better, with improved detail and much more fluid movement of the characters.
The music in both movies is pretty bad. It's dated and even sounds cheesy at times. It doesn't distract from the power of the story and visuals though.
I've read a lot of reviews comparing this movie to Grave of the Fireflies -- the other, more popular World War II movie about orphaned children. That one was animated by Studio Ghibli so the animation quality is superior by far, but I'm not as sure about the story. I think Grave is more heavy-handed in portraying its anti-war theme in part because it pushes the cuteness of the kids and the tragedy of their situation in order to manipulate the audience's emotions. But Gen seems like it is just showing what happened and figures that that is enough to get the point across. Sure, it uses children, but the kids are not overly cute and seldom do anything I'd call adorable. Also, although the story can sometimes seem disjointed, I think Gen does a better job of making the movie watchable by balancing the tragedy with a sense of hope. The differences are diminished a bit when you compare Grave with the second Barefoot Gen movie. But regardless, if you like movies rooted in history, then I don't think you can go wrong seeing either one.