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Barefoot Gen Anime DVD Review

9 min read

Emotionally devastating and practically required viewing.

What They Say
Hiroshima, August 1945. Gen is a cheerful elementary school student living in Japan during World War II. After years of living with difficult wartime rationing and impoverished conditions, Gen and his family have managed to maintain a relatively normal and happy life. All that is about to change when an atomic bomb destroys their city in an instant. While Gen and his mother manage to survive the attack, the rest of their family is not so lucky. In the face of adversity, Gen manages to maintain his cheerful spirit and never loses hope that things will get better for him, and for the entire nation of Japan. Based on the world renowned manga “Barefoot Gen” by Keiji Nakazawa, Barefoot Gen captures the spirit of a nation struggling to redefine itself and gives us encouragement to overcome tragedy and cherish human life.

The Review
The audio presentation for this release brings us the original Japanese language track in stereo and encoded at 192kbps. The Japanese track is also all that’s available here for both movies and it sounds pretty good overall with its full stereo mix that has very little in terms of noticeable directionality. Some of the voices get a little rough at the higher levels but with the age of the show and likely the lack of great source elements to work with, it’s entirely forgivable considering how minimal it is. The track sounds good otherwise throughout and we had no problems with dropouts or other major flaws during regular playback.

Originally released in 1983 for the first movie and 1986 for the second, both movies are presented in their original full screen aspect ratio. The source material for both movies look fantastic here, much better than I believed they would considering their age. The first movie in particular looks amazing with practically no heavy moments of video noise or other problems beyond some mild dust and dirt here and there and a few nicks and maybe some mild jitter once in awhile. The second film seems to have faired a bit better with some deeper colors to it and a more varied palette but that’s also something that a different animation studio and director could have brought to the project. Together, both movies simply look fantastic and if not for the designs and some of the obvious areas of age, it looks like it could have been made much more recently than it was.

While the original cover art used for the Image release wasn’t bad per se, this one is far more stylish and really works in the reality with the very simple line artwork to create a very disturbing piece the more you look at it. With a quarter of it being grayscale imagery of one of the buildings in ruins and the rest a red and black piece with Gen’s eye that sees the atomic explosion in it, it’s a very dark and serious looking piece that’s very stark yet strangely alluring at the same time. It may be a bit pretentious or artsy for some but I think it works great. The back cover is a bit more traditional with a full black background that has some shots from the show and a decent summary that covers just the first movie. The technical information is fairly clearly listed but without a grid you have to be sure you take it all in to make sure you didn’t miss anything. I was actually surprised that there were no dubs made for these since it’s something that you can gloss over easily with this kind of layout. I was also disappointed that the run times for the movies weren’t listed separately as well as combined. The insert replicates the front cover on one side while the other has the chapter listings and some of the artwork from the back cover.

The menu design for this is wonderful as it zooms in on a number of sepia filled photos that are laying together and inside some of them it plays out a clip of animation from the show before zooming back out and moving on to another as a bit of somber music plays. Other than a bit of a slight jump when it loops, this is a gorgeous menu design that really uses the show’s elements to its advantage for something just perfect. Access times are nice and fast and the layout very easy to navigate and very much in style. With the minimal language selections here, we had no problems with the players’ presets in picking up the right subtitles and obviously going with the right audio track.

The extras are a bit minimal and I wish there was more to them, but it’s not one I expect a lot of Japanese extras with and something that’s hard to justify creating original material. There’s a couple of very short screens about the original author’s loss and his motivations for writing the comic and the photo gallery is just that, a gallery of actual photos from the area the show takes place with some before and after shots. There isn’t a lick of animation in these which is a plus.

Content: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
Barefoot Gen hadn’t had the best of releases in the US and I’m not even sure the second movie ever made it to home video here since there is scant mention of it in general. Part of some of the titles that Image had acquired via the Orion purchase which I believe came from Streamline, the title finally had its rights revert and Geneon picked it up for release here. The lack of the dub is the only thing that I can see hindering this show, but since it’s more of a historical drama than anything else, it’s appeal is limited to begin with. And in some strange way, I have to admit that I would find it out of place to have American’s voicing characters suffering through this kind of tragedy. It just feels wrong.

That said, Barefoot Gen is the kind of classic on par with Grave of the Fireflies but has received far less respect here because of its limited availability as well as presumably its simpler animation style. The film opens in a fairly similar way in that we’re introduced to young Gen and his brother Shinji as their father teaches them the way of the wheat fields in how it overcomes all adversity, something he wants his sons to understand as they grow up. There are plenty of air raids that have been canvassing the country as the American forces have been hitting the mainland more and more, so we get to see the preparations being made by Gen’s family, which is also made up of his pregnant mother and older sister, as they get ready to take shelter.

Little did they know that living in Hiroshima at that time was going to lead to such tragedy, and this is where the differences are more noticeable between this and Grave of the Fireflies. When the attacks start and everything starts turning to flames, Gen and his mother are witness to the tragedy that befalls the rest of the family as they’re unable to free them from under the rubble of their home. They’re forced to face the choice of leaving them to die in the flames in order to protect the mother and unborn child, with Gen’s father shouldering him with that responsibility. Gen has that which is bad enough but to watch his little brother and sister also die in the flames tears at him, but he’s force to do as he’s told and to keep his promise to his father.

Hiroshima is in ruins at this point and Gen is forced to handle the sudden stress induced birth of his sister while also trying to find any sort of help, none of which is forthcoming. The lack of water, medicine, milk or even clothing makes for a horrible and hard time for the pair but they have the will to survive and the need to get what they must in order for the newborn girl Tomoko to survive. The journey they make through the ruins is what makes this so much more painful as the devastation is all too apparent, from the hundreds of thousands that were killed instantly and littering the streets to those who died not long afterwards from malnutrition, disease or the dreaded radiation sickness called pika. It’s so heartwrenching to watch as each of them, along with a new family member, try to survive in this hellish environment, especially during the first few days when the flames would not subside.

The second movie is a different piece of work, particularly without the direct involvement of the original author in the same way as the first movie. This moves the storyline three years or so later as everyone is trying to cope with the aftermath of the war, the loss of honor in the surrender and simply trying to survive in the ragged shantytowns that have taken over. It’s harsh living and plenty of people are still affected by the pika and its results but there are semblances of normality as schools have started up again. There’s more American presence throughout as we see soldiers coming through taking pictures or just assessing things which leads to some commentary on occasion but it’s little more than footnotes. The struggle is still focused more around Gen than anyone else, now older, a bit darker and street wise than he used to be, as he takes on the role of the man of the family and taking care of those who have survived.

This disc was pretty hard to watch, though at least it didn’t have purple subtitles like the Image release. Where it was hard to watch was in how unflinching it is in showing the devastation and personal loss, the sheer number of bodies and the wretchedness of it all. It’s much stronger in the first film since it takes place right from the dropping of the bomb and follows it up with the Nagasaki bombing, as well as the way that government was intent on not letting the citizens know what happened in Hiroshima. The way everything simply collapsed in these peoples lives, and then for those who came in to perform rescue operations without knowing the proper techniques since it was a completely unknown situation, just cuts right through you. Seeing the soldiers and aid workers falling to the same diseases as everyone else just makes it all the worse, as does the attitude of some of those who don’t want to be near anyone who needs help. While it doesn’t look at all the situations possible, those that it does all have their merit in some way and everyone will have a different view on it.

In Summary: 
Barefoot Gen is a classic that has long deserved a proper treatment (there’s a Blu-ray edition out there too) and it’s one that I felt like I had to see again after watching Grave of the Fireflies earlier in the weather in theaters. It’s not an easy film to take and it may make you question some of what has gone on in the past and take a new look at the destruction that’s in our world today. Neither film pulls any punches in showing what the author himself had lived through both in the good and bad, as there is always some level of hope to be found. The further we get away from this event the more distanced we are to its realities, so having these kinds of first hand accounts dramatized by those who experienced it are all the more valuable. I cannot recommend this release enough as a cornerstone of any anime fans collection as well as an understanding of a lot of basic modern day Japanese psychology in matters of peace and war.

Japanese 2.0 Language, English Subtitles, About the Author, Photo Gallery

Content Grade: A
Audio Grade: B
Video Grade: B+
Packaging Grade: B
Menu Grade: B
Extras Grade: C

Released By: Geneon Entertainment
Release Date: August 8th, 2006
MSRP: $29.98
Running Time: 170 Minutes
Video Encoding: 480i/p MPEG-2
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1

Review Equipment:
Sony KDL70R550A 70″ LED 1080P HDTV, Sony PlayStation3 Blu-ray player via HDMI set to 1080p, Onkyo TX-SR605 Receiver and Panasonic SB-TP20S Multi-Channel Speaker System With 100-Watt Subwoofer.

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