Barefoot Gen: The Japanese Cartoon Character Who Stoked Our Nuclear Fears

Susan Orlean tweeted last night, "I assigned 'Hiroshima' to my NYU students this semester. It seemed like an ancient artifact at the time, and now, sadly, very relevant."

The situation now unfolding in Japan now is very different, scientifically and in other more obvious respects, from an atomic blast. The effect of a reactor core meltdown that breaks containment would be more akin to a dirty bomb than a nuclear warhead, and it's not clear yet what exactly is going on with the three damaged reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan, even as a radiation spike has been measured, evacuations ordered, etc.

Still, Orelan's tweet jogged a nuclear memory. In eighth grade at a Santa Fe, N.M., public middle school, my whole history class was made to watch a cartoon movie version of the Hiroshima bombing. This was before the end of the Cold War and fear of nuclear attack was still a major part of the culture, as were debates on nuclear policy. The film (WARNING) was very gruesome, especially all the scenes of the immediate post-blast aftermath, which were seared indelibly into my brain. I don't recall what the film was called, but I took to the Google last night after Orlean's tweet, and I think I found it.

I'm pretty sure it was the anime version of Barefoot Gen, unless there is more than one cartoon film about the Hiroshima bombing out there featuring scenes of people with their skin melting off.

Barefoot Gen was first published as a manga serial in 1972-73 by Keiji Nakazawa, a survivor of the American attack on Hiroshima, which he lived through as a child. You can read about the plot here; suffice is to say, it is both horrifying and heart-breaking. It was also made into a live action movie. The anime version was directed by Mori Masaki and released in 1983. The Barefoot Gen graphic novels were republished in 1990 (and again subsequently) in English by Last Gasp, with an introduction by Art Spiegelman, the illustrator behind Maus, the award-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust.

The whole film has been posted to YouTube in five to 10-minute segments. I've laid out the links to the English-language version below; the voice-overs are kind of dreadful in that overacted childrens' cartoon way, but hey, it's a movie about a little boy surviving the Hiroshima bombing, and, apparently, it was considered suitable for children back in the '80s, so I guess the concession was to make the characters sound like a Hanna-Barbera Production. It's perhaps the most gruesome cartoon you will ever see. And by all accounts it's pretty much historically accurate.

Clip 2
Clip 3
Clip 4: Hiroshima bombing
Clip 5: Aftermath
Clip 6: Aftermath
Clip 7: Aftermath
Clip 8: Aftermath
Clip 9: Aftermath