As Howard Zinn points out in his book, A People's History of the United States, most history texts are written by the winners. As far as the Pacific front in WWII is concerned, I grew up hearing only about the treacherous Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the brutal island to island fighting that the Americans had to sustain, the hard fought victory and symbolic flag raising at IWO Jima, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Of course I've read and heard discussions about Truman's decision to drop the bomb; it's a sobering thought to think that the U.S. is the only country to ever drop the atomic bomb on human targets. However, until this week I'd only "experienced" the horrors as a somewhat vague abstraction. While the displays and pictures I'd seen at the United Nations and photographic essays I've seen in some art galleries were very moving, I feel a much greater connection with the "other" side after seeing two Japanese anime films recently—The Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen.
Set in Hiroshima in 1945, Barefoot Gen begins rather slowly, showing Gen as a typical self centered boy who has a good relationship with his family that includes an older sister and a younger brother. Times are very hard, and the family must subsist on the food-rationing program being carried out across Japan. This is especially rough on Gen's family since his mother is pregnant and needs more nourishment for the coming baby.
One surprising idea occurs when Gen's father declares his disgust with the Japanese government for carrying on with the war in a hopeless and unworthy cause. Dangerous ideas to speak in public, but he says them in the privacy of his home. Until seeing this cartoon, it just never struck me that there certainly had to be many Japanese citizens who abhorred their government's decision to carry out its war plans. This facet certainly isn't explored in the history books that we read in the U.S., nor are pacifist movements ever given much historical coverage in any of our wars outside Viet Nam.
The regular day-to-day life with rationing and air raid drills are covered during the first 30 minutes and all seem rather routine. I encourage you to stay with the film because the entire tone changes with the fateful events of August 6, 1945. At this point the animation becomes brutally accurate, surreal, and horrifying! It's as close as I ever want to come to experiencing nuclear war.
The flash appears from various characters' viewpoints, and individuals literally melt with eyes popping out. One has his head severed, with enough grossness to let you know that this is no children-friendly animation. Refuting any U.S. government claims that a simple "Duck and Cover" drill would have saved thousands of lives, a dog attempts to lie down and take cover by a bridge, only to melt before our eyes.
That's only the beginning--the massive fires blaze across Hiroshima, people turn to charcoal, and the cleanup commences with bodies decaying and maggots churning inside the wounds of the living. And that's still not the worst of it! The film vividly depicts the radiation sickness that causes suffering for years. On top of this, there is a storyline that shows Gen growing from boyhood to manhood, as he must take care of his surviving family, but the depiction of the bomb and its aftermath highlight this film.
I can't think of a live action film that portrays the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as intimately. Hollywood censors would never allow the realistic frankness that writer and producer Keiji Nakazawa reveals here. Like Gen in the story, Nakazawa lived through this horrible event as a young 6 year old boy; he can now offer his perspective.
Coupled with Grave of the Fireflies, Americans can balance the coverage of Hiroshima with Barefoot Gen. While the former really strikes at the heart, Barefoot Gen gets inside the head with its brutal imagery. The animation itself seems a bit more disjointed than Grave of the Fireflies, but the powerful dramatization makes this film essential viewing for mature audiences.