The historical anime 'Grave of Fireflies' and 'Barefoot Gen' contain bleak depictions of World War II. In their own way, they present “history as vision”—visions that are both selective and even ideological but that still contain universal images of great power and resonance.
Seita's and Setsuko's mother, horribly burnt and covered head to foot with bloody bandages

Grave of the Fireflies [Story]


On 21 September 1945, shortly after the end of World War II, a teenage boy, Seita, dies of starvation in a Kobe train station. A janitor sorts through his possessions and finds a candy tin, which he throws into a field. The spirit of Seita’s younger sister, Setsuko, springs from the tin and is joined by Seita’s spirit and a cloud of fireflies. They board a train.

Months earlier, Seita and Setsuko’s house is destroyed in a firebombing along with most of Kobe. They escape unharmed, but their mother dies from severe burns. Seita and Setsuko move in with a distant aunt, who convinces Seita to sell his mother’s silk kimonos for rice. Seita retrieves supplies he buried before the bombing and gives everything to his aunt, save for a tin of Sakuma drops. As rations shrink and the number of refugees in the house grows, the aunt becomes resentful of the children, saying they do nothing to earn the food she prepares.

Seita and Setsuko leave the aunt’s home and move into an abandoned bomb shelter. They release fireflies into the shelter for light. The next day, Setsuko is horrified to find that the insects have died. She buries them in a grave, asking why they and her mother had to die. As they run out of rice, Seita steals from farmers and loots homes during air raids, for which he is beaten. When Setsuko falls ill, Seita takes her to a doctor, who explains that she is suffering from malnutrition.

Desperate, Seita withdraws all the money in their mother’s bank account. As he leaves the bank, he becomes distraught when he learns that Japan has surrendered. He also learns that his father, a captain in the Imperial Japanese Navy, is most likely dead, as most of Japan’s navy has been sunk.

Seita returns to the shelter with food, but finds Setsuko hallucinating. Seita hurries to feed her, but she dies as he finishes preparing the food. Seita cremates Setsuko’s body and her stuffed doll in a straw casket. He carries her ashes in the candy tin along with his father’s photograph.

* * *

Barefoot Gen [Story]


Gen Nakaoka and his family live in Hiroshima during the final days of World War II. The family struggles through food shortages and constant air raid warnings. Gen’s mother, Kimie, is pregnant and suffering from malnutrition, and his sister Eiko helps Kimie in her housework. Gen and his brother Shinji help their father, Daikichi, in the family’s wheat field and try to find food for Kimie. Daikichi and Kimie realize the war is not going well, though they wonder why Hiroshima has been spared from the air raids which devastated other Japanese cities.

On August 6, 1945, Gen and a friend arrive at school just as a lone B-29 aircraft flies overhead. The Enola Gay releases a bomb which devastates the city. Gen’s friend is killed in the blast while he is buried under rubble by the resulting shockwave. Gen finds Kimie in the ruined city and they try to rescue their family, who are buried alive under their collapsed house. However, they are unsuccessful and are forced to leave them when the house catches fire. Kimie gives birth to a baby girl, Tomoko.

Gen spends the next few days searching for food for his family. He discovers that soldiers are distributing rice, but arrives to find them collecting corpses before burning them in mass graves. He later finds a ration storehouse containing rice, most of which has already been seared by the blast. He finds a few bags of intact rice and takes them to his mother to eat along with some fresh vegetables.

On August 16, Gen and Kimie dig up the remains of their family members from their former home. They learn that Japan has surrendered to the Allies, ending the war. They later take refuge in a makeshift shack where they try to live on what little rice they have. A small boy, Ryuta, tries to steal their rice, but Gen catches him and is shocked at Ryuta’s resemblance to Shinji. Gen and Kimie take Ryuta in after learning that Ryuta was orphaned by the bomb.

The next day, Gen and Ryuta look for food as Tomoko is suffering from malnutrition. A man gives them a job tending to his ill-tempered brother Seiji, another bomb survivor, for 10 yen a day, but the boys grow tired of the mistreatment, slap Seiji several times, and quit. Seiji begs them to come back, explaining to them that he is grateful that the boys treated him like more than a rotting corpse. Gen tells Ryuta to tell his mother where they are, and he spends the night with the man, which inspires him to paint once again. The man’s brother pays them 100 yen and the boys head out to find milk for Tomoko. When they return home, they find that Tomoko has already died.

A few weeks later, Gen and Ryuta see wheat beginning to grow despite having heard that grass would not grow. With renewed optimism, Gen, his mother, and Ryuta set a paper boat lantern down the river. They then watch and pray as the boat gently sails into the sunset.

Seita and Setsuko’s deceased spirits arrive at their destination, healthy and happy. Surrounded by fireflies, they rest on a hilltop bench overlooking present-day Kobe.

* * *

“Oh look there’s an enemy plane coming.” . . . Thereafter there were no more words.

—Hiroshima survivor Kijima Katsumi, quoted in John Treat, Writing Ground Zero

The two most famous anime dramas concerning World War II, Mori Masaki’s Barefoot Gen (Hadashi no gen, 1983) and Takahata Isao’s Grave of the Fireflies (Hotaru no haka, 1988), share in the collectivity of the Japanese memory as well as individual autobiographical accounts of personal suffering. In this regard, they attempt to “speak for history” in a personal voice that, through the power of vivid images of suffering, destruction, and renewal, becomes a collective voice of the Japanese people. They are both essentially family dramas seen through the eyes of children, and, although there are scenes of horrifying violence and devastation (especially in Barefoot Gen), the films contain many powerful scenes of human-scale interaction that are subdued and imbued with a childlike, innocent tone.

The reasons behind this subdued treatment of the war are complex but quite understandable and common to other media depictions as well. As many scholars have pointed out, the Japanese version of World War II may generally be described as a “victim’s history,”1 in which the Japanese people were seen as helpless victims of a corrupt and evil conspiracy between their government and military. This “victim’s history” is partly due to the collaborative American-Japanese efforts under the Occupation to create an image of a postwar democratic Japan that would free the Japanese from an inescapable fascist and militarist past. By shifting the burden of responsibility for a devastating war onto the military and the government, it was felt that the slate could be wiped clean and Japan could undertake the task of rebuilding, liberated from the dark shadows of war guilt and recrimination. Consequently, both official and cultural versions of the war have played down citizens’ involvement with the actual machinery of combat and aggression to the point that they ignore or elide Japan’s aggression against China, which began in 1931.2 Instead, official vehicles, such as textbooks and government ceremonies as well as popular and elite culture, emphasize the period from Pearl Harbor to Hiroshima, which, in Carol Gluck’s neat phrase, “set a balanced moral calculus” essentially allowing the atomic bombing to cancel out responsibility for Pearl Harbor and simply glossing over the colonization of Korea and the previous ten years of aggression against China.

Cultural works allied with this victim’s history are numerous. They include writings by atomic bomb survivors and live-action antiwar films such as Harp of Burma or Fires on the Plain, all of which share strong anti-war sentiment but show little inclination to delve into issues of guilt or responsibility. These traits are shared by Grave of the Fireflies and Barefoot Gen. Centered on the 1940s, the two films fit into victims’ history in certain obvious ways. First, the films evoke an unproblematic response of heartfelt sympathy on the part of the viewers by focusing on innocent children devastated by war’s destruction. As two anime critics sum up the film’s impact: “It is frankly impossible to watch this production [Grave of the Fireflies] without being drained emotionally.”3 The use of generally realist conventions (Grave of the Fireflies in particular has an organic, naturalistic look, and both films work effectively to create a wartime period feel in their depictions of architecture and traditional dress) and a straightforward narrative structure also help the viewer identify with the heartwrenching stories on screen.

Within the category of victim’s history, however, the two employ very different dynamics. In Grave of the Fireflies both text and subtext embody an endless nightmarish vision of passivity and despair, while Barefoot Gen has at its core an indomitable spirit of resistance and renewal, despite the scenes of almost unimaginable horror that it depicts.

Grave of the Fireflies has a pervasive tone of powerlessness from the very beginning of the film. The first scene shows an emaciated and disheveled young boy slumped against a pillar in a vast train station while a voice-over intones, “September 21, 1945 was the night I died.” As other passersby look on with a mixture of contempt and horror, he slumps further and ends up lying on the ground. A maintenance man takes his pulse and pronounces, “he’s a goner.” Another man looks through his possessions and finds a small candy tin. Throwing it away, it clatters on the ground and opens up to disgorge a few small white objects. Later on the viewer discovers that these are the cremated bones of the boy’s sister.

The opening scene—its action composed of a series of downward movements—sets the despairing tone of the film. The boy’s posture of helplessness only intensifies as he goes from slumping to prone. No one extends any aid to him, and instead the passersby move away from his dying figure while maintenance men crouch to paw his possessions. In a further downward movement they throw to the floor the box, which opens to show only symbols of death that also scatter in a downward arc.

The narrative structure of the film follows a similar downward trajectory. Based on an autobiographical story by the novelist Nosaka Akiyuki, most of the action takes place in the coastal city of Kobe toward the end of the war when Allied aerial bombing began to intensify, leading to enormous numbers of civilian casualties. A boy, Seita, and his sister, Setsuko, lose their mother (their father is a commander in the Navy) and are forced to live with an unsympathetic aunt whose coldness and hectoring at the boy’s unwillingness to work eventually drive them to make a home of their own in an abandoned bomb shelter. Their time in the bomb shelter allows for a few poignant scenes of childish happiness, especially for Setsuko, who loves the fireflies that her big brother catches for her. But she is sad that the fireflies die so quickly and ends up making a “grave” for the firefly corpses that litter their shelter. In the end the two children are unable to survive on their own. Setsuko dies from malnutrition, and the final scene shows Seita collecting her ashes.

The film contains moments of beauty and even happiness, especially in its signature image of the fireflies illuminating the faces of the two children laughing together in the darkness of the bomb shelter. However, the image that most dominates Grave of the Fireflies is that of the bomber planes that appear throughout the film at consistently recurring intervals. The action of the narrative actually begins with planes fire-bombing the street where the children live and turning it into flames while, later in the film, a joyous day at the seaside ends with planes sweeping above the beach and the children running for shelter. Another aerial image occurs in one of the film’s quietest and most effective moments. Returning to the shelter to help his sister (whom he will find dying), Seita sees a single spectral plane fly silently overhead and vanish into the distance, the true sign that the war is finally over.

The recurring image of planes flying above the heads of children evokes a world that can never be safe—a world where ultimate horror rains down from the innocent sky. Rather than using language, the film uses simple repeated visuals to capture this overwhelming sense of vulnerability. These visuals include the horizontal movement of planes sweeping across the sky, an image that is initially counterbalanced by the small, defiant verticals of the children. The balance shifts when the bombs (or bullets) begin to rain down, and the screen is enveloped in an overwhelming downward movement, symbolically evoking the hopelessness of the children’s situation.

In many ways the almost static narrative of Grave of the Fireflies evokes Harootunian’s description of postwar Japan as existing in an “endless present, more spatial than temporal,” while its autobiographical memoir style privileges what he describes as “the authority of the inner.”4 There is no discussion of the causes of the war (and consequently no broader explanation for the children’s suffering), and no sense of hope or of a new turning point at the war’s end. Instead there is a dreamlike, strongly elegiac quality to Fireflies that suggests a history that can never be escaped or transcended but that must be continually experienced as harrowing, painful, and relentlessly oppressive. Dialogue is minimal, underlining the point that words are useless; only the searing parade of images of destruction from the sky (Harootunian’s “spatial present”) has any final meaning, and it is one that shuts out the possibility for action.

Barefoot Gen (1983)
Barefoot Gen (1983)

In contrast. Barefoot Gen is obsessed with action and with the temporal, particularly with two temporal moments, the period of time leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima and the period immediately following it. This is not surprising given the nature of the events that the film describes. The awareness of time (signified by the pages of a calendar and at one point by the hands of a clock) imbues the scenes before the bombing with a taught suspense. What is surprising, however, is that the overall tone of this film, while still surrounded by an aura of suffering, is very far from the mood of passivity and powerlessness that pervades Grave of the Fireflies. Although the film in certain ways fits into the “victims’ history” model, it is actually a far more complex version than Grave of the Fireflies and in many aspects is a more powerful antiwar film with a strongly activist subtext.

This activism is due to the nature of the event that Barefoot Gen attempts to represent, the world’s first atomic bombing. Unlike Grave of the Fireflies, the temporal continuum of which is an endless present punctuated by scenes of bombardment that numb the characters into miserable passivity, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is a single event that changed the world. This is not to minimize the suffering depicted in Takahata’s film, but it is important to recognize just how unique and overwhelming the atomic bomb was. In Japan the initial reaction to the bomb was largely one of silence, guilt, and even repression on the part of the survivors (and on the part of the horrified nation as well). Even while official censorship was in place, however, popular culture dealt with the bomb, although in the displaced form of horrific monsters from outer space or from the lower depths, immortalized in the live-action series of Godzilla films introduced in 1953 (this displacement is clearly still influential in anime from Akira to Neon Genesis Evangelion). Furthermore, a few survivors and activists refused to accept this repression and began to write in an attempt not only to memorialize the destruction but also, through their literary voices, to work against further atomic destruction.

All of these writers, novelists, poets, and essayists confronted the problem of how to “convey the unconveyable,”5 especially through words, which to some seemed weak instruments to represent such devastation. As John Treat explains, “In fact, when seeking the words to express what they wish to say, it is nearly rote for atomic bomb writers to tell us they despair of ever finding those words.”6 One solution to this problem of words came in 1968 with the publication of Nakazawa Keiji’s manga, Kuroi ame ni utarete (pelted by black rain), which was followed in 1973 with his manga, Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen), an autobiographical series describing the destruction of Hiroshima and a young boy’s response. The anime version of the manga was released in 1983. Initially, a manga or animated version of the nuclear destruction of a city might seem in bad taste. Indeed, some hibakusha (atom bomb survivors) are said to have questioned its appropriateness. However, in the wake of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a graphic novel depiction of the Holocaust, not to mention the growing acceptance of comics and animation as art forms in their own right, such criticisms seem misdirected.

In fact, it is precisely the graphics of manga or anime that can help to “convey the unconveyable” of the bomb’s horror. The stunning visuals employed in the film to represent the bombing and its aftermath are hideous, painful to look at, and unforgettable. While Grave of the Fireflies uses the elegiac mode and realistic graphics to show a slowly dying world, Barefoot Gen indulges in the apocalyptic mode with a grotesque and frenzied graphic style to show a world paradoxically dynamic in its own destruction. Scenes that even with contemporary special effects and contemporary values would be difficult to present and watch in live-action film become, in the nonrealistic space of animation, enduring evocations of a genuine hell on earth. Furthermore, the distancing involved in watching animation allows the viewer to process these scenes and then return to the narrative action, something that might not be possible to do with a live-action film. On one level, animations simplified representation allows for easier identification on the part of the viewer. On the other hand, the fact that these are not “real” humans or “real” destruction being depicted provides a kind of psychological buffer zone to keep the viewer from being too affected by the traumatic events depicted.

The vitality of the animated images also supports the film’s dynamic pacing, which contrasts with the emphasis on passivity and victimhood in Grave of the Fireflies. Admittedly, there are elements in Barefoot Gen that support a “victims” interpretation. The film begins with a brief shot of the attack on Pearl Harbor, ignoring the previous ten years of warfare in China. Furthermore, while the English language version specifically mentions the “attack on Pearl Harbor,” the Japanese version merely gives the date, “December 8, 1941” and explains that Japan “plunged into” war with the Americans and the English. This opening image is followed by the names of exclusively Japanese cities written in stark white characters ending with the ominous name “Hiroshima.” This simple but powerful opening sequence underlines the sense of Japan and the Japanese as targets. Horrific scenes of the bombing and its ghastly aftermath reinforce the image of powerless victims terrorized from the sty.

Despite these examples, the film’s narrative, pacing, and imagery refuse to uphold such a one-note interpretation. In stark contrast to Grave of the Fireflies, Barefoot Gen interweaves moments of hope and triumph within its dark tapestry of devastation and despair. The film begins with an image of vibrant life, a scene in which Gen, the young protagonist, goes out to look at the wheat fields with his father and little brother, Shinji. The boys laugh when their father delivers an evidently well-worn homily on the virtues of wheat, praising its strength and its endurance, but both the sermon and the boys’ laughter are effective counterpoints to the grimness of the wartime setting. The sense of hopefulness in adversity is underlined by the fact that the first thirty minutes of the film are devoted to Gen’s family life before the bombing.

The narrative momentum in these early scenes is of resistance rather than acquiescence. In one scene Gen and Shinji attempt to help out their family, particularly their pregnant mother, by stealing a carp from a temple pond. Like the w’heat, the carp is identified with hope and resistance as it struggles against capture.7 The carp’s fierce struggles and frantic jumps from water into air also provide a visual trope of upward momentum that parallels the boys’ psychological unwillingness to be beaten down.

The boys capture the carp but are caught themselves by one of the priests in the temple. This is a scene similar to one in Grave of the Fireflies in which Seita tries to steal vegetables for his starving sister. Food in war films often “becomes a signifier for struggle,”8 not just for physical sustenance but for humanity as well. In both cases the boys are attempting to feed more than just themselves—they are attempting to maintain the human connection in the face of overwhelming outside forces. Despite their similarities, the two scenes end quite differently. While Seita apologizes profusely, head bowed to the ground, and eventually winds up in the police station, Gen and Shinji confront the priest and ultimately persuade him to give them the carp.

In another, more explicitly political scene of resistance, Gen’s father heatedly criticizes the conduct of the war, telling his sons that the government is in the hands of “madmen” and pointing out to them that “Sometimes it takes a lot more courage not to fight than to fight.” Although it seems unlikely that such sentiments (no doubt shared by some) would have been expressed publicly during the war period, the father’s words help to maintain a critical outlook toward the military involvement that led to the bombing while demonstrating his unwillingness to be crushed by higher authorities.

This tone of dynamic resistance early in the film is consequently contrasted with the scenes of the atomic bombing itself. While the first part of the film is shot in a realistic style, the actual bombing of Hiroshima is an extraordinarily rendered sequence of surreal horror. The day of the bombing is indicated by shots of a calendar while scenes of a ticking clock add to the feeling that time and other forces are no longer under the control of the family. The narrative builds in suspense by having the family initially take shelter during an air raid only to appear on the street again in relief that it was a false alarm. Although these actions are based on historical events, they also serve within the diegesis to heighten the feeling of ominousness as Gen then goes out on the street to play. Intermittently cutting to scenes of the Americans in the cockpit of the Enola Gay, the viewer looks through Gen’s eyes as he bends down to pick up a coin (thus presumably shielding himself from the blast) at the very moment the atomic bomb is dropped.

In a scene that could only have been rendered effectively in animation (because of its spectacular quality and the necessary distancing that the animated image provides), we see the architecture and the people of Hiroshima turning black and white, lit by an uncanny radiance.9 This is followed immediately by scenes of transmogrification. Most memorable is the image of the little girl with whom Gen had been playing, as she turns instantaneously from a “realistic” cartoon character into a damned soul from Buddhist mythology, a “walking ghost,” hair on fire, eyes popping out, and fingers melting into hideously extended tendrils. In other brief shots we see a dog transforming into a flaming creature and, in a series of neon-colored images (contrasting both with the black and white of the initial moment of the bomb and with the conventional pastels of the first part of the film), the viewer sees the architecture of authority—Hiroshima Castle and the Hiroshima Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall—dissolving into an incandescent nightmare of fragmenting ruins.

Barefoot Gen’s depiction of the atomic bombing is powerful and horrifying, yet the narrative and visual structure of the film resists overwhelming the viewer with this scene or the ghastly aftermath of the bombing. Although the film continues to show many scenes of postbombing horror, it intersperses these with scenes and images of effort and hope. For example, shortly after the bombing Gen runs home to look for his parents. He finds that his father, sister, and little brother are all trapped under a burning beam and can discover no way to save them. However, this scene (perhaps the most affecting in the entire film) refuses to wallow in tragedy. Between the agonizing cries of his brother and sister, his father admonishes him to “take care of his mother,” insisting that Gen is now the head of his family.

This pattern of tragedy, intercut with moments of resolution and hope for the future, continues throughout the rest of the film. Gen delivers his baby sister without any medical help and even manages to get a job that will allow him to buy milk for her (though he is too late; she dies of malnutrition). Whereas the sister’s death in Grave of the Fireflies signaled the climactic moment in a downward spiral, Gen and his mother manage to regroup themselves for the sake of each other. They even take on the care of an orphan boy, Ryutaro, a Shinji look- alike who clearly stands for the ability of the family to reconstitute

itself, revitalize, and endure. In the film’s final scene the image of the wheat returns as Gen and Ryutaro walk through a barren wasteland, speculating whether grass will ever grow there again. Through Gen’s downward gaze, the viewer sees the grass shooting up at the same time as Gen discovers that his hair, which had fallen out due to the bombing, is also growing again. Barefoot Gen ends with soaring music and this final movement of upward momentum.

The overall impact of Barefoot Gen is radically different from that of Grave of the Fireflies. This is demonstrated in some of the more archetypal structures in the two films, most notably the way masculinity is positioned in each one. As Marie Morimoto points out, “Perhaps the most conspicuous metaphors of war are those of masculinism.”10 Both films privilege the masculine as the dominant force in the family structure by showing two young boys taking care of their respective female relatives. The two films differ sharply, however, in how this masculine role is carried out. In Grave of the Fireflies Seita is seen as nurturing and sensitive (in one affecting scene, as the two wait for news of their badly burned mother, he performs gymnastic feats on playground equipment in an attempt to distract the unhappy Setsuko) but he is ultimately unable to play a dynamic role in taking care of either his mother or sister. He runs away from his unsympathetic aunt rather than confronting her, and apologizes to the angry farmer rather than stand up to him when he is caught stealing vegetables. Although he finally does withdraw all the family’s life savings to take care of Setsuko, it is too late to help her. This passive behavior contrasts significantly with Gen who, if anything, seems energized by adversity. Thus, in the scene with the carp, Gen does not back down and emerges with the priest’s respect and friendship.

The two films also differ in relation to their depiction of the father and of authority in general. Seita’s absent father is in the navy and seems aligned with an unproblematic vision of authority. While Seita is shown as preferring to live outside the system because of his aunt’s cruelty, the system itself is never criticized, and he and his sister wait hopefully for the day their father will sail triumphantly home. In one scene Seita is shown nostalgically remembering a naval regatta in which he sees white uniformed figures (presumably including his father) lined up on the bridge of a naval destroyer while military music plays. Other male authority figures also fare well. One of the few characters in the film who is actively kind to Seita is an elderly policeman, who offers him a glass of water after his humiliation by the farmer. Gens hither, in contrast, is clearly aligned against the authorities. A day laborer who wears a simple undershirt and loudly criticizes the “madmen” who run the government, Gens father is as down to earth and “present” as Seitas father is ethereal and absent. It is clearly his father’s influence, from his exhortations to “look after your mother” to his homilies about the wheat, that inspires and sustains Gen throughout the film.

However, the two films are alike in implicitly presenting the death of the father, an important symbolic mode that has dominated much of Japanese postwar culture. Scholars argue that Japanese culture now exists in a demasculinized state, overwhelmed by feminine “cuteness” but still haunted by images of a dead, absent, or inadequate father and a problematic masculinity.11 The reasons for this loss of the father are clearly spelled out in the historical realities of the postwar period. Not only did many Japanese actually lose their fathers due to military service or allied bombings, but they also lost the cult of the emperor, who was represented in prewar propaganda as the symbolic head of the Japanese nation-as-family. Although the Allied occupation attempted to “replace” the emperor-as-father with the larger-than-life figure of MacArthur, such a substitution was uneasy at best, and profoundly disturbing at worst.12 Characteristically, the anti­authority Barefoot Gen ends with an invocation to a still symbolically present individualistic father, while Grave of the Fireflies portrays its central character as a literal and spiritual orphan, abandoned by his naval officer father and rejected by a society in which the father is literally and symbolically dead.

While the two films show important contrasts in their depiction of the role of the father, the performance of the feminine, in terms of both motherhood and the role of little sister, is similar in both works. Although female characters remain an oasis of security, comfort, and strength in most prewar film and literature and in many popular early postwar films as well (as in the famous hahatnono or “mother matters” genre), the female figures in both these films of the 1980s appear notably weak and tenuous. Although the mother in Barefoot Gen is a comforting and reassuring presence, after the bombing she becomes helpless, simply another victim to be taken care of by the stalwart Gen.

In fact, she is even shown in moments of near madness, as when, immediately after the bombing, she confronts the horror of her family’s demise, her hair wildly undone and her face ravaged by screams, or when she responds to the death of her baby with a fixed glazed stare. Seita’s mother is also seen in terms of victimhood. She is first shown heading to the shelter before her children, because of a weak heart. The next view is of fragmented shots of her body swathed in bandages, and the last glimpse is of her body being loaded onto a truck.

Both of the sister figures in the films also exist as the embodiment of victimhood. Gen’s sister is born the night of the bombing, survives a few days, crying helplessly, and leaves only silence (the mother’s mad stare) at her death. The figure of Seita’s sister is even more pitifully constituted. She is shown as adorably helpless, riding on her brother’s back, taking food from his hands, and ultimately sinking into a pathetic daze of starvation and illness. Even her one “positive” action, her construction of the grave of fireflies, is linked with evanescence and death.

Given the importance of female characters in their relation to traditional Japanese culture, it is possible to read these helpless/dying/mad female victims as expressions of a fundamental unease on the part of the films as to any real possibility of cultural survival. While Gen and his adopted little brother jumping in excitement and hope at the end of the film may be read as a brave attempt to suggest the possibility of human survival in the most devastating conditions, the absence of an equivalent strong female presence hints that such endurance (at least of traditional Japanese culture) may be problematic. Grave of the Fireflies is even less ambiguous. The fireflies that are metonymically and metaphorically linked to the little sister also have a long symbolic tradition in Japanese culture. The downward spiral of their evanescent life, which ends in the little hollowed-out grave, only serves to illuminate the equally transient life of the sister, the image of whose little white bones haunts the entire film.

In her discussion of postwar Japanese films, scholar Patricia Masters points out how in postwar Japan the “national metaphors of self’ became essentially “trans-sexual,” both “feminized” and “viril­ized.”13 In the case of the anime discussed here, it is clear, especially in Grave of the Fireflies, that Japanese identity is almost completely “feminized,” not only in terms of the dominating image of the dying younger sister, but also in the character of Seita himself, who is “demasculinized” from the film’s very beginning. This feminization, however, leads only to despair and nostalgia for a dying culture. Grave of the Fireflies is thus an elegy for a lost past that can never be reconstituted.

In contrast, the narrative tension that animates Barefoot Gen is a resistance to “feminization” (coded not simply as weak but as irrational, even mad in the figure of the mother) and a privileging of a resurgent masculinity, metonymically troped in the growing blades of wheat and Gen’s growing strands of hair. Barefoot Gens insistent method of uplift and inspiration may strike some viewers as too pat, too ideologically grounded, or too dangerously unbalanced a picture of Japanese culture, although this simplicity may have to do with the fact that the film is consistently shown in elementary schools for its antiwar message. Yet it may also be that the cataclysmic nature of the event itself may summon forth simplified images of uplift and renewal in response. Scholar Carole Cavanaugh has suggested that Hiroshima calls for “remembrance and repression.” Barefoot Gen remembers Hiroshima and refuses to repress the horror, but it may also repress a realistically grounded awareness of the bleak complexities confronting a nation’s attempt to renew itself for the sake of a message of reassurance.

Writing on Holocaust literature, Holocaust scholar Lawrence Langer suggests that, “Among the leading ideas we are forced to surrender as we read through these pages is the comforting notion that suffering has meaning,” and that “the anguish of the victims can be neither soothed nor diminished by a vocabulary of consolation.”14 Confronted by their own version of hell on earth, Japanese writers and artists still clearly search for meaning, if not consolation, in working through images of suffering. Grave of the Fireflies attempts to construct an elegiac ideology of victimhood and loss that allows for a national identity in which the loss of the war gives depth to the Japanese soul. Barefoot Gen acknowledges suffering but resists victimhood, offering instead a new’ model of human resurgence and consolation. Compared to some of the most complex Holocaust literature (or the literature of the hibakusha), such treatment may seem naive, but these animated visions of loss, beauty, and (in the case of Barefoot Gen) hope, allow a defeated nation, and those who died for it, a transitory moment of dignity.


1. See Carol Gluck, “The Past in the Present,” in Postwar Japan as History, edited by Andrew Gordon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), 83; also see John Treat, Writing Ground Zero: Japanese Literature and the Atomic Bomb (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), especially his discussion of Oe Kenzaburd, 229-258; and Reiko Tachibana, Narrative as Counter-Memory: A Half-Century of Postwar Writings in Germany and Japan (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1998).

2. Even during the war, according to Patricia Lee Masters’s summary of Tadao Sato’s discussion of wartime films, “the concentration was on the human side of Japanese soldiers,” with relatively few scenes of combat with the enemy (“Warring Bodies: Most Nationalistic Selves,” in Colonialism and Nationalism in Asian Cinema, edited Wimal Dissanayake [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 19941, 2). The humanization of war and the lack of engagement with the American Other is notable in both Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies.

3. Trish Ledoux and Doug Ranney, The Complete Anime Guide (Issaquah: Tiger Mountain Press, 1997), 6.

4. Harry Harootunian, “Persisting Memory/Forgetting History; The ‘Postwar’ (sengo) in Japanese Culture or the Hope that Won’t Go Away,” (paper presented at Association for Asian Studies Annual Conference, Washington, DC, March 1999), 4.

5. John Treat, Writing Ground Zero, 21.

6. Ibid., 30.

7. Interestingly, Imamura ShŌhei also uses the image of the carp in his live- action version of the atomic bombing, the 1988 Black Rain (Kuroi Arne). Throughout this bleak and powerful film, the rumor of an elusive giant carp haunts a small group of stricken atomic bomb survivors. They occasionally gather by a pond in hopes of catching it, but it remains mythical. Just before the film’s ambiguous but basically grim ending, however, two of the survivors, an uncle sick with radiation poisoning and his presumably dying niece, are afforded a glimpse of the massive carp as it makes huge leaps in the flashing sunlight. Although the overall tone of Imamura’s film is more profoundly bleak than that of Barefoot Gen, we can assume that, as with Gen, the carp remains a (perhaps ironic in this case) symbol of hope and endurance in contrast to the evanescent fireflies of Grave of the Fireflies.

8. Masters, “Warring Bodies,” 5.

9. One of the immediate imagistic consequences of the atomic blast was the creation of what are called “photo shadows.” As Philip Brophy describes them, these were “projects of light energy so great that the human bodies caught unaware left their pulverized ash shadows frottaged onto surround­ing concrete walls at the very’ moment their bodies were vaporized” (Philip Brophy, “Ocular Excess: A Semiotic Morphology of Cartoon Eyes,” Art and Design, Profile 53 119971: 32). This process is brilliantly captured in the bombing sequence of Barefoot Gen.

10. Marie Nlorimoto, “The ‘Peace Dividend’ in Japanese Cinema: Metaphors of a Demilitarized Nation,” in Colonial Nationalism in Asian Cinema, edited by Wimal Dissanayake (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994), 19.

11. See Morimoto, “The ‘Peace Dividend,’” 19.

12. This paralyzing unease is brilliantly depicted in “American Hijiki” (“Amerikan hijiki,” 1967) available in translation in Contemporary Japanese Literature, edited by Howard Hibbett (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), which is another story by Nosaka Akiyuki, the author of the story’ on which Grave of the Fireflies is based. In “American Hijiki” certain subtexts only hinted at in Grave, such as the loss of masculine potency, are brought to the fore through the depiction of a middle-aged Japanese man’s agonizing reminiscences about his passive role as a boy during the war. That this passivity is in a direct relationship with American military power is made clear by the fact that the mans reminiscences are inspired by a visiting middle-aged American whom the Japanese man attempts to provoke into acknowledgement of Japans recrudescent power by taking him to a live sex show featuring “Japans Number One Penis.” Unfortunately, the show is a failure, and it is the Japanese who is forced to acknowledge his essential paralysis, realizing that “there will always be an American inside me like a ton of bricks” (467-468). The feared loss of masculinity that is subtextually limned in Grave of the Fireflies is given a typically more hopeful treatment in Barefoot Gen; in the final scene, as Gen triumphantly caresses the new hairs sprouting on his head, his adopted brother Ryūtaro looks hopefully inside his shorts for further signs of growth only to shake his head ruefully and announce, “Nothing there yet!” But this realization is met with laughter rather than despair.

13. Masters, “Warring Bodies,” 15.

14. Lawrence Langer, Art from the Ashes (New York Oxford University Press, 1995), 6.

SOURCE: Napier, Susan Jolliffe. Anime From Akira to Princess Mononoke : Experiencing Contemporary Japanese Animation. New York: Palgrave, 2001.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Read More

Maboroshi (2023)

Maboroshi (2023) | Transcript

A factory explosion plunges a small town into a timeless freeze, leaving 14-year-old Masamune and his pals to grapple with a quickly collapsing reality

Suzume (2022)

Suzume (2022) | Transcript

A 17-year-old girl named Suzume helps a mysterious young man close doors from the other side that are releasing disasters all over in Japan.

Barefoot Gen (1983)


Barefoot Gen (Hadashi no Gen), is a 1983 Japanese anime war drama film based on the Japanese manga series of the same name by Keiji Nakazawa. It depicts World War II in Japan from a child’s point of view revolving around the events surrounding the bombing of Hiroshima and the main character’s first hand experience of the bomb.

Weekly Magazine

Get the best articles once a week directly to your inbox!