The 1983 animated feature Barefoot Gen has the bad luck to suffer from being overshadowed from two different directions. First, it's an adaptation of one of the most important manga of the 1970s, Nakazawa Keiji's very loosely autobiographical story about a six-year-old boy living in Hiroshima at the time that residents of that city became the first human population in history to have a nuclear bomb dropped on them. Over the course of its 14-year run from 1973-1987, Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen became a major cultural object, turned into multiple films, television series, and prose novels. There was an abortive effort to translate it into English, and the two volumes that were actually released make it the first manga ever published in that language. It remains the center of much critical and scholarly attention, and shows up in any well-provisioned list of "the manga you have to read" that isn't narrowly focused on contemporary titles. No way that a film, even a very good film, was going to be able to compete with that kind of footprint.

Next, there are as far as I know a grand total of two "young children suffer horribly while trying to survive after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki" animated features, and I think that roughly 99% of people who've seen bothΒ  would rank this one second. It is clearly not the fault of Barefoot Gen that it suffers from direct comparison to Studio Ghibli's gut-wrenching 1988 masterpiece. Grave of the Fireflies. The list of animated features that don't suffer from that comparison probably doesn't even run to double digits. Still, most of the animated features ever made don't invite that comparison so directly, regardless of the fact that Barefoot Gen was the older film by almost five years.

All that being said, the mere fact that Barefoot Gen is a runner-up twice over doesn't mean that it's not, in and of itself, a terrific film with a pulverising emotional appeal. And I'd say that in one respect, at least, it even bests the manga: the bombing itself is a devastating work of animation, one of the most genuinely horrifying things I have ever seen in a film, animated or otherwise. I do not know enough about the effect of a nuclear bomb on a a mammalian body to know if what we see in this sequence is accurate (it seems at least possible that the people we see take several agonising seconds to die might have been instantly vaporised, if they were so close to the bomb that they'd basically melt), but as a way of underlining the carnage of war, it's going straight for the most astonished visceral reaction it can muster up. And it uses the medium of animation to get at this in a way that could never have worked so well in any other form. Five times in a row, against a wall of hellish static, we see a character (or a dog) open their mouth in a silent scream, as their facial features distort, the skin fades to dark ash, their eyes drop out of their sockets, and their limbs distend. It's a bit of bodily morphing that draws in the most perverse way upon the traditions of squash and stretch animation.

There are two other things that help make it even more effective. One of them is that Barefoot Gen has used, up to this point, an unusually high framerate. Japanese animation, especially at this stage of its development, was generally a form of limited animation: low frame rates (even as low as four or six frames per second), with very little movement; if a character was talking, for example, their mouth would move, but their arms and body probably wouldn't The first 26 or so minutes of Barefoot Gen, up to the bomb falling, aren't like that: they're much closer to busy, 12 frames-per-second full animation, with more secondary movement than I'd expect from anime of this period, especially anime whose character designs are so simple and "TV animation"-like. The bombing switches into limited animation - all the better to give us long, upsetting seconds of looking at the suffering, but also to give the sense of just how much of a violent rupture this event represents. The other thing is the character designs themselves: this is a film made out of people with simple, circular faces with big triangle mouths and wide-open, expressive eyes. Japanese animation wasn't looking to go too crazy with artistic ambition just yet (NausicaΓ€ of the Valley of the Wind was a year in the future, and we might fairly if reductively call that the start of "prestige" anime), so I don't want to exaggerate the degree to which Barefoot Gen looks like a simple cartoon: lots of things looked like simple cartoons that probably wouldn't have by the end of the 1980s. Nonetheless, that is what it looks like, with its soft-looking characters painted as a few huge blocks of undifferentiated color.Β  It looks quite simple and, though this word is maybe too loaded to use idly, "cheap". So when this simple "kids' stuff" aesthetic erupts into the savage body horror of the bombing sequence, it comes across as that much more of a violation of the contract the film has made with us.

That gulf between the simple TV-scaled aesthetic of the movie, and the grueling bleakness of the content it depicts, turns out to be the film's major strategy overall. I mentioned that the bombs fall around the 26-minute mark; that's in an 83-minute film, so it's a pretty substantial chunk of the whole. And during that time, Barefoot Gen is downright playful with us. The main goal is introducing us to Gen (Miyazaki Issei), who has seemingly been aged up a couple of years in Nakawaza's adaptation, and letting us perceive what a perfectly normal boy he is. We meet his little brother Shinji (Koda Masaki), his elder sister Eiko (Nakano Seiko), his extremely pregnant mother Kimie (Shimamura Yoshie), and his father Daikichi (Inoue Takao), who offers the boys warm metaphorical advice. It's not frivolous or trivial stretch of cinema: the action takes place right as Japan was on the brinking of collapsing from sheer exhaustion of keeping the war engines purring, meaning intense rationing and deprivation, which may hit this family all the harder because of Daikichi's open disdain for the war effort. Still, the film commits very fully to Gen's perspective and to the feeling of being a little boy who cannot imagine anything but a happy eternal present; even the matters of scrounging up enough for to keep his mother and her unborn child from starving seem to be more like a game for the protagonist.

Telling a child's eye view of material that the audience understands with an adult's eye is a tough needle to thread, but it'sΒ  been done, and Barefooot Gen even gets to cheat a little bit because of its aesthetic. Even so, it does this thing very well, and will continue to do so after the bombing, as Gen and what little remains of his family crawl their way through the irradiated ruin of Hiroshima, scavenging for resources and finding to their terror, along with the rest of the survivors, that their bodies seem to be shutting down and decaying for unclear reasons. This is tough, miserable stuff, but Gen has a child's ability to take it in stride, which forces the work onto us, the viewers, to grapple with the unfathomable destruction we see.

All in all, it works pretty well to force us into a state of repulsed, broken emotions, though the film overplays its hands in a couple of ways. One is the use of a narrator (Jo Tatsuya), speaking in the past tense, telling us what is happening between the Japanese and American militaries, and reminding us that Hiroshima is about to be on the receiving end of the most astounding and terrible weapon ever used in a war. The narration itself works, and pretty well; the presence of a terse lecturer reporting history to us after the fact strips the movie of any kind of sentimentality, while giving it a grim fatalism: all this happened, we're not going to change it by watching. But a little of this would have done the same trick, and we get a good amount of it . The other problem is the score, by Haneda Kentaro; it has a tendency to err on the sight of brightness and fun energy, and it pushes the film substantially too far into the "looks like its for kids" zone; it plays less like irony, and more like a tonal mismatch.

Still, two problems aside (and the score is not a small problem, I would say), so much works in Barefoot Gen that one almost can't help but be knocked flat by it. This is a despairing film, crushing without falling into the trap of misery porn, and it does such a good job of making Gen visually appealing and personable that watching his suffering, even when he fights through it with a smile, is gutting. The strong colors and Masaki Mori's brisk, tightly-paced directing give it a kind of lively vitality that makes the decaying humans we see feel all the more inexplicable and deeply, profoundly wrong, and while I would say, in a vacuum, that the manga is "better", the film approaches the same ideas with its own distinctive strengths, more than enough to carve out an admirable artistic identity all its own.