Dead or Dying:
The Pacific War in Anime

The Pacific War (the portion of World War II in which the Japanese fought the Americans) led to a lot of major changes in Japanese culture. Everything has changed. From the way they depict Hell (it often looks remarkably similar to the atomic bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima) to the common theme of "nature out of control" in their movies (which is how they saw the bombs, not as technology out of control, but as nature out of control), the Japanese have been deeply affected by the events surrounding the Pacific War.

Many anime deal with ideas related to the Pacific War, but two in particular are set during the war and deal with issues faced by real people during the war. Barefoot Gen is the mostly-autobiographical work of an Hiroshima survivor. He wrote a series of manga about his experiences and these manga were later translated into anime form. Grave of the Fireflies is a semi-autobiographical story based on a book.

Barefoot Gen follows a young boy, Gen, through his experiences with the loss of most of his family in the Hiroshima bombing. He survives with his pregnant mother, and together they face the death of Gen's little sister by starvation. She dies while Gen and his new friend are away buying milk for her. The movie is somewhat unique in its take on the war. Rather than pointing the finger at the United States for the deaths of his family members, Gen and his mother blame the Japanese government for not surrendering earlier. When they are told that Japan has surrendered after the bombing of Nagasaki, Gen's mother's reaction is to scream, "Why now, why not before?"

Grave of the Fireflies begins with a young boy dying. The rest of the movie is about the events leading up to his death. We learn that this young boy had an even younger sister who died before him. We watch them go from happy children with two parents to starving children whose paternal aunt refuses to care for them. Their parents both die in the war: their father in battle, and their mother in a bombing. From then on, the movie is about two children trying to survive in a world in which adults do not care about them. They are on their own - not even the doctor to whom the young boy takes his sister will help them.

These two movies are very different in the way they portray life during and after the Pacific War, but both center around the lives of children, who serve as symbols of hope for the future. Where Grave of the Fireflies is stark and depressing, Barefoot Gen is hopeful and endearing. Both show the realities of surviving the war, but they see those realities is different ways.

-Bonnie Bonifield Click to learn more about Bonnie


Barefoot Gen
Grave of Fireflies

On March 17, 1945, Kobe was firebombed by 306 B-29s. It was hit again on May 7 with explosives, and again on June 6 it was firebombed by 476 aircraft. Osaka was worse.



On August 6 and 9, 1945, the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed by the first atomic bombs used in warfare.
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The University of Michigan Japanese Animation Group
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