The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are among the most important moments in not just Japanese history but all of history. On one side, it was a successful military bombing that effectively ended our war with Japan, and saving millions of American troops’ lives and untold amounts of resources. On the other, it was a catastrophically tragic mass annihilation of millions of innocent civilians.
America sees a victory and Japan sees the horror.
The bombings have had a profound impact on Japanese culture, most notably in film. Movies like Godzilla, Grave of the Fireflies, Barefoot Gen and Akira offer a grim (albeit in some instances fantastical) portrayal of the aftermath of an unimaginable atrocity. Some are parables warning future generations of the effects of radiation, while others deal directly with the unrelenting nightmare that is being a child in a city that is devoid of everything from people to resources.
These movies pull no punches in their depiction of the aftereffects of a war many had no involvement in. The innocent bystanders are the true victims and they’re almost always children. It’s a moment inextricably linked to Japan, which makes Birdboy: The Forgotten Children all the more baffling. Based on a short by the same name (which itself was based on a comic by the same creators, both of which are Mexican), the film is a nihilistic coming-of-age story that focuses on three different sets of children who are living in the shadow of an industrial accident that turned their city into a virtual wasteland.
It could be argued the film is about Chernobyl more than Hiroshima or Nagasaki but when the explosion looks identical to a giant mushroom cloud, the parallels are unmistakable.
It’s a world in which fathers and sons fight other desperate sets of families over rusted scrap, and children steal whatever they can in a desperate attempt to leave their environment.
In the middle of it all is the titular Birdboy, who takes drugs to fight his inner demons. Multiple characters are afflicted with some sort of mental problem and the film is slightly ambiguous as to whether or not their demons are actually real. We see a bedridden character manifest a spider demon that attacks the previously mentioned children thieves, but I’m not 100% sure that’s supposed to be taken at face value.
In fact, I’m not 100% sure of anything in this film. Characters get shot in the head and survive. There’s a tree that contains magical spores that feels straight out of Avatar. Finally, there seems to at least one human in this world that dresses like an animal for unexplained reasons. He also dresses his dog in a gimp suit and has a stress relief ball in the shape of Jesus that bleeds when he squeezes it. I don’t understand this Lynchian hell-scape.
I’m probably overthinking the fantastical elements of a film involving anthropomorphic animals dressed like Reservoir Dogs groupies and inanimate objects that have personalities, such as an emotionally abused alarm clock and a sassy piggy bank but it feels as though one writer really wanted to focus on the emotional and mental toll a city-destroying disaster has on children and the other one got high on mescaline, watched some episodes of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and had some crazy ideas for the script.
It’s a tonally bizarre mish-mash of whimsical elements that are constantly crashing into a bleak as hell reality. It feels like someone took the characters of Beatrix Potter and dropped them in Auschwitz. At a distance, it looks like Disney-esque characters on a typical crazy adventure, but up close it’s the hotel right behind Disney World where the invisible homeless live.
It’s in the realm of the magical, but with both feet rooted deep in the unfortunate ugliness of reality. This is the world Mickey and friends have nightmares about.