Barefoot Gen (Keiji Nakazawa)

Contrary to popular belief, the horror of nuclear war is not the stuff of science fiction; humanity has already experienced a nuclear war, albeit a limited one; it was called World War II; a war in which nuclear weapons were dropped on cities full of people.

Those whose impression of the medium we call “comics” is based on American super-hero comics and the current milquetoast crop of newspaper comics may be amazed to learn of some of the topics that comics stories have dealt with. In a future post, I’ll cover Maus, Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel (fancy name for comics story) of his father’s account of imprisonment in a German concentration camp in WWII.

Spiegelman also contributed an introduction to the U.S. release of another chilling and powerful story presented in the medium of comics: the Japanese graphic novel Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen, pronounced with a hard “G”), an account of the bombing of Hiroshima and its aftermath told from the point of view of a six year old boy. Though the story is fiction, it is also true to life; author/artist Keiji Nakazawa was six years old and living in Hiroshima when the bomb fell.

Tonight (Monday, August 6) at 7:30pm (ET/PT), HBO will air White Light, Black Rain: The Destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a documentary on this often ignored and swept-under-the-rug chapter from World War II. It features profiles of several survivors of the event, along with profiles of the Americans that flew the mission. One of the survivors who will be profiled is Keiji Nakazawa.

You can read an interview with the documentary’s director, Steven Okazaki, on the HBO site; and an interview with Keiji Nakazawa in The Comics Journal.

Nakazawa’s initial manga story about Hiroshima, Ore wa Mita (I Saw It) was more directly autobiographical; Gen, however, is more ambitious and more compelling as a story. At first there was resistance to the publication of these stories among the major manga publishers in Japan, who considered them too political, but a smaller publisher of “adult” (erotic) comics supported the publication of Nakazawa’s I Saw It and encouraged him to expand on the idea, which resulted in the story of Barefoot Gen.

Serialized in the manga anthology Weekly Shonen Jump in the early 1970’s, Barefoot Gen was translated into other languages in the 1980’s, and a new translation has been published in the U.S. as a four volume “graphic novel” series (with an introduction by Speigelman): Barefoot Gen Volume One: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima, Barefoot Gen Volume Two: The Day After, Barefoot Gen Volume Three: Life After the Bomb and Barefoot Gen Volume Four: Out of the Ashes.

The Barefoot Gen manga story was made into an anime in 1983, directed by Mori Masaki, followed by Barefoot Gen 2 in 1986. (They are available on DVD as a set.)

The art for the original manga version of Barefoot Gen could be described as “cartoony” compared to what you might expect for such a theme; but the simple, spare drawings, almost iconic in their basic representation of people and environments, convey the story in a way that would actually be difficult with a more “realistic” drawing approach.

There is nothing simplistic about the story. It might have been easy to blame the “enemy”, the U.S., for the suffering imposed on their family by the war, but Gen’s father blames the greed of the ruling class and begins to resist the government’s propaganda. His pacifist beliefs brand the family as traitors. Gen is caught between the indoctrination he receives at school and his Father’s adamant anti-war stance. The already hard scrabble for food, made more imperative by his mother’s current pregnancy, becomes multiplied in the aftermath of the bomb, which leaves only Gen and his mother alive from his family. (Nakazawa himself lost his father, brother and two sisters.)

The story pulls no punches in it’s portrayal of the effect and immediate aftermath of the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima, and the harsh realities of life for the survivors; but it is a story of personal struggle and survival in the face of the madness of war, and a story with humanity, nobility, sacrifice and compassion.

Nakazawa does not have a simplistic attitude toward the event either. Barefoot Gen is not an expression of bitterness toward the U.S. for dropping the bomb, which might be forgivable given his experience and circumstances; it rises above the kind of nationalism that permitted the events of WWII to happen in the first place; and, in its direct and honest description of the event, condems all war, and our insanity as a species in threatening ouselves with nuclear weapons, and in particular for actually using them on ourselves.

Reading Barefoot Gen should be mandatory for the presidents of the U.S. and Russia, the leaders of China, and every politician and minister in every nuclear power; as should a viewing of tonight’s HBO presentation of White Light, Black Rain.

The Web site for the documentary also includes a sldeshow of artwork created by survivors. While most of it was created by individuals without formal artistic training, the power of the images is undeniable. There are additional drawings by atomic bomb survivors on the site of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.


8 Replies to “Barefoot Gen (Keiji Nakazawa)”

  1. Do you know When the Wind Blows by Raymond Briggs? it’s brilliant and horrific, also about nuclear war.

    he also did the lighter Snowman, The Bear and the moving Ethel and Ernest about his parents.

    All done in coloured pencil.

  2. Please review “Maus” soon! I’m going to teach it to my sophmores in the spring and I would love to teach them about the art as well as the story and history of comics.

  3. Thanks, Emily. I am planning a post on Spiegelman and Maus, but it may take a while to put together the various resources and references to his varied contributions to comics over the years.

  4. I read this one summer years ago while I was staying with a host family in Kyoto. I picked up the first book in the series and I couldn’t put it down. I went thru all 4 or 5 books during my stay…It was mind-blowing. Even more so since my host father was a kid and saw the explosion of the bomb when Hiroshima was hit. Luckily for him and his family the wind was blowing the other direction that day. They were in the countryside and headed for the hills. It made the story more poignant for me.

  5. I was just wondering, since when was the horror of nuclear war popularly considered simply a thing of science fiction?

  6. By that, I simply mean that most people think a “nuclear war” is something that hasn’t happened yet. The phrase is associated with the image of two nuclear superpowers waging an all out nuclear missile attack, resulting in the “post-apocalyptic” wastelands of science fiction movies and games; when, in fact, “nuclear war”, by definition, is a war in which nuclear weapons are used, i.e. WWII.

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