~by Keiji Nakazawa
I’ll admit, I was somewhat nervous when Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen was selected for February 2011’s Manga Moveable Feast. I studied the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki extensively while in high school--even selecting it as the subject of my major senior project--and I have a tendency to get into heated arguments with people about it (which is really saying something for me). But ultimately, I was glad the series was selected, especially as I hadn’t actually read it myself. Nakazawa began Barefoot Gen in 1973 and it is heavily based on his own experiences as a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. Ten volumes and over twenty-four hundred pages later, he finished the work in 1985. The first collected volume, Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima was originally published in Japan in 1975. A partial English translation was also released in the late 1970s, making Barefoot Gen one of the first manga to be made available in English. It wasn’t until 2004 that the first complete English translation, with an introduction by Art Spiegelman, was published by Last Gasp.
Most of the first volume of Barefoot Gen follows the lives of the Nakaoka family, beginning several months before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by the United States on August 6, 1945. Like many families living in Hiroshima at the time, their primary concern was finding enough to eat—not an easy task in wartime Japan for a household of seven. Day to day existence was enough of a struggle, but on top of the that the Nakaoka’s father was vehemently anti-war, often speaking out against it and the government. Since that viewpoint was seen as traitorous and was punishable, this mean that the family faced additional difficulties and discrimination from the authorities and their neighbors. But when the bomb dropped it didn’t matter who was for or against the war—civilians, military personnel, government officials, prisoners of war—everyone had to deal with the brutal consequences of the city’s destruction.
Nakazawa’s style of art in Barefoot Gen is very approachable, almost friendly and seemingly at odds with the story being told, but Nakazawa doesn’t shy away from showing the terrible realities of war and it can be quite emotional. Two motifs that appear repeatedly through Barefoot Gen are wheat and the sun. The meaning of the wheat is explained on the very first page of the manga, symbolizing the constant struggle to persevere over adversity. The symbolism of the sun is more ambiguous and left up to individual interpretation. It is a very prominent image--often the sun is the only visual element in a panel--and it recurs frequently. In addition to marking the passage of time, the sun acts as a impartial and uncaring observer, a reminder that we are only a small part of the universe, watching over the events and tragedies that unfold. Although there are few natural stopping points, there are no explicit chapter breaks in Barefoot Gen making it very easy to become absorbed in Nakazawa’s tale.
Because of its subject matter, Barefoot Gen is rather heavy reading and not easy to get through. War is a terrible thing and people can be incredibly cruel to one another. But there are heart-warming moments in Barefoot Gen as well when I couldn’t help but smile. Despite both internal and external conflicts, the Nakaoka family are wonderfully close and loving and there are those who appreciate their stance against the war. So, while Barefoot Gen honestly shows the suffering caused by war and nuclear weapons and has the potential of being overwhelmingly bleak, it is not without hope. Nakazawa was one of the first artist in Japan to address and speak out about what happened at Hiroshima through his work at a time when that information was being suppressed. Although Barefoot Gen is a fictionalized account, it is a true story based on his and his family’s lives. It is a very important, powerful and heartbreaking work.