From the back cover:
Barefoot Gen is the powerful, tragic story of the bombing of Hiroshima, seen through the eyes of the artist as a young boy growing up in a Japanese anti-militarist family. Of particular interest is Barefoot Gen‘s focus on family in a militarized culture, and the special problems which they encounter. Barefoot Gen brings home the reality of an event in our history which we must never allow to happen again.
Barefoot Gen is a largely autobiographical, slightly fictionalized account of a young boy’s perspective of the bombing of Hiroshima. It’s drawn in a cartoony style reminiscent of Osamu Tezuka, and puts the experiences of the Nakaoka family into broader historical context.
My initial reactions to the first volume of Barefoot Gen made me feel like a bad person. I had expected to instantly like Gen and the Nakaoka family, but found them very difficult to sympathize with at first. Part of the problem for me is what Art Spiegelman describes in his introduction as “casual violence.” Certainly in a series about war and the aftermath of an atomic bomb, I expected there to be some disturbing imagery. I did not expect, though, that the members of a “peace-loving family” like the Nakaokas would be so violent themselves.
Daikichi Nakaoka, the father of the clan, is outspoken about his opposition to the war, which makes him and his family the target of much harrassment by their neighbors. You’d think that being against the war would mean that Daikichi is opposed to violence in general, but that’s not true. I lost count of how many times he smacks someone (usually a child) and sends him or her sprawling into a wall. This tendency for violence extends to his wife (who brandishes a knife on several occasions) and his youngest sons (who twice gnaw off the fingertips of admittedly odious people).
It got to the point where I actively began heckling them! Heckling the victims of a nuclear holocaust!
When the family’s wheat field—upon which they were relying as a future food source—is trampled, Daikichi cries, “Who in the hell would do such a thing?”
My response: “Uh, everyone?”
After Kimie, Gen’s mother, holds his eldest brother Koji at knifepoint because he wants to join the navy and thereby improve public opinion of his family, Daikichi says, “The fool. He doesn’t have to go off and get killed in the war.”
My response: “He can get killed right here at home!”
Just when I was sure I was going to the special hell, however, things began to improve. Koji’s decision to enroll in the Naval Air Corps somehow triggers a better meld between the tone of the story and how the characters behave. Gen, who is initially merely an excitable kid who doesn’t think too much about what he says or does, begins to grow up a bit and becomes much more sympathetic as a result.
My favorite part of the volume is when Gen discovers his younger brother, Shinji, humiliating himself for an opportunity to play with another kid’s toy battleship. He puts a stop to it, and when he spots another toy battleship in the window of a glass repair shop, attempts to buy it. While he’s waiting to talk to the owner—who tells him it belonged to his dead son and isn’t for sale—he overhears him being threatened by men to whom he owes money and decides to help out, Gen-style, which entails throwing rocks and breaking tons of windows to bring in business. The owner is so grateful he bestows the ship on Gen as a gift, who generously turns it over to Shinji. They make plans to take it down to the river the next day.
Except that the next day is August 6, and that’s when the bomb hits. This whole sequence is truly stunning, and actually included a few historical facts I didn’t know, like how the Enola Gay returned after the air raid sirens had ceased and that the casualties were greater because people thought the danger had passed and emerged from their bomb shelters. It’s also interesting how Nakazawa puts the blame for everything squarely on the Japanese leaders. Even from the start, he’s referring to the war as something “that Japan began with the USA and England.” He’s critical of the government’s refusal to surrender while they’re not the ones suffering, starving, and losing loved ones. The casualty totals are truly overwhelming, and for what? It makes me wonder if the leaders’ stubbornness was some kind of remnant of samurai pride…
Although it was tough going at the beginning, by the end of this volume I was genuinely excited to continue reading the series. I do feel it’s something that’s going to be best in small doses, however. And let’s hope the days of gratuitous finger-chomping are behind us!
Barefoot Gen is published in English by Last Gasp. All ten volumes have been released.
For more on this series, check out the Manga Moveable Feast archive at A Life in Panels.