Monday, May 26, 2014

On the Coffee Table: Barefoot Gen

Title: Barefoot Gen, Volume 1: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima
Writer and Artist: Keiji Nakazawa
via Atomic Books
If ever there were a single day that changed the world, it was most certainly August 6, 1945.  On that horrific Monday morning, an atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, killing thousands, leveling the city and raising the stakes of warfare forever.  Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen series, first published in Japanese in the early '70s, is the semi-autobiographical account of the author's childhood experiences before, during and after the bombing.  It is a powerful work of high stature among the world's serious subject comic books.

Volume 1 begins in April 1945 and ends on the day of the bomb.  The hardships of the average Japanese family during the late stages of the war are laid plain.  Gen, a young boy and fictional stand-in for the author, and his family live under constant air raid threat while struggling to even feed themselves.  One older brother is evacuated to the countryside.  Another enlists in pilot training and learns the horrors of kamikaze pilots.  To complicate matters further, Gen's father is openly critical of Japan's involvement in the war, a position that inspires vicious hostility from the neighbors. 

Rambunctious little boys in manga often seem to bounce and Gen and his brother Shinji come off as a bit clownish at times.  The father's occasional violent outbursts are off-putting.  But overall, the reader develops great affection for Gen's family in plenty of time for the crushing blow we all know is coming.  We are not spared the graphic details when the bomb hits - skin melting off the victims, bodies covered with shards of shattered glass, etc.

I never made it to Hiroshima during my time in Japan, though I did go to Nagasaki, target of the second A-bomb on August 9th.  Visiting the bomb museum was a haunting experience I'll carry with me always.  Fortunately, both cities thrive in modern Japan and have been at the forefront of world peace and nuclear antiproliferation movements for decades - always aware of the horrifying past, but also determined to help make sure it never happens again.  First person accounts such as Nakazawa's have long been an important aspect of these efforts.


  1. It is hard to combine the words cartoon and Hiroshoma, with the image of a samurai. What am I missing?

    1. That's not a samurai. It's a little boy playing, late War but pre-bomb.

      Susan, do not underestimate the capacity of comic books to take on serious material. In American culture, comics have a limited association with children, humor and/or superhero adventures. In the Japanese- and French-speaking worlds, where comic books enjoy mainstream readership, a far broader range of topics is covered by the medium.

      There are serious works in English, too, of course - the most famous being Art Spiegelman's Maus books, about the Holocaust. Think of it this way: if movies and paintings can tackle serious subjects, there's really no reason comic books can't do the same.

      All that said, even for me, the bouncy boys feel a little out of place at times. The family's older children aren't like that and I think the artistic intent is to maintain the innocence of the younger boys. My guess is that will change after the bomb, but I don't know yet - that's the next book.

  2. I probably won't get around to searching that out, but it's something I would read if I had it.

  3. Sounds like a very important book...but in a format that's fun to read.

    1. I don't know if fun's the right word... definitely accessible.

  4. I think Americans think of comic books as only "comic books".
    In Japan as you know comics can be anything from manga, books on manners, cook book and office rules. Or the series you just posted about Buddha, daughter has that series.
    Did you know there is an animated Barefoot Gen ?
    Have you seen Grave Of The Fireflies ?
    But as I just started crying writing this I don't think your should. I cry every time I see the name.

    cheers, parsnip

    1. I believe there's a live action TV show of this one, too.

      We have not seen Grave of the Fireflies - one of the few Ghibli films we haven't. I'm pretty sure it's in our Netflix queue.