This harrowing story of Hiroshima was one of the original Japanese manga series. New and unabridged, this is an all-new translation of the author’s first-person experiences of Hiroshima and its aftermath, is a reminder of the suffering war brings to innocent people. Its emotions and experiences speak to children and adults everywhere. Volume one of this ten-part series details the events leading up to and immediately following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima.
When Barefoot Gen came up as a Manga Movable Feast topic, I wasn’t sure if I was going to participate. Besides the difficulty in getting ahold of earlier volumes (which I was fortunate enough to find a copy of the first volume to borrow), there is the whole subject matter of the difficulties faced by everyday Japanese at this time, as well as the whole horror of the atomic bomb. I don’t like to read overly depressing stories, and after seeing Grave of the Fireflies with no warning what was coming, I am now overly cautious when it comes to wartime stories with auto-biographical elements. And I did have some difficulties getting through the first volume. I almost put it down twice. Not because it was a bad story, but because I had a hard time dealing with the material. But, I did finally finish reading it.
The story starts with Gen Nakaoka, with his younger brother Shinji and his father Daikichi tending a small plot of land where they are growing wheat. It is April, 1945, and the sound of an air raid siren sends them, as well as Gen’s mother Kimie, older sister Eiko, older brother Koji and younger brother Akira to the shelter until the danger has passed. Daikichi, a painter by trade, has grown tired of the war, and his family never having enough to eat. He speaks out against the war, which brands him and his family traitors, making their already difficult life even more difficult.
Most of the first volume documents the difficulties the Nakaokas have with their former friends and neighbors and the authorities. Daikichi is arrested and beaten. Eiko is strip-searched and humiliated by her teacher. Koji decides to volunteer for the navy so his family won’t continue to be branded traitors. Gen and Shinji are pranksters, and though they complain the loudest, they are also the most proactive, both against the people harassing them, and in trying to find solutions, such as suggesting hunting for locusts to eat, and begging for money to help their mother when she becomes ill.
Between these mostly harsh scenes are scenes of the war outside of Hiroshima, where soldiers are maimed and wounded, and Japanese civilians kill themselves and their children through poison, hand grenades and throwing themselves off of cliffs to avoid being captured by the “American devils.” War is not a pretty thing, and Nakazawa makes sure the reader is exposed to every horror and atrocity both the soldiers and civilians were forced to endure through both the propaganda and actual fighting. Nothing is held back as body parts are shown flying off from grenade explosions, and a sea of bodies cover the ground. To say that this is an anti-war story is really an understatement. Those who support the war are shown as corrupt and buffoons who take advantage of honest, hardworking people. The most sympathetic characters are the ones who speak out against the war, and who are injured the most, physically, emotionally and financially.
And it doesn’t stop there. The brutality of war is shown again when the atomic bomb is finally dropped at the end of the volume. This time though, it is done without the preaching, and the message comes through much stronger. Gen is spared the initial effects of the blast, saved by a brick wall that was between him and the shockwave. We then follow him as he tries to make his way home through the chaos, past the dead and dying. People are shown mere husks, with their skin melting off their faces like wax figures, with dark, hollow eyes. Bones crunch when tread underfoot, and the dying beg for water to quench an unquenchable thirst. The tragedy mounts as Gen reaches home where Shinji, Eiko and his father are trapped in the ruins of their house, and he and his mother are unable to free them before the raging fire reaches them. No one is willing or able to help, as it quickly becomes every man for himself among the relatively uninjured. Only the Korean, Mr. Pak helps Gen and Kimie escape the fire.
In the midst of all this tragedy, the stress causes Kimie to go into labor. This event, the birth of a new life, and what is usually seen as a light of hope in all the darkness, can’t overcome all the death and destruction Gen and Kimie are surrounded by. Even as Gen triumphantly holds his new sister up to proclaim her to the heavens, the realization that his other siblings and father will never know her brings him back to the harsh reality around him.
The art of Barefoot Gen is very much a product of its time. It is very cartoonish, with exaggerated expressions. It reminded me of the art of Speed Racer/Mach Go Go Go!, and there were times when I thought Gen and Shinji looked just like Spridle and Chim-chim. There is violence outside of the war/anti-war scenes. Mostly these involved Daikichi putting the smack-down on Gen and Shinji when they were being obnoxious. It comes off cartoonish as well, feeling more of a Warner Bros-violence-for-a-laugh than any actual abuse.
Barefoot Gen is not a title one picks up for light reading or for fun. It’s anti-war message strikes hard, and sometimes relentlessly. This first volume really focuses on the plight of dissenters and how hard it could be to not just go along with the majority. In a country known for its tendency toward conformity, things had to be really bad to get dissenters to speak out. From a historical and anthropological perspective, this volume has a lot offer about the conditions of Japan and Japanese society at the end of the war. While the story may have an ultimate message of hope for the future, this first volume is the growing dark that is inevitable before the coming of the light.