Originally published in the early 1970s, Barefoot Gen has gone down in manga history as one of, if not the most important manga ever published. Publisher Last Gasp wasn’t known for its manga (though that is certainly changing) so this republication into English, with a new translation, is a welcome reintroduction to a generation who may have heard the name “Barefoot Gen” but never had a chance to read it in English.
This 10-volume series was written by Keiji Nakazawa, a cartoonist and filmmaker who was seven years old when the US dropped the first atomic bomb on his hometown of Hiroshima.
In this first volume we are introduced to Gen and his family. The story begins before the bomb is actually dropped (the event that closes this first volume) and this gives us a chance to meet the main characters and also get a sense of life in Japan during wartime. Gen’s father, a wheat farmer, is one of the few who speaks out against the war, and at this time of hyper-nationalism when the Emperor was believed to be a deity, his views are not welcomed.
Both the art and the story reminded me a little of Kazuo Umezu’s The Drifting Classroom. Both titles are from the same era in manga history, and in Umezu’s story everyone who isn’t among the small group of main characters is a bad guy. This is almost true in Barefoot Gen, as well (save a sympathetic Korean man named Mr. Pak). Gen’s father’s anti-war sentiment gets him labeled as a traitor and sent to jail. No one wants to be associated with such a family, so Gen and his brother and sister are not only hazed by classmates, but are beaten by teachers (his sister is even strip-searched by a male teacher, as she is accused of stealing). Neighborhood friendships dry up and requests for miso and rice are returned with rocks through the windows.
Barefoot Gen is surely the model for the often-used framework of telling an epic story on a very local scale. The reader knows what is going to go down (at least in the first volume) making each of the 284 pages that much heavier and harder to turn. So much heartbreak happens before the bomb is actually dropped, you might think the atomic explosion in Hiroshima might be an afterthought. But you would be wrong…
The genius of Barefoot Gen is in the real story-telling that so cleverly sprinkles in true war anecdotes, the reader doesn’t realize this isn’t just a manga but a historical document.
My complaints about this book are completely overshadowed by its value, but this is a manga and I am a manga-reviewer, so it wouldn’t be fair not to mention them. This first volume, which came out in 2004, is flipped. However, somehow the artwork is not flipped, so it’s hard to get too upset. I am also a fan of leaving original Japanese SFX intact, which isn’t done here, but, again, that is a taste point. One thing that I know sometimes turns modern Western readers of non-modern manga off is the physical abuse characters wield upon each other, and Barefoot Gen is no exception. Gen and his family members are beaten on a regular basis by the kowtowing nationalists, but at the same time they often beat each other to make a point. This is mostly a visual cue to the reader than an actual smackdown, but the combination means there is a BONK, CLANG, or THUMP at nearly every page turn. I hope this doesn’t turn readers off, as the significance of the lumps drops dramatically as the fateful hour approaches.
For most Western readers, manga is a fantastic escape to Japan and worlds beyond. Barefoot Gen, however, is an escape to a Japan not of fantasy, but of a hard reality. The journey satisfies not in its horror, however, but in its subtle but continious message of hope.