Sunday, September 15, 2013

Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

News reports have it that sales of the Japanese manga Barefoot Gen (はだしのゲン) have soared ever since the manga series that deals with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima floated to the top of Japanese news headlines this past August, buoyed by reports that Shimane Prefecture's Matsue City education board had requested elementary and junior high school libraries to restrict access to the manga, a request that is believed to have stemmed from the board's opinion that the manga series contains inappropriate images of atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.

Besieged with criticism, the education board has since withdrawn its request; and plagued with curiosity, I have since bought the first couple of volumes of the English version of the ten-part series.



In the introduction, the series's author, Keiji Nakazawa, gives a short account of events as he experienced them when the atom bomb was dropped on his hometown of Hiroshima. He was six years old. The story of the manga series's main character, Barefoot Gen, was based on Nakazawa's. All episodes in the series, according to Nakazawa, were in fact based on his actual experiences or those of others in Hiroshima.

According to Nakazawa, the Japanese word "gen" means "root", "origin", "source", and also "elemental". The kanji for gen (原) is the same kanji which appears in genbaku (原爆), the Japanese word for atomic bomb.

The first volume provides the necessary background for developing the character of Barefoot Gen, a lively boy by all accounts. It was meant to show that Gen had a life, however bleak, and was part of a family—the Nakaokas—that was struggling to survive in a country whose resources were severely strained and limited, steeped in the atrocious consequences of a war it was losing. In fact, most of this volume is preoccupied with painting this background; the bomb comes only towards the end of this 284-page book when, hopefully, the reader has been convinced that the characters represent real humans despite a war where both sides see each other as nonhumans, that there is something real to be lost, and that loss would come with real pain.

Does this volume contain violence? Yes, definitely. And the violence is not confined to the dropping of the atomic bomb or its aftermath—scenes which actually evoke hell and desperation more than violence. Nor is the violence limited to soldiers. The frames in this volume teem with violence, where the resolution to every problem and conflict seems to be a beating or a whack on the head. Men, women, children—they are all capable of violence in this black-and-white world. There's a war, and people are at their worst.

But, for the most part, the violence is the graphic equivalent of verbal hyperbole. You sort of come to that conclusion when you see someone's head being whacked in one frame and then in the next frame see lumps on said head the size and shape of fingerling potatoes. It is wacky entertainment, Japanese manga style.

The depictions of violence in this volume are perhaps still not the images of military atrocities that the Matsue City education board was trying to circumscribe. And, from what I've read in the news, this first volume might be just the tame beginning. But the general end effect is perhaps the intended one—the creation in the mind of life circumstances quite unquestionably remote from those of readers who have known only a comfortable life. Of course they are.


Sample pages from volume one of Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa.
Figure 2: Sample pages from volume one of Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa. Click on the image to enlarge.

But, cartoonish flair aside, Nakazawa does not flinch from the serious job of graphically illustrating disturbing scenes, which a book of this subject naturally calls for. And there are disturbing scenes, at least for me. One of them is a scene where Gen's sister, Eiko, obviously on the verge of womanhood, is shown stripped to her bottom undergarments as she is being interrogated and accused of stealing by her male teachers. Gen and Eiko's father, Mr. Nakaoka, is a pacifist, you see, and he and his family have the additional burden of bearing the antagonism that comes with the default label of traitor. Based on real life or not, Nakazawa also does not seem to miss an opportunity to make a sociopolitical statement; the person who offers the most kindness to Gen's marginalized family is their Korean neighbor, Mr. Pak.

Some scenes are not merely disturbing but repulsive. One might expect this, if one considers that the message is that war is hell, and the atomic bombing a local apocalypse. There are dead bodies, many of them; bodies infested with maggots, even while still alive. It is not a story for the squeamish.

Nakazawa manages to do all these with superb storytelling; each of the 284 generous pages is crammed with frames of well-executed, detailed illustrations from a master manga-ka's pen, whose ink carries the story effortlessly from frame to frame—the same eloquent pen which has led to controversy even in present times.

Having read the first volume, do I feel inclined to read the rest of the series? Yes, I do. I'd like to read the rest of what Nakazawa had to say about the war and his country. I'd like to read the rest of Gen's story and, moreover, how Nakazawa tells it.

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Nakazawa, Keiji. Translated by Project Gen. Barefoot Gen, Volume One. San Francisco: Last Gasp of San Francisco, 2004.


I would like to thank the volunteer group of translators who made possible the current English edition of the entire ten volumes of Barefoot Gen.

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