Revisiting the legacy of ‘Barefoot Gen’

Today in Otaku Ohana, your friendly neighborhood anime/manga blogger is going to do something he hasn’t done in a long time: actually write about manga. Gasp!

barefoot gen coverToday also marks 70 years since the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, killing tens of thousands of people. It’s a story that was told in Barefoot Gen, a manga by Keiji Nakazawa that relied on many of his personal experiences in telling the story of Gen Nakaoka, a boy who survived the blast.

I’ve talked about Barefoot Gen twice in my career on the otaku beat — once in February 2011, in an essay in an earlier version of this blog that was part of a larger Manga Movable Feast effort, the other as part of The Canon, a roundup of 50 essential manga series to read, in The Rough Guide to Manga (available at a library or secondhand bookstore/website near you). Since Last Gasp is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to put copies of Barefoot Gen in schools and libraries across the United States (19 percent funded as of this writing, come on, people, start giving more already), I thought it would be nice to resurrect what I wrote in the Rough Guide.

And by “resurrect,” I mean “reprint the entire section, right here, for free.”

I’m not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this in print before, but the full rights to the text of the manga guide legally reverted to me about three years ago, when Rough Guides shut down its reference guide division. I’d love to write more on this topic down the line — particularly given how Andrea Lipinski at the School Library Journal recently was kind enough to include it as one of her picks for essential reading in her “Manga 101” article — but the bottom line is that I now have an entire pile of text that I can distribute however I see fit. Seeing as how I’ll probably never have enough free time to properly update the whole thing in one go — as you’ve probably seen by my erratic update schedule here, I barely have enough time/energy to update this blog, never mind 265 pages or so of text — I felt the best way to use it would be to publish excerpts here, whenever relevant, every so often.

So let’s jump right in, shall we?

Barefoot Gen

Text and artwork: Kenji Nakazawa; Publisher: Shueisha (Jp), Last Gasp of San Francisco (US, UK, Aus); Original serialization: Weekly Shônen Jump, 1973-1974; Volumes: 10 Jp, US

Keiji Nakazawa was only 6 years old when the US dropped a nuclear bomb on his hometown of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, leaving his father, older sister and younger brother among the 80,000 dead and his mother and infant sister with him to fend for themselves. His infant sister died several weeks later, but his mom lived until 1966, her bones slowly ravaged by the effects of radiation to the point where no bone fragments were left in her cremated remains.

While Nakazawa had largely repressed his memories of the bombing, the frustration and anger over seeing his mother’s remains spurred him to write a series of antiwar novels and manga based on his experience. In 1972, when Shueisha’s Monthly Shônen Jump published his 45-page autobiographical manga Ore wa Mita (I Saw It), editor Tadasu Nagano was impressed enough he encouraged Nakazawa to write an expanded version for serialization: the semi-autobiographical Barefoot Gen.

barefoot gen 2Finding Barefoot Gen during its initial serialization proved to be tricky during its initial serialization. Nagano edited the series in Shueisha’s Weekly Shônen Jump for a year and a half before leaving the post, then the new editor wanted to take the magazine in a different direction and promptly cancelled the series. It would take eight years and three different magazines – two of which went out of business – for Barefoot Gen to complete its run.

Despite these setbacks, a moving story would emerge, one that vividly depicted the horror inflicted on the Japanese and the struggles of coming of age in the aftermath of war. To the Japanese, it was an eye-opening account of how bombing victims were marginalized in society, and copies of the series are now housed in primary and middle-school libraries across Japan. To the rest of the world, including Japan’s wartime enemies, the series revealed the impact of the war on Japanese civilian life.

Lead character Gen Nakaoka is a year older than Nakazawa was in 1945, but otherwise Gen’s family reflects Nakazawa’s, even down to Gen’s father Daikichi being an outspoken critic of the war who believes Japan should strive for peace with the Allied powers. It is pointless, he argues, for people to sacrifice themselves for a nation run by a military controlled by the wealthy, a view that was at odds with the prevailing feeling at the time.

As the proverb goes, “the nail that sticks up gets hammered down”, and so Gen’s father, and by extension the entire Nakaoka family, gets hammered down with extreme prejudice by their neighbors and the authorities alike. But the family’s faith and support of one another keeps them going. Even when older brother Koji goes against his father’s wishes and enlists in the Imperial Army, as the train is pulling away from the station, Daikichi shows up to shout his enthusiastic encouragement of his son. Family ties end up trumping politics every time.

Manga image 06 - Barefoot GenThe bomb’s impact may last only an instant in Nakazawa’s narrative, but its aftereffects linger through the rest of the series. The initial impact is depicted with flesh melting off bodies, corpses littering the streets and buildings reduced to rubble. Then the horror becomes personal when Gen and his mother find the rest of their family trapped under their house. They try to save them, but in the end can only watch helplessly as fire sweeps through the wreckage of the building.

Despite the suffering of the survivors, they’re still subject to the same old prejudices. Gen and his mother head inland with his newborn baby sister, but the first family they stay with harbors a serious grudge against them for sucking up already limited resources. And so Gen is forced to grow up before his time in a Japan that is first obsessed with war, then with survival and the shame of defeat. Through it all, though, there remains a sense of hope, mostly down to Gen’s determination in the face of whatever insults and prejudices are thrown his way.

An account of the story through the eyes of an adult would be grueling enough to read. The perspective of a child — and one who sees most of his family die before his eyes, at that — makes for a devastating read, and one that’s more easily identifiable for younger readers. Yet Nakazawa’s message is also one of dogged determination, of persevering and surviving through the hard times to ensure the mistakes of the past are never repeated.

2 thoughts on “Revisiting the legacy of ‘Barefoot Gen’”

  1. I think the overall title of the guide series didn’t help sell a lot of copies. You usually don’t buy reference type books to just to get a “rough” idea of the subject. Even if that’s all some do.

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