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I only have a vague recollection of the morning of August 6, 2001. I was staying in a small business hotel in Hiros>hima with the other delegates of the Japan-America Student Conference, and we had to get up early in order to arrive at the commemoration ceremony for the dropping of the atomic bomb. I'm not an early riser and I don't think I was able to grab my necessary morning coffee, so I don't recall much from the ceremony itself, other than seeing Jun'ichiro Koizumi give some sort of commemorative speech. What I do remember, though, was that in the few days I was there, I could physically feel the weight of history as I walked around the city.
Nothing that I learned while in Hiro>shima came as a shocking new revelation to me. I don't know how the subject is handled in other countries, but my American education gave me a primer on what happened during World War II and didn't gloss over what happened at the end. I remember in junior high we read John Hersey's acclaimed book Hiro>shima, which told the story of the bombing of the city and its aftermath through the lives of six individuals. In spite of such counterbalances, we were presented with the dominant view that the atomic bombings were terrible, yet necessary to ensure Japan's unconditional surrender and consequently to ensure peace. Wandering around Hiro>shima, though, was an experience I am still having trouble putting into words nearly ten years later; it made me wonder how human beings could do something so drastic and unconscionable to one another.
One could say that because of these terrible defeats, though, Japan has become a nation of peace. After all, thanks to Article 9 on their constitution, the Japanese are prohibited from waging wars of aggression. (Although this has not prevented Japan from developing a Self-Defense Force that is easily in the top ten largest militaries in the world in terms of the amount of money spent.) Many Japanese people have embraced this peaceful identity, saying that at least some good could come from the national trauma of the Second World War, and their unique status as being mandated to not wage war and as the only victims of a nuclear weapon in wartime.
Academics and other commentators, including artist Takashi Murakami, have traced many of the themes present in anime and manga to Japan's defeat in World War II. Murakami even named an exhibition of anime- and manga-influenced Japanese art “Little Boy,” after the nickname given to the atomic bomb that was dropped on Hiro>shima. According to Murakami, this is because, “We Japanese still embody ‘Little Boy’… after a nasty childhood taunt.” It's certainly possible to see what he means when he draws parallels between the war and series and films like Gundam, Yamato, Akira, and the like. However, these deal with the realities of Japanese involvement in World War II only as a metaphor and in a way take the trauma of Hiros>hima onto Japan as a whole.
In the manga Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa tells the story of what really happened to the people who experienced the atomic bomb of Hiros>hima firsthand. As much as we might think we know what happened in Hiros>hima on that clear August morning, we can't begin to understand it until we know the stories of the people who were there. Through the tale of Gen, Nakazawa's alter ego, we learn how his family lived before the bomb and what life was like for what family remained afterward. Barefoot Gen was one of the first manga to appear in English, with its first translated volume appearing in the late 1970s. Although an appreciation of manga was still a ways off for English speakers, Barefoot Gen’s anti-nuclear, antiwar message resonated with many who came together to volunteer their time to publish this manga in translation. Even so, the final book in the 10-volume series was not published until earlier this year by Last Gasp.
This year has also seen the release of a related book – Hiro>shima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers). Written by Keiji Nakazawa and translated by Richard H. Minear, this book lets Nakazawa tell his story again, this time in prose instead of comics. This may seem rather repetitive at first glance. After all, isn't Barefoot Gen itself supposed to be autobiographical? What's the point in rehashing what Nakazawa already said? Although it's true that many of the events in Hiro>shima have been told in manga, they were a fictionalized account of what happened since Nakazawa took a measure of artistic license. (Just so you know, from here on when I refer to Hiro>shima, I'm talking about Nakazawa's book, not the John Hersey book.) In his autobiography, Nakazawa tries to communicate in as straightforward a manner as possible what actually happened to him during the bombing of Hiro>shima and its aftermath, going into more detail where possible and discussing how events were altered for the manga. The most notable of these changes are the events surrounding the collapse of Nakazawa's home, which ended up killing his father, sister, and one of his brothers. (Nakazawa wasn't actually there to see that event, as he was in the book. However, his mother was there and recounted what happened so vividly that Nakazawa felt as if he was actually present, so he incorporated this detail into the manga.)
Even as a prose book, there is no shortage of illustrations in Hiros>hima. Five short excerpts from the Barefoot Gen manga are included to give readers a taste of what the manga was like as well as to show readers how Nakazawa depicted particular events he discusses in the autobiography. There are also 22 sketches by Nakazawa that illustrate the text. These are unevenly spaced throughout the book, though, with the majority appearing in the first half.
Even before the bomb fell on Hiros>hima, the Nakazawa family had to struggle to survive. Keiji's father was an artist and a peace activist who not only gave little thought to making money, but thought that working with the aim of acquiring more and more was immoral and one of the reasons Japan was at war. After all, it was Japan's imperial aspirations in Asia that began the war in the Pacific. He was a member of an antiwar theater troupe, and was consequently taken away and held in custody by Japanese police for over a year. Even in the best of times the family did not make much money, but with Keiji's mom left to be the sole breadwinner, family finances were tight. Consequently, Keiji and his four siblings often just scraped by with barely enough to eat and were looked down upon in the neighborhood because their father was viewed as a traitor to the nation for his thought crimes. Once Keiji's father returned from his detention, the family's fortunes improved somewhat; even though the father that came back was a malnourished husk of a man, he still continued to speak his mind about the folly of Japan's ongoing war.
The majority of Nakazawa's book is dedicated to retelling what happened on August 6 when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city, as well as the bomb's immediate aftermath. If you have read the Barefoot Gen manga, or any other account of the bombing, then you know how horrible it was to the people on the ground. Whether or not you survived was a matter a sheer luck. Nakazawa happened to be in the shadow of his schoolyard wall at the time, so he was protected from the immediate blast. Nakazawa spares little detail describing how the people who were not killed instantly were maimed by the explosion. The specifics, involving countless glass splinters embedded in people's bodies and skin peeling off as the wounded trudged along, are presented in a very matter-of-fact manner. Nakazawa does not dwell on or wallow in the horrors he sees, but rather just presents them to the reader.
Nakazawa, his mother, and two of his brothers survive the bombing. In fact, the event prompts a new addition to the family, since it causes Keiji's mother, who had been pregnant, to give birth. Since their house had been destroyed in the blast, the Nakazawas needed to find the most basic of human necessities – food and shelter. After staying briefly with some distant relatives who resented the Nakazawas’ presence, they managed to rent a single small room and tried to rebuild their lives from the ruins of the city. The situation was not helped by the fact that in such times baser human instincts took over and people felt little remorse over what they could get away with. Nakazawa relates instances of acquaintances trying to swindle them, being bullied in what passed for school at the time, and having his mother being accused of theft. He writes, “I saw the true nature of the Japanese people: lording it over the weak, bullying them unmercifully. Peel back the veneer, and they reveal their ugly nature and pounce. War in particular exacerbates man's ugliness, and it suddenly flares up and spreads.”
Due to the family's situation, Nakazawa had to literally scrounge for food, sometimes catching crickets to eat for dinner. In the wake of such food shortages and improper medical care, Keiji's newborn baby sister passed away at only four months old. Still, in spite of all of this, it says something about Nakazawa's optimism that just two pages after they cremate the body of his baby sister, he can write about the fact that people in the city seem to be getting back to work and that, “Night after night we fell asleep with a sense of security because human beings were out there and we had the feeling that Hiro>shima was reviving at a good pace.”
One of the things that is often overlooked in the recounting of the atomic bombings were how the Japanese people were used as test subjects for this horrific new weapon. Nakazawa mentions that until the bomb was dropped, the people of Hiro>shima were lulled into a sense of security because their city had so far escaped the devastation that other Japanese had suffered during the U.S. airstrikes against the islands. As he was later to learn, though, the U.S. forces did this in order to better assess the destructive capabilities of their new weapons – it helped to have a fresh, untrammeled city to test out the bomb. But the testing didn't end there. In the months following, Nakazawa says that representatives of the ABCC (Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission) would regularly visit his elementary school and make the children provide stool samples. Sometimes the ABCC station wagon would take a few of Nakazawa's classmates away for a few hours to examine them and draw blood samples. Resisting or refusing such invasive tests was not an option. Nakazawa lashes out at the people who did this, writing, “I think America has no right to censure the Nazis for their cruelty—Auschwitz and other concentration camps—to the Jews. In Hiros>hima and Nagasaki, America carried out a cruel experiment on living people.” While I would agree that of course the bombings and subsequent experimentation carried out by the U.S. government were horrible, I don't think that this means I cannot criticize other atrocities where I seem them. One could say to Nakazawa that the Japanese have no right to feel persecuted because it was their government that initiated and imperial expansionist war in East Asia and are responsible for such atrocities as the Rape of Nanking and Unit 731, which carried out human experiments with biological and chemical weapons in China during the war. However, such finger pointing is certainly not productive and I think we really are all on the same page here. (And I feel like I have to point out that America has conducted medical experiments on its own unwilling citizens. A case in point is the Tuskegee syphilis study, which as late as 1972—twenty years after the U.S. occupation of mainland Japan ended—the government was purposefully withholding appropriate treatments to black test subjects to monitor how untreated syphilis progressed in the human body.)
When Nakazawa writes that he feels “America's humanitarianism and democracy were a sham, shallow and suspect,” it is difficult to point to many of his experiences to try to prove otherwise. The main thrust of this book is not an anti-American polemic, though. As I mentioned above, he pulls no punches with his fellow countrymen either. He is particularly vehement about the Emperor, who he sees as being directly responsible for the destruction incurred by the country.
It is about two-thirds of the way through the autobiography that Nakazawa discovers a classmate's copy of the manga New Treasure Island by Osamu Tezuka, which changes his life forever. Nakazawa finds the story and the artwork so compelling that he seeks out all the other Tezuka manga he can find and begins making plans to become a manga artist. He begins reading more as well as going to as many movies as he can, as he sees a strong connection between the panel layout in manga and composition and editing in film. After junior high school, Nakazawa knows that the family cannot afford to send him to high school, so he becomes a sign painter and works on his own manga creations in the evening. However, Nakazawa realizes that since all of the ma>jor manga publishers are in Tokyo, that's where he really needs to go in order to become a professional. He arranges to become an assistant to a more established manga author and moved to Tokyo, where he manages to land his first serial story rather quickly.
When he was living in Tokyo, Nakazawa noticed the cold stared he would receive if he brought up the subject of the atomic bomb, so he tried to hide the fact that he was a bomb survivor. However, when his mother died and the ABCC came along shortly thereafter to try to convince the family to give them her internal organs for analysis, all of Nakazawa's rage over the bombing came flooding back and he began creating his first manga relating directly to the atomic bomb. He created a few short pieces in the late 1960s and early 1970s, but in 1973 he began work on Barefoot Gen, the story that would become known around the world, in many formats (comics, anime, live-action film) and in almost every language.
Unfortunately, this last section that deals directly wi>th manga and Gen is far too short for my tastes. I would have loved to have read more about Barefoot Gen’s creation and reception. However, it feels like Nakazawa is rushing through this last part in order to wrap it up. For a book subtitled The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen, it's rather surprising that Gen isn't even created until six pages before the end of the book. I'm always interested in stories of how the manga industry works in Japan, and has expecting to get a lot more of it in the book.
For those of us in the United States, Thanksgiving is later this week. For even the most unfortunate of us, I think we can find a lot to be thankful for in Keiji Nakazawa's works like Hiros>hima and Barefoot Gen, which are redemptive tales of striving for peace as well as a tale of anger at the follies of governments and those in power. I for one am thankful that Nakazawa fell in love with comics and decided to become a manga artist.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.