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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Barefoot Gen

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CXXXIV: Barefoot Gen

“I would hope that children would be traumatized, and learn to despise the atom bomb.”
—Keiji Nakazawa

Keiji Nakazawa, the manga artist who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, is dead. He died in December the age of 73, from lung cancer from smoking, not, apparently, from radiation sickness like his mother and sister (his father, brother and other sister had died earlier during the blast itself). His legacy is Barefoot Gen, his 10-volume semi-autobiographical shonen manga of how he and his family were caught in the bomb.

For many American otaku (including me), Barefoot Gen, or maybe Grave of the Fireflies, is their first glimpse of the perspective of Japanese civilians in World War 2. If anyone, like me, was shocked by their depictions of war atrocities, they served their purpose: Barefoot Gen is a message manga, intended to express Nakazawa's strong antiwar beliefs. It was one of the first manga ever translated into English, when Japanese and American peace activists formed Project Gen, a volunteer group, to translate the series. In the early '80s they translated the first four volumes into multiple languages (Russian, Indonesian, Tagalog…), but the final six volumes remained untranslated until 2004 when they were published by Last Gasp, a San Francisco-based alternative comics publisher. As one of the first (maybe the first) translated manga, a comic with a cartoony style and heavy subject matter, it gets respect like Art Spiegelman's Maus. In the Seattle Public Library, it's shelved with the history books, not the manga.

Hiroshima, 1945. Japan is losing the war, and air raids and food shortages are common. 2nd-grader Gen lives with his family: his parents, two brothers and his sister. His older brother, Koji, is away working in a munitions factory. Gen and his little brother, Shinji, dream of rice and sweet potatoes, while their pregnant mother runs the household and their father, a painter, tries to make enough money to buy food.

Gen's father is the most important person in his son's life. He takes them out to their family field, where they grow wheat to supplement their meager diet, and tells them "Boys, I want you to grow up just like this wheat grows. Be like the wheat that grows strong and tall no matter how much it gets stepped on!" Gen's father is also an outspoken peace activist, who thinks the war was a mistake and hates the military dictatorship that controls Japan. ("It's because I love Japan that I'm against the war!") At a time when most children are indoctrinated to give their lives for their country, Gen's father teaches him to question authority, and even to question racism. When Gen makes fun of their Korean neighbor Mr. Pak, the same way all his friends do, Gen's father whacks him on the head and tells them that Koreans, Chinese, even Americans, aren't "foreign devils," they're all human beings.

Eventually his outspoken beliefs come to the attention of the Neighborhood Chairman, a totalitarian bully, who has him thrown in jail and beaten by the cops. Gen and his siblings are ostracized in school and beaten up because their father is a "traitor," but Gen sticks up for his dad, fighting back blow for blow. In contrast, Gen's brother Koji is so ashamed that he goes against his father's wishes and volunteers to become a kamikaze pilot. But before he can die, comes the fateful day of August 6, 1945, when the U.S. drops the first atom bomb on Japan.

Most of Hiroshima is instantly destroyed. Gen is randomly saved because he is standing with a brick wall between him and the blast. He staggers through scenes of devastation to find his father, sister and brother trapped, still alive, under the collapsed roof of their house. But he is too weak to pull the roof off, and they are still trapped when the fire sweeps through the city and reaches the house, forcing Gen and his mother to leave them to be roasted alive. Gen's mother goes into labor and Gen delivers his new baby sister, surrounded by screams, smoke and roaring flames.

The scenes of the Hiroshima bombing are more horrible than any fiction. In Japan, parents complained about the violence and gore when the Barefoot Gen animation was shown in schools. Skinless people stagger through the streets, trailing their own skin, stripped off them by the blast. Rafts of corpses float down the river. The half-dead, covered with burn scars which soon crawl with maggots, can do nothing more than find someplace to die. A few American POWs who were in Hiroshima are also killed by the bomb, and the survivors curse and beat their dead bodies. When volunteers start to arrive from other cities to help with the devastation, they too are exposed to the radioactive fallout.

Gen gets sick and loses his hair, and he develops strange sores. But he and his mom survive. After the fires die down, they dig their family's bones from the ruins of their house and go to a nearby village to stay with friends. No one understands the effects of radiation, and people who aren't from Hiroshima start to fear and shun the survivors. ("How dare you bring that A-bomb freak to my house? Get him out of here! I don't want my family catching the A-bomb disease!") With the Japanese economy in ruins, and no one to rely on, Gen and his mother are desperate for work or food: to find some way, any way to feed themselves and the new baby. They steal rice, collect manure, and salvage scrap metal.

Meanwhile, Gen is haunted by dreams of the dead. The dreams blend with reality: one day he meets Natsue, a burn-scarred girl who looks just like his dead sister. (It's an easy mistake to make with Nakazawa's all-cute-girls-look-alike manga art style, but…) Then he meets Ryuta, a boy who looks just like his dead brother Shinji, except that he's the toughened leader of a gang of thieves. Ryuta becomes Gen's first new friend after the blast. "I can't help it, I think of you as my little brother," Gen tells him. "Don't give up! We have to keep trying, even if we can only make things better a little at a time!" Gen faces the horror of war, starvation and death with the passion of a shonen manga hero, but this is a shonen manga where anyone, at any time, could die.

As Matt Thorn writes in his amazing obituary of Nakazawa at The Comics Journal, Nakazawa moved to Tokyo in the early 1960s to become a manga artist. He worked on a variety of boys' manga series, until his mother's death in 1966 from radiation poisoning made him want to write about the bomb. Eventually, in 1972 when he was writing for Shonen Jump, he had his chance. For a special issue, Jump invited its authors to draw autobiographical one-shots based on their lives, and Nakazawa responded with a 48-page story of his Hiroshima experiences, which was translated in 1982 as "I Saw It!: The Atomic Bombing of Hiroshima." (I really wish I could read the other artists' autobio stories that were printed in the same issue. I imagine they were all like "I Kissed a Girl Once" and "I Have Student Loans.") Readers liked Nakazawa's story, so in 1973, he was given permission to create a longer (and slightly fictionalized) version of the same story, Barefoot Gen. The series was successful for awhile, but times changed and polls dipped and it was dropped from Jump; Nakazawa eventually finished it years later in another magazine. Once it boomed into Japan's bestselling manga magazine in the 1980s, thanks to power-escalation fantasy battle manga like Dragon Ball, Shonen Jump would never again print such political or controversial material. If Barefoot Gen ran in Shonen Jump today it'd probably be about Gen seeking out higher- and higher-megaton atomic bombs one after another to get tougher and test his survival powers.

When it appeared in tankobon, Gen became a surprise success, and Nakazawa became an antiwar symbol as well as a mangaka. He had found his theme, and he never really left it; in one form or another, through various layers of fictionalization, Nakazawa told the story of his Hiroshima experience again and again. (In this way, he's oddly similar to Hideshi Hino, whose semi-fictional horror manga repeatedly returns to his abusive childhood, the Bomb, and his parents' escape from Manchuria at the end of World War II.) There are alterations for drama, but in broad strokes, Gen's life IS Nakazawa's: the family members they lost to the bomb, the prejudice they faced, even Gen's eventual determination to become an artist, like several other characters he meets throughout the story, so he can tell others about the horrors of war. ("Art has no borders! I wanna make art that travels around the world! I wanna break down the narrow-minded barriers that people call national borders!")

Many WW2 manga are nationalistic to one degree or another, depicting Japan as just a victim of Western aggression. Some manga artists, like Kaiji Kawaguchi or Osamu Tezuka (in Message to Adolf ), question the benevolence of the American Empire, while others, like Leiji Matsumoto, glorify the tragic nobility of the soldiers who fought in the war, nevermind why they were fighting. Even Isao Takahata, the director of Grave of the Fireflies, rejected the title "antiwar film", saying he just wanted to make young people (implication: spoiled young people, like in Buronson's Japan) respect the hardships their parents and grandparents endured.

In contrast, Nakazawa, even more than fellow pacifist Shigeru Mizuki, is a true leftist: he blames the war on the capitalist elites, the 1% who profited while their own sons and daughters stayed off the battlefield. ("As it always is, it is the powerless, nameless, ordinary people who die in wars waged by a handful of men in power…") But supporting one big dictator are thousands of little ones. Nakazawa rips into all authority figures: war-profiteering businessmen, petty officers, schoolteachers who spread propaganda and beat their students (shades of Pink Floyd the Wall), even organized religion, such as the corrupt Buddhist priest who starts an orphanage just to work the bomb orphans for free labor. Nakazawa even turns his anger against the most sacred figure in Japan, the Emperor, usually considered taboo to depict in films or manga (in Lone Wolf and Cub, drawn around the same time as Gen, the Emperor is totally uninvolved in all the evil Shogunate shenanigans, and shows up as only a silhouette behind a screen). As part of a deal with the U.S., Emperor Hirohito escaped prosecution as a war criminal, and the official propaganda said that he had just been a figurehead manipulated by his advisors; but after his death the truth of his involvement in the war came out. Gen refuses to bow to the Emperor: "The Emperor started the war…He's responsible for the death of my father and countless other people! He should throw himself on the ground and apologize. Not once have I heard him beg the Japanese people for forgiveness!"

Nakazawa so thoroughly scathes the Japanese side that, in his introduction to Gen, Art Spiegelman writes: "Arguably, by locating the causes of the bombings exclusively in the evils of Japanese militaristic nationalism rather than in the realpolitik of Western racism and cold-war power-jockeying, Nakazawa may make the work a little too pleasing for American and British readers." However, I have to wonder if Spiegelman didn't read the second half of the manga, when the American G.I.s show up, since those parts weren't translated till 2004. The American Occupation of Japan is generally considered to have gone pretty well for what it was (at least compared to total disasters like the American Occupation of Iraq); in Gen, the Yanks mostly just drive around in jeeps and give out chewing gum to the kids. But there is still martial law, and censorship, and occasional rape of women by soldiers, and scientific studies of the Hiroshima survivors by a shady governmental organization known as the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, whose disrespect for the bodies of the dead made them especially hated. ("They used the war as an excuse for making us into guinea pigs for their A-bomb experiments!" Gen curses.) Historian Howard Zinn theorized that the real reason the U.S. dropped atom bombs on Japan was not just the desire to spare American casualties in a land invasion (and Japanese people committing suicide rather than surrender, also depicted in Gen), but to end the war before the Soviets could invade Japan from the West, thus giving America sole control of the postwar country.

There are lots of anticolonialist theories like this in Gen, but actually, the Yankees themselves mostly stay off-camera and don't do much, and Gen only deals with the secondhand effects of their rule. It's interesting that the only American who really talks to our heroes is Mike Hirota, a Japanese-American soldier ("Japan deserved everything it got! Because of the dirty sneak attack Japan made on the American base at Pearl Harbor!"). Frankly, it's probably a good thing for the story that the Americans don't show up more, since if they did, they'd probably have to be (1) two-dimensional villains like the evil white guys in a Buronson manga or (2) token 'good Americans' with no purpose in the story, since Gen's anti-racist father says "Americans are people too" right at the beginning of volume 1. Either way would dilute the point of Barefoot Gen. Of course, for Okinawans, who have American military bases on 18% of their land, the American Occupation of Japan isn't part of the past, it's an ongoing controversy. (On the other hand, clearly all Japanese don't mind, since someone's buying those Pixel Maritan books and CDs.)

If leftist antiwar activism is the message, the medium is '60s-style shonen manga. Nakazawa has one of the most old-school manga art styles ever translated; for once, comparing it to Speed Racer actually makes sense. When they're not trying to stop nuclear proliferation, Gen and his friends are a bunch of mischief-making scamps. Everyone shouts and cries and makes funny faces and fights all the time, pacifist or not. Beatdowns go on for pages and pages. At one point, Gen's school uniform gets so ripped up he looks like a banchô. Even Gen's mother threatens to stab bad guys with kitchen knives. Then there's the toilet humor: people get peed on, they wet their pants, they're forced to eat horse poop. In one early scene, Gen's father infuriates the local authorities by repeatedly farting during a military drill ("Your fart because you lack self-discipline! How can you defeat the Americans with that attitude?"). FARTS > TOTALITARIANISM! And the SONGS. Gen and his friends are continually singing nigh-untranslatable songs: silly songs about sweet potatoes and frogs and old men, romantic songs about love, old-fashioned Japanese songs from our grandfathers' or great-grandfathers' generation. Gen is a mix of sweet, salty and bitter flavors: cheesy, passionate, depressing, political. But like all great manga, you can't say it doesn't work.

If the actual bombing is the part everyone remembers (at the end of volume 1 and the beginning of volume 2), the later volumes drag on a bit. Gen works odd jobs and searches for the missing members of his family, while making friends with other outcasts and orphans. He races one boy to the top of the A-Bomb Dome to collect eggs from birds' nests. As Japan slowly recovers from the War, the yakuza increase in power by dominating the black market; they're depicted as total scum. ("These are great times to be living in! It's easier to get money and power when the world's falling apart!'") American G.I.s sleep with Japanese prostitutes (Nakazawa isn't quite as bitter about it as Yoshihiro Tatsumi is) and buy the skulls of the Japanese dead as souvenirs, thus supporting the local economy. The survivors find new things to live for, like the Hiroshima Carps baseball team. The story of the bombing is retold again and again from different characters' perspectives, certainly for dramatic effect, but also probably because Barefoot Gen kept switching to different magazines and Nakazawa had to reexplain the story for new readers.

But of course, with peace comes forgetfulness. The ramshackle homes built by the homeless Hiroshima survivors are torn down by order of the city so that a new, shiny Hiroshima, a "peace memorial city," can arise from the ruins. American bulldozers clear the ruins and bury mounds of bones and skulls. The slimy Neighborhood Chairman reappears richer than ever as the head of the Merchants Association, telling everyone how he was opposed to the war all along. As he gets older, and no longer feels comfortable peeing in bad guys' faces, Gen gets more and more outspoken and political. Not every storyline is resolved. Justice is not always done. But characters change. Through its sheer scope of time, Barefoot Gen starts to feel like a novel almost despite itself. In the end, the story goes from 1945 to 1953; Nakazawa had apparently considered doing a Gen sequel right up until a few years before his death, when his ailing health made him give up the idea. Without spoiling the ending, I'll say: in the last volume Gen falls in love.

Fumiyo Kouno's manga Town of Evening Calm, Country of Cherry Blossoms, a good manga in its own way, looks at Hiroshima through a nostalgic lens. Wistfully, it shows the beauty of the old city, the sadness of bomb survivors' tragically shortened lives. Not Nakazawa. No mono no aware for him. Instead Gen, Nakazawa's alter ego, seethes with anger when he sees a lightweight "peace parade" on the anniversary of the bombing, with people in costume singing tame lyrics like "Flash went the atom, bright as the sun! Out went the dove of peace for everyone!" When Gen's friends try to organize a more serious peace parade, in the early 1950s, the American authorities shut it down. ("America is ass-deep in the Korean war! They sure as hell don't want us making a scene praying for peace!") Barefoot Gen is an ANGRY manga. A political manga. Perhaps some of its fame is due to its subject matter, not the execution, but no one can say that Nakazawa was just an opportunist who chose a controversial subject. In manga, where stories are rarely either personal or political, Nakazawa made history with a manga that is both.

Banner designed by Lanny Liu.

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