Barefoot Gen, Volume 1: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima

Creator: Keiji Nakazawa
U.S. Publisher: Last Gasp
ISBN: 9780867196023
Released: September 2004
Original release: 1975

I’ll admit, I was somewhat nervous when Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen was selected for February 2011’s Manga Moveable Feast. I studied the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki extensively while in high school—even selecting it as the subject of my major senior project—and I have a tendency to get into heated arguments with people about it (which is really saying something for me). But ultimately, I was glad the series was selected, especially as I hadn’t actually read it myself. Nakazawa began Barefoot Gen in 1973 and it is heavily based on his own experiences as a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing. Ten volumes and over twenty-four hundred pages later, he finished the work in 1985. The first collected volume, Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima was originally published in Japan in 1975. A partial English translation was also released in the late 1970s, making Barefoot Gen one of the first manga to be made available in English. It wasn’t until 2004 that the first complete English translation, with an introduction by Art Spiegelman, was published by Last Gasp.

Most of the first volume of Barefoot Gen follows the lives of the Nakaoka family, beginning several months before the atomic bombing of Hiroshima by the United States on August 6, 1945. Like many families living in Hiroshima at the time, their primary concern was finding enough to eat—not an easy task in wartime Japan for a household of seven. Day to day existence was enough of a struggle, but on top of the that the Nakaoka’s father was vehemently anti-war, often speaking out against it and the government. Since that viewpoint was seen as traitorous and was punishable, this mean that the family faced additional difficulties and discrimination from the authorities and their neighbors. But when the bomb dropped it didn’t matter who was for or against the war—civilians, military personnel, government officials, prisoners of war—everyone had to deal with the brutal consequences of the city’s destruction.

Nakazawa’s style of art in Barefoot Gen is very approachable, almost friendly and seemingly at odds with the story being told, but Nakazawa doesn’t shy away from showing the terrible realities of war and it can be quite emotional. Two motifs that appear repeatedly through Barefoot Gen are wheat and the sun. The meaning of the wheat is explained on the very first page of the manga, symbolizing the constant struggle to persevere over adversity. The symbolism of the sun is more ambiguous and left up to individual interpretation. It is a very prominent image—often the sun is the only visual element in a panel—and it recurs frequently. In addition to marking the passage of time, the sun acts as a impartial and uncaring observer, a reminder that we are only a small part of the universe, watching over the events and tragedies that unfold. Although there are few natural stopping points, there are no explicit chapter breaks in Barefoot Gen making it very easy to become absorbed in Nakazawa’s tale.

Because of its subject matter, Barefoot Gen is rather heavy reading and not easy to get through. War is a terrible thing and people can be incredibly cruel to one another. But there are heart-warming moments in Barefoot Gen as well when I couldn’t help but smile. Despite both internal and external conflicts, the Nakaoka family are wonderfully close and loving and there are those who appreciate their stance against the war. So, while Barefoot Gen honestly shows the suffering caused by war and nuclear weapons and has the potential of being overwhelmingly bleak, it is not without hope. Nakazawa was one of the first artist in Japan to address and speak out about what happened at Hiroshima through his work at a time when that information was being suppressed. Although Barefoot Gen is a fictionalized account, it is a true story based on his and his family’s lives. It is a very important, powerful and heartbreaking work.

Hiroshima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen

Author: Keiji Nakazawa
Translator: Richard H. Minear
U.S. Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield
ISBN: 9781442207479
Released: November 2010
Original release: 1995

I first learned about Keiji Nakazawa’s autobiography Hiroshima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen while preparing for the February 2011 Manga Moveable Feast focusing on Nakazawa’s semi-autobiographical manga series Barefoot Gen. Although I hadn’t read the manga yet, I was already familiar with Barefoot Gen but had no idea that Nakazawa had also written an official autobiography as well. For various reasons, I decided to read it before delving into the manga. According to the introduction by the book’s editor and translator Richard H. Minear, Nakazawa actually wrote two versions of his autobiography—the first was published in 1987 which was later revised and reissued as a second edition in 1995. It is the autobiography from 1995, written fifty years after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that forms the basis of the English edition released by Rowman & Littlefield in 2010 as part of their Asian Voices series.

On the morning of August 6, 1945, the first atomic bomb used as a weapon against a human population was detonated over the city of Hiroshima, Japan. Keiji Nakazawa was a grade-schooler at the time and survived only because he happened to be standing on the opposite side of a thick concrete wall from the blast. His father, sister, and younger brother were killed in the explosion and resulting firestorm. He fortunately found his pregnant mother alive and his two older brothers were away from the city at the time. Even long after the bombing, life was extremely difficult for the survivors. Years later, Nakazawa left for Tokyo, hoping to leave Hiroshima and its tragedy behind. But he eventually took his experiences and used them to create the manga Barefoot Gen, speaking out against nuclear weapons and war.

In addition to the translation of Nakazawa’s autobiography and the illustrations that he created for it, the English edition of the book also includes five excerpts from the Barefoot Gen manga as well as a translation of part of an interview that was conducted in 2007 between Nakazawa and the president of the Hiroshima Peace Institute, Motofumi Asai. There is also a brief index and a useful introduction by the editor. Almost all of the Japanese terms except for manga and anime have been translated, including the titles of movies and magazines. Since I’m so used to hearing and seeing it otherwise, I found it odd to see Shōnen Jump referred to as Boys’ Jump, but I do tend to agree with how Minear chose to translate the book since it makes the autobiography more accessible for readers unfamiliar with Japanese culture and language. He explains his translating and editing decisions in his introduction and also provides a detailed explanation of some of the issues involved when translating and “flipping” manga.

Hiroshima is very aptly subtitled The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen. Not only does it serve as an account of the bombing of Hiroshima as well as the autobiography of Nakazawa, who is Gen, the book also serves as an origin story of the Barefoot Gen manga and its creation. While the autobiography will be of particular interest to people who are already familiar with Nakazawa and Barefoot Gen, the book is also a very accessible and very personal survivor’s account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Nakazawa also addresses the terrible living conditions caused by the war before and after the dropping of the bomb and the struggles and discrimination that the atomic bomb survivors and their descendants faced even decades later. Obviously, because it is such an intensely personal autobiography, there is a certain amount of bias to be expected, but for the most part I don’t think Nakazawa is unfair. Hiroshima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen is well worth reading.

My Week in Manga: February 7-February 13, 2011

My News and Reviews

All right! I posted two in-depth reviews last week. Granted, they were for novels and not manga, but the books are still worth checking out. The first review is for Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness by Nahoko Uehashi. It’s the second book in her ten volume Guardian fantasy series. Only the first two volumes are available in English, but I adore them both. The second review is for Project Itoh’s multiple award winning science fiction novel Harmony; particularly recommended for fans of utopia and dystopia fiction.

The February 2011 Manga Moveable Feast, featuring Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen, began yesterday. In addition to the quick takes below of the entire manga series and the two Barefoot Gen anime films, I will also be posting a couple of reviews this week. Sam Kusek at A Life in Panels is hosting the event.

Quick Takes

Barefoot Gen, Volumes 1-10 by Keiji Nakazawa. I finally got around to reading the entire series since Barefoot Gen was selected for February 2011’s Manga Moveable Feast. Barefoot Gen isn’t an easy read due to its subject matter, but that is also what makes it such an important read. Despite all of the terrible things that happen, Barefoot Gen is ultimately an optimistic and inspiring series and carries a heartening anti-war message. Some of the characters come across as much more articulate, capable, and mature than one would expect from people their age, but this can be fairly easily ignored for the sake of the story. Barefoot Gen is a powerful semi-autobiographical work.

Hetalia: Axis Powers, Volumes 1-2 by Hidekaz Himaruya. Hetalia started as a webcomic and quickly became a worldwide phenomenon. Perhaps because of its start online, the image quality varies, especially in the first volume. The manga improves in writing as the series progresses; I frequently found myself laughing out loud. The humor often but not always relies on stereotypes, but I didn’t find it to be offensive. I even learned a thing or to about world history. Much of the manga is presented as yonkoma, but that format is not used exclusively. Ultimately, I think I prefer the anime adaptation of Hetalia, but I still really enjoyed the manga and will be picking up more of the volumes as they are published.

Immortal Rain, Volumes 1-2 by Kaori Ozaki. This is a series I probably wouldn’t have come across except that was featured in Jason Thompson’s House of 1,000 Manga column. I was inspired to pick it up, and I’m so very glad I did; three chapters in and I knew I wanted to invest in the entire series. Immortal Rain (known as Meteor Methuselah in Japan) has wonderful art and fantastic, complex, characters. And the ladies kick ass. Rain, the titular immortal, is still mostly a mystery at this point in the story. The plot, too, is in its beginning stages and there are more questions than answers, but I’m really looking forward to seeing where it goes. The frequently melancholy mood is balanced nicely with plenty of action sequences.

J-Boy by Biblos by Various. According to Digital Manga, J-Boy was the first yaoi anthology to be released in the United States. It collects nineteen short one-shots, spin-offs, and side-stories by sixteen contributors, totaling over 340 pages of manga. Most of the stories are simply okay, but there are a few gems hidden in the volume. One favorite was the absolutely ridiculous story “Neko Samurai – Ocean of Barrier” by Kyushu Danji. The stories are pretty varied, some are goofy while others are more heartfelt. However, some plots were too complicated to be effectively captured in short form. There’s very little sex in the book, and many stories don’t even to get to the point of kissing.

Barefoot Gen: The Movies 1 & 2 produced by Keiji Nakazawa. Barefoot Gen has been the subject of several adaptations, including two anime films released in the 1980s. The first, directed by Mori Masaki, is probably the most well known—particularly for it’s depiction of the dropping of the bomb. The second, directed by Toshio Hirata, takes place three years after the first. It deviates somewhat from the manga in its details, but it’s heart is unquestionably the same. While I think everyone should read the manga, I think the anime is definitely worth watching as well and it may even be more accessible overall.

Late Bloomer directed by Go Shibata. I first learned about this film because it features music by World’s End Girlfriend. Late Bloomer is probably best described as an arthouse horror film. It follows Sumida, whose cerebral palsy forces him to lead a very lonely life. Eventually his anger and frustration drives him to commit a series of murders. The cinematography is very interesting and movie is filmed in a grainy black and white. The music meshes with the film incredibly well and is integral to many shots. I can’t really say I enjoyed Late Bloomer, it’s an unusual film and definitely not for everyone, but I am glad that I took time to watch it.