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Chris Blocker

Literary snobbery and other thoughts by Chris Blocker

Review: Barefoot Gen, Volume 1

Barefoot Gen, Volume One: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima - Keiji Nakazawa, Art Spiegelman, Project Gen


I'm still new to this genre, so I'm not entirely comfortable with all the terms. What exactly is a graphic novel? Comic books aren't considered graphic novels, so where is the line drawn? Barefoot Gen has the look of a daily comic, but feels more like a graphic novel, so what is it? My worry that I'll say something stupid sends me to the Internet searching for answers. Barefoot Gen is manga. I have a lot to learn. What exactly is manga? Japanese comics. I'm still confused as to where the line is drawn. Screw it, I hate lines anyway.

Barefoot Gen is a comic-style book-thingy that tells a complete story. It was originally published in Japan in the 1970s. By the 1980s, it had been translated into English and was one of the first manga to be marketed in the United States. (See the Internet made me smarter.) Barefoot Gen is a series of ten books that details the bombing of Hiroshima by one survivor, Keiji Nakazawa. Often the series is referred to as an autobiography, but the author's own introduction contradicts some of the details of the comic, so I think of it more as semi-biographical.

I've read books about the bombing of Japan (the fire bombs and the atomic bombings) and I knew of the horrors. I understood there would be limits to what a comic book could illustrate, so I didn't have the highest expectations when it came to realism. I was surprised. True, the comic couldn't capture the destruction, the darkness, the stench, but it really did quite a fine job introducing images that burn into the reader's mind, much more than I imagined was possible anyway.

Barefoot Gen (which refers to the first book in the series and not the series itself from this point forward) is an introduction to the Nakaoka family. The book takes place in the middle of 1945 and shows the day-to-day life of the average Japanese civilian during war. Food is sparse. Hope is dying. But the Nakaoka family has it particularly hard because they oppose the war and are branded as traitors. Most of Barefoot Gen illustrates the trials and struggle the family has internally and externally. The bomb doesn't fall until the end, which was a wise choice on the author's part, getting the reader fully acquainted with the family first.

This is a really great comic depiction of Hiroshima before and during the atomic bombing. I've already started the second in the series, entitled The Day After. I did have two small complaints about this first book. The first is that there is quite a bit of comic mischief throughout, squabbles that lead to fights which seem to be played for laughs. It reminded me of Looney Toons cartoons. Perhaps this is just the style, but it did distract from the story line and didn't really seem to fit in with the ethics of this pacifist family. The second issue is that the story seems to be anti-Japanese. Perhaps this will be rectified in later volumes when Gen actually meets the occupying forces, but in this first volume, the Nakaoka family seems to blame Japan for all that is happening. A more balanced account is certainly welcome.

For those wanting an introduction to nuclear warfare and those who can appreciate a good comic, I recommend Barefoot Gen. (Just know that the contents may haunt you for a while).