Barefoot Gen: The Complete Series

Review by Ed Sizemore

***Warning: This Review Contains Spoilers***

At 8:15 AM (JST) on August 6, 1945, the American bomber Enola Gay dropped a bomb nicknamed Little Boy on Hiroshima. It was the first use of atomic weapons in human history. Gen Nakaoka is an eight year-old boy on his way to school when Little Boy explodes. What follows are horrors unimagined, even in humanity’s darkest nightmares. Barefoot Gen is the story of Gen’s struggle to survive in the Hiroshima area after the end of World War II. After ten volumes, the series ends with 16-year-old Gen deciding to move to Tokyo.

Barefoot Gen Book 3 cover
Barefoot Gen Book 3
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Barefoot Gen is a based on the experiences of Keiji Nakazawa, with Gen serving as his fictional self. While the skeleton of the story is based on Nakazawa’s life, he fleshes out the narrative with the experiences of other survivors. The point is not to present the autobiography of a single person, but instead to present the biography of Hiroshima and the hibakusha (survivors of the atomic bomb). Nakazawa is preserving these struggles and sufferings as both a testament to what has happened and a warning that we should never let it happen again.

The greatest impression one gets reading all ten volumes is one of unrelenting sorrow. There is no bright light, just endless tunnel. The tragedy begins when Gen sees his father, sister, and younger brother pinned under the rubble of their home. He and his eight-month-pregnant mother struggle to get them out, but can’t. They beg for help from people passing by and are ignored. The debris catches fire, and he watches as his family is burned to death.

The emotional nadir of the series is volume four. Gen, and what’s left of his family, are kicked out of the rental home where they are living. Gen is suffering severe malnutrition and will die soon if he doesn’t get sufficient food to eat. His infant sister, Taiko, is kidnapped and at the end of volume dies from cancer. Taiko’s death is particularly poignant, as we have watched Gen and his family struggle so hard to find food to keep her alive. She had become a symbol of hope for the future. Her death makes all their sufferings meaningless. At this point in the series, life seems empty and pointless.

Barefoot Gen Book 9 cover
Barefoot Gen Book 9
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Taiko’s death signals another dark theme of the series: sickness leads to death. Through the next several volumes, we watch as friends and family members die from various forms of cancer. It gets to the point that you fear seeing any form of sickness because you know it’s a sign of a terminal disease. We have seen these people survive through multiple horrors. We’ve connected and grown attached to each one of them. It’s heart-wrenching to watch them each die in turn. Life seems so brutal and unfair. Haven’t they suffered enough? Is the grave the only peace they’re allowed? If, as readers, we feel this despair, I can’t imagine what it was like to actually live through it. Gen’s courage to stay alive and face each new day is remarkable.

It’s obvious that a series like this would have an strong anti-war theme. However, Gen, and by extension Nakazawa, is no pacifist. He’s not afraid of fighting bullies, thieves, and even the yakuza to protect someone. I even began to wonder if Nakazawa is really anti-war in general or just anti-war with nuclear weapons. Gen certainly believes that violence is called for at times to prevent evil men from committing evil deeds. There is a realism that not all people respond to passionate pleas or well-reasoned arguments to stop. It’s not clear if Nakazawa thinks violence is only okay on a personal level. Certainly, he opposes war where civilians are targeted as much as military personnel.

In Barefoot Gen, everyone has blood on their hands; there are no innocent people. He blames the Japanese imperial government as much, if not more, than he does America. He holds to task the people who supported the imperial government. He faults the US occupying forces for being focused on documenting the effects of atomic radiation. They are ghouls obsessed with examining the dead instead of alleviating the suffering of the living. He blames the Hiroshima government for its obsession in turning the town into a peace monument and not helping the survivors. He points out the hypocrisy of politicians who supported the Emperor and the war, now cashing in on the anti-war sentiments.

Hiroshima 1971 Hiroshima (1971). These are pictures taken by my Dad of the peace memorial. The town hall was ground zero of the atomic blast. He was stationed at the Marine Corps Air Station in Iwakuni, Japan.
Hiroshima 1971 Hiroshima 1971

It’s not surprising that the series is very didactic and political in its storytelling. This is one of the reasons Barefoot Gen had such a hard time finding a publisher. It was serialized in four different anthologies. Toward the end of the series, the didactic aspects of the storytelling begin to dominate the narrative. Nakazawa isn’t afraid to name names and repetitively call on the former Emperor and all heads of the military to publically apologize for their actions during World War II. He also wants them to apologize to the hibakusha for their part in the atomic bombing. Even decades after the end of the war, this had to have been a very radical position.

Nagasaki 1990

Nagasaki (1990) - the marker for ground zero. I was stationed aboard the USS Vincennes (CG-49) when I visited Japan.

It’s tempting to call the art cartoony, but it’s more accurate to call it a stylized realism. On some level, it reminds me of early Kirby artwork. The characters tend to be simplified and have squared-off features, although Nakazawa’s women have softer features than Kirby’s women. This is manga, so Nakazawa uses exaggeration for both emotional and comic effects. The art style works perfectly for the story. Any more realistic, and the scenes immediately after the atomic explosion would be too gruesome to stomach. Any more cartoony, and the seriousness of the narrative would be undermined.

Barefoot Gen is a significant work on par with books like Tezuka’s Buddha and Spiegleman’s Maus. That said, it’s a tough read. It’s best to take it slowly and read a volume a week. Like Maus, I think the first couple volumes of Barefoot Gen should be required reading in high school history courses. The messages and warnings in these books should never be forgotten. There is no happy ending in the narrative. We can only find comfort in knowing that Nakazawa is still alive and became a famous manga author. Like Gen, we have to find our own hope in the end.

Postscript: While reading Barefoot Gen for this month’s Manga Moveable Feast, Bruce Cockburn’s song “If I Had A Rocket Launcher” kept playing in my head. Cockburn wrote this song as a result of his experiences as an aid worker in Guatemalan refugee camps in Mexico. Cockburn is no warmonger, and the song was written out of his frustrations in seeing the suffering of innocent people. The righteous anger he conveys, and his desire to make dictators and military personnel experience the suffering they inflict, seemed exactly like the feelings Gen had toward the Emperor and the military leaders of Japan.

4 Comments

  1. [...] Ed Sizemore of Manga Worth Reading offers us a fantastic review of the entirety of the series. [...]

  2. [...] guests. As Ed mentions in his introduction, I bowed out, because I was too chicken to handle such a depressing series. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad it exists, but I didn’t want to devote the time and [...]

  3. [...] that stands out when reading Japanese experiences of World War II is how hungry everyone is. In Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies, we see the civilian population starving and people dying of [...]

  4. [...] BTW he also plugs an article that he wrote about Barefoot Gen, which you can find here. [...]

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