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Remembering (and Reliving) the Bombing of Hiroshima with Keiji Nakazawa's 'Barefoot Gen'

The seminal manga of Hiroshima's atomic bombing and aftermath, Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen, remains an essential reminder of the horrors of war and atomic bombs.

Morality is complex in this tale, but Nakazawa portrays it both powerfully and realistically.
Of all the literature produced on the subject of the atomic bomb, Keiji Nakazawa’s epic manga series Barefoot Gen remains one of the most important and most powerful.

Over 40 years since its initial publication, it retains its power. Serialized over a span of 14 years in Japan -- from 1973 through 1985 -- it has subsequently been made into anime, live-action television and films, even musicals and opera. The series presents the life experiences of its author as a young boy growing up in war-time and post-war Hiroshima. Gen, the title character and the one based on the author, experiences war-time repression and deprivation, the horrific atomic bombing of his hometown Hiroshima, and the struggle to rebuild in the wake of the bombing and Japan’s surrender.

The first two volumes are the ones most familiar to readers, and on which several of the other iterations of Barefoot Gen have been based. These volumes depict the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and its immediate aftermath. Gen is a young boy on his way to school when it happens: by a series of sheer miracles he survives, but his father, brother and sister are killed. His mother survived, and a young sister is born literally moments after the bombing. Two other brothers who had been outside of Hiroshima at the time of the bombing eventually rejoin them as well, and the small family struggles to survive in the horrific aftermath.

The first two volumes are without a doubt powerful and poignant -- the horrifying destructive power of the bomb is inconceivable to those who have never read survivors’ accounts and is an important reason why survivors’ accounts ought to be mandatory reading for children around the world.

But the remainder of the series is deeply insightful and rewarding as well. The effects of the bomb lingered long after Hiroshima’s physical infrastructure was rebuilt: the deadly unknowns of radiation-related illnesses; the impact of the bombing on the city’s social fabric and family relationships; the ways in which the struggle to survive gave rise to unique and often deeply unjust economic and social phenomena (for instance, the exploitative gentrification of the bomb site in an effort to turn it into an international peace memorial). As Nakazawa repeatedly observes, the atomic bomb continued inflicting suffering on Hiroshima’s residents for decades.

Life After the Bomb

Even for those who are familiar with survivors’ accounts, Barefoot Gen is educational insofar as it follows Gen’s life long after the bombing itself. Such a long-term presentation is less common among atomic bomb literature, and the illustrative mode of manga offers unique opportunities for presentation (the reader experiences the gradual restoration and regrowth of the city through the shifting backdrops, in a visceral manner that is impossible to convey in prose literature).

Gut-wrenching and traumatizing as the depiction of the bombing and its immediate aftermath are, it is the extended serialization of the post-war experience that offers one of the real cultural and historical values of Barefoot Gen.

Volume Four, Out of the Ashes, illustrates the complexity of survival as life starts to return to some semblance of a routine and order struggles to reassert itself. The Japanese police are still forbidden by American occupation authorities from carrying guns; the result is that they are completely helpless to stop crimes, from sexual violence to kidnapping to the burgeoning black market.

Nakazawa illustrates the broad diversity of responses to the tragedy. There are those who take cruel advantage of the situation, price-gouging for rice, robbing and killing for personal lust or enrichment. And there are also those who band together and support each other. Rarely do characters fall exclusively on one end of the spectrum or the other. Characters might evince loyalty and support to some, while turning a blind eye to others, or actively exploiting them.

Surprisingly for a manga that relies on such child-like art, the characters are deeply complex. An old woman rejects the remnants of her’s daughter’s friend’s family (Gen’s family), despite their loss and suffering and homelessness, and kicks them out of her house to make space for an entrepreneurial young man who’s willing and able to pay rent. But, it turns out, the real reason she rejected them was due to the sorrow she felt at the loss of her own son in the war; sorrow that was revisited every time she had to interact with the young children.

Volume Four also concludes the strange and tragic story of Gen’s young sister Tomoko. The infant is kidnapped by a gang of crooks and Gen searches desperately to find her. Eventually he does: it turns out that the people who kidnapped her did so to masquerade her as the lost infant of various other critically ill survivors, in the hope that the thought their child is still alive will give them hope to continue struggling to survive. Morality is complex in this tale, but Nakazawa portrays it both powerfully and realistically.

The American occupation forces receive a proper treatment in Barefoot Gen. All too often they’re treated as heroes in tellings such as this: kindly, beneficent victors who distribute food to the starving and toss candy to young orphan children. True, the Americans were not by any stretch the demons that Japanese propaganda had made them out to be during the war. But they weren’t beneficent angels, either. Nakazawa portrays them realistically: beating kids who break into their compounds to steal food; raping local women and committing other horrific crimes. American soldiers were not innocent of the crimes that armed occupation inevitably leads to, and Nakazawa portrays this fact unflinchingly and honestly.

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A sub-plot which spans Volumes Six, Writing the Truth and Seven, Bones Into Dust, involves Gen’s efforts to help an elderly journalist and novelist publish a book he’s written about the bombing, and serves as a vehicle to explore America’s efforts to suppress news and information about the atomic bomb. Gen vents his wrath on American occupation officers who try to suppress the book’s publication, allowing Nakazawa to counter some of the justifications Americans used to rationalize use of the bomb.

It also allows Nakazawa to explore the growing American repression of leftists, with secretive US intelligence units deploying murder and torture against Japanese civilians. America didn’t engage in the same sort of large-scale, open, systematic torture and persecution of populations in occupied territories as the Japanese army did, but many of them did commit significant crimes. The myth of the benevolent American soldier distributing candy and chewing gum is just that -- a myth that denies the violence and crimes which some American soldiers and units engaged in against civilian populations -- and Nakazawa deftly exposes it, in the course of denouncing militarists and criminals on both sides.

Volume Five, The Never-Ending War, emphasizes the many ways in which the struggle for survival continued long past the end of the war for those who survived. Radiation sickness continues to take its toll in unexpected and incomprehensible ways; survivors who seem perfectly healthy one day never know when they’ll be fighting for their lives against a sudden eruption of radiation sickness the next. The cruelty of America’s response to the bombing is also a theme: scientists and doctors from the medical team study the suffering A-bomb victims, but do very little to help them.

Meanwhile, Nakazawa illustrates the horrific ways in which local Japanese residents turned on each other in the struggle to survive. Japanese doctors receive free medicines from the American military, yet refuse to distribute the medicines to critically ill survivors, demanding high cash payments and lining their pockets instead. The struggle for survival takes horrific turns: some locals lurk around the homes of dying bomb victims, then steal their bodies, which they hand over to American radiation researchers for a fee. Some even sell the skulls of victims as souvenirs to American soldiers.

In Barefoot Gen, characters are rarely one-sided. The man who steals bodies is wracked by nightmares and must use his earnings to drink himself into oblivion each night. The young boy selling skulls is using the cash to look after his brother, blinded by the bomb. He figures his actions will help the victims whose skulls he sells get into heaven all the faster, since they’re helping his crippled brother.

Gen’s irrepressible spirit of survival swells to new heights in this volume; as his friends and relatives note, he begins to exhibit the defiant and optimistic spirit of his father. He confronts the hypocritical leaders around him, denouncing those among the community leaders who were supporters of the military regime and have only changed their tune now that the Americans are in charge. He denounces the emperor, horrified that the schools turn out to cheer his visit when Gen considers him to blame for the slaughter of the war and bomb. Throughout the series, he relies on the memory of his father’s principled idealism to give him strength, repeatedly drawing on his father’s mantra to never give up: “Gen, be like a stalk of wheat. It puts out green shoots in the harsh winter / and no matter how often it’s trampled, it grows up straight and tall, and bears fruit.”

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