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

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

Never Give Up

The legacy of the bomb and the war which led to it inculcated in him a revulsion against group-thinking; the tendency that empowers patriotism and militarism and enables repression and violence.
Gen’s optimism and idealism seems remarkable -- it’s one of his character’s most endearing and defining qualities -- but Nakazawa deftly ties it into his broader message that only an idealistic society can overcome the mistakes and nightmares of its past, and avoid repeating them. Weighed down by the rise of black market gangsters and opportunistic politicians, Gen’s long-suffering friends and neighbours sigh and shrug and say there’s nothing they can do about such things. Gen reacts with predictable fury when his brother Akira says “there’s nothing we can do.”

"I hate those words, I hate them!” exclaims Gen. “I always thought it was so strange / People lost their sons or their fathers in the war / So many people were killed by the bomb, and everyone’s still suffering so much / But they all just give up and say, “There’s nothing we can do.” They don’t look at what’s really going on. / Didn’t Papa tell us? How they started the war so a handful of rich people could profit, and said it’s for the sake of the nation and the Emperor? The war that’s caused us and Ryuta so much hardship / There are people who are to blame for starting the war! And people who cooperated with them, who are living the good life now! Somebody’s to blame for dropping the atomic bomb! / We have to pound those culprits so they can never cause us to much pain again. / They’ll make the same kind of trouble for us again / and we’ll just cry and say, “Oh well, we can’t do anything about it.” / I hate giving up and saying there’s nothing to be done. I don’t want to be that kind of whiner…/ Don’t be a quitter who says there’s nothing to be done!”

Gen exerts his wrath at hypocrites on all sides. When he encounters a pre-war politician running again for office under the messaging of peace and democracy, he bursts into the candidate’s speech:

“Why don’t you tell them how you were the first on our block yelling about the American and British devils and pushing the war? / You harassed my family and called us traitors. / Now that Japan lost, all of a sudden you’re a soldier of peace who opposed the war. How convenient for you! / You shouldn’t be showing your face in public, mister! If somebody like you gets elected, there’s no telling what you might do!”

The Emperor, visiting Hiroshima, also comes in for Gen’s rage, as do his schoolteachers who organize the children into cheering squads for the emperor’s visit, which they refer to as a “joyous day.”

“What “joyous day” is he talking about?” reflects Gen. “Our teacher is really dumb. / The Emperor started the war. Thanks to him, cities all over Japan were burned to the ground, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were destroyed in a flash. / He’s responsible for the death of my father and countless other people, and for the misery his war is still causing! / Why should we have to welcome him as if we’re grateful? It’s crazy. / We Japanese don’t think enough about what we did in the war. / I expected more from our teacher. / I’ll never make a flag or welcome the Emperor. / I’ll skip school tomorrow – it’s too stupid! / The Emperor really has some nerve showing his face in Hiroshima. / There’s so many bodies still buried here, even now. / If I were him, I’d be too ashamed to even leave his house.”

Of course, the American Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission (ABCC) -- the medical committee set up to study the effects of radiation -- comes under fire as well.

“It made me furious,” rages Koji, Gen’s older brother, who brought their sick mother to the ABCC in hopes they could help her (they took some blood samples and then sent her home). “The ABCC sees the bomb survivors as nothing more than bugs under a microscope.”

“They’re making fools of us!” responds an angry Gen. “Koji, do you think the Americans knew the A-bomb would cause radiation sickness? Did they know, and drop it anyway?”

“I expect so,” replies Koji.

“So that’s why they set up the ABCC and started checking people right away! / First they drop the bomb on us and kill our father. / And then we let them use our mother as a guinea pig for their experiments. What imbeciles we are! / I can’t believe how cruel and arrogant these Americans are!”

The later volumes of Barefoot Gen deal with the Korean War, and efforts by Japanese activists (particularly one schoolteacher) to resist the rightward drift of Japanese politics as the Cold War descended. Gen’s exasperation at the outbreak of another war (in Korea) so soon after the world war and the atomic bombing is echoed by many other citizens of Hiroshima, yet efforts to protest it are stifled by the repressive American occupation presence, and the hierarchy of Japanese political leaders (many of them former supporters of the imperial regime during the war) who have emerged to benefit from American patronage. Nakazawa is uninhibited in his critique of the militaristic right and of apologists for the emperor; Gen hurls himself into battle (fist-fights and all) in an illustrated exposition of the rage Nakazawa clearly feels.

“The emperor shits and farts just like the rest of us. / And he’s the one who was responsible for getting Japan into the war and sending millions of people to their deaths. / He’s responsible for Mama’s death, too. / He should throw himself down on the ground and apologize to her. / But I’ve never heard the emperor say he’s sorry for what he did. Not once have I heard him beg the Japanese people for forgiveness! / Talk about arrogance! During the war the emperor claimed he was a god, then the minute Japan loses he says he’s only human. As if nothing happened! / And then, after taking all those millions of lives, he gets to stay on as the symbol of Japan. / I won’t be satisfied until I hear him say that he takes responsibility for the war. / Until the top decision-maker takes responsibility, nobody in Japan can really move on. Everything just stays messed up.”

The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen

Nakazawa published an autobiography in 1987 (revised and expanded in 1995, and translated into English by the American scholar Richard H. Minear in 2010). It’s titled The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen as a way of underscoring the autobiographical nature of the Barefoot Gen series (“I’m the model for Gen. Barefoot Gen is based on fact,” writes Nakazawa in the introduction). The title also reflects the book’s exploration of Nakazawa’s complicated entry to writing ‘atomic bomb manga’, as he describes it.

As Hiroshima began to rebuild after the war, Nakazawa discovered his love of manga and desire to become a manga artist. He became a sign-painter, since it was a growing industry that would allow him to hone his artistic techniques while earning the money his family needed to survive. Outside of his working hours he produced manga voraciously, some of which was accepted for publication. He shared some of his work with publishers in Tokyo, and was told he had promise but if he wanted to pursue a career in the field he needed to move to the capital, which he did in 1961.

When he first moved to Tokyo, Nakazawa worked as an assistant to a manga artist -- the typical route of manga apprenticeship, but one in which many prospective artists get stuck -- and hid his identity as a bomb survivor. There was tremendous discrimination against bomb victims -- many thought you could catch radiation disease by simply touching a victim, or being in close proximity to them. Families broke up prospective marriages with bomb victims, fearing the effect of radiation on their offspring. Many other forms of discrimination against victims also prevailed.

It was the death of Nakazawa’s mother in 1966 that changed his approach to manga. She had been suffering from radiation-related diseases for many years, and the family’s anger had been stoked by the hands-off, guinea-pig-like nature of the American medical researchers’ (ABCC) treatment of bomb victims -- eager to study, but slow to provide any actual help. When their mother died, the ABCC showed up immediately, begging to be given her body to study. The children refused, and proceeded with the traditional cremation. In Japanese funeral practices the large bones are collected and preserved in an urn following cremation; to the family’s shock and horror their mother’s bones had been so affected by radiation that none survived the cremation (the title of Barefoot Gen Volume Seven, which depicts this, is Bones Into Dust).

After the funeral, Nakazawa returned to Tokyo, full of sorrow and rage. “Returning to Tokyo, I shut myself up in the nine-by-twelve room and began to draw feverishly, pouring out all my anger. In one week I completed Pelted by Black Rain, the first atomic bomb manga.”

Forget the taboo against self-identifying as a bomb survivor, let alone writing about the experience -- Nakazawa was now determined to write about it in the hopes of educating young people about the horrors of atomic bombs and about war more generally. He even quit his assistantship to focus on producing his own manga full-time, despite the hit this took on the family’s finances (he was now married, and they were expecting their first child).

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In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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