Barefoot Gen and Hiroshima's Revival

Nakazawa and Aoki’s Atom Bomb Manga Could Educate World Leaders

While Keiji Nakazawa never hesitated to loose his wrath on fascist or right-leaning tendencies through the fury of his irrepressible cartoon hero in Barefoot Gen, Takeo Aoki’s Hiroshima’s Revival weaves a more cautious path through the political jungle of wartime memory.

Hiroshima's Revival: Remembering How People Overcame Destruction and Despair
Takeo Aoki
Tezuka Productions
Barefoot Gen (series)
Keiji Nakazawa
Last Gasp

On 6 August, the 74th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, the city’s mayor memorialized that tragic event by calling on Japan to sign on to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the UN treaty which seeks to ban them (The Japan Time News). The treaty was passed in 2017 with the support of 122 nations, but has not yet been ratified by the 50 nations required to bring it into force.

Mayor Matsui has good reason for pessimism. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has rejected calls to sign on to the treaty, denigrating it as “unrealistic” given global “security realities”. The refusal to sign on from the country whose people have suffered most from nuclear weapons is ignominious enough, yet rivalled for sinister effect by the announcement four days prior that the United States would be pulling out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, which it signed with Russia in 1987.

The spectre of global leaders who are either ignorant or apathetic to the terrifying reality of nuclear devastation is enough to drive the common-sensed to despair. Yet it’s also a reminder of the continued importance of remembering what happened on that tragic day 74 years ago. There’s no shortage of books, comics, and manga one can turn to on the subject, but two in particular offer contrasting studies in bearing witness to what happened in Hiroshima that summer morning not so long ago.

Two Tales of Hiroshima

For consumers of Japanese manga in English translation, the iconic tale of Hiroshima is Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen. Not only did Barefoot Gen breach the taboo-like silence around Hiroshima’s bombing — which until its publication pervaded the comics and publishing industry — but it did so with furious, iconoclastic honesty. During his early years apprenticing as a comics artist in Tokyo, Nakazawa (who survived the bombing of Hiroshima as a child yet lost his father, two sisters and younger brother) was inspired to write the first atom bomb manga – Pelted by Black Rain – following his mother’s death from radiation-related illness in 1966. The publisher who finally had the courage to publish it – following several rejections – warned Nakazawa they’d probably both be arrested for the comic, due to its criticism of America’s decision to drop the bomb. They weren’t, and Nakazawa went on to pen another autobiographical comic titled I Saw It in 1972, which became the precursor to Barefoot Gen, an epic ten-volume saga chronicling the war, the bombing, and its aftermath, closely based on Nakazawa’s own experience.

For comics scholar Hillary L. Chute, 1972 was “the crucial moment for the global emergence of comics as a form of bearing witness to war and historical devastation.” It was the year in which Art Spiegelman’s Maus, an allegory of Nazi-era Germany, and Barefoot Gen were both published. Not only did Barefoot Gen shatter taboos constraining open and honest discussion about the bomb and its victims, but it challenged the Japanese establishment in other ways: “Gen offers a trenchant critique of Japanese militarism and the imperial system alongside American warfare practices,” writes Chute, in her 2016 study Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form. “Further, it is unusual in being as critical of Japan as it is of the United States for the actions that led to the bomb.”

Hiroshima’s Revival, published in 2018, offers a very different look at Hiroshima’s recovery. The anthology was commissioned by local broadcaster RCC to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the bombing in 2015. The media agency conducted the research and then partnered with Tezuka Productions to produce the manga, whose narrative was constructed by writer Takeo Aoki. (Tezuka Productions was founded by Astro Boy creator Osama Tezuka, who also included some very trenchant anti-nuclear manga among his vast oeuvre. The studio publishes manga, as well as produces manga television programs). The volume was translated into English last year.

Hiroshima’s Revival, a documentary-style dramatized manga, takes as its focus the revival, in the days and months following the bombing, of Hiroshima’s municipal services and civic life. While remarkably well-researched, what’s particularly striking about this manga anthology is its triumphalist narrative of progress. Both Barefoot Gen and Hiroshima’s Revival are driven by an upbeat theme of triumph over adversity, but it assumes very different forms in each.

Barefoot Gen grounds its optimism in a very trenchant faith in the individual human spirit. Just as Hiroshima and Japan needed to recover from the war’s material devastation, so too did the strength of humanism and individuality need to recover in the wake of the preceding decades’ totalitarian nightmare, its author Nakazawa seems to be saying.

Visually, the panes of Barefoot Gen depict the country’s reconstruction: physical infrastructure, roads, markets, homes. But the narrative centres on the reconstruction of the human spirit, on individuality and all the important things – dissent, iconoclasm, creativity, compassion – of which it is comprised, and which totalitarianism and militarism had sought to crush in fascist Japan. It’s no coincidence that Nakazawa’s extended series opens with the introduction of his father, a figure of profound moral virtue who faced prison and torture for his refusal to buckle to the fascist pressures of militarism and emperor-worship, yet who never wavered.

As Gen grows up, the memory of his father remains a key element of his evolving moral compass. The characters of Barefoot Gen are each unique – imperfect, quirky, endearing. But they are above all individuals, with all the imperfections and differences and tendencies that define them as such. Recovery, for all of them, means recovery of the individual human spirit, and it is this that takes primacy over recovery of the nation in Barefoot Gen.

In Hiroshima’s Revival, the theme too is one of renewal through optimism of the human spirit, but in this case hope and optimism are portrayed as a collective virtue, grounded in renewal of the civic establishment. There are acts of individual heroism, but they are often depicted as a sublimation of the individual to their society (some of the comic’s heroes wind up martyrs, sacrificing their lives for the maintenance and revival of order and civic health). Barefoot Gen is a tale chock full of heroism as well, but martyrdom for the nation is not part of its heroic lexicon. Rather, that sentiment is denigrated with all the fury of Nakazawa’s pent-up anti-militarist wrath.

Hiroshima’s Revival, however, treats the individuals who sacrificed their well-being for the corporatist state – restoring electricity, getting transportation running, going to work despite their injuries – as worthy of posthumous praise. The difference is that these heroes are praised for their sacrifice in service to the nation, whereas Nakazawa honours those whose sacrifice is grounded in human compassion. This is not, of course, to dismiss the dedication and service of those who gave their lives in struggling to preserve their city. But it is to note a qualitative difference in how heroism manifests in these two narratives.

While Nakazawa never hesitated to loose his wrath on fascist or right-leaning tendencies through the fury of his irrepressible cartoon hero, Hiroshima’s Revival weaves a more cautious path through the political jungle of wartime memory. It espouses firm principles of peace, yet some of its chapters are ambivalent in their treatment of Japan’s pre-war politics (other chapters, to be fair, are more up-front in their condemnation of militarism, as though its creators were navigating a narrative whose fraught morality they themselves remained uncertain of).

Both these qualities – optimism, and political ambivalence — are reflected most viscerally in the book’s artwork. Unlike Barefoot Gen and other well-known war manga (the work of Shigeru Mizuki also comes to mind), Hiroshima’s Revival for the most part eschews morbid imagery of bodies and physical suffering. Destruction is most often depicted in the form of rubble and destroyed buildings, contributing to the sense of a challenge to be overcome through reconstruction, rather than loss to be mourned. Injured heroes are depicted in a sanitized fashion – where Nakazawa or Mizuki would focus in on the minutiae of infected, maggot-filled wounds, the martyrs of this tale are cleanly bandaged and wide-eyed with hopeful determination. This is in stark contrast to the imagery of Barefoot Gen, which “is famous for visualizing the effect of the physical disfigurement wreaked by the bomb, such as bodies with flaps of dissolving skin dripping off their frames, eaten faces without eyeballs, and bald, burning women,” writes Chute.

Yet there are some dissonant moments. The most jarring occurs in the anthology’s chapter on the revival of Hiroshima’s banking system after the bomb. There is a sequence of four panels, where a bank manager surveys damage to the local branch of the Bank of Japan, lamenting destruction to the bank’s “fine interior” while seemingly oblivious to the bodies lying about in the rubble. Was this juxtaposition deliberately ironic on the part of the artists? One can’t help but wonder.

Yet this is not to be overly critical of the book, which appears to aspire toward a delicate balance in depicting the recovery of infrastructure and institutions, conveying a sense of triumphant optimism, and respecting the horrendous loss of life brought about through war and militarism. It’s a difficult task. Yet it’s also an immensely interesting one, and the book conveys a side of the bomb’s aftermath that appears all too rarely in English-language literature. Stories of Hiroshima invariably dwell upon the destruction and human devastation. But how did electricity get restored? Who restored it? Who got water running again, and how did streetcars restart? Hiroshima was burned to the ground – how did books return to the city? These very particularized stories of infrastructure recovery are fascinating in their minutiae.

The streetcars, for instance, were re-operationalized by young women at a girls school which was located far enough from the blast that they survived (they were later replaced by returning male soldiers looking for jobs). Surviving schoolteachers and principals developed makeshift open-air schools in order to continue children’s education while the city rebuilt. Faced with a shortage of raw materials, military steel from the naval shipyards were repurposed by innovative mechanics into makeshift transport vehicles for commercial business.

It is here that the manga excels, in depicting Hiroshima’s residents not merely as victims attended to by medical professionals and relief troops, but as agents of their own destiny, seizing the initiative and applying remarkable ingenuity to get their city up and running again in the days and weeks following the bombing. These are stories rarely told in non-Japanese narratives about the bombing and its aftermath, and while they are heroically embellished (as one might expect of manga), they are nonetheless fascinating and the book makes an important contribution in sharing these histories in such an accessible format.

Yet there are also elements covered over in this quick, optimistic telling. The chapters on the recovery of banking and commerce make reference to the tenacious black market which developed in Hiroshima after the bombing, but treat it lightly, in stark contrast to authors like Nakazawa who portray in depth the violence and viciousness of the black market and the manner in which it preyed upon Hiroshima’s vulnerable. The recovery of Hiroshima’s municipal governance, and its reconstruction as a “city of peace”, likewise omits the appropriation of land and forced dislocation of poor communities near the Peace Park – a cruel story which is depicted with greater transparency and detail in Nakazawa’s epic.

Hiroshima played a key role in the development of modern Japan – it was one of the first Japanese cities with modern schools and infrastructure, and was a key military and government centre from the time of the Russo-Japanese War at the beginning of the 20th century until the atomic bombing. The various chapters therefore also provide a useful overview of Hiroshima’s historical importance in the realm of commerce, banking, education, transportation, sports, and other areas, as prefatory to the bombing and recovery efforts in these realms. The book concludes with the story of the Hiroshima Carp – the city’s beloved underdog baseball team – and it’s a fitting reminder of how dearly the symbols of the city’s recovery continue to connect Hiroshima with its tremendous historical legacy.

Both comics have their place in remembering the events of 6 August 1945, and underscore for us today the important role of comics artists in keeping these events centred in public discourse. Comics like these, observes Chute, “respond to the most high-tech of technology, the atomic bomb, and the ominous march of technological scientific progress it represented, with the deliberately low-tech, primary practice of hand drawing.” In response to the bomb, which burned such devastation onto the bodies of its victims, atom bomb comics’ “hand-drawn images are a counterburning – a spectacle that engages, or reengages, the reader with the realities of the bomb.”

If only world leaders spent less time eroding global security and building bombs, and more time reading comics like these.