December 26, 2009

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Barefoot Gen Volume 1

Written by Keiji Nakazawa
Illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa
Last Gasp

This is to Japanese culture what Maus or Yossel is to Jewish culture. Written and drawn by a survivor of the Hiroshima bombings, it's a rather thinly veiled account of what happened to his family. From what I can understand, he wrote several other comics about the same material before doing this 10-volume set.

I really don't have a lot to say about this, other than if you aren't moved by it, you need to check yourself for a heart condition because yours must be missing. Gen, the title character, is the son of a man who opposes the war and is scorned for it, as Japan whips itself into literal religious fervor to keep up the fight. As Gen's family is harmed more and more for speaking the truth, we we the reality that everyone else denies--no food, no ability to win, the suffering of the poor, and a dramatic increase in cruelty.

By the end, things look just about as bad as they can get--the kids are begging to try and save their pregnant mother, one child is off to find glory in battle to take away from the "shame" of their father's anti-war stance, and what little they have is taken away by the authorities.

Then it gets worse.

This first volume ends just as the bomb strikes, leaving Gen alone with his mother. His family is destroyed because the powers that be won't give up, but even among this horrible scene, there is the hope of his new baby sister. But somehow, I think more bad things are on the way.

Nakazawa is unflinching in his hatred for war and does not pick a side--he blames the Americans for dropping the bomb and the Japanese government for prolonging the war long past the point of probability. He also makes sure we know of the cost to Japan--citizen deaths, the cruelty scenes, and so on. This is one of those works that shows that a "graphic novel" can pull its own against any other form of literature.

I won't lie; this is a hard book to read. But I think it's well worth it, especially in this time of repeated calls to war from those within our own government. Sometimes, a reminder of the past is needed, and this gives it to you in spades.