February 26, 2010

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Barefoot Gen Volume 4

Written by Keiji Nakazawa
Illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa
Last Gasp

There's quite a bit of time jumping in this volume of Barefoot Gen, the continuing story of a young man and his family's struggles to survive in the aftermath of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

We start with the arrival of the Americans, who are seen as bomb-dropping monsters by the survivors. With them brings a healthy trade in illegal food, the rise of gangs, and violence against women. Driven to desperate acts by extreme hungry, Gen and his companion Ryuta turn to theft to try and survive. The consequences are dire for one of them, and not even a family reunion of the older boys can help.

Time shifts and Gen and his family are eking out a meager existence in Hiroshima. The boys return to school, where new challenges await them. Gen tries to survive in his new surroundings, but it's never easy for those who were victims of the bomb. Baby Tomoko, never of good health, is kidnapped and might just be dying. What can Gen do to save her?

Once again, Nakazawa uses Gen to show the reader everything that happened to the survivors of the atom bombs. While it may not be realistic to expect a young man to experience--let alone survive--so many close shaves with the military, gangs of thieves, and even school bullies, it is necessary for this story that no stone be left unturned. The reader must see the chaos and the horror of war, and see it in all its forms.

One of the keys to this is looking hard at the aftermath of the war. We often study what goes on during a conflict, but rarely do we talk about picking up the pieces. Who knows the story of Reconstruction in the United States? Or of the punitive damages levied on the Axis powers after World War I? How about Iraq after the first Gulf War?

Nakazawa lived the horrors of the aftermath of the atomic bombs first hand, and he's here (in the form of Gen) to show that even years later, there were problems. Police were ineffectual, those with scars of the bombs were left untreated, food was scarce (in one scene, a diamond ring buys only a basket of sweet potatoes), and, worst of all, people were still dying. Perhaps the biggest sin of all is that the United States did nothing but study these victims like they were lab rats. The conquering nation that rebuilt white Europe tossed candy at the Asian people they leveled with the deadliest weapon known to man.

Now, that is Nakazawa's perspective. There is of course a chance that he only saw the worst of things. However, from what I know of history, I tend to doubt it. First-hand accounts are the most unedited, and usually the most true.

It's a horrible, scarring, damning tale that plays out in page after page of this series. Gen and his family survive--just barely--but not even they can escape the death that surrounds them. Meanwhile, we watch as children are turned into pawns of criminals, those that have refuse to give to those who don't, and only the strong manage to make it out alive.

And yet, even through this horror, there is some hope. Hiroshima as a group is rebuilding its life, raising houses and starting up school again. It may not help much, but there is a police force. Gen's adult friend the Korean has made it through alive, and quite well, which may help Gen's family. Children are fighting for school bragging rights instead of their lives. It may be hard for Gen to see it, but the idea that he has to vie for supremacy on the school grounds is light years ahead of where he was a few years (months?) ago.

For the reader, watching Gen grow as a person helps ground this otherwise tragic story in something positive. No matter how bad things get, he refuses to give up in the long run. We even see him learn the prayers of the Buddhist, first out of desperation, then out of need, and then because it is the right thing to do. Gen also allows us to laugh a bit at his childish nature, despite the horror, as he takes the time to play pranks on those who wrong him. (He also apparently, learns that farts are funny, as references to them are all over this trade.) Like Hiroshima itself, Gen is starting to learn how to rebuild himself, as we see by the end of this volume.

Unfortunately, the flip side of the focus on Gen is that the other members of the cast don't get a lot of room to grow. They seem to be there mostly to let Gen experience all the possible horrors of the aftermath of the bomb.

Gen's two older brothers return rather abruptly, for instance, with Koji around mostly to show the shell shocked nature of the survivors of the Japanese army. After he does this, he's not used for anything other than moving the plot. Similarly, anyone Gen meets, such as the girl with no hair, seem to be placed only to help Gen discover new atrocities (in this case, American GIs raping and ill-using female survivors of the bomb). In the past, these introductions seemed to be better integrated into the story. I guess sometimes it can't be helped, and there's plenty of time for Koji to play a larger role, but I liked the structuring of the plot a bit better in past volumes.

I also had trouble because there are several time jumps that are not explained in the story. We simply pick up the action months later. I think we needed some kind of linking passages to help the reader understand what has gone on. They're used to explain certain actions, like MacArthur coming to Japan and holding Emperor-like powers, so I'm not sure why he doesn't use them to show the passage of time as well. Again, this was less of an issue in the first three trades, so I'm hoping it's just a problem here and not a pattern.

Even if I felt the plotting was note quite as convincing this time, I was still very moved by the story presented by Nakazawa. His first-hand look at the horrors of the atomic bomb come through on every page, without gore, without preaching--all Nakazawa does is show things as they were. The story, with all its pain, anger, and flickering hope impresses the reader in a way that only a visual medium can do.

Anyone who wants to go to war for any reason needs to read Barefoot Gen. Sometimes, we need to focus less on the dead of war and more on the survivors. This series is a difficult, challenging read, but I really believe it can change your mind about how you look at war. I'm more convinced of that with every volume I finish. I always feel somber and reflective after reading Barefoot Gen, but I think it's a series all people of all political persuasions need to read.