March 22, 2010

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Barefoot Gen Volume 5

Written by Keiji Nakazawa
Illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa
Last Gasp

We're over two years in to the story of Gen and his family after the horrible events of Hiroshima. As people continue to try and put their lives back together, gangsters, hypocrites, and those who are desperate all seem ready to do whatever they can to survive in this world.

Gen works hard to get others to see his point of view, almost to no avail. What will happen when grim reality hits and his family is once again threatened with breaking apart?

If the last volume struck a slight note of hope despite the pain, this section of the story shows that the hope Gen has for the world is easily shattered in the skewed mirror of reality. He's faced with the fact that gangsters rule the day and those who have the most to answer for the crimes before, during, and after the nuclear blast are also those lease likely to face any punishment. Gen won't easily accept this fact, and a lot of this trade sees him using his youthful energy to engage in acts of defiance. The fact that Gen survives these encounters is more a tribute to his need to be the reader's guide to the horrors of war's aftermath than his ability to escape danger.

That's been true to a certain extent in every volume, but it's especially evident here, as Gen takes on thugs, corrupt politicians, opportunistic doctors, and even a few people here and there who have nothing left but to debase themselves in order to survive. Any one of these could have done Gen in, but he manages to weave in and out of trouble just long enough for us as a reader to see post-war Japan in all of its horrific honesty.

It's a powerful story, so I don't mind a bit of stretching of plausibility. The things that Gen sees are those kept from us in the history books, both here in America and in Japan. There's some clever meta-textural commentary about this in the narrative, which I thought was a nice touch. Gen quits school when they honor the Emperor and refuse to acknowledge the way Japan's leaders nearly destroyed their country and later he meets a writer who cant' get published because he wants to tell the truth behind the cover up of Hiroshima. There was no such thing as Project Censored at the time, but if there had been, I'm sure the deaths, the radiation, and the lack of food would have been stories told under the radar, so I'm glad to see Nakazawa discussing that difficulty here.

As with any story dealing with the darker side of US history, it's hard for me to read abut collecting the dead as specimens, even paying people to basically steal bodies for research purposes and treating victims as fodder to add data to someone's war game evaluations. Worse still is the portrayal of American soldiers as men almost willing to holiday in Hiroshima, collecting the dead as souvenirs. The whole actions of America makes me sick to my stomach, and I'd love to be able to dismiss it as exaggeration. Unfortunately, I don't think that's the case. Too often bad things are done, either individually or as a group. The things Nakazawa shows and describes sound all too real to me.

If reading Barefoot Gen makes you uncomfortable, I think that's a good thing. It means you care, and don't want to see the sins shown here repeated anywhere else. Just be careful not to say, "I'd never do that!" After all, who knows what we might do in the same circumstances?

That's the lesson Gen takes away from this part of his story. He sees the actions of his desperate friends, his brother's desire to move on to save (or escape?) the family, and even in the morally questionable actions of the doctors and scavengers. As he moves through his life, we see Gen evaluate everything, and make his judgments based on what he knows. I'm sure the reader is doing the same, drawing similar conclusions or perhaps seeing conflicts in Gen's point of view. I really like how Nakazawa allows the reader to do this by never keeping Gen too controlled in his views.

Overall, I thought this volume of the series was stronger than the one before it. The narrative is linear, which helps, and we start to see the longer-term effects of the war instead of its immediate aftermath. There's even a recap of the story so far, neatly tied in via a school assignment. I wasn't expecting that, but I think it's a good idea as we approach the halfway point. This trade also has more of a story arc feel to it, at least to me. Characters weave in and out as needed, and there's less of a feeling that Nakazawa is just using people as props. The new folks we meet, even if they are only shown briefly, have more life to them. I'm glad to see that. Even though this story is mostly about showing the horrors of war, there's no reason it can't have a strong structure as well.

Since the very beginning, I've said that Barefoot Gen is a series everyone needs to read, and this volume is no exception. We need reminders of human cruelty, no matter how hard they can be to read. Otherwise, we might just condone these actions again and again. And that would be a bigger tragedy than dropping another bomb. This series is a tough read, but it's very highly recommended.