March 31, 2010

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Barefoot Gen Volume 6

Written by Keiji Nakazawa
Illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa
Last Gasp

Gen and his friends try all kinds of things, both legal and otherwise, to make enough money to survive as we move further away from the end of World War II and further into the nature of surviving the aftermath of the bomb. While Gen does his best to survive, those around him may not be nearly so lucky.

The theme of life and death dominates this particular volume, as we begin with Gen saving the life of a suicide candidate and end with the idea that a young man is off to kill someone in the name of revenge. That's not to say that we haven't had plenty of the same ideas in the past, but this time it's from a different perspective. It's a death of inches, either from sickness or from doing so many bad things or suffering so much from the effects of the bomb.

Gen's strong desire to live seems at times to propel everyone around him into that same zest for life. Note that Koji, in a brief cameo, appears to be slowly killing himself without Gen's zeal. Similarly, whenever he is away from his mother, she does worse. Ryuta would not have lived without Gen's help, to say nothing of the newfound determination of the old man or Natsue. Only Akira, who seems to resent Gen's refusal to be limited to a menial life, is unaffected.

It's clear that Gen feels that everyone in Japan, good or bad, must keep on living to show the Americans that they cannot be as defeated as they appear. That's why he tries to prevent needless killings and justifies stealing or cheating Americans. There are more uncomfortable actions laid out in accusations across this volume, and they are no less difficult to read about as an American reader than ever.

But the purpose of Barefoot Gen is not to just cite American cruelty, as I've mentioned before. There's plenty of comments about those who profited from the war as well as those who use the black market and corruption to harm their fellow citizens. This series is a warning not just about the aftermath of war, but also the way in which we treat each other. As the series progresses, that latter theme grows stronger.

We also get more meta-commentary about the desire to silence anyone talking about Hiroshima, with Gen vowing to have the truth see print. I can only imagine how hard it must have been for Nakazawa to get Barefoot Gen out there for anyone to read, and I note how much longer after he published the series it too for it to be published in full in English.

I mentioned in my last review that the series was moving more toward a character-driven narrative rather than just pushing people into places where they could talk about the horrors of the bomb. That trend continues here. There is a strong feeling of storytelling, as we see scenes that Gen could not experience first hand, such as Koji, Akira, and Ryuta's scenes. Characters are showing up from prior books, and there is a continuity that the manga had lacked before.

I really like this change, because it makes the sufferings of Gen and his friends even more real. These are people who are trying to live their life as best as they can, whether it means stealing copper to set up a legitimate business or forever dodging the authorities. We see little scenes at home, and romantic relationships forming. It brings life to the characters, and also shows that no matter how awful things get, human emotion will still be there.

That doesn't mean Nakazawa is turning away from depicting historical evidence that gets swept under the rug. There's still commentary on the hypocrisy of Japanese officials in relation to the black market, the futility of schools in those early days, the indifference of the American soldiers, and the constant threat of death. The difference is that instead of feeling like Gen and his supporting cast are thrust into places and actions to make a point, Nakazawa is letting them arrive at them more naturally. I really like that approach, and I hope it continues.

I can't imagine anyone reading Barefoot Gen and not coming away from it deeply moved. There's just too much humanity on the pages not to feel the plight of Gen and express anger for those who make war lightly. I know I've said this all before, but it's worth repeating: This is a series that everyone should read.