February 20, 2011

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Some Thoughts on Barefoot Gen

Written by Keiji Nakazawa
Illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa
Last Gasp

The Manga Movable Feast (or MMF for short) is a chance for those of us who hang out on Twitter to all write about the same series. We've discussed things as different as Yotsuba&! and To Terra over the past year. Sometimes the feast is about a well known work like One Piece, but other times we'll look at books that might be a bit under the radar, such as Karakuri Odette. This time however, in a month filled with thoughts of love and sweethearts, we've chosen to pick one of the most depressing and difficult manga series available in English, because we're funny like that.

This month's host is Sam, at A Life in Panels, and he's serving up Barefoot Gen. You can read his introductory post here, and the complete link list for this month's MMF is here.

I am really not kidding when I say that Barefoot Gen is a very hard manga to read. For those unaware of the series' content, Gen is the story of a survivor of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Nakazawa spares absolutely no gruesome detail in the process, using a cartoonish style but still managing to present the sheer horror of the aftermath of the bomb in such a way that no one one takes the time to read this manga will ever look at World War II (or even more modern conflicts) the same way, ever again.

Barefoot Gen is so difficult, it's causing many of of the other reviewers in the Movable Feast to quite literally wince, cringe, or cry--and sometimes all three at once. At this point, my viewpoint is shielded a bit by distance, because I read the first volumes of Gen about four years ago now and most of the rest of the bad stuff two years ago. While the effects of the bomb are always with Gen and his cast, the worst of it comes at the beginning. It's been awhile, but I can remember my strong reactions to the initial volumes in the series.

What makes Barefoot Gen stand out to me, even above the better-known Maus (because Speigleman doesn't implicate the United States in depravity in the way that Nakazawa does and thus can easily be taught in colleges around the country) is that there is no anthropomorphizing. A story loses a bit of its shock when it's creatures who are dying instead of real (if cartoonish) human beings. When people melt in front of the reader's face in Barefoot Gen, there is no disguising the fact that it's a person who is dying an almost unimaginable death. It's recognizable skulls and leg bones littering the pages here, and that makes a huge difference. Barefoot Gen is in your face once the bomb drops and I think that's why this comic has more power in its panels than anything else I've read that's dealt with a serious issue in comic form.

That power, however, can be a bit oppressive at times. There is a relentless energy behind Nakaawa's lines, as his anger and frustration at the pain and suffering of his fellow Japanese citizens at the hands of the powers that be (first in Japan, then in America) shines through, page after page. It can get to be quite the strain on the reader, as others have noted. Gen is a character speaking from his heart and those words register strongly. The trouble is that it's rather like being in a hot tub where the water pressure is turned up too high: A reader can easily decide that it's all too much, and give up on the story entirely.

Doing that would be quite a shame. I wrote several times in my reviews of individual volumes that anyone who thinks that the United States (or any other nation) should go out there and fight war after war really needs to read Barefoot Gen. While its primary focus is a condemnation of the use of atomic weapons, it is more generally and more broadly a condemnation of war itself. The primary decision makers (the Emperor, General McArthur, President Truman) never feel the impact of the falling bombs or rice shortages or babies dying from lack of nutrition and medical care. Those who are so quick on the trigger of attack often never have to deal with the true consequences of conflict, a point Nakazawa points out again and again.

This is ultimately one of the strengths and weaknesses of Barefoot Gen. Nakazawa returns again and again to the idea that it was the powers that be who got Hiroshima nuked, but after awhile, the theme grows a bit strained. As we move on to the volumes after five, it feels like Gen is just looking for opportunities to repeat the same things he's said previously and in certain situations, it feels rather forced. There are definitely times in the narrative where Nakazawa trips over himself trying to maneuver his characters into position so he can speak about a certain atrocity or desperate situation that the survivors found themselves in. It hurts the literary nature of the story, especially when the point Nakazawa is making comes down in a ham fist.

I understand that the whole point of Barefoot Gen is to chronicle the effects of the nuclear strike into the years that followed, but I also feel like maybe the manga ran its course somewhere about volume six. By volume ten, I admit that I was starting to lose my focus and also starting to feel like while those around Gen were trying to put their lives back together, he was stuck in that moment in time. I don't think Gen should ever forget the bomb, but I also think instead of railing against those who supported the war, he should be transitioning into doing more to help people find a way to prevent this kind of war from happening again. He is a part of the transformation of others, but in a way, I feel like Gen will always be trapped within that one, horrific moment in time.

That's pretty easy for me to say, however, as I was not personally impacted by the bomb and cannot know what I would do if I were a bomb survivor. I understand the concept of "never forget" and I agree with it. However, I also think that Gen's shrill rants would be getting him nowhere by this point in the story, and to some extent we see that in the manga. I'd have rather seen Gen end his time in this story by really trying to make an impact on the world. Instead, he seems content to keep being the voice in the wilderness while others move on, for both the good and the bad.
In the end, it feels like Barefoot Gen doesn't so much end as it does finish, which I have to admit disappointed me somewhat. I wanted Gen to grow up and speak to political groups, not just rail at those around him who survived the bomb without the great cost it had on Gen and his family. I wanted him to show that he was strong, like that grain of wheat that his father always mentioned. Instead, it feels like he's unable to make that leap and is only able to straighten the grain of those around him. Perhaps that's how Nakazawa himself feels, and thus his avatar Gen must do the same. Either way, there's definitely a sense of unfinished business, just as those who wish to ban the bomb permanently have not yet finished their task of ridding the world of nuclear weapons--if anything, there's more than before.

Overall, Barefoot Gen is a powerful story of loss and survival. I'm glad to have read it, and I think anyone who wants to wage war on others should read it, too, as it's a cautionary tale of the cost of battle beyond the billions spent making weapons and feeding soldiers. It is by no means a perfect story, nor should it be considered an entirely true one. (I find it hard to believe that Gen and his friends could get away with so much and survive, especially when battling the Yakuza and the American military.) There is definitely exaggeration for effect, and the effect is to make you think twice about any preconceived notions you might have about the moral correctness of dropping the nuclear bombs. If you read Barefoot Gen and you don't question your thinking afterward, you were either an extreme pacifist in the first place or are unwilling to admit that sometimes the actions of the United States in World War Two were not full of moral purity despite the angelic shine we give to "The Greatest Generation."

Like any good book, reading Barefoot Gen should change you. Maybe just a little, maybe by a lot. If you find yourself unaffected, then perhaps you need to go back and read it again. Either way, this is a comic book that is on its own level, with few peers. We all need to read this series before the lessons it imparts come too late.