By Gail Cetnar Meadows
For those living in Hiroshima prefecture, it is hard not to know the deep and profound affect August 6, 1945, had on the Japanese ethos. If you are like many who live here, you have probably been to the Peace Memorial Museum in downtown Hiroshima and seen the graphic images and personal accounts of the victims. These exhibits show a gruesome snapshot of the bomb’s destruction that is impossible to forget. Beyond these tragic exhibits, though, one place I turned for an even deeper look at the bomb’s effects was, believe it or not, a manga.
Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima is a 10-volume graphic novel loosely based on the experience of a 6-year-old boy who survived the atomic bombing. Standing in the shadow of his school’s wall, author Keiji Nakazawa survived the blast but did not escape the bomb’s fury. In Barefoot Gen, told with a focus on his boyhood alter ego Gen, Nakazawa recounts events that actually happened to him or other people in Hiroshima immediately preceding the A-bomb and in the years following in post-war Japan. The story is a gritty and heart wrenching tale of Gen’s family’s fight for survival in an often cruel world.
Like Maus, the famous historical graphic novel about the Holocaust, Barefoot Gen is one of those works too important not to read. Indeed, the introduction to Barefoot Gen was written by Maus author Art Spiegelman, who first read Barefoot Gen right before beginning work on his own epic cartoon tale. From the first book, I was hooked. The drawings combine with his story to create a narrative that is both educating and moving. Often I found myself on the edge of tears or laughing out loud as the story drew me quickly through all 10 volumes.
Nakazawa portrays the mass destruction of the bomb in very graphic and disturbing detail, calling to mind many of the same stomach-turning images you might have seen in the Peace Memorial Museum or heard bomb survivors describe. Scenes hit the reader with force: a dying man covered head to toe in maggots, a baby trying futilely to breastfeed from his dead mother, people impaled on broken tree branches by the force of the blast. Though Nakazawa’s style of illustration can be a bit crude, the images are vivid and raw, and he holds nothing back. It’s this candor that makes his work so powerful.
While this makes for a heavy read, Nakazawa tries to balance the tale with a number of uplifting moments. Throughout the series, Gen finds inspiration in his father’s exhortation to “be like wheat”, which sends strong roots into the ground and grows straight and tall even if it’s sometimes trampled. His joys and successes are chronicled along with the heartbreak.
Given Japan’s obsession with manga, perhaps it’s fitting that a story woven so tightly into the fabric of Hiroshima’s identity would be told in cartoon form. Barefoot Gen must be one of the most powerful stories I have ever read, and I highly recommend it to all my fellow JETs. While the books are not without faults — I thought parts were over-exaggerated, and that there was too much casual violence for a story preaching the importance of peace — they do not detract from the story’s importance. Barefoot Gen is a courageous story, told in an engaging format that captures the attention and the imagination. Reading it has given me a better understanding of the circumstances facing Hiroshima following the war, and a greater appreciation for the city in which I live.