During the last few months, I have dived headfirst into the wonderful comic called Barefoot Gen, by Keiji Nakazawa. The ten volume story is set in Japan during the bombing of Hiroshima. The story is autobiographical, the author survived the bombing and lost his father, brother and sister. Eventually the effects from the bomb claim his mother and many other people he cares deeply about. Yet Gen is not a victim, I think he chooses to be a witness; a witness to the horrors of modern warfare. He is the type of witness that won’t keep quiet about what he knows, because he knows that the people who started the war made lots of money of it, and were not held accountable for starting the war and their actions. There are ten books in this manga series, and each book brings joy and tears to the reader who patiently descends into this dark and watery place with Gen.
Gen is a spunky kid. His goal is to eliminate the threat of nuclear weapons from this world, and make sure people understand, so they are never used again. His goal extends to ending all wars that are started by greedy people, who make money off the war. Like Gen, his friends and companions along the way are also strong, smart and funny. Gen is a prickly kid, he develops his wildness, something that is necessary for a young man. A boy must first learn to be wild, and then you become a man when you learn to walk among society with your sword sheathed.
Besides Gen, there are a few characters that I strongly identified with. One is his buddy Ryuta, who loses both parents because of the bomb. Like his buddy Gen and many others, he chooses to bounce back from the trauma, and emerge stronger than ever, like the wheat that gets trampled on but grows back stronger and straighter (a major theme in the book, and the advice that Gen’s father gives him.) One reason I love Ryuta so much is that he loves tasty food. Nothing makes him happier than chomping on a sweet potato, or some tempura. He and the others dream about eating just one bowl of rice. You will never look at a bowl of rice or sweet potato the same way again, after reading these comics. Things were very rough for the average person in post-war Japan, food was hard to come by, and you weren’t allowed to complain about it. So the kids in this comic are constantly dreaming about food. The civilians who survived the bombing of Hiroshima were not given any handouts, most were left to suffer. There was a complete lack of information provided by the United States, as to the effect of the bomb. One of the most horrifying things that I learned was that many of the bomb victims were shunned by their families, because they didn’t know if the radiation sickness was contagious.
The artist who made this comic, Nakazawa, has such an amazing style. I love the way he renders things; trees, rocks, people and their emotions, the sun, the detail and crosshatching work. This comic is absolutely brilliant not only from a story telling point of view, but from an artistic point of view. (Slight spoiler alert:) I love his characters too. Like Ryuta, who licks people out of happiness. There is a painter with bomb sickness who spends his last breaths painting the horrors of the bomb. There is a writer with bomb sickness who writes a book about effects, before he also succumbs to radiation poisoning. There is a young girl who makes herself an urn. Even Gen’s own mother sacrifices for him, so he has enough to eat. And Gen in return, works his butt off doing gross and weird jobs to save enough money to buy food for his mom. These harsh realities are contrasted with the joys in the book. There are songs, fart jokes, and the kids even throw poop at their fellow Japanese tormentors. Gen exposes corruption wherever he goes, and stands up for his beliefs every single time.
Oh Gen, how I wish I read you when I was a child. Why didn’t I find you in the Young Adults section of the library, where they held most of the comics? Maybe because you have adult themes, but it’s never too late to meet Gen, and go on an adventure with him through the devastated landscape of post-bomb Hiroshima. Gen’s father was vehemently anti-war, yet he died because of the bombing. This book clearly shows that the innocent civilians suffer the most in wars, while the rich and powerful get away with everything, unless we hold them accountable and work to prevent war.
Peace be upon you my friends.