Barefoot Gen is the howl of the grass under the elephants’ feet, and a heartbreakingly eloquent plea for peace and life in a world consumed by fire.
Keiji Nakazawa was six years old when his home city of Hiroshima was destroyed by the first atomic bomb ever used against a populated target. At the moment “Little Boy” – as the weapon was nick-named – detonated, Nakazawa happened to be standing behind a concrete wall at the back of his grammar school a little over a kilometer away from ground zero. The wall shielded him from both the blinding light and the heat flash that followed, which quite literally melted the skin of tens of thousands of city residents while vaporizing thousands more.
Nakazawa was only lucky to a point, however. His younger brother, older sister, and father were trapped in the family home when it collapsed, and his mother, eight months pregnant, was unable to free any of them before the raging fires that were consuming the city in the bomb’s wake reached their home. She heard her youngest son and husband screaming as the fire reached them, her daughter had, mercifully, been killed when the house fell. As a result of the strain of the day, Nakazawa’s mother gave premature birth to her baby, a girl, but the child died only four months later, whether from radiation sickness or malnutrition, they never knew.
Nakazawa survived the A-bomb and the years of hunger, deprivation, and sickness that followed, and became a successful manga artist, and in 1972, he told the story of his family, the A-bomb, and the aftermath in a ten-volume work called Hadashi no Gen, or Barefoot Gen. It remains one of the most powerful depictions of the suffering of the people of Hiroshima ever created, and offers a fascinating look into the complex feelings that poorer Japanese had about the war, their leaders, the Americans, and the bomb. In honor of the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima in 2015, Last Gasp launched a Kickstarter campaign to print 4000 hardback copies of Barefoot Gen and to distribute them to as many schools and libraries as possible. As it turns out, my local public library was able to get on their list early and recently received their copies, which I promptly checked out.
Presented in western style (i.e. to be read from left to right) Barefoot Gen is remarkable on several levels. The art is well into the cartoonish end of the symbolic comics’ language, and often has a simplistic, even primitive style. Juxtaposed with the horrific events the books are recounting, the effects can be very… unsettling. The books also read as middle-school level material, and that seems to be the target audience, but again, Nakazawa doesn’t shy away from the brutal realities of his subject matter, so parental guidance and pre-reading is really recommended for those who might have tween readers. Beyond the immediate effects of the bomb, and the radiation sickness that struck down people in the days, months, and even years following, postwar Hiroshima was rife with malnutrition, violent crime, rape, prostitution, and human suffering on a massive scale. In fact, the simplicity of the artwork provides just enough distance to the reader from the visceral reality of the time to make continuing with the story bearable.
Barefoot Gen is a must have for any war comics collector, historian, or person interceded in the realities of nuclear warfare. It is not an easy read, but it is ultimately a hopeful one, although you should not expect a Hollywood ending – quite the opposite, in fact. The debate about the necessity and ethics of using the atomic bombs against Hiroshima and Nagasaki is ongoing, and unfortunately is far too often still fueled by racism, jingoism, and nationalism, but Barefoot Gen’s raw cry for peace in the presence of one of the ultimate horrors of war comes from a place beneath all of that. Nakazawa’s work is the voice from below, shouting the realities of everyday people everywhere around the world who just want to live and raise families and have enough food to eat and maybe dandle a grandkid or two before passing on to whatever comes next. Barefoot Gen is the howl of the grass under the elephants’ feet.
The edition is beautifully and very sturdily bound, meaning that libraries should be able to get years of good use out of them, with good thick paper, heavily sewn spines, and easily cleaned covers. Copies are also available on Amazon for about $25.00 each, a very reasonable price for this kind of quality binding. Rarely has sequential art taken on a historical subject better than Barefoot Gen does, making the series a classic in every sense of the word.