On -isms: Barefoot Gen Review

By | Thursday, September 07, 2017 Leave a Comment
I recently read the first four volumes of the most recently published version of Barefoot Gen from Last Gasp. Despite being one of the manga canon, I'd never really looked at it before; I'd only ever read the original, abbreviated version of the story in I Saw It! This version, being hundreds of times longer, not surprisingly goes into much greater detail.

The story is mostly an autobiography by Keiji Nakazawa, starting from when he was seven years old in early 1945 and eventually going up through 1953 in volume 10. Beyond just an autobiography, though, Nakazawa lived through America's dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, so the story shows what life was like immediately before and after the city was obliterated.

What's striking to me is the frankness with which Nakazawa relays his story. While it would be easy to make the United States an enemy of almost caricature-ish levels, especially in light of the bomb directly killing his father and two of his siblings, Barefoot Gen is by far not just Japanese propaganda. Indeed, much of the first volume spends a great deal of time criticizing the Japanese government, and many of the problems trying to survive in the aftermath of the atomic bomb are exasperated by their policies beforehand. Certainly, there's no love for the United States here, but they're not the only ones to blame by any means either.

It's this approach that lends credence to Nakazawa's story. As the protagonist, it would be easy to dismiss Nakazawa and his story as obviously biased but given that he doesn't shirk from calling out both sides, he's warranted more authority. Further, by showing his avatar Gen as capable of bad deeds and poor judgement (notably, repeatedly trying to strangle a woman who only very reluctantly gives them shelter) he tempers the other stories of his own altruism.

The primary story, of course, follows Gen and his family. But in Gen's ongoing attempts to keep bringing either money or food to his family, he encounters a number of other people who've also been impacted by the war and/or the bomb. (Indeed, pretty much everyone in Japan was affected in some way.) Virtually everybody is barely scraping by and, accordingly, looking out pretty much only for themselves, frequently at the expense of others. It's a very bleak look at humanity, and Gen is only able to keep any sense of optimism by getting to some of the underlying stories that help explain why so many people are so horrible to one another.

Ultimately, though, Nakazawa's point with the story is that war is hell. Not in a metaphoric sense, war is a literal hell. A skin-falling-off-maggots-eating-you-alive-starving-to-death hell. For pretty much everybody except those in government ordering it. There is absolutely nothing worth destroying so many lives for. Your history textbook will say that the bombing of Hiroshima killed between 70,000-129,000 people. Barefoot Gen tells you that those were real people. Not just numbers. Not just statistics. Real people who endured the worst of humanity because a handful of people in power got into a pissing match. This is the sort of history that more people need to be taught; not just bullshit wrote memorization, but real stories of the real horrors of war. Do yourself a favor and read at least the first two volumes of this amazing work.
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