Saturday, January 16, 2010

Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima

Barefoot Gen : A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima

Written and Illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa
Translated by Project Gen

Tara Publishing

Ages 12 and above

History, they say, is written by victors, never by underdogs. This holds true especially where the Second World War is concerned, where the experiences of people in the Allied countries largely public memory. The casual reader of history can also often miss the forest for the trees - reading about battles and treaties, strategies and foreign policy, it is easy to forget the millions of ordinary civilians who bore the brunt of political manoeuvres and compromises.

This is why Barefoot Gen is so important - it focuses on the hardships faced by ordinary Japanese citizens in a war their country fought largely for profit, and which many of them were opposed to. It looks at the way millions of people were routinely deceived and left to suffer, while corrupt officials and businessmen profited from the war. It also examines a horrific and shameful chapter in that war - the bombing of Hiroshima (and later, Nagasaki) by America. Seen through the eyes of a young boy, Gen, the book is a first in its attempt to explain this important event in history to young readers, using a medium that enjoys extraordinary popularity in Japan - the comic book.

First published in Japanese in 1972 as Hadashi no Gen, Barefoot Gen is the first book in a series that went on to become a cult classic among young and old alike It is loosely based on the author's own life - he was seven when the city was bombed and he,his mother and infant sister alone survived while the rest of his family perished.

Gen is the son of a poor farmer who is vocal in his opposition to Japan's role in the war. This causes the family a lot of trouble, as Nakaoka is ostracised and branded a traitor, his property vandalized and his children bullied. The family struggles to stay alive as food grows increasingly scarce; some of the most touching scenes involve the children fighting over,or fantasizing about, small things like rice or even fish bones.Recruited into the military, Gen's older brother experiences corruption, abuse and further disillusionment, finally becoming a deserter. And then, just when things seem to get better for the family, a B29 is spotted overhead...

Nakazawa was a professional cartoonist for years before he began drawing the Gen books, and the influence of popular stylistic trends in the manga of that period is evident in this book . With their stark black and white format, the panels effortlessly swing from the comic (almost slapstick, at times) to the symbolic.

While Gen is aimed at young readers, it does contain some disturbing images - children are injured, starving or killed; Gen's sister is stripped and humiliated in school; Gen and his brother fight over scraps and later resort to begging. The author's criticism of Japan's involvement in the war runs through the narrative; if anything, he comes across as overly critical of his own country while never once questioning Allied involvement or the bombings that followed.

The last quarter of the book is especially difficult to read - Nakazawa does not allow us to miss a single detail of the destruction caused by the bomb that was dropped on his city. The pace of the book becomes almost leisurely at this point, as he traces the little routines and rituals of people going about their day, unaware of what is to follow. When the bomb is dropped, we must see, through Gen's eyes, the agonizing end of everything he has known and loved.

So why am I recommending this book - because, for all the violence depicted in this book, it still conveys an incredible message of hope and humanity. It shows us that the huma spirit can be weak and misled, but also resilient and capable of great courage. Gen is a plucky little hero - sly and conniving at times, violent at others,- and his optimism and essential goodness kept me hooked to his story. If Gen depicts the cruelty of mindless mobs, it also highlights individual acts of courage and kindness. But most of all, here is a story that underscores the importance of keeping history alive by seeding the future with the lessons of the past - Barefoot Gen does not end with death, but the birth of Gen's little sister, and a powerful message to ".. never let this (war) happen again ". I look forward to re-reading this with my daughter when she is old enough.

Image courtesy

cross posted here


sathish said...

WordJunkie, That is a great reco!

"for all the violence depicted in this book, it still conveys an incredible message of hope and humanity" - very true.

Thanks for writing this wonderful review.

Reminds a lot of the anime - 'Grave of Fireflies' by Studio Ghibli.

utbtkids said...

I found myself nodding my head when you said, it is the leaders who write history, not the underdogs.

Choxbox said...

Children's books based around the World Wars esply WW2 are many - mostly the Nazis are the villains in them. This one sounds unusual as you rightly say since it is set in Japan.

Very interesting, thanks for the reco.

Vibha said...

Great review and a good story to convey the message to children that world is not perfect and it never was. Really liked the way story ends on a positive note.

starry eyed said...

Your first line is so true and so sobering. Wonderful review, thanks!

Sheela said...

Your penultimate statement blew me away with its powerful message. Thanks, WordJunkie. I look forward to reading it (now on my own and later) with my kids.

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