Hadashi no Gen is one of the all-time classics of golden age manga. It began when Keiji Nakazawa, one of the origin...moreI've wanted to read this for years.
Hadashi no Gen is one of the all-time classics of golden age manga. It began when Keiji Nakazawa, one of the original crop of shonen manga (boys' comics) artists inspired by Osamu Tezuka, published a 45-page autobiographical story entitled Ore wa Mita ("I Saw It"). The story outlined his experiences as a child survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima - as an aside, it was translated and published in pamphlet form in 1982 by Educomics and is very much worth reading in and of itself, if you can get your hands on a copy. I found mine at the gift shop of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Nakazawa's story was published as part of a series of autobiographical manga, and was apparently a success, as his editor asked him to start a long series on the subject. He did so, this time fictionalizing the story somewhat, changing names and tweaking events to suit the needs of the story. It ran to 10 volumes in the English translation, and I should say that as of writing this review I have read only four (in addition to I Saw It).
Barefoot Gen is a product of a time when long-form manga on serious subject matter was still a new thing, and it should be read with this in mind; Nakazawa was working with the visual vocabulary available to him at that point, which was still largely that of children's entertainments. The story initially ran in Shukan Shonen Jampu (Weekly Boys' Jump), an anthology magazine of comics for adolescent boys. It is drawn with a great deal of exaggeration and a substantial dose of humor, all of which the reader of grim historical tomes on Imperial Japan and Nazism may have some trouble swallowing, but such a reader may in turn be shocked that it does not shy away from or sugar-coat the subject matter one bit. Nakazawa's frankly adorable characters - Art Spiegelman correctly characterizes them as "dewy-eyed" - witness mounds of dead bodies, zombie-like half-dead atom bomb victims with their skin hanging off, mass burnings of human flesh, murder, rape. It is ordinary to see child characters dying of starvation, attempting to kill themselves, or wielding knives in defense of their parents. Sheer apathy towards the pain of bomb victims, really one of the wickedest crimes committed, is a constant theme. Nudity, too, is relatively commonplace - but this reflects differing ideas and standards of what is "decent" and appropriate for children between our culture and theirs. They, after all, are accustomed to communal bathing. We Americans are not.
Simple honesty, neither flinching nor lurid, has got to be this series' greatest strength. There is a sense of humanness that pervades the work, and that raw emotion - that straightforward communication of human feeling - is so effectively delivered that I am able to forgive with relative ease the obvious illustratorial shortcomings from which the work suffers - the artist's inability to properly depict a child's or baby's chest, for example, or his limited ability for posing and facial expression (a weakness from which I also suffer).
This is not to say that Nakazawa's pictorial style is without merits. The backgrounds and environments he provides for his characters can be vivid and rhythmically intense, reflecting both his own memory and his influence from Osamu Tezuka (whose highly textural and curvilinear environmental drawings could serve as musical compositions). While his Tezuka-influenced exaggeration of poses and expressions suffers greatly from his own inferior drawing ability, his environmental drawings do not. While not quite Tezuka-caliber, they serve admirably in a story which is fundamentally about an environment - a city, a homeland - which, both socially and physically, explodes.
Of course, I love the styles of the Japanese comics golden age for their retro charm, being the Japanophile that I am. The oversized eyebrows, heavily lined eyes, and blocky features of Keiji Nakazawa's male figures remind me of Takao Saito's extremely long-running classic assassin manga Golgo 13, which started at around the same time (and runs to this day!). Pioneering works and styles in any art form tend to hold a special charm, and the work of Keiji Nakazawa is no exception.
Barefoot Gen was not just a milestone in manga, but in the journey of Japanese comics to American shores, it having been translated and published here by a team of volunteer peace activists just a couple years after the end of its run in the mid-70s. This made it one of the first manga to be released in English.
The translation is okay, but the lettering is frankly nonexistent. It is hard at times to tell whether a block of preachy and simplistic dialogue is the fault of the translators (who were anti-war activists) or the author himself (who was an anti-war atom bomb survivor targeting a juvenile audience). Either way, if you're not part of the choir he's mostly preaching to, you really need to read this series - and maybe you'll be singing in the peace chorus by the end.(less)
I can think of no better author for this book than Frederik Schodt. He was one of the first American "otaku," a leader in early Japanese-to-English ma...moreI can think of no better author for this book than Frederik Schodt. He was one of the first American "otaku," a leader in early Japanese-to-English manga translations and imports, translator of works such as Barefoot Gen, Astro Boy, The Rose of Versailles and Phoenix, writer of the groundbreaking Manga! Manga!, and personal friend of Osamu Tezuka. He's done so much to establish Japan as a major cultural producer internationally that he was given the Order of the Rising Sun by the Japanese government in 2009, AND the Tezuka Cultural Prize in 2000. He doesn't just know his material - he's been intimately involved with it for decades.
Astro Boy Essays was an easy and engaging read, given my high level of interest in the material, and I found it to be built in such a way that it was both plugged into the moment in which it was written and of lasting value. Manga! Manga! is written in this way, as well: though very much a product of the late '80s, its value as a primer history of manga up to that point and as a snapshot of manga culture at the time remains high.
Schodt's writing style is journalistic more than it is scholarly, and you won't find any complex sociological theories here - but for what it is, his work is damned near perfect, and his influence has been enormous.
As for Tezuka-Sensei himself, what needs be said? Certainly a worthy subject.(less)