REVIEW: ”Hiroshima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen”
Seven-year-old Keiji Nakazawa was on his way to school in Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945, when he stopped to answer a question from a classmate’s mother. Before he could reply, “a pale light like the flash of a flashbulb camera, white at the center, engulfed me, a great ball of light with yellow and red mixed at its out edge.”
The next thing he knew, he was half-buried in rubble with a six-inch nail driven through his cheek. Because he was standing behind a foot-thick concrete wall, Nakazawa survived. The charred body of his friend’s mother lay nearby.
The horrors Nakazawa saw in the ruined city, the poverty and suffering he endured in postwar Japan, including discrimination against bomb victims, haunted him for the rest of life — and became the material for his landmark 10-volume manga “Barefoot Gen.” In his moving autobiography, ”Hiroshima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen” (translated and edited by Richard H. Minear, Rowman & Littlefield: $34.95) Nakazawa recounts how he transformed his experiences into the adventures of his alter-ago Gen Nakaoka.
Nakazawa fondly recalls his father, an artist whose outspoken antiwar views led to his imprisonment by Japan’s dreaded wartime thought police. His long-suffering mother struggled to keep the family fed. Gen’s parents exhibit the same stubborn strength and love. Gen never forgets his father’s admonition to emulate the wheat they plant in a tiny garden: Even when it’s trampled, the wheat “grows straight and tall … and one day bears fruit.”
Nakazawa altered some his experiences to heighten the drama of “Barefoot Gen.” He wasn’t present when his mother had to abandon his father and younger brother in the burning ruins of their house. Nor was he present at the birth of his younger sister (the blast sent his mother into labor). But he did endure horrors that can be described only as hell on Earth. The reader shudders at the recollections of a terrified first-grader wandering among hideously burned blast victims, collecting the bones of his father for the family tomb, or feeding his family by catching crayfish among the skeletons that littered river beds in Hiroshima–knowing the crayfish had gorged on human flesh.
Like Gen, Nakazawa began his artistic career as an apprentice to a hot-tempered sign painter, but at 22, after the premature death of his mother from the after-effects of radiation exposure, he moved to Tokyo and became a manga artist. Although he achieved a minor success, first as an assistant, then as an artist in his own right, he was haunted by the suffering he had witnessed Neither the Japanese nor the Americans seemed to have learned the terrible lessons of the atomic bomb. He needed to channel his rage and sorrow into his art: “Courage welled up: ‘The only thing I’m good at is manga. I’ll do battle through manga!’ As if the demons had fallen away, I calmed down… “
Nakazawa’s first attempt to deal with his nightmarish past was the manga “Pelted by Black Rain” (a reference to the toxic black precipitation that fell after the explosion), which was initially rejected by publishers as “too intense.” Other Hiroshima stories followed, in counterpoint to his mass market work for manga magazines and the animation industry. Unfortunately, “Hiroshima” includes examples of only “Barefoot Gen,” rather than Nakazawa’s lesser known works.
A request by the editors of “Boys’ Jump Monthly“ that each manga artist to draw his autobiography led Nakazawa to begin “Barefoot Gen” in June, 1973. The response was overwhelmingly favorable, and first book was published two years later. It took Nakazawa 14 years to complete his story.
The first four volumes of “Barefoot Gen” appeared in English in 1976, making it one of the first manga published in America. Finishing the series took decades. All 10 volumes are available from Last Gasp of San Francisco in a new translation prepared by volunteers that was completed in 2009. The delay might be partially due to Nakazawa’s uncompromising political stance. Speaking through Gen, he repeatedly condemns the American decision to drop the atomic bomb, and accuses the U.S. military of using Japanese civilians as guinea pigs to test the long-term effects of radiation, in case of an attack on the U.S.
In every volume of “Gen,” Nakazawa damns Emperor Hirohito and his advisors for starting the war. But in “Hiroshima,” he reveals that a screening of Walt Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” made him realize the folly of their aggression. “… learning that it was made, in color, before the war, I was speechless at the splendor of America’s power. To go to war with that America! I had no sympathy for the bunch of fools who were Japan’s wartime leaders. That Japan would lose was a foregone conclusion.”
“Barefoot Gen” has been an enormously influential work. Its readership in Japan is estimated in the tens of millions, and it has been translated into several languages. The story has been adapted to a three-part live-action film, two animated features and a two-part television drama.
But its power lies in its uncompromising honesty, rather than its visuals. In his Introduction to Volume 1 of “Barefoot Gen,” Art Spiegelman, the creator “Maus,” accurately assesses the weaknesses and strengths of Nakazawa’s drawings: “His draftsmanship is somewhat graceless, even homely, and without much nuance, but it gets the job done. It is clear and efficient, and it performs the essential magic trick of all good narrative art: the characters come to living, breathing life.” Gen feels so alive, that when he leaves Hiroshima for Tokyo at the end of Volume 10, the reader feels like an old friend is saying good-bye.
At a time when the threat of nuclear attack remains frighteningly high and Japan faces the crisis caused by the damaged reactors at Fukushima, Nakazawa’s story — in both its real and fictionalized forms — takes on an added immediacy. “Barefoot Gen” and “Hiroshima” suggest home-grown flowers on the grave of the Nakazawa family–and the tens of thousands of others who died in Hiroshima 66 years ago.
– Charles Solomon
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