Before preparing for the current Manga Moveable Feast, I’d only read about a chapter of Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen (Last Gasp), the one reprinted in the back of Frederik Schodt’s Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics.
This wasn’t because I was unimpressed with that sample or thought it was in some way unworthy. I mean, you can’t spend any time talking with people who love manga and not have Barefoot Gen come up in the most enthusiastic, even reverent, terms.
No, the reason is that I tend to compartmentalize things. I generally read comics to be entertained on some level, to distract myself from reality. This doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy comics that address dark themes or tragedy. I just prefer a level of distance from the truly hurtful, tragic aspects of life. So an autobiographical comic about the aftermath of the bombing of Hiroshima… well, it’s a lot, you know?
In the first volume, we meet the Nakaokas, the close stand-ins for Nakazawa’s own family. Beyond the deprivations of being average citizens during wartime, the Nakaokas are enduring persecution from their neighbors. Daikichi, the father, is morally opposed to the war, and he’s becoming increasingly frank about it as the conflict drags on. But he’s got a pregnant wife, Kirie, and five children to support, in spite of efforts of their pro-war acquaintances to isolate them and make their lives difficult.
Second-youngest son Gen doesn’t fully understand the source of his family’s woes, though he tries to ameliorate them in kid-like ways. He schemes to find them food and other comforts, and he resorts to violence when the insults against his father and the persecution of his parents and siblings become too much to stand. In the space of a volume, he does gain a better understanding of his parents’ principles and their cost, and he learns to sacrifice for others. That last skill will be essential, as the atomic bomb is dropped on his home town at the end of the first volume.
His town is destroyed, countless lives are lost, and his family is decimated before his eyes. The trauma triggers Kirie’s labor, so Gen is left with terrible grief, horror everywhere, and a mother and infant sister to support and protect. And he’s just a kid. And he’s a kid wading through a sea of horror and death the likes of which no one on Earth had ever experienced before it happened to these people. The struggle to survive goes from difficult to seemingly impossible, and maybe it’s only Gen’s youth and relative innocence that help him through it. He’s not immune to horror and despair, but his father so forcefully conveyed the importance of survival to Gen that he has at least some functional armor, something to keep him plodding along through the sea of bodies, the stench, and the deprivation.
I thought I had grown accustomed to the juxtaposition of cartoon stylization with serious subject matter during my exposure to the work of Osamu Tezuka. Nakazawa was a great admirer of Tezuka’s work, and you can see the influence. That said, I sometimes found the relationship between content and style uncomfortable. Early chapters are sprinkled with Gen’s more innocent antics, juxtaposed with their father’s simmering rage, his bruised and battered face. That rage infects Gen from time to time, and his physical response to injustices is shocking, even grotesque. There’s casual cartoon violence that escalates into sincere, unsettling violence, and I found it challenging to adjust to the shifts.
Either Nakazawa found surer footing in the second volume (or I did) after relative trivialities are literally blown away. Gen still behaves like a child sometimes, but he is a child, and it’s a relief that those responses still live in him somewhere. Even in the midst of all this horror and with all of these terrible responsibilities, Gen can still be distracted and follow a generous or curious impulse. The weight of circumstances always reasserts itself, but an innocent part of his nature has survived along with his body.
And he’s not a conventional shônen boy hero: friendship and victory aren’t options; the hard work of living a bit longer and making sure the people he loves and still has do as well is the only thing he has left. Beyond the mechanics of moment-to-moment life, like food and water, there’s still injustice aplenty, and there’s the despair of strangers on all sides.
It’s bleak, and at times it’s exhausting to read, though I don’t mean either of those as a criticism. Much as I hate catchphrases like “sharing his truth,” that’s what Nakazawa is doing here, and the force and specificity of it is overwhelming.
I wish I could claim that these volumes have changed my view on comics that speak these kinds of harsh truths, but I can’t. My interest in them is still the exception rather than the rule and probably always will be. But I will finish Barefoot Gen, if only because I feel like I should for reasons that go beyond merely wanting to because it’s a comic I admire. As I said, it’s a lot.