gen.jpgBarefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima Volume One by Keiji Nakazawa & Art Spiegelman. Originally published in 1972-1973, this translation published in 2004.

Barefoot Gen is a series of graphic novels "loosely based on Nakazawa's own experience as a Hiroshima survivor" (Wikipedia 2007). Volume One was originally written in the 1970s and was then translated from Japanese to English in 2004. Drawn in the style of traditional Japanese anime, Volume One chronicles the lives of the Nakaoka family (Daikichi or Papa and Kimie or Mama who is pregnant, and their children Gen, Eiko, Shinji, Akira and Koji) in the weeks leading up to the drop of the atom bomb on Hiroshima. Early in the story, Papa speaks out against the Japanese empire and the lunacy of its overambitious attitude towards the war it is waging against the "American and British devils" This almost immediately lands Papa in jail, where he is beaten viciously. From this point on, Papa and the other members of the Nakaoka family are considered "a wretched excuse for a Japanese," and thus, their friends and neighbors begin to call them traitors to the Japanese emperor, who is a God-like figure in Japanese culture (Nakazawa 34).

Life certainly does not get easier for the family. Akira, as part of his third grade class, is sent into the countryside as part of an "evacuation," but in reality, the children are used as laborers to harvest food for the army, while they are left underfed and infested with lice. Eiko is called a thief at her school and strip-searched by a teacher. Koji can not take the ridicule of his family being known as traitors and enlists in the navy, much to the dismay of his anti-war father who refuses to talk to forgive him for crumbling under the Empire's pressure. All members of the family, and the large majority of the Japanese population, are starving, desperate, and praying for an end to the war. Meanwhile, the Japanese government "[spreads] false information through newspapers and the radio [in order to] manipulate the public from the comfort of their offices" (Nakazawa 111). The police roam the street attempting "to repress the growing dissatisfaction of the people by tossing them into jail" (Nakazawa 176). All of this leads up to the inevitable detonation of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

The novel weaves together many different stories that combine to form an overarching moral tale of the detrimental effects of hegemony and power, and the importance of individual thought and opposition in the face of an empire. Interjected with brief views of the crushing power the Japanese dictatorship held over the country, the insanity of the Japanese armed forces (including an interesting look at kamikaze pilots), the Allied powers invasion of the Pacific Islands, and the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, this book serves as a fascinating view of the other side during World War II, the view that is almost always left out in history classes. While there are a few choice characters that deserve the imminent death that the bomb on Hiroshima brought, the story becomes more wrenching as the fateful day arrives and you realize this innocent family, and thousands of other innocent Japanese citizens, will be caught in the cross fires of a war they opposed.

This novel is highly recommended for those who wish to broaden their historical horizons. The animation is phenomenal, though there are a few scenes that teeter on the "graphic" side. Despite this fact, Volume One (and most likely the rest of the Barefoot Gen novels) provides one of the most original and thought provoking war-time tales of our time.

About the authors:
Keiji Nakazawa
Interview with Nakazawa
Art Spiegelman

Additional resources:
Editorial reviews and other information
Resources for students
Resources for teachers
Barefoot Gen: The Movie
The History of the Graphic Novel

This WikiSpace was created by Katarina Focht, Mike Miller, and Tami Teshima.