Comics That Moved Me: Barefoot Gen

A re-blog from the archives of my regular column for Alltern8; Comicking.

I trembled cradling Volume 2 between my palms. The pages jittered in response and I could not grab them. The colour drained from my skin and I gen-sunlightstumbled to a bench and found my place.

No comic has ever given me such an unsettling physical experience as Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen. These illustrations of the survivors of Hiroshima, trailing their burned flesh behind them, lips barely moving or falling off. Mutated figures crying for the humanity of a glass of water and a grain of rice. A wise artist reduced to a nest for flies and kept a secret by his family in a city of likewise suffering. Destroyed. It’s a difficult comic to not shed tears over, to not feel ill around. As first-hand documentary, it thumps the floor, strikes the chest and the gut, the head and heart in an ultimate way. It’s affect is profound, ask any who have read it.

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“Gen is my alter ego, and his family is like my own. The episodes on Barefoot Gen are all based on what really happened to me or other people in Hiroshima.” (Nakazawa, 2004)
Gen was a child when his father makes his opinion known his country had no business being in the war on the orders of ruling greedy men. A valid argument, that continues to ring out today. The family is shunned by neighbours as un-patriotic, even though Gen’s brother, with something to prove, defies their wishes to fight for Japan.

Nakazawa’s beautiful drawings of Spring serenity of elegant architecture and nature precedes what we know is coming. The atomic bomb turns buildings and bones to dust, sets skin to flame. Chaos scrambles. Father-less Gen must provide for his mother in labour and travels the city of the murdered begging for grains of rice and water. Rain falls and cooks the internal organs of the thirsty. Gen meets a sibling who he saw perish, he is, isn’t he? He looks like him, acts like him, but why doesn’t he know him? Surely he’s just joking about never having met him?

During the 1960s, radical (gegika) manga was widespread in Japan. “Manga artists joined organisations such as the Proletarian Artists League, and contributed to Marxist manga journals..the very act of reading a manga implied making a stand”, writes lecturer Sharon Kinsella. Over time, opposition arrived and by the 1980s, high quality information manga (joho) emerged and artists were recruited into national propaganda roles.

gen the emperorFor a while debate surrounded the media blackout regarding the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The occupying US military certainly confiscated film footage of the bombing. In this climate, Nakazawa created the 45 page comic ‘I Saw It’ about his experiences and in 1972-73, created Barefoot Gen for serialisation. By 1979, the first two volumes were translated into English and published in the US by Project Gen, a non-profit small press volunteer organisation. Leonard Rifas, the one-man force behind EduComics believed comics “had their own qualities as an extremely effective democratic tool”, and approached the group about using their translations.

Gen of Hiroshima made its way around the US’s head-shops that stocked Crumb and Shelton and non-comics counter-cultural products, as well as the sprouting comic-book stores.Historian Roger Sabin writes,

“An anti-Vietnam organisation, The War Resisters League with roots going back to 1923 were to distribute them around the US and sell them through radical political bookstores,peace organisations and religious bodies. The books had no advertising behind them.”

The Project is credited with being the seed for translations into French, German, Italian, Portugese, Swedish, Norwegian, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto. In 1994, Minako Tanabe, a Russian translator with the Project relocated to Japan, and became re-acquainted with fellow volunteers and Last Gasp Publications who ‘picked up the torch’, releasing Nakazawa’s expanded narrative over ten volumes.
Its revitalisation lately is due to these factors and the acceptability of other authors such as Joe Sacco, Art Speigelman and Marjane Satrapi. Perhaps some day the ruling greedy men will get it right, and Nakazawa’s aims will be understood by them.

“I hope that Gen’s story conveys to its readers the preciousness of peace and the courage we need to live strongly, yet peacefully” (Nakazawa, 2004)

I’ll be interviewing Leonard Rifas about his work later in the month here on Alltern8. Keep an eye out for that.

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