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.


“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.

gen double page

Comparing Manga and Britcomics festivals: social community and exhibition

A re-blog from the archives of my regular column for Alltern8; Comicking.
The opening of this post was removed by Lederkraft when they set up at the old site. We hope to locate it later in the year

manga and brits

Comiket began running in Tokyo in 1975 with an estimated 600 visitors, assembling from non-profit dojinshi organisation. Held twice yearly, by 2002 Gravett states it amassed “35,000 exhibitors over the three days” and 500,000 attendees, its “summer 2002 exhibition catalog is almost 900 pages” according to McHarry. Indeed, its growth has become problematic and claustrophobic. In comparison, the Tokyo International Amine Fair has 130,000 visitors, and less exhibitors. This is probably due to Comiket’s figures deriving from ‘circles’, and corporate influence – the first two days of the four day festival are for press and industry professionals only.

Britain’s major comics festivals – BICS or the Birmingham International Comics Show, and the Bristol Comics Expo have a similar ‘distributors day’ before the weekend. The Expo, began in 2004, and had much in common with its predecessor United Kingdom Comic Art Convention (UKCAC) BICS began in 2006 and cartoonists and fans perform live jazz as part of an acknowledgement of the strong social tradition of these events. At both events, 3,000 – 4,000 attend. However, around ¾ of the 70+ exhibitors have traditionally been small pressers, hobbyists therefore generating much of the income needed.

BICS grew out of a dojinshi-like culture spurred on by Oxford’s long-running Caption festival. Since 1990, its opened doors to 150-200 attendees, one weekend a year. Other small press festivals of note are the slightly larger ,The UK Web and Mini Comix Thing which takes place one day a year in London and London Underground Comics, a high-profile group that occupied Camden open arts market every Saturday in 2008. In availability to consumers, the open market regularly allowed LUC to extend sales across gender and generational spectrums. Here, they come closest to achieving what manga as a culture has managed.

Allison remarks that the otaku assumes

“a social role within anime fan-dom community as opposed to engaging in isolated enjoyment of media and Japanese culture”

and states that meetings are vital parts of fan identities. Hill considers a transcultural mis-reading of the word, noting derisory connotations in Japan, and ‘badge of honour’ status overseas. This marginalisation may allow for “greater transcultural circulation of texts” and may form an identity transcending nationality. As LUC grew out of Caption heritage, Niigata arguably grew of Comiket, and both out of fan culture. First held in 1983, Niigata has 7,000-10,000 regularly in attendance and takes place twice monthly in the city.

giant sized band thing

Above: The Giant-Sized Band Thing is made up of comics creators Charlie Adlard (Drums), Paul H Birch (Bass), Liam Sharp (Vocals) and Phil Winslade (Guitar).They play Western rock/metal at the BICS festival each year and other events in between. This image is from their Facebook page.

For a sample, let’s measure three manga fairs (Tokyo International Amine Fair, Comiket and Niigata) and five British fairs (Caption, BICS, Comics Expo, The Thing and LUC) These fairs have sketching and signing, flyers, and image prints available. Only LUC does not have goodie bags, panels, workshops, movie trailers. Caption and The Comics Expo don’t have live music. I’m unable to present substantial information on Niigata though given attendance is greater than UK festivals discussed, yet with similar roots and approaches, it may be interpreted as having similar facets. Economic sponsorship differentiation would alter this.

The Tokyo Anime Fair according to Specky features hanging quilts with manga images, the sort of cross-medium work that wouldn’t be out of place at The Thing, along with cards, stickers, badges and varied dolls. Expensive promoter tools and screening of commercials are rarely found in the UK. Matt Hill  and others note the larger British and Japanese cons have common roots in SF fandom and anime:

“fandom should not be viewed as ‘isolated fan cultures but may also need to be linked to other ‘parent’ fandoms or subcutlures”

Media fluidity, Manga and anime jumping between places is quite integrated and not felt so strongly in the UK. That manga is read on commuter trains may be a truism, though it could be read as often cited to emphasise links between transportation and distribution. That Niigata is fortnightly may mean re-evaluating expectations, but these cultural factors should be kept in mind.

All feature animation reels to differentiating extent, and larger UK festivals frequently featured whole days scheduled to anime screenings. Stop motion miniatures are also common. Rarely a British comics con features a live video-game component, more likely a free CD demos is distributed. None of the Western festivals have martial arts ceremonies that Poitras remarks upon in the writing, Contemporary Anime in Japanese Pop Culture. Although tea ceremonies have cultural reflections in the strong trend of regionalised British comics pub meets.

Cosplay is a large part of life in Harajuku and Comiket is renowned for being one of the largest Cosplay events. Likely an event at every manga and anime festival, in the UK, costumed roleplayers are common sights at The Thing.


As I have found there is a greater cross medium fluidity and environmental input for manga festivals in Japan, readings suggest there are a number of social media trends I have not had time to look at. Differences between Manga and BritComics’ central characters make for differing relationships between reader and narrative which would make for an interesting follow-up study. Given the limitations of my ability to study the British Comiket, hosted over many weeks, a comparison of those too might be noteable.

Additional Photo Credits
Tokyo Anime Fair by Specky at Anime-Source 
Lew Stringer at his Blogspot.
Rich Bruton at Forbidden Planet

As I have the sources to hand, here’s some Further Reading

Allison, B. (Date?) Anime Fan Subculture: A Review of the Literature, Mass Communication and Society, University of Georgia. At Cornered Angel.

Craig, T.J. (2000) Japan pop!: inside the world of Japanese popular culture, M. E. Sharpe. On Google Books.

Finnegan, E. (Mar 19, 2009) Greetings from Tokyo Anime Fair, Manga Recon. PopCultureShock

Gravett, P. (2004) Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics, Collins

Hewitt, L. (2007) The Birmingham International Comics Show 2007,

Kinsella, S. (October 2005) The Nationalization of Manga, Japan Society Lecture, Brunei Theatre, SOAS, London.

Liew, Z. 2 March, 2009) Monday afternoon’s Japanese Art Festival review… CobaltCafe

McHarry, M. (2001-2003?) Yaoi: Redrawing Male Love. GuideMag.

Natsume, F/ (March 2000) Japan’s Manga Culture, The Japan Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 27 No. 3/4 CorneredAngel

Patten, F. and Macek, C. (2004) Watching anime, reading manga: 25 years of essays and reviews, Stone Bridge Press, pp.13-85. GoogleBooks

Schodt, F. L. (1996) Dreamland Japan: writings on modern manga, Stone Bridge Press, ch. 7 pp.305-341. GoogleBooks

Wilson, B. Toku, M. (Date?) “Boys’ Love,” Yaoi, and Art Education: Issues of Power and Pedagogy, Visual Cultural Research in Art and Education.