By Jason S. Yadao
It’s time once again for the Manga Movable Feast, your recommended monthly allowance of must-read manga as served up by the manga blogosphere (and one of the increasingly rare times when I seem to be putting on my reviewer’s cap these days). This month’s MMF, hosted by Sam Kusek over at A Life in Panels, focuses on a series quite dear to my heart: Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, the story of how one boy’s life was changed forever when the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima, Japan, in 1945.
The first time I ever wrote something about Barefoot Gen was around 2008, when I was deep in the process of writing The Rough Guide to Manga (still hanging in there and available at your online book retailer of choice, and by the way, thank you to the people in Seattle and Nashville who bought three copies on Amazon in the past month or so). I knew that Barefoot Gen had to be one of the 50 must-read series that I included in the book’s core section, the Canon. Here’s some of what I wrote about the series back then:
An account of the story through the eyes of an adult would be gruelling enough to read. The perspective of a child — and one who sees most of his family die before his eyes, at that — makes for a devastating read, and one that’s more easily identifiable for younger readers. Yet Nakazawa’s message is also one of dogged determination, of persevering and surviving through the hard times to ensure the mistakes of the past are never repeated.
… and after that section, my book shifts to a discussion of the carnage and calamity inflicted in Battle Royale, complete with a scan of a page from that manga showing someone’s head being forcibly divorced from his body. But let’s not think about that. (As an added trivia note, the essay that came before Barefoot Gen in the Canon: Banana Fish.)
For those of you who have yet to read Barefoot Gen — well, go on, get going, it’s probably available in a library system near you. (A quick check of the Hawaii library system catalog shows all 10 volumes are available.) If I were to narrow down the Canon further to include the five series that remain embedded in my mind two years after I sent my last final-draft rewrites to my editor, this would be on there, no question.
For while casual readers already know from their history lessons in school that the Hiroshima that series protagonist Gen Nakaoka lives in will be bombed on Aug. 6, 1945, and that tens of thousands of people will die, what they probably don’t know about are the hardships that the Japanese endured both before and after the bomb dropped. Where Nakazawa’s narrative excels is not in the actual bomb-dropping itself; to put it into perspective, the bombing takes place about a tenth of the way into the story. (Although the images of flesh melting off bodies and corpses littering the streets don’t lack impact by any means.) The real impact lies in how 7-year-old Gen manages to persevere through hardship piled upon heartbreaking hardship. Before the bombing, Gen’s father, Daikichi, was an outspoken critic of the war who felt Japan should instead strive for peace with the Allied powers; consequently, the Nakaoka family was ostracized by neighbors and the authorities alike. (One sequence shows sister Eiko being stripped, accused of stealing something that she didn’t steal.) After the bombing, we see Gen and his mom watch as his dad, sister and younger brother are burned alive under the ruins of their home, then cope with the birth and subsequent death of his baby sister, then deal with the prejudices and misconceptions that many Japanese held against the bombing survivors.
Since writing about Barefoot Gen for the book, I’ve picked up several other resources: the Barefoot Gen anime (two movies released in Japan in 1983 and 1986, released on one DVD by Geneon stateside in 2006) and Hiroshima: The Autobiography of Barefoot Gen (edited and translated by Richard H. Minear), chronicling Nakamura’s real-life experiences and thought processes in creating the manga. I had hoped to watch and read all of those by now, but … well, regular readers of this blog can probably recite by heart what I’m going to write next: Work has been busy, haven’t been able to write as much as I’d like, blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda hey Jason just get back to writing about what you did read and watch and learn about already.
I did watch the first movie and read half the book, and my impressions are thus: The anime, while capturing the element of human tragedy from Nakazawa’s story — particularly in a sequence where people look like zombies stumbling about in the aftermath of the bomb — still feels like a gutted adaptation of the original. Part of it owes to the running time — with an 83-minute film covering what amounts to three volumes of the manga, it was inevitable that content would have to be excised. Unfortunately, it feels like much of the heart of the original story was removed along with the content. Any undercurrents of political commentary that Nakazawa had in his story, including Daikichi’s activist leanings, socially shunned Korean neighbor Mr. Pak being the biggest help to the Nakaokas, and the debate over whether U.S. culpability in dropping the bomb trumped Japanese involvement in the war, is either muted or missing from this film. The message here is reduced to “the atomic bomb is bad” — a message that, while welcome, still pales in comparison with the original story.
But where the film simplifies, Nakazawa’s autobiography enriches, filling with color what he had rendered in black and white. It’s like the director’s cut of the manga, with additional commentary (and more horrifying details) thrown on top as a bonus. (To the credit of publisher Rowman & Littlefield, the book also includes excerpts from the manga as a handy comparison tool.) It’s here that we find that while some parts of the manga were dramatized, much of what goes on in Gen’s life are events that have parallels in Nakazawa’s life as well. For example, while Gen and his mom come upon the three other members of their family trapped under the house and watch helplessly as they burn to death, it was only Nakazawa’s mom who saw his dad and brother burn. (Sister Eiko apparently was crushed and killed instantly in the blast.) Remember how I said earlier that the manga is must-read material? The autobiography is must-read-right-afterward material.