Saturday, March 10, 2018

Reader's Diary #1757- Keiji Nakazawa: Barefoot Gen

Reading Paul Gravett's Mangasia recently, Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen came up as a particularly notable example and trendsetter of political and historical Asian comics. It tells of Nakazawa's experiences pre, during, and post the bombing of Hiroshima. This first volume that I read is predominately pre-bomb but it is dropped before the book ends.

Much controversy of Barefoot Gen seemed to be around the harsh critique Nakazawa makes on Japan at the time. Largely, to be fair, it is demonstrated not by Nakazawa who was only a child at the time but by his father who was particularly against Japan's propaganda and war-mongering. I suppose some readers felt this was not the time or place to criticize Japan. Clearly the bomb dropped by the US was horrendous and nothing could justify it. Perhaps Nakazawa's critics felt he was making a "both sides" argument similar to Trump's recent remarks regarding white supremacists in Charlottesville?

I'm not sure. In any case, I found the portrayal of WWII era Japan fascinating and certainly important. I've been to Japan, and a brief visit would lead one to believe it to be one of the most peace-loving countries on Earth. Perhaps they are. If so, they certainly weren't always that way (generally, speaking) and there's a hopeful message here that even the most militant of peoples can change. Hopefully, of course, it doesn't take an atomic bomb to learn such a valuable lesson and I suppose if one must have something positive to come from the tragedy that was Hiroshima, that would be it. It also doesn't, by any means, absolve the U.S..

At first Nakazawa's account seems uneven. While his father is being critical of Japan's jingoism, such political messages as these are pushed somewhat to the background and belied by the over-the-top emotions and physicality of Nakazawa and his younger brother. These kids reminded me a little of old Astro Boy cartoons. I couldn't often tell if it was meant as comic relief, perhaps a cultural difference I didn't understand, or an outdated style but there seemed to a lot of leaping into the air, a lot of big, unrealistic reactions to small things.

Then the bomb hits and it all makes sense. These scenes are horrific.

The earlier silliness is suddenly more understandable in retrospect. Yes, leading up to the bomb was a very serious time, but Nakazawa was still a child and much was shown through his eyes. He didn't always appreciate the magnitude of what was happening. What seemed important to him prior to the bomb was not necessarily of true importance. Nakazawa's own hindsight would come with and after the bomb.

Barefoot Gen, like my visit to Hiroshima, will stick with me for a very long time.

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