Sunday, January 31, 2010

Barefoot Gen, Volume 1

Although much World War II literature in the US focuses on the European Theatre, there was also just as much activity in Asia. Keiji Nakazawa was a young boy living in Hiroshima, Japan during this time. He was in the city when an atomic bomb was dropped on it and lived to tell the tale. He began adapting his experiences into manga, and the Gen series began running in Weekly Shōnen Jump magazine in 1973. The magazine canceled the series after about a year and a half, but it reappeared in other, less popular manga anthologies until it was completed in 1985.

Barefoot Gen tells the tale of Gen, a young boy, and his family: younger brother Shinji, older sister Eiko, older brother Akira, their father, and their pregnant mother. Gen's father is an artisan who does not support Emperor Hirohito's decisions and policies, and his pacifist views brand the family as traitors by many in the community. This volume centers on the family's daily life and the various kinds of persecution at home and school the children have to deal with. The father has difficulty finding work; Akira joins to military to regain the family's honor; Eiko is tormented by a sadistic teacher; the younger boys turn to begging on the street to get money and food.

Nakazawa portrays a family full of spirit, and it is difficult not to develop positive feelings toward them. These positive feelings make the devastation that comes at the end of the book that much more emotional. This volume is the first of ten, and it sets up a scene of discord, struggle, and vast destruction. The rest of the series deals with the effects of the destructive atomic act and the incredible rebuilding efforts needed to offset this tragedy.

Barefoot Gen is notable as the first Japanese comic to be translated into English. Project Gen, the name for the volunteer effort to spread the anti-war message of the series, has been operating since 1975. The last two volumes were recently published in English for the first time. The story has been adapted into other media, including 3 live action films, 2 anime films, and most recently a television drama series.

Most reviewers recognize the importance of the tale here and its antiwar message, as seen in these reviews by Rob at Panel Patter and Chad Boudreau. Barefoot Gen's frank depictions of the emotional, personal, and physical effects of war makes it difficult to read. The artwork in Barefoot Gen is in a very traditional manga style, a feature which dates the material and sometimes creates a disconnect between the tone and content, according to some reviewers like Greg McElhatton.

Preview pages are available from the book's US publisher, Last Gasp.

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