MMF: Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa

Brief Note: I read the first four volumes of Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa (English translation from Last Gasp) in preparation for this week’s Manga Moveable Feast (which is hosted over here). As you will see I did not fall in love with the series. The post below was written in one draft (with minor edits for spelling and missed words) one evening. I decided not to spend time reworking this into something more coherent. It’s the primary response I had, after a few days, to reading the series.

In my mind, Barefoot Gen is a better comic than it is in reality. If the Holocaust is the topic guaranteed to get attention (Maus, The Pianist, Schindler’s List, Life is Beautiful), the bombing of Hiroshima is the topic mostly ignored. Barefoot Gen is the rare popular (as in pop, not as in everyone-likes-it) artwork on the topic, and it is sadly a broad caricature. Keiji Nakazawa was there, he, as his early manga on the bombing has it, “saw it”. A first hand observer and victim, he spent his life (according to accounts I’ve seen) making work about the bombing. This is the one that made it into English. Is it the best? I wonder. It’s a caricature. I couldn’t escape the caricature as I read the first 4 volumes (I gave up there because that’s where my purchasing gave out, I’d have given up after volume 2 if I hadn’t already owned copies of 3 and 4) of this 10 volumes series. Gen, our protagonist, is young and rash, yet always moral. He may steal, but it’s for the right reasons. He may beat up another kid, but it’s because the other kid is a mean asshole. His family, they all do the right thing too, they suffer and they suffer with dignity and honor. Most everyone else is an asshole. Everyone sucks. Everyone hates and discriminates. Everyone is only looking out for him/herself. God this is bleak. The attitude of all the secondary characters is more bleak than the bombing itself. The bombing is an impersonal action. The United States bombs the Japanese. They are at war. Thousands have died. Despite the horror of it, it was an impersonal action, the people on one side (those who made the bomb, those who dropped it) didn’t see those who suffered from it (the Japanese living in Hiroshima). But Barefoot Gen, as it shows the days leading up to the event and the days/months/years (time is oddly fluid as the story goes on) after, focuses on the personal, how people treated each other face-to-face. It’s bleak. Gen and his family are impoverished, starving, dying even (some of them). No one seems to care, no one wants to help, and even worse, most people actually make things worse by cursing them, stealing from then, accusing them of theft, beating them, etc. Gen manages to assert life and living and staying alive and… well, it’s tiring. How old is this kid? Really? You almost wish he’s just say “Fuck it, I give up. People suck, we should die.” But he keeps spouting his positive message.

Nakazawa has a message, he’s not afraid to say so. He shoves it down your throat every chance he gets. It’s not enough that we see people being selfish and caring only for themselves, he has to tell us that they are selfish and care only for themselves. It’s not enough that people die and lose loved ones and starve and have their skin melted off. No, we have to see everyone (except Gen and his family) go crazy from loss. It’s not enough that the poor artist was in the bomb’s path, got radiation sickness and burns and has maggots living on him and diarrhea and that his family wants nothing to do with him except wishing that he die. No, he also has to die while he’s trying to paint the corpses of the dead victims as their bodies are burned. And no he doesn’t even die then, he has to come back to life after he has been put in a coffin by his relatives, and he has to beg them for food at the door while they ignore him, so they he can really die this time and now they’ve really abused him by ignoring his last wishes.

This is melodrama. Damn it is melodrama.

And it suffers for it. It’s too much; it’s over the top; it’s ridiculous. Even before the bomb it’s too much with the Japanese berating Gen and his family for being “traitors” because their father speaks out against the war. Apparently he is the only one, as he seems to have no symphatizers. He is the lone protester, victim exceptionalism. By the time the bomb hits it’s already too much. Over said, over shown, and over played. Get me out of here.

The only decent person is the Korean neighbor. Korean’s were conquered and enslaved by the Japanese. The Korean neighbor is the one nice guy, despite how horrible he has been treated, he’s nice to Gen and his family. But not any of the Japanese. No one else is nice. God, was Nakazawa this pessimistic about his countrymen? Could it really have been that horrible? I don’t know, but it doesn’t work as fiction. This isn’t reportage or autobiography. It is fictionalized. And as fiction it doesn’t work. It overburdens. It paints with so broad a brush.

After posting a brief negative comment on Twitter/Facebook, Marc Sobel engaged me a bit on the comic in Facebook comments. He’s much more positive about the manga, and he made me realize that part of my issue with Gen is that I’m not the target audience. The series is meant for kids. It’s not supposed to be subtle or nuanced (I should note this is my point, not Marc’s). Last Gasp’s publication design avoids any age group signs. The design is very plain, has no age ratings, has no explicit target audience. I think, based on their catalog (particularly the other manga they’ve published), I expected something a little more grown up. What I got was not so. I imagine other bloggers participating in the MMF will have something more positive to say, if that’s what you’re looking for.