Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima Vol. I by Keiji Nakazawa

Like most graphic novels I read while in school, I found this while I was just looking through the graphic novel section of the University of Northern Iowa’s library. I heard about it when I took a graphic novel course May 2012 at Wartburg College, and decided that it would be nice to have a sort of inside view into what Hiroshima was like for a native Japanese child. This novel is Volume I in a ten-volume manga collection.

Barefoot Gen, Volume One: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima

Barefoot Gen is about a second grader, Gen Nakaoka, and his family during a relatively short time leading up to the U.S.A. dropping the atomic bomb, Little Boy, on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Gen’s older brothers have been sent to work on farms for food for Japanese soldiers. His older sister and younger brother stay at home with him and his mother and father. When Gen’s father starts speaking out against Japan’s aggression and war in general, he and his family are treated as traitors. This doesn’t help their situation, as they are already poor and near-starving. The story centers around difficulties of loyalty to state and family and the bonds of friendship and brotherhood.

After sitting in the library for two hours, I completed the novel — it only took one sitting. The story of Gen really drew me into the events leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima. What happens to his family because of his father’s “traitorous” words and actions is haunting. Each character seemed motivated to act as they did because of his words and reluctance to surrender to Japanese war propaganda. I loved Gen and his little brother; they seemed like little rascals that I know, and they were very believable and relatable characters. Though the situation was horrid and, I’ll admit, I can’t even imagine what it was really like, Gen’s family gives a humanist view of what really happened to families in Japan surrounding the first atomic bomb.

This story is rather straightforward, but very touching. The characters, dialogue, and overall family dynamic made this an incredibly easy read.  Although it was easy to read, comprehending such atrocities will never come easy to me. Nakazawa’s depiction of the Japanese government and their treatment of “traitors” drives many people to join the army in order to appease their peers and family. There is a section about Kamikaze (suicide) pilots and the mental toll their position takes on them. It was heartbreaking, to say the least.

Eventually I plan to read more about Gen in the next 9 volumes of the manga, but for now, I probably won’t continue reading. This is primarily due to the fact that the UNI library doesn’t have the other volumes. If you are interested in a different story behind Hiroshima than you may know, I would recommend the manga. Looking through a child’s eyes (based off Nakazawa’s own experiences as a child in Hiroshima).

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