I’m not in a position of authority to call Barefoot Gen the best manga (or series) ever written – I have read only a small selection of the vastly limited selection of manga available in mainstream American bookstores, to be perfectly honest. But today after reading the first two volumes, I certainly want to declare it the greatest manga ever written – by far the greatest manga I’ve ever read. In fact, manga is too limited in scope, as it really only applies to Japanese graphic tales. Barefoot Gen surpasses, to me, the recognized greats of the American medium, including the ones with similar themes such as Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Joe Sacco’s The Fixer: A Story from Sarajevo. Admittedly, I have not yet read Persepolis, which from the description seems to be the most similar to in content and style to Gen – mixing humor and optimism with the stark contrast of the losses and tragedies war brings. However, considering that Gen came first, it earns points additional points solely for being this landmark work that really blazed the trail for exposing such harsh realities in comic form.
Gen is a strong and cheerful protagonist, full of life and very vibrant. He’s by no means a perfect character – he’s rowdy, occasionally disobedient, hard-headed, and often bratty. But for all that, he’s plucky with a good heart. Even in his moments of weak and whiney selfishness, I can’t help but to pity him; he handles starvation better than any six-year-old I ever met – than any six-year-old I ever was. His family, too, is colorful and multi-dimensional: his father while having strong morals and teaching his children to treat others humanely is simultaneously able to lose his temper in a way that would get Child Protective Services called on him here in the modern US; his mother is hard-working and loyal, but has bouts of mania; and his siblings, too, are well-fleshed out, although his neighbors can become caricatures.
What I appreciated perhaps the most is that it doesn’t reach the true atrocity of Hiroshima during World War II – the dropping of the Atomic Bomb – until the very end of the first volume. Instead, it establishes the Nakaoka as a real family, sharing in their joys, their small triumphs, but also in their despair at being outcasts for speaking up regarding their anti-war beliefs. There were many misty moments during these scenes, but they served to make the coming heartbreak of the bombs even more poignant. If not for this initial character-building, I would not have bawled so unabashedly during those moments.
While the forward by Art Spiegelman (author of Maus) held slight criticism for Nakazawa because Gen portrays the main reason for the atomic bomb on Japanese stubbornness and the evils of the few men leading the empire, instead of distributing any to the Allied Nations – something he felt made American and British readers a little too comfortable with the decision to enact such an evil – I rather disagree with this position. Nakazawa assigns plenty of blame to anyone who felt justified in dropping such a harrowing weapon on innocent civilians. Not to mention that in the context of its originally intended audience, this decision made sense: it was for Japanese people by a Japanese person, not only to illustrate how whole communities could be swept up in a nationalistic fervor, but the penalties for such a fervor were devastating. He was urging all to never fall into such a trap – a trap wherein one abandons reason for conformity – ever again. Don’t get me wrong; it assigns plenty of blame to Japan too – afterall, Gen’s father is staunchly anti-war. But I feel it’s a realistic portrayal of the mixed feelings a young boy at the time would’ve experienced.
Though I mentioned that the context of its originally intended audience was important, I do feel that it’s a necessary read for particularly Americans, too. As an American, I particularly cued in on the theme that no matter who you are or how you view your purported enemy, they probably view you similarly – and not because of their own knowledge about you but because of sheer hearsay and the people that lead them. Just as Americans during WWII held Japanese in derision, comparing them to monkeys and calling them names like “Jap” and “Nip,” the Japanese were taught to view Americans as “devils” that probably “eat shit.” Similarly, just as Japanese were viewed as lower-class, almost negligible in America, they viewed their racial minorities (the Koreans and the Chinese, many of whom were shang-haied) as second-class citizens, really not even treated with the dignity that should be ascribed to any human. If we can remember, as Gen’s father sought to teach, that every human being is a person such as ourselves, if we can remember that the hateful stereotypes we hear of others are just as false as the ones they hold of us, perhaps there’s hope for humans yet.
It surpasses Maus particularly in that human element – bringing the characters to life apart from all the death present. Because this story is autobiographical, rather than one created through second-hand information, there’s a more personal depth. The losses are greater. The feelings more raw. The emotions less translated, less transcribed, more transcending.
Those are just a few reasons that I view this national treasure of Japan as one of the most important works a person may read. I’d urge anyone to read it and share – although it must be noted: despite being often listed in the children’s section of stores and libraries, this comic is rather graphic in its depictions of bomb victims with melting skin and infested with maggots. The tragedy experienced by Gen and his mother – the losses they suffered and the mode by which they were inflicted – are hard to bear, even in a mere reading. But if this work can speak to anyone about the evils of elitism, racism, nationalistic fervor, and the pointless deadliness of war, it is something that needs to be examined.