Barefoot Gen Vol. 1 by Keiji Nakazawa is … well, it isn’t often that a book or movie turns my emotional belly inside out, but this 300-page comic really packs the full five fingers. It’s an uplifting and devastating tale of the backdrop of war; the realities of life in Hiroshima during the weeks that led up to the bomb. I think it should be a compulsory part of the GCSE History/Literature syllabi.
In Essence: Barefoot Gen Vol. 1
Barefoot Gen Vol. 1 (はだしのゲン, Hadashi no Gen) by Keiji Nakazawa tells the story of the Nakaoka family as Japan’s war with the English and American devils rages on. Mr. Nakaoka is a pacifist, with powerful views on the real reasons Japan went to war with the West, and his angry confrontations with authorities and neighbours draw the authorities’ attention to the family. Each individual suffers harrassment, bullying, and discrimination as a result, but they show the kind of bravery that terrible circumstances can draw out of people. Then the A-bomb is dropped.
This book is upsetting. Here’s why:
The obvious point is that this book is real. These experiences are real. Individual actions may not all have happened, but the historical backdrop and the terror are thoroughly authentic. I have no doubt that the terrible behaviour by the people in charge is also truth. These are real people; the account is semi-autobiographical and the introduction to Vol.1 is worth reading. The drawings aren’t incredible art, but they really, really do the job well. It’s impossible to come away from Gen without a full movie playing in your head.
The reason it gets under your skin is the relationships between the family members. Nakazawa’s sparse style is littered with touching yet cursory moments, and believe me, you’re rooting for the Nakaokas as the book progresses. And that’s why it’s devastating, because the modern history of Hiroshima is an irrefutable horror. There’s no way you want these people you care about to go through that.
Should you read it?
I loved it. I wept my bloody eyes out. The messages are loud and commonsensical, and they still apply to our modern take on war. The comic format is clear and easy to follow, and the characters are eminently loveable. It’s up to you.
If you love comics, emotional rides, and a bit of history to combine them, this is your book.