Barefoot Gen 1Posted: October 20, 2008
I bought this one at the same time as Black Jack. I couldn’t tell you why I suddenly decided to, other than I was surprised the comic shop had the first volume in stock and I was in the mood for a manga classic. Ryan at Same Hat pointed out not too long ago that this was the first manga published in English (not the particular edition that I bought, but a different one), but it’s also the oldest Shounen Jump manga you can find in English, too. That something like this ran in Shounen Jump is nothing short of astonishing.
Well. I can’t tell you what I was expecting, but it wasn’t this. It definitely shows its age… it’s bizarrely violent, and I suspect it was relatively commonplace to show a playful relationship in a manga by having the characters hit one another in appreciation, if only because such things are still done for comedic purposes today. Gen’s father hits him and his brother on a pretty regular basis. It’s not done for comedy’s sake, though, but as more of a sincere show of his love, like he hits them out of embarrassment. He also hits them because Gen and his brother misbehave a lot. There’s also some weird violence when Gen often tries, and succeeds, in biting off the fingertips of people who are admittedly being terrible to him and his family.
All of this is forgiven, though. Any possible storytelling technique that might be outdated, or anything insensitive it does is forgiven just because it tells the most amazing story, which is also mostly true. The bomb doesn’t actually drop until the end of this volume, but even the stuff leading up to it… I can’t imagine any of it. I can’t imagine living the way the people are forced to here. Aside from the hardships everyone is suffering (nothing to eat, loss of loved ones, frequent air raids, uncertainty about the war in general), Gen’s famiy has it particularly bad since his father is against the war. The family members are all branded traitors since nationalism is king, and everything about their lives is made far more difficult than it should be. Their wheat field, a supplementary source of food since they go hungry every day, is burned, Gen’s sister is strip searched at school when someone accuses her of stealing money, Gen and his father are beaten on a regular basis… and their mother is given less food than they were before. It spreads to Gen’s older brother, who lives and works in a weapons factory, and it gets so bad he signs up for the air force and is drafted as a kamikaze pilot. There’s a really nice story about how the kamikaze pilots are conditioned, how nationalism and shame are used to force people’s hands into flying the missions, and about one man who tries to get out of being one. I’m not sure how factual any of this is, but I’m willing to take it at face value in the context of the story, and I’m willing to bet it’s pretty close to how things actually were. Aside from the kamikaze story, there’s also some war context provided with various dates and events, and a lot of detail is provided for the battle of Okinawa. That… that was pretty terrible, and I hadn’t heard about anything other than the suicides before I read this.
Aside from the oldest brother, Gen also has another older brother who is “evacuated” to the country along with all the other older children in his elementary school. I thought this was odd, and I thought it was just part of evacuating the large city in order to get the citizens away from the bombing target. The actual reason for the evacuation is pretty appalling, and yet… well. It may have saved them.
Despite all these terrible things going on in Hiroshima, Gen stays pretty upbeat and positive, which is amazing considering he is almost constantly hungry in addition to being beaten up and ostracized on a regular basis. I like it for that. It’s really, really grim and depressing, but manages to keep from being overwhelming simply because the main character stays so positive. It’s a really amazing way of approaching the subject matter, especially since from everything I’ve read, Gen is just a stand-in for the author and his life during the war. It’s hard for me to believe you could be so positive after having so many horrible things happen to you, and it’s really admirable.
The bomb drops at the end of the volume. We only have about one chapter to deal with the act itself, but that one chapter is enough to give me nightmares. One moment, Gen is at school being asked a simple question about the school by an adult, and the next minute he’s in the middle of a hellish wasteland. Literally. The buildings have all been flattened and the people who weren’t immediately killed are walking around with their skin melting off. Gen tries to run home, but gets stopped a few times along the way to help people. Sometimes the people die before he can help them, and the people he was successful in helping run away when he tries to get them to help him out. Gen finds his family. It’s… it’s really terrible.
I’m not sure if I’m going to read the second volume anytime soon. It will get read. It’s a really amazing story, the likes of which I’ve never read before. It’s just… it’s so upsetting. That’s a good thing, because that’s exactly what it should be. But I don’t know if I can stomach more than one volume at once. At least until the worst of it is over.