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Book Review < Back

Barefoot Gen:
A Cartoon History of Hiroshima (vol. 1)

Credits: Written and Illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa
Publisher: Last Gasp

Commentary

BAREFOOT GEN is a slice-of-rural-life portrait of a poor Japanese farming family during the Second World War. Based on cartoonist Keiji Nakazawa's upbringing, this sometimes simple and sometimes complicated book recounts the difficulties of being part of a humble anti-war family too proud to lie down to popular, hawkish sentiment.

In a little farming town called Hiroshima, in 1945.

Second youngest in a family of seven (with the eighth on its way), the titular Gen and his little brother Shinji struggle with the complications that arise from being the youngest sons of a father branded a traitor for his anti-war beliefs. In fact, their father's intractable pacifist's convictions, as well as their first-hand experiences with the poverty and tragedy war foists upon an already impoverished people, brand the entire clan traitors to the emperor. Half starved, the family is subjected to assault and arrest, public cruelties and slander as the calendar continues creeping towards August.

Nakazawa tells his story simply, almost innocently, with cartoon clarity both whimsical and pure - it's a bit like an episode of Speed Racer that ends with a fire-y nuclear holocaust. First published in the '70's, BAREFOOT GEN is reminiscent of Osamu Tezuka's work, especially in Adolf - another complicated story from World War 2 Japan executed with a cartoonish innocence. In spite of BAREFOOT GEN's age, though, no volume of gag-strip tropes (from sweaty foreheads to steam shooting out of ears) could brace the reader for its last forty pages. There are images in these panels that will stay with you the rest of your life, images taken from a first-person perspective on the streets of Hiroshima as the bomb detonates. What Nakazawa saw as a seven year-old boy after the bomb fell is here with the same startling cartoon clarity of the book's first two hundred pages. The conclusion of BAREFOOT GEN is some of the most disturbing comics autobiography ever committed to page.

-- Matt Fraction

 
Matt Fraction splits his time between motion graphics and design house MK12, writing comics, and reading comics. He is the author of the graphic novels The Annotated Mantooth and Last of the Independents, both available from AiT/Planet Lar. He can be found on the web at mattfraction.com. His wife is hot.

 


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