I thought for the Manga Moveable Feast, I write a little bit about where I first encountered Barefoot Gen, in the back of the classic Frederik L. Schodt book Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics. This might be a thinly disguised way of attempting to hide the fact that I didn’t hunt down the collected volumes so my only way of participating in the MMF is to go with what’s on my shelves, but the manga excerpts translated in the Schodt book were also some of the first manga I read. After presenting an overview of the history of manga, Schodt chose the following creators to illustrate the variety stories found in manga for an English speaking audience: Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix, Reiji Matsumoto’s Ghost Warrior, Riokyo Ikeda’s Rose of Versailles, and Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen.
I can’t think of a more jarring transition than flipping from the tribulations of Marie Antoinette to the aftermath of the atomic bomb. The story opens at the start of a normal day, with Gen getting ready to go to school. The bomb drops and his neighborhood becomes a nightmare of destruction, filled with injured people he can’t even begin to help. The schoolboy runs from person to person, seeing a woman with her face melted off, a burned man begging for water, and a little girl with a face full of glass shards. Finally Gen finds his family only to discover his father and most of his siblings trapped beneath a house while a fire rages nearby. Gen gets his pregnant mother away, and she gives birth to his little sister. The child’s first sight is the devastation of war.
Going back and reading this excerpt many years after first encountering it, I’m finding it easier to read. I think when I first read this sample of Barefoot Gen back in the eighties, I didn’t have the background in the visual vocabulary of manga to easily parse the contrast between the stylized, cartoony art style and the images of the bomb’s aftermath. After reading more Tezuka in the intervening years (whose deceptively simple artwork is used to portray any number of heavy situations), I’m finding these pages of Barefoot Gen less strange than I remember. Barefoot Gen is the essence of a didactic manga, with the sole aim to show the horrors of Hiroshima. I wonder if its value as a cultural artifact might be equal to or greater than its literary value. Shodt effectively added Barefoot Gen to the manga canon for English readers by just including it in his book.