THE RECENT SURGE OF INTEREST in graphic novels, with roots in the Underground Comix of the 1960s has not particularly caught me up, much less made me a fan. Reading the first two in a series of ten called Barefoot Gen, by Keiji Nakazawa, first published in 1972, has shown me the power of the genre.

The graphic black and white expression of shell-shot and roaring airplanes is all one would expect in such a book.  Boom! Pow! Whap!  The story-line — following Gen, a sort of Japanese Huck Finn, not on a river but in the ruins of Hiroshima after the atomic bomb — shows not only details of the destruction but the attitudes and actions of a wide group of people.

As Art Spiegelman says in his 1990 introduction some of the cartoon violence between kids and family members will strike western readers as disturbing.  Yet, if that is so, how does the much more graphically shown images of arms separating from shoulders, bodies floating in boiling rivers strike us?

Volume one shows the stress under which Gen’s family lives, in pre-bomb Hiroshima.  Most of the neighbors, even in August, 1945, are patriotic Japanese still hoping, if not fully believing, military propaganda that the Americans will be defeated.  Gen’s father’s expressed anti-war feelings bring opprobrium not only on him, but on the whole family.  Neighborhood children taunt and bully Gen and his younger brother, Shinji.  The boys fight back, proclaiming their own fierceness making childish calls for defeat of the enemy.  The oldest brother joins hundreds of young high school and college men going for a few weeks flight training to fly ‘kamikaze’ missions against American ships.  He fights with, and is disowned by, his father when he goes.

Anti-Americanism is shown –an old woman cursing the airplanes overhead, boys throwing stones at a dead POW after the bombing.  Japanese bigotry towards Koreans, brought by force to work in war industries, is also touched on.  The cruelty in the Japanese army — a young soldier being beaten by a “spirit stick” is portrayed. Japanese selfishness towards “the homeless beggars” from the bombed city takes panel after panel. Continue reading »

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