Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Comic classics: Barefoot Gen-Keiji Nakazawa

If you have certain prejudices towards manga like I used to have this book should turn that all around. OK so a lot of manga is kiddie-fare dominated with big eyes and generic cutesy or ultra violent sleekness, and they do have an uncomfortable fixation with prepubescent girls and giant penis tentacles, but scratch under the surface and you'll find some works that manage to pull off subtlety and moments of almost cinematic brilliance. Barefoot Gen the majority of the times isn't one of those manga, but it still works. It is precisely the juxtaposition of Laurel and Hardyesque slapstick violence and general over the top gestures against the absolute senseless horror that is going on that makes this graphic novel so effecting. In fact I can say this is the only graphic novel that has caused quite a profound emotional response from me. The story is the autobiographical tale of the artists survival of the Hiroshima bombing, the events leading up to it, and the events that followed. Like most mangas this book was serialised into a multitude of volumes (I think ten in total) but it is the first volume concerning events leading up to, just after, and during the bombing which I am looking at here. The start of the book is mostly concerned with Keiji's families struggles to have enough food to survive, a struggle which is constantly made worse by their fellow Japanese. The reason for their families ill treatment is that their father is a pacifist and outspoken in his opposition to the war, which means that the family are marked as traitors and used as scapegoats by the local police force and opportunistic neighbours. The families eldest son goes off to join the navy to distance himself from his 'traitor' father but soon realises firsthand the madness and the base hypocrisies of war, and especially of the behaviour of those in roles of higher command. Throughout the book it is Keiji and his younger brothers good will love for their family and charitable nature (even though they themselves are so often without food) that adds a real warmth and humanity to this unique and compelling story. All of this makes the impact of the books ending all the more intense. After the bombing Keiji comments that the victims 'look like monsters' and is this exactly how they look. With skin dripping from their bodies and hollowed out eyes, they do look like something from early EC horror comics, thus cementing home the unbelievability and horror of this real life event. Keiji Nakazawa wrote this book as a strong and outspoken anti-war, and anti-nuclear weapon statement and in 1976 a group of Japanese and non-Japanese people formed Project Gen in order to translate his work around the world and spread its message. This book remains as powerful and relevant today as it was when it was first published.

For a great little article about how to get over your Mangaphobia click here.

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