Barefoot GenVols. 1 and 2 (of 10)
By Keiji Nakazawa
Last Gasp, £9.99 each
This classic Manga is the fictionalised autobiography of a survivor of Hiroshima, released here in a new translation to coincide with the sixtieth anniversary of the bombing. It is, as you might expect, a passionate anti-war statement (anti-Japanese militarism, and, to an extent, anti-American militarism) in the form of a chronicle of the bombing and the aftermath, as seen through the eyes of the author as a young boy (Gen). Enola Gay does its stuff in Volume 1; thereafter it is peeling flesh and radiation sickness all the way.
If that description sounds unappealing, it’s meant to be. No horror is spared, as the sheer scale of the devastation is skilfully recalibrated to human dimensions. First Gen’s family die horribly in the flames, then he begins his odyssey through what’s left of the town, encountering hellish visions at every turn (‘Hurry, please! Get this glass out of my body. The pieces are scraping together inside me! It hurts so much!’).
Nakazawa’s drawing style is not sophisticated: oddly cartoony and sometimes even cutesy. His dialogue isn’t much better, and declamatory is his only register. But the naive power of his witness statement cannot be denied, and in the end the only author to have come close to this kind of intensity is perhaps W. G. Sebald with his descriptions of the bombing of Hamburg.
But if this is a truly graphic graphic novel, then it is not necessarily in tune with other Manga on the shelves. It was originally serialised in Japan in the early 1970s, and for this reason looks very ‘old school’ when compared to today’s whiz-bang, panel-stretching, speed-line dominated teen adventures. The publisher is aware of this, and so the marketing is directed more towards fans of alternative comics. The introduction is by Art Spiegelman, and there are approving comments on the cover by R. Crumb. As such, it can be seen as part of a reaction to predominant Manga fashion: it is an interesting coincidence that Drawn and Quarterly are about to publish their Adrian Tomine-designed collection of the 1960s stories of Yoshihiro Tatsumi.
Gen was first translated into English in the early 1980s, and then became well known as a graphic novel published by Penguin in 1988, who made much of the fact that this was their follow-up to Maus. This did Gen no favours at all: it could not compete with the much more familiar style of Maus and its cat-and-mouse metaphor, and readers found they preferred the once-removed depiction of violence to drawings of people as (scorched) people.
Back in the 1980s, the Cold War was warm, and the threat of a nuclear strike seemed real. Today, we’ve entered the era of a new kind of war, the ‘war against terror’, and the bomb is – maybe – not so relevant. Whether this new version of Gen, in all its ten volumes, can find a readership based on its ‘memorial’ pretensions looks unlikely. Which is a pity, because it’s one of the greats.