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"Wheat pushes its shoots up through the winter frost, only to be stepped on again and again. The trampled wheat sends strong roots into the earth, endures frost, wind and snow, and grows tall... and one day bears fruit."—Daikichi Nakaoka
Barefoot Gen is a manga by Keiji Nakazawa, based on his experiences as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It ran in Weekly Shonen Jump from 1973-74, was made into a live action drama, and a feature length anime twice.
The story begins in August, 1945. Gen Nakaoka is a young boy living in Hiroshima, suffering from the wartime shortages and rationing. His family (father Daikichi, mother Kimie, older brothers Akira and Akira, older sister Eiko and younger brother Shinji) can barely grow enough food to feed themselves, and his pregnant mother is weak from malnutrition. While air raid sirens are a daily fact of life, the city has been spared the heavy bombings others faced. Gen prepares to show his brother a small wooden boat he earned.
And then, Little Boy drops. What follows are some of the most horrifying images put to paper.
In the chaos that follows the blast, Gen loses most of his family, and his mother gives birth prematurely. In the following weeks, they struggle to find food and shelter. Japan surrenders, the American occupation begins, and criminal gangs and the black market appear in force. Radiation sickness takes its toll. Gen, Kimie, Koji and Akira must learn to survive in this changed world.
As Gen matures into a young man, the series takes on a more political tone, covering the social climate of the Occupation, the Korean War and Japan's rearmament, the search for meaning in the lost war, and finding an identity in the face of discrimination as an A-bomb victim. Though these parts tackle powerful subject matter, they are often overlooked by the public, either because they weren't made into movies, or perhaps because they come across at times as anti-American, anti-Japanese, and anti-Hiroshima City Government in particular. Regardless, the manga doesn't end with 1945. Read on.
A critically acclaimed work, Barefoot Gen helped break the silence surrounding the atomic bombings in Japan, and raise awareness about the survivors. It is one of the few Japanese works to avoid the Nuclear Weapons Taboo.
Compare Grave of the Fireflies.
These works contain examples of:
- Apocalypse How: One of the smaller ones, since it's "only" a major city, but considering how the atom bomb affected everyone's perception of warfare...
- Author Avatar: Gen is essentially Keiji Nakazawa himself. Like his character, Nakazawa was seven years old when the bomb fell, and lost his entire family except for his mother. He also eventually moved to Tokyo to pursue his career as an artist. The entire work is basically a fictionalized account of the author's youth.
- Barefoot Poverty: Given the setting, even food was hard to come by, much less shoes. It's even in the title!
- Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted (and hard). One of Gen's friends, a girl who wanted to be a dancer, had half her face burnt off.
- Birth-Death Juxtaposition: Tomoko. She perishes soon after.
- Body Horror: So many people were so badly burned as to literally melt, and some had wounds that kept getting infected (and full of maggots)
- Break the Cutie
- Crapsack World: Japan, both pre-and-post-war, mostly post-war.
- Delivery Guy: Gen is forced to deliver his baby sister when all the doctors and nurses in the area are too busy trying to help people who were burned and irradiated by the bomb.
- Doomed Hometown: Hiroshima. It gets rebuilt, of course, but hope for a new beginning is enveloped by bitterness, as many surviving residents suspect--perhaps rightly--that the future Peace Park in the center of town is partly supported by land speculators buying up property which conveniently has no one left to claim ownership. And they sell this manga in the museum gift shop.
- Earn Your Happy Ending
- Empathy Doll Shot
- Everybody's Dead, Dave
- Eye Scream: In the first film, we see people's eyes melting out of their sockets.
- Does Not Like Shoes: Subverted. Several charas don't use shoes but it might be more that they really can't afford shoes, and have simply gotten used to "doing without"
- The exaggerated ugliness of some of the more nefarious characters delves into Unfortunate Implications: The heroic and admirable characters tend to have very strong, angular, almost European features (see Gen's father) while many of the sinister characters have the slanted eyes and buck teeth that were stock traits for anti-Japanese racial stereotypes (see the mother of Kimie's friend). The fact that Keiji Nakazawa is himself Japanese makes this all the more puzzling.
- Identical Stranger : After Gen's whole family aside from his mother is killed by the bomb, they meet a little boy named Ryuuta who looks exactly like the deceased little brother. They take him in as one of their own, simple as that, with no negative emotional hang ups over the uncanny resemblance. VERY refreshing and heartwarming.
- Imperial Japan
- Infant Immortality: Averted. Infants, small children, animals...they all die.
- It Got Worse
- It Can't Be Helped: Many of the citizens in Hiroshima use the phrase to explain why they accept the military rule, and the acceptance of the below-poverty conditions that cause many of their citizens to starve.
- Laughing Mad: Poor Kimie...
- Mood Whiplash: The beginning almost seems like a slapstick comedy, given Gen and Shinji's roughhousing.
- No Koreans in Japan: Averted with Mr. Pak. Gen's family are the only Japanese friends he has.
- Orphan's Ordeal
- Our Zombies Are Different: In fact, they are not actually zombies...but something far worse: living people who were so badly burned and injured (and probably disoriented) that all they could do was shamble and moan until they eventually died.
- R-Rated Opening: Averted. While the beginning talks about the war up until that point, nothing that graphic is shown and it quickly seems like it's just a daily life story about a boy and his family. Then the bomb hits. See Mood Whiplash above.
- Scenery Gorn
- Shaggy Dog Story: Baby Tomoko is suffering from malnutrition because Kimie is not producing milk. Thus Gen and Ryuta go get a job to buy milk for the baby. A bunch of stuff happens, and they buy a lot of milk so Tomoko would be satisfied for a long time. They get home only to find Keimi cradling the dead baby who died from the malnutrition just before they returned. The scene adds yet another Tear Jerker to one of the most depressing stories ever told.
- Shameful Strip: Eiko, when she's accused of theft.
- Sick Sad World: And it's autobiographical.
- Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Very much toward the cynical side, despite the cartoony art style. Most characters are assholes only out for themselves, or who are needlessly cruel to Gen and others because they can be. Both the Americans and the Japanese come out looking very bad.
- Suspiciously Specific Denial: The Japanese deny anything happened in Hiroshima immediately afterward, while barring entry; in Real Life, the Japanese and the Americans both denied the atom bomb.
- True Companions
- War Is Hell: The whole point of this manga/film