–guest post by Davida Pines
In her three-page comic Beginnings, Raina Telgemeier remembers reading the first volume of Barefoot Gen as a 9-year-old. “I guess I thought it was sorta interesting,” she recalls, “but nothing special—not better than reading Calvin and Hobbs, anyway. I stuck with it because of my dad’s encouragement.” Reading to the end of the work, the young Raina is shocked and even indignant: “They all die!” she protests. Later, sorting through the many questions and fears of nuclear war inspired by the book, she reiterates her sense that content has betrayed form: “I mean jeez it was just a comic book.”
Indeed, despite chronicling the events leading up to and following the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen appears to be “just a comic book.” The drawings are simple, the characters literally and figuratively cartoonish. In volume one, we meet protagonist Gen and his younger brother Shinji, high-spirited rascals who get into one scrape after another, their good spirits and ingenuity seemingly impervious to the dire circumstances of their impoverished and reviled family. If the glass repairman needs more work, Gen sets off to break some windows; if his mother, pregnant and suffering from malnutrition, needs fish to survive, he knows just the man to steal from; if the family needs money to ward off starvation, the brothers pose as street orphans, performing songs and skits for money. When their high jinx is successful, their grins are wide, and when their mischief is not rewarded, they redouble their efforts. Violence, a characteristic of manga, is rampant and often mixed with humor and affection. On page one, for example, in the lower right panel, the reader encounters Gen, Shinji, and their father in pyramid formation: Papa grimaces on top, elbows raised, fists clenched, knuckles landing on the crown of each boy’s head. On the bottom, the two boys are mirror images of each other, their outer legs reflexively kicking up as Papa’s fists come down: “You scamps!!” he cries, insisting that they take seriously his belief that boys, like wheat, must be trampled (or beaten) in order to grow up strong.
Given the work’s cartoonish qualities, in addition to its relentless plot twists (typical of the boys’ manga magazine Weekly Shonen Jump in which Nakazawa’s series was originally published), readers might reasonably question the reality of the events that they encounter in Barefoot Gen. Yet, in comparing Nakazawa’s manga with the prose memoirs of a survivor, one finds uncanny similarities. Toyofumi Ogura’s Letters from the End of the World: A Firsthand Account of the Bombing of Hiroshima (1948) offers detailed observations of what Ogura saw and heard in the immediate aftermath of the bombing. He addresses each of his thirteen letters to his dead wife Fumiyo, hoping to “inform her of the events leading up to and following her death” (9). Detailed and straightforward, Ogura’s reporting style stands in sharp contrast to the terse, emotion-drenched panels of Barefoot Gen. Yet in calling, as comics do, on the reader to fill in the gaps left in between the panels, as well as to imagine the horrific reality that the simple drawings only allude to, Nakazawa invites the reader to formulate his or her own cultural memories of Hiroshima.Of the many seemingly unrealistic aspects of Barefoot Gen, among the more difficult to absorb are the adventures that Gen has in volume two, when he sets out to find rice for his mother and baby sister. “Wait here till I come back, Mama” (17), Gen instructs his mother, and thus begins Gen’s 117-page journey through nuclear holocaust. Over the course of what seems like weeks if not months, Gen is mistaken for dead and very nearly burned alive; he is helped by a soldier who succumbs to radiation sickness even as he attempts to take Gen to the medical station; he contracts but somehow resists radiation sickness himself, going on to encounter bodies whose bellies have burst open,
whose skin lifts off the bones, and whose intestines are visible. Investigating a streetcar thrown off the rails, Gen faces maggot-infested bodies, frozen in the exact positions they were in when the blast hit.
On reading of Gen’s adventures for the first time, I worried about how much time each of Gen’s episodes was taking. How long could his mother and sister wait for his return? Would they be dead when he came back? Why, I wondered, does Gen spend so much time with first, with the soldier, then with the old woman who keeps watch over her dead grandson, and finally with Natsue, the dancer who mourns her ruined face? Wandering further and further into the chaos of Hiroshima, would Gen ever be able to find his way back? In teaching the text in a nonfiction comics class, I noted that my students, too, questioned the elusive quality of time. They detected a surreal aspect to the cascade of horrors and wondered how many of them were “real.”
In reading Ogura’s prose memoirs, I was surprised by a similar meandering quality to Ogura’s experiences on the day of the bombing. Walking on the outskirts of Hiroshima when the bomb exploded, Ogura stops people along the way to ask what happened. He visits the house of his sister-in-law to see how they have fared. He stops to hear a long and detailed account of what happened to a university colleague and his wife. Aware, in retrospect, of his own unhurried response to the bombing, Ogura comments, “Thinking about it now, it seems like I must have been in a strangely relaxed state of mind to dawdle like that. But maybe that’s what people are inclined to do under these circumstances” (43). By the time it occurs to him that his own wife and child are in fact near the epicenter of the explosion, much of the day has passed: “I looked at my watch; it was past three. Seven hours had elapsed since the flash. [My colleague] said that he and his wife would go and get futons and mosquito nets from their air-raid shelter and would spend the night there on the hill. So I left them and proceeded down the hill. I had to get home and see how things were there” (47).
As he makes his way towards the epicenter, Ogura witnesses scenes much like those that Gen witnesses. Attempting to move a dead body aside so that he can pass, Ogura lifts the legs. He reports, “It was an indescribably weird sensation. Looking down at my hands, I saw the exposed muscles of both legs from knees down, glinting in the sun. . . The skin had peeled off and had gathered at the ankles, all wrinkled up” (58).
In another similar moment, Ogura comes upon a burned streetcar. Like Gen, he “peeked inside and saw that the floor had burned through and that dead bodies were piled up inside. Later I heard that in some streetcars passengers had been found seated side by side. On close inspection, they were all found to have burned to death instantly in whatever posture they’d happened to have assumed at that critical moment: sitting, standing with one foot on the step and so on” (59).
Comparing the prose descriptions with Nakazawa’s images, I am struck both by the similarities between Gen’s and Ogura’s experiences, as well as by the primary witnessing that manga permits and the secondary witnessing that descriptive prose offers. The manga images, lacking as they are in specificity, nonetheless confront the reader head-on. We are forced to imagine what the reality was like. Suddenly what seemed unreal—cartoonish—about Nakazawa’s text now seems deeply appropriate to the nightmare into which the world has been transformed. And while Ogura’s text confirms the reality of the manga, the prose does not have the same impact as word-and-image. As Raina Telgemeier’s mother observes, when it comes to the events of Hiroshima, “. . . there’s no such thing as “’just a comic book’” (Beginnings).
(Davida Pines is an associate professor of Rhetoric at Boston University in the College of General Studies. She teaches courses in writing and research as well as in nonfiction comics. She is currently working on a monograph on the representation of traumatic history in long-form comics. Her essay “History, Memory, and Trauma: Confronting Dominant Interpretations of 9/11 in Alissa Torres’s American Widow and Art Spiegelman’s In the Shadow of No Towers“ appears in the forthcoming volume Drawing from Life: Memory and Subjectivity in Comic Art, edited by Jane Tolmie. Her book The Marriage Paradox: Modernist Novels and the Cultural Imperative to Marry was published by the University Press of Florida in 2005.)