Planning on leaving the house in a bit? Got a few free minutes, think you’ll sit down for a quick read of Barefoot Gen? Don’t do it, it’s a terrible idea.
I’m not saying don’t read this autobiographical comic of a boy living through the Hiroshima bombing. It is a master work. But make sure you’re hunkered down for the night, or plan on being a shut in for the day. Because by the time you reach the end of the first volume, you might not be fit to face humanity.
Keiji Nakazawa lived through the bombing on Hiroshima at the end of WWII. He hated the war, the Americans for dropping the bombs that killed his family, and the Japanese who started the war in the first place. So he created a comic about a boy named Gen who had to deal with everything Nakazawa and others he knew suffered.
The bomb isn’t dropped until the end of the volume, but I knew what I was reading, I knew what was coming. To put it in gentler terms than what I actually felt, waiting for the bombing to happen was like waiting for a shot: I know it’s coming, I know it’s going to hurt, just do it already!
And then he did it. And I wasn’t ready.
I was expecting the dead people. I knew from the introduction that there would be melted skin. This manga is based off Keiji Nakazawa’s life, so I knew members of his family would die. But I didn’t know about the girl with shards of glass stuck in her eyes. I didn’t realize the melted people would be wandering around like zombies, eyeless. And even though I knew it was coming, I wasn’t ready for his family’s deaths, trapped beneath a beam, his brother yelling “I hate you, Gen! I hate you!” when he has to run away, and then all of them lighting on fire.
I lost it.
I was fine through the beatings, the stealing and starvation. It was sad, but I could handle it. But this. Oh, this. If this was fully fiction, I could let this roll off. But it’s true. All of this is true.
I get sensitive when I read. I tear up. But I read the end of this book and I cried. I couldn’t see the page sometimes. As soon as I thought I was fine, I’d flip the page, and the next terrible thing would happen. And then you think it’s good: his mother has the baby, she’s well and alive, and Gen holds her up to show his family… only they’re not there. “Y-you’ll never know her!” Gen sobs, and I was gone again.
And then I had to get ready to go to work.
Barefoot Gen is good, it’s powerful, and it is brutal. I suggest reading it (or at least trying to). Just bring a box of tissues, and make sure you have time to clean up your puffy, tear-streaked face.
This post was written as part of this month’s Manga Moveable Feast, hosted by Sam Kusek at A Life in Panels. Go to his website to see the full archive of Barefoot Gen MMF posts.