27 December 2012

A Clearly Important Manga

Over thirty years ago, I sat down to read Barefoot Gen, Keiji Nakazawa’s graphic novel about the aftermath of the Hiroshima bombing. The Cold War was still cold, and I was in the movement for a nuclear-weapons freeze. I was also reading American comics on a monthly basis.

Barefoot Gen was the first manga I saw, I now realize. And I didn’t get it. I couldn’t reconcile the “cartoony” art with the story’s casual violence plus the nuclear ultraviolence. I didn’t get the pace, especially after vaguely realizing that Nakazawa continued his story in more volumes. At least the pages had been flopped for the English edition; if I’d been trying to read right to left, I would have been completely lost.

I like to think that with more background information about how Japanese comics were created and published I would have gotten much more out of Barefoot Gen. As it was, I got only the vague guilt of not being able to appreciate something that was Clearly Important.

Nakazawa, who was six when the bomb dropped, just died from lung cancer. Barefoot Gen remains in print around the world and has inspired three cinematic adaptations.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

I, too, found it strange. But after Godzilla movies and Speed Racer I was curious to experience another (odder) Japanese import. I liked it. I decided the cartoony stuff was a way to get us in the head of a boy thus making the atom bomb horrors more inexplicable. That was what helped me read Barefoot Gen, anyway.

J. L. Bell said...

I didn't even have that background. I hadn't watched an entire Godzilla movie or more than a few minutes of Speed Racer or Astro Boy. I'm not sure I could have identified them as distinctively Japanese, either.