Barefoot Gen volume 10: Never Give Up


By Keiji Nakazawa (Last Gasp)
ISBN: 978-0-86719-601-6

Win’s Christmas Gift Recommendation: Shocking, Momentous, Unmissable… 10/10

Constantly revised and refined by its creator and publishers around the world, Barefoot Gen is the quintessential anti-war tract and message of peace for humanity. It is angry, uncompromising and never forgives those who seek to perpetuate greed, mendacity and bloody-handed stupidity.

After many years of struggle the entire epic semi-autobiographical saga has being remastered as an unabridged and uncompromising 10-volume English-language translation by Last Gasp under the auspices of Project Gen, a multinational organisation dedicated to peace and the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Hadashi no Gen was first seen in Japan began in 1973, serialised in Shūkan Shōnen Jampu (Weekly Boys Jump) following an occasional 1972 series of stand-alone stories in various magazines which included Kuroi Ame ni Utarete (Struck by Black Rain) and Aru Hi Totsuzen (One Day, Suddenly).

The scattered tales eventually led Shonen’s editor Tadasu Nagano to commission the 45-page Ore wa Mita (I Saw It) for a Monthly Jump special devoted to autobiographical works. Nagano clearly recognised that the author – an actual survivor of the word’s first atomic atrocity – had much more to say which readers needed to see and commissioned the serial which has grown into this stunning landmark epic.

The tale was always controversial in a country which still generally prefers to ignore rather than confront its mistakes and indiscretions and, after 18 months, Hadashi no Gen was removed from Jump, transferred first to Shimin (Citizen), then Bunka Hyōron (Cultural Criticism), and Kyōiku Hyōron (Educational Criticism).

Just like his indomitable hero, Keiji Nakazawa never gave up and his persistence led to a first Japanese book collection in 1975, translated by the newly-constituted Project Gen team into Russian, English and then other languages including Norwegian, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Swedish, Finnish, Indonesian, Tagalog and Esperanto.

The author completed his story in 1985 and his telling testament of survival has since been adapted into live-action and anime films, operas, musicals and live-action television dramas; all spreading the message across every continent and all generations.

This concluding volume brings the story of irrepressible, ebullient Gen and his friends to a close, once again pitting the forceful vitality of a select band of bomb survivors against the constant shadow of tragedy which implacably dogs them in the city slowly recovering from nuclear conflagration.

Here the indomitable idealistic individualist, having finally found a way to express his anger and effectively fight back against the idiocies and injustices of a world which lets Atom bombs fall and is seemingly incapable of learning from its mistakes, at last strikes back at the demagogues and monsters who still keep the bad old ways alive even after their people suffered the most hideous of consequences…

Barefoot Gen: Never Give Up begins following the inspirational ‘Gen’s Message: A Plea for Nuclear Abolition’ by the Translators and Editors and, as always, the other end of this monochrome paperback balances the essay with a biography of the author and invaluable data ‘About Project Gen’

The graphic manifesto resumes in March 1953 as Gen prepares for his school graduation ceremony, despite seldom attending the hidebound institution for the past few years. Fellow bomb orphans Ryuta and quietly stolid Musubi – who have shared his shabby shack for years – are also in high spirits. They have been constantly selling dresses made by radiation-scarred outcast Katsuko on Hiroshima’s rebuilt street corners, diligently saving the proceeds until she has enough money to open a shop. Now the manager of one of the big stores wants to buy all the clothes they can manufacture to sell in his fashionable venues…

At the Graduation Ceremony Gen once again loses his temper when the faculty begin memorialising the past and celebrating the failed regime of the empire. Later, his savage confrontation with teachers and visiting dignitaries sparks a minor student revolution. For many of the juvenile delinquents it also presents an opportunity to inflict some long-delayed retribution on the educational bullies who have beaten them for years…

Encouragingly, however, not all the parents and attending adults take the teachers’ side and a potentially murderous confrontation is (rather violently) defused by Gen…

The boy’s life then changes forever when he bumps into a young woman and is instantly smitten. His pursuit of lovely Mitsuko will bring him into conflict with her brutal father, former employer and unrepentant war-lover Nakao; now a highly successful businessman going places in the reconstructed city…

Gen has been studying with elderly artist Seiga Amano, learning the skills his own father would have passed on had he not died in 1945. The mentor/father-figure encourages his protégé to pursue Mitsuko and it costs them both their jobs…

The seeming setback is in fact liberating and before long the star-crossed youngsters are in a fevered euphoria of first love. So engaged is Gen that he is not there when stolid Musubi is targeted by a cruel Yakuza honey-trap who addicts him to drugs and fleeces him of all Katsuko’s hard-earned savings…

With a happy ending so close he can touch it Gen is dragged back down to earth by a trio of tragedies which leave him near-broken and all alone. The legacies of the bombing have again cost him almost everything…

After a horrendous bout of death and vengeance-taking, Gen seems to have nothing to live for, but the despondent young man is saved by aged Amano who rekindles his spirit and wisely advises him to get out of Hiroshima and start his real life in the world beyond it…

Keiji Nakazawa’s broad cartoon art style has often been subject of heated discussion; his simplified Disney-esque rendering felt by some to be at odds with the subject matter, and perhaps diluting the impact of the message. I’d like to categorically refute that.

The style springs from his earliest influence, Osamu Tezuka, Father of Animé and God of Manga who began his career in 1946 and whose works – Shin Takarajima (New Treasure Island), Tetsuwan Atomu (Astro Boy) and so many more – eased some of the grim realities of being a bomb survivor, providing escape, hope and even a career path to the young illustrator. Even at its most bleak and traumatic the epic never forgets to shade horror with humour and counterpoint crushing loss with fiery idealism and enthusiasm.

As such the clear line, solid black forms and abstracted visual motifs act as tolerable symbols for much of the horror in this parable. The art defuses but never dilutes the horror of the tragedy and its aftermath. The reader has to be brought through the tale to receive the message and for that purpose drawings are accurate, simplified and effective. The intent is not to repel (and to be honest, even as they are they’re still pretty hard to take) but to inform, to warn.

Bleak and violent but ultimately impossibly uplifting, Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen is without peer and its legacy will be pervasive and long-lasting. So now you’ve been warned, buy this book. Buy the entire series. Tell everyone you know about it. Barefoot Gen is an indisputable classic and should be available to absolutely everyone… © 2009 Keiji Nakazawa. All rights reserved.