Kakazawa, Keiji. Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima.

Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1987.

There are a handful of key books that combined cartoon-style art and text narrative to create the modern graphic novel. This is one of them. The author was a seven-year-old resident of Hiroshima when the bomb was dropped in August 1945

— the same age as young Gen, son of a anti-war artist who can’t keep his mouth shut and is constantly being arrested and beaten by the local authorities as a traitor. Of course, Gen and his older sister and kid brother suffer even more. Their older brother enlisted in the navy to escape the torment. The narrative follows the family’s suffering, tribulations, and slow starvation in the months leading up to the dropping of the bomb, and then Gen’s loss of much of his family.

There are some oddities about the characters, I have to say. Even though Gen’s father constantly preaches the necessity of peace and tolerance of others (even Koreans and Chinese), he’s appallingly violent himself. He physically beats his kids constantly, as do most of the other adults in their lives. Even their pregnant mother slaps them around a good deal. (Was this standard domestic practice in Japan at that time? I don’t know.)

The author doesn’t try to make excuses for the Japanese military government — which was propagandizing the civilian population right up to the end with the promise of imminent victory over the Americans and British — nor does he claim that Japan was unfairly singled out for atomic destruction. He doesn’t even say they didn’t have it coming — only that it should never happen again. And while I believe the bombing of Hiroshima was absolutely necessary on military grounds, I’ve also been in favor of nuclear disarmament since the early ’60s.

This is a striking condemnation of militarism generally and it’s a stressful read because you know what’s coming. There are a number of subsequent volumes, detailing Gen’s postwar life, but this original one is mandatory reading.

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