I Kowtow to Barefoot Gen
The first paragraph of Shane Frederick’s essay on Cato Unbound is too good not to twist for my own purposes. Here goes:
Long ago, mankind discovered warfare. Since then, hundreds of millions of people have died as a result. A prize for the greatest work of literature on the evils of war has been proposed. You’ve been authorized to pick the winner. Go.
After finishing the last of Keiji Nakazawa‘s Barefoot Gen graphic novels, I’m ready to nominate them for the prize. These books are the near-autobiographical story of Gen Nakaoka, a boy from Hiroshima. The first volume begins in early 1945, and ends when the Americans drop the atomic bomb. The next nine volumes show how Gen and other survivors cope with the aftermath. The premise may sound preachy, but the story is completely immersive and its characters jump off the page.
Barefoot Gen pulls no punches. We come to know and love Gen’s family: his courageous pacifist father, his earnest mother, his siblings – including the older brother who volunteers for the military to distance himself from his “traitorous” father. Then we watch half the family burn alive before our eyes. We see the horrors of Hiroshima, and understand what it means for the living to envy the dead. How do a six-year-old boy and his pregnant mother survive in a nuclear wasteland? Barefoot Gen shows life in the endgame – when people are looking death in the face, they’ll do almost anything to survive. Yet in the midst of death and suffering, artificial families form – again and again, bereaved parents adopt orphans who remind them of their lost children. And no matter how awful things get, diehard defenders of the war keep piping up.
Barefoot Gen is also rich with social science. In volume 1, we see not just over-the-top anti-foreign bias, but pro-war preference falsification – everyone but Gen’s pacifist father pretends to be eager to throw down his life to ensure Japanese victory. Once the American occupation begins in volume 2, we see black markets, the rise of organized crime (the yakuza), and the interplay between the yakuza and the multitude of war orphans who beg and steal to survive. We learn a lot about the psychology of war – the eagerness of the Japanese to forget their national nightmare even though its aftermath is all around them. There’s even interesting material on the signaling model of education: When a lot of hungry kids can’t afford to go to school, how does that affect their future prospects? (A lot less than the human capital model would predict; so many orphans learn trades on the street that the adult world soon accepts them as workers and entrepreneurs.)
Nakazawa’s magnus opus works on many levels: memoir, history, social science, dark comedy, even slapstick. It’s so easy to identify with Gen and his orphaned friends – as soon as I put a new volume down, my seven-year-olds lunged to read it. When you witness war through a child’s eyes, familiar apologies for the “necessity” of mass murder – above all, “they had it coming” – just don’t ring true. You don’t have to be a pacifist to adore these books, but by the time you’re done, you just might be one.