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Manga / Barefoot Gen

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A cheery tale, right? Notice the word "Hiroshima."

"Wheat pushes its shoots up through the winter frost, only to be stepped on again and again. The trampled wheat sends strong roots into the earth, endures frost, wind, and snow, and grows tall... and one day bears fruit."
Daikichi Nakaoka

Barefoot Gen (Hadashi no Gen) is a manga by Keiji Nakazawa, based on his experiences as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It was serialized in several magazines from 1973 to 1987, initially being published in Weekly Shonen Jumpnote  for the first year and a half of its run before moving to the magazines Shimin, Bunka Hyoron and Kyoiku Hyoron. The manga was later adapted into a live-action drama, three live-action films, and two anime films.

The story begins in August 1945. Gen Nakaoka is a young boy living in Hiroshima, suffering from wartime shortages and rationing. His family (father Daikichi, mother Kimie, older brothers Koji and Akira, older sister Eiko and younger brother Shinji) can barely grow enough food to feed themselves, and his pregnant mother is weak from malnutrition. While air raid sirens are a daily fact of life, the city has been spared the heavy bombings others faced. Gen prepares to show his brother a small wooden boat he earned.

And then, Little Boy drops. What follows are some of the most horrifying images put to paper.

In the chaos that follows the blast, Gen loses most of his family, and his mother gives birth prematurely. In the following weeks, they struggle to find food and shelter. Japan surrenders, the American occupation begins, and criminal gangs and the black market appear in force. Radiation sickness takes its toll. Gen, Kimie, Koji, and Akira must learn to survive in this changing world.

As Gen matures into a young man, the series takes on a more political tone, covering the social climate of the Occupation, the Korean War and Japan's rearmament, the search for meaning in the lost war, and finding an identity in the face of discrimination as a hibakusha (bomb-affected person/people). Though these parts tackle powerful subject matters, they are often overlooked by the public, either because they weren't made into movies, or perhaps because they come across at times as anti-American, anti-Japanese, and anti-Hiroshima City Government in particular. Regardless, the manga doesn't end with 1945. Read on.

A critically acclaimed work, Barefoot Gen helped break the silence surrounding the atomic bombings in Japan, and raise awareness about the hibakusha. It is one of the few Japanese works to avoid the nuclear weapons taboo.

Compare Grave of the Fireflies, which is about the air raids and officially Ghibli's most depressing movie, and Godzilla (1954), the movie that inspired Ishir⁠ō Honda and Toho to create the Godzilla series' roots through the aftermath of Hiroshima and the Lucky Dragon 5 incident 9 years later.

These works contain examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: While not Justified, the manga is one of the very rare examples where the reader sympathizes with both the abusive parent and the children. Gen's family is ostracized, harassed, and attacked by their neighbors and the police because of the family's stance on the war, their mother Kimie is sick from malnutrition and suffering a harsh pregnancy, extreme food shortages (to the point that they can count the individual rice grains in their watery gruel) has everyone on the brink of starvation, the corrupt city official make everyone work and drill for hours, the family's garden (their sole hope for extra food) is burned and destroyed, Gen's father Daikichi is taken away by the police and subjected to brutal beatings for days for being a suspected traitor — even before the bombing, the situation is horrific. Small wonder that Daikichi snaps and lashes out at Gen and Shinji: Daikichi is shown multiple times punching the boys into the wall, leaving them covered in bruises, when the boys express their own anger, hunger, and hopelessness over the situation.
  • Adapted Out: Gen's older brothers, Koji and Akira, are not in the anime. Koji is in the TV adaptation, however.
  • All of the Other Reindeer: The Nakaokas are despised by their neighbors because of Daikichi's anti-war sentiment, leading to the district chief persecuting them on top of every family shunning them in public, whether out of fanaticism or fear that if they don't join in, they'll be next.
    • Later after the bomb, every person who was disfigured or crippled by the bomb's blast, and anyone who was present truth be told, is also shunned because of the prejudices and fears around radiation sickness. They are all treated as infected by an illness or curse.
  • Anyone Can Die: Almost everyone (even a few of Gen's closest friends as well) whom Gen knows and befriends personally eventually will die, either from radiation poisoning (some of these can take years) or from other causes.
  • Apocalypse How: One of the smaller ones, since it's "only" two major cities (Nagasaki being bombed was only briefly mentioned in the story but still), but considering how the atom bomb affected everyone's perception of warfare...
  • Artistic License – History: The dropping of the bomb. Averted in the manga and anime, where it is dropped with a parachute - as it was done in real life in order to give the Enola Gay enough time to fly away from the blast zone. Played straight in the live-action TV version, where the bomb falls freely into Hiroshima.
  • Artistic License – Military: The crew of the "Enola Gay" are shown wearing thick flight jackets and leather helmets. This was not the typical getup for a B-29 crew, since the cabin of the bomber was heated and pressurized, making these jackets redundant. These jackets were instead more in line with the crews of the older B-17 Flying Fortress and B-24 Liberator, neither of which had a pressurized cabin.
    • When the occupation of Japan begins on August 28, 1945, black US soldiers are depicted as marching alongside white US soldiers. In reality, black and white soldiers served in separate units, and it wasn't until President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in 1948 that the US military was integrated.
  • Art Shift: The pilots of "Enola Gay" are drawn in far less cartoony style than the other characters - presumably to avoid Narm.
  • Art-Style Dissonance: Despite the cartoonish style of the manga, it is still about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and treats all of its aspects and consequences openly and graphically.
  • Author Avatar: Gen is essentially Keiji Nakazawa himself. Like his character, Nakazawa was seven years old when the bomb fell and lost his entire family except for his mother and brother. He also eventually moved to Tokyo to pursue his career as an artist. The entire work is basically a fictionalized account of the author's youth.
  • Barefoot Poverty: Given the setting, even food was hard to come by, much less shoes. It's even in the title!
  • Beauty Is Never Tarnished: Averted. Natsue, a girl who wanted to be a dancer and who becomes Gen's friend, had half her face burnt off by the blast.
  • Berserk Mode:
    • In the manga, Gen breaks into this with Kiyo's family, due to the brutal treatment her mother-in-law and bratty children give him, his mother, and baby sister.
    • Way earlier, Daikichi breaks into this with his children's teachers and Ryukichi over Eiko's brutal treatment and humiliation at school. In general, he's not afraid to dish it out at people who oppress and harass his family.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Ryuta is normally a jovial person, content with living his life fanboying over his favorite Baseball team, running his clothing business, while having fun with his friends/surrogate family. Mess with his family, and he will go as far as taking the life of those responsible for it.
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: Amidst the chaos of the atomic bombardment and the death of half of her family, Kimie gives birth to her baby Tomoko, which is the one silver lining of the day. Tomoko tragically perishes months later, which breaks Gen's spirit. However, the coincidental regrowth of his hair helps him regain his joy.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Probably the only happiest ending the main characters can have. After years of suffering through the physical and societal impact of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, Gen gets to continue his study as an upcoming artist in Tokyo after discovering his artistic talent while Ryuuta has to take all the brunt of facing the authorities for crossing paths with the police for so long to ensure that their family would survive in a post-war Japan. And since Gen is basically the Author Avatar of the manga's artist, then it's safe to say that Gen (and Kenji himself) manages to tell his story to the world at last.
  • Body Horror: Many people were so badly burned as to have their skin melt from their bones, not to mention the horrifying sight of eyeballs liquefying out of people's faces. Some had wounds that kept getting infected. Many survivors of the blast have worms crawling all over their wounds, have their eyes drawn as black voids, and one is even shown walking with his intestines dangling from a hole in his stomach.
  • Break the Cutie: Subverted in the case of the main characters. Despite all the misery brought upon them, all of them stick together and maintain their hopes of a better life. Gen first and foremost lives through the most atrocious events and never breaks his spirit.
    • Katsuko and Natsue, both young girls disfigured and crippled by the war, are shown to be mentally scarred by the injuries and how everyone treats them as freaks. Only the existence of emotional crutches like Ryuuta and Gen helps them not consider suicide.
  • Children Raise You: With Kimie in frail health due to her pregnancy and the family's lack of food, it's left to Eiko to cook, clean and look after/discipline her younger brothers. After Eiko, Shinji and their father die in the bombing, the responsibility of looking after Kimie falls on Gen.
  • Clean, Pretty Childbirth: The birth of Tomoko is a very simple and straightforward thing that six-year-old Gen can help with, and (oddly enough for this film) there's no indication that a mess was ever made. They do rinse off Tomoko in a bucket of water, but she was pretty clean before that.
  • The Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes: A literal example here because Gen's family makes sandals but Gen himself goes barefoot most of the time, likely because the sandals are meant for selling/as part of the war effort and thus they can't afford to keep any for their own family.
  • Coming of Age Story: A very bleak example for Gen and his peers as the manga chronicles their life since before World War II ended until his teenage upbringing during the Korean War and the Cold War.
  • Crapsack World: Japan, both during-and-post-war, mostly post-war. To detail: during the later stages of the war, Japan's economy begins to dwindle and food becomes hard to get by, and the desperate government and army creates new oppressive policies. The Nakaokas have it particularly hard because they are vocal about their anti-war sentiment. Immediately after the atomic bombardment of August 6th, 1945, Gen witnesses the ruination of his hometown, food becomes nearly impossible to get, and the Japanese begin to turn against each other for the last scraps; moreover, the radiation sickness begins to affect and kill thousands of survivors. After the end of the war, the arrival of the American occupation doesn't improve things. There is still a great food shortage, yakuza clans roam the streets, and radiation sickness still takes its toll.
  • Darker and Edgier: And Bloodier and Gorier. Keiji Nakazawa made another autobiographical manga named I Saw It detailing his life with his family, the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima, the death of his father, sister, and younger brother, simply surviving with his still-living older brothers, and the eventual death of his baby sister. That manga had a Bittersweet Ending where he wanted his mother to live long enough to see his first child, but the long-term effects of radiation sickness took her life, but she lived long enough to see Keiji's career take off. This manga has a very oppressive atmosphere before and after the bombing, watching Gen's family perish by housefire, and the deaths of both Tomoko and his mother. It doesn't end there either.
  • Death of a Child: Infants, small children, animals...they all die.
  • Decoy Protagonist: Shinji is treated as the Deuteragonist of the beginning of the story but after the bombs drops he’s one of the first major characters to die.
  • Delivery Guy: Gen is forced to deliver his baby sister when all the surviving doctors and nurses in the area are too busy to help people who were burned and irradiated by the bomb.
  • Drill Sergeant Nasty: Koji's drill sergeant in the Navy is a sadistic example of this trope, handing out vicious beatings and verbal abuse at the drop of a hat. Koji and all the other members of his unit get their share, but his friend Hanada, who can't keep up with the others, gets the lion's share of it, which eventually drives him to suicide. Such brutality was rife in the Imperial Japanese military in real life, with those of each rank being brutalized by those outranking them.
  • Due to the Dead: This is Serious Business in Japan. Several rites come to the forefront:
    • For instance, the remains of the deceased should go to their families so they can properly bury or incinerate them. During the American occupation, many families refuse to have their deceased relatives autopsied by the Americans.
    • Kimie keeps the skulls of her family on a makeshift shrine and regularly prays to them. Many others have also done this, even though a lot of traumatized citizens didn't know if the skeletons that they procured were even those of their families.
    • Gen manages to win some money praying for the dead for some families.
  • Dysfunction Junction: Every character in the cast suffers because of the war, the atom bomb hitting Hiroshima, and the years of privation during the American occupation.
  • Does Not Like Shoes: Subverted. Several characters don't use shoes but it might be more that they really can't afford shoes, and have simply gotten used to "doing without".
  • Doomed Hometown: Hiroshima. It gets rebuilt, of course, but hope for a new beginning is enveloped by bitterness, as many surviving residents suspect—perhaps rightly—that the future Peace Park in the center of town is partly supported by land speculators buying up property which conveniently has no one left to claim ownership. And they sell this manga in the museum gift shop.
  • Double Standard: Violence, Child on Adult: Averted. Children beating up adults with sticks or adults punching said children are always drawn and treated with the same casual tone.
  • Even Evil Has Loved Ones: Many of the civilians and former soldiers are borderline jerkasses just for the fun of it, but many of them were made that way usually by losing their loved ones during the atomic bombing or during the war. Some of them turned good and for the better... But others, not so much.
  • Eye Scream: In the first film, we see people's eyes melting out of their sockets. In the manga, they are all drawn as black voids, showing their hollow sockets.
  • Fate Worse than Death: Implied to be the case with Gokichi, a cousin of the Nagaoka siblings, as Daikichi tells Koji how he joined the Navy, only to be horribly maimed in battle and return home a blind quadruple-amputee covered in bandages. He is shown lying helplessly on a futon, like a "potato bug," as Daikichi puts it, constantly begging his parents to kill him and end his suffering.
  • Foreshadowing: During an air raid alert, Gen's parents wonder aloud why Hiroshima has not yet been bombed by the Allies, when that fate has befallen just about every other major Japanese city.
  • From Bad to Worse: As can only be expected given the subject matter. The Nakaokas already had it bad during the war, but then half of them die and the rest lose their home and possessions. Not to mention what happened to the rest of the Nakaoka family after the war...
    • With the atom bomb falling on Hiroshima, Gen's life takes a turn for the worse, big time. He has to watch most of his family die, but then he has to contend with poverty, homelessness, and the real eventuality of his mother and baby sister dying from malnutrition.
  • Gonk: Many of the sinister characters have slanted eyes and buck teeth.
  • Gratuitous English: The first film features English dialogue (with Japanese subtitles) from the pilots of the Enola Gay as they prepare to drop the bomb.
  • Heel–Face Turn: For such a depressing work around the impact of the Hiroshima atomic bomb to the citizens that drove them into doing heinous acts and being assholes to others just for the gall of it, some surprisingly turned to be better people in time. Ryuta went through this after crossing paths with Gen for the first time, Gen's boss during his teenage years (and also Mitsuko's father) is another example, where he repented his old ways upon realizing that his daughter has not any more time to live due to her leukemia complications, and also giving Gen the chance to become an upcoming artist in Tokyo.
  • Hopeless War: Based on both Truth in Television and the comments by Gen's father during the bamboo spear drill: Japan was already doomed to lose the war against the United States due to the latter's ability of winning the war through their vast industries and military resources at the price of both massive military and civilian casualties for Japan. By the time of the manga, Japan was trying to scrape through the barrel to continue their increasingly-losing fight at the price of food shortages and an ever-increasing burden on the citizenry due to all resources being diverted to the war effort. That was before an atomic bomb hit Hiroshima, and later Nagasaki.
  • Identical Stranger: After Gen's father, big sister Eiko and little brother Shinji are killed by the bomb, Gen meets two other orphans, Natsue and Ryuuta, who look exactly like Eiko and Shinji, respectively (though Natsue was badly disfigured by the bomb). While Gen befriends Natsue, the whole family kind of adopts Ryuuta as one of their own, simple as that, with no negative emotional hang-ups over the uncanny resemblance. A VERY refreshing and heartwarming event after their Trauma Conga Line.
  • Improbable Cover: Gen survives the detonation of the nuclear bomb simply because he was near a brick wall which protected him from the heat wave. The people around him were not so lucky. Even more terrifying because it actually happened to the author...
  • It Can't Be Helped: Many of the citizens in Hiroshima use the phrase to explain why they accept the military rule and the acceptance of the below-poverty conditions that cause many of their citizens to starve.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Simply put, Gen is a brat. He's rude, disrespects adults, is violent and often does vengeful pranks on anyone he doesn't like. However, he genuinely loves his family and does his best to support them in his own bratty way. When he encounters Mitsuko in the wake of the bombing, he selflessly helps her and takes care of her for a while.
  • Laughing Mad: Kimie starts laughing uncontrollably when she sees her family being burned to death right in front of her.
  • Let Them Die Happy: A mass example happens after Gen's baby sister Tomoko is kidnapped. The community that took her only did so in order so they could pretend she was the lost baby of whoever was dying at the moment.
  • Madness Mantra: Kimie, as she watches her husband and children burn.
    Kimie: "They're all burning up. My family... burning... They're burning like a bonfire..."
  • Megaton Punch: In the manga, Gen delivers this to a number of characters, such as Ryuuta, Kiyo's mother-in-law, Tatsuo, and Takeko.
  • Minor Living Alone: Daikichi and Kimie's lives. Because of the war their children's lives are constantly at risk, their son Akira is sent to the countryside with the group evacuation in the midst of strangers, their other children are bullied and ostracized because of Daikichi's vocal opposition to the war... and their eldest son Koji volunteers for the IJN even though he's not yet old enough to be drafted. And then comes August 6th...
  • Mood Whiplash: The beginning almost seems like a slapstick comedy, given Gen and Shinji's roughhousing.
  • Our Zombies Are Different: Technically Living Zombie kind. Those who got caught in the blast of the bomb but did not get vaporized were horribly burned, and they could be seen shambling about with melting bodies, crying in pain or looking for something, usually either water or their loved ones. It's as nightmare-inducing as it is sad.
  • Orphan's Ordeal: Thankfully, Gen still has his mother, but the boy meets several orphans whose parents died because of the war and Little Boy. These children have to fend for themselves and are shunned by society and even their relatives if they are taken care of. Although most would like to go to school, they must live in the streets.
  • Punched Across the Room: The children fight a lot, and even adults beat them regularly. Gen is nearly always thrown into a wall because of a grown-up's uppercut.
  • R-Rated Opening: Averted. While the beginning talks about the war up until that point, nothing that graphic is shown and it quickly seems like it's just a daily life story about a boy and his family. Then the bomb hits half an hour into the movie. See Mood Whiplash above.
  • Scenery Gorn: Hiroshima is devastated by the atom bomb and Gen sees the ruined cityscape with many fires engulfing the rubble and bomb victims everywhere.
  • "Shaggy Dog" Story: Baby Tomoko is suffering from malnutrition because Kimie is not producing milk. Thus Gen and Ryuta go get a job to buy milk for the baby. A bunch of stuff happens, and they buy a lot of milk so Tomoko would be satisfied for a long time. They get home only to find Kimie cradling the baby... who died from the malnutrition just before they returned. The scene adds yet another Tear Jerker to one of the most depressing stories ever told.
    • As if this doesn't get enough of that, Gen's love story with a newfound Love Interest in the form of Mitsuko during his teenage years definitely counts. Both characters met each other accidentally and grew very fond of each other, mainly due to them being first-hand survivors of the atomic bomb and being incapable of saving their families during the event. All was well, at least until Mitsuko fell ill and died from leukemia, which was only discovered during her high school years (years after she contracted radiation in 1945), sending Gen into depression for quite some time. Their whole story was just chockfull of undiluted sadness.
  • Shameful Strip: Eiko, when she's falsely accused of theft by the district chief's son, is stripped by the school staff. This even brings her to tears.
  • Sliding Scale of Idealism Versus Cynicism: Very much toward the cynical side, despite the cartoony art style. Most characters are assholes only out for themselves, or who are needlessly cruel to Gen and others because they are bitter. Both the Americans and the Japanese come out looking very bad. The ending hints that Gen (being the Author Avatar of the manga's artist) finally gets to tell his story as an atomic blast survivor by becoming an artist, but not by much.
  • Straw Hypocrite: During his speech to become a part of the municipal assembly, Denjiro Samejima pretends that he was always a pacifist that opposed the war when in reality he was in favor of the war and harassed the Nakaoka family by calling them traitors and making them pariahs before the bombing. Gen calls him out of his bullshit and for leaving his brother, sister, and dad to die in the fire after saving him.
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: The Japanese deny anything happened in Hiroshima immediately afterward while barring entry; in Real Life, the Japanese and the Americans both denied many critical points regarding the atomic bomb attack, much to the begrudging dismay from both sides.
  • Think Happy Thoughts: Gen often sings, even (or especially) when things are at their bleakest. This is inspired by Keiji Narazawa's own life, who explained that he would sing like Gen to keep his spirit up.
    • A very dark example of this occurs in the manga right after Little Boy detonates, when a group of survivors jump into the Ota River to escape the firestorm on both sides. With all of them being injured, they are too weak to keep on swimming. So one of them tells everyone else to sing, and to keep on singing. They do, even as they drown one by one.
  • Token Minority: Mr. Park, the Korean slave laborer whom Gen and Shinji befriend, is a recurring side character during the first chapters of the story. Notably, he is the Nakaokas' only friend in the block.
  • Ungrateful Bastard: Gen saves Denjiro Samejima and Ryukichi from being burned to death, only because they promise for making up for the hell they put to his family. They don't return the favor later when Gen asks them to save his father, brother, and sister from the fire, preferring to flee and leave them behind.
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Following the incident with Tomoko, this is essentially the relationship between Gen and Amamori. They openly mocked each other, Gen still calls him Crap-amori, but they are
  • War Is Glorious: In the eyes of perfectly healthy and wealthy Japanese war veterans only, that is. Not quite so for the Japanese civilians - and injured and crippled veterans, they are not always at the same book with each other, but Amamori is consistently shown on Gen's side in a friendly term, and Gen praised him from time to time.
  • War Is Hell: The whole point of this manga/film. The series makes it a point to criticize everything about the war, from the Americans dropping atomic bombs on civilian locations to how the military has brought suffering to not only the Japanese people, but the Chinese and Koreans as well (though it's not the main point), and also how the civilians have to put up with the daily injustice and privations.
  • War for Fun and Profit: A Japanese businessman/smuggler considers the Korean War as this since a lot of iron and steel procured from many metalworks mean money, where these steels are converted into firearms and ammunition that profited him so much. Gen and Ryuta can't help but feel the seething anger upon hearing this.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Basically this is the fate of many survivors of the Hiroshima atomic bomb, both sooner or later.