Barefoot Gen is a manga by Keiji Nakazawa, based on his experiences as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It ran in Weekly Shonen Jump from 1973-74note , was made into a live action drama, and a feature-length anime twice.
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 Ishiro 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:
- Adapted Out: Gen's older brothers, Koji and Akira, are not in the anime. Koji is in the TV adaptation, however.
- Adult Fear: Daikichi and Kimie's lives are filled with this. 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...
- With the atom bomb falling from 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.
- All of the Other Reindeer: The Nakaoka are despised by their neighbours because of the anti-war sentiment, leading to the district chief persecuting them on top of every family shunning them in public.
- 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 know and befriend 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, both of which didn't have 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 - presumable 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 aspect 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.
- 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 Ken'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 considering suicide.
- Clean, Pretty Childbirth: The birth of Tomoe 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 Tomoe in a bucket of water, but she was pretty clean before that.
- 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 upbringings during the Korean War and the Cold War.
- Crapsack World: Japan, both during-and-post-war, mostly post-war. And it's autobiographical.
- At least it got published. Or maybe it doesn't matter.
- 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 Nakaoka 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 Japanese begin to turn against each other for the last scraps, moreover, the radiation sickness begins to affect thousands of citizens. After the end of the war, the arrival of the American 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 in 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 taking its boom. 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.
- Delivery Guy: Gen is forced to deliver his baby sister when all the surviving doctors and nurses in the area are too busy trying to help people who were burned and irradiated by the bomb.
- 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 American.
- Kimie keeps the skull of her family on a makeshift shrine and regularly prays to them. Many others also have done this, even though a lot of traumatized citizens didn't know if the skeletons that they procured were even their families.
- Gen manages to win some money praying for the dead for some families.
- Dysfunction Junction: Every character in the cast is currently suffering because of the war, the atom bomb hitting Hiroshima, and then 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.
- From Bad to Worse: As can only be expected given the subject matter. The Nakaoka 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...
- Gonk: Many of the sinister characters have slanted eyes and buck teeth.
- HeelFace 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 would lose the war against the United States due to the latter's chance 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 burden due to 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 other orphans, Natsue, and Ryuuta who looks exactly like Eiko and Shinji. 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.
- Ill Girl: Gen's mother Kimie is of the frail constitution. The constant privations and malnutrition cause her to regularly fall ill, which is a constant source of drama. The sequel reveals she contracted radiation poisoning three years after the bomb and dies.
- Eiko as well, most notably in the 2007 drama.
- 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...
- Infant Immortality: Averted. Infants, small children, animals...they all die.
- 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: Gen is for shorts 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 ways. When he encounters Mitsuko on the wake of the bombing, he selflessly helps her and takes care of her for a while.
- Laughing Mad: Poor Kimie...
- 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.
- 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 and many fires engulfing the rubbles.
- "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 were first-hand survivors of the atomic bomb and how them 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 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 vs. 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- War Is Glorious: In the eyes of perfectly healthy and wealthy Japanese war veterans only, that is. Not quite so for the Japanese civilians who suffered from that war.
- War Is Hell: The whole point of this manga/film. The series makes it a point to criticize everything about the war, how the military has brought suffering to not only the Japanese people, but the Chinese and Korean (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.