NOTE: This post is cross-posted as a teaching tool at Studies in the Novel under “World Literatures and Graphic Novels.”
Most of the students in my Comparative Literature course, Visualizing Social Conflicts, at Miyazaki International College in southern Japan had read Keiji Nakazawa’s mostly-autobiographical narrative of the days leading up to and following the bombing of Hiroshima as children (as Hadashi no Gen （はだしのゲン)) before they met me. Still, at the end of the semester, many of my students reported that Barefoot Gen: Volume One was the most difficult but also the most rewarding text we read. In addition to being affected by the recent events at Fukushima and debates surrounding nuclear power plants in our region, quite a few of my students know (or knew) hibakusha (people who were affected by atomic bombings), making the text feel even more urgent. These sorts of connections are not essential to understanding or appreciating Barefoot Gen, of course, but did add meaningfully to our classroom discussions. As my students were quick to note, people everywhere are impacted by war, peace, art, and other topics in the text: for one, nuclear testing impacted a great deal of the United States, both physically and emotionally. They hope for Barefoot Gen to be widely read.
In conjunction with the graphic novel, we read several complementary texts. First, there are three introductions to Barefoot Gen available in many editions, one of which give the work’s general history, one by Art Spiegelman that places Barefoot Gen within the context of more modern, Western comics (and comix), and one by Anand Patwardhan that situates Nakazawa’s message in a global theater. Further, because the voices of hibakusa have frequently been elided from conversations surrounding the war (in Japan, they often faced discrimination following the bombing), we accompanied the graphic novel with poems by hibakuska, both freeform such as “Let Us Be Midwives! An Untold Story of the Atomic Bombing” and “When We Say Hiroshima,” by Sadako Kurihara as well as the more structured haiku by Yoko Ota and Tamiki Hara. Juxtaposing these rather experimental texts allowed us to note how many poems by hibakusha varied greatly from traditional Japanese poetry and to reflect further on Barefoot Gen’s unusual-for-its-time comic format. We also read Nakazawa’s prose narrative of the events of 6 June 1945, “The Day of the Flash and Boom” (linked below), contrasting it with the version from the graphic novel. This chapter complemented our discussion of Nakazawa’s choice to create a graphic accounting of his experiences as part of his plea for world peace, providing a direct comparison point.
Key questions about Barefoot Gen centered on the connections and disconnections between his artistic style and the content. Is Nakazawa’s style suited to or appropriate to his story? His message?
Within our discussions, major terms included “memoir,” “autobiography,” and “life writing” in conjunction with the role of bearing witness to the text. These key words raised issues related to the veracity of Barefoot Gen, both the inevitable corruption of a child’s memory recounted decades later as well as Nakazawa’s admittedly fabricated characters and episodes. Does it matter, we asked, if Nakazawa’s Gen’s experiences differed from his own—and for what reasons if it does or doesn’t? How does the comic form influence our perception of the necessity of “truth” vs. “Truth” in narratives?
Relatedly, we discussed the import of oral histories to classically marginalized groups, such as the hibakusha or conscripted workers and the connections between oral and visual narratives, centering on issues pertaining to subjectivity and intersubjectivity.
I would encourage anyone interested in graphic texts to consider teaching Barefoot Gen. There are volumes of teaching tools available online.
Below I have provided brief list of links as a beginning:
The text of Barefoot Gen, volume one:
Comic Book Defense League: “Using Graphic Novels in Education: Barefoot Gen”:
Robyn Chapman’s Study Guide via Reading with Pictures:
An interview with Keiji Nakazawa by Asai Motofumi, translated by Richard H. Minear:
Davida Pines on the intersection of form and content in Barefoot Gen:
Jeremy R. Ricketts’s “Manga, the Atomic Bomb and the Challenges of Teaching Historical Atrocity: Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen” in Graphic Novels in the Classroom: Essays on the Educational Power of Sequential Art, ed. by Carrye Kay Syma and Robert G. Weiner (preview):
Thomas Kenning reflecting on Hiroshima and the Peace Memorial Museum:
Richard H. Minear’s introduction to Keiji Nakazawa’s Hiroshima: the Autobiography of Barefoot Gen and a chapter from the book: