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kyonoki - 京のキー Barefoot Gen

kyonoki

京のキー Barefoot Gen

Barefoot Gen

A few years ago, I helped my friend Yoshi clear out his parents attic before their family moved to Aomori. While we were hunting through the dusty boxes I came across hundreds and hundreds of manga (graphic novels), so pulled them out into the garden and sat flicking through the yellowed, old pages. Scores of books were about a boy called Gen, who lived with his family in Hiroshima during World War II. I couldn't understand everything, though the pictures told the story. Scores of comics formed the tale of the family as it tried to cope with war and their fate at the time the atomic bomb was dropped.

Today I finally got to sit down and read the English translation. It didn't take a great deal of time as there were no pictures. Barefoot Gen stunned me in ways I did not expect and while I anxiously followed the course of his family's life, the tragedy and injustice of their tale horrified me to the core and in ways other novels about Hiroshima have not.

Following Japan's surrender and subsequent struggle to rebuild itself, picture books began to recount the painful war years. Many manga books are dedicated to the history of those years, so rich are the stories of heroism, tragedy, evil and courage. Barefoot Gen is merely one of many. With its cartoon-like drawings it conjures up the hardships and daily toil of life for families living under the constant threat of invasion.

Gen Nakaoka is seven at the time we are introduced to him, an elementary school student. His father is a skilled craftsman, painting lacquer on clogs for a living. His mother is pregnant, while his eldest brother Koji is a Middle School student, working at a munitions factory. Akira, another brother, has been evacuated to the country. At home Eiko (his sister) and Shinji (his little brother) remain with the family.

Gen's father is cynical about war, and despite the bombardment of propaganda, does not believe that the war can be won or is just in the first place. He tells his family to be strong, that Japan is being misled by a foolish government. His outspoken views are not taken lightly in the neighbourhood and for months the family is persecuted, called all sorts of names. Eventually his father is arrested, and for weeks severely beaten, while his sister is accused of stealing at school, and his father's wares tossed cruelly into the river.

With little food and finding themselves in an increasingly desperate situation, the family remains strong through their many hardships. To save his family's name, Koji decides to join the navy, shocking both his parents and making Gen bitter towards his own country. But they have no time to grieve, for soon after, the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima.

Although simple and childlike, the pictures are horrifying in the images they weave. Gen and his mother are lucky enough to be away from home when the explosion comes, but as they hurry back, find father, Eiko and Shinji trapped beneath the rubble of the house. In spite of their pleas for help, there is little Gen can do. A fire begins to rage across the city and his father's final words are for Gen to save his mother.

Gen's father, Eiko and Shinji do not survive.

Gen's mother gives birth as the remains of the city burn. It gives them new hope that not all is lost.

There are few words to convey the horrors of the atomic fallout. This simple graphic novel, made for children but for everyone, is the most amazing learning tool and warning. Unlike more academic reports it has an emotional punch that genuinely makes you think about the terrible fate of all the people within the city at the time. Children should read this book, and their parents alike. Rather than a bleak tale, it gives hope, and tells us to have the courage to always do the right thing.

Barefoot Gen is mischievious and naughty, but loyal and brave when his family need him. If only more of us were like him.
  
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Rhod and Ki's tour of life in Kyoto, Japan.

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