This past month we lost a notable comic book artist: Keiji Nakazawa, a Hiroshima survivor who used his comics to bear witness to his personal experience of war and of the atomic bomb.
He was born in 1939 in the city of Hiroshima, Japan. He was 7 years old on August 6, 1945, when the atomic bomb was dropped on the city. He happened to be standing next to a concrete wall when the bomb went off, which shielded him from the blast, while a man who was talking to him burned to death. His father and most of his siblings died in the burning rubble of their home while his mother tried vainly to save them.
His family suffered from poverty and hunger during the post-war years; his baby sister, born the day of the bombing, died after only a few weeks. Nakazawa made a career for himself as a manga artist and moved to Tokyo, but even there he found that Hiroshima survivors were discriminated against. People feared contact with the survivors as in a later generation people would fear touching a person with AIDS, as if radiation exposure was somehow contagious.
So Nakazawa kept his experiences to himself, until his mother died in 1966. She was cremated, as was customary, but when Keiji sifted through her ashes hoping to find a piece of bone to keep to remember her, he found nothing. The radiation exposure which had ruined her health and killed her at an early age had eaten away at her bones to the point where after the cremation there was nothing left. His anger and frustration drove him to put his experiences down the only way he knew how: in comic form.
His first attempt at dramatizing his experiences was a manga titled Kuroi Ame ni Utarete ("Struck by Black Rain"), fictional story about five survivors involved in the black market in the ruins of post-war Hiroshima. He had difficulty selling this story, though, because the publishers felt it was too dark.
In 1972, the editors at Weekly Shonen Jump, one of the major manga magazines, asked several of it's artists to create autobiographical stories for a special issue. Nakazawa's story was titled Ore Wa Mita ("I Saw It"), and told how he and his mother survived the bombing of Hiroshima and how he ultimately became a manga artist. His editor encouraged him to expand the story, and the following year Nakazawa began Hadashi no Gen ("Barefoot Gen"), a fictionalized version of his experiences.
Barefoot Gen is a powerful work about the horrific toll of war on people. Nakazawa's drawing style is cartoony, influenced by Osamu Tezuka, and often goofy, which makes the graphic depictions of the bomb's aftermath all the more shocking, as when Gen encounters people whose skin seems to be melting off their bodies, or a girl with shards of glass imbedded in her face, or his own family trapped in the buring rubble of a demolished house, as Nakazawa's family was, helpless to save them as they burn to death.
But Gen is a plucky and resourceful lad, determined to make a better life for his family, even in the ruins of war. Despite the atomic horror of radioactive death and the bitter struggle against society in collapse, the story of Gen is at its core a hopeful one. Nakazawa's purpose in writing it was to teach a new generation about the horror and reality of atomic war.
“I want Gen to become a source of the new generation’s strength with the strength to say no to oppose nuclear weapons, stepping on the scorched earth in Hiroshima with his bare feet and feeling the firm ground on his feet.”Both I Saw It and Barefoot Gen have been published in English. Barefoot Gen has been adapted into two animated films and a live-action TV series.
Keiji Nakazawa died on December 19, 2012 of lung cancer at the age of 73,