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FOCUS: A-bomb comic book 'Barefoot Gen' eye-opener for American readers
by Takaki Tominaga
TOKYO, July 21

For some American readers, both young and old, learning about the destructiveness of nuclear weapons from a Japanese comic book series depicting a boy's experience in the aftermath of the 1945 U.S. atomic bombing of Hiroshima is an eye-opening experience.
''Barefoot Gen,'' the English version of Keiji Nakazawa's autobiographical graphic novel ''Hadashi no Gen,'' has already been translated into French, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Thai and even Esperanto, as well as other languages.
Mary Carroll, 50, who owns an insurance agency in Hawthorne, New Jersey, purchased the first four of the eight volumes of ''Barefoot Gen'' available in the United States online and was instantly consumed by the boy's story of survival.
''Until I read 'Barefoot Gen,' I had not understood the suffering of the innocents. This is not something we learned or talked about in elementary or high school,'' Carroll told Kyodo News via e-mail.
''This is what scares me. This is why another Hiroshima or Nagasaki could happen again. Because we here in the United States do not even know or understand the destructiveness of war. Barefoot Gen is the witness for us,'' she wrote.
Nakazawa, 70, experienced the bombing around 1.2 kilometers from ground zero but miraculously survived under a collapsed concrete wall. The mother of a classmate, who was standing only a meter away, was burned to death before his eyes, he said.
Nakazawa and the team translating the series are planning to send the complete English edition to U.S. President Barack Obama and his family later this month after being inspired by his speech in Prague in April in which he outlined his vision of a world free of nuclear weapons.
''I hope the Obama girls, as well as the president, have an opportunity to read my books,'' Nakazawa said.
The English translation of all 10 volumes is expected to be completed by July 26 and the full set available on the U.S. market in August, according to the Kanazawa-based translation team Project Gen in Ishikawa Prefecture.
Colin Turner, an editor at San Francisco-based publisher Last Gasp, who has been involved in publishing the English edition, was also very moved when he read the comic books for the first time.
''It left a deep impression on me, as I think it does with anyone reading it,'' said Turner in a telephone and e-mail interview, explaining why the publisher decided to print the comic books.
The fact that it is a comic book allows a younger generation to be exposed to the terrible truth of the consequences of war and atomic bombing, Turner said. In fact, ''Barefoot Gen'' is used as a textbook in college and high school classes across the country and has been widely read.
Adam Bessie, a 29-year-old assistant professor of English at Diablo Valley College outside of San Francisco, has selected the first volume of ''Barefoot Gen'' as a textbook for a course titled ''Graphic Novel as Literature.'' The students range in age from 18 to 25, Bessie said.
Although there is ''academic prejudice'' against using comics in college- level courses in the United States, ''Barefoot Gen'' provides a profoundly educational experience for his students, he said.
''Students were clearly affected by Nakazawa's harrowing tale of survival and the graphic images of the bomb, which they expressed in our long discussions on the book on par with discussions I've had on any textbook,'' Bessie said in an e-mail message.
''Beyond emotional response, these students had thoughtful discussions about the nature of war, not only as Nakazawa experienced it, but in general, to the wars happening now,'' Bessie said.
Kiel Powell, a 24-year-old university student who took Bessie's course several semesters ago, said in an e-mail message, ''I have to admit, seeing the melting faces of Japanese citizens stunned me and made my mouth drop open.''
'''Barefoot Gen' forces the reader to experience those sometimes repressed emotions; it forced me to realize how unnecessarily destructive nuclear weapons are and how extremely terrible the outcome of that destruction can be,'' Powell said.
Meanwhile, Frederick Schodt, 59, who was involved in translating the second volume and is a recipient of the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold Rays with Rosette, presented another angle on the impact of ''Barefoot Gen'' on U.S. society.
''I think it is safe to say that 'Barefoot Gen' actually had an influence on the development of American graphic novels because it helped inspire American artists to try to tell longer, more complex stories'' though it has never been a big commercial success in the United States, Schodt said in response to questions via e-mail.
''One example may be Art Spiegelman, who later went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for his novelistic work about World War II, 'MAUS,' which was also in comic book, or graphic novel format,'' Schodt said.
Nakazawa decided to write about his experience of the bombing after his mother passed away in 1971 at the age of 60.
''When I saw my mother's bones had disappeared after cremation, possibly as an effect of radiation, I was infuriated with the A-bomb even more for taking my mom's bones,'' Nakazawa said.
He started writing the ''Hadashi no Gen'' series for a weekly comic magazine in the early 1970s, captivating Japanese readers with his unique combination of enthralling story line and stark artistic style.
The first project for an English translation was launched by American and Japanese college students in Japan around 1977.
Alan Gleason, a 57-year-old translator in Tokyo who was a founding member of the project, recalled what it was like to translate Japanese comic books into English without computers.
''The hardest part was the manual labor because we had to cut out each panel and paste it in reverse order so that it could be read from left to right like American comics instead of right to left,'' Gleason said.
The first four volumes of the English translation by Gleason and others were published by small independent publishers over a decade from the late 1970s, according to Gleason.
In 2000, Namie Asazuma, 66, a Project Gen representative who used to work at the Kanazawa Russian language center, launched another English translation team with seven volunteer translators after translating the comic series into Russian.
Project Gen and Last Gasp later reached an agreement in 2004 to reissue the series with a new translation, according to Turner.
For Asazuma, one of her most rewarding moments as a translator was when she received encouraging letters from readers.
''I feel all these hardships were worthwhile when I read their letters,'' she said.
Not long ago, a 24-year-old reader from West Sussex, England, who wished to be identified by his first name, Ben, wrote to Asazuma about ''Barefoot Gen.''
''It's powerful, emotional and extraordinary reading Gen's story and I only wish I could put a copy of it in every government's and soldier's hand to prevent such a thing ever happening again.''
Turner echoed Ben's sentiments, saying he strongly hopes books like ''Barefoot Gen'' will reach a wide audience as he is afraid that the world may have forgotten the horrors of nuclear weapons almost 65 years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
''Unfortunately, we are at a point where the threat of a nuclear bomb is as close as ever, with countries possessing nuclear weapons in very unstable situations,'' he said.

July 21, 2009 12:18:18

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