Review by Ian Keogh
Barefoot Gen’s overall picture is of the desperation in Hiroshima after the first use of an atomic bomb, but Keiji Nakazawa connects a succession of smaller stories about life in the city. Unusually, Breaking Down Borders continues two plots from Merchants of Death. It’s 1950 and the city authorities plan to tear down Gen’s home to redevelop the area, while the talented, but ill Natsue is determined to make a clay jar decorated with the faces of her friends. It leads to a scene in which Gen, attempting to do something for good reasons makes an astonishingly wrong-headed decision. Given the horrors shown earlier in the series, it’s remarkable how powerful this scene is.
There’s more concern about another misguided attempt to influence Natsue, which today would be viewed as questionable manipulation, but should be seen as the best efforts of thirteen year old kids fending for themselves without adult guidance. Gen’s usually intuitive about people’s feelings, honing in on the right inspirational words to make them reconsider, reflecting his bigger role as an instructional story character. Another disturbing aspect, one running throughout the series, is the casual brutality. It’s a rare volume where Gen isn’t set on by adults and given a thumping. In the idyllic Britain presented in films of the early 1950s, cheeky kids earned a clip around the ear from the friendly local policeman, yet Gen is often battered. Is this exaggeration or were children, even nuisances, regularly beaten so viciously?
Breaking Down Borders seems to have more pages than usual showing what appealing urban resonance Nakazawa provides. The sample art shows Hiroshima in a storm, but there are vibrant market scenes, the waterfront during the day and at night, and Ryuta downtown among the shops, all of them shining compositions. Exaggeration notwithstanding, Nakazawa’s greatest strength is bringing the young cast to life.
In addition to showing kids living on their wits, Nakazawa introduces a satirical version of the Japanese citizen still obsessed with military might, and notes that when a Japanese thinks someone is stronger they start licking boots. It’s a line delivered by Ryuta, no respecter of boundaries, so can be considered just his view, but Nakazawa’s fiercely anti-nationalistic. It feeds into the way he presents characters, repeating a process here of ensuring readers really dislike someone, then explaining their background and how they were shaped, instead ensuring some sympathy. The volume ends with an appalling story of exploitation by Buddhist monks.
This is another thoughtful and thought-provoking volume of Barefoot Gen with Nakazawa always aware that no-one’s going to take in his message if they’re not also entertained. By the final stages of Breaking Down Borders he’s again feeding in directly autobiographical experiences as he ends up working for a sign painter, which was Nakazawa’s career before comics. The series concludes with Never Give Up.