Tag Archives: World War 2

MMF: My Reaction to Barefoot Gen 1 & 2

This post is part of the February Manga Movable Feast on Barefoot Gen by Keiji Nakazawa, hosted by my good friend Sam Kusek at A Life In Panels. You can see more commentary on Barefoot Gen on his blog.

I feel like I had an atypical reaction to Barefoot Gen. Sure, it was a depressing read. So much so that my boyfriend noticed how down I was at our Valentine’s Day dinner. I was thinking of the way I wanted to approach Barefoot Gen and write this MMF post. (We did had a great time once I decided to banish all thought of Barefoot Gen for the evening.) Despite that, I wasn’t moved to tears by Barefoot Gen. I realized today, that’s because I’ve already seen it before.

This requires a bit of explanation:

I’ve mentioned before that members of my family are Holocaust survivors. That’s one thing, considering how one generation was too young to remember anything and the other generation was too scarred to speak about it. A lot of exactly what happened to my family is either buried along with the older generation or on a Shoah Foundation tape that my mother and I have felt too unprepared to watch yet. But I went to a private Jewish school for seven years for middle school and high school. I don’t know how the Holocaust was taught to the younger grades in my school, but they were pretty thorough with the older kids. As a result I’ve read a lot of literature on the Holocaust. All the well-known novels and some less-known ones. We were also treated to films, speakers, slide shows and extensive history lessons, especially around Yom Ha’Shoah, which is an Israeli/Jewish holiday mourning the victims.

The horrific bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki aren’t the same as the Holocaust, but a different kind of genocide altogether. Oddly enough, I had already read John Hersey’s Hiroshima as part of a high school physics lesson that was probably supposed to teach us about how mighty nuclear power is. So the imagery of Barefoot Gen was not as surprising as it was for some. I already knew about the eyeless victims with their flesh melting right off them and the bodies floating down the river and the fires that killed thousands. That didn’t surprise me, although I was thankful for Keiji Nakazawa’s cartoon-y style of drawing. As often as his odd facial expressions bothered me (why were there so many awkward, winking faces?), I don’t think I could have stomached something more realistic and I cannot really imagine the true terrors that Keiji Nakazawa and the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki saw in August, 1945. I don’t really want to because then I won’t be able to sleep well. I’ve had dreams about being in concentration camps before and they are pretty terrifying, let me tell you.

So I didn’t cry over Barefoot Gen. It’s not like I haven’t cried over manga before. The later volumes of Naoki Urasawa’s Monster made me cry. To be honest, if I were watching Keiji Nakazawa or another survivor talk about their experience, I would be crying uncontrollably. There’s something about seeing actual human emotion that definitely affects me more. I’ve cried in more movies than I can remember. I cried when Ongina revealed he had HIV on RuPaul’s Drag Race. I could see and hear those people. Much like horror manga, I guess sad manga doesn’t affect me as much as it’s moving counterparts. I should probably watch the movie versions of Barefoot Gen.

But  got me thinking that 1) large swaths of the world must have gone nuts in the 1930s and 40s to kill so many people so brutally and 2) the American government is definitely guilty of genocide, something I hadn’t really thought of before. I’m not a fan of a lot of typical American views and politics, but this goes beyond that. This country thought it was a great idea to end the war by replicating a lot of Nazi practices, everything from putting Japanese-Americans in camps to bombing Japanese civilians, then taking it to the next level with the atomic bomb. While America didn’t kill as many people through these methods as the Nazis did, they did unleash a different kind of horror upon the world as we know it. It disgusts me that this country, which has preached about peace and freedom for everyone, became so hypocritical as to copy their enemies’ techniques. I know, somewhere in my mind, that America probably didn’t make the decision to drop the bomb flippantly, but it strikes me  as odd that the American politicians involved couldn’t see this big, blinding, hypocritical mistake staring them in the face.

But I digress. What struck me throughout was that these were events that had happened to Nakazawa and other survivors. I think a fictional account of the bombings by someone who hadn’t survived it wouldn’t work at all. I’m grateful to the people who have spoken out about atrocities like this because, as heavy as the knowledge and hindsight of these events are, at least the world knows now. Barefoot Gen‘s existence in the world is only one of many survivor’s tales, but it teaches us things we never knew or realized before. It makes us think about who was killed, not just faceless bodies, but people who suffered. Even if it’s just a cartoon-y face that doesn’t quite hold the visual impact you want it to, those faces are someone’s.

To end this post, since it seems to be getting a little preachy and I didn’t really want to do that, I want to thank Sam Kusek for bringing Barefoot Gen to the Manga Movable Feast. Truly, it’s not a manga I would have gotten into easily without this reason to, mostly because it’s not widely available anymore, but also because it’s a tough read. Glancing at some of the other posts that have been written by other bloggers, Barefoot Gen has truly rocked a few people’s worlds. It’s not the best manga in a lot of senses, but it encompasses the idea often touted by Jews–“Never Forget.” People think that just applies to the Holocaust, but that’s not true. It’s important to learn about the Holocaust, the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and other atrocities so that we learn from past behavior and take to heart the goal of becoming better, less hateful people. It’s best to learn from primary sources like Keiji Nakazawa because they’ll drive that all-important message home.

Here’s a little something to cheer the MMF participants up: (Warning, link contains adorably catchy song.)

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Discussion: Is Hetalia Offensive to You?

If there’s one thing I really hate in this world, it’s having to an argument or discussion with a mention of my religion, the loss of my family in the Holocaust or just mention of the Holocaust in general. If I never had to do it again, my life would be billions of times better.

Earlier this evening I had to. (Edit: The owner of the blog linked in the comment I just linked is apparently not the author of the comment that spurred this post. He was kind enough to apologize for whomever trolled All About Manga and his information doesn’t match the original comment, so please remember that the blog post and the rude person who commented are not the same as you read this. He’s deleted the offending post seeing as people were giving him a lot of grief for his views and the blog is of a more personal nature.)

Normally, I wouldn’t post about immature fandom wank or single out one of my readers in a bad way, but I feel like this poses an important question:

Is Hetalia offensive to you at all?

I find it inoffensive for a lot of reasons, beginning with the fact that most of Hetalia’s material is based on pre-World War II events. The initial concept is firmly rooted in it, but it seems like Hidekaz Himaruya did this for two reasons–people are familiar with the time period and Japan was involved. Would Hetalia have been as big a hit if Himaruya began with his characters in the midst of the Seven Weeks War? Let’s be honest, do you even know what the Seven Weeks War was about off the top of your head? Plus, with Japan there, Himaruya’s primary target audience feels like they can relate to a character. On top of that most of the strips about World War II events fall into these categories:

1) Comedic spying on each other,

2)  Not fighting battles because it’s Christmas and everyone should be friends on Jesus’ “birthday”,

3) Training sessions in which Italy spectacularly fails at proving his military might.

I have a lot of trouble getting offended by the pretty non-violent depictions of World War II mentioned above. Being as realistic about history as I can here, these are the things that would have happened with or without the genocide happening in the background. Killing the Jews, Gypsies, gays, handicapped and others wasn’t the only reason Hilter started a war and saving those innocent lives was definitely not the main reason why the Allied Powers fought back against the Nazi regime. The Allies wanted to keep Hitler off their lawn, Hitler wanted to rule the world and the German people were poor, miserable and in need of someone to blame. What we don’t realize is that we still point fingers and make scapegoats out of those who we don’t agree with; the treatment just isn’t usually as violent and the scope not as large.

Now the scene at the end of Hetalia volume 1 where Italy visits Germany on the start of the war has the potential to be very offensive. It’s actually the only time in the published manga that Nazi swastikas are seen. In my reading of it, I felt that Germany was hesitant and nervous about going to war. This would make sense historically as the Germans at the time were still suffering from World War I and the economic troubles that were brought upon them afterward. War is a huge undertaking and I don’t think any country’s started one without a lot of its people feeling trepidation. On top of that, all the countries are seen as different characters than their leaders in any given time period, which means Germany the character doesn’t automatically equal Hitler or Otto von Bismark, etc.

Thus, that scene saved the whole concept of having World War II scenes depicted as comedic for me. Germany is not depicted as eager to go to war or as a bloodthirsty killer. Jews aren’t mentioned and neither is the genocide not because Himaruya just ignores them, but because Himaruya knows just how dangerous for the popularity and the tone of his manga that would be. I’m actually surprised he wasn’t careful enough to avoid the offensive portrayal of Koreans, but I suppose it might be a societal insensitivity that he doesn’t notice in himself.

Either way, that characterization of Germany just did it for me. It reminded me that this manga was about history acting like people and since history is about what people used to be like. History is a lot like psychology, to understand all the names and dates of battles, you have to understand why people went to war. To understand a genocide, you have to understand how people treated those they thought of as lesser beings. When you study history objectively, you can’t forget the unpleasant parts. Hetalia is not an objective history lesson in the slightest, it’s a manga that tries to get you interested in history, so the unpleasant parts are drawn as cute kids having little spats. But a lot of people who get offended at the unpleasant parts of history long past forget that they had nothing to do with it because they simply hadn’t been born yet.

So what am I supposed to feel offended about in Hetalia? That the concept is based off of a certain time period? That the manga actually spends more time on events that predate the second World War? Germany the personification going against his stereotype and not really wanting to fight? Himaruya is not trying to make anyone laugh at genocide. At most, I feel, he is trying to make people laugh at the follies of humanity, make us take a look at just how stupid humanity used to be.

As for the Hetalia fans acting inappropriately that are also mentioned in the blog post linked in the comment (once again, the comment on All About Manga wasn’t made by the blogger I’ve just linked.), I think the best thing is to determine the intent of the action. Are we just talking about cosplayers hamming it up for the camera because they don’t know how offensive their actions are or people trying to recruit members for their white power group? Because if it’s the former, that’s when it’s time to march up to them and educate them politely on just what they’re doing wrong. And if Prince Harry was dumb enough to do it, so are a few other blissfully ignorant anime and manga fans. Make the offending people aware and sorry for what they did will work a lot better than getting butthurt on the internet.

Let me know what you think and if you do find Hetalia offensive.

*P.S.- Just so you know, this isn’t me defending Hetalia for TOKYOPOP. Yes, I got paid to work on it, but not enough to give it this much mention without truly liking the manga myself. Just want to be honest and clear on this point.

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