I took a nuclear studies class in college, which happened to be taught by my Japanese teacher at the time. She originally hailed from Hiroshima and her mother had survived the atomic bomb drop in 1945.
One of the movies we watched in class about the bomb drop was Barefoot Gen (はだしのゲン), an animated film based on a semi-autobiographical manga by the same name. Barefoot Gen is probably lesser known in the West than Grave of the Fireflies, which is Hayao Miyazaki’s fictional story about a brother and sister trying to survive post World War II. Both movies are poignant and heart-wrenching but explore the war in different ways.
Barefoot Gen was to me much more disturbing to watch than Fireflies, and I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be able to watch it for a second time (although I highly implore you to watch it if you are able to.) Whereas in Fireflies the siblings are pretty much struggling in isolation, Barefoot Gen follows a boy, his family, and neighborhood – building up relationships and context before the bomb actually drops. It also explores atrocities committed by the Japanese military, which is what people suspect is the true reason for one school district in Japan pulling the books – not, as they tried to explain, because of the graphic violence depicted.
Censorship in schools is nothing new in Japan, but a response to this action came from an unexpected source. New York Times best-selling comic artist Raina Telgemeier drew a short comic about the impact Barefoot Gen had made on her growing up and the valuable lessons it taught her as a young person. This is especially important because not only does she show that Westerners are concerned with global issues outside of their own sphere, but she brings awareness to the fact that children are capable of empathy when learning about past atrocities.
Raina’s comic made waves when a Japanese blogger gained her permission to translate the comic, which was then featured in Tokyo Shinbun:
— unpocketable (@unpocketable) August 23, 2013
I can only imagine the surprise on behalf of the paper’s readers. Hopefully it convinced someone out there that censoring major historic events is not the right way to have closure on these issues, and that children are more perceptive than they seem.