Keiji Nakazawa, 1939-2012

The splash page from the second episode of Barefoot Gen, Weekly Shōnen Jump, 1969

Keiji Nakazawa, renowned throughout the world as the creator of Barefoot Gen, a first-hand account of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, died on December 19th in Hiroshima, Japan. He was 73.

Nakazawa, a lifelong smoker, died of lung cancer.

Although famous for the manga that graphically illustrated the horrors of the atom bomb, when Nakazawa began his career he had vowed to never speak of the bomb again, and in fact avoided discussing his childhood experiences with the people he met in Tokyo.

Nakazawa was born March 14, 1939, in the city of Hiroshima. His father, Harumi Nakazawa, was a painter in the traditional Japanese style who was imprisoned during the war for his anti-war activities. The young Keiji and his family were ostracized as traitors, yet his father was unrepentant. Keiji was just six years old--in the first year of primary school--when the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, killing no fewer than 70,000 people in the initial blast, among them Keiji’s father, older sister, and younger brother. Keiji, who was just 1.2 kilometers from ground zero at the time, was spared because the wall of a building shielded him from the flash of heat. Keiji’s mother, Kimiyo, was pregnant at the time, and seeing her husband and two of her children trapped in their burning home, her daughter already apparently dead, her son screaming for help, tried to run into the blaze in order to die with them, but was restrained by neighbors. The shock caused Kimiyo to give birth prematurely, and the baby, a girl, died four months later.

"Spark 1," 1963--Nakazawa's debut work

After the war, Keiji stole food and scavenged scrap metal and glass to sell. In 1947, he read Osamu Tezuka’s now legendary New Treasure Island and became fascinated with the world of manga. Influenced by his father, Keiji had always loved to draw, but it was the kamishibai, or “paper dramas,” presented in the classroom by his 5th grade teacher that inspired him to become a manga artist himself.

After graduating junior high school (high school is not required in Japan), Nakazawa began work for a sign maker in order to improve his technical skills. He would paint signs every day, draw manga every evening, and on Sundays watch three movies in a row at the local cinema. During these years, Nakazawa submitted his work to such boys’ magazines as Omoshiro Bukku (“Funny Book”).

In 1961, at the age of 22, with the equivalent in today’s dollars of about $600 in his pocket, Nakazawa moved to Tokyo and began working as an assistant to manga creator Daiji Kazumine. In 1963, Nakazawa made his professional debut in the magazine Shōnen gahō (“Boys’ Illustrated”) with Spark 1, a story of car racing and industrial espionage. Having grown up subject to the prejudice faced by survivors of the atom bombs, Nakazawa was determined to make a fresh start in Tokyo, and none of his earlier works even hinted at his past. That attitude changed dramatically in 1963, when his mother at last succumbed to the effects of the radiation poisoning she had incurred 18 years earlier, just eight months after Keiji’s marriage to Misayo Yamane. Following the traditional cremation, it is customary to gather certain bones that can be relied on to survive the fire and place them in the family grave. Yet Kimiyo’s bones, apparently degraded by radiation, did not survive the procedure, and only a fine powder remained.

Gamera vs. Gyaos, 1965--Nakazawa's manga version of the monster movie

The son was shocked, and trembled with rage. The atom bomb had wreaked havoc on his mother’s life, and now it had even taken her bones. Nakazawa returned to Tokyo, and in a single burst of inspiration, drew “Kuroi ame ni utarete” (“Pelted By Black Rain”). The story of a Golgo 13-esque assassin who specializes in killing American targets, it is brimming with unchecked anger. It is both a revenge fantasy and a howl of grief. Every American portrayed is arrogant, greedy and unprincipled. The protagonist expressed Nakazawa’s lifelong belief that the atomic bombing and subsequent medical studies were an American experiment on live human subjects. The protagonist is not some Gandhi. He is no Jesus, turning the other cheek. He is Django Unchained. The story was, unsurprisingly, rejected by one publisher after another.

With the birth of his first child, Keiko, in 1967, Nakazawa began to work at a fevered pitch, focusing on manga with commercial potential, but also seeking a publisher for “Pelted By Black Rain.” At last the story was accepted by Manga Punch, an adult-oriented magazine that specialized in borderline pornographic manga. It was to be the first in a series of eight “Black” stories, each dramatically illustrating the various cruel ways the atom bomb and war had destroyed so many lives. The unifying themes of these and his later Hiroshima tales are anger, mad grief, and a throaty, insistent “J’accuse!” directed at the U.S. government, the wartime Japanese government, weapon makers and war profiteers. The characters in his stories are not saintly martyrs, forgiving those who wronged them and appealing for world peace with Buddha-like serenity. They are ordinary, flawed people with modest dreams whose lives are torn apart by forces far beyond their control, and they are angry.

Moero guzu Roku ("Burn, Dimwit Roku"), 1969

Yet general readers were not ready for such stories. In 1969, Nakazawa pitched and unusual story idea to the editor of the then fairly new weekly boys’ magazine, Shōnen Jump. At a time when runaway hits like Kajiwara & Chiba’s Ashita no Joe and Kajiwara & Kawasaki’s Kyojin no hoshi showcased the exploits of prodigies, Nakazawa proposed a story whose protagonist was lazy, stupid, a crybaby, and generally hopeless. The result was Moero guzu Roku, Nakazawa’s most successful non-war manga.

In 1970, the war in Vietnam was heating up, and Japanese students were marching in the streets to protest Japan’s role, which was (and is) largely dictated by Japan’s Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security with the U.S. Nakazawa’s anger was rekindled, and given new urgency by fears that his own daughter might join the ranks of the children of A-bomb survivors who, despite having been born years after the war and far from Hiroshima or Nagasaki, were being diagnosed with leukemia at higher rates than the general population. Nakazawa created a new story, planned to be 60 pages long, about a Hiroshima survivor whose son develops leukemia and dies. When Nakazawa showed the pencilled draft to Jump editor Tadasu Nagano, the editor broke down and cried. He told Nakazawa to make it 80 pages, an unheard of length for a single piece in a boys’ weekly. More realistic and hopeful than his earlier (and appropriately titled) “Black” series, “Aru hi totsuzen ni” (“Suddenly, One Day”) resonated powerfully with young readers. Nagano gave Nakazawa a slot in Jump to write more anti-war stories or a regular basis

In 1972, Nagano asked Jump’s contributors to create short stories based on actual events in their own lives. Nakazawa’s, published in the October issue of Special Edition Shōnen Jump, was to be the first, and by far the most dramatic. The 48-page “Ore wa mita” (“I Saw It!”) was the first work in which Nakazawa had set down his own experiences of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima in pictures and words.

"Chōkan Fujimi" ("Supership Immortal"), 1968

It is important to remember that when Nakazawa came to Tokyo, he did so with the dream of creating boys’ manga in the simple, cartoonish style that was popular in the early 1960s. Although he occasionally slipped into a more “adult” gekiga style, it was the style of the children’s adventure he was most most comfortable with, and virtually all of his anti-war works from “I Saw It!” onward adhere more or less to this style. The effect when applied to the most extreme horrors of real war is jarring and haunting, and arguably more powerful than a more realistic or slick drawing style would be, and in this sense can be said to be precursor to such works as Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis.

After reading “I Saw It!,” Jump Editor in Chief Nagano asked Nakazawa to do a long series based on his autobiography. Barefoot Gen began serialization on the pages of Weekly Shōnen Jump in June 1973. But the window of opportunity provided by the times and by a visionary editor proved to be a brief one. Nagano was promoted and replaced with a new editor in chief. The oil crisis had caused the price of paper to soar, and the magazine had to cut back on the number of pages per issue. More importantly, though, the content of Barefoot Gen was ill-suited to the fast, action-oriented pace of a weekly magazine, where a creator is expected to pump out one 16-page episode per week. The series was cancelled, unfinished, after just a year and a half.

Times had changed, and publisher Shueisha was now reluctant to have its company associated with a politically controversial work in the form of a Barefoot Gen trade paperback edition. They also believed a manga about the atomic bombing would not sell. In 1975, Nakazawa finally found a publisher for the Gen paperbacks, Choubunsha. The edition drew the attention of the media, and contrary to the predictions of Shueisha brass, was a massive commercial success. The ongoing story of Gen went on to be serialized in three different magazines: Shimin (“Citizen”), Bunka hyōron (“Culture Critique”), and finally Kyōiku hyōron (“Education Critique”). All were left-leaning magazines, the last being the official publication of the Japan Teachers Union. Both Citizen and Culture Critique had to cancel the series for financial reasons, but Barefoot Gen was finally completed in the pages of Education Critique in 1985.

Gen describes Japanese war crimes and refuses to sing the national anthem at his junior high school graduation ceremony.

Barefoot Gen was first dramatized as a series of three live-action theatrical films in 1976, 1977, and 1980. In 1983 and 1986, it was made into two animated films, and in 2007, it was adapted as a two-part live-action television drama. In 1981, it was performed as an opera. The animated version of Gen was once widely shown in elementary schools, but some scenes are so horrific that parents complained of their children being traumatized. Many schools have since replaced Gen with “softer” alternatives. Nakazawa himself was characteristically blunt on the subject: “I would hope that children seeing the animated version would be traumatized, and learn to despise the atom bomb.” In his autobiography, he even went as far as to say, “Children who screamed and wept! Thank you! You now know the true horror of the atom bomb.”

Barefoot Gen was translated into English beginning in 1976 by a group of student volunteers who called themselves Project Gen. It was the first multi-volume manga series to be wholly translated into English. In 1980, Leonard Rifas spearheaded the first partial publication of Barefoot Gen in the United States as Gen of Hiroshima. Other foreign-language editions include French, German, Italian, Korean, Russian, Spanish, Indonesian, Thai, Norwegian ... even Esperanto. Yet Nakazawa had said that of all people, he wishes most of all that Americans would read Gen. He was quoted as saying, “I wish that President Obama would read it with his daughters.”

"Meido kara no shōtai" ("An Invitation from Hell"), 1979

By the end of the 1970s, Nakazawa had all but ceased to create mainstream entertainment-oriented manga, and begun to focus exclusively on anti-war, anti-nuclear manga. In 2001, Nakazawa was diagnosed with diabetes. Diabetic retinopathy and cataracts made it increasingly difficult for him to draw, and after cataract surgery failed to improve his eyesight, he finally laid down his brush in 2009. But he continued to speak out on war, and the responsibility for war.

Nakazawa hated platitudes and whitewashing. He generally avoided the annual peace memorial observances in Hiroshima, considering them pointless. “They never demand accountability. They make their call for peace, they ring their bells. That’s not what it’s all about. You need anger.” He had no use for doves. He was plainspoken, and he repeatedly and loudly proclaimed the late Showa Emperor to be ultimately responsible for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. His stance on the Emperor system and Japanese war crimes, as well as his apparent communist sympathies, earned him the hatred of Japan’s right wing.

In 1947, when Nakazawa was still in elementary school, the Showa Emperor visited Hiroshima. The school children were lined up along the route, given flags, and told to cheer “Banzai!” when the Emperor passed. The young Keiji had no doubt that this was the man who had killed his family. As the limousine passed, he kicked a shard of roofing tile, striking the car. Describing the incident in an interview in 2007, 60 years later, the anger was still fresh.

"Maboroshi no sanjūroku-gō" ("Phantom Fighter No. 36"), 1965


15 Responses to Keiji Nakazawa, 1939-2012

  1. Werner says:

    Goodbye Nakazawa-sama. We will not forget.

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  3. BobH says:

    Good job, Matt.

    BAREFOOT GEN has long been one of my favorite comics, and one of the few to touch me on a genuine emotional level.

    And I love the look at Nakazawa’s non-GEN stuff. I’ve long been curious about that, and would love to see more. I know a book of it is unlikely, but maybe a TCJ article with more samples, or some sort of digital release can be arranged.

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  5. Matt Thorn says:

    Thanks, BobH. I was happy to find electronic versions of the “Black” series, as well as “Phantom Fighter No. 36,″ but most of his work that is unrelated to the atom bomb or war is out of print. Even “Guzu Roku,” which was apparently fairly popular in JUMP at the time, is all but forgotten. The black and white splash page was the best image from that one I could track down. I would really like to see his earliest work, before he decided to use his manga as a means of protesting war and nuclear weapons.

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  7. patrick ford says:

    It would be tremendous if FB or some other published would publish Nakazawa’s early work. He’s absolutely a great cartoonist in my opinion, and I think there is a tendency to define him by the subject matter of the GEN series. Sort of a SCHINDLER’S LIST phenomenon where the subject is viewed as important and the expression rides on the coattails. While someone like Spielberg (in my view) got a big boost from tackling a serious subject, I think Nakazawa is to some degree viewed as “That atom bomb comics guy.” It isn’t like that. There is a huge heart and tremendous insight into human nature in his work.

  8. Matt Thorn says:

    Patrick, I confess that I had long pigeonholed Nakazawa as “that atom bomb guy.” And I admit that his drawing style, which is a style that was popular in manga for young boys in the late fifties and early sixties, struck me as incongruent and off-putting. But on closer examination I saw that he was an intense and fascinating creator. I think it’s hard to deny that the bomb was the overriding experience of his life, and I think he is justly remembered for work that tried to make us understand something so horrific that it boggles the imagination. That is the work into which he poured his whole soul and all of his anger. I think he would be flattered that we would be interested in his non-war work, but I think more than anything he would want to infuse us with that anger.

  9. patrick ford says:

    Very true Matt. I’d wager his genre material is infused with subtext in the same way recent stories by Gilbert Hernandez are. When you have a passionate committed creator the works subject matter becomes a vehicle for expression no matter if it’s viewed as “serious” or not. I have no doubt there are people who might adopt a a subject matter like slavery, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or The Holocaust, and produce something cheap and sterile.
    Of course the bombing informs all of the Nakazawa GEN stories, but people who haven’t read them might not be aware that for most of the books what you are seeing are stories about gangsters, kid gangs, hunger, various forms of prejudice, and other social and economic issues on Nakazawa’s mind.

  10. Leonard Rifas says:

    I am grateful for and deeply impressed by this remarkably well-researched obituary. I was glad to see the emphasis on Nakazawa’s undying anger against war and oppression.

    I have shared Nakazawa’s story with a couple of thousand college and university students, through his autobiographical comic _I SAW IT_ and the first of the animated feature films based on _Barefoot Gen_. My students’ typically respond with sadness and not with anger. I reread the editorial message that Nakazawa wrote for the American republication of _I SAW IT_ just now, and he does not mention his anger there, but he says that “It saddens me that, for all our scientific progress, we human beings remain forever caught in old ways of thinking.” Anger has a power to break “old ways of thinking” that sadness does not. We have become too familiar with the ways that anger can blur vision, poison community, and amplify ignorance. Nakazawa’s anger, by contrast, gave the world a less clouded vision of the hell packaged in each atomic bomb.

    I met Nakazawa on only three brief occasions. In Tokyo, in 1983, I had a fever and don’t remember much about our meeting. He came for the showing of his film at Anime Expo in San Jose in 1992, which I remember as sparsely attended. He returned to the United States for a showing of that film at the Red Vic Movie House on Haight Street in San Francisco, which was also a low-key, sparsely-attended event.

    In reading the small ripple that Nakazawa’s passing left on the web, I have been struck by how frequently those who have been moved by his work ask Nakazawa to please “rest in peace.” How can Nakazawa “rest in peace” when the work of abolishing nuclear weapons remains incomplete? We can express our sincere wish for his “rest” in our own refusal to rest.

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  12. ryanholmberg says:

    Readers might be interested in the coverage of Nakazawa at the Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus


    If you keyword search the artist’s name on their site, a number of interesting and topical articles come up, for example:


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  14. Ridojiri says:

    Matt, a couple of your own students [ I assume, I have no idea how Kyoto-Seika works ] have referred to some other Nakazawa works. Refer Kajiya Kenji http://imrc.jp/images/upload/lecture/data/245-261chap17Kajiya20101224.pdf

    As well as Kawaguchi Takayuki and Thomas Lamarre.

    A fair amount of his work is on Mandarake, Amazon.jp , etc with cover images. I have not been able to find any collections though. Nakazawa did a lot of one shots, emaki, and few sustained stories over a wide range of serialisations, so this also naturally limited the publications of his works as there simply was not enough to warrant a Tankobon or anthology (I’m guessing). I’ve heard he was even in COM at one point.

  15. I had the great honor of meeting Keiji Nakazawa in August 2010. Months earlier, some Nakazawa-hater had written to my publisher and the NY Times, impersonating Nakazawa. Along the way, many bad things were said about “comics” and Nakazawa himself was denigrated here in New York as “a F—ing comic book”, by a D-student New York publishing executive who was clearly telling us more than he knew. Nakazawa actually emerged as one of the great defenders of my temporarily banned-in-America book, “To Hell and Back: The Last Train from Hiroshima,” in which his history figures prominently. Some of his panels are not only the great works of Manga art, they truly belong in museums around the world, as some of the great works of art – period.

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