Barefoot Gen follows the story of a peasant Japanese family living in Hiroshima in the days prior to the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Through Gen and his family, writer/artist Keiji Nakazawa explores the Second World War from several angles that American audience typically don't get to see, including the irrational bloodlust of war culture; the class nature of war (in which decisions are made by those least affected and borne most heavily by the poor); the inherent racism that war requires; and the ultimate futility of war. Nakazawa paints a highly detailed Hiroshima populated by more cartoonish people. Admittedly, I'm not much of a fan of the Japanese style (although I'm sure the range is much greater than I'm aware), especially as I'm unfamiliar with Japanese cartooning conventions. Hence, characters often look outright insane in their body language or facial expressions, which tends to take me out of the story. Nevertheless, Nakazawa manages to portray a loving (if seemingly violent) family that works to take care of one another under harsh conditions.
Barefoot Gen builds slowly. It's dramatic tension begins with the conflict between Gen's pacifist father and the pro-war culture of the town in which the family lives. The tension increases as the war wears on and the family (as well as the town) face shortages in food and work, and yet are ever more called upon to give of themselves for an increasingly pointless cause. The atom bomb itself occupies a fairly small part of the narrative, and yet it serves to underline all that precedes it. While there are further chapters to Gen's saga, this first volume offers no real happy ending, only the fervent hope to prevent future horrors.