Keiji Nakazawa: 1939–2012
By Sylvia Tsai
Keiji Nakazawa, the renowned manga artist best known for his series Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen), which was inspired by his personal experiences of surviving the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, died at the age of 73 from lung cancer on December 19, 2012.
Nakazawa was six years old when the atomic bomb dropped a mile away from his family’s house in 1945. The catastrophic explosion took the lives of his father and his siblings. Only he, his mother and elder brother survived.
His father played a significant role in his early years. Nakazawa’s father, who was also an artist, not only inspired him to draw, but also helped shape young Nakazawa’s antagonistic views on war and violence. His father was part of the anti-war movement and due to his activism was arrested by the police and jailed for a year and half at the Hiroshima Prefectural Prison.
Nakazawa was first exposed to manga in the third grade when he read Shin-Takarajima (New Treasure Island) by Osamu Tezuka. Throughout the years, his fascination with manga deepened, and he continuously sent in his manga works to publishers in Tokyo, receiving honorable mentions and prize money. After middle school, Nakazawa took up a job as a sign painter, which also helped him develop his skills as a manga artist.
In 1961, at the age of 22, Nakazawa moved to Tokyo and became the assistant to manga artist Daji Kazumine and by 1963 made his first appearance in the monthly magazine Shonen Gaho (Boys’ Pictorial) with his work, Spark One, a comic about espionage and car racing.
The artist’s early works crossed genres but never evoked his past in Hiroshima. It was only with his mother’s death in 1966, resulting from her exposure to radiation, that propelled Nakazawa to produce the powerful images and storylines of the war and atomic bombs for which he is acclaimed.
Hadashi no Gen (Barefoot Gen) is the artist’s most notable work. A semi- autobiographical comic and social critique, Gen tells the story of a young boy, Gen Nakaoka, and his experience during and after the bombing of Hiroshima. It also addressed the lingering misunderstanding of and discrimination against radation victims in contemporary society at the time of publication. This work first came out in serial form in 1973, and later was complied into ten volumes. The success of this work sparked its adaptation to three live-action films, two animated films, a television drama and an opera performance; the manga has been translated into 18 foreign languages.
For Nakazawa, manga was the ideal medium through which to raise social awareness. During an interview with Alan Gleason for The Comics Journal in 2003, Nakazawa remarked on the power of manga: “No other medium compares to manga in its sheer mass appeal. So all artists—cartoonists especially—should be active at times like this. If an artist is angry at what is going on in the world, he should be writing about it.”