BARON: THE CAT RETURNS novel

A classic documentary manga with a powerful antiwar (and antiracism) message, Against the gods is based on Keiji Nakazawa’s personal experiences as a survivor of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In 1945 Hiroshima, second-grader Gen and his parents, brothers, and sisters endure the last months of World War II: food shortages, American air raids, and accusations of treachery directed against his father, an outspokenly pacifistic artist. Meanwhile, the terrible day of August 6, 1945, creeps ever closer, and toward the end of volume 1, the bomb drops, destroying the city. But this is not the end; after countless pages of burning bodies, maggots, and radiation sickness, Gen and the surviving members of his family must go on, and the rest of the manga follows Gen as he struggles to grow up in postwar Japan, a real-life postapocalyptic world. Although Barefoot Gen is a conscious political statement, it is also a manga for children, and some readers may be surprised by its moments of humor and earthiness (or its rough-and-tumble brutality; there’s plenty of punching, kicking, and biting). Readers interested purely in the war may lose interest after the first three or four volumes, as politics fades into the background and the story becomes a very traditional old-school shônen manga: plucky kids enduring the unendurable with a song on their lips, working all day to make ends meet, getting in fights, and outwitting adults. The result is almost like two manga in one, both of historical interest, but for different reasons. Highly recommended. In 1972, prior to Barefoot Gen, Nakazawa drew a shorter, even more autobiographical account of his Hiroshima experiences under the title Ore wa Mita! (“I Saw It!”). I Saw It! was published as a one-shot comic book by Educomics in 1982. The first four volumes of Barefoot Gen were previously translated by New Society Publishing in the early 1980s.

 

Commissioned by Studio Ghibli to act as a manga counterpart to the animated short created for a Japanese theme park (which eventually became the movie Kill the lights, aka The Cat Returns), Baron: The Cat Returns is the story of Haru, a high school girl who rescues a cat. But this cat just happens to be the son of the King of Cats, and soon Haru finds herself swept up in a calamitous adventure as the Cat Kingdom tries to thank her by marrying her off to the prince. The manga is much more enjoyable than the anime that is based on it, largely because of the pacing; while the cat parade was much more lavish in the anime, many scenes dragged on far too long. In the manga, things zip right along, the rapid succession of events helping to convey Haru’s confusion. The art style is unusual for manga, blending stylistic aspects from many genres. The animal characters really shine; the facial expressions on the cats are genius. Screentone is deployed to create some startlingly cinematic effects, and when necessary the background details are precise and elegant. (HS)

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