Ore Wa Mita (I Saw It), by manga artist Keiji Nakazawa, first appeared in 1972 across Japan as a one-shot manga featured in the Monthly Shōnen Jump marketed to young boys. Manga was still a cheap form of entertainment long after the war, but not all manga stuck to the prevailing orthodoxy of idle entertainment, I Saw It intentionally cracked the mold, not fearful of drawing ire to its message nor used to stoke the imitable anti-American sentiment.
The author’s intent stemmed from wanting the truth to be told since the grammar school history books were so pithy in his eyes. Both Japan and the US had their narratives to keep close to their ideals, though a first-hand account may be closer to the reality than the official gristle for collective mastication.
The wonderful and aptly named U.S publisher, Last Gasp of San Francisco, has brought Keiji Nakazawa’s anti-war tale, I Saw It, to English readers in a lovely, perfect-bound booklet. Last Gasp maintains the same right-to-left reading order as the Japanese edition which preserves the genuine reading of the work with the respect it deserves.
Nakazawa was an accomplished manga artist and writer, best known for his 10-volume, major work of Barefoot Gen, which I Saw It was a precursor to the fictionalized serial. Barefoot Gen garnered enough attention to American expats living and working in Japan to be the first ever translated manga eventually to be introduced in the United States.
I Saw It is an autobiographical account reproduced as manga (comic form) for young adult readers, 13 and older. The subject matter isn’t what most readers would expect in a comic, as it tackles a very daunting task of unimaginable injury and suffering. The experience the narrator, our author, recounts of his childhood during a devastating war isn’t necessarily consumable on the face of it. However, I Saw It is well executed in its imagery and deliberate narrative for such an early age group considering the material, and it so happens to be readily understandable for adults as an allegory.
Overall, the story involves a child’s love and appreciation for his steadfast mother’s perseverance. She toiled to provide and care for her surviving offspring under the horrific circumstances of World War II and specifically, after the a-bomb ignited 600-feet above Hiroshima just a kilometer away from their home.
Nakazawa’s narrative arc is of struggle, but not wallowed in despair which could easily happen under the circumstances. Being a six-year-old child hearing your mother describe her efforts to save her husband, daughter, and youngest son from their collapsed home that she only luckily escaped by being on the balcony hanging laundry to dry would be devastating on its own, but that was just the beginning.
The atomic explosion was so powerful that a wooden desk would be rendered into tinder while a papier-mâché suitcase next to it was left unbothered.1 Nakazawa had the fortune to be near a concrete wall around the entrance of his school when the blast occurred, protecting him, while a woman he just spoken to no more than a meter away was completely burnt. Eventually escaping by crawling out from under the fallen wall, Nakazawa saw his friend’s mother dead with her eyes wide open staring at him.
Illustrating Hiroshima’s aftermath — the first use of an atomic bomb use a civilian population — has the potential to be unsettling, and Nakazawa handles such concerns with care. Much of the story is descriptive. In fact, the accompanying visual depictions often soften the horrors. Nakazawa’s line work is thick, taking harsh details out of the images of nightmarish scenes. One will find more gut-wrenching gore in the Walking Dead television series than in I Saw It.
Nakazawa’s depiction of a woman he came across with shards of glass encrusting half of her body when the explosion occurred comes across more like a curiosity — a circus performer doing some sort of trick. Having to imagine what it must have looked like in real life, let alone being a victim, gave me more chills that what was on the physical page. Letting the volatile imagination work, with just enough context by the author, gives the reader a sense of the magnitude of that day’s horror. The reader’s empathy is stealthily ignited. The overall visual style of Mr. Nakazawa renders a purposeful emotional weight to the horrors he’s witnessed, and it does so without pummeling the reader.
In America’s rightward lurch, books like Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust graphic novel Maus are under dissection in Springfield, Missouri for being questionable or woke in the parlance of the ad hominem, ostracizing discourse of the American right. Nakazawa’s I Saw It could come under the same preposterous censorship, silencing of materials reflecting the experiences of artists presenting a mirror back unto humanity’s darker machinations. If being banned is the modern analogue to being ranked on the New York Times Best Seller list than I hope more schools’ librarians pick up this book to get it there.
The story of being an atomic bomb survivor is worth telling. Nakazawa created a memoir, Hadashi No Gen Wa Picador Wo Wasurenai or I Can’t Forget the Bomb, also published by Last Gasp. I Can’t Forget the Bomb is specifically for adult readers versus I Saw It’s toned-down youth-orientated prose and visuals. The commentary from Mr. Nakazawa doesn’t hold back for the sake of one’s maturity either. Nakazawa’s anti-war stance isn’t shy in providing motive for his pursuit in nuclear disarmament that he had championed most of his adult life.
The memoir is a fleshed-out, detailed accounting of Nakazawa’s life during WWII and the subsequent first dropping of a nuclear bomb on his hometown city of Hiroshima, Japan. I Can’t Forget the Bomb has Barefoot Gen panels sprinkled throughout the pages that complement his prose and progressive message. The juxtaposition is appreciated as Barefoot Gen is about art and storytelling of his survival under utmost difficult circumstances whereas the memoir is in effect, the long recovery from those circumstance. It is unabashedly humanistic in breath and adamant for justice.
The many chapters cover specific historical details along with personal anecdotes involving the aftermath of Enola Gay’s dropping “Little Boy” into his life. In The Procession of Ghosts, he recounts the thirst of the many burn victims after the event. It’s estimated that a 50-foot-thick concrete wall would be the bare minimum needed to protect a human body near the blast.
Most of Hiroshima’s citizens were barely protected by the wooden walls of their home, which eventually become the fuel for a firestorm emerging from the immense heat. Many of the survivors were burnt black with charred skin beginning to slough off, hanging like battered garments wore far too long to be of any use for the soon to be dead. Nakazawa utilized a helmet to gathered water from firefighting cisterns to help people with their last taste of water.
Storytelling is a human expression of affirming one’s sense of belonging and self. It can be a path to recover one’s way through trauma. What we tell ourselves is important. I suspect as Nakazawa was thrust into pure instinct to survive as a youth, this was also the motivation in becoming an artist as his father was. He gained his voice in restoring a sense of balance in a world that had gone utterly mad.
In this case, as history shows us, the state violence visited upon him by way of his father being jailed by the “thought police” in the early days of imperial aggression which opens his memoir. His father, as an outspoken activist, knew Japan would eventually lose the war. His father’s work as a recalcitrant performer in a leftist theater troupe would leave Nakazawa and his family without a breadwinner for a year and a half.
Regardless of the United States’ decisive motive in its use of the A-bomb, Truman applied the most terrible weapon ever known in human history 2 on a civilian population, knowing the consequences. Nakazawa, by contrast, was brave enough to say never again under any circumstances, advocating the end of a demonstrably heinous weapon that Truman willfully used.
He survived a flash of heat equivalent to the surface of the sun, and his books will surely survive the temperatures any conservative vanguard could muster beyond 451 Fahrenheit. The bare minimum that Nakazawa strove for was to, at the very least, never use the method of nuclear warfare to orchestrate conflict, knowing the consequences personally. It’s a commendable effort that gets lost in the consciousness our time. Nakazawa humbly offers his manga in posterity as a response.
After a life that struggled against the ravages of war and the a-bomb, Nakazawa’s ultimate effort in his art and activism was fueled by compassion. He had a humanity beyond his personal self-interest in advocating against war and educating against the malfeasance perpetrated by the US and his own warring country. The charred, viscera colored landscape dragged by the survivors would haunt anyone’s memories. Nakazawa transmuted these memories and maybe his own station as a survivor into what few had left from the violence of that time by infusing his conscious and compassion into his art.
1 Hersey, John. Hiroshima. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1946/08/31/hiroshima
2 Donohue, Nathan. Understanding the decision to drop the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Center for Strategic and International Studies. http://csis.org/blog/understanding-decision-drop-bomb-hiroshima-and-nagasaki
“From Hiroshima To Hope” is Seattle’s annual lantern floating peace ceremony set for Sunday evening, August 6, 2023 at Green Lake. The event starts at 6pm with construction of the lanterns and follows with music, poetry, dance, speakers and candle-lit lanterns. It honors the bombing’s victims and all victims of war and violence. Held on the northwest shore at West Green Lake Drive N. and Stone Ave. N. To volunteer or for more information, go to fromhiroshimatohope.org or call 206-928-2590. FREE but donations are always welcome.