Shigeru Mizuki – Drawn & Quarterly – 2011 – 1 volume
Shigeru Mizuki’s visibility in the US has improved dramatically in the last year. We went from having no Shigeru Mizuki published in English, to a pretty great selection. This is semi-autobiographical, and also ranks a bit below Maus and Barefoot Gen as one of the best depictions/most awful stories of WWII in a comic book. It’s not nearly has hard to read as either of those, but the story of the way the soldier’s lives were simply wasted is still pretty awful. Mizuki is better known for his stories of folkloric spirits, however, and D&Q has also published Nonnonba, an autobiographical story about his love of folkloric spirits and how he grew up with a storyteller. And now we get Kitaro too, which is his signature work about folkloric spirits. I can’t wait! But in the meantime, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.
One of the most striking things about this book really is the illustration style. I had heard that it was really unusual, with detailed backgrounds and cartoony characters. And it is. The characters are drawn in a very cartoonish style, which is something one doesn’t see often in translated manga. The backgrounds are likely drawn from photo references, and are very lavish. It’s important here, since the main theme of the work is that the soldiers are stuck in this place and likely meant to die.
The destiny doesn’t become apparent until the end, but the story is about a group of soldiers sent to a remote island off the coast of New Guinea. They’re meant to hold the position and keep the Americans from invading the island, but none of them are quite sure what a remote island off the coast of New Guinea has to do with defending Japan against invaders. The new recruits are beaten on a daily basis, and everyone is forced to do unpleasant chores, many in service to the commanding officers. Worse yet, said chores sometimes end during a bombing raid where many are killed, or sometimes people simply disappear into the woods or water, presumably eaten by the local wildlife.
The party shrinks over the course of the book. What starts out as a huge group of lusty men is slowly whittled down. The Americans show up earlier than expected, and the too-few Japanese soldiers can’t hold their position against them. The narrative comes to a head when the commanding officer decides to do a kamikaze charge against orders when he realizes he can’t hold the position. He sends the men out to die. Some survive, particularly those that were convalescing in a makeshift hospital. They make their way back to the closest large city. There, the officers are forced to commit suicide when they return after their deaths were already reported, and the soldiers are sent out once again to die, because their lives have already been spent.
It’s a sad story that’s made much worse by the fact that it’s true, and something that the author has lived through. While the enlisted men do get increasingly angry about their situation, there’s nothing they can do about it, and they are resigned to their fate throughout the entire book, through every bombing run and crocodile attack. Worse still, they are also not given proper rations, so the men are also starving the entire time. It’s awful.
But it’s still an amazing book. I wonder about the number of really, really good WWII comics out there. There’s Maus, of course, but I also like Barefoot Gen and this story as mostly-true accounts of the lives of the authors. There must be some English or European biographical stories, though, and I’d be interested to read those as well. The three I mentioned do such a good job capturing the most awful aspects of the war. I’m happy to have read all of them, even though all are hard to read in their way.