by Shigeru Mizuki; adapted by Jocelyne Allen
published by Drawn & Quarterly; $24.95 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is the semi-autobiographical story (in the afterward, Mizuki tells us 90% of it is true) of Japanese soldiers stationed on New Britain Island in the Papua New Guinean Archipelago during Word War II. Mizuki’s stand-in is Private Second Class Maruyama. Life on the tropical island is hard for the Japanese soldiers. They battle hunger, malaria, abusive squad leaders, and finally US fighting forces.
One thing that stands out when reading Japanese experiences of World War II is how hungry everyone is. In Barefoot Gen and Grave of the Fireflies, we see the civilian population starving and people dying of malnutrition. Mizuki tells us that soldiers faired no better. Maruyama is living off of a cup of rice a day, so the soldiers become adept at harvesting wild fruits and vegetables. Thankfully, New Britain is rich in plant life, and they’re able to gather bananas, papaya, and potatoes. I’m amazed the Japanese were able to hold out as long as they did in the war, given the severe food shortages they were experiencing. It’s also a testament to humanity’s ability to survive.
Next, I was shocked by the level of abuse Maruyama and his fellow rookies suffer. The squad leader tells them, “New recruits are like tatami mats: the more you beat them, the better they are.” (Page 68) True to his word, every night he lines up the new recruits and smacks them. When a guy breaks his arm, the squad beats him before sending him off to the doctor. Mizuki made my experiences in Naval boot camp seem like a lazy Sunday walk in the park compared to the daily reality he faced.
I’m worried that Americans are going to find a lot of this book very familiar. First, the scenes of the soldiers talking about how pointless the war is, and the terrible living conditions in particular, reminded me of Platoon. The scenes exposing the mindless bureaucracy of the army are similar to episodes of M.A.S.H. There’s been no shortage of war stories with an anti-war message in post-Vietnam America.
Second, the noble death referred to in the title is a suicide charge Major Tadokoro commands for the battalion. Some of the soldiers had the audacity to actually survive. When the General in charge of the region hears about it, he orders the surviving officers be tried for cowardice. Movie buffs are going to recognize a very similar scenario from Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory. That film was based on the true story of a French Army unit in World War I. It’s eerie to see that kind of military insanity carried out again 30 years later in the other half of the world.
This isn’t to say that Mizuki hasn’t written a wonderful book. I’m just worried that Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is going to be lost in the sea of anti-war writings already present in America, when the real value of Mizuki’s book is to show us the human faces on the other side of the battlefield. The Japanese have doubts and fears about war, too. By the end, many of the Japanese soldiers were acutely aware they were fighting a losing battle, but they had no way out. The book puts to shame the horrendous propaganda and stereotypes we used during World War II.
Mizuki’s art can be a bit of a shock. (Fred Schodt talks about it briefly in his introduction to the book.) Mizuki chose to use highly detailed and realistic backgrounds, while keeping the characters very cartoony looking. Some people are going to be put off by the juxtaposition. I found after a couple of pages, I didn’t notice the difference. Considering some of the grim events depicted in the book, keeping the characters less realistic is a wise choice. It helps establish an emotional distance for the reader. Also, things can get pretty bizarre at times; the cartoony-looking characters can help the reader keep a sense of humor about it all.
There is a small translation error in regards to Tadokoro’s rank. At the beginning of the book, he is called a Lieutenant Colonel, and later in the book, he is referred to as Major. That would mean that he had been demoted, but his rank insignia shows him to be a Major from beginning to end. Otherwise, it’s a beautiful translation that is a delight to read.
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths should be required World War II reading alongside works like Maus and Barefoot Gen. Anyone who picks up this book will be enriched by the experience. Mizuki has provided us an honest look from the Japanese soldier’s perspective of the war. The book is as complex as the situations and the people it depicts. It’s a taste of what a great artist Mizuki is. Let’s hope we will get to feast on the rest of his works.
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