Translated by Jocelyne Allen
Drawn & Quarterly ($29.95)
by Nicholas Burman
“We’re prob’ly going for a reason,” a private depicted in Shigeru Mizuki’s legendary war manga Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths says as his platoon is transferred from one part of New Britain (an island in Papua New Guinea) to another. Earlier, the lieutenant-colonel tries to inspire the troops by reminding them of Dai-Nanko, a 14th-century samurai who sacrificed his life on behalf of the Emperor. Such nationalist overtures, however, don’t quell the fear and hopelessness of the rank and file. This is during Japan’s New Guinea campaign in 1943, which in real life took the lives of over 200,000 Japanese soldiers by the end of World War II.
Throughout Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, “a reason” is always out of reach. The concerns of Japan’s political establishment are never discussed, and the “clash of civilizations” discourse that dominates documentaries on the war are non-existent. Hunger, malaria, and dying a virgin are the topics that preoccupy these men—boys, really. Throughout the book, they sing lines from a song called the “Prostitute’s Lament” popular among Japanese troops at the time: “Why am I stuck working this shitty job/no way out/all for my parents.”
This is a 50th-anniversary reprint of a work only first translated into English in 2011. Mizuki was one of the first manga artists—really one of the first contemporary comics artists worldwide—to use the medium to discuss “adult” topics on this scale. Long before Maus made comics serious business in the U.S., this book and Showa, Mizuki’s four-part history of Japan covering 1926-1989, demonstrated the power and potential of the medium.
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths isn’t interesting solely because of its historical significance, though; it remains an emotionally impactful and heartbreaking work. More Paths of Glory than Saving Private Ryan, the book draws on Mizuki’s own experiences in the War—he lost an arm in combat and was one of the few survivors of a campaign similar to the one depicted here—and his pacifist leanings are evident. The book draws plenty of attention to the inhumanity of Japan's military culture, including one devastating sequence in which soldiers, having survived an attack by Allied troops, are punished to the extreme by their own compatriots.
From the presence of “comfort women” (enslaved sex workers) to the repeated physical and verbal abuses the privates suffer at the hands of lieutenants, Mizuki includes various elements that demonstrate the absurdity, evil, and meanness of the military life he experienced, though these elements are often infused with a dark sense of humor as well. There’s also the tropical weather, which keeps the men warm and often very wet. Malaria makes people crazy, and they’re reduced to scavenging food from the forest. The privates often talk about rumors of Japan being bombed, and try to figure out ways for their families to be told they died heroic deaths.
Mizuki’s landscapes are gorgeous. Papua New Guinea’s lush vegetation and intense skies are rendered in expressionistic and nearly photorealistic detail. Many shadows and silhouettes appear in the panels; they haunt the men in the same way the enemy does. As is typical in much Japanese cartooning, the people themselves are more cartoonish than their surroundings, allowing the artist to lean on cartooning’s shorthand to depict emotions effectively. The looseness of Mizuki’s lines can sometimes make it hard to recognize characters, but this doesn’t create a barrier to enjoying the story overall.
There are times when people are depicted more realistically: This tends to happen whenever dead bodies appear. The change in visual tone befits the somberness of these moments. Mizuki also employs this technique when the men approach their “noble deaths.” In one famous half-page panel toward the end of the book, as what remains of the platoon embarks on its ultimate suicide mission, the men morph from their cartoon selves to more realistic ones; their clothes gain weight and texture, and their naturalistic faces become engulfed by darkness.
Much of the violence Mizuki portrays would be too much to endure if this book were a film. The emotional distance in a drawn image allows Mizuki to depict horror without it feeling exploitative. He returns to the photorealist aesthetic for the very final pages, where we are presented with piles of bones and corpses left amongst the undergrowth. These pages are drawn with great precision and humanity, a necessary salve for a situation that is so thoroughly inhumane.
The title Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths suggests a tragic inevitability. Since the events depicted here, it has remained a tragic inevitability that the young have continued to be sent to fight wars for reasons they don’t understand by people who don’t care for their well-being. This book, like Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est” and other anti-war literature written by those who have experienced combat, will stay relevant for as long as that sad fact remains a part of our reality.
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