by Shigeru Mizuki
Take a moment and think about how the West has portrayed Japanese soldiers of the Second World War in films, novels, and other media. The image that immediately comes to my mind is of tenacious fighters who attack suddenly, and who never give up an inch of ground. I can't think of a single movie I've seen or book I've read that gets into the Japanese perspective though.
That's why I was excited to crack open Sigeru Mizuki's Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, the collection of a manga story that was originally serialized in 1973.
This book is, according to the author, 90% true. Mizuki was stationed on New Britain, an island in the Papua New Guinean archipelago, and was home to some fierce fighting between the Japanese and the Americans. Mizuki introduces us to a number of characters of all ranks, and shows the boredom of the soldiers awaiting an Allied attack.
Much of this book is given over to portraying the officers as dehumanizing the men under their command. Barely a page goes by where someone isn't being slapped or beaten simply because of their lower rank. The men have their time wasted by officers looking to keep them busy, and the men slowly lose all sense of respect for the war effort in general. When it becomes clear that the soldiers holding an area around Baien have no hope of success, their leaders decide that the appropriate course of action is to attack the Americans in a frontal suicide charge.
Some of the men survive this, and make their way to their larger forces, far to the rear of the fighting. That they survived is seen as something between an inconvenience and a complete insult. Their deaths have been reported to military command, and so it is necessary for them to attack again, ensuring their fate is what their commanders expect.
This book lays bare the problems of Japan during the war. The need for honor, and for keeping up appearances sent men to needless deaths, while doing nothing to halt the Allied advance. Mizuki does a terrific job of humanizing this senseless slaughter, and portraying it in a light, enjoyable fashion.
Mizuki's art is very interesting. His backgrounds and establishing shots are exceptionally detailed and photo-realistic, while his figures are drawn in a very simple, cartoonish style. Many of the characters look like the racially stereotypical drawings of the Japanese seen in American comics of the war period, which kind of surprised me.
I enjoyed reading this book a great deal. None of the characters, with the possible exception of the doctor, stuck with me, although that is something that often happens to me when I read war comics; all of the characters are usually so similar that as individuals, they don't matter. Which was more or less the point of the Japanese command.