Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (*****)

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths
by Shigeru Muzuki
English translation by Jocelyne Allen
(Drawn & Quarterly, 2011, 368 pages)

I just finished reading Shigeru Mizuki's graphic novel - his first manga translated into English! - about his traumatic experience (he lost his left arm and most of his friends) as a Japanese soldier in the South Pacific during WWII, Onward Towards Our Noble Death (Soin gyokusai seyo!, originally published in Japan in 1973 and reissued in April of this year by Drawn & Quarterly). Though Mizuki is best known for his yokai (ghost) horror manga subjects (especially those involving one-eyed boy Kitaro of the Graveyard, or GeGeGe no Kitaro, pictured at right), it was this fictionalized memoir of his 1943-1944 tour of duty at Rabual on the island of New Britain (now Papua New Guinea) that serves as one of the best anti-war testaments of all time. Though fictionalized, it is a 90% factual gunki-monogatari (war-tale); Mizuki only took the liberty, for dramatic impact, of having all soldiers in his graphic novel perish, when in fact 80 survived.

Mizuki's style is characterized by "cartoony" characters (and I have to admit, even though he lists his cast of characters at the beginning of the book, I had trouble telling them apart!) set against realistically detailed background drawings, an example of which is shown below.

"Noble death," WWII Japanese style

Scenes like those above remind me of another anti-war graphic novel, one from the other side of the world: Jacques Tardi's chronicle of pointless slaughter in WWI, It Was the War of the Trenches (C'etait la guerre des trenchees, Fantagraphic Books, 2010). Tardi also realized the absurdity of sending "cannon fodder" soldiers to their deaths in pointless charges out of the fetid, rat-infested trenches of France during the Great War, a conflict in which retreating soldiers were shot as traitors for not willingly falling on their swords - an M.O. echoed over 20 years later by Japanese brass in the jungles of the South Pacific. Stanley Kubrick masterfully captured the French military's absurd notions of "honor on the battlefield" in his early masterpiece Paths of Glory. A "trenchant" Tardi panel is shown below:

"Noble death," WWI French style

Publishers Weekly's review of Mizuki's book noted, "Onward joins the growing library of gekiga published by Drawn and Quarterly. Gekiga, roughly translated as “dramatic pictures,” is a manga genre that often focuses on the serious and tragic nature of life and can be compared to American indie or alternative comics. Mizuki is the fourth creator of the group of mangaka credited with creating gekiga in the late 1950s, a group that also includes gekiga pioneers Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Seiichi Hayashi, and Susumu Katsumata."

Perhaps Mizuki's account of wartime horrors was his attempt to exorcize his own personal demons (and lingering guilt over having survived). As he writes in the book's afterword, Rabual was one of the worst places to be in WWII for Japanese soldiers, who were considered less than human, and where almost 11,000 of these "subhumans" died during one of the war's bitterest campaigns. As a new recuit, Mizaki was beaten repeatedly for, as one officer in the story remarked, "New recruits are like tatami mats. The more you beat them, the better they are."

"In our military, soldiers and socks were consummables; a soldier ranked no higher than a cat," Mizuki writes. "Officers, NCOs, horses, soldiers: in the military hierarchy, soldiers were not even thought of as human beings, We were instead creatures lower than a horse...But when it came to death, it turns out we were human beings after all."

In other words, only when ordered to die in a pointless suicide charge against superior enemy forces - to go Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths - did the soldiers actually exist in the eyes of the honor-bound military hierarchy.

"Whenever I write a story about the war, I can't help the blind rage that surges up in me," Mizuki concludes. "My guess is, this anger is inspired by the ghosts of all those fallen soldiers."

War Is Over? If only!

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