Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths: written and illustrated by Shigeru Mizuki, translated by Jocelyne Allen (1973/English edition 2011): A seminal Japanese manga in terms of dealing with World War Two and Japan’s role in it, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is certainly one of the most depressing, emotionally draining graphic novels I’ve ever read. It marked something of a departure for its creator, Shigeru Mizuki, who previously had been best known for much more fantastic, whimsical manga work.
Mizuki does one of those things I tend to associate most with manga, in that he juxtaposes cartoony humans in the foreground with backgrounds that are often clearly copied from photographic material. This methodology can obviously have an awful lot of meanings. Here, it tends to highlight the transitory state of any human being when set against nature itself, and the world in its sublime giganticism. At points, though, photorealistic depictions of the dead whom we’d previously seen only as cartoons hammer home their basic, shattered humanity.
The book follows the horrifying adventures of Japanese soldiers trying to defend one of the islands in what is now Papua New Guinea from an invasion by the Allies during the waning days of World War Two. Mizuki himself survived such a scenario, and draws on his experiences and others for this bleakly comic look at the horrors of war, and the horrors of being an enlisted man in the Japanese Imperial Army.
If you thought your war was bad, keep in mind that suicide attacks were considered a terrific idea by many of the officers in the Japanese army. So, too, were regular beatings and absurd orders. Part of the plot hinges on a Catch-22 that makes most Western military Catch-22’s look positively benign. A pointless suicide charge has been reported as complete, with all men nobly lost, to the island’s central Japanese command.
But in reality, several dozen men didn’t die in the assault for a variety of reasons. But their deaths have been reported. In order to save face at the command level, they have to die one way or another. The two surviving officers in charge of the group are expected to commit ritual suicide. The rest, including the grieviously wounded, must march back into enemy fire that they have no chance of surviving.
This is a harrowing book, spiced with moments of humaneness and humanity, spiked with horrific, sometimes oddly funny moments of trauma and death. The translation could have used a defter hand at points. Anachronisms like “Meh.” appear throughout, and there’s no poetic ability shown in the recurring translations of popular Japanese songs that the soldiers occasionally sing. But the power and pathos of the narrative survive this, as does the deceivingly simple cartooning. But be warned: there is no catharsis here. There is ultimately no point to the deaths, no redemption. Highly recommended.