Onion AV Club reviews ONWARD TOWARDS OUR NOBLE DEATHS

“Graphic novels & art-comics—late May and early June 2011” / The A.V. Club / Noel Murray / May 26, 2011

Shigeru Mizuki's 1973 graphic novel Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths (D&Q) takes the concept of the broadly outlined hero to an even more sublime level. Based on Mizuki's memories of fighting in World War II, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths opens with three pages of tiny heads, laying out the book's 30 major characters, but it's really not that necessary to memorize all those names and ranks. Here's what matters: which ones are the officers and which are the grunts. It's easy to tell the two apart because the former are usually slapping the latter silly.

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is a remarkable work that connects on a number of levels, all unified by Mizuki's mordant sense of humor. A character dies roughly every 10 pages in this 350-page book, typically in ways that are more blackly comic than tragic. Soldiers get shot while sneaking off to extract a few drops of water from tree roots, or they choke while trying to carry fish in their mouths. Those are the kind of quirky details that could only come from personal experience, and they're mixed in with page after page of soldiers dealing with hunger, illness, horniness, and the dehumanizing abuse of their superiors.

Mizuki combines detailed, often beautiful illustrations of small Pacific islands with characters rendered far less elaborately, setting up the climactic suicide mission of the book's title, where the men become little more than meat. In a brief interview included in the appendix, Mizuki says that Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths didn't draw much attention when it was published in Japan, perhaps because there wasn't much demand for WWII stories in the land of the people who lost. Now though, the book seems more invaluable than ever. In popular culture, the Japanese perspective on the war has largely been defined by the West. But it's going to be hard to picture the Imperial Army as robotic fanatics after reading Onward, with its mass of rounded faces all yearning for an extra spoonful of rice and one last shot at getting laid before they charge into the abyss.

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