ONWARD TOWARDS OUR NOBLE DEATHS by SHIGERU MIZUKI reviewed by Japan's leading English-language paper

“Yomuiri Review - Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths” / Yomuiri / Yomuiri Staff / May 12, 2011

Shigeru Mizuki was barely into his 20s when he got drafted by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II and was deployed to Rabaul, in what is now Papua New Guinea. There, he lost an arm.

But he survived. Despite having only one hand with which to draw and write, Mizuki eventually became one of Japan's most famous mangaka. Gegege no Kitaro and Akuma-kun are among his most popular creations.

He also wrote a graphic novel based on his war experiences, published as Soin Gyokusai Seyo! in 1973. This week it became the first of Mizuki's works to be published in English, as Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.

In an afterword to the English edition, Mizuki describes the story of Japanese soldiers in Rabaul as "90 percent fact."

Manga expert Frederik Schodt writes in the introduction that if not for his injuries, Mizuki would have been part of a unit that was sent on a suicide charge. Amazingly, they survived. But their commanding officers did not welcome this news. "Since the men's 'glorious death' had already been reported to headquarters, [they were] sent back to the front with orders not to return alive."

This inspired the manga's climactic events, and it helps explain why even today Mizuki states, "Whenever I write a story about the war, I can't help the blind rage that surges up in me."

Mizuki's artwork in this book is a mix of styles. His realistic depictions of Rabaul's lush tropical vegetation and his stippled images of gigantic cloud formations must have taken many hours of work per frame. But the characters who populate these scenes are drawn in a very simple, undetailed and cartoony way.

This technique is effective in the case of Maj. Tadokoro, who makes the decision for the suicide charge. His walleyed stare emphasizes that he is out of touch with reality. He seems to think of himself more as a figure from an epic poem than as a man responsible for the lives of fellow humans in the real world.

Unfortunately, the highly simplified portraiture often makes other characters hard to tell apart--and the story has a large cast. Moreover, when one man is killed by an explosion, his minimally sketched head flies away like a rapidly deflating balloon. I should have been horrified, but instead I just thought it looked silly.

Although someone dies every few pages, the book doesn't build up much emotional power until near the end, when two men who have been manipulated into committing ritual suicide tearfully wonder what their families in Japan will be told about them. Otherwise, references to the outside world are few, and the characters themselves display little emotion even when one of their comrades is, for example, eaten by a crocodile.

The most interesting character interactions involve officers discussing the problem of men surviving a suicide mission. Their comments and decisions are perfectly logical--but they build on the insane premise that mass suicide missions should be a standard practice.

Nearly the only sane voice in these discussions belongs to an army doctor who asks, "What's so strategic about losing men with bright futures in a suicide charge?"

"Bright futures" may be a cliche, but in real life hundreds of young men died while their wounded comrade Mizuki, who is now 89 years old, went on to become a popular and highly influential manga artist.

What would those other men have gone on to do, had they not been ordered to die?

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