“Meet a legend: Manga maven Shigeru Mizuki’s English debut” / Montreal Gazette / Ian McGillis / June 25, 2011

Any writers harboring dreams that their books might outlive them might want to pay a visit to Sakaiminato, Japan, birthplace of Shigeru Mizuki. Never heard of him, you say? Well, the people of Sakaiminato sure have. A whole street there is dedicated to the man and his work, lined with bronze figures of his fictional characters and comprising a museum. The scene might be a bit reminiscent of other shrines to writers worldwide, including the one to Lucy Maud Montgomery in Prince Edward Island (its popularity fuelled, of course, largely by Japanese Anne of Green Gables devotees) but for one crucial fact: Shigeri Mizuki is still with us.

Leaving aside the thought of how strange it must feel to see yourself so commemorated while still very much alive, consider how strange it is that a writer so feted at home could be so unknown internationally, beyond a tight fraternity of manga cultists. In fact, it's only now, thanks to Montreal's Drawn & Quarterly, that the 89-year-old Mizuki is getting his first translation into English.

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, first published in Japan in 1973, is the lightly fictionalized ("90 per cent fact" in the words of the author in his Afterword) memoir of Mizuki's experience as an Imperial Army soldier fighting with a regiment on New Britain Island in New Guinea in the waning days of World War II. For Japan, the war was already all but lost; rumours were reaching even as far as the South Pacific that cities at home were being bombed, and Mizuki and his fellow soldiers-demoralized, hungry, prone to malaria and amoebic dysentery-couldn't help but wonder what they were doing in this far-flung outpost, and why they were being forced to such extreme lengths to hold it.

One striking feature of Mizuki's memoir is how it demystifies the Japanese military experience and shows the universality of the soldier's life. These men, like soldiers everywhere, grumble about their superiors, sing bawdy bonding songs, and wish they could go home. In other crucial ways, though, this is a uniquely Japanese story. The fanatically hierarchical nature of the Imperial Army is underlined: the image of commanding officers casually striking their underlings is one of the book's visual motifs. So is the human toll of the Army's gyokusai philosophy, the dictate that when surrender is the only other option, a suicide charge is the only honourable form of defeat. Mizuki's anger on behalf of his fellow soldiers at being made fodder for a practice that often spared those of higher rank (he himself returned home from the war having lost an arm) radiates from the book's pages, but he keeps the book's tone on the right side of polemic, letting the soldier's-eye story speak for itself.

Visually, Mizuki's style is a blend, at first a bit jarring but soon quite affecting, of the cartoon-like (his depiction of the soldiers themselves) and the meticulously detailed and realistic (the backdrops against which the action takes place). Caricaturing the human figures has the effect of individualizing them, while showing their surroundings in near-photographic verisimilitude (albeit in black-and-white) emphasizes that these are, indeed, historical events. The book as a whole is presented in the traditional Japanese manner, to be read right to left-i.e. what most will think of as "backwards"-even within individual panels. Anyone new to this practice and thinking it might be difficult, fear not: it's amazing how fast you get used to it. Within a few pages it felt easy for me, and by halfway through it was completely unconscious. The only tricky part came after I'd finished, when going back to a standard Western book felt like an adjustment.

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