“A Treasure Chest Has Been Opened” / The Winnipeg Free Press / Uptown Magazine / June 27, 2011

Irony knows no international boundaries.

According to one historical view, American comics - brought to Japan by GIs during the U.S. occupation (1945-1952) - had a formative impact on Japanese manga. Decades later, manga's reciprocal influence contributed to American comics' gradual ascendancy as a respected art.

Yet even Japanese comics struggled for generations at home with a similar stigma: manga was seen as children's entertainment. And so, just as the term "graphic novel" was introduced to lend comics prestige in North America, some Japanese artists turned to alternative vocabulary.

One of Japan's living legends of so-called gekiga ("picture stories") is Shigeru Mizuki, the artist behind Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. While originally published in 1973, Montreal-based Drawn & Quarterly's new translation marks the first time Mizuki's work has been made available in English, thus opening a previously inaccessible chest for North American comics fans.

And what a trove it is. A powerful anti-war tale based "90%" on history, the book is as captivating a read - comics or otherwise - as you'll find. And the decision to retain the traditional Japanese format for comics (i.e., a right-to-left orientation) makes the literal act of reading an experience unto itself.

The semi-autobiographical story focuses on a conscripted Japanese soldier, Maruyama, who's stationed in the South Pacific during the Second World?War. When Allied forces press inland, a Japanese officer decides on a final response: a suicide charge. If they cannot win, the troops will die gloriously instead.

But when the intended charge is botched, many of the men rendezvous safely in Japanese territory. When the military higher-ups hear of this, there's a scandal: how can they dare show their cowardly faces? And so the decision is made to charge yet again. Victory or death.

To tell his powerful tale, Mizuki takes a distinctive graphic approach - he juxtaposes realistic landscapes, war machines and scenes of bloody aftermaths with highly caricatured human figures. The two styles harmoniously enable a remarkable cumulative effect.

Caricature, with its wider range of expressive possibilities, may allow an artist to make characters more human; their personalities can be given outward visual form. The cartoonish, exaggerated figures in the Japanese ranks have a warmth and appeal that involves us immediately in their plight.

By contrast, the realistic detail reminds us that these were real men who really fought and really died in a real place. And the interplay allows Mizuki to bring that point home, with stretches of broad comedy punctuated by startling, abrupt violence.

All this culminates in a truly horrifying series of final pages that captures the deep-seated human fear of stupid, meaningless death. War robs from these men the dignity and autonomy all human beings should rightfully exercise over their own fates.

And on that point, there is such anger in Onward...: Mizuki, who lost so many of his army friends in real life, unquestionably harboured great rage towards the military establishment. All those men, sacrificed for a vain, fanatic ideal that wasn't their own.

Inhumanity, too, knows no borders.

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