By late 1941 when the United States entered World War II, Japan had already been fighting for a decade. Even before Hitler rose to the Chancellorship in Germany, Japan was fighting wars of conquest across Asia as early 1931. Fueled by dreams of a united Asia, during the early Showa period (denoting the rule of Emperor Hirohito, 1926-1989) the Japanese government pursued a policy of aggressive military expansion and territorial conquest. Whereas the Western powers had humiliated Asia for centuries by carving up the East into colonial spheres of influence, the Japanese sought to replace European domination with pan-Asian nationalism—all under the guidance of a bellicose and culturally chauvinistic Japan, naturally.
This is the context of the second volume of Shigeru Mizuki’s period history,Showa 1939-1944: A History Of Japan (Drawn & Quarterly). Alternating between large-scale historical narrative and personal biographical anecdote, Mizuki communicates a clear sense both of the political and military machinations of Japan during the war, and his own seemingly hapless circumstances as a student and later as a soldier. Japan was an imperial power before it was fascist, but after allying with Germany the country lost little time in implementing a uniquely Japanese form of Nazism. Mizuki shows us that although much of the country was swept up in the rush to war, there were still many who rejected military expansion as well as the foreign transplant of fascism. This is especially true of students, such as the young Mizuki, who lazed around for months on end reading the Bible and Goethe, convinced of his impending death and searching desperately for some kind of meaning.
The author finds no meaning in the military. Drafted in the early days of the war in the Pacific—during the height of Japan’s runaway successes against the Pacific fleet—Mizuki initially seemed destined to sit out the war in the bugle corps. Stupidly, he requests a transfer that sends him into the South Pacific at the height of the fighting. This happens just as Japan is reeling from its loss at Midway, and the Allies begin the slow process of retaking the region island by island. Again, he somehow manages to avoid being present for any real fighting, right until the very end of the book, which is where the reader is left on a cliffhanger to await the next volume, covering the years 1944-1953. While it may be obvious that Mizuki survives the last year of fighting (he’s telling the story, after all), there is still a great deal left to be told in terms of how he survives the worst of the fighting, as well as how he adapts to the punishing deprivations of the postwar period in order to become one of the great mangaka of all time. [TO]