In November last year, the Peter Jackson documentary They Shall Not Grow Old leaped from the art house cinema world to a long run in U.S. commercial theaters. Using remarkably restored historical footage, it tells the story of the British men who served and died in World War I.
It bears a profound similarity to Shigeru Mizuki’s graphic novel Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, first translated into English in 2011. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, it tells the story of a conscript army in a bloody war of attrition, subjected to unrelenting hunger, danger and physical misery.
Mizuki shows us the world of 20th-century war, of Japanese soldiers in New Britain in 1943, in an army poorly trained, poorly supplied and poorly led. Officers and men are hopeless and helpless, unable to do anything more than sacrifice themselves with no hope of escape or success. This was not always the story of the Imperial Japanese Army in World War II, but was its general situation after having overextended itself in a fatal gamble on a superiority it did not possess.
Mizuki lost an arm and nearly his life there, and depicts the hunger, heat, bullying and terror with all the intense and quirky details of personal experience: for example, when he cuts off the finger of a fatally wounded comrade. He can’t save his friend; bringing back a relic of his body is the best he can do.
This story marries unflinching realism with the grotesque and sardonic humor seen throughout the work of this pioneer of the manga form.