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Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki
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May 23, 2011

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Read on November 25, 2011

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths features a battalion-scale look at the lot of Japanese infantrymen in World War II. It centers on a group of soldiers stationed on a remote island in New Guinea—although “abandoned” might be more accurate, given their lack of supplies and suffering at the hands of their superiors.

Their lot is a grim one. Even at best, the grunts are subject to constant beatings from their officers. They’re sent to scavenge in unfamiliar jungle, falling prey to crocodiles, tropical diseases and random bombing forays by Americans, who seem as distant and unknowable as the landscape itself.

The afterword shares that “90 percent” of the story is taken directly from the real-life experiences of author Shigeru Mizuki. This eminent manga creator served on a Pacific island in the Second World War. He barely survived a skirmish that wiped out the rest of his detachment; upon returning, he was berated for it. Only wounds from a bombing raid spared him from deployment in a suicide charge. He eventually lost his left arm and gained a healthy disgust for the treatment he and his peers endured. This scorn is evident in every page of this work.

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is filled with wrenching details. One man is shot in a rain-drenched firefight. His comrades abandon him, still living, but not before cutting off his little finger with a shovel to prove he died in battle. Later, the starving troops capture an American outpost only to fight over the boxes and boxes of food inside. “These bastards are living like kings fighting this war,” one observes bitterly.

Mizuki generally draws his characters in an exaggerated, cartoony style while turning to a more realistic treatment for backgrounds, landscape, jungle and camp. Photorealistic splashes periodically appear, typically depicting Americans or the bloody aftermath of battle. For the latter, Mizuki borrows the grainy realism of Robert Capa’s combat photographs. This visual treatment of the American troops—their tanks, planes, transports and lean silhouettes—emphasizes the philosophical differences between the armies. The very solidity of the Americans represents their pragmatic approach to war.

There’s little pragmatism on the Japanese side. Their commanding officer is eager to order a banzai charge against the Americans on their beachhead. Afterward, the few survivors are forced back to oblivion when a general’s dispatch shows up to argue their duty to suicide. One soldier is berated with the words, “Is your little worm’s life so precious?” The phrase could be the epithet for the rotted military culture that’s placed such a man in power.

The book is a powerful document, capturing the horrors of war. As fiction, it has problems, though. Mizuki populates his war story with too many characters. They’re hard to distinguish, and their ultimate fate—while harrowing—is less impactful than it would have been with a smaller cast.

He also relies too much on bodily humor to characterize his troops. Farts, shit, potatoes and prostitutes seem to be the extent of their inner lives. Mizuki may be casting them as average joes, men who would care little about the oft-referenced suicidal example set by Masashige Kusunoki in the 14th century. But he also diminishes them with this reliance on bodily humor.

Still, the book is compelling, full of moments that would seem unbelievable without the corroborating hand of history. It’s a good read—and an important one as well.

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