‘Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths’: A graphic novel of war’s rage

Oct. 10, 2011 | 9:36 a.m.
onward art Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths: A graphic novel of wars rage

The cover and Page 190 of "Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths" by Shigeru Mizuki, translated by Jocelyn Allen. (Drawn & Quarterly)

In the thinly fictionalized “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths,” manga artist Shigeru Mizuki recounts the brutality with which the officers of the Imperial Army treated their own men, a story that has received less attention than their savage abuse of the Chinese and other conquered people.

Mizuki drew on his painful experiences as a draftee during World War II, when he was sent to the island of New Britain off the northwest coast of New Guinea. He lost his left arm in battle and caught malaria — which kept him from certain death in a suicide charge ordered by his superiors. Private Maruyama serves as Mizuki’s stand-in: a grunt with a talent for drawing, struggling to survive short rations, miserable weather, tropical diseases and American attacks on the island.

194 onward Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths: A graphic novel of wars rage

Page 194 of "Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths" by Shigeru Mizuki, translated by Jocelyn Allen. (Drawn & Quarterly)

Like Willie and Joe, the dogface American privates in Bill Mauldin’s celebrated “Up Front,” Maruyama and his comrades are more interested in decent food, dry clothes and a safe place to sleep than in political issues. But Willie and Joe never faced officers who would calmly beat them to death or force them to execute a pointless suicide attack. Mizuki depicts these officers as fanatics dedicated to spurious samurai ideals and fascist propaganda. Although it’s clear that Japan has already lost the war, the officers order meaningless assaults that will cost the soldiers their lives.

The suggestion that the squadron withdraw and conduct a guerrilla campaign that could continue for months (and that some of them might survive) is rejected as “dishonorable.” The officers exhort the men to emulate their compatriots on Peleliu (present day Palau), where almost 11,000 Japanese soldiers and sailors died but only 19 were taken prisoner. In his Afterword, the artist comments, “In our military, soldiers and socks were consumables; a soldier ranked no higher than a cat.”

Mizuki employs two distinct styles in the 372-page “Onward.” For the daily grind Maruyama and his buddies endure, he uses simple, sketchy drawings: a few quick lines suggest a mouth, the eyes or the oval of a face. He reduces the backgrounds to flat areas of black and white or patterns of parallel lines. But when he depicts the attacks, Mizuki shifts to a detailed, almost photorealistic style to depict explosions, machine gun fire, battleships — and bodies lying amid the lush tropical foliage.

Although it’s being presented in English for the first time in this $24.95 edition from Drawn & Quarterly (with Jocelyn Allen handling the translation),  “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths” was originally published in 1973. Mizuki anticipated the much-hyped combination of drawings and photographs in the graphic novel “The Photographer” by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre and Frédéric Lemercier (and the animation/live action combination in “Waltz With Bashir”) by more than three decades.

But Mizuki uses the disparate visuals more skillfully. The black-and-white drawings allow the reader’s eye to follow the characters from their simplified settings to the horribly detailed action scenes. The result is a unified vision that keeps all the action within a single world. “Onward” is an important book that once again demonstrates power of the graphic novel to depict serious issues.

In Japan, the 89-year-old Mizuki is best know for his strangely charming stories about yokai (variously translated as “ghosts,” “spirits” or “spooks”). There’s a museum dedicated to his work, and a street in his hometown of Sakaiminato features 100 bronze statues of yokai. But “Onward” is an intensely personal creation. Mizuki concludes his Afterword, “Whenever I write a story about the war, I can’t help the blind rage that surges up in me. My guess is, this anger is inspired by the ghosts of all those fallen soldiers.”

– Charles Solomon

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