The Japanese story form known as manga—with its extended plotlines and distinct pictorial style—falls somewhere between graphic novel and comic book. Widely read in Japan, where it is a $4 billion industry, manga depicts stories of everything from shogunate sword fights to the lives of high-school tennis stars. A typical work may contain several shorter storylines and can range from 200 to 400 pages in length. Despite the genre’s popularity in Japan, important works of manga are only now beginning to appear in translation in the US market. Shigeru Mizuki's 1973 Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is one such work, lovingly released this May by Montreal publisher Drawn & Quarterly.
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths fictionalizes the real-life experiences of the author while he was stationed on the Pacific island of New Britain (part of present-day Papua New Guinea) in 1943 during World War II. The story opens with the Japanese troops as they prepare for an imminent attack by Allied forces. The superior officers are edgy and the troops hungry. Dengue fever and malaria have swept through the barracks. Discipline is brutally enforced, as officers command their troops to sacrifice themselves on banzai suicide charges. To refuse an order is to invite instant execution.
Grim though the circumstances are, Mizuki manages to portray compassionate characters in the midst of the chaos. The soldiers scheme for food and duck their backbreaking chores whenever possible, foraging for plantains or coconuts. When one soldier goes missing on a river, the infantry worriedly search for the culprit. (The leading suspect is an alligator.) Later, another officer orders an unnecessary banzai suicide charge that his troops refuse. Instead of approving the execution of the troops, until then the custom among ranking officers, the superior officers in this case do everything in their power to work around the order and exonerate the troops, although to no avail.
The skillful artwork helps personalize the story. Palms hang over beaches in exquisite detail, with the jungle foliage practically bursting from the page. The machinery of war—the guns, the planes, the bombs—is also intricately drawn. At the same time, the characters themselves are drawn awkwardly, with thickly scratched lines that seem to blur into caricature. The juxtaposition of hyper-specific war materiel with the cartoonish-looking characters makes the horror of the battles more approachable in a way. These things are not happening to real people, but to comical characters who slap each other and slip on patches of mud with slapstick bluster. But the elaborately detailed images of weapons insist upon the unavoidable presence of violence.
There are moments when the numerous characters are difficult to distinguish. Sometimes it seems that Shigeru Mizuki could have drawn the characters with more detail instead of drawing yet another vine in the jungle and made it easier to follow the storyline. The cast of characters in the opening pages helps the reader distinguish between them, but not much. The realistic scenery contrasting with cartoonish characters is a hallmark of Shigeru Mizuki’s style throughout his manga career. In this work, though, his idiosyncrasies can lead to confusion.
Still, when the Allied “enemy" arrives, Mizuki expertly handles the battle scenes. The faces of the invading force are grimly shadowed and realistic, contrasting with the caricatures of the Japanese, while the battle rages with bone-shattering explosions. Shrapnel rips apart the fleeing soldiers, splattering internal organs and appendages across half-page panels.
An interesting point of comparison is Emmanuel Guibert's graphic novel Alan's War (FirstSecond, 2008), which, like Mizuki’s, deals with World War II, although Guibert portrayed the experiences of an American veteran who had served in Europe. That poignant work was more a contemplative memoir than Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, which for its part feels like a war diary. Shigeru Mizuki's story achieves its reflective tone through the detailed images of parrots and hibiscus flowers rather than dialogue. Only once do the characters directly comment on the broader meaning of the war. In this instance, the company medical lieutenant explains:
But you know isn't that how life is? . . . It's like a leap, crossing from one peak to another . . . Anything that gets in the way of that leap is no good. Whether it's a system or what have you, it's evil . . . Life is the will of the gods! It's the will of nature!
The army, the doctor scoffs, "is the most diseased thing humanity has ever seen." This passage, while an isolated moment, provides a welcome insight into the moral questions underpinning the war. This is a fictional work, so it is difficult to guess whether Mizuki himself identifies with the character, but the doctor’s meditations enrich the narrative nonetheless.
In real life, Shigeru Mizuki experienced much of the trauma depicted in the graphic novel. He was posted at Rabaul in New Britain, his arm was blown off by an Allied bomb, and he suffered through a bout of malaria. In spite of all the hardship, he still managed to befriend the indigenous Tolai people, and was invited to marry into the tribe and remain on the island. Only the intervention of a doctor convinced him to return to Japan where he began his prolific manga career.
Jocelyne Allen’s translation allows the simple dialogue to move smoothly along. The conversations are not overly complex and rarely last more than a few panels at a time. Only the translations of the songs come across as odd, mostly because the lyrics do not rhyme in English and the words lack context. It is not clear if there was more Allen could have done to ameliorate this effect. For example, here are the translated lyrics for “The Prostitute’s Lament,” an old Japanese war song:
A blossom that falls in the red light district
Wilting in the day
Blooming at night
Can’t hate nasty Johns
Forced smiles for smug pimps
Why am I stuck working this shitty job
No way out
All for my parents
“[N]asty Johns” reads a little strangely, and so too does “smug pimps,” but it is difficult to critique lyrics without their underlying tune. (In this instance, as the notes at the back of the book tell us, the music for “The Prostitute’s Lament” has been lost.) The rest of the story isn’t hampered by such awkwardness and reads very clearly, a tribute to the able translation.
Though the work bears some of its author’s characteristic gestures, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths isn't representative of Shigeru Mizuki's wider oeuvre at all. Mizuki is better known in Japan for his long-running series Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro—about a spirit child who protects humans from nefarious spirits—than for his serious works. The fact that Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths provides just a small taste of Shigeru Mizuki's sixty-year manga career should not take away from its ability to stand on its own. It is an epic portrait of a soldier during one of the most brutal battles of World War II. This translation (and its stunning gilded cover) is a welcome addition to the collection of any graphic-novel enthusiast.