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Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths Paperback – April 26, 2011
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About the Author
Born on March 8, 1922, in Sakaiminato, Tottori, Shigeru Mizuki is a specialist in stories of yokai and is considered a master of the genre.He is a member of the Japanese Society of Cultural Anthropology and has traveled to more than sixty countries to engage in fieldwork on the yokai and spirits of different cultures. He has been published in Japan, South Korea, France, Spain, Taiwan, and Italy.
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It’s written by Shigeru Mizuki, and, as it says in the back of the book, is 90% fact (and then they tell you what exactly was changed from the actual happening). Shigeru Mizuki is one of Japan’s most legendary mangaka, on the same tier as Osamu Tezuka, (although I found OTND a little more processable by the modern reader than Adolf) although he’s only recently been introduced to the Western eye. He also happens to have been a soldier, who lost his left arm to the war, along with nearly dying to malaria, and those experiences form the basis of OTND. Mizuki’s art style is hands down better than anything I’ve read pre-90s. There’s a provocative contrast between the backgrounds, which are detailed on par with the best of modern artwork, and the characters, who use Mizuki’s distinct stylistic “cartoonish” rendering that’s reminiscent of Ping Pong, Tatami Galaxy, and other “unusual but better” styles (I haven’t read Oyasumi PunPun yet, but I’d imagine it’s similar conceptually to how that plays out with the main character. As a side note, in Urasawa’s Manben series about making manga, Mizuki gets mentioned a lot, and I think was referenced in the Inio Asano episode because of the similarities).
Without spoiling anything, I think I can safely say that OTND is about the tragic absurdity of war, with all the weight of the historical “this really happened” aspect, and a man who suffered greatly from its first-hand perspective. In some ways the themes parallel the classic film Bridge over the River Kwai, only coming from the Japanese soldier’s viewpoint, with the conversations of the characters usually feeling more like Full Metal Jacket. That’s really what’s astounding about OTND- seeing what the atmosphere was like for the “other side,” and the way that one senseless event led to another without anyone seeming to actually want to go down that path, you can’t escape the nagging question, “why did this have to happen?”
I want to keep this short, so let me just say that the omnibus is fantastically bound, and looks great on the shelf, as well as in your hands. It’s also nice how when there is a big 2 page spread they usually broke it up with panels so you don’t lose anything to the binding (there was once where they didn’t, I’m not sure why). It’s put out by Drawn & Quarterly, who I’d never heard of before, so they could probably use your support. I’ll definitely be getting more of their Mizuki as soon as I can.
The main theme of the work is compelling: a group of Japanese soldiers have been ordered to perform a blatant suicide charge, but through the fog of war are inexplicably not killed. In the meantime however, their superiors have already announced their deaths 'for the glory of Japan'. Upon learning of the survival of the men, they are not rescued or cared for, but are ordered to attack again for no strategic purpose so as to not bring "dishonor" upon all involved. The message: get it right this time and die. Can't you do anything right? And do the officers who order them back to die join in the suicide charge? No.
The story explores how each person involved in the attacks uniquely reacts to the situation, from rank soldier to superior to those watching safely from the sidelines. Considering that the author of "Onwards" (Shigeru Mizuki) actually served in similar WWII circumstances, even losing his arm, these subplot stories are equally captivating and focus on some of the nontypically portrayed (but sometimes equally deadly) tasks of war that deal with staying alive in order to fight: building shelter, getting food and water, cleaning latrines, etc. In a military system where leadership seemed almost as abusive to its own soldiers as it did to its prisoners ("New recruits are like tatami mats. The more you beat them, the better they are."), many soldiers sadly died for the most ridiculous of reasons.
While nothing can justify the atrocities committed by the Japanese (or those committed by any soldier for that matter), "Onward" is similar to "Letters from Iwo Jima" in humanizing an enemy that at the time seemed almost inhuman in terms of their ferocity and determination. As long as you do not mistake humanization for justification, which I do not believe the author does, the result provides many fascinating insights.
Mizuki's graphic novel won't be for everyone. Although it has been translated extremely well, it reads as all Japanese books do (from back to front), which seemed fine to me but bothered some I have lent it to. The art is also somewhat cartoony, especially in its depiction of faces, while much of the background is more realistic. These two competing styles at first do not blend well together, but I found I got used to it rather quickly and it did not hamper the story. In many ways it reminded me of the old Marvel comic "the 'Nam", which carried some manga influence. It is also rendered in black and white, but with very strong lines, and ultimately probably better than it would be in color.
So with apologies to the author, I am glad I rectified my mistake out of ignorance on his important contribution. It is my understanding he is now ninety and still writing. Even if you dislike comic books or manga I would recommend taking a chance and picking this up if you enjoy WWII history at all. Especially with most Americans focused more on the German/Nazi experience, this is a worthy addition to the Japanese perspective. The book also includes interesting historical notes that are informative and tie up some loose ends.
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Bonus: it's 90% true.Read more