BY LEONARD RIFAS
Some of the most-circulated Japanese words in American popular culture have been linked to military suicide: hara-kiri, kamikaze pilots and banzai charges. Shigeru Mizuki’s “Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths” tells a “90 percent fact” story about how his buddies died in World War II suicide attacks. (The cartoonist survived because at the time of these attacks he was near death from malaria and an air raid that took his left arm. Those experiences do not form part of this story.)
When Onwards Towards our Noble Deaths was originally published in Japan in 1973 as Soin Gyokusai Seyo!, there were few precedents for serious autobiographical cartooning. Mizuki remembered in an interview last February that this story did not receive much attention when it first came out. Now a growing bookshelf of serious comics about war exists (beginning with Art Spiegelman’s Maus), and Mizuki’s work stands with the best of them. The publisher has made a full effort to present this republication with proper respect, including an introduction by Fred Schodt (the independent scholar who introduced manga to the English-speaking world in 1982); a portrait gallery of the 30 main characters; an organization chart showing their chain of command; footnotes, endnotes; an afterward by the author; and a brief interview with the author. The book, following the precedent established for hardcore manga fans, presents the translated story with the pages and panels arranged in their original “unflopped” order.
The events of this story take place entirely on New Britain Island in the New Guinea archipelago. Mizuki draws the tropics in lush detail, meticulously outlining every leaf, every blade of grass, and the details of every palm frond. By contrast, the caricatures of the soldiers are simplified and distorted and drawn in thin outlines, giving them an almost ghostlike appearance in those panels in which we see them in their environment. Eventually, the drawing style of the characters merges into the style of the backgrounds, with a powerful effect.
The conversations, remembered from life, tell a believable story about young men, sick with various diseases, starving, thirsty, and abused, who ultimately follow orders to sacrifice themselves in the name of achieving “noble deaths.”
Mizuki has become more famous in Japan for his lovably fun and goofy stories about monsters (yokai) than for his war stories. This book is animated by a different kind of spirits. Mizuki concludes in 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.”