Mizuki Shigeru. Onward toward Our Noble Deaths (Soin gyokusai seyo!). Trans. Jocelyn Allen. Intro. Frederick Schodt. Montreal: Drawn and Quarterly, 2011. 372 pp. $24.95. Paperback. ISBN 978-1-77046-041-6.
Originally published in Japanese in 1973, Mizuki’s tale of Japanese soldiers on the island of New Britain, east of Papua New Guinea, during World War II was only recently translated into English. In the words of introduction writer Frederick Schodt, “Finally!” Too many examples of graphic literature are ignored in the West and introspective looks at Japanese wartime conduct, here derived from Mizuki’s own experiences, are rare in any format. Those two factors alone would make this title worth a look. Noble Deaths has the added advantage of being a good story that is well-told. Read Schodt’s concise and informative introduction. It will explain all of this in more detail than can be dealt with here. The book also has a series of helpful endnotes for cultural items that a casual manga reader will appreciate. One point of difficulty, however, is that the “dramatis personae” section at the start is only inconsistently maintained in the text. The reader is confronted with the same person being referred to by title only in several different places, but it happens with inconsistent usages without explanation. It can make the hierarchy difficult to follow at times. Another inconsistency, one of far less importance, is that when speaking of the illnesses the soldiers suffer, fevers are alternately referred to in Fahrenheit and Celsius (219 and 226). The English reader is uncertain if these are original to Mizuki’s text or introduced by Allen as she translates. With these two caveats, the overall presentation is fascinating, compelling, and vigorously true to life.
Mizuki was lucky to have been seriously injured before his real life unit was sent into battle. The men were sent into an almost impossible situation, but many survived. However, their deaths had already been reported back in Japan. They were ordered back to the front to die and their commanders knew it (53). All of them died in the story, but some 80 or so survived in the real world according to Mizuki’s afterword (386). The surreal nature of the situation is signified throughout by the realistic depictions of the environment juxtaposed against the cartoonish drawings of the men regardless of their rank. The Japanese government treated its soldiers as caricatures with visceral consequences, and they appear here in exactly that fashion as a testament to their lived experiences. Such is doubly appropriate because all the soldiers in the Balen group shared the same fate irrespective of station. By contrast, American planes, ships, and even soldiers are all portrayed in a minimal realist style throughout. This manga is a slightly fictionalized group biography of those men whose lives were wasted. Death is treated casually in such a militarist culture, ranging from alligators to tropical illnesses, and physical abuse of subordinates was rife. Pvt. 2nd Class Kayama’s pinkie finger was removed during a fire fight before he was actually dead (95 – 97). ACpl. Nogami in particular believes that “new recruits are like tatami mats: the more you beat them, the better they are” (68). Such positions are countered by Sgt. Honda’s behavior, giving his own boot to a soldier who had lost one (66). He even dies due to friendly fire while trying to make sure his men have secure access to water (213 – 215). His behavior was very much the exception to the rule in a situation where everyone “got the same ticket to hell” (81).
Even as there is little respect for life, there is nigh infinite respect for the dead. 2nd Lt. Mizumoto keeps his men searching for some tiny remnant of ACpl. Nogami after an ambush and is reprimanded for taking so much time (130 – 135). The reprimand demonstrates two things. First, that the disdain for life permeates the ranks, merely that it is more genteel as one rises. Second, that the Kempeitai, analogous to the Gestapo in many ways, was as active on the front lines as it was on the home front. However, Maj. Tadokoro genuinely tries to give his men the most honorable death possible from his point of view (160 – 163). He finally approaches the task directly, calling for his men to have “noble deaths,” which gives the book its title (204). The two kanji for the term “gyokusai” can also be rendered as “shattered jewel,” a common euphemism for suicide runs in WWII (367). His advisers are aghast, calling his insistence on holding the position while a hundred thousand Japanese soldiers lounged a few miles away a “farce” (207). It is made into a tragedy when the survivors are ordered to return and carry out their suicide orders with the added strength of an order to do so by “whatever means to achieve this objective” (269). The men have no illusions about their shared fate (276). The company doctor commits suicide rather than transmit the message to the survivors and it is only in his death that he is honored by the commander that ordered him to die (291 – 293). Two surviving officers commit ritual suicide in atonement for the sin of surviving the attack and are buried with the doctor (326 – 330). When the charge is eventually made, every last man dies. In death, they are shown in the same realistic art style used for the American forces and the surrounding environment (357 – 362). For the mindset that sent those men there in the first place, they were not valued as real people except in their capacity to die for their country. Mizuki shows this by only drawing them as fully human in their post-mortem states.
Noble Deaths is a tour-de-force of visual rhetoric. Mizuki has told, through a convergence of textual and graphic narratives, what “dead men have no mouths to tell” (369). In visually presenting the soldiers in the same way they were treated, he uses visual rhetoric to tell a story of pathos and inhumanity that mere words could never convey. Even without reading Mizuki’s emotionally restrained afterword, his views of the conduct of the war are evident on every page. War is indeed hell and the Japanese army had a ticket straight there.
Prof. J. Holder Bennett, Collin College