Friday, November 30, 2012

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths

by Shigeru Mizuki, 372 pages

On a Pacific island in the waning days of World War II, a unit in the Japanese army is ordered on an unnecessary suicide mission by their honor-obsessed commanding officer.  When some of them have the nerve to make it out alive, face-saving HQ declares they must finish what their superior set in motion.

According to the author, only 10% of this Eisner award-winning fictionalized memoir is actual fiction.  And that's a sad comment on the culture of war, whether there and then or here and now.  Having himself experienced the horrors of a suicide mission, Mizuki emerged from the war with only one arm and a lot of anger toward what he describes as the "too Japanese" culture of the time, when national honor trumped all and relegated citizens and soldiers both to the status of insects in the minds of those with power.  This moving tale of a doomed unit, first published in Japan in the seventies, is his heartfelt protest, and it's a shame it's taken it this long to come out in English.  The cartoonish figures seem harmless, vulnerable, and out of their depth against their sometimes photo-realistic surroundings of jungle, tanks, bombers, and flying bullets.  After watching them goof off around camp, tell morale-boosting jokes and stories about home as they try to get by in an unfamiliar environment, and attempt again and again to pull vengeful yet amusing pranks on their less-beloved commanders, the reader finds their fates all the more incomprehensible and the author's anger all the more understandable.

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