Shigeru Mizuki is probably best known to manga and animation lovers as the creator of “Hakaba no Kitaro” (Kitaro of the Graveyard), which morphed into the uber-popular “Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro.” The series, a screen staple since the ’60s, features a one-eyed, 350-year-old “yokai” (spirit monster) boy and a cast of other ghoulish friends who battle to save humans from other evil “yokai.”
Fans of “Ge Ge Ge…,” though, may not realize that Mizuki has published some serious illustrated historical fiction based on his experiences as a Japanese soldier in Papua New Guinea during World War II, where he watched countless friends die, contracted malaria, and lost his left arm during an American air raid. His wartime manga, though, is not limited to the fighting in the South Pacific: he also depicted Japanese atrocities in China and Korea (“War and Japan,” 1991) as well as a graphic biography of Adolph Hitler (1971) that highlighted Nazi war crimes to a younger Japanese population.
Mizuki’s graphic novel “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths” was first published in 1973 and was considered a groundbreaking account of the war. Set in the Papua New Guinean archipelago, this autobiographical story recounts the experiences of two companies of soldiers in the Imperial Army as they deal with the American landings. This is further compounded by the devastating consequences of “gyokusai,” the Japanese belief that it’s a soldier’s duty to die honorably for their country—whether in last-gasp battle or by falling on their sword.
The book opens with serio-comic depictions of army life. They talk of home and the food they miss, family and women. They recount nights in the brothels and sing songs together about Yoshiwara nights: “blooming in the night and wilting in the day.” Mizuki portrays men from all walks of life: doctors, teachers, boys just graduated but not yet men. There is the usual camaraderie, built between conscripts due to the physical and autocratic leadership of their superiors. The soldiers are browbeaten, slapped, punched, overworked and ordered to perform the most ignominious tasks. Officers are hard, unfeeling and never questioning of authority.
The simple cartoon drawings of the men and their plight are interspersed with incredibly detailed line drawings in an almost photo-realistic style of their lush surroundings.
As the stories progress, these detailed pictures gradually become more graphic and intense. Added into the meticulous drawings of lush environs are injured and dying men, limbs and body parts, corpses and trenches of dead and mutilated soldiers.
In time, both the general rank and file and the officers must come to grips with the fact that they will be dying for their country on this small scrap of the Pacific. That nobody will get out alive and that the “honorable” death is not the natural choice.
Mizuki manages to show the epiphanies of the men—and even more so the officers—as it dawns on them that they have options. Those memories forgotten in the desperation of battle—the scents of home, the taste of “anpan,” their first blushing experiences with a woman, their family—now bring the reality of their situation home. They vacillate between the choices of strategic retreat that would extend their lives but have them die diseased and malnourished “like dogs,” or dying with bellies full during a “banzai” suicide charge. In the end, regardless of their opinions on the matter, none can escape their fate as soldiers in the Imperial Army.
“Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths” portrays the human side of the Japanese soldier and his suffering, much like “Letters From Iwo Jima” did. Unlike “Letters,” “Onwards” is written in a startling comic form by a man who lived through the experience. Now available in English, both history buffs and manga fans alike are sure to find something new and thought-provoking in its pages.
Available in major bookstores and via Amazon.
This review originally appeared in Metropolis magazine (www.metropolis.co.jp).