Thursday, November 27, 2014

Book-A-Day 2014 #331: Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki

It might seem strange to feature a book about doomed WWII Japanese soldiers in Papua New Guinea on such a quintessentially American (and happy) day as Thanksgiving, but bear with me. Maybe it's not as odd as it seems.

After all, isn't one of the major things we're always told to be thankful for -- by those fatuous politicians and media types, self-important and drunk on their own assumed grandeur -- some windy blather about freedom and honor and courage, as bought by the blood of patriots? (Pardon me if I momentarily channel one of those idiots.) Every country has some version of that dangerously self-important myth, some set of lies they tell themselves to pretend that their nation is better and stronger and more special than anyone else. And so I have a book today that's all about those lies, and the places they lead -- perhaps to remind us to be thankful about real things in the real world, not abstractions and pretense.

Shigeru Mizuki is one of the longest-working and best-loved manga-ka in Japan, though very little of his work has made it into English translation. Most of his work seems to be very specifically Japanese, retellings of folktales about yokai (spirits or demons or ghosts or fairies, depending on the story and who you ask) from the past fifty or so years that form a large part of his nation's collective image of itself and its history. But, like so many other working artists, he's turned his attention to other things: a history of his time in WWII, a biography of Hitler, and this book, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.

This is not Mizuki's story, but it's deeply influenced by that story and holds closely to what really happened to Mizuki and his fellow soldiers on the island of New Britain in 1943. A battalion of soldiers is detached from the main body -- headquartered at Rabaul on the north-east coast -- and sent to hold and defend Baien, on the southern coast. American troops are assumed to be on their way, in large numbers. The Japanese battalion is poorly provisioned, poorly supplied, poorly led -- on top of the usual then-current mania for physical punishments of soldiers for tiny infractions (or for nothing) and for endless psychological torment. And it's soon clear that they have no way out.

That Japanese army was a place was failure was unthinkable, where even a strategic retreat was against every bit of their code of duty and honor. And so that battalion was essentially ordered to Baien to die, which became clear once the Americans did attack. Suicide attacks were become the norm in that army, and so this battalion would have the glorious honor of dying in one themselves.

Mizuki tells this story with a large cast, from the functionaries back at HQ to the battalion commander, down through the NCOs to a large number of ordinary soldiers. (There's three pages of faces and names up front, to tell us who all of these people are -- more graphic novels could do with something like that.) We come to know these men as individuals, and then see their lives thrown away pointlessly.

Mizuki's own experience was very similar, though -- as you might guess -- he didn't actually die on the island of New Britain in 1943. Instead, he lost an arm, and was captured as a POW -- both of which significantly contributed to his survival. (Though he does note, in his afterword, that suicide attacks like this are never 100% -- in the actual situation that inspired the book, eighty men out of a full battalion strength of five hundred lived through that attack, one way or another.)

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is a powerful, important work -- as important to understanding the second world war as Tardi's It Was the War of the Trenches is to the first. It's strongly drawn, with a strong wistful, melancholy tone threaded through it, contrasting to the matter-of-fact, down-to-earth daily lives of the soldiers. Today, I'm thankful that books like these exist, and that strong voices like Shigeru Mizuki survived the war to make them -- and that he still lives today, to keep that same message alive.

Book-A-Day 2014 Introduction and Index

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