You know: in a foolish, undiscriminating way, I've been happy these last few months. I don't know why. I just am. I love my friends; I love my pupils; I love what I read; I -- dammit -- love my thoughts. I love the taste of oranges.
Thornton Wilder in a letter to Gertrude Stein, Aug 14, 1936

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


Shigeru Mizuki (b. 1922) is something of a national treasure in Japan. His innovative manga titles place him the same league as Osamu Tezuki, the artist referred to as the God of Manga. Mizuki made his name with manga involving Yokai, the sometimes playful, sometimes malevolent demons of Japanese folklore. In 1973 he published this magnificent anti-war tale. I have read several manga that are billed as "adult" in content, but this usually means the stories are more sexual or grotesquely violent than other, more mainstream offerings. Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths is the first manga I have read where the adult label applies to material that is morally complex and emotionally devastating. It deserves a place with such Japanese anti-war classics as Kon Ichikawa's film Fires on the Plain(1959). And western readers should not look on this tale of moral depravity among the Imperial Army's officer class with too much smug superiority. It is a story of soldiers forced in to a suicide mission, a mission that initially fails and therefore must be repeated because the glorious sacrifice of the soldiers has already been reported. The twisted logic and gross disregard for human life is apalling, but remember that Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957) involves the execution of French soldiers for cowardice after their refusal to follow a clearly suicidal order. That setting is World War One.

Mizuki's was assigned to the battalion described in his story, and would have died had he not lost an arm in a previous fight some weeks before the final orders came through. Mizuki depicts the New Guinea setting as a combination of tropical paradise and absolute hell hole. Soldiers are starving, dying of malaria, and lining up seventy-men deep for the attention of the handful of comfort women their officers have provided them. Important work on camp construction can be delayed for days while soldiers search for the remains of a comrade almost certainly eaten by a crocodile. But the officers insist that remains must be returned for proper burial. A severely wounded soldier has his finger cut off by a shovel so the body part can be returned to his family. As his friends leave with the grisly trophy, the soldier, who is mortally wounded, is still alive and suffering.

Japan has lost the war at this point. Fire bombings of major cities has begun and Hiroshima is not far in the future. The insane logic of the suicide mission is the outcome of the rigid training of an officer class who treat their soldiers as fodder. The criminal insanity of forcing the men to return after they survive the first assault will leave readers enraged.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Dee great review, it makes me want to get this and read it.

    "Mizuki depicts the New Guinea setting as a combination of tropical paradise and absolute hell hole."

    As someone who has been there, even though it wasn't during a huge war, I totally agree!

    - Thor