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Manga Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths

A powerful condemnation of war by one of Japan's most famous cartoonists

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A landmark publishing event of one of Japan's most famous cartoonists

Shigeru Mizuki was the preeminent figure of Gekiga manga and one of Japan's most famous working cartoonists – a true legend. Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths was his first book translated into English. It is a semiautobiographical account of the desperate final weeks of a Japanese infantry unit at the end of World War II. The soldiers are told that they must go into battle and die for the honour of their country, with certain execution facing them if they return alive. Mizuki was a soldier himself (severely injured and lost an arm) and used his experiences to convey the war's devastating consequences and moral depravity.

Mizuki's list of accolades and achievements is long and detailed. In Japan, the life of Mizuki and his wife was made into a top-rated television drama that airs daily. Mizuki is the recipient of many awards, including the Best AlbumAward for his book NonNonBa (to be published in 2012 by D+Q) and the Heritage Essential Award for Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths at the Angoulême International Comics Festival, the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize Special Award, the Kyokujitsu Sho Decoration, the Shiju Hosho Decoration, and the Kodansha Manga Award. His hometown of Sakaiminato honoured him with Shigeru Mizuki Road - a street decorated with bronze statues of his Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro characters - and the Shigeru Mizuki International Cultural Center.

About the Author

Born 8 March 1922, in Sakaiminato, Tottori, Shigeru Mizuki was a specialist in the stories of yokai and is considered a master of the genre. He was a member of the Japanese Society of Cultural Anthropology. He travelled to more than sixty countries worldwide to engage in fieldwork on the yokai and spirits of different cultures. He has been published in Japan, South Korea, France, Spain, Taiwan, and Italy. His award-winning works include Kitaro, Nonnonba, and Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. Mizuki's four-part autobiography and historical portrait Showa: A History of Japan won an Eisner Award in 2015.


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A first-hand experience of the Pacific War
There are few creators better-known in Japan than the legendary manga creator Shigeru Mizuki. While he is famous for his work featuring Japanese mythical creatures, or yokai, in English he's become equally influential with his adult-oriented historical books like Showa and Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths.

First published in 1973, Onwards was part of a Japanese movement of manga aimed at telling mature stories, "adult" in terms of "not appealing to kids" rather than the more common meaning of having sex and violence. Onwards tells the story of the Japanese troops serving on a semi-useless island on Papua New Guinea in the late days of World War II, with approaching American troops on the horizon.

The story is 50 years old and aimed at a different generation of readers, so from the start, how the story is told can be jarring. Mizuki's technique here, as in his kids' book, Ge ge ge no Kitaro, is nearly photographically-rendered backgrounds with animated characters in the foreground. The book is a fairly brisk read, as 70s manga was a lot more cinematic than the work coming out in the West in that era. There is a quality that might be off-putting to someone looking for a "serious" war story. The art has a bit of Disney in it.

It's a fitting style for the story though. These soldiers on this island are not heroic. They aren't bad guys either, they're young men with little life experience who have been flown to a place they never imagined and asked to put their life on the line for the sake of their country and their honor. From the start, the captains and leaders are telling them to prepare to die, while they slap them around and berate them as rookies. Meanwhile, the soldiers are picking their noses, dreaming about eating, and reflecting on their frustrations at being virgins. Early scenes verge on comedy. It's a portrait of a military system that is a meat-grinder of young lives.

The book has a large cast of characters, and attempts to differentiate them with a guide in the opening pages, but I had some difficulty telling everyone apart. The main character, Private Maruyama, is in the book consistently, and has signature round glasses that make him stand out, but beyond him, characters come in and out, all wearing variations of the same uniform. Characters feature in a few chapters of their own short arc, and aren't seen again. Friendly fire, suicide, American firefights... the cast of characters thins themselves out.

A memorable passage has Maruyama, the soldier that is an analogue for Mizuki himself, leaving his tent at night to use the latrine and lose a shoe as he steps in the hole the men have been using. He washes his foot off in the rice bucket, and makes sure to serve his sergeant a big bowl of rice the next day, sure that some residue must have remained. His sergeant proves to be stern, but not nearly deserving of this treatment. Maruyama is the kind of guy given a gun and told to take out the enemy, someone not remotely equipped to make life or death decisions.

Other characters get their stories told, such as a doctor who fails to convince his superior that there is no point in sending a troop to their deaths for no reason. His commander, like all the commanders, are stuck in the loop that will be all too familiar to anyone who has worked in Japan: the people in the top positions got to those positions because they excelled at following orders. There is no space for independent thinking in the chain of command. Except in this case, rather than pointless paperwork of modern Japan, death is the result of these mindless orders.

Mizuki makes an effort to point out that flaws with the Japanese WWII mindset. Mizuki was anti-war, and I'm sure he would have criticism for any country committed to starting wars. But in Onward, he repeatedly has the commanding officers throw out words like "honor" and "shame" while questioning why only Japanese weren't allowed to surrender, as pretty much any other country's soldier would.

The story Mizuki tells is so frustrating again and again. The men are sent to hold positions they aren't actually expected to hold. Rather, they are commanded to take out as many soldiers as they can. The wounded are given grenades and expected to kill themselves at the most opportune moment. And the story takes place in the summer of 1945, so readers already know that all the battles they are fighting make no difference in the war either way.

Mizuki's art is impeccable. As stated before, the backgrounds are near-photographic (most likely drawn from photo references), while the main characters carry the weight of animated figures. From time to time, he lets the figures themselves become photographic: a platoon of soldiers landing on the beach have imposing weight and shadows; a pit of disposed of bodies is fully rendered. The book slips in and out of techniques to slow the reader down when the moment requires deeper reflection. The book is a tragedy, and he wants it to sink in.

The book wasn't quite what I was expecting. I had thought it was straight autobiography, and it isn't. Mizuki himself was in a platoon in Papua New Guinea, a platoon where pretty much everyone except Mizuki died, Mizuki losing his right arm. (Astonsihingly, right-handed Mizuki went on to learn to draw with his left hand.) This isn't that story, and Mizuki simply tells a story featuring soldiers, one of whom resembles Mizuki. Very little backstory is given to any of them. It's a gut-wrenching story told in a light, brisk way.

I have the 2011 printing from Drawn and Quarterly. Like most of their books, it has some of the best print quality in the world, with heavy, toothy paper. The re-release of it is scheduled for August 2022, and I expect a similar quality of print.
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Shigeru Mizuki
Drawn & Quarterly
Year of publication
26 April 2011
Number of pages
USD 24.95

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