Thursday, June 14, 2012

Review: Onward to Our Honorable Deaths

While it may look like I'm on a Shigeru Mizuki kick right now, it's just appearances.  One of the people I know that likes reading manga has been picking up different titles from Book-Off, and she'd found a few by Shigeru that she wanted to check out further.

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Gyokuse yo! Souin (Do Honorable Death! Everyone) has been translated into English as Onward Towards Our Honorable Deaths by Drawn and Quarterly, so there's not much point in describing the story in a lot of depth.  Mizuki had served in the Japanese military as an infantryman on a South Seas island during WW II, and had one arm blown off in an explosion, prior to being captured as a POW by the Americans.  He uses his experiences here to relate the story of a squad on New Britain Island towards the end of the war.  Generally, the character designs are typical Mizuki cartoon caricatures placed on top of near-photographic backgrounds.  However, when he wants to show the gritty realities of war, he will switch to hyper-realistic images of corpses and mountains of bleached bones.  This is not a book for the weak of stomach.

Life in the Japanese military prior to the 1960's (when it got restructured along more western lines) was short and brutish.  Officers routinely beat their men to instill a sense of fatalism that made "banzai charges" (suicide attacks) easier to implement.  As the war turned against them, the Japanese generals spread rumors that prisoners would be subject to harsh torture and that it would be better to commit seppuku than be captured.  Indeed, the soldiers in this story are told that if they don't die in battle while trying to hold the island for at least one more day, that Command would have the survivors executed as traitors.  Most western readers are familiar with "kamikaze pilots" who would crash their planes into U.S. warships.  But, there were also "human torpedoes" - one-man mini subs with just enough air and fuel to get to the target before exploding.  There's a memorial to the men sentenced to pilot those torpedoes located a short ferry ride from where I used to work in Tokuyama.  The brutality described in here of the officers against the enlisted men is not exaggerated.

(Keiyama's final moments.)

The story in Onward mostly follows one man - Maruyama - from when he is sent to the island, up to when it finally falls into Allied hands.  Right from the beginning, men fall prey to malaria and the alligators living in the rivers.  Rations are limited, and the undercooked rice causes food-poisoning-related diseases.  The enlisted men resort to digging up and hording mountain potatoes, papaya and bananas.  As the aerial attacks increase, more men die from strafing runs and bombings.

(They also die from their own ignorance.)

Occasionally, one of the men will begin to hallucinate as the malaria fever worsens, and either try running towards the enemy unarmed, or shoot at their own comrades by mistake.  When things look really grim, as food and ammo run out, the commanding officer demands that everyone die in a banzai attack, no survivors.  Fortunately for Maruyama and a handful of others, one of the other officers thinks that guerrilla tactics would be smarter in the long run and he orders the enlisted guys to run and hide during the confusion, so that it's primarily the officers that get wiped out in the attack.  The story unfolds further until the obvious final conclusion.

(Death of an officer in a bansai charge.)

As mentioned above, this is not a book for the squeamish.  And it's not for those that prefer to romanticize the glories of combat.  But, if you want a realistic telling of the grounds-eye view of a WW II battle as told by the losing side, this is an amazing book.  Highly recommended.  Buy the D&Q edition, and help support quality English translated manga.

1 comment:

Bunny said...

Tokuyama has the "ningen gyorai" used in the film "deguchi no nai umi" (I think)

We're from there ^^;