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Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths
posted May 26, 2011


Creators: Shigeru Mizuki, Translation By Jocelyne Allen
Publishing Information: Drawn & Quarterly, softcover, 368 pages, April 2011, $24.95
Ordering Numbers: 9781770460416 (ISBN13), 1770460411 (ISBN10)

Shigeru Mizuki's massive, well-regarded book about the life-destroying futility he saw and suffered in World War Two has slipped out into the marketplace with as little fanfare as I can remember for any major work from such a famous and influential cartoonist. It could be that we live in such an age of weekly comics publishing wonders that book like Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths feel more like an item to be checked off a list than a major event -- an extremely indulgent list, but still, a list. I would imagine there are two other factors in play here. First, the work is a difficult one, both in terms of the story being told and how that story unfolds in front of the reader. Second, it is almost impossible to recapture for a North American audience in 2011 how this must have hit its initial group of readers in 1973. While one may have to worry over key pages and sections, and while the reader may be left frustrated as to certain emphases no matter how many time they're parsed, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths repays that special attention and unique frustrations. It is a significant work, and an uncompromising comic book story.

imageOnward Towards Our Noble Deaths tells what may be a familiar story to many readers at this point, one of military failure. A group of Japanese soldiers struggles with the everyday hardships of life during wartime. This includes the separation from one's family and the proximity of a group of strange men with whom one may or may not share a number of common causes. There are hardships caused by a lack of food and the structure of a sitting army where younger recruits serve at the beck and call of older ones. The surrounding countryside baffles. Mixed in with these daily struggles the young men must deal with almost universally unsatisfied feelings of how they're oriented towards the opposite sex, how they are distinguished from their peers and what they might share, how they feel about the war they find themselves in and any feelings of hopelessness they may have about that effort. Mizuki's artistic approach of cartoon figures against more detailed backgrounds -- employed to tremendous effect in NonNonBa, one of the great comics of all time -- has its strengths and weaknesses here. Mizuki gives lie to the notion that broader cartooning automatically leads to easier character identification. In Onward, one is given the opportunity to seize on the characters more directly, true, to project one's friends or one's own situation upon them. And yet the reader may also use the lack of detail to remain at something of a remove, stopping to notice only when the likely identification character wanders across the page or when one is given contextual clues that one soldier is worth noting over another. This mirrors the fact that most of these characters are broadly portrayed in terms of accrued detail and their voice, not just in their visual depiction. I think both reflect the way we look on groups of people -- they are sometimes more reminiscent of caricature than complex portrait, and their unformed state suggests an innocence about to be lost as effectively as any one thing that happens to them in the course of the narrative.

One can guess the final outcome. While there's little doubt that nearly every single person you see is certain to die, Mizuki manages to wounds the reader getting there through his calm portrayal of the absurd decision-making structure, and the way all-too-human appetites rear their heads at inopportune times. A number of the soldiers have the gall to survive a suicide assault order, and for a time many spiral gently away from the brutal situation in which they've been placed. This is less bewildering than heartbreaking: it underlines that this is something being done to them, these are choices that were made for them. I found myself wishing Mizuki could have formed a more compelling and detailed insight into why certain orders were given and certain strategies pursued. His suggested answers seem like easy ones. At the same time, I suspect their capricious nature is part of what fuels his anger, and it becomes an indictment not just of the decisions themselves but of a militaristic structure that affords power over life and death to logic, virtue and flat-out banality in equal measure.

I'm not finished reading the work. I have the same difficulty that I suspect other readers might in not being able to easily track which soldiers are which at any one point in the book. The surprise is that subsequent plunges into the material play up the clash of iconic elements. As I read pages of Onward for a third and fourth time, the less I see the soldiers as broad caricatures playing against a realistic natural background, but people simply and sympathetically portrayed cast in a milieu of baffling and even terrifying abstraction. Mizuki gives us a nature that represents the other, a state to which we'll all return and may never fully understand. As one suspects was true of the young man who saw much of what he puts down on the page, Mizuki the artist is fully on the side of the persons here: incomplete, unformed, foolhardy, lost, frustrated and always at least a little bit hungry.