Shigeru Mizuki’s “Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths” begins with a gallery of the faces of each of the 30 main characters.
Although none of these portraits could be called realistic, each is idiosyncratic enough to be instantly recognizable and distinct from each of the others. That we can tell one from the other is, perhaps, the point: these young men, Mizuki shows us, were not a nameless and faceless mass marching toward their “noble deaths,” but sons and brothers, husbands and lovers, human beings caught up in something beyond their control.
It becomes painfully clear, as we move through the pages of Mizuki’s “90 percent fact[ual]” account of a detachment of Japanese soldiers sent, in 1943, to an island in the New Guinean archipelago, that their superiors did not see things that way. For them, the grunts “were not even thought of as human beings.”
“We were instead,” Mizuki explains, “creatures lower than a horse.” Reading, in the clean prose of Mizuki’s afterword, that “soldiers and socks were consumables; a soldier ranked no higher than a cat,” we are appalled that human life was held in such low regard. Seeing it in the pages of Mizuki’s manga we experience this degradation of humanity in a way painfully visceral.
Start with the beauty of Mizuki’s drawings. The figures who populate Mizuki’s frames tend to be simple, if amusing and psychologically rich, caricatures.
The background against which they move, however, is often realistic and exquisitely detailed. This is true of the two double-page spreads with which the comic begins, one of the ships at sea on their way to New Guinea, and one of the troops arriving, the island’s palm trees in the foreground, the ships seen through them, just off the coast. These spreads — the ocean, the tropical beauty — lull the reader just as the young soldiers allow themselves to be comforted by the hope that their mission might be other than hellish.
“I heard they have papaya trees where we’re headed,” one of the young men remarks, and hitting the beach another exults, “It is almost just like heaven.”
Such notions are soon expunged by the casual brutality of the officers, and the increasingly dangerous blunders of the hapless recruits. Early in the book some of these mishaps are played for laughs, as they might have been in another comic that came out of World War II, George Baker’s “Sad Sack,” but the brutality quickly grows in intensity, the mishaps become life-ending disasters. Baker’s comics appeared in official military publications. Mizuki’s, it becomes clear, never could.
Throughout the tale the officers cite historical precedent — “When the great Dai-Nanko fought the rebels at Minato River … ,” “When we remember Master Kusunoki …” — to inspire the men, or, more precisely, to justify the harsh conditions under which they struggle. The problem is, the soldiers on the ground in New Guinea are not idealized historical paragons, but human beings. Perhaps the strongest of all the instincts that drive us is the survival instinct, the one that tells us we must not die.
When a few of the all-too-human soldiers in New Guinea have the temerity to obey this instinct and return from what is intended to be a suicide mission, it is not seen as a happy event, but rather a major problem for the division commander.
To return from a suicide mission is, he says, “to violate the military code that is most fundamental … the order for a suicide charge must be obeyed.”
A lieutenant is sent to deal with the problem, and told that he “may use whatever means necessary,” to rectify the situation. The meaning of the euphemism is clear.
Some of the men who have, as the lieutenant puts it, “the audacity to be alive,” are induced to kill themselves. Others die when the superior U.S. forces bomb their position. The survivors embark on a second suicide attack. This one is entirely “successful.”
The last man to die is the artist — he’d been asked, earlier, to illustrate a set of hanafuda cards for the platoon leader — who is, apparently, a stand-in for Mizuki. One is grateful that Mizuki’s account is only ninety percent factual, that he lived to tell the tale.
By restricting the action of “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths” to the island where the men fight and die Mizuki is able for the most part to elide the question of whether the soldiers he writes about were fighting on the good side or the bad. He makes it clear that, for those doing the fighting and dying, such questions are not of paramount importance.
Indeed, thanks to works like Mizuki’s, which remind us that the cannon fodder on both sides are human, we come to see how meaningless such distinctions can be.