Shigeru Mizuki may be one of Japan’s best-known and loved mangaka, but prior to this title’s publication in April 2011, none of his work had ever been translated into English. Though his most famous series, “Ge ge ge no Kitaro,” is an enduringly popular kid’s series that deals with the many denizens of Japanese folklore, this tragic war story is about as far from that as you can get. Mizuki fought in WWII, and lost an arm in combat, and he has crafted an informative and affecting story about the trials faced by the grunts of the Japanese army in this war. However, it’s impact is blunted by one major artistic flaw.
That flaw is the generic and indistinct look most of the cast have to them. While I’ve said before that giving characters an exaggerated, even cartoonish, appearance can make their emotions more vivid on the page that approach backfires for Mizuki here. The majority of the characters here all seem to blend together with their roundish heads and barely-there facial expressions. It’s hard to properly empathize with these soldiers when you can be hard-pressed to tell them apart.
This is a real shame because the buildup that is meant for the reader to get to know them is handled quite well. We’re introduced to the men of the Baien Battalion when they arrive to take the island and then have to deal with the drudgery of day-to-day military life. Putting up with long speeches and physical abuse from commanders, fixing meals for the company in the rain, and gathering supplies are just part of the fun. Sure there’s also the trips to the local brothel, but it’s hard to appreciate it when you’re 70th in line. There are also a couple of memorable incidents which show how death can come at any time in war if you’re not careful. One man disappears while being ferried across a lake and another winds up dying in the aftermath of “grenade fishing.” Mizuki gives us plenty of other interesting episodes in the first half, but you remember the stories themselves rather than any of the men that they happened to.
As for the “Noble Deaths” of the title, that comes from the fact that Japanese commanders believed that an honorable death could only be found on the battlefield. This leads to some surreal situations throughout the book such as when a doctor goes out to a wounded soldier in the field not to save him, but to cut off his pinky finger to show proof of his dramatic sacrifice in battle. That the soldier is still calling out after losing the finger... well, that’s how the Japanese fought the war.
Though this idea of a “Noble Death” was central to the Japanese army, Mizuki also shows us that it was not an idea that was embraced by everyone. The merits of a suicide charge by the Baien Battalion are vociferously debated by its commander and his second-in-charge. Though the commander may have some decent points, he’s not made out to be the most sensible or intelligent person. That makes it impossible not to sympathize with the second-in-charge who suggests a guerrilla offensive to bog the enemy down for the immediate future.
Though this story is a fairly engrossing read throughout, it doesn’t really pick up real narrative momentum until the suicide charge goes through and... is not entirely successful. That leaves the survivors not to merely live on, but to answer to military command for their failure to die in battle. What happens to some of these men afterwards would be unthinkable in our society, but Mizuki has shown us the Japanese customs and mindset that leads to these situations throughout the book. So even if your mind is boggled at the thought of these soldiers going along with it, you can still see the inherent tragedy of the situation. This is underscored in disturbing, yet fitting, fashion in the book’s final scenes which also offer up its most indelible imagery as well.
“Onwards Toward Our Noble Deaths” is virtually required reading due to its status as one of the few works by Mizuki in English and its Japanese perspective on WWII. However, with its large cast of grunts and officers who don’t have much identity or personality it’s not going to be the most welcoming read at first. I encourage readers to look past this flaw, as the experience the book presents is something that will stick with you long after you’re done reading it.