I’ve struggled for quite a while with how to write a review for Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, a manga concerning a doomed Japanese infantry unit stationed in Papua New Guinea in WWII. It is a hefty, grim tome written by combat veteran Shigeru Mizuki, who based the tale off of a real-life unit whose lives were tossed away because it was preferable to save face than to preserve lives. And while I liked it, I can’t say that I enjoyed it.
The fuller background to this manga is that the unit this story was based off of was one that was sent on what was believed to be a suicide unit, but beat the odds and returned. However, the deaths of all the men had been pre-emptively reported to higher-ups. Thus, the return of part of the unit was a potential embarrassment to the officers who had ordered them forth and reported their demise. The remaining soldiers and officers were ordered to combat again, this time with the specific instruction that they must die.
This, then, is roughly what happens in the manga, but Mizuki takes pains to establish the monotony and everyday unfairness and cruelty of war before moving to the denouement. Soldiers are made to perform tasks that are ultimately meaningless. Soldiers die suddenly and in many ways that have nothing at all to do with actual combat – a soldier never resurfaces after falling into water, men fall ill and are summarily dismissed from the narrative as having died of their disease. And there remains the unsettling fact that it is virtually impossible to remember who is who, the cast too large and the character designs too frequently similar and indistinct to allow the reader to actually keep track. It seems a deliberate choice – the soldiers of the Imperial Army in real life were regarded by the powerful as simply interchangeable parts in the war machine after all. There are some sparks of lightheartedness here and there from the soldiers, but these are few and far between, the humor generally pitch black, fading out by the time the inevitable must occur.
If I had to use one word to describe Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, it would be “brutal”. The eventual fate the men suffer is downright disgusting, the callous disregard for their lives versus the desperate concern of their higher leaders for their own reputations utterly galling, all the more so because we know this actually happened in real-life. The everyday indignities and meanness that the characters suffer due to the war and their leadership is wearing in its repetition and mindlessness. Mizuki is a man who was, and still is, deeply critical and angry about the WWII Japanese military and its ugly atrocities and complete disdain for both the people they invaded and the grunts who did their dirty work, and it shows in the pages of this work. Brutal.
(It is worth noting, by the way, that Mizuki almost didn’t return to Japan at all after WWII ended. He was a prisoner of war in Papua New Guinea who became close with local tribespeople, and nearly wed a local woman; he only returned to Japan because he was shamed into doing so, and only remained because the Allied occupation made it impossible to go back to Papua New Guinea. Decades later, he finally made a trip to the place where he’d been a prisoner, and struck up his friendships once again with the locals, who named a road after him. He has penned several works specifically to counter revisionism in the public discourse about Japan and WWII.)
I should probably address that Mizuki’s tale is entirely about the foot soldiers. Put more clearly, there is nothing here about the horrific war crimes that Japanese troops committed over the course of the conflict. I know that someone out there is going to frown and point to that fact, but I think this is looking at this manga from the wrong direction. Mizuki wanted to shine a light on how the Japanese military treated its very own people, and he focuses in narrowly to do so here. To have also attempted to tackle the atrocities of Japanese soldiers themselves would’ve resulted in a scattered narrative and done a disservice to the criticisms that Mizuki wanted to specifically highlight. And the fact is that Mizuki took a similar approach with his works that are about the war crimes of the military – in these narratives, the hideous acts that soldiers perpetuated against civilians in invaded and occupied nations are the focus, not the monotonous and dangerous lives of the soldiers. He seems to do best when he’s got a laser focus, so I don’t fault him for having that approach here.
Drawn and Quarterly released this one, and they did a fine job with it. The translation is excellent, and mercifully there aren’t any typos to be found. The volume itself is in what I tend to think of as “large” format, which simply means that the pages are bigger than you’ll see for releases of Viz’s and Yen Press’s on-going series. The notes at the back of the book are well-researched and helpful, and there is a short write-up by Mizuki about his own war experience and how it worked as the basis for the manga. Drawn and Quarterly, too, conducted a short interview with him that is the last content in the book.
Reading this made me feel viscerally angry; the extent to which the leadership by and large did not care one whit about the young men under their command was sickening and disgusted me completely.
I don’t really have much else to say. This isn’t going to play in Peoria, that’s for sure, and I feel pretty safe saying that a lot of you reading this review are not going to like Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. I’m not even sure that “liking” it is what one should feel about it, if that makes any sense at all – Mizuki wanted us to taste the thoughtless misery of war for the fighters for whom involvement was never something they had control over. I think you should read it, but I don’t think you’ll have any fun doing so.