From the stack: Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths

There are several very welcome text pieces in Drawn & Quarterly’s handsome production of Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths – a foreword by Frederik L. Schodt, extensive translation notes, and an afterword by the creator. My favorite extra has to be an interview with Mizuki in which the legendary mangaka is simply not having it.

He’s not being difficult or unpleasant, but he’s not really game for the standard questions that legendary cartoonists generally get asked. His answers tend to be much shorter than the inquiries that triggered them. He won’t play into the “trailblazing artiste” narrative, nor will he won’t deprecate himself. He won’t list his influences, trash commercial comics, or paint the creation of Onward… as an artistic or personal struggle.

Of course, my favorite bit of the interview is when Mizuki is asked which of his works he’s most proud of and would like to see made available in English:

SM: I would have to say GeGeGe no Kitaro.

I would have to agree with him. Grateful as I am to have any of his work licensed and in translation, it feels kind of odd to start with one of his darker works. It would be like if Osamu Tezuka’s Ayako had been licensed before anyone had a chance to read Astro Boy. Of course, GeGeGe no Kitaro is a Kodansha property, some of which was published ages ago in the publisher’s bilingual comics initiative, so that complicates things. It’s also beloved and probably very expensive, so one can’t precisely fault other publishers for not waiting. Of course, Onward… was a Kodansha property as well, originally serialized in Gekiga Gendai, so it’s nice to see the publisher continue to work with other houses rather than keep everything for themselves.

And Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths has numerous merits in its own right beyond being part of Mizuki’s body of work. It’s based on Mizuki’s experiences as a soldier serving in Papua New Guinea during World War II and portrays the hardships and ill use average soldiers endured at the hands of their superiors. These abuses range from routine, almost desultory physical punishment – “New recruits are like tatami mats: the more you beat them, the better they are.” – to the overall military culture that paints surrender as the worst kind of shame and promotes dying in battle, no matter how senseless and futile the effort, as every soldier’s highest calling (aside from victory, obviously).

Mizuki doesn’t need to do much beyond merely portraying this mindset in order to condemn it. His cast of everyman grunts doesn’t pontificate about its fate. They gripe about the shortage of food, the isolation, the grueling routine, the danger and disease. The overarching injustices they face and the ways that these will doom them always loom, and the soldiers are keenly aware of them, but they’re rarely addressed directly in the text. This is welcome, because it keeps subtler, more effective condemnation from becoming an obvious screed, and it’s also natural in a way. It makes sense to me that these powerless people are reluctant to address the fact that their day-to-day suffering is almost certainly for nothing, and that the people responsible for their fate know that and don’t care. As a result, it’s a very straightforward, chronological narrative. The soldiers arrive, conditions deteriorate, they face unthinkable danger and impossible choices, and things end badly. The approach serves Mizuki’s aims well.

The visual style can be jarring at times. Mizuki paints lushly realistic backdrops and peoples them with cartoonish figures. That isn’t problematic by itself, as I’m more than happy to embrace the combination of cartoonish and gruesome in works like Tezuka’s MW and Ode to Kirihito. There are moments when Mizuki’s particular stylization is not just dissonant with his subject matter but directly at odds with it. This is particularly evident in more violent scenes when body parts are flying, and Mizuki’s strict adherence to his character aesthetic sometimes results in panels that look more ridiculous than horrific. He’s also dealing with a large cast, and individuality tends to get lost in terms of design and simple space to develop characters thoroughly. Ironically, it’s the higher-ups who make the strongest impression. Again, that fits, since they’re the ones with the most agency, and it reinforces the brutal expendable status of the rank and file.

It’s an effective piece on the whole, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to read it. The overall level of restrained sincerity is welcome and makes the piece stand out in the field of autobiographic comics. I’m also pleased that Drawn & Quarterly chose to mark the occasion of Mizuki’s proper English-language debut with proper introductory pieces providing an overview of his career and impact. If it doesn’t seem like the ideal piece to use for Mizuki’s reintroduction, it certainly does him credit.