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Archive for August, 2014

onwards towards our noble death

Comics seem exceptionally well-suited to handle difficult subjects: war, illness, political turmoil, and angst of any other nature. Or, perhaps, in the hands of talented comic artists, all the different dimensions and subtleties come alive in a particularly evocative way.

Onward Towards our Noble Death by Shigeru Mizuki (originally published in Japanese in 1973), based on his own personal experiences (90% facts, he says) as a recruit in Japan’s Imperial Army, is especially hard to read. This is a fictionalized account of a small unit of the Imperial Army in Rabaul (in what is now Papua New Guinea) fighting the Allied forces. Mizuki’s cast of characters include lower-ranking men who are constantly and baselessly admonished and abused by superiors in a “heirarchical and feudalistic command structure”. No war is without cruelty and death, or hardship and fear, but what makes the manga particularly tragic is a gruesome aspect of the Imperial Army honor system: a unit sent out on a banzai (suicide) charge unexpectedly survives; “since the men’s ‘glorious death’ had already been reported to headquarters, it is sent back to the front with orders not to return”.

The original Japanese title of the book is Soin Gyokusai Seyo!, where gyokusai (translated into “noble death” in the English title) is just a euphemism for a forced (honorable) suicide. I believe gyokusai literally translates to jade shards, or shattering like a jewel. Mizuki draws backgrounds—the warships, the coconut trees on the pristine island, war scenes, and bodies ripped by artillery, with staggering realism, only to contrast them heavily with the highly ‘cartoony’ shapes of the Japanese soldiers. This rendering and the incongruent humor that it injects, only makes the fate of the soldiers even more poignant, if that is possible. In the final pages, two “dilly-dalliers” are forced to commit seppuku, kneeling on the ground in front of their kaishakunin (an second whose job is to assist in the suicide and ensure it is successful).

Onward Towards our Noble Death is a commentary on the absolute depravity of war and the wickedness of codes of (honorable) conduct and reflects the author’s outrage .

Other comics, that make up in emotional depth what they lack in mirth: Blankets, Stitches, Marbles, Palestine, Tangles, Fun Home.

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