The story opens with whores and closes with mass graves. Huge explosions and carnage pepper the body of the narrative and there is a splash of dry humor, albeit on the morbid side. It may sound like a summer blockbuster but Onward Towards Our Nobel Deaths, Shigeru Mizuki’s semi-autobiographical account of life as a soldier in the Japanese Army during World War II, is something crueler and more heartbreaking than any Hollywood movie.
“It wasn't easy for us to choose the first Mizuki title to publish,” said Drawn and Quarterly publisher, Chris Oliveros. “Ultimately, we thought that Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is an excellent introduction to his work for North American readers. It is a deeply personal and moving account (which he claims to be "90% fact") of his experiences in WWII. It's a subject matter that readers have knowledge of and thus can relate to on a certain level.”
Set in the Pacific Islands during World War II, Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths tells the story of a platoon of Japanese soldiers in the Imperial Army sent on a mission to occupy and hold the position on a remote island. It is, however, a mission of slow death as Japanese soldiers are expected to die in combat. Returning home would only bring shame and dishonor to themselves and their families.
Mizuki is a celebrated mangaka both in Japan and abroad. His enduring hit series, Ge-ge-ge-no-Kitaro, ran for 10 years starting in 1959 and was adapted to both large and small screens as a live action movie, an animation movie, a video game, and has been adapted as televised animation a number of times. In his hometown, Sakaiminato, there is a road named after him. And outside of Japan, Mizuki has won the Best Album award at Angouleme for his other yokai (monster) manga series, NonNonBa.
Both the above manga series focus on monsters with an element of humor, and Mizuki is recognized as a master of the yokai genre. However, Onward focuses on a different sort of horror, and while most Americans are familiar with World War II, Shigeru’s account is a painful account specific to Japan and the horrific wrong turn that blind devotion can lead too.
The book opens with a line of 70 soldiers outside of a comfort station on an island in Papa New Guinea, right before the soldiers are to be deployed. They're trying to convince the comfort women (women recruited to have sex with the soldiers and not compensated) to take more clients, essentially, themselves. In refusing, the women serenade them with the song Prostitute's Lament: "Wilting in the day/blooming at night....Can't hate hateful johns/Why am I stuck working this shitty job?"
The song is revisited many times later in the book, towards the middle of the narrative, when one of the battalions is sent on a suicide mission, and at the end, when the remaining troops are outnumbered, outgunned, battered, and at the mercy of a single-minded commanding officer who is about to send them to their deaths in the name of the Emperor. “Why am I stuck working this shitty job?” The soldiers sing loudly and their song is a clear indication of their powerlessness and disposability.
“To my knowledge, there is no other equivalent in American/Western comics,” Oliveros said of the book. “While American comics have often explored the subject of war, there has been no other first-hand account of a soldier's experiences, as Mizuki has accomplished so eloquently with Onward.” Eloquent and, dissimilar to Alan’s War, Emanuel Guibert’s biographical account of a G.I. in Europe during WWII, and void of romance, Onward Towards Our Nobel Deaths does not dally with fanciful ideas of redemption or vengeance. Instead, it’s a plain story of sadness and disappointment, not of one man against the system, but of a group of men who are abandoned. “Those whores,” one soldier says as they are sent to their deaths, “got it way better than us.”
Onward joins the growing library of gekiga published by Drawn and Quarterly. Gekiga, roughly translated as “dramatic pictures,” is a manga genre that often focuses on the serious and tragic nature of life and can be compared to American indie or alternative comics. Mizuki is the fourth creator of the group of mangaka credited with creating gekiga in the late 1950s, a group that also includes gekiga pioneers Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Seiichi Hayashi, and Susumu Katsumata.
The Canadian publisher has done well with its manga selection as Oliveros points to positive reader reception for works that the company has meticulously hand-picked to add to their publishing line. Similarly, other independent comics publishers in the U.S. like Top Shelf and Fantagraphics have deliberately steered clear of commercial manga, instead publishing alternative manga that fits into their own overall visions of comics and illustrated narratives.
“The more personal and innovative work of manga legends such as Mizuki and Yoshihiro Tatsumi shares a natural affinity and aesthetic with many of the Western authors published by D+Q,” Oliveros said. “These books are at home within our publishing program.”