Staff Recommendation – Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths
By Louis Cicalese
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is Shigeru Mizuki’s fictionalized account of his time on the island of New Britain, where he served in the Pacific Theater of World War II. Although Mizuki lost an arm during an Allied air raid and later nearly succumbed to Malaria, he ultimately avoided going on a banzai suicide charge and was subsequently one of the few soldiers of the Imperial Army to leave the island alive. Mizuki went on to become one of the most famous Japanese comics creators, renowned both for his yōkai stories and historical manga. Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, first published in Japan in 1973 and officially published in English in 2011, follows the actions of Mizuki’s fictional stand-in, Private 2nd Class Maruyama, who (spoilers) does not share in the miraculous survival of his real-life counterpart.
One of the most beautiful aspects of Onward is the tension that Mizuki creates through contrast, which he achieves by interspersing a variety of tone and detail. Onward could very well serve as a perfect companion text to Joseph Heller’s Catch-22; though the two books follow the misadventures of soldiers on opposite sides of the same war, they share the ability to seamlessly navigate between hilarity and tragedy, between mundane goings-on and the brutal horrors of war. In a seemingly comical scene, one soldier, Nakamoto, attempts to go fishing by stunning fish with a grenade and gathering them up. In an attempt to carry more fish, Nakamoto holds one in his mouth, which begins to thrash around and asphyxiates Nakamoto (73). On the next page, the sergeant tells the assembled soldiers that fishing with grenades would no longer be allowed. This satirical approach to representing war not only subverts romanticization of World War II, but also alludes to the futility of the fighting on New Britain.
In addition to the story’s alternately humorous and tragic tone, Mizuki also creates tension through the juxtaposition of cartoons and photorealistic drawings. His characters are simple and cartoonishly endearing, while his renditions of the settings and vehicles of war are unapologetically realistic. This stark but purposeful variation in detail is a fairly common stylistic choice by manga artists, but Mizuki takes this practice one step further by making realism a fluid aspect of his art, which he willfully manipulates in accordance with the tone and events of the story.
The best example of this takes place at the climax of the comic. Maruyama and his unit are sent out on a banzai charge, in which they have no hope of triumph but nevertheless are expected to fight to the last man. As the soldiers march into battle, their simply drawn attire is stylized by the realism of folds, wrinkles, and shadow (343). Maruyama’s unit doesn’t stand a chance. As they are killed their corpses are depicted in the same photorealistic style as their surroundings, emphasizing that they’re now just another aspect of the scenery (355-362). The once comically simple characters are now startlingly realistic, which makes clear the horrors of the fighting on New Britain and humanizes the soldiers that served there.
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is a fantastic mixture of fiction and memoir, humor and tragedy, abstraction and realism—all of which are qualities that Mizuki navigates between completely fluidly. Whether you are a fan of the comics medium, a history enthusiast, or simply someone who appreciates an enthralling and poignant story, Onwards is highly recommended.
Mizuki, Shigeru. Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. Trans. Jocelyne Allen. Montréal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2011. Print.