Courierpress reviews Shigeru Mizyki’s latest graphic novel.

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Scripps Howard News Service    |    ANDREW A. SMITH    |    October 3, 2012

-- Americans tend to think of the Japanese enemy in World War II as implacable, fanatical, faceless and terrifying. A new graphic novel by one of Japan's most celebrated manga artists shows the truth behind the (Western) legend.

"Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths" (Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95) follows some new recruits in a Japanese company on New Britain in what is now Papua New Guinea, from their arrival in 1943 to their deaths in 1945. I guess that's a spoiler of a sort, but really, you don't expect any other outcome when you experience these soldier's daily lives -- physical abuse from their superiors, starvation, irrational orders and more. And their deaths are due entirely to a culture we barely understand; when 81 soldiers miraculously survive a suicide attack, their commanders send them back on a second suicide attack to avoid losing face (and force several officers and NCOs to suicide).

"Deaths" is written and drawn by someone who knows this story, because he lived it. Writer/artist Shigeru Mizuki, now 90, is not only one of Japan's most celebrated manga artists, but a veteran of World War II, which claimed one of his arms. And the only reason he survived is because he was hospitalized with battle injuries and malaria when his company was sent to its death.

"Deaths" may prove strange to American eyes for reasons aside from content. For one thing, Drawn & Quarterly opted to present it as it originally appeared, which means reading back to front, right to left. Secondly, Mizuki is one of the founders of the manga style that draws realistic backgrounds with cartoony human characters -- who revert to a grotesque, photo-realistic depiction in death.

Both roadblocks evaporate fairly quickly, given the story's lively pace, rough humor, endearing characterizations ... and suffocating sense of inevitable doom.

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