Yesterday was Anzac Day, a day set aside to commemorate those fallen in war. It is also a time of nationalistic rhetoric.
I finally got to read Shigeru Mizuki’s 1973 manga ‘Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.’ Mizuki was born in 1922 and was drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army in 1942 and sent to New Britain (now Papua New Guinea). His detachment was wiped out by Australian and native forces and Mizuki was punished for surviving.
‘Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths’ was translated from the Japanese and published for an English speaking audience in 2011. There’s an introduction and an interview bookending the Drawn and Quarterly edition, though these are not necessary to appreciate the impact of the story which Mizuki describes as 90% fact.
Clearly, Mizuki was the enemy. ‘We’ were fighting in New Britain, and this is personal: my grandfather was ground crew for the Australian planes that bombed Mizuki and his friends. My grandfather was one of the men who had chocolate and canned food; ‘those bastards are living like kings’ (p. 103). The illustrations of the planes are detailed and realistic.
I read a bit of manga, mainly titles recommended by word of mouth, as this was. The style of illustrations took a while to get used to despite this familiarity with the form. The backgrounds are as accurate of photographs. The Pacific island looks like paradise, and the soldiers think: ‘It’s almost like heaven, just like they said’ (p. 34). Against these backdrops, the characters are drawn as cartoonish outlines.
The horror of war is central to the narrative arc, though this isn’t only the most obvious events of the bombings and constant deaths. Food and bodily functions obsess the men. Attempts to find food (the dangers of grenade fishing!) and the subsequent lack of nutrition adds to the misery. There’s also dengue fever, ringworm, malaria. And all the rain. Not to forget hungry crocodiles. Nature in all forms is the enemy: ‘Maruyama regained consciousness with a start, as the eggs laid by flies in the bullet hole in his cheek began to hatch’ (p. 355).
Orders from a faraway headquarters completed the madness. Even before the fighting starts, an official at HQ tells a soldier ‘talk sense boy, none of us are leaving here alive’ (p. 53). Soldiers ask, ‘What the hell are we fighting for then?’ (p. 299). It is clear ritual suicides were not voluntary and neither were the gyokusai suicide charges.
The cartoon drawings of the soldiers transform and are photorealistic when they become the piled dead at the end (pp. 359-62).
In the Q&A with the author, Mizuki said, ‘I hope readers will come to understand the feelings of the Japanese soldiers fighting on the foremost lines of the battlefield’ (p. 372).
In this, I am reminded of Bao Ninh’s 1990 novel ‘The Sorrow of War’ which I read when I visited Vietnam. The protagonist was Viet Cong – our enemy in the Vietnam War. And I am also reminded of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ which I read at university. The protagonist was our enemy in the trenches of World War I. Both were written by men who were there; enemy combatants.
None of these novels are easy reads. Each depicts the horrors and evils, and the camaraderie, humanity and sorrow of ordinary men at war. The German, Vietnamese and Japanese were our bitter foes, and are instantly recognisable as our fellow human beings in these pages.
The politics of war is complicated, yet the men (and now women) who are sent to fight on the front lines are the same the world over. J.M. Barrie of ‘Peter Pan’ fame, said ‘Never ascribe to an opponent motives meaner than your own’ (Rectorial Address. St. Andrew’s, 3 May, 1922). We share much. It makes me wonder when we will be reading novels by surviving Afghani and Iraqi soldiers caught up in more recent conflicts.
I think we could shoulder the loss of reading new, moving war novels if we were saved the sorrows of more wars.
An image of palm trees – for some a vision of paradise. By Robert Young.