Saturday, May 5, 2012

Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths


Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, to put simply, is a war story. A fictionalized memoir of author, Shigeru Mizuki. The first half or so is kind of a slice-of-life in wartime deal. Digging trenches, building camp, etc. It gave off a Japanese M.A.S.H. kind of vibe. Then comes the fighting and suicide charge that leads to the exploration of the major themes of the story.

The art is a mixture of detailed and realistic backgrounds with simplistic, "cartoony", comic strip style characters. The style isn't really comparable to anything I've seen before. The easiest way to describe it would be to call it "old school". I can't say the art excites me, but I can guess that it was done this way to maybe make things a little lighter and not a complete horror show that people may not want to read, or relive in graphic detail in the case of fellow soldier readers. I could be wrong though because this kind of works against it's most obvious theme of the brutality of war by not being graphic or realistic enough. Not to mention the simplistic character designs don't allow for great emotion to be conveyed, which is a problem when things like desperation and fear are meant to be expressed. The art style also doesn't help with connecting to and caring about the characters. There is no less than 3 characters that look like the main character. The only distinguishing features between them being maybe some stubble or a slightly different shaped head. Not that it matters. The main character is kind of winy and mopey and not especially likeable.

As I said, put simply, this is a war story. And not a very excitingly told war story at that. The first half has the soldiers doing mundane, daily wartime tasks waiting for the enemy to strike. When the battles do start, it isn't exactly a cinematic sequence of action scenes. Nor was it meant to be. So the author must have had a message in mind, right? Anti-war. War is bad. The pointlessness of "Noble Deaths". All pretty much lost on me because I already know and don't need 362 pages to remind me. Maybe I missed the true messages and themes, but either way, this book could have had more visually appealing art to at least give me something more to look at, or have been more entertaining to make it easier to get through.

One major positive aspect is the Japanese soldier perspective that you don't often get in western WWII media. Off the top of my head, the only piece of work like that that I can recall is 'Letters From Iwo Jima'. The "Noble Deaths" in the title refers to the last ditch suicide attack employed by Japanese soldiers when faced with certain defeat, rather than surrender as prisoners of war like most other country's militaries would do. It turns out that the common Japanese soldiers aren't exactly as Gung-ho about this as their commanding officers or as western propaganda would lead you to believe(at least not the ones in this book). They are scared, hungry, homesick and suffer their orders just like their enemy. Again, I think this positive aspect would be stronger with a more realistic art style with more distinctively Japanese characters, but the positive aspect is still there.

I'm realizing this review probably sounds way more negative than I intended, but I'm not going to rewrite it. I don't regret reading or buying this book. It kept my interest throughout and was actually a welcome change from the shonen fighting manga overload that I have been experiencing. In that way, it served it's purpose. I won't shout it from the rooftops that everyone should stop what they are doing and go out and buy this book though. I don't think this book is for the average manga reader. The "different" art alone is enough to turn many away that are used to more conventional, modern styles. The subject matter as well would probably appeal to history enthusiasts, war buffs, and people interested in different cultures, rather than the average reader looking to be entertained.

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