Shigeru Mizuki's Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths is an incredible war comic, told from the standpoint of a group of Japanese soldiers at the end of World War II. The Japanese soldiers are defending the small island of New Britain from attack by American troops. This book is a breathtaking monument to the psychological horror of war, of the way that war grinds men down and consumes their souls. It's more remarkable still because it's created by a Japanese cartoonist to tell the story of Japanese soldiers in the war. There's a realism and intensity to the book because of that fact.
On a remote island, cut off from most communications, low on food and bullets and working in blistering heat and with relentless insects, the soldiers in Noble Deaths are going through Hell even before the Americans invade their island. It's a testament to Mizuki's amazing storytelling abilities that he tells these soldiers' stories in a naturalistic, fascinating way that any reader of any nationality can relate to. It seems that endless hours of tedium and ennui are occasionally replaced by the terrors of helping another soldier with malaria or the rare American attack. There are, surprisingly occasional moments of humanity – when our main character, Marayuma, loses his boot in a hilarious but disgusting scene, the nasty Sgt. Honda is good enough to lend the soldier his boot.
Like all soldiers everywhere, these Japanese combatants are concerned only with getting by, of finding a little bit of extra fruit so they won't starve as they work clearing trees or performing other menial tasks. But the horrors of the war are ever-present. American planes attack without warning, torpedo boats bombard the island, and the soldiers always have to be ready to switch from their boring menial tasks to the horrific tasks of simply staying alive when the battles erupt. But Mizuki always reminds readers that the real horror rests inside the human soul.
When the island seems to be lost to the Americans, the leaders of the Japanese troops decide to send the soldiers on a last, valiant charge to die their noble deaths and be honorable. But the attack doesn't go as planned, the soldiers can't earn their honor, and the story takes a fascinating and complex turn by the end.
There are so many aspects of this book that make it memorable. One of those is the fascinating way that Mizuki draws it. His people are drawn as almost abstract figures; as you can see, they're drawn with the simplest, smoothest lines possible in order to convey personality and mood. We can't help to empathize with these characters in exactly the way that Scott McCloud describes in Understanding Comics; in their rounded cartooniness, we can see ourselves in these characters and thereby empathize with their plights much more.
And at the same time that Mizuki draws his cartoonish characters, he also draws highly detailed settings and establishing scenes. Notice, for example, how the soldiers almost are lost in juxtaposition with the bushes that they're lying in, how there's a sense of the jungle swallowing them up, uncaring and unseen by their friends and family.
It's hard to believe that the same cartoonist who created the delightful Kitaro also created this intense book. That fact shows the brilliance of Shigeru Mizuki as a cartoonist. Onward is an outstanding graphic novel that both terrifies and enlightens. It's a very special book.