Like Joe Shuster, the man who co-created comics hero Superman, Shigeru Mizuki is best known by his creations. In Japan, manga readers know the name Mizuki. But they know him better through his stories of benevolent goblins or yokai.
Some of Mizuki’s manga narratives also deal with his experience as a soldier in World War II. And one of his most famous Soin Gyokusai Seyo! (Translated as Onward towards Our Noble Deaths) has just been published in North America (Drawn + Quarterly, 2011). But it’s not like the super-hero stuff you’ll find in classic American war comics.
Sgt. Rock is one of those classic characters of war comic books in which fantasy meets reality. After all, he used to shoot down Nazi warplanes with just a submachine gun.
The war comics of Shigeru Mizuki are very different. They’re more like poetry meets reality. Think Terrence Malick’s 1998 war movie “The Thin Red Line” and the philosophy of war expressed by the hard-nosed Sgt. Walsh played by Sean Penn. Remember Sgt. Walsh berating the lower ranking Private Witt for going AWOL?
“What difference you think you can make, one single man, in all this madness?” Mizuki askes. “If you die, it’s going to be for nothing. There’s not some other world out there where everything’s going to be okay. There’s just this one.”
That’s the same vision sketched out in pen and ink by Shigeru Mizuki in “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths.” Only, for the Japanese soldiers he portrays, the vision is even worse.
Mizuki’s manga is set during a final and seemingly unwinnable campaign in New Guinea in World War II. The story centers on the agony faced by a Japanese platoon of soldiers whose commander orders them on a suicide mission. He sends them into battle and tells them national honor depends on them dying. They must not return home alive.
It’s a grim tale, told with a peppering of humor. It’s not comic relief though. When I met Mizuki at his small studio on the outskirts of Tokyo, he told me that for him and his fellow soldiers in New Guinea, joking was key to their survival.
Surrounded in his office by action figures of his myriad of manga characters that he’s created over 50 years, 89 year-old Mizuki told me that he only wrote what actually happened.
“All the conversations in the book,” he says, “they did take place. It was so boring digging trenches, so we had to have a laugh. Otherwise we wouldn’t have made it. Every single day, it was just digging trenches.”
During the fighting in New Guinea, the Japanese fought the Americans. In one Allied air raid, Mizuki lost his left arm. He was also pitted against his own ruthless superior officers, and the elements.
Writer and manga afficionado Fred Schodt is the author of “Manga Manga! The World of Japanese Comics.” He has met Mizuki several times, and knows his life story better than most.
Schodt says Mizuki and his fellow Japanese soldiers “were eating bugs and grass, they were practically starving. (Mizuki) himself also developed malaria, nearly died, and was nursed back to life in New Guinea by some of the natives.”
Interestingly, it was in New Guinea where Mizuki discovered what would become a lifelong interest in primitive occult practices and folklore, and that in turn fed his heightened interest in Japan’s yokai after the war.
But it was the war itself and Mizuki’s own brutal experience during it that pre-occupied his thoughts when he returned to Japan. Fred Schodt says that when Mizuki finally wrote “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths” in 1973, he was motivated by two things.
“He had this built up anger about what he’d experienced in World War II, and he had this drive to sort of tell people about it,” says Schodt. “But it was also occurring at a time when there was a great political convulsion in Japan. Just a few years before he brought out the book, the streets were convulsed with riots, universities were shut, and there was a profound anti-war movement in Japan – anti-Vietnam war, and also by extension, anti-all war.”
Schodt makes the point that after World Word II, Japan was so completely destroyed, there weren’t many people who were in favor of war anyway. But Mizuki was unique in that, as an artist, he used his work to oppose the war.
That makes “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths” an anti-war graphic novel. It challenges the blind obedience within chains-of-command, in this case proud senior officers with life-and-death control over subordinates.
Mizuki conveys his pen and ink messages with a surreal combination of cartoon-like people superimposed against harsh realistic renderings of their environment. That’s one of the trademarks of his style. Caricatures of soldiers, for example, are crushed on their suicide mission by very real looking American tanks. It’s odd but effective.
Mizuki is cited as one of two or three leading innovators of manga in Japan. That role won’t change. But his masterpieces have been overshadowed by volumes of recent pulp manga whose narratives are mostly banal accounts of modern daily life.
Shigeru Mizuki says he wishes that would change. He wants to see more “decent” mangas.
“Mangas with more depth,” he tells me in Japanese. “Normal mangas,” he says with a slight smile. “So many mangas have been ridiculous and yes they do sell. But they need to have more substance.”
Mizuki is working on new material, a story currently serialized in a Japanese magazine. But he’s not written any stories yet based on the tragic events of March 11, although he has commented on the disaster in his own way.
A few days after the earthquake and tsunami, the New York Times published an illustration by Mizuki on its op-ed page. It shows a hand emerging from an eddy at sea, outstretched, grasping for help.
When I asked Mizuki to explain it, he said, “Modern Japan is drowning. It’s lost its sense of traditionalism. Though,” he reflects, “during World War II, Japan might have been too Japanese.” Mizuki believes perhaps Japan is now entering an international era.
Somewhere between being subsumed by the rest of the world, and being too Japanese, Mizuki sees a middle space, where the bright lights of modern Japan don’t blind its citizens from the past. And where a story like the one Mizuki tells in “Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths” may inspire younger manga artists address Japan’s many current challenges.