In case you had any doubt, let me tell you immediately that this devastating story of wartime death and destruction “is 90% fact,” as its venerable creator Shigeru Mizuki reveals in the “Afterword.” At almost 90 years old, he remains one of Japan’s most revered manga artists. Available for the first time in English translation, Onward represents Mizuki’s own experiences during World War II when he was drafted into Japan’s Imperial Army and shipped out to the village of Rabaul on what is now Papua New Guinea. “It was one of the worst places to be sent in the war,” writes renowned manga expert and translator Frederik L. Schodt in his introduction, “and quickly became a showcase for some of the worst aspects of the Imperial Army.”
Mizuki blends a jarring style of highly realistic backgrounds (the ships in transit on the open waters loaded with soldiers, the makeshift army camp huts, even the palm trees) with caricatured, cartoon-ish figures. The message is instantly clear: the soldiers (and a few prostitutes who appear briefly in the opening pages) are anything but human, in fact they are even less than the surrounding foliage, the threatening war planes, the waiting crows. Not until these bodies are blown up, dismembered, scattered in pieces do they finally become “real.”
The effect is a massive human tragedy. Fresh, young soldiers are sent to war. Their incoming rank on the military totem pole is so ridiculously low that they are merely fodder for the commanders’ machinations, and ultimately the enemy’s weapons. They are regularly abused, starved, punished without reason by their so-called commanding officers.
Because of a twisted loyalty to their country, suicide is not only expected, it’s demanded of these hopeless men. Never mind their families waiting at home, wives, elderly parents, their young children … because the only way they will go home is in pieces, whether as a hurriedly amputated finger, or an ash-filled box for the lucky who even have any remains. All others will rot and recede back into the bloodied earth.
Somehow, Mizuki survived to record these hellish experiences; decades later, he continues to bear witness to the wasteful decimation. With daily reports of death and destruction somewhere in the world, this almost-40 year-old manga is literally a graphic reminder of the true price of war, any war, all wars: we pay with our humanity.
Published: 1973 (Japan); 2011 (United States)