Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Mizuki Shigeru: Sôin gyokusai seyo!

Speaking of Mizuki Shigeru, here's one from the vault:

Mizuki Shigeru 水木しげる. Sôin gyokusai seyo! 総員玉砕せよ! (Die Gloriously - That's an Order!) Originally published 1973. Kôdansha Bunko 講談社文庫, 1995.

This is a manga about the author’s experiences as a soldier on the island of New Britain during the war. Mizuki has always been obsessed, evidently, with his war experiences, and has done a lot for the peace movement and to keep the memory of the war alive; he’s written a bunch of short manga stories about it, but this seems to be the only, or at least the first, full-length manga “novel” he did about it.

It’s only semi-autobiographical: here, everyone in the unit dies, whereas in real life Mizuki himself survived. Names are changed, too, though not places, and the minor incidents seem very sharply observed. He’s clearly writing about life in the army from an insider’s perspective.

The main character and Mizuki surrogate is named Maruyama, but he drifts in and out of the narrative; it’s less his story than that of his unit, which is completely destroyed over the course of the book. At first it’s the dangers of the jungle—illness, animals—then it’s enemy attack, as the Americans close in on the island, and then it’s the stupidity of the unit’s leaders, as its commander has this romantic notion of sending them all to a glorious death rather than letting them retreat to the hills to fight a guerilla action. This is the idea of gyokusai, to die like a jewel being crushed, and it was common rhetoric during the war. It’s Maruyama’s misfortune that his commander bought into it: he orders them all into a suicide charge. Some survive, though, and wander north to where the main body of the army is. This is an embarrassment to the higher-ups, though, who feel that to survive a suicide charge is to bring shame on the army. So they pressure the survivors into either offing themselves right then and there or girding up for another suicide charge. Maruyama takes the latter option, but before this charge can get going an American attack blows the whole encampment to smithereens. The end.

Yes, it’s very dark. But it’s leavened with some humor—very dark humor, of course—and more than that with a cynicism toward war and bushido that refuses to make heroes out of anybody. They’re all victims of a stupid war, fought stupidly.

The story is told in an almost haphazard fashion. It’s really hard to tell the characters apart and keep them straight, and even figure out the organization of the various units involved—but I think that’s kind of the point, the idea that all these guys are more or less interchangeable. Certainly the army thinks they’re totally expendable.

One of the recurring motifs is the physical abuse of grunts by officers—the habitual slapping of rookies, making them wash their superiors' loincloths, cook their superiors' meals, etc. Not only are the conditions awful—soldiers are always hungry and half sick—but the treatment is dehumanizing. Thus much of the story is told in the form of little incidents that serve to illustrate the life of the soldiers, rather than a constantly-building tension as the end approaches. In fact, the end kind of approaches out of nowhere—each step is a surprise, just as much of a surprise as any enemy bombing raid must have been to these guys.

The art is fantastic. Most of the time it’s cartoony, but he’ll shift into a hyperrealistic style for key scenes—most noticeably at the end, when everybody’s dead and he gives us very real-looking sketches of piles of dead soldiers.

This is an important comic.

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