Monday, November 3, 2014

Showa: World War II from the Japanese viewpoint

Americans know all about the war against Japan in 1941-1945. They have seen Pearl Harbor attacked in movies or read about it in popular literature numerous times. They know the stories from Tales of the South Pacific and the musical show is embedded in our culture. They know how John Wayne won the battle of Iwo Jima and how Charlton Heston crashed his plane after winning the battle of Midway. We also know how the sneaky and sadistic Japanese soldiers treated POWs, from the movie, Bridge of the River Kwai. We also learned, from the same movie, how Japanese officers killed themselves to save their honor.

But aside from various similar cliches and scenarios, we know about as much as Ronald Reagan learned about fighting in WWII when he made a film in which he portrayed an American soldier at the front. Showa, a manga series by Shigeru Mizuki that is both history and autobiography, tells the Japanese side of the story. Mizuki is a master story-teller and artist, but it is his heart that shines in this series. Showa: 1939-1944 is by turns violent and tender, as the author describes how he fails as a newspaper delivery boy before failing as a bugler in the Japanese navy. 

Mizuki, like many young men during wartime eschews the quiet life of a bugler behind the front lines. He longs to see action; eventually, he gets his wish. Some of his army experiences are pleasant, like the first time he landed on the island of Palau, of which he writes, in a panel depicting a tropical island sunset,
I never imagined a place so beautiful could be such hell.
Mizuki had to take a great deal of physical abuse, however, as a raw recruit in the Japanese navy, which modeled its training methods after the Prussian army. Which is to say, the new recruits were beaten regularly by the veterans. Apparently, the Prussians did this to build resistance to hardship and inure men to pain. Mizuki clearly hated the whole ordeal, as witnessed by the number of beatings, slaps, and punches he records that he received.

Mizuki also records incidents that befell the Japanese soldiers for which there is no parallel on the American side: Japanese soldiers starved until they were too weak to fight; suicide squads, armed only with swords, were ordered to charge the enemy positions until they were all dead; commanders were ordered into battle with insufficient ammunition for their men; commanders committed suicide to preserve their honor when they were unable to carry out an order, even an impossible on.

Showa was the Japanese name for the years that coincided with the reign of Emperor Hirohito. The first volume, Showa: 1926-1939, contains many incidents of domestic life, as well as historical events that led to Japan's destruction in WWII. The second volume, covering the years 1939-1944, covers the first part of WWII. The third volume is scheduled to be released in November, 2014.

Mizuki narrates in great detail, both with words and with extraordinary pictures, how he learned to despise the glory of war and the stupidity of the men who brought Japan to ruin. A word of warning: You will not be able to put this book down.

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