Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"But you know, isn't that how life is?
"It's the will of nature! Life is the will of the gods! Anything that gets in the way of that leap is no good. Whether it's a system or what have you, it's evil.
"No, the fact is, as senior officer, I am going to go to the General..."
"Don't get so worked up Doctor. Doctor, that's outrageous. They think of us as worms and nothing more."
"... and plead for the lives of the surviving eighty-one men.
"Regardless, it is the will of the universe for all living things to live.
"It's wrong to get in the way of that."
"But this is the army."
"Army? This army is the most diseased thing humanity has ever seen. This is not the way human beings should be."
As much an insight into the Japanese WW2 military psyche as a fictionalised memoir of the creator's time spent serving in the South Pacific during the war, this book is very much a searing critique of the perversion of the honourable way of Bushido that had become all-pervasive in the Japanese military structure at the time, most exemplified in the gyokusai dictate that one must die at any cost for Japan, either in battle or if that was not possible, then by suicide.
This work is a straightforward look, nay stare, at the absurdity of not just one country's military misadventures, but also at the absolute horror of war itself. In terms of how it portrays that particular facet of warfare, it has most in common with Jacques Tardi's very moving IT WAS THE WAR OF THE TRENCHES, though the South Pacific setting and constant attritional demise of the cast of characters put me most in mind of the prose fictionalised memoir The Thin Red Line by James Jones (who also penned From Here To Eternity) about the battle for Guadalcanal. (Note: the 1998 film of said book, despite in my opinion being the finest film to come out that particular year, bares little or no resemblance, oddly enough, to the actual prose work, just in case you've seen the film but not read the book.)
But as in Tardi's work there is considerable black, indeed gallows humour here, to off-set the bleak, relentless, waking nightmare of warfare. And once again the words and actions of the top brass in charge of the Japanese troops on the island of Kokopo where the action is set, neatly prove that the military is most definitely not always a meritocracy. The art is a Tezuka-esque blend of exquisitely illustrated backdrops and landscapes, and cartoonish, almost lampooning, characters populating the foreground of the panels, which works well in providing depth and realism to the locale, yet gently dissembling the darker elements sufficiently to ensure they don't distract from the overall ebbing and flowing emotional tides of the work.
This is a rather moving work, at times - were it not for the fact we know it to be all too true - stretching the credulity of what could, or rather should, actually be possible. Real life is indeed, as the saying goes, stranger than fiction and where war or large-scale conflict is concerned just infinitely more disturbing and gruesome than fiction could ever be. As several of the characters discuss amongst themselves, it's hard for them to understand why they are expected to engage in such brutal battles in the middle of the South Pacific on such small spits of land at all, given Japan itself was by then already well on the way to being bombed into submission. But, to return to the initial point of this review, the concept of death before dishonour for the Japanese military high command was so all-pervading, it was insidious.