A little while ago, I stumbled over an article in Stars and Stripes that made me immediately make room in my comic book budget for another purchase. Writer Stacey Hayashi and artist Damon Wong, along with a legion of supporters, gave some of the lesser known stories of World War II a manga-style treatment- using chibis.
My tastes for comic books and military history as well as a desire to see the US Army’s “Most Decorated and Decimated” 100th Infantry Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team get more of the recognition they deserve prompted me to consider buying the book. Curiosity dictated that I obtain the book as soon as possible. While I thought a manga would be interesting, I just had to know how chibis, which I regarded as little two-dimensional embodiments of everything cutesy, could possibly appropriately depict some of our bravest and most overlooked soldiers as they faced the bloodiest fighting on the European front.
The 100th and the 442nd, for those who don’t already know, were made up entirely of Nisei- second generation Americans of Japanese ancestry. Buddhaheads came from Hawaii, spoke pidgin, and were much better off than the kotonks, a lot of whom came from the internment camps on the mainland. They had a tough time getting along at first- the kotonks getting their nickname from the sound of their heads hitting the floor during brawls. The book touches on how these soldiers from such different backgrounds came to understand each other. Eventually, they found commonalities besides being American and Japanese. Their ideals were a quintessentially American blend of Old World and New, and they fought and sacrificed to prove it.
The book follows our average Buddhahead from Hawaii, on a trip to an internment camp to gain some perspective, and off to battle in Italy and France, with a flash forward showing what was to come for those who survived. The language is plain and concise, accented with just enough pidgen to make it seem authentic without compromising the ability of a mainlander like me with only a smattering of Japanese to fully understand. The matter-of-fact manner in which some lines are written also emphasizes by stark contrast the physically and emotionally harrowing nature of the journey.
As for the chibis, they’re cute, but not inappropriately so. They seem to better express the emotions the soldiers experienced- from fun and camaraderie, to grief, horror, exhaustion, and courage- without going comically overboard. Drawing everyone in the book in such a manner or even daring to give such treatment to such serious topics like war and racism was a huge gamble. I suppose, however, that it would only be appropriate for a book about a combat team with the motto of “Go for broke.”
The gamble paid off. I did not regret having purchased an extra copy to give to someone I know who’s more than deserving, and the copy I’m keeping for myself already has a place among my favorite comics. If you want to similarly add this to your collection of favorites, you can order it at http://www.442comicbook.com.