Peleliu, a small island in the Republic of Palau, sits some 3,000 kilometers south of Japan, in the middle of the Pacific. More than seven decades ago, some 10,000 Japanese soldiers were almost annihilated there by more than 40,000 American troops, who also lost some 1,600 men. In recent years, a manga depicting the fierce battle from the viewpoint of a Japanese soldier has gained popularity among young people, running in a semimonthly magazine for two years. "Peleliu Rakuen no Guernica" (Peleliu: A Guernica in Paradise) was created by Kazuyoshi Takeda, 42.
The protagonists in the serial cartoon have big heads and short physiques with somewhat comical appearances. Scenes, such as exchanges of fire, are described in fuzzy, warm lines. Tamaru, the main character and a would-be professional cartoonist, is shy and has a sedating personality. A reader wrote in, "The characters are cute but the theme is horrendous. It made me think about war."
Takeda was asked by a magazine editor to write a one-shot piece on Peleliu in 2015 when Emperor Akihito visited the island to console the souls of perished Japanese servicemen. The author didn't know much about the history of the island, but he was hooked by a story told by the manga's supervisor, Masao Hiratsuka, 80, of a group studying the Pacific theater of World War II.
Some 34 Japanese soldiers came home from Peleliu in May 1947, a year and nine months after the end of the war, which they did not know about for some time, and Hiratsuka started interviewing them in the 1970s. The soldiers described by Hiratsuka sounded like normal people. Most of the men were in their 20s. They had trouble managing relationships with their fellow soldiers, and they had to confront their own sexual desires. Takeda was more moved by the tale of their daily lives than by horrible, tense scenes of the war. "Those people who went to war were like me, just ordinary guys," Takeda said.
The cartoonist then started reading every available first-hand record of the battle. The one-time manga received a positive reaction, and a serial version was launched in 2016, which is running longer than expected.
The battles depicted are based on historical facts, but the characters are fictional. Tamaru's unit became pinned down by landing U.S. forces, and made a desperate trek toward the only spring on the island to ease their unbearable thirst. They were ambushed by the Americans, and shot to death one by one. "We all died while trying to drink water," said a crying Tamaru. The scene was based on the real story about "the pond of the deadly fight." Takeda created the protagonists' words and feelings out of imagination, conditioning himself as if he was actually in a war zone.
The author made his first visit to Peleliu in February 2017, where tanks and underground bunkers still remained. He entered into one of the bunkers through an entrance so narrow that just one person can pass, and it was so humid inside that he sweated nonstop. Takeda imagined what Japanese soldiers thought in those holes, hushed and worried that they would be killed if found by the Americans walking above their heads.
The cartoonist visited soldiers who made it back to Japan. Kiyokazu Tsuchida, 98, of the southern Japan prefecture of Fukuoka welcomed him with a smile. Tsuchida gestured actively to describe what he went through, including his encounter with an American soldier at the entrance to a bunker.
But when Takeda went to see Keiji Nagai, 97, in Ibaraki Prefecture northeast of Tokyo, something unexpected happened. Nagai, his back straight, received Takeda at the entrance and asked, "Did you fight in Peleliu?" Takeda had no choice but to answer, "I was not in Peleliu." Nagai consequently refused to answer Takeda's questions.
I sensed the existence of a powerful experience and feelings behind the question posed by Nagai. Why did the former soldier refuse to cooperate with the cartoonist? I went to visit Nagai in late July because I wanted to know why.
Why did you turn down Takeda's request, I asked. "People who did not fight there cannot understand," replied Nagai in a clear voice. And he told his story.
Nagai volunteered to join the Imperial Japanese Army when he was 18. He was deployed to Peleliu when he was 23, after serving along the border area of Manchuria in northeastern China. He fought to defend the airfield on the island, and it was a real frontline.
The fighting was fierce. As the Americans came from two directions, Nagai went out from behind an embankment with his comrades. The barrage of guns was so intense that the dirt that shot up blinded him and he didn't know if his fellow soldiers around him were still alive or not. "Long live the Emperor!" shouted a voice. Bomb shrapnel pierced through his right thigh but it was not painful, and he realized he was injured by the chilliness of the blood coming out of the wound. He saw some soldiers burned alive with flame throwers inside their bunker.
"I think about the people who died in Peleliu, and a cartoon is too shallow" to describe their hardships, said Nagata with tears in his eyes. "I don't agree with the format."
Hiratsuka, supervisor of Takeda's cartoon, interviewed soldiers who had returned from Peleliu when he was in his 30s while working as an editor at a publishing house. He gained access to a group of former soldiers because many of them came from Ibaraki Prefecture where he was also born, and took part in visits to collect the remains of the fallen.
When Hiratsuka published books about World War II battles in the past, people who experienced them always called him to point out mistakes, but such contacts have ceased in recent years. "It is not possible anymore to hear firsthand stories from people who actually went through the battles," he had come to think. Then in 2015 he was asked to be the supervisor for the manga. He rarely read comic books, and could not imagine how a war could be described in that art form. After reading Takeda's piece, Hiratsuka realized that a cartoon has more power to convey to readers what actually happened.
Hiratsuka had felt that the information he gleaned from interviews with former soldiers was not enough to recreate a complete picture of a battlefield. In fictional works, characters can be made to have conversations. In Takeda's manga, a young man who did not look like a solder is the main protagonist, and faces an inhuman battlefield. "This setup may be attracting contemporary readers who don't know the war," said Hiratsuka.
Takeda pointed out that what he wants to convey most is the fact that "ordinary people who are exactly like us went to war."
U.S. forces launched their first attack on Peleliu in September 1944. As a huge fleet of American ships appeared off the coast, Japanese soldiers climbed up trees to observe the vessels, and joked to each other. "This is not something to laugh about, but they are quite impressive," one of them said. Takeda made the description thinking, "They didn't know real fear because they had not encountered a real fight yet."
Takeda is always thinking about ways to depict the reality of the war because he never knew one. "Generations without war experience must venture out, or passing on stories about war will cease."
Nagai described the misery of the war he faced to me, and said, "I hope younger people, even just a few of them, understand what happened in the past." Nevertheless, he didn't even try to touch a copy of the manga on the Battle of Peleliu that I tried to hand over to him.
Tamaru, the main character never forgot to think about others in an awful battlefield, and drew pictures on his notebook whenever he had peaceful moments. His humanity attracted me, and made me feel like we share something together.
(Japanese original by Asako Takeuchi, City News Department, 29 years old)
This is Part 1 of a series.