By | July 11th, 2023
Posted in Reviews | % Comments

Americans love to revisit World War Two. It’s become almost a national pastime to overly romanticize our role in it and our choices directly after. Even as we stare headlong into the horrors it wreaked across the globe, there’s always a distance to it. It’s because we like war too much, I think. “Okinawa” is not an American war story, but it features quite a number of Americans. So let’s take a step outside that bubble and take a trip to Okinawa and its environs. There’s much to learn, and much to see.

Thanks to Fantagraphics for providing me with an early review copy.

Cover by Susumu Higa

Written and Illustrated by Susumu Higa
Translated by Jocelyn Allen
Lettered by Patrick Crotty & Katya E.
Edited by Andrew & Christopher Woodrow-Butcher

This heartbreaking manga, by an award-winning cartoonist, examines the history of Okinawa and its military occupation. An essential manga classic presented in English for the first time.

A peaceful, independent kingdom until its annexation by the Japanese Empire in the 19th century, Okinawa was the site of the most destructive land battle of the Pacific War. Today, the archipelago is Japan’s poorest prefecture and unwilling host to 75% of all US military bases in Japan.

Okinawa brings together two collections of intertwined stories by the island’s pre-eminent mangaka, Susumu Higa, which reflect on this difficult history and pull together traditional Okinawan spirituality, the modern-day realities of the continuing US military occupation, and the senselessness of the War. The first collection, Sword of Sand, is a ground level, unflinching look at the horrors of the Battle of Okinawa. Higa then turns an observant eye to the present-day in Mabui (Okinawan for “spirit”), where he explores how the American occupation has irreversibly changed the island prefecture, through the lens of the archipelago’s indigenous spirituality and the central character of the yuta priestess.

Okinawa is a harrowing document of war, but it is also a work which addresses the dreams and the needs of a people as they go forward into an uncertain future, making it essential reading for anyone interested in World War II and its effects on our lives today, as well as anyone with an interest in the people and culture of this fascinating, complicated place. Though the work is thoroughly about one specific locale, the complex relations between Okinawan and Japanese identities and loyalties, between place and history, and between humanity and violence speak beyond borders and across shores.

It’s easy, sitting here in 2023, to forget how quickly the world map can change. When you’re sitting in the present, everything is fixed. It is as it has always been. But that’s never true. It’s never been true and it never will be true. Such is the case with the Okinawan archipelago.

I had known thanks to some courses in college that Okinawa was an independent kingdom, the Ryukyu Kingdom, until the mid-1870s but little beyond that. Subsumed as it has become into the larger Japanese culture in other depictions and in the minds of most of the world, “Okinawa” stands in stark contrast, emphasizing the locality, its uniqueness, and its history. It is not, truly, a war story. But it is a story shaped by war, just as the islands continue to be, long after the fighting had stopped.

Originally serialized in English on the Mangasplaining Extra substack, Higa’s work is broken up into two parts. The first is focused on the Battle of Okinawa and is more like a traditional war manga, full of visceral horror, terrible commanders, and impossible dilemmas set against a backdrop of overwhelming force. The second is a look at present-ish day and the current struggles of Okinawans, struggles that originate with the events of that first part, all linked via the presence of Mrs. Asato the yuta and her role as a healer of spirit, of mabui.

The stories are all self-contained, giving the impression that we’re seeing snapshots of life then and now(ish) rather than a contiguous narrative. Some are funny, some are tragic, others are allegorical, and one is more personal than all the rest. It’s a good approach as it gives us a broader look at Okinawan culture, the battle, and the people on the ground, who are Higa’s true focus. It also means he can interrogate a wider variety of Americans, Japanese and Okinawans, though he often has much harsher things to say about the nations themselves, and the ideas they foster in soldiers, than the people.

Continued below

Unlike other war manga, like “Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths” or “Barefoot Gen,” “Okinawa” is not a difficult manga to read. It’s not full of grotesque, nearly photographic depictions of the injured, the dead and the dying. Of the frenzied commanders ordering suicide runs, their eyes full of war and glory. This isn’t a fluffy work by any means; it still has all of that and then some. Higa simply tells his stories in a way that impacts the reader differently.

Translator Allen does an exquisite job of bringing Higa’s words to life in English. Conversational and natural, there is little pretension present nor are there any glaringly out of place localizations. Dialectical differences are subtle and, my favorite touch of all, English is rendered with <>’s instead of leaving us guessing when a language switch was supposed to have happened or utilizing a different font. I don’t mind the latter but the former is a major pet peeve in manga. That’s more the purview of the letterers, true, but a translator would have to make those decisions as well, I presume.

Visually, “Okinawa” is different from most mainstream, contemporary manga and even much of the avant-garde or indie stuff. Higa’s artwork is cartoony in that characters all have button eyes, minimal detailing, simple, reserved expressions and realistic, consistent proportions. He lays out his SFX such that they are not ancillary to the flow of a page but integral to conveying the feeling of the sounds. I’m so glad Crotty and Katya E. left them intact. I’m even more grateful for their decision to render the English sounds in the gutters between panels instead of directly next to them or, even worse, in a glossary in the back.

Truly, this choice is inspired and I really hope more manga companies do it this way if they can. Who turns to the back and tries to match up sound effects by page and panel as they read? No one!

Getting back to the art, Higa’s environments are fully drawn in the same way as his characters, full of cross-hatched shading and detail so as to give them depth and integration into the rest of the comic. Why is this important? Well, I’ll let this Katsuhiro Otomo quote from a 2019 interview about drawing the destruction of Neo-Tokyo in “Akira” do the talking:

I spent an entire evening gradually blackening that sphere with really thin lines. The editor was pretty alarmed when he saw it, what with all the time it took. But—while you can’t see it since it’s a full-view depiction of the blast—there are millions of lives being lost in this panel. If I wanted readers to sense realism in the scene and feel just how significant this event was, that work spent covering it up in detailed black lines was indispensable.

By putting in the work, by crafting the details but not overloading it, Higa creates a cohesive and full comic that gives weight to the tales he’s rendering. This was what I felt when he drew the bombs going off on the main island in ‘Swords of Sand’ or the airfire and tank shells exploding in ‘About My Mother.’ This is why the plane crashing and the crops burning and the helicopters landing in ‘Tolerated Cultivation’ feels like I’m there, on the ground with the people, watching as awful, monumental things happen around them. This is what Higa focuses on – the stories of the lives upended by, destroyed by, shaped by war and occupation.

I’ve talked a lot about how “Okinawa” is an anti-war manga, and it is, but it is far more an anti-occupation work. That is why, I believe, it shies away from the shocking and the grotesque because while that is a major facet of war, it is far less prevalent in occupation. The indignities and horrors are slower, harder to see, and more difficult to face individually. The worst was not the loss of life, which was tremendous and terrible, but the erosion of culture that accompanied it.

This is why so many of the stories set during the battle and all the ones after are conflicts not between soldiers but conflicts of language, of culture, and of power, specifically of imposed language, culture, and power. Who speaks and how? Who owns the land and how do they use it? What connection to the past is preserved and how do they build the future? Higa is deeply worried about these questions because he fears a present where Okinawans are completely disconnected from their pasts, lost and subsumed to something they did not ask for.

Continued below

That was not freely exchanged.

Exchange. This is the key, I believe, to “Okinawa’s” power to move the reader. Throughout the volume, Higa’s characters emphasize what the Ryukyu kingdom was prior to its occupation: a center for trade. When characters are at their best in “Okinawa,” they are exchanging culture, language, and power freely. Yet at their worst they impose it.

It’s why ‘The Journey of Jim Thomas’ and ‘Soldiers of Sand’ are both bittersweet tales, full of positive exchange – baseball, methods of communicating with scared civilians – and negative imposition – the name Tony, the military base. It’s also why there are more positive moments in the second half, no matter how bitter the realities within remain. War destroys all possibility of trade, of proper exchange, and instead facilitates an occupation of the physical and the spiritual.

Speaking of the physical, Fantagraphics and the Mangasplaining crew have put together a book that is a joy to read and to look at on one’s shelf. It’s a hardcover with a textured, matte finish that easily fits in one hand. It’s a little heavy but at around 550 pages, I’m surprised it’s not heavier. The pages are thick though not glossy, meaning there’s little glare when reading, and the ink sits beautifully on the page. It’s a truly wonderful and thought out design for a vital and important piece of art.

I urge you to go out and read “Okinawa” as soon as it is out. It is a powerful work that asks tough questions without much varnish, making the reader uncomfortable in all the right ways. It brings to light stories that would have gone untold, or undertold, outside of Okinawa were it not for Higa’s masterful pen and the MSX’s keen eye for quality.

It’s easy to forget how much the world does, or does not change. “Okinawa” reminds us that forgetting is perhaps the worst sin of all. It is our job to ensure we do not commit it.

//TAGS | Original Graphic Novel

Elias Rosner

Elias is a lover of stories who, when he isn't writing reviews for Mulitversity, is hiding in the stacks of his library. Co-host of Make Mine Multiversity, a Marvel podcast, after winning the no-prize from the former hosts, co-editor of The Webcomics Weekly, and writer of the Worthy column, he can be found on Twitter (for mostly comics stuff) here and has finally updated his profile photo again.


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