by Christopher Michel
Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths
(Drawn & Quarterly, 2011)
One of the first questions that may be asked about a memoir is the degree to which it is true, backed up by outside corroboration. This is a property unique to the genre. In fiction, in poetry, in almost every other form of storytelling, readers may look for truth, but they look within the story. Does it feel real? Does it convince? But in memoir, readers expect that the same kinds of fact-checking that accompany journalism or history are available, that the depicted events can be affirmed by outside sources.
It’s not always clear what this kind of verity offers readers. At best, it provides some reassurance that the emotional, psychological, or physical difficulties of the main character are legitimate, giving them a moral weight they might not otherwise have. At worst, it relieves readers from having to assess the more resonant and harder-to-define truthfulness of more traditional storytelling. Whatever the case, the memoir genre has grown immensely popular in the last 20 years, and authorial honesty is in high demand: readers are often outraged when it turns out that the story they took for fact has been changed, exaggerated, or fabricated.
It’s almost certain, however, that every memoir contains some degree of fabrication. They are first and foremost stories, and the events of a life rarely happen with the neat cause and effect arc of stories. Good writers struggle with opposing tensions: to tell the story, but to be as honest and accurate as possible. There are different ways of resolving this. Some, such as Chester Brown in Paying For It, choose to include copious notes detailing where memory failed, or the needs of the story took over. Some, such as Shigeru Mizuki in Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, choose to avoid the the term “memoir” altogether. And some choose to tell the story as best they can, call it all true, and let the reader decide.
Soin Gyokusai Seyo, a graphic novel about a battalion of Japanese troops on the island of New Britain during WWII ordered on a suicide mission, was first published in 1973 and has just been republished in English as Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. It is listed as “historical fiction,” but the author, Shigeru Mizuki, writes in the afterword that the book “is 90 percent fact.” Mizuki places himself in the book as a character named Maruyama (though he is not exactly the main character—there aren’t any main characters, exactly) and there is a detailed notes section with explanations for readers unfamiliar with Japanese custom or the events of the Battle of Rabaul. In the afterword, Mizuki also gives a brief explanation of which events have been changed. Manga fans will recognize Mizuki’s figurative style, which can be quite cartoonish, from GeGeGeno Kitaro, but many of the backgrounds and some of the more gruesome scenes are drawn directly from photographs. When Mizuki inserts his cartoon figures into these scenes, it creates a strange juxtaposition between the “story” and the “reality”—forcing the reader to recognize that, while not exactly reportage, Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths is very far from made-up.
It seems, despite the book’s categorization, that Mizuki wants to make the story’s truth apparent. “In the military, soldiers and socks were consumables,” Mizuki writes, and Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths makes this clear. The casual way in which soldiers’ deaths (accidental or otherwise) are treated, the needless suffering and starvation inflicted on the troops, not to mention the constant beatings and humiliations endured at the hands of superior officers, are unsettling for American readers, who have generally internalized ideas about the sanctity of human life and the rights of the individual.
Soldiers are beaten for minor infractions, or for no infraction at all. “A soldier is like a tatami mat: better when beaten regularly,” says one officer, offhandedly. When a soldier disappears crossing a river, it’s treated more as an annoyance than a tragedy. It seems a given that no one is going to come back alive. The fact that the whole company will die on the island is spoken of regularly. This institutional indifference to life is the point of the story, but it can unmoor the reader. It becomes difficult to connect with many of the characters, or make sense of their actions or their reasons for doing things.
Mizuki’s storytelling method does not clarify. Though the story begins and ends with Maruyama, this is not the tale of a single soldier, or even a small group of soldiers. Mizuki begins the book with the names and head shots of 30 people, officers and enlisted men, drawn simply, so that they are often very difficult to tell apart (there are, for instance, several long-faced soldiers with hats and glasses). Most are given only one name and a rank. Some, such as “Division Commander, Lieutenant-General,” only have a rank. There is a small organizational chart as well, which is largely unhelpful. With little else to identify the characters, Mizuki dives into the story; the characters rarely refer to each other by name and offer only small amounts of back story, so it’s easy to lose track of who is speaking or acting.
But the soldiers’ lack of individuality is very much part of Mizuki’s point. It’s clear that the officers see their soldiers (and possibly themselves) as interchangeable and disposable. Whenever they are alone, the soldiers struggle to humanize themselves. They take small revenges on their officers (peeing in bathwater, hiding food), they speak wistfully of their past lives, the food they wish they could eat, the sex they didn’t get to have. But as soon as they are back in a group, the officers are working to dehumanize them again, to remind them that they are bomb-fodder and little else. That tension on the reader’s part between trying to keep everyone in the narrative straight while the officers interchangeably beat them and send them off on useless missions gives the moments where the soldiers are alone a real poignancy. At one point a soldier tells another about his mostly uneventful train ride to boot camp. Another time, soldiers guarding a trench begin describing the food they are going to dream about that night—sushi, bean cakes, sake. In these moments the soldiers are working hard to get to know and be known by each other before they are killed. Mizuki’s drawing and narrative style, however, imply that getting to know any of the soldiers—for the reader, or for the soldiers themselves—is both impossible, and perhaps pointless.
Yakuza Moon: The Manga Edition
by Shoko Tendo,
adapted by Sean Michael Wilson, illustrated by Michiru Morikawa
(Kodansha International, 2011)
Yakuza Moon: The Manga Edition is Shoko Tendo’s memoir of growing up the daughter of a Japanese Yakuza boss. As a young girl, Tendo was largely ignorant of her father’s occupation, but she suffered petty cuts and insults by jealous or nervous adults around her, as well as near-molestation at the hands of one of her father’s colleagues. Later, in her teen rebellious phase, she became an avid drug user and hooligan (called “yanqui” in Japan), then went through a series of bad relationships with married, abusive, overprotective men. She dealt with drug abuse, body image problems, and personal and family tragedy. In short: she lived and she suffered. What isn’t clear is whether she learned, grew, or really came to grips with any of the events of her life.
Tendo wrote the story in Japanese, and it was subsequently translated into English by Louise Heal, then adapted by Sean Michael Wilson for the comics, and illustrated by Michiru Morikawa. With so many iterations, it’s hard to say whether or not Tendo’s original book has much weight, but I suspect it doesn’t. The storytelling is terribly superficial—essentially, it’s a list of the thousand wounds that Tendo has suffered, with some awful inspirational pablum glued to the joints to try to keep it all together. At the end, quite randomly, she mentions that she’s “leaving her old life behind” to “do what she’s always wanted” and be a writer. This despite the fact that we never see her writing anything longer than a grocery list for the entire story.
The book has clearly been published because the Yakuza are famously close-mouthed about their organization, and Tendo, who was both daughter to one gangster and part-time moll to a handful of others (as well as sporting a beautiful full-back Yakuza-like tattoo), has some claim to association. Yet she knows absolutely nothing about the Yakuza or their operations she has clearly held no rank in the organization and, if she’s been privy to any confidential information, she’s keeping it that way.
But it isn’t Tendo’s reticence to divulge Yakuza secrets that makes the book bad. She’s clearly led an eventful life, and if suffering is a key component to a successful memoir (and the lists of bestselling memoirs suggest that it is), then she’s suffered enough, I expect, to rank. What makes the book bad is that Tendo demonstrates so little reflection or learning from all her woes. She offers the reader little more than evidence of her own bloodletting, and we come away as unsure of who she is, what motivates her, or what she wants, as we were when we started—as she probably is herself. If the first question that may be asked of a memoir is “Is it true?” then perhaps the next, and more useful question should be: “Does it have a point?” Unfortunately for Tendo’s book, the answer is no.
Paying For It
(Drawn & Quarterly, 2011)
In Paying For It: a comic-strip memoir about being a john, Chester Brown also treads between revealing and obscuring details, but for an entirely different reason. Brown records roughly fifteen years of his sexual life, from his last actual girlfriend, through his decision to begin visiting prostitutes, to his eventual long-term, monogamous relationship with a prostitute whom he calls Denise. Brown takes great pains to respect the privacy of the prostitutes he visits—despite these being drawings, he obscures their faces (usually with angles that keep their heads out of the frames) and explains clearly that names and any telling details have largely been changed. The effect is oddly chivalrous.
In fact, the story itself is oddly chivalrous. Brown begins his narrative with a drawn-out, complicated breakup with his last girlfriend, which results first in her wanting to see other people, then in her asking if she can bring someone home, then in the other guy moving in, while Brown moves into a separate bedroom and becomes the roommate. Through this he experiences little to no jealousy, to the astonishment of his friends. Upon reflection, Brown decides that, apart from the sex, there’s nothing about a romantic relationship that he misses, and he sets about solving the problem by following Dan Savage’s advice on how to visit prostitutes (be respectful; tip well).
Paying For It ends up trying to be two things. First and foremost, it is the memoir of a very strange person. Brown’s seeming emotional distance, and his methodical approach to solving his interpersonal problems, while not necessarily sui generis, certainly mark him as someone who behaves differently than other people. As a memoir, the book is a success: it’s a fascinating account of someone for whom prostitution is not only effective, but healthy and freeing. The women he meets are for the most part gentle. The transactions he engages in are, for him, simple economic transactions. And because of this, Brown himself as well as his friends come off as such strange, funny, weird, and wonderful characters, that it’s hard to stop reading the book.
At first, Brown struggles to navigate the system of unspoken rules that govern prostitution. If you pay for half an hour, are you supposed to try to have sex for the whole time? When do you give them the money? How much extra should you tip? Do you need to make small talk? If you don’t like the way the woman looks, is there a polite way to refuse? etc. But eventually he becomes familiar with the protocols, and moves on to slightly deeper questions. After seeing a particularly beautiful woman for a while, he realizes it’s not making him happy. Another woman he describes as slightly older but still beautiful makes him much happier.
Throughout the book, Brown details various conversations he has with friends and colleagues, one of whom is Joe Matt, whose memoir Peepshow, about a pornography addiction, inspired Brown. Most of them cannot believe that he is comfortable being a john, and Brown spends a lot of time arguing with them (and, by extension, with the reader) that he is not only comfortable, but he is fully satisfied in a way that he never was before. And this, it turns out, is the second thing that Paying For It ends up being, especially in the appendices: an argument not only for the legalization of prostitution, but for its normalization, and for it to remain entirely unregulated and untaxed. Here, the book becomes much less interesting.
It seems evident from his own book that Brown has a tin ear for emotional interests. He clearly has trouble understanding the value or draw of romantic relationships, which seem to his way of thinking unnecessarily exclusive. So his arguments for the normalization of prostitution, while highly reasoned and forcefully argued, are based on a set of premises that many people don’t ascribe to. At one point, Brown imagines a future in which coworkers of an attractive young woman working at a hat shop, instead of asking her out on a date, simply offer to buy sex. She accepts if she likes, rejects if she doesn’t (or, ostensibly, if the price isn’t right), and, the lines being clear, he expects that everyone is happier and largely free from jealousy.
Brown, a libertarian who has run for local office several times in Canada, places ultimate value on the sanctity of both property and capital transactions. The bulk of his argument is that as long as women’s “property” (their bodies) are respected, they should feel free to sell or rent it as they like, to whomever they like, without regulation. And because sex is a sacred activity, and churches are not taxed, sex should not be taxed either.
Though I may not agree that the current punitive stance of the law toward prostitution is working, it’s hard to be convinced by any of Brown’s arguments. A reader with a modicum of emotional discernment will see the impossibility of Brown’s utopia. The woman at the hat shop’s coworkers won’t cease to feel jealous simply because they may be able to buy sex (instead of paying for dinner and a movie and hoping for sex). As the end of Paying For It alludes to, but doesn’t exactly address, sex is not the only, or even always the most important, exchange between couples, and most people are (eventually, at least) looking for something more. Paying for sex won’t make relationships much clearer or simpler for anyone other than those few, like Brown, who seem to have trouble making emotional connections to begin with.
Still, Paying For It is a deeply engaging memoir. It is in no way seductive, but watching Brown struggle with his relationship issues, and then work his way through to a singularly interesting solution that suits him, is admirable. It’s also incredibly engaging. And Brown is a great storyteller, and interesting artist, and great with details. He encouraged the friends of his who appear in the book to offer notes on their scenes (only one takes him up on it), and he provides extensive dates, marginalia, explanations and end notes, enough to satisfy the general reader of the book’s veracity. More importantly, it feels true because it’s too strange not to be.
Curiously, by the end of the book, Brown’s personal situation reads like a counterweight to his political arguments. He ends up in an ongoing monogamous relationship again, with a prostitute named Denise, who has apparently given up all her other clients (though he still pays her, specifically for the sex). This brings up a number of pertinent questions: is Brown paying enough to make up for all of Denise’s lost wages? Has Denise semi-retired (and if so, why was prostitution no longer working for her)? And why is Brown, who has argued so strongly for the freedom to shop around sexually, decided to sleep with only one woman, in a (simulated?) committed relationship? There are indications here that the prostitution Brown engaged in was more of a temporary solution, and not the ideal that Brown argues. Certainly, there are draws to monogamy that still hold their appeal for both Brown and Denise. Unfortunately, these complications are never brought up.
CHRISTOPHER MICHEL is a writer and stay-at-home dad. He lives in Brooklyn's secret Chinatown.