From award winning manga creator and Okinawan native Susumu Higa come Okinawa – a frank look at the history of Okinawa and its military occupation. 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 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.
Susumu Higa proves to have a deep understanding of his homeland and its history along with being a highly capable storyteller across these two manga collections. Sword of Sand – the first collection of stories – focuses on World War II as the residents of Okinawa find themselves fighting for a country they only relatively recently – following Japan’s annexation – had become a part of. As a result, they have a hard time adjusting to Northern Japan’s mindset and philosophy. Both the Okinawan natives and the US soldiers find it hard to wrap their heads around the Japanese military’s fighting philosophy which Higa examines in a very frank manner.
These are topics that aren’t often broached in Japanese works, so it is impressive to see Higa being so forthright in his assessment of the conflict, even to the extent that the Japanese army come across as the villains of the piece whilst the US soldiers come across as those fighting for good. Meanwhile, the Okinawan natives are having to adapt their lives due to a conflict they feel they shouldn’t be involved with.
The Mabui collection focuses on focuses on Okinawa’s current status and its hosting of US Military bases. Once again, Higa doesn’t hold back on his thoughts when it comes to this situation. He is definitely opposed to the continued military presence in his homeland which is reflected in the characters in this collection. They find everyday life is now heavily linked to the military for better and worse with many compromising their principals in order to making a living. Most of the stories from both collections are based on what Higa heard from his parents or overheard anecdotes which he makes no attempt to sugarcoat.
There’s some brilliant artwork on display too which goes a long way in conveying the hardships that the Okinawa residents have gone through. Higa has a subtle approach with his characters which meshes perfectly with his storytelling style. His set pieces and backgrounds are stunning which makes it easy to see why Okinawa is so important to him.
This is a fascinating collection of stories that give a very honest look at a point in history from a perspective you don’t often hear from. Definitely one for manga readers who also appreciate history!
Okinawa is out 22 August from Fantagraphics (9781683961185, p/b, £29.99)
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