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Susumu Higa’s Okinawa Review

5 min read

A collection of short stories based in Okinawa, both during World War II and decades later, masterfully brings to life a culture that is still largely unknown in the west.

Creative Staff:
Susumu Higa
Editors: Andrew Woodrow-Butcher, Christopher Butcher
Translator: Jocelyne Allen

What They Say:
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 Junior Library Guild Gold Standard Selection

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.

I thought I knew a lot about World War II. I learned about it in school, saw many popular films like Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List, and heard the tales of my grandfathers, who both served in the US Army during the war. So how is it that before I got to read Okinawa– this collection of short stories available for the first time in English translation– I had absolutely no idea what had happened there?

I think there’s a lazy tendency to wedge all of that history together as “the war in the Pacific,” but what happened in Okinawa deserves its own chapter—not just for the intensity of the battle that was waged there, but because Okinawa in some ways represented a third party in the conflict between the Allies and Japan that further complicates our understanding of these events. Only a part of Japan since the 1870s, the experience of living as a peaceful, independent kingdom had only just barely passed out of living memory in Okinawa at the time of the war, and Okinawans didn’t have the same culture as people from the northern islands. In Higa’s manga, at times it seems like the “fight to the last man” philosophy of the Japanese military at that time was nearly as alien to the Okinawans as it was to the invading Americans. If anything, the Japanese soldiers are portrayed as the villains here while the American soldiers, while seeming mildly clueless, are usually depicted as a force for good. While it’s of dubious worth to try to sort people into heroes and villains in this kind of story(though sometimes necessary), it’s still a bit shocking to read a manga that paints traditional Japanese culture in such a consistently negative light.

Artistically, there’s a lot going on here. At first, I thought there would be a problem differentiating characters since so many of them wear the same uniforms and have the same hair, especially since Higa doesn’t really use popular manga features of exaggeration, like big eyes and chunky hair, to define his characters. However, once you get used to the style, it becomes clear that Higa defines his characters well with different facial features. Sometimes the differences are subtle, but the only time telling characters apart becomes a problem is if you’re trying to skim it, which, with this book, you should not be doing anyway; Okinawa demands your full attention.

What’s really interesting about the artwork is that the backgrounds are often drawn in incredible detail, to the extent that the background art often seems far more important than the character art. The world of Okinawa becomes a character in itself, with every individual leaf and blade of grass and tree trunk fully rendered to create a beautiful, textured look. It’s clear that this book was a labor of love, because I can’t imagine how long it must have taken to finish some of these drawings. Sometimes it seems like the characters are lost in some Eden-like paradise, completely at odds with all the bombs going off around them. I’m sure this dissonance was intentional, and it keeps you off balance as you read.

Speaking of bombs, this isn’t a gory manga. While the WWII subject matter is obviously violent, Higa doesn’t draw gore; the most gory thing in the manga are a few panels of soldiers committing seppuku, but not in any real detail. Some might have preferred a more liberal approach to gore in order to communicate the true horror of war, but that’s obviously not what Higa was going for.

Even though this is a collection of two different books, The Sword of Sand and Mabui, the two are pretty similar tonally. While Sword deals mostly with the battle itself, it still has a kind of wistfulness and occasionally even wry humor; it’s never “just” a war story. These features are amplified in Mabui, which deals with the current situation of Okinawa serving as a strategically important base for the US military in the Pacific. Higa’s characters dislike the presence of the military bases, yet have to live with the reality that it’s the bases that provide employment for many people who would otherwise have to leave Okinawa to pursue careers. Higa depicts this situation in all its complexity.

I’ve seen some reviewers refer to this book as similar in importance to Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and it’s an interesting comparison. While it can get annoying when every historical comic is dutifully compared to Maus, in this case showing how the two specifically compare is illuminating. After all, the reader is always slightly distanced from the events in Maus, due to the mice-vs.-cats high concept; it’s a graphic novelist’s trick to make the horror easier for readers to process. Okinawa does not use any such high concept; Higa trusts his audience to engage with the material head-on. I hope– that by using this book as an educational tool all around the world, as it deserves to be— that we prove worthy of that trust.

An absolute classic; every manga fan (and every non-manga fan) should read it.

Content Grade: A
Art Grade: A
Packaging Grade: B
Text/Translation Grade: A

Age Rating: 16 years and up
Released By: Fantagraphics
Release Date: August 22, 2023
MSRP: $29.99