Saturday , May 18 2024

Graphic Novel Review: ‘Okinawa’ by Susumu Higa from Fantagraphics


Okinawa by Susumu Higa, published by Fantagraphics, presents firsthand accounts of the horrors of World War II and the struggles even today on an island group steeped in history. Although part of Japan since the Ryukyu Kingdom became a vassal of the emperor in the 1600s, Okinawa is yet a world unto itself with annexation having taken place only in 1879. Higa, who grew up in Okinawa, tells the region’s tales as poignantly as can be done by showing his connections with the soldiers, survivors, and even his own mother and siblings as children in the unfathomable chaos of war.


Book One of Okinawa, “Sword of Sand,” takes place during the war itself. Seven tales intertwine, told not necessarily in chronological order but interwoven to show the characters’ actions before, during, and after hundreds of thousands of Allied troops stormed the archipelago in the Battle of Okinawa. Stories describe the turmoil between the Japanese Army attempting to make a desperate defense where they know they will be vastly outnumbered and the Okinawans, mainly people too old or too young to have joined the war effort with the rest of the population already mobilized elsewhere. Many Okinawans want no part of what they see as the mainland’s war, but are conscripted and armed while debating whether they can make much of a difference or are simply lining themselves up to be casualties.


Several stories in Okinawa set during and after the battle show life in a gama (“cave”). These are natural and artificial bunkers where civilians and soldiers alike hide from the bombardment. Orders are given to die with honor in suicide attacks, raising the question of what honor is in war. Perhaps one of the most tragic stories is “School,” telling of ancient manuscripts discovered while digging gama, relics that crumble to dust in the open air. Despite the efforts of a local teacher and his students, both the fleeing Japanese military and the advancing American military destroy many of the manuscripts while looking for treasure, never realizing the true treasures lost.

The second book, “Mabui,” pulls its name from the Okinawan term meaning roughly “soul.” These stories show later life in Okinawa Prefecture, where the local economy is bolstered by the enormous American military bases. It is a complex situation as many of the farms have been supplanted and local officials are so desperate to create jobs that often foreign powers get more sway in decisions than citizens do.

As Higa explains in an interview at the end of Okinawa, many of his stories come straight from newspaper headlines, with expanded narratives. Higa tells of a crashed jet whose pilot is rescued by old farmers whose shed the wreck destroyed.

“The Journey of Jim Thomas” tells of an older American man returning to Okinawa decades after having started a boys’ baseball team there while serving on the base. Themes also hint at the lost religion of the islands, such as the potter in “Mabui” being tormented by the graves he has robbed for a quick profit selling to collectors, part of the troubled balance between the modern world and nature which Okinawa tries to maintain today.

Okinawa is a powerful read. Its complexity is secretive, hiding just below the plain surface of people working to live their lives in war and in peace.

About Jeff Provine

Jeff Provine is a Composition professor, novelist, cartoonist, and traveler of three continents. His latest book is a collection of local ghost legends, Campus Ghosts of Norman, Oklahoma.

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