Saturday, January 2, 2016

Nanjing: The Burning City hits with the force of a A-bomb

Nanjing: The Burning City hits with the force of a A-bomb
by rick olivares

“If Confucius decides to return from the dead and lead us out of here, I’ll be the first man to welcome him.”

It’s gallows humour from a dead man walking. That’s a quote from “the Captain,” one of the characters in Ethan Young’s powerful graphic novel “Nanjing: The Burning City" that gives life to the horrific events that followed the fall of Nanjing, the former Chinese Capital to the Imperial Japanese Army 78 years ago during the early days of World War II. 

That’s how bleak it was in Nanjing (spelled “Nanking” at that time). Following the city’s fall to the IJA, for at least six weeks, the victorious army proceeded to commit atrocities so horrific, so barbaric that even today, it resonates among Asian countries that felt the wrath of “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" doctrine that was espoused by Tokyo.

In fact, last New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2015, a Korean woman angrily confronted her country's Foreign Minister, Lim Sung-Nam, in front of the media, following reports that Japan offered a new apology for pressing Koreans (and many other women of Asian ethnicity) into roles of “comfort women” for Japanese soldiers during WWII and the sum of $8.3 million in exchange for the country not pressing any future claims on the issue. Media bureau CNN and the United Nations also released statements on the same day that not only must accords be speedily reached but the victims who come from China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, new Guinea, Hong Kong, Macau, and Vietnam must be given more.

Following the Fall of Shanghai, the Japanese trained their eyes on Nanjing. The battle for the capital began on the first day of December and ended 13 days later after ferocious fighting between the two armies. Bloodied, tired, and angry, Japanese forces executed prisoners of war and civilians while looting the city. Anywhere from 30,000 people to over 350,000 Chinese lost their lives in the six weeks that followed the capture of the Chinese capital. 

In “Nanjing: The Burning City,” comic book creator Ethan Young recounts Asia’s own holocaust in a 224-page black and white graphic novel published by Dark Horse Comics. Told through the eyes of two fictitious Chinese soldiers struggling to get to safety, “Nanjing: The Burning City” is a moving war story. With every turn of the page, you could feel the sense of impending doom and abandoned hope. You feel the tears well up in your eyelids and dread what lies ahead with every turn of the page. That must how it must have been 78 years ago in Nanjing. No one knew what was going to happen next with every minute.

In Young’s tale, two soldiers, one who simply goes by his rank of “Captain” and a grunt named “Lu,” attempt to get to the safety zone established by John Rabe, the real life German national who is credited with saving hundreds of thousands of Chinese lives from the wrath of the Japanese invaders. Along the way, they stumble along a dying city and streets lined with corpses. Eventually, they come across some Japanese soldiers who murder a mother and her child and some who just finished raping some women.

The story hits home yet Young, who is Chinese-American, remains objective with his storytelling and imbues both sides of combatants with some sense of honor. That is in the Captain and Lu as well as “the Colonel,” a Japanese officer who frowns and disapproves of the invading army’s behaviour. Both parties try to hold on to their dignity but being men of war, have no choice but to follow orders and do horrific things of their own.

A lot of credit has to be lauded Young’s way as he doesn’t fall into the easy trap of depicting unnecessary gore and violence or even in denigrating all the Japanese soldiers. Aside from the Colonel, there is a Japanese soldier named Yoshi who also looks upon his fellow soldiers with disdain and openly tells them that they treat the local women like animals. 

In an interview with Young, the author said, "I practiced a lot of artistic restraint throughout the entire book, as well as throughout my career in general. I'm not a huge fan of gore. Occasionally I'll watch something gory and cringe a bit, but I don't indulge it. And personally, I believe our minds paint the worse pictures we can imagine anyway. That's why a lot of the violence in Nanjing is 'off-camera', so to speak." 

In some of the pictures that was released by the victorious Allied Forces following WWII, there were pictures of the decapitated heads of Chinese soldiers lined up against the wall, young naked children thrown into a common grave, and the corpses of sexually abused women littering the streets among many. In Young’s book, the atrocities are mentioned. Some panels show the carnage but not in gory detail. The horror is  reflected through the facial expressions of the two Chinese and Japanese soldiers. 

The Colonel and Yoshi somewhat represent General Iwane Matsui, the commander of Japan’s expeditionary forces in China. Matsui did what he could to prevent civilians and prisoners of war from his army’s atrocities but dissension from his officers didn’t help him at all. In the end, it wasn’t enough and Matsui was eventually executed by a war crimes tribunal after the war. 

Young explained his objective depiction of Nanjing’s main chracters, “It's very easy to be drawn into extreme nationalism when you read about an atrocity committed against your own people. But it's more important to stay as objective, especially when you have a responsibility as a storyteller. Although the Imperial Japanese Army played the largest role in the Nanjing Massacre, the Kuomintang (the Chinese Army) was corrupt and practically abandoned the city of any hope to be properly defended, which played right into Japan’s hands. So, I wanted our main characters to reflect the complicated origins of the conflict. The Captain and the Colonel are two sides to the same coin: pragmatic men of war who are morally ambiguous." 

It is already cliche-ish to utter American Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman’s oft used quote that “war is hell.” And it’s true. In the end, everyone is a victim. Even the two Chinese soldiers who leave behind an elderly Nanjing citizen because the Captain felt he would be a detriment to their escape. 

As much as the Captain wants to defend his motherland, his goal changes to survival and that means getting to safety as quickly as possible. When he leaves behind an elderly Nanjing native, Lu is once more upset at him and quotes Confucius: “Faced with what is right, to leave it undone shows a lack of courage.”

Unfortunately, the barbarity of war leaves no one unscathed. Even the supposed good guys. 

On why he did this book, Young said, “As a Chinese-American, the Nanjing Massacre was always a very sensitive subject for me. I learned about the Second Sino-Japanese War from my parnets before I learned about Pearl Harbor in school. But ultimately, China’s involvement in World War II is largely relegated to footnotes when discussed in textbooks here in the United States. As a lifelong comic fan, I felt a cultural duty to eventually craft a story about the conflict."

Hopefully, the story and its lessons, aren’t lost and are understood especially by this new generation that has shown an appalling lack of knowledge and understanding of history. 

Do yourself a favor and pick up Ethan Young graphic novel “Nanjing: The Burning City.” It’s just as powerful as any superhero book.


Additional reading: An interview with Nanjing: The Burning City creator Ethan Young

Nanjing the Burning City can be purchased at Fullybooked or ordered through your favorite comic book specialty shop.


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