Picture Letters of the Commander in Chief Vol. #01 - Mania.com

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  • Art Rating: B
  • Packaging Rating: A
  • Text/Translatin Rating: A+
  • Age Rating: All
  • Released By: Viz Media
  • MSRP: 12.99
  • Pages: 264
  • ISBN: 1-4215-1845-7
  • Size: A5
  • Orientation: Right to Left
  • Series: Picture Letters of the Commander in Chief

Picture Letters of the Commander in Chief Vol. #01

By Ben Leary     July 30, 2007
Release Date: June 30, 2007

Picture Letters of the Commander in Chief Vol.#01
© Viz Media

Creative Talent
Writer/Artist:Tadamichi Kuribayashi
Translated by:Michi Fusayama
Adapted by:Tsuyuko Yoshida

What They Say
The battle of Iwo Jima was one of the bloodiest campaigns of WWII. Under the command of Lt. General Tadamichi Kuribayashi, the Japanese army held off U.S. Navy and Naval Air Corps. attacks for over a month before finally succumbing to defeat. Comprised mostly of personal letters from Kuribayashi to his family, Picture Letters From the Commander in Chief offers readers a unique glimpse into arguably the most iconic battle of the second World War. A sensitive man, Kuribayashi is able to articulate in these letters his love for his family and his unwavering loyalty to his country. And in doing so, he helps bring a new voice and perspective to history.

The Review
Sometimes historic, sometimes personal, always priceless. If only more movie tie-ins were like this!

The cover is big on the film connection, with the pictures being either stills or production photos from the movie, and the gold text at the bottom proclaiming the book as the inspiration for the motion picture and the forward by Clint Eastwood. Taken with the title and author/editor information--also in gold text--at the top, it all adds up to a very classy cover. Looking inside, we find that the front and back fold-in leaves are unattached, meaning you can use them as makeshift bookmarks if you need to. Right off the bat, even before the table of contents, we get a few glossy colour pages of not only the advertised picture letters but also photos of Kuribayashi and his family. The paper for the main bulk of the book is thick enough not to wrinkle easily and has a good texture; it's cut with ragged edges, giving it that great "real book" feel. Print quality is mostly excellent: I can't remember any imperfect letters or anything of that sort. There are two minor exceptions. One is the presence of little specks and squiggles that occur very commonly early on but decrease in frequency and finally disappear altogether by the final chapters. The second is that in a couple of instances the layout of the pictures is inconsistent. Nearly always the pictures appear in Japanese order, i.e. going from right to left in the letters. But in one or two cases the order is reversed. This probably won't be an issue at all unless you are comparing very closely the translated pages to the originals, and even then it will be something of a quibble. Most readers should find very little to fault with this publication. There are a lot of nice extra pieces included, such as timelines and historical commentary, which go a long way toward explaining the original content and placing it in its proper context. And when you consider that the list price is only three dollars above the typical manga price, this book is a fantastic value. Leave it to Viz to do such a bang-up job.

Considering that the art is drawn by an unprofessional artist very informally to his own children, the pictures are not at all bad to look at. They have a fun, cartoonish style; actually, they remind me a great deal of Tolkien's Father Christmas letters--only with a real world feel, naturally. Throw in the photographs and map and you have a nice look all around.

The text is clear and easy to read, and only a couple of times on the small side. A particularly nice touch is that in the translated letters the English text is arranged as closely as possible to its Japanese counterpart in the original. The translation is excellent. Not only does it read smoothly, it shows the change in style between the early letters written for small children and the Iwo Jima letters written to much older children years later. Well deserved marks here.

Contents: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
This is, I suppose, a book that will appeal very little to the average reader of manga, and perhaps little more to the general reader. Its main audience will be those with an interest in WWII, or at least people who have seen the Letters from Iwo Jima film and have been inspired to seek out the source material. But in saying so I may be giving a false impression. I may seem to be suggesting that this book is only suitable for history buffs; that it is a dry piece of data, a "historical document" that only a specialist could develop an interest in. This is not the case.

That Picture Letters is a historical document, even an extremely valuable historical document, is beyond all doubt. This is all the more reason to rejoice in its publication. Who can know how many priceless documents of this kind have been lost because everyone said, "Surely someone will get around to publishing it someday"? Meanwhile the sources are destroyed in fires or floods. It is sobering to think that the preservation of knowledge--and not only historical knowledge--depends to such an extent on chance. But publication increases the chance of survival a hundred fold. And the documents that have been published here are records not of a historical character or a "figure of history"--those phantoms that exist only in textbooks--but of a man. And as such, it is readable by anyone with an interest in the human race.

For this reason among many Viz is to be congratulated on its altogether excellent release of a valuable and probably unique piece of history. There is no substitute for the words of those who lived through the events they described--particularly when those words come from the figures who were making the events happen. They are the only possible defence against misleading generalities and speculation that would otherwise distort all our historical perspective.

A reader who came across the early letters in this book, the picture letters written from a father living in America to a small son living in Japan, would find very little to suggest that they were the work of a military man. Indeed some could have been written by almost any American father of the day. But what makes these letters especially interesting to an American reader is the light they shed on American culture of the day. Many of us have heard from our grandfathers what the years before the second great war were like. But how many of us have had the chance of hearing what they were like from a Japanese grandfather? Even more fun is the chance to trace in part the process of acclimatizationto a new country--from the early fascinated bewilderment ("Cats are the only thing America has in common with Japan") to the beginnings of recognized similarity (his landlady makes preserves the same way Japanese women pickle vegetables) and finally mutual understanding (bidding goodbye to his neighbors with the caption "We have become good friends"). Anyone lucky enough to have lived abroad will recognize the progression, and smile. And then of course there are the smaller details. We are lucky Kuribayashi has such a keen eye, and is so candid with his observations. It's a delight to see him loving the American countryside, loving American cars (for which he has great fondness), not loving American food and turning to Japanese cuisine with relief when he can get it; getting pestered by the landlady's four year old niece; watching children play in the street; talking to the "Sumo Wrestler" maid ("She's like a character out of a cartoon"); being mortified at the thought of dancing at a party. The composite picture that forms is irresistible.

Most of the fun of reading primary sources of history is the incidental information that comes in unexpectedly. I am fascinated to learn that Mexican trains had to carry guards as late as 1930 for fear of bandits, and that a pretty ordinary American used car at the time was better than the Japanese buses. "Japan has to do something about that," says Kuribayashi. Little nuggets of that sort are always turning up.

As much interest as I take in all this, the main draw is still the picture-free letters from Iwo Jima itself. In these Kuribayashi's ability to observe and describe are turned to grim and desperate events. But even in a situation he knew to be hopeless--"I fear our chances of survival are less than one percent," he writes in a letter from June 1944, eight months almost to the day before he died--even amid the bombings and strafings and ever smaller rations, the man of humour and compassion is still there, looking after the chickens that provided the soldiers with eggs, correcting his daughter's writing, giving prudent advice to his wife on how and when to evacuate Tokyo. The small, warm, loving, human touch in the face of crushing inevitability is at times almost unbearable. There is a passage where the general laments being swept into the war that more than sixty years later can bring tears to a man's eyes. He is at a point in his life where he just wants to make his family happy. He would have had another twenty years to do so many things; but this is the place he has been assigned, and his duty must be carried out. So be it. He asks his family to accept his death as destiny and to live their lives to the fullest. Such were the feelings of many a soldier on both sides.

We are not so far from the second world war that we have forgotten it, but it is just beginning to get far enough away to become misremembered in the minds of many. One reason may be that most of us get our information about it from war movies, which give a necessarily distorted picture from compressing events and not being able to get inside the thoughts of the men involved. Even documentaries or scholarly books can be misleading in their own ways. No one actually involved in the war can have the eagle's-eye view of a historian. In such an atmosphere a book like Picture Letters of the Commander in Chief is invaluable, giving us a clear window into the mind of one man right in the middle of the turmoil and devastation, and preserving it for the next generation and (we may hope) many more to come. For in spite of the sorrow and even despair of the last pages, the feeling I am left with is one of gratitude. Gratitute that the memories of an honourable soldier have been preserved and translated into my language. Gratitude that the country Kuribayashi lived in for a time and the country he died to protect are now on friendly terms less than a lifetime afterwards. We often take this for granted, but surely with the strong feelings that existed on both sides this was far from inevitable? And finally, gratitute that the shadows of the honoured dead have been made a bit less shadowy and a bit more honoured. For until now, when Kuribayashi has been remembered he has been remembered as a brave and resourceful general. And with good cause. But it is high time for him to be remembered as a loving husband, a caring father, and a good man.


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