We are coming up to Halloween but the soft, safe, comforting and warm orange glow given off by the pumpkin lanterns on your doorstep can distract you from the fact that horror can come in many other guises than super-scary skellingboneses. There’s also the rather blunter horror of war and man’s inhumanity to man, and Netflix will be throwing harsh light on it with the upcoming release of a new film version of All Quiet on the Western Front towards the end of October. Erich Remarque’s autobiographical novel and its 1930 film adaptation (itself one of the earliest winners of an Oscar) are considered among the definitive visions of the terror and tragedy of the trenches – can anything in anime or manga match them?
Japan was a lead actor on the stage of the Second World War and that has been a rich source of inspiration for anime, covering everything from the desperate tragedy of Grave of the Fireflies to the time-travel adventure of Zipang, but Japan’s more peripheral role in the First World War has resulted in a lack of perspective that has never given the period much scrutiny. I honestly can’t think of many First World War anime at all, and those that do touch on it by and large only do so peripherally: Violet Evergarden might count as one, after a fashion, because while it is not a war story the occasional flashbacks do have a trench-warfare aesthetic in the uniforms (and the mud!); when Edward Elric is warped to another dimension at the climax of the first 2003 version of the Fullmetal Alchemist anime he lands in First World War-era London during a Zeppelin raid. Scant stuff admittedly, but the contexts in which they are referenced does form an intriguing link – even if anime and manga can be somewhat inconsistent in their application of history, the unbound imagination which we adore in the medium makes them much more vivid evocations of fantasy.
There is a healthy subgenre of not World War but “Weird War” fiction and art across the internet, alternate visions of history which envisage how magic and monsters might have swayed these globe-spanning conflicts. To be honest, though, I’ve never been terribly all that interested in “Weird War Two” fiction because it ends up being so wearily rote and predictable – one and all, you can expect neo-pagan Nazi occultists trying to summon an army of demons an that’s about it. That said, one rare title to buck the trend was nothing other than an anime, 2009’s Russo-Japanese co-production First Squad. Animated by Studio 4˚C, First Squad was a movie depicting a Red Army paranormal warfare division recruiting poltergeists to fight for the Soviets on the Russian front. First Squad was intriguing and atypical (read our review about it here) and given a number of plot hooks left dangling at its end it was probably intended to be a pilot for a full series, but it never went further and the genre as a whole reverted to type.
That was seed cast onto the rocks, but “Weird War One” however presents a far more interesting prospect. As the turning point which brought into the world the painful birth of modernity, the First World War was played out against a backdrop of transition – in 1914, there were still cuirassiers in golden breastplates and plumed helmets charging on horseback while swinging curved sabres, while by 1918 they had been replaced by oil-belching tanks which were grinding forward with hammering machine guns. In this uncertain liminal space where old dreams struggled with new realities, strange creatures of myth and legend wreathed in the mists of time - fading in and out through the tongues of acrid smoke in the fog of war – find a far more fitting place. From the Angel of Mons covering the retreat of the BEF to the Spectre of Ypres pointing out the location of mines underneath the lines, the supernatural already hangs over the trenches like a pall.
Another more prosaic factor is that the uniforms of the First World War are far more elaborate – you could still see French Zouaves with wide blooming trousers – and far more interesting to artists!
“Weird War One” is thus a theme which has been taken up enthusiastically by several manga artists. While finding such art can be frustratingly obscure and requires active knowledge of Japanese to thread your way through the insular search tags on Pixiv, one artist has stood out to me as going to unusual lengths to make his work accessible to Westerners – ※Kome, who does not only upload his art on Twitter and Tumblr but has also taken the radical step of publishing doujinshi on Amazon with his own “Weird War One”, Winged Fusiliers. This is what originally attracted me to this title – while events like Comiket are practically an anime and manga Mecca, how many readers here on the UK Anime Network have actually undertaken the pilgrimage to visit it? The enormous doujinshi ecosystem is something from which we are almost completely excluded (well, for anyone who doesn’t know how to cheer up a sad panda, anyway) so a window into this world – and one as simple as a one-click Amazon Kindle download, at that – is a unique treat. What does it reveal
Winged Fusiliers depicts an alternate world which may not be the same as our Earth but nonetheless suffers from very familiar problems: it is scarred by its very own Great War, bemired in the bloody bog of a perpetual stalemate. Any technological or strategic innovation by one side is immediately copied and countered by the other, and so no progress is made and the dreadful deadlock grinds on. Can anyone find a way to breach these impossible barriers?
Into such a world fly the Birdmen. At a glance they may look like you and me but Birdmen are so called because they literally each have a large pair of wings growing out of their backs. Endowed with these great wings Birdmen have long been able to fly high above the cares of the world, but ironically their physical freedom only leads to social isolation as they are jealously resented and excluded from communities by ground-bound normal humans. In war however, needs must, and as terrible as the battlefield may be Birdmen’s unique ability to fly straight over the lines that uncounted lives have fallen trying to cross may just be what is needed to turn the tide. Units of “Winged Fusiliers” are being raised to take the Great War to the skies, and for uncertain young bird-girls who have volunteered for the new force they are going to discover that the acceptance of their peers exacts a high price.
Winged Fusiliers is a short doujinshi which, if it was printed, would only be not much more than a ‘floppy’ or a chapbook, coming in at just twenty-four pages. It contains a mixture of artwork previously uploaded by ※Kome to art sites, as well as a few short vignette comics with small incidents in the Birdmen’s service plus some sidebars with world-building sketching out some details of the world. That might not seem to be a great deal of material to work with – why buy a manga when you can already look at most of it for free on art sites already? – but the price of the package is commensurate with its limited size. Amazon is charging just £1.53 for a download, which even in our current more straitened economic climate is no more than loose back-pocket change: rather than a formal purchase of a product it really feels more like a perfectly nominal tossing of a few coins into ※Kome’s tip jar, which I accept as entirely fair and reasonable given the extensive quantity of art already made available for free on his various websites. It is not all repeated content either – as I mentioned, we do see a few pages of new manga art, and we can also now enjoy all the text and dialogue in English translation. While the text is quite simple (“The World In This Story Resembles Ours But It Is Different” reads the tagline on the back cover. Fascinating insight there, chum) it is still a quantifiable difference to now be able to read manga which the free versions only ever had in Japanese.
The art of Winged Fusiliers is in full colour. It’s a great advantage for depth and detail, but while you might not be able to appreciate it fully if you only own an older model of Kindle with a black-&-white screen, you can read it directly online in a web browser through the Amazon website – after purchase, search for Winged Fusiliers under “Your Orders” and then press the “Content and Devices” button on that entry. This will take you to a page listing all your Kindle items; you can then read Winged Fusiliers by selecting the “More Actions” drop-down list for the title and then “Read Now”.
Just what is it that you’re reading? Winged Fusiliers has quite gentle art given the subject matter – although we are in the middle of a war there is no actual on-screen violence in this volume. We see some aeroplanes dropping bombs and exploding in the background during a brief skirmish between the Birdmen and Last Exile-style armoured zeppelins but there is no actual up-front injury or death and although the first two-page manga vignette which opens the volume involves a visit to a field hospital the images of the wounded are completely bloodless (although they do reference the infamous 1919 painting Gassed by John Sergeant which itself is an imitation of other photographs of the blind-leading-the-blind after being poisoned by mustard gas). That does give Winged Fusiliers a general age rating that is safe to share with the wider family, but that it is not to stay that it underplays or sanitises the Great War – images of the Bird-girls gazing down anxiously on a front churned into an ash-grey puddle are clear that it’s not all fun and games while not having to rub your nose in it. It’s really a shame that there is not more art included – on the art sites you can see a number of really quite affecting tableaus, such as one of the bird-girls dragging a flag behind her as she trudges through a field of waterlogged shell-holes, that really could have been quite fitting and still in keeping with the atmosphere of the doujinshi. One caption box tells you that Birdmen often struggle to find work, but there’s one short comic on the internet of the Bird-girl Nora arriving into the big city excited to get a job only to become gradually more discouraged as doors are repeatedly slammed in front of her which was really quite sad and would have told the same story more effectively. What we have works very well, but it leaves you hankering for more exploration of a world whose surface we’re only scratching – which I suppose means that the book is a success if it interests you enough for further exploration.
One detail that stands out with ※Kome’s Birdmen are not just their wings but where those wings fit in with the rest of the body. Winged people from evocations of Biblical angels to the most repetitive knock-off isekai pulp will invariably show wings extending out from the subject’s shoulders. Winged Fusiliers however has taken what is as far as I can tell is a genuinely unique approach where the wings extend from the Birdmen’s lower back. It’s not just being different for difference’s sake, either – asking about it elsewhere on other internet sites, there’s a credible argument that should Birdmen ever descend on our own real world, it would be an actual evolutionary advantage to place the wings closer to the person’s actual centre of balance rather than have everything dangling down from the shoulders. Of course, ‘realism’ for fantasy creatures may seem to be pointless, but it still shows that a depth of thought has been invested in the concept. It’s also something that works surprisingly well visually – allowing the Birdmen’s arms and torsos to be seen more clearly without being obscured by wings allow greater freedom to show action, while on the ground the wings fold down to either lend gravitas as a long cloak or daintiness like a skirt with a bustle. Winged Fusiliers has a really smart and successful sense of design behind it.
While ※Kome appears to have largely moved on from the Winged Fusiliers project – looking over his Twitter account, a lot of his recent uploads have been focusing on the (not entirely unrelated!) topic of Battle Maids – this is a promising foundation on which to build a greater story if he ever wants to turn it into a full-sized manga. As short as it is, this is the best sort of doujinshi as a truly personal passion project.