Title: Najing: The Burning City
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Writer: Ethan Young
Artist: Ethan Young
Spoiler Warning! This review talks about the plot of the graphic novel being reviewed. I try to avoid mentioning anything I see as a major twist or reveal, but I don’t guarantee it. Read at your own risk!
Nanjing: The Burning City is a moving graphic novel by Chinese-American cartoonist Ethan Young. Before I go further, a warning: this book is about the Nanjing Massacre during the Second Sino-Japanese War. This was a traumatizing, horrific tragedy, and there may be readers with a connection to the event who will find the book or even this review difficult to read. Nanjing includes murder and sexual assault based on historical fact, and those topics will come up in this article.
The book begins with an introductory page that briefly relates the capture and occupation of Nanjing. It explains that military leaders fled the city, abandoning the soldiers under them. The last line, set apart from the others, is “This is a story about the forgotten ones.” Though the story focuses on two of the forgotten soldiers, the Captain and Lu, it’s also about everyone else forgotten in the ruins of Nanjing. That line sets a tone of desperation and mourning that runs through everything. The art is in black and white, which creates stark lines and shadows. The high contrast heightens the uneasy feelings I had reading Nanjing. There is no joy or happiness to be found in this story, which is especially exemplified when the Captain tries to make jokes. The first time this happens, Lu asks, “Why are you laughing?” In their new reality, nothing can be funny.
The first story page is smoke rising over broken buildings and skewed power lines. The Captain is first seen running through the ruins of Nanjing, sneaking through silent panels that feel like a stillness before a disaster. Young understands how to use silent panels to build tension, a device he employs often and well. I sensed the frayed nerves of the characters in every scene, and that put me on edge in turn. The city is a pile of rubble and debris with blown-out walls. Captain and Lu walk through a mass grave on the way to their last-ditch effort to escape. The art straddles a line of stylization and has an up-close approach in its layouts and framing. People and things look big, but the effect is intimate. The story is personal.
One running theme is the need to survive, and by extension what is necessary for survival. Captain and Lu meet an old Chinese man named Wei Xian who feeds them rice, then begs them to take him to the Safety Zone, a refugee area set up for civilians by foreigners in the city. Earlier, the Captain refused Lu’s plan to go to the Safety Zone, opting instead for a gate out of the city. Wei Xiang offers more rice as payment, pleading with them to take him out of the city if they won’t go to the Safety Zone. Even though Wei Xiang becomes more insistent and desperate, the Captain leaves the old man to his fate. Lu feels conflicted, but the Captain says “There’s no room for any sentiment during war.” They see a girl and her mother fleeing from Japanese soldiers, but they stay hidden behind a wall as the soldiers kill the mother and attempt to sexually assault the girl. This is off-panel, indicated only by dialog while we watch the Captain and Lu struggle to stay put. A Japanese officer kills the girl for resisting. It’s a very difficult moment to read, but it throws into relief that if the two Chinese soldiers try to intervene, they’ll die because the Japanese have them vastly outnumbered.
The way the Japanese soldiers are depicted in Nanjing is interesting and multifaceted. There are soldiers who commit the atrocities that are a matter of historical record, but this isn’t the only range of the Japanese soldier characters. For example, in the squad that attacked the girl and her mother, a soldier named Yoshi is uneasy with his fellows’ treatment of the Chinese civilians. He is mocked for it, but Young subverts the trope of the “good enemy” when Lu and the Captain catch up with them and kill the squad with a grenade. Yoshi survives the grenade, but his pleas for mercy fall on deaf ears, not least because of the language barrier, and Lu kills him with a rock. Even if he felt his squadmates were going too far, he was still part of the army that destroyed Nanjing.
The other most prominent example of a Japanese soldier is the commanding officer of the forces in Nanjing, the Colonel. While not savage, he is clearly callous. He stops a Japanese soldier from taking rice from a woman and her son entering the Safety Zone, but this act is not so much out of compassion as it is out of a desire to keep his men in line. The Colonel asks the man if he wants to “deal with the Germans,” suggesting that the Colonel would be held accountable to the people in charge of the Zone if his soldiers act up. The Colonel eventually captures the Captain, and in the face of the Captain’s defiance, the Colonel claims the Japanese are trying to help the Chinese by uniting Asia under Japan’s rule. This was the historical aim of the Japanese military during this time period, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, a concept designed to defend against Westerners and Western thinking. The idea that anything about the Nanjing Massacre could be helpful, while appalling, is nonetheless a telling detail about the motivations of the Japanese army.
Nanjing: The Burning City is a powerful, emotional account of one of history’s great tragedies. The subject matter is heavy, but treated with all of the necessary respect and gravitas. Ethan Young has created in Nanjing a finely-crafted comic that affected me deeply. Though a difficult read, it is precisely because it is difficult that it should be read and the event remembered.