Yasuyuki Kasai, Dragon of the Mangroves: Inspired by True Events of World War II. iUniverse, 2006. Pp. 152. ISBN 9780595390267. $12.95.

Reviewed by Elliott Hall

Dragon of the Mangroves is a self-published horror novel set in the Second World War. The English version is an unaccredited literal translation from Kasai’s Japanese. It is available from iUniverse.com and Amazon.

Dragon of the Mangroves centres on the fate of an Imperial Japanese garrison stationed in Ramree Island, just off the coast of Burma in the Bay of Bengal. It is 1945, and the war has already long gone against the Japanese. The garrison is facing an overwhelming counter-attack by British-Indian forces. The narrative jumps between two major characters: Superior Private Minoru Kasuga, a machine-gunner with the Ramree garrison, and Second Lieutenant Yoshihisa Sumi. Sumi has been dispatched by his superiors in a desperate, improvised attempt to rescue some of the garrison trapped on Ramree Island.

The Burma campaign is often referred to as ‘the forgotten war.’ In a culture drowning in books set in the European theatre during the war, it is a refreshing change. Dragon of the Mangroves is doubly unusual in being told from the Japanese perspective. It is the details of an Imperial soldiers’ existence, martial and mundane, that often prove the most fascinating aspects of the book. During an air raid, Kasuga puts his hands over his eyes to prevent negative pressure from the explosions blowing them out of their sockets. When one of their comrades is killed, he and his commanding officer both take fragments of his bone so that one can deliver it to his comrades’ family for a proper Buddhist ceremony. As an example of how badly the material condition of the army has deteriorated by that time the novel is set, Sumi’s party is given a Sten gun stolen from the British as one of the best weapons the army has available.

In addition to deprivation there is a casual cruelty to Imperial army life. Kasuga’s platoon leader is a cowardly blowhard named Jinno. His troops give him the nickname ‘Binchoku,’ a contraction of two disciplinary techniques in the Imperial army that Jinno uses on the slightest pretext: the ‘binta,’ or hard slap, and reciting ‘Gunjin-Chokuyu,’ a sort of oath that all soldiers and sailors must memorize. The fact that the binta is a formal term, and referred to in several different contexts in the book, gives an idea of how often commanding officers employed it.

The record of the Imperial Army in the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere – Japan’s name for whatever parts of Asia they’d conquered at the moment – can best be described as horrific. While Kasai does not shy away from this fact in the book, he deals with it in a strange and unsatisfying way. The leaders are called fascists, and a direct mention of the Rape of Nanking is made. However, this historical openness isn’t carried over in his descriptions of the Imperial Army’s interactions with the native Burmese.

Sumi’s local guide is called Pondgi. He’s a member of the Burmese National Army, a force created by the Japanese. Often compared to the Buddha, Pondgi has an unnatural serenity that stops any character development. His unquestioning acceptance of everyone regardless of nationality gives us no clue as to how the Imperial Army dealt with the Burmese. Sumi wonders why he’s still helping the Imperial forces, but that’s as far as the relationship is explored. All of the Burmese in Dragon of the Mangroves are either friendly to the Japanese or silent wallpaper.

In writing about the soldiers’ own view of their role, Kasai makes different set of mistakes. Sumi is portrayed as a reluctant hero; a man who used his natural intelligence to became an officer and avoid the toil and cruelty of an enlisted man. Sumi’s sole ambition in the war is to survive and return to his sweetheart Yukiko. Through most of the novel Sumi is afraid, indecisive and barely in control of the situation. It humanizes Sumi and makes his journey into the war zone of Ramree Island more believable and affecting. However, his past with Yukiko is never fully developed and his reminiscences feel tacked on.

Kasuga is a more straightforward personality. He wants to make his family and village proud of him, and is willing to sacrifice his life for the Emperor in order to do it. However, by the end of the book even Kasuga begins to doubt the veracity of the Imperial Army’s project of liberating Asia from Western colonial rule. It is a chance to discuss the irony of freeing Burma from Western rule so it can be dominated by Japanese puppets, but the opportunity is missed. The fact that all the Burmese in the book call the Japanese ‘master’ should have given Kasuga a clue.

The real stars of Dragon of the Mangroves should be the huge man-eating crocodiles from which the book gets its title. They are mentioned every once in a while: a few disappeared soldiers, a horrible rotting stench a Burmese elder identifies as the legacy of a man-eater, and a bizarre impromptu lecture given at the edge of water that may be infested with them. Kasai tries to work them in metaphorically as well, through the recurring nightmares of Kasuga about a dragon-headed fountain in his home village. The problem is that these various mentions of the crocodiles never coalesce, so they are often pushed to the margins of the narrative by the desperate fight for Ramree Island. When the climactic attempt to swim across Myinkhon Creek to Burma comes, the Dragons’ big scene feels rushed, not the culmination of a building sense of dread.

Ultimately, the problem may be that Kasai does not have enough material for a novel. The conditions of the Japanese in Burma, with an attempt to untangle the various stories of crocodile attacks that Kasai mentions in his preface, would be a great angle for an interesting article. Stretched to the length of a novel, it is thin-skinned.

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