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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC

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Drawing truth about war

Aug. 10, 2017

Peleliu Island in the western Pacific is at the southern tip of the island nation of Palau. Ringed by a coral reef, it is filled with stunning resorts.

But during World War II, it was the site of a bloody battle. The US Marine Corps recorded its worst ever casualty rate there. Of the 10,000 or so Japanese soldiers, only 34 survived.

72 years have passed since the end of the war. The veterans are old and some have died, making it difficult to convey the brutal reality of war to the next generation.

But one manga artist has picked up the baton, with a graphic story of the battle that readers will never forget.

It's called “Peleliu - Guernica of Paradise," and the city of Mito, north of Tokyo, is hosting an exhibition of the original artwork. It won the Japan Cartoonists Association Award this year, one of the top prizes. The manga depicts soldiers and civilians with lovable faces, dragged into the hell fires of war.

Author Kazuyoshi Takeda says he wanted to make his readers "feel the reality of war." He started drawing the manga after illness forced him to confront his own mortality.

Takeda was diagnosed with cancer 7 years ago. Some of the patients he met in hospital soon passed away. At times, he and the others felt depressed, but they always tried to encourage each other to keep fighting.

"The situation was completely different from that of soldiers on a battlefield, but I think there are some similarities in terms of the extreme challenges we faced," he says.

Takeda says he drew the characters in his manga as ordinary young men you might meet on the street today. He wants to convey the horrors of war to people who have no direct understanding of it. The protagonist is a timid man, Tamaru. He's been ordered to write to the bereaved families of fallen soldiers, describing their "achievements."

His first letter is for a soldier who carelessly slipped and died from the injury. Tamaru decides that the family would not be happy knowing the truth about how their son died. So he creates a fictional story about how he died honorably. Later, Tamaru regrets lying to the family.

"Some may think its lying, and others may think it's the truth," Takeda says. "I think the young people who fought in the last war were basically not that different from us as human beings."

The manga is Takeda’s first about war. He was keen to make it historically accurate and spoke frequently with an expert on the subject.

Imperial Headquarters had ordered Japanese soldiers in Peleliu to resist to the last man, even if it meant committing suicide. The soldiers fought in grueling conditions from these caves and tunnels.

Takeda finally visited Peleliu earlier this year, hoping he could add more realistic detail to his work. He entered the cave where the main garrison fought its last battle, and imagined how the soldiers might have felt before taking their own lives.

Back home, he drew the scene of mass suicide. He thinks barbarous scenes should be depicted that way, so he blackened the faces of the people he drew.

Hiromi Suzuki has a special feeling for Takeda's manga. Her grandfather was among the survivors of the Battle of Peleliu. He died 16 years ago. He would talk about delivering mail in Peleliu, but not about the battles he endured there.

Hiromi was moved by one scene in particular. A man shoots and kills a fellow soldier who has pleaded with him to end his life, because he’s in so much pain.

"I think that must have been the most harrowing experience, killing a fellow soldier by your own hand," Hiromi says. "I don't know if my grandfather ever had that kind of experience. So I wonder if I should have asked him."

Hiromi's daughter Aki is 13 years old. Hiromi has been studying hard so she can teach Aki about what her grandfather went through.

"I want you to read this manga because grandpa was on this island," Hiromi tells her.

Takeda hopes to tell the story of the survivors of the battle in future installments. But developing the narrative has been difficult with so few records.

"The soldiers' dialogue doesn't feel natural, so I keep trying to fix it," he says.

Takeda had hoped that meeting a certain person would help him move past this dilemma. Kiyokazu Tsuchida is 97 and lives clear across the country, in Fukuoka Prefecture. He's one of the few remaining survivors of the Battle of Peleliu.

He was there on the island when Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko visited in 2015 and offered prayers. Tsuchida hid in the jungle after most of his fellow soldiers had fallen and had remained there after the war. He says army food supplies were exhausted, and for two years after the war he ate anything he could find.

"I used traps to catch coconut crabs," he says. "They were delicious."

Takeda has one worry that he's been keeping to himself. He opens up about it to Tsuchida.

"I'm writing a manga about a war I didn’t experience," Takeda tells Tsuchida. "I feel as I write that maybe I'm not the person to tell this story."

"It's incredible that you’re writing it under these circumstances," Tsuchida tells him. "It's not something just anybody can do."

"We were told that we would die honorably, and be remembered forever, but in the end, this manga is what will remain in people’s consciousness," Tsuchida says.

Takeda is harnessing the power of manga to ensure the truth about war remains forever present in people's minds.