Dragon of the Mangroves takes place during the Second World War and traces the fate of two Japanese soldiers during the retreat of the Imperial Army from Burma under assault by British forces including the Gurkhas and Indian Army. Second Lieutent Yoshihisi Suma is in charge of a group of ‘tankettes’ about to be committed to a suicidal defence when he gets a sudden reprieve, a special mission to head a rescue mission to retrieve retreating soldiers from a defeat on an island/peninsula surrounded by mangrove swamp. Meanwhile private Minoru Kasuga, a machine gunner, is part of that retreat, forced back by the ferocious British attack the situation for him and the troops around him gets more and more desperate and as they try to escape the troops become prey to a terrible predatory creature of the mangrove swamps, the salt water crocodile.Review
The book swaps in chapters between the two main protagonists, one heading to the rescue of the other and the other in dire need of rescue. It follows the progress of the rescue party, their encounters with British/Indian forces, the degeneration of their orders and the duty-bound morality of Suma on the one hand and the increasing desperation and disintegration of order and hope with Kasuga and his unit.
Indeed the real story is much more about the pointless bravery of the Japanese soldiers than it is about the supposed topic of the book. We read along as orders become confused, officers are killed and direction is lost. It is also much more sympathetic in portrayal of the Japanese soldiers than representations in even other Japanese works. The characters are humanised by their weakness, they’re not all mindless zombies intending to die for the Emperor they are fearful and not all so devoted to the cause and homeland. This is simply a function of the writing content though and not so much the skill of the author, the dialogue is stilted and despite their more sympathetic representation you never really engage with either of the characters in a personal or emotional way. This may be a function of the formalities of Japanese or because of the translation, but to a western reader it all seems clinical and removed and doesn’t really take you inside the action.
When the crocodiles make their appearance similarly it is in a cold and clinical fashion, descriptive rather than emotive and it fails to really convey the horror of the situation, the naked and wounded swimming for their lives while under fire from gunboats and predation from giant crocodiles should be a situation in which it would be easy enough to evoke fear and horror but in the hands of the author it honestly feels more like a documentary and one feels precious little more sympathy for the characters than one would for a helpless Wildebeest on a nature show.
The book’s ending is also a little flat and hollow, something more traditional for Eastern stories than Western ones but this one feels particularly empty for some reason. A solid and resounding conclusion might have rescued the book from being quite so distant and unemotional but instead it ends on an emphatic ‘meh’ with no real conclusion to speak of. Kasuga is possibly rescued and Sumi elects to stay behind and try to find more men to evacuate but that’s it, there’s no d’enouement and so it falls flat right where you’d at least expect the story to go on for three or four more pages, or an epilogue.
An interesting historical story that suffers from stilted language (poor translation?) and military dialogue and idiom that – while more realistic – distances the reader from the characters and action, leaving one without any sympathy for the characters who – despite flashbacks – never quite seem to achieve three-dimensionality. The book is an interesting tale about an almost forgotten incident in the war but the fictionalisation is stilted and doesn’t really bring the story to life.