1980s manga classic about Yugoslavia in WWII reflects crisis in Ukraine

©Hisashi Sakaguchi / KADOKAWA
The cover of the first volume of “Ishi no Hana” by Hisashi Sakaguchi

“Ishi no Hana” was first serialized in a monthly manga magazine from 1983 to 1986. It has since been published five times in different formats by four different publishers. The sixth edition by a fifth publisher has recently been printed with a new cover design. The fact it has been printed so many times is proof of it being a masterpiece. The latest edition has become a “definitive” version strangely in sync with reality right now.

A young student named Krilo lives in a small village in the western area of Yugoslavia. In 1941, he meets his new teacher named Humberwalding, who has a strange aura. Humberwalding teaches the students about the eternal flow of time and human evolution.

During an outdoor class, the teacher takes the children, including Krilo, to a limestone cave and shows them a huge stalagmite. One student says, “It looks like a stone flower,” but the teacher says, “This is not a flower. It is our eyes that makes us see the flower.”

That day, Nazi Germany invades the village. Krilo escapes into the mountains and is picked up by a peasant guerrilla unit. He joins a partisan unit led by Josip Broz Tito, and goes through a growing-up process as a warrior. Fi, Krilo’s close childhood friend, is sent to a concentration camp, but her fate takes an unexpected turn when she meets Meisner, a young Nazi officer.

The author, Hisashi Sakaguchi, started out as an animator and later became a mangaka. His manga is known for a poetic style, which earned Sakaguchi the nickname of “the poet of manga.” In this work, however, he maintains a cool-headed realism, relentlessly depicting carnage after carnage on the battlefield and describing how vile humans can be when forced into extreme conditions.

The new version presents the manga in a format almost as large as the original magazine size. The printing itself is also beautiful as the pages were newly scanned for the edition. Having read previous versions several times, I was overwhelmed by the detailed drawing and the beauty of the lines that became apparent only at this size.

Sakaguchi suddenly passed away in 1995 at the age of 49. His early death still weighs heavily on the manga world.

I wrote earlier in this article that this manga is “in sync with reality,” because it seems to be a mirror of the ongoing situation in Ukraine, even if only by coincidence. The situation in “The Stone Flower” is also so complicated that it is hard to figure out who is an enemy and who is a friend. The Yugoslav side is not monolithic, with pro-Western European guerrillas and the communist partisans feuding. The Nazis are also not portrayed as having only evil souls. Meisner, for example, is an idealist who dreams of a lasting peace created by force.

Toward the end, Krilo realizes that the simple phrase, “Love and defend one’s own country,” is indeed the root cause of war. War is foolish and tragic, but if “peace” is based on the precarious reality that war may break out again, isn’t it also foolish and tragic? Such a piercing question is directed straight at us today.

The five-volume set leaves readers with a sense of abruptly being cut off at the end. Who was Humberwalding, after all? What happened to all the characters afterward? But the fact that it feels unfinished must be part of the appeal as well.

A stone flower may be an illusion created by the human eye. But if that is true, then the human eye may be able to change the world. Such a message delivered by this work from around 40 years ago is something we should take to heart now, as we witness warfare that seems to have turned the clock back 80 years.

— Kanta Ishida, Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer