Using real world horrors and atrocities in entertainment is a very, very dangerous thing to do. You need to make sure that you handle the situation with care, otherwise the project can come across as crass and exploitative. There have been times when such things have been done well, when they serve the story in ways that don’t feel like the real life tragedy is being used without careful thought. Examples like Magneto’s origins in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, and how it informs his entire character. But there are a lot of creators who seem to expect to be able to use tragedy for their own profit; just look at the recent push back against comedic ‘girl bossing’ true crime podcasts that treat victims and their families like toys.
One subject that is rarely covered in fictitious work is the Japanese research centre and prison camp Unit 731. Everyone has heard of the concentration camps in Nazi Germany, which were run at the same time as Unit 731, in part due to the sheer numbers of people who were killed at them. Auschwitz alone was responsible for 1.1 million deaths. But not as many people have heard of Unit 731. Whilst Unit 731 was not responsible for as many deaths, with it believed to have seen 300,000 people killed it should not be forgotten, nor the events there downplayed.
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Unit 731 was responsible for some of the most gruesome and horrific war crimes perpetrated by Japan during World War II. Its prisoners were dehumanised, referred to as ‘logs’, and were treated as objects rather than living people. The camp conducted disease experiments; testing of biological weapons; performed frostbite testing where they’d freeze and beat living victim; performed vivisections on people; dehydration experiments; hypobaric chamber experiments; amputations; and standard weapons testing where they would shoot, stab, and beat prisoners just to see what would happen. And those they did this to included children, babies, and pregnant people. It was a horrific place that rivalled any atrocity at the time (and since), and it’s impossible to even go and read the Wikipedia article about Unit 731 without feeling feeling your faith in humanity die a little. If you’re anything like myself, you’ll end up in tears before the end.
So with that in mind, writing a story set there would have to be handled with extreme care. Does The Collector: Unit 731 do that? No. Not at all. The story is about a man named Michael Smith, an apparently immortal man who in the present day learns of the death of someone he once knew. This begins his tale of his time in Unit 731, where he and his friend were detained by Japanese forces and sent to the camp as prisoners. The depiction of the camp in the book barely reflects the reality of what it was. We follow Michael as he is infected with a virus to see what will happen, but other than that we don’t really see much.
The tight focus on Michael and his small group makes it seem like Unit 731 is a tiny operation, where they’re doing virus research on around twenty men. There is one section where we see an escaped prisoner purposely shot and then vivisected, and one time we see one panel of a frostbite experiment on a woman, but that’s it as far as expanding the camp and acknowledging the reality of it goes. The book does an incredibly poor job at depicting Unit 731, to the point where it might as well have been called something else. I understand that creating a comic that covers the events of that place accurately would be a very hard read, but glossing over it all like this to concentrate on the story of an immortal white man who breaks out and escapes feels kind of gross.
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And the fact that this super special man is apparently the only person to have ever escaped this place (there were none known to have done so in real life), and that he basically punches and fights his way out, again feels kind of awful. And it once again feels like its downplaying the horrors of the camp and the things that the people there went through. If this story was set anywhere else – literally any other research camp – it would be fine, because the story itself is fine; the characters whilst not particularly fleshed out still work, and it would have made an interesting enough story. But setting it here and handling it the way it does just doesn’t work. Especially as it ends with the main scientist who was experimenting on Michael still alive and trying to chase him down in the modern day. It makes these very real monsters feel like cartoon villains.
I wanted to read this book because I knew about Unit 731; I’d read about it years ago and have never been able to forget about it. I was hoping to see a book that would perhaps try to tell this story in a way that respected the victims and introduced this dark part of history to new people. Instead, it’s perhaps the worst piece of exploitation I’ve read, that honestly left me angry. Zero stars.
The Collector: Unit 731 is out now from Dark Horse.