Yoshiharu Tsuge: The Swamp

2020 seems to be the year Yoshiharu Tsuge finally receives some appreciation in the west. A corner-stone of alternative manga, Tsuge’s introspective, surrealist narratives outlined the boundaries of the medium. Deriving his stories from everyday utterances, his exploration of life surrounding periods of war are both despondent and decadent, immortalising the afflictions of the impoverished. 

Despite their significance, Tsuge’s works have remained in relative obscurity in English speaking countries, only appearing in a handful of gekiga collections over the decades. Stories like Screw Style, a short story so prolific it inspired feature films, can only be found through fan translations. But this year marks Tsuge’s introduction to the English sphere, with The Man Without Talent being published by New York Review Books, and The Swamp being published by Drawn and Quarterly, home to several other important alternative mangaka. 

The Swamp, a collection of 11 stories written between August 1965 and December 1966, provide a holistic view of Tsuge’s manga motifs, but also, a rare insight into the beginnings of alternative manga (Tsuge’s work belongs to a specific type of alternative manga, known as ‘gekiga’). The piece tracks his progression from Tezuka devotee to master of surrealism, exploring his artistic philosophy along the way. 

Using a pre-war backdrop, Tsuge’s first piece, The Phony Warrior, sees him showing his influences on his sleeve. Possessing a complex story, while also noticeably more cartoony than his future works, Tsuge inherits the storytelling style of the prolific Osamu Tezuka. The piece, about a young samurai who, upon sharing his room with a wandering swordsman, takes him to be the legendary warrior Musashi Miyamoto, lacks a narrative-subjectivity that the artist would be known for. But, being Tsuge’s earliest contribution to the alternative magazine Garo, it was clear the artist hadn’t found the balance between artistic vision and commercial potential. 

However, the story’s underlying themes, particularly that of survival in times of great difficulty, is a weaved commonality in almost all his works. The next period piece, Watermelon Sake, shares similar ideas, documenting the questionable business venture of two impoverished young men. 

Tales of tragedy and instability continue until we make it to the title story, The Swamp. In it, we begin to see glimpses of Tsuge’s individuality, and how his artistic vision set him apart from his contemporaries. More symbolic than story-driven, The Swamp follows a young hunter, whose run-in with a young girl leads to a strange night in the swamplands. 

For one, the aesthetic of the story is less cartoonish, and the narrative focuses on abstract symbolism as opposed to linear satisfaction. The unconscious eroticism, mixed with deep character introspection, led to a piece of great interest, playing a role in Tsuge’s rise from obscurity. Tsuge begins using his characters as more than just beings; they begin representing domestic roles, social institutions and even entire nations. 

In the next story, Chirpy, Tsuge introduces another recurring theme in his work, the struggles of an artistic life, placed within a contemporary, but far from ideal Japan. In fact, Tsuge’s own career struggles drench each and every story. The pressure to produce accessible manga, as opposed to what he wants is linked to the imposter-syndrome discussed by the protagonist in The Phony Warrior, and the subjectivity of art analysis makes up the brunt of An Unusual Painting. Once again, Tsuge’s autobiographical approach elevates his work from that of his contemporaries.

When discovering that this internal conflict led to Tsuge halting all creations from 1987, there is almost a romantic notion in his artistry. While manga was his occupation, the ideas explored in these vulnerable scenes were far from disingenuous. To derive stories from everyday life, depicting dire economic situations and the afflictions of post-war hardships, was as confronting as it was compelling. The final few stories continue along the line of either period pieces or “I-novels”, with The Secondhand Bookstore containing the rare wholesome Tsuge moment, as an impoverished young man longs for a book he cannot buy. 

But in the final work, Hand-cuffs, we are thrown yet another curve-ball. This piece, about a detective’s struggle subduing a criminal in the mountains, is one of four pieces Tsuge re-wrote from previous works in order to find some form of inspiration (alongside The Phony Warrior, A Strange Letter and The Ninjess). The original version of the piece, which was published under gekiga legend Yoshiharu Tatsumi’s name, was actually conceptualised by Tsuge’s brother, Tadao. The story itself shares unabashed similarities to Tatsumi’s gritty Black Blizzard, and ends the collection with a linear story, which, as a reader, was satisfying. We were taken on a journey, but brought back to earth before its completion. 

Yoshiharu Tsuge’s importance in alternative manga is undeniable, and his absence in western manga publication most likely mimicked the conflict Tsuge seemed to face in his own life; when did his work provide creative fulfilment, and when did it provide income? Truly a genius in his own right, it’s exciting to see such a talent receive the recognition he deserves, which, in turn, allows western audiences to receive a more holistic view of the medium of manga. The fact that the man hasn’t touched a pen in decades, but still finds himself collecting accolades, goes to show what Yoshiharu Tsuge means for the medium, and art itself. 

This product was provided to the reviewer in the form of a review copy. Irrespective of this fact, the article remains completely unbiased, and contains the reviewer’s thoughts only.

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