The output of the New York Review of Books imprint dedicated to comics is really outstanding in terms of its variety, attention to both older and more recent historical work, artistic experimentation and porosity of genre and style boundaries, and, more importantly, I’d argue, translation. Despite its newness, and relatively limited catalogue, making available to the English-speaking world – which means beyond native English speakers and with an impact throughout the globe – work by authors such as Edmond Baudoin, Gébé, Dominique Goblet, Ulli Lust and Yvan Alagbé already makes it grandiose. Adding to this list an English edition of The Man Without Talents, by Yoshiharu Tsuge, and with a translation and wonderful essay by Ryan Holmberg, takes the cake.
This book has been available in French since 2005, through ego comme x (the same publisher of Fabrice Neaud’s Journal series, one of the most impressive and touching and powerful and thought-provoking autobiographical comics that non-French speakers have never read). As was the practice of the time, many of the central French-language independent houses that were putting out autobiographical comics were also recuperating historical work and doing translation of titles that would make up a sort of “private tradition” in which they would inscribe their own original productions. And Tsuge’s book was exactly a precursor of many of the practices that would explode in the 1990s a little everywhere in the Western comics world.
Back then, I jotted down a few notes in Portuguese, and I am scooping them again for this occasion, with a few new add-ons. Being unable to read Japanese, I had to wait for further translations in both French and English (some of which by Holmberg himself, in the lovely Breakdown Press editions), so direct knowledge of authors such as Shin’Ichi Abe, Suzuki Oji, Seiichi Hayashi, Tsuge’s brother Tadao, as well as the major gekiga biographies of Masahiko Matsumoto (Gekiga Fanatics) and Yoshihiro Tatsumi (A Drifting Life) came later, and always in a jumbled order, so in a way Tsuge was always the “filter” through which I would read and appreciate this varied, yet consistent manga corpora output. And the same would happen with later artists, from Kiriko Nananan to Daisuké Igarashi, but also Moto Hagio or Taiyo Matsumoto. Adult manga? Mature? Poetic? Self-fiction? The laughable “human interest” descriptor? Slice of life…? I always feel that the need to categorize these texts is laudable in an administrative kind of way, but a feeble attempt at best of keeping their powerful emotional and intellectual effects at bay. Whatever you may call it, Tsuge was, and is, in my mind, the model, the point of departure, the centre of the canon, the nec plus ultra, despite the differences of genre, time and circumstances of production, role within the Japanese tradition, and so on. Re-reading, or better still, reading in English for the first time this immense book, it does not change the place of importance it has on my own personal understanding of Japanese comics. In fact, as an older reader, it further reclaims its place, as becoming a sort of deadbeat father myself some of its episodes gained force, more clearness and new meaning.
This English edition, despite its fragile paper cover, is beautiful. A little like what is inside, perhaps. Holmberg’s essay is, as usual, very informative, eye-opening, and also envy-inducing. The availability of Tsuge’s masterpiece is a wonderful occasion for comic culture.
What makes one postpone the inevitable? This may sound like an oxymoron, but it is actually a cold look at the facts that make up our lives. Living life every day, it is impossible for us to interrupt it for the briefest of moments to dream of quietude, peace or escape. We cannot live a different life, as if multiplying one’s life would bring any consolation. We cannot escape what is in front of us, something that is not only necessary, or even binding, but intrinsically imperative. But there’s a moment of consciousness, approaching imperceptibly, not through words but as a whisper of intuition. This reveals to us that that something is coming, and we also learn from it that the consequences of what’s approaching are irrefutable. So we’ll do anything to make that something and the subsequent self-metamorphosis come “a little later,” always an undefined “later” … But little by little, because we grow used to this postponing gesture, happiness is understood as the illusion of avoiding precisely that impeding encounter. Instead of embracing this shadow, it becomes an unsurmountable thing, an unbearable thing. Instead of regarding it as a transfigurative opportunity, we treat it as an enemy. Or better still, as the unwanted visit of a distant cousin, whom we invited to come over “one of these days,” a sentence which means we hope he or she never shows up. And we will always have excuses at hand to avoid meeting this cousin today, or this weekend… “We have time,” we think to ourselves.
Well, we don’t. That is one of the few two or three certainties of our lives. We don’t have time. Sukezô Sukegawa, the protagonist of this five-chapter story, seems to know this better than anyone. There is no time for anything. That is the reason why he abandons himself to bland daydreams, projects that will never be fulfilled. A feeble drag of his waking life, concentrating all his effort in no effort at all but the slight fantasy that such a small effort affords. This is not even escapism for Sukezô: in order to escape, one needs to actually be in a place from which one would escape, and Sukezô lives in the world almost by accident. Like a ghost of himself, clinging to corners.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t need to introduce Yoshiharu Tsuge. His oeuvre would be part of a putative canon. Readers would be familiar with his name as a “classical” to whom we return anew from time to time, and not a total surprise. If the power of a given art is to be able to elevate a few names as “universal” (with all the political problems it entails, nonetheless), Tsuge would be on that list, without doubt. His first English-translated story, as far as I know, with some circulation in the West at least, was in the academic review Concerned Theatre Japan (volume 2, issue 2; but I’ve never seen it with my own eyes), and then the 1984 7th issue of Raw. The Comics Journal issue 250 published yet another story, and there were a few mentions or articles dedicated to him both in English and French that I could read. But this here, this edition, what a monumental achievement. Added to the early work which will become available via Drawn & Quarterly, this is a great moment for (re)discovering this true master of modern manga, urban poetry manga, autobiography, self-fiction, shishosetsu, or other descriptives that may be pertinent.
The Man Without Talents is a book that quivers with the lack of will in creating – a textual paradox, of course, as we are reading a text that was indeed created and made and brought into existence –, that exists in the attempt of the protagonist in looking for his inner qualities, as well as in the overwhelming weight that daily life puts into our shoulders. One is tempted to make quick, superficial comparisons, perhaps, with Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, but we couldn’t be further from it. Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften’s Ulrich is the epithet of the 20th century man, the ever-adapting man, the true announced Nietzschian Superman. Ulrich is not the “effeminate” (his word) man, who cannot ever inherit the Earth (and, we could argue, actually did). The Man Without Talents is someone whose skills are worthless. He is a sort of Penelope, who undoes the little that he has done. There are no measurements for his achievements, for he achieves nothing of consequence, and even if he does, he will shake it off. But in spite of it, or because of it, beauty still emerges from the most subtle, occult moments: a nap in the midst, the memories of a walk, the sudden realization that one can do some repair work with broken cameras.
Even Tsuge’s drawing style, slightly awkward, harsher and broken from his softer, earlier work, hides beauty in unexpected turns. It’s a mystery to me why the wife’s face is always hidden in the first chapters (it appears “naturally” on the later ones). The use of silhouettes, silent panels, surreal transformations, second-hand stories, shifting fascination with new subjects, all of this contributes to a sort of beaten attitude that makes us concentrate on unspoken moments of real contact between the characters.
As Holmberg points it out, one of the chapters is titled “Evaporation,” and there’s something about the slowness but inexorability of that transformation that seems very a propos what happens to the protagonist – or at least, in the daydream he has about what could happen to him. The last chapter zeroes in on the relationship of Sukezô and Yamaï, the second-hand bookstore owner. To a certain extent, and by comparison with the other chapters, this one is also about a “voyage,” embodied through the reading of the life and works of the poet Seigetsu Yanaginoya. Little by little, in more or less subtle ways here, and more or less obvious ways there, we come to understand that we can make a very direct comparison between the monk-poet of old and the two contemporary characters. But it is precisely in the comparison that the context allows for in relation to the latter characters that one creates an almost absolute contrast between Sukezô and Yamaï, on the one hand, and the historical figure, on the other hand. This would also open up the possibility in discussing issues for Western readers on their fascination for “things Japanese,” especially when they’re reified and transformed into misappropriated prêt-à-porter commodities. What seems romantic and laudable in a History now seen, at a distance, as grandiose, seems simple petty, boorish, egotistic self-alienation in our own times.
Still, within such irritation with this self-wallowing, one wants to jump into the river with them, and carry them over and scream into their faces: “I understand you!” And it’s a shiver down my spine when at the last minute, when the evaporation seems complete, Sukezô’s son’s cry makes him return, seemingly crushed, but definitely healed a little, back home.