Saturday, February 1, 2020

The Man Without Talent

Robert Boyd


Yoshiharu Tsuge, The Man Without Talent (2019, New York Review of Books)


Yoshiharu Tsuge, "Red Flowers" published in RAW 7, drawn in 1966, published in English in 1985

Back in 1985, Yoshiharu Tsuge's "Red Flowers" was published in RAW number 7. It was published as an inset booklet inside RAW's oversized pages. It was for many art comics readers our first encounter with the work of this genius. RAW published another Tsuge story in 1990. I have been waiting over 30 years for a book of Tsuge's work to appear in English. When the flood of translated manga started being published in English in the 90s, I felt certain some publisher would step up. But for some reason, Tsuge was reluctant to allow it. (The story of that reluctance would be worth knowing. I had heard that he had given up comics to spend his life fishing, but reading Ryan Holmberg's essay in this volume suggests a psychological reason.)

In any case, he stopped drawing comics in 1987 and withdrew from public life until he drew this book in 1998. It may have felt a bit like Marcel Duchamp withdrawing from art making to play chess, only to return with one final work, "Étant donnés: 1° la chute d'eau / 2° le gaz d'éclairage" (1966). Tsuge returned with this book in 1998. But while Duchamp was officially involved with chess, Tsuge's withdrawal seems to have been fueled by depression.

This book is a first person novel that is quite autobiographical, although the primary activity of the main character, Sukezō Sukegawa, is selling stones, something that Tsuge apparently never did. (Tsuge's life is described in the introduction by Ryan Holmberg, who also translated the book.) Even though Sukezō had worked as a comics artist, for some reason he has given that up. He and his wife and son live a precarious existence of abject poverty as Sukezō comes up with various improbable schemes to support his family. He briefly has a little success buying and repairing old cameras he finds at flea markets (something Tsuge did), but when the fad for buying old cameras fades, so does this source of income. In the meantime, he encounters a variety of equally pathetic entrepreneurs scrapping together existences on the margins of one of the richest capitalist economies on Earth. 


 
 Yoshiharu Ysuge, The Man Without Talent p. 166

In this page, we can see that he has given up his old profession, dramatically demonstrated by the fact that his ink has become moldy. (Note that the pages are designed in a mirror image of how western comics pages are design--right to left.) You can see that his art is not flashy. It is simple and unadorned, without flash. It is basically realistic, but the figures are undeniably cartoons. This somewhat stripped-down approach typifies Tsuge's work, although he has a gift for drawing beautifully detailed scenes of nature. But his bitterness towards art comics--of which his work is a shining example--is understandable. There are few art forms as labor-intensive and unremunerative.

He meets a bookstall owner, Yamai, who is like himself. He, too, strives to vanish from society by being useless and invisible. He gives Sukezō a book of haiku by a 19th century poet Seigetsu Inoue, who appears to have been a real person. In reading about Seigetsu, Sukezō seems to have found an earlier avatar of people like himself and Yamai. Perhaps that is Tsuge's intent--to describe a class of people who by their very nature choose to become invisible, to fade out and vanish. Apparently Tsuge has done this frequently throughout his life. Though the book doesn't say overtly that this a result of mental illness, a reader could conclude it. The Man Without Talent is a profoundly sad book, but there is a kind of embedded hopefulness in it. Tsuge did, after all, write and draw it. He could have just vanished instead.

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