Yoshiharu Tsuge: the first manga artist who used his personal life as story material

The Swamp is an anthology of Yoshiharu Tsuge's early manga and gekiga work, published by Drawn & Quarterly.

From the publisher:

Yoshiharu Tsuge is one of the most influential and acclaimed practitioners of literary comics in Japan. The Swamp collects work from his early years, showing a major talent coming in to his own. Bucking the tradition of mystery and adventure stories, Tsuge's fiction focused on the lives of the citizens of Japan. These mesmerizing comics, like those of his contemporary Yoshihiro Tatsumi, reveal a gritty, at times desperate post-war Japan, while displaying Tsuge's unique sense of humor and point of view. The Swamp is a landmark in English manga-publishing history and the first in a series of Tsuge books Drawn & Quarterly will be publishing.

The following essay was written by Mitsuhiro Asakawa and translated by Ryan Holmberg. It's an abridged version of the essay as it appears in the book. — Mark

Gekiga's new frontier: the uneasy rise of Yoshiharu Tsuge

by Mitsuhiro Asakawa

Yoshiharu Tsuge's contributions to the development of gekiga and manga are immense. Tsuge was not only the first manga artist who used his personal life as story material, he was also the first to make his characters' internal conflicts the center of his stories. Previously these techniques had been limited to literature and the "I-novel"—a type of autobiographical fiction popular in Japan since the early 20th century. Against the mad rush of Westernization of Japanese daily life after World War II, Tsuge also employed comics to revisit and find new value in native Japanese customs and modes of living, and without lapsing into nostalgia. Furthermore, with works like "Nejishiki" (June 1968), Tsuge abandoned what had been considered one of the bare minimum requirements of the comics medium—storytelling—by exploring the possibilities of the irrational and the surreal. His work did nothing less than redefine the comics medium for readers, creators, and the world of Japanese manga.

Tsuge was born in 1937 in Tokyo, the second of five children. His father died when he was young, leaving his mother to raise the children alone. As it was a time of widespread poverty and turmoil in Japan, Tsuge had to get a job after finishing elementary school. Tsuge was introverted and demonstrated skill in drawing from an early age. He started reading manga soon after the war, and decided he wanted to become a cartoonist after falling in love with Osamu Tezuka's work. Though his first published manga were four-panel strips for the magazine Thrilling Book (Tsūkai bukku), a mixed comics and prose fiction monthly for boys published by Hōbunsha, in 1954, his true debut as a professional cartoonist dates to the following year with the release of The White-Masked Demon (Hakumen yasha, May 1955), a 128-page book from the Tokyo kashihon (rental book) publisher Wakagi Shobō. Tezuka's influence is strong in Tsuge's earliest works, with additional influences from fellow Wakagi artists Shinji Nagashima and Masaharu Endō. 

Yoshiharu Tsuge, The White-Masked Demon, (Wakagi Shobō, May 1955)

In the foreword for a collection of his work from 1988, Tsuge wrote the following:

The end of the kashihon era were the most difficult years for me. Not only was I having trouble making a living, but I simply could not bear the idea of drawing comics simply to entertain people. Being poorly read and poorly educated as I was, things like "high art" and "self-expression" were total mysteries to me. I didn't have any friends to talk about such ideas with either, so there was no question of me being directly influenced in that way.  Still, that's the direction I naturally ended up heading, perhaps as a result of being opposed, emotionally and physically, to drawing just for entertainment's sake. Like some kind of writer's cramp, even drawing just a single panel made my hand shake and gave me the sweats. A ball of black anxiety would well up unpleasantly in my guts, and my head hurt so bad I thought it would crack open. I thought that maybe I could trick my body by just slapping out the first thing that came to me, but that only made things worse.

Fortunately for Tsuge and other ambitious artists, Sanpei Shirato was about to team up with publisher Katsuichi Nagai, president of Seirindō, to create the now legendary magazine Garo. Fueled by Shirato's fame in the counterculture with the watershed kashihon series The Legend of Kagemaru (Ninja bugeichō, 1959–62), and backed financially by the artist's commercial success in mainstream manga magazines with juvenile titles like Sasuke (1961–66), Garo debuted in 1964 as an unrestrained platform for Shirato's new epic, The Legend of Kamuy (Kamui-den, 1964–71).

Garo no. 1, cover by Sanpei Shirato (Seirindō, September 1964)

Having been impressed by "Ghost Chimneys" when it was first published, Shirato hoped that Tsuge would be one of the magazine's regular contributors. However, as Tsuge rarely mixed with other cartoonists, no one at Garo knew how to get in touch with him. So they used the pages of the magazine: "Yoshiharu Tsuge, please contact us," it says in the margin of a page in the April 1965 issue. The missive found its mark. Tsuge soon began drawing for the magazine, with his first story for them, "The Phony Warrior" ("Uwasa no bushi"), appearing in the August 1965 issue.

Tsuge, The Phony Warrior (Tōkōsha, December 1966)

Shirato's policy for Garo was to let artists draw what they wished without any editorial interference. This present volume—The Swamp—focuses on Tsuge's earliest contributions to the magazine. Markedly different from his classic Garo stories of the late '60s, much of what he drew in 1965–66 was an extension of the styles and themes of his previous kashihon work. For example, his first four contributions to Garo—"The Phony Warrior," "Watermelon Sake" ("Suika zake," Garo no. 14, October 1965), "Destiny" ("Unmei," Garo no. 16, December 1965), and "An Unusual Painting" ("Fushigi na e," Garo no. 17, January 1966)—revisited the historical settings and character types of the many samurai and ninja manga he had drawn since his debut. In the early '60s, Shirato's ninja titles were among the most popular kashihon manga, with the result that many artists, including Tsuge, were asked by their publishers to produce work in his style. It is perhaps possible to read the fake Musashi Miyamoto (c. 1584–1645) in "The Phony Warrior" as a stand-in for Tsuge as the "phony Sanpei Shirato." The lines in the second-to-last panel—"As Musashi, perhaps this man was a fake. But as himself, he was the real thing."—are colored by Tsuge's own pride as an artist. "Watermelon Sake" and "Destiny" also feature samurai, and similarly reflect the artist's personal life and dire economic situation.

In August 1965, Tsuge participated in an event in Tabata (north Tokyo) where readers could meet their favorite kashihon manga authors. Shirato and Shigeru Mizuki, both of whom Tsuge had previously met but never talked seriously with, were also guests. So that the struggling artist would have the time and space to polish his ideas for future stories for Garo, Shirato invited Tsuge to come stay with him at an inn he frequently used in rural Ōtaki, in the hills of the Bōsō Peninsula in Chiba Prefecture. Sympathetic to Tsuge's money troubles, Shirato even paid for Tsuge's room and board for the almost two weeks that he was there. "The time I spent in Ōtaki was truly purifying," recalled Tsuge in 1974 about the Suehiro Inn, located adjacent to the gentle Isumi River. "The sky, the mountains, the river, the rain, the inn, fishing—I really responded to the glimmering vividness of the natural world around me. Small birds, insects, dogs I passed on the road, simple rocks—it was hard to believe that I had barely noticed such things until just yesterday." While there, Tsuge drew one work, "An Unusual Painting." Though the story itself is straightforward, by featuring an idiosyncratic artist who entertains himself by creating impenetrable pictures, the work seems to foreshadow Tsuge's own imminent break with comics orthodoxy.

Though he was only there for a couple of weeks, Tsuge's time in Ōtaki provided him ideas for a number of future stories. Most important among them is "The Swamp" ("Numa," Garo no. 18, February 1966). With this conceptual story, Tsuge finally achieved a dramaturgy wholly his own. Here was the liberation from conventional storytelling that he had been fretting about for years. Upon completing it, Tsuge remembers thinking that the work was "perfect." The following issue of Garo featured "Chirpy" ("Chiiko," March 1966). Based on Tsuge's own private life, it marked the emergence in manga of a focus on the artist's daily life, something that had previously been the domain of prose literature and the "I-novel." Of course, past cartoonists, like Matsumoto, had drawn upon their immediate surroundings and people they knew. What differentiated these new stories by Tsuge was that, though fictional, they were based squarely on the artist's own personal experiences and were crafted in a way that made them seem at least partly autobiographical.

The response to "The Swamp" and "Chirpy" from readers and other cartoonists was not insignificant. Unfortunately, much of that response was negative. The dark, oppressive, and underlying erotic tone of "The Swamp," as well as the motif of the struggling cartoonist and the bar girl living together in "Chirpy"—both represent fairly early instances of the trials of young adulthood appearing unvarnished within manga. Many of Tsuge's contemporaries, however, simply found them "bleak" and "decadent," and said so. Disheartened, Tsuge once again considered quitting comics. He thought he might try to get a job working a factory night shift, and scheduled an interview at a printer in Ichigaya. But on the way, he stopped in at Seirindō, Garo's publisher, located in Jinbochō, where publisher and head editor Katsuichi Nagai informed him that Shigeru Mizuki was looking for people to help him with his own work.

 As a kashihon author, Mizuki had been fairly prolific but not very popular. Then, toward the end of 1965, he received the Children's Manga Prize from Kōdansha, one of the biggest publishing houses in Japan. Immediately, he began receiving commissions from major manga magazines, including a remake of his kashihon Kitarō series for Kōdansha's Weekly Shōnen Magazine (selections of which have been published in English translation by Drawn & Quarterly). Swamped and in dire need of help, Mizuki formally created Mizuki Pro in 1966. Though fifteen years younger than
Mizuki (born 1922), Tsuge debuted as a cartoonist before Mizuki, and was established and respected himself. It is thus more appropriate to call Tsuge Mizuki's "helper" rather than "assistant," also considering that Tsuge was only called in when Mizuki was really crunched for time. Tsuge was mainly tasked with drawing a number of Mizuki's characters, including ones in the early installments of Kitarō. When Mizuki redrew his "Yokai Chess Necronomicon" ("Yōki shininchō) as "The Eerie Necronomicon" ("Kaiki shininchō") for the December 1966 issue of Garo, all of the backgrounds and characters were newly drawn by Tsuge.

The idea for "Mushroom Hunting" ("Hatsutake gari," Garo no. 20, April 1966), like that for "The Swamp," dates from Tsuge's time in Ōtaki. It was published in the same issue of Garo that carries Mizuki's "Namahage." Mizuki's story, about a bookish youth who is skeptical of folk superstitions and then cursed by having his face transformed into that of the northern Japanese demon Namahage, was supposed to have been sixteen pages. When Mizuki submitted only eight, Tsuge was asked to produce something quickly to make up the difference. The result was "Mushroom Hunting," drawn in just a few days. The setting is modeled on the Suehiro Inn in Ōtaki, which had a large clock similar to the one you see in the manga. While there, Shirato took Tsuge mushroom picking. And though Shirato (born 1932) was only five years older than Tsuge, the benevolence he expressed toward Tsuge seems to be reflected in the relationship between the old man and the boy in the manga.

Suehiro Inn, Ōtaki; the inspiration for "Mushroom Hunting" and other stories in this volume. Photograph by Asakawa, January 2018

Sharp-eyed readers will note a resemblance between the style of "Mushroom Hunting" and Mizuki's manga from these years. One of the reasons is that some of the backgrounds were drawn by Yoshikazu Kitagawa, one of Mizuki's assistants, who later published his own manga under the name Shōichi Kitagawa. The detailed linework, sharp tonal contrasts and deep shadows, and oversized sound effects also speak to the influence of Tsuge's time at Mizuki Pro. Likewise, Mizuki Pro kept a large collection of photographs clipped from magazines and organized in albums, sampled liberally in the creation of the classic Mizuki style of cartoony characters situated within highly detailed, photorealistic backgrounds. While the adoption of this style became an integral part of Tsuge's classic Garo period of the late '60s, its influence can already be perceived in the present volume in works like "The Secondhand Book" ("Furuhon to shōjo") and "A Strange Letter" ("Fushigina tegami"), which are also from 1966.

Original title page for "The Secondhand Book"

Original title page for "A Strange Letter"

"Mushroom Hunting" was the last truly new story Tsuge published in 1966. Though an indispensable member of Mizuki Pro, Tsuge had lost confidence in his own abilities as an artist, and felt little desire to produce new work. Another colleague and admirer helped him through this slump: Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Unlike Shirato, who pushed him to create new stories, Tatsumi encouraged Tsuge to return to his roots and redraw some of his best kashihon works (a not uncommon practice among former kashihon artists at the time). Faced with the rapid decline of the kashihon market, Tatsumi, like a number of his peers, created his own publishing house, Dai-ichi Pro (No. 1 Productions), in 1963. Tsuge had previously contributed to Dai-ichi Pro's romance and science-fiction anthologies, and Tatsumi hoped to publish a standalone collection of Tsuge remakes. Ultimately, however, some of these remakes first appeared in Garo, and then were collected with additional stories in two books, The Phony Warrior (December 1966) and The Antlion Pit (Arijigoku, April 1967), both from Tōkōsha, run by Tatsumi's elder brother, Shōichi Sakurai. Presumably, the project was passed by Tatsumi directly to his brother. A sign of how close former kashihon artists were in these transitional years, The Phony Warrior includes a short afterword by Shirato, which begins as follows: "There are many kinds of cartoonists. The superman type, the businessman type, the craftsman type, and the scholar type, for example. Yoshiharu Tsuge is the epitome of the fine artist type." Shirato sums up Tsuge's approach with this memorable sentence: "Though he maintains his creativity by repeatedly disgorging his self, by doing so he inevitably puts himself in an increasingly unbearable position, as it entails taking personal, emotional responsibility for the value and reception of any one work. It is like perpetually holding your body in a forward-leaning posture poised for flight."

The four redrawn works in the present volume are as follows:

  1. "The Secondhand Book" ("Furuhon to shōjo"):
    original version in The Labyrinth (Meiro, series 2) no. 2 (Wakagi Shobō, February 1960),
    remake first published in Garo (September 1966), but probably drawn many months earlier.
  2. "A Strange Letter" ("Fushigina tegami"): original version in The Labyrinth (series 1)
    no. 4 (Wakagi Shobō, February 1959), remake first published in The Phony Warrior (Tōkōsha, December 1966).
  3. "The Ninjess" ("Jonin"): original version in Dragon and Tiger (Ryūko) no. 14 (Tokyo Top-sha, February 1961), remake first published in The Phony Warrior.
  4. "Handcuffs" ("Tejō"): original version in The Labyrinth (series 1) no. 10 (Wakagi Shobō, August 1959), remake first published in Garo (December 1966), but drawn circa 1963.

Original title page for "Handcuffs"

Original title page for "The Ninjess"

While not a well-known work from this period, "Handcuffs" is significant because of the backstory of its production. Both the original version and the remake were published under the name Yoshiharu Tsuge, but in fact the original story and breakdown were by his younger brother, Tadao Tsuge (born 1941). Inspired by his older brother's example, Tadao aspired to become a cartoonist. He showed this work in a rough state to Yoshiharu to get his advice. Yoshiharu immediately recognized Tadao's nascent talents. But suffering from artist's block under a looming deadline, and enticed by the fact that the story was good and the artwork half completed, Yoshiharu asked Tadao, "Do you mind if I use this?" Thus, though Tadao has never been officially credited as the author of this story, it is possible to consider "Handcuffs" to be Tadao's debut work. Tadao also worked as Yoshiharu's assistant on some of his ninja and samurai stories in 1960–61, including The Secret Ninja Scrolls pictured earlier. He published a number of his own creepy mystery stories in kashihon venues before re-debuting in Garo in late 1968 with the story "Up on the Hilltop, Vincent van Gogh…" ("Oka no ue de, Vinsento van gohho wa…"), which is translated in the collection Trash Market from Drawn & Quarterly.

Tsuge, The Secret Ninja Scrolls vols. 1–4 (Wakagi Shobō, October 1960–May 1961)

Tsuge, The Secret Ninja Scrolls vols. 1–4 (Wakagi Shobō, October 1960–May 1961)

Tsuge, The Secret Ninja Scrolls vols. 1–4 (Wakagi Shobō, October 1960–May 1961)

Tsuge, The Secret Ninja Scrolls vols. 1–4 (Wakagi Shobō, October 1960–May 1961)

With both exciting new experiments and remastered oldies to his name, 1966 marked a major turning point in Tsuge's career. This was not just due to the strength of his work, however. Tsuge had been pushing manga in new directions since at least "Ghost Chimneys," but it was only now that readers were beginning to notice, partly because they were simply older. Born after the war ended in 1945, Japan's baby boomers were reaching their twenties in the mid-'60s. Though manga had been enjoyed by children since at least the '20s, what was special about baby boomers was that they kept reading manga into adulthood. One of the reasons for this is that Tsuge and other former kashihon gekiga artists were producing work that appealed to more mature tastes. Another is that the sheer number of children born after the war guaranteed a much larger and more diverse market. "The Swamp" was created right at this juncture, when a bigger, wider, and more mature audience put paid to long-standing beliefs that manga were just for kids. The initial reception of "The Swamp" and "Chirpy" may have been largely negative, but the fact that there was any feedback at all marked the mid-'60s as a fundamentally different era in manga culture.

Manga-ism no. 1, cover by Genpei Akasegawa (March 1967)

Critical appraisal of "The Swamp" and "Chirpy" would come a little later. In March 1967, Manga-ism (Manga shugi), Japan and perhaps the world's first periodical devoted to comics criticism, published its first issue, focusing on Tsuge's work for Garo. As positive critical interest in his work increased, Tsuge was inspired to draw new works for Garo again. In the interim, however, he was traveling the Japanese countryside, visiting places off the beaten path, and falling in love with simple, rusticated, and sometimes outright poverty-stricken rural life and scenery. His stories based on these travels, capturing a Japan that had been left behind by postwar economic growth, were also warmly received. His motivations for drawing such stories might have been purely personal, but they also expressed an unease, shared by many of his readers, with the rapidity and ways in which things were changing in Japan. These stories will be collected in Red Flowers, volume two of the present Drawn & Quarterly series.

Cover for Garo no. 47 (June 1968), special Tsuge issue

Then came "Nejishiki" (June 1968), published in a special supplemental issue of Garo dedicated to the artist's work. The response was immense. Based on a dream, it features a young man who wanders through a seaside town in search of a doctor after being injured by a mysteriously named "me-me jellyfish." Such is the basic story, although the exact connections between one scene and the next are unclear. Considering also the creepy way in which the characters are drawn, and a story world which seems to be a recreation of the unconscious, it is often said that "Nejishiki" represents the first expression of surrealist tendencies in manga. Some readers dismissed the work saying that it didn't make any sense. But many more responded with the highest praise, including not just manga fans, but also poets, playwrights, graphic designers, psychologists, and various other intellectuals, each offering their own interpretation of this strange work. With "Nejishiki," a wide variety of artists and thinkers began following Tsuge. And though he was never as prolific as he was during his kashihon years, and there were stretches when he published nothing, he continued drawing one masterpiece after another, gaining more admirers, and generating more critical interpretations than any other cartoonist in Japan. Tsuge turns 83 this year and hasn't drawn any manga since 1987, and yet his legacy remains as strong as ever.

This essay is based on one the author originally wrote for Sai Comics (South Korea, 2006), first published in Japanese in the Yoshiharu Tsuge issue of Spectator vol. 41 (2018). The author would like to thank the translator Ryan Holmberg for suggesting ways to expand and flesh out the essay for the present volume