The companion essays contained within Drawn and Quarterly’s manga releases have long been one of their draws. As discussed in our review of Yoshiharu Tsuge’s “Red Flowers,” the effort co-editors Ryan Holmberg and Mitsuhiro Asakawa have taken in framing this work for an anglophone audience has been heroic. With this volume of Tsuge’s work, “Nejishiki,” we have entered a new era for this series: not just for Tsuge but for that framing. For the first time, one might be forgiven for believing momentarily they have picked up an essay collection on Tsuge rather than a collection of comics.
This collection’s essay, credited this time to Holmberg alone, is a long, massive fifty pages of context and criticism, twice the length of the previous volume. This amount of prologue here isn’t unwarranted. Important works warrant long essays, and “Nejishiki,” the collection’s eponymous comic, is Tsuge’s most important. A deeply layered work with frequently parodied imagery, it changed Tsuge’s career in ways rightly elaborated, and the mythology behind its creation justifies discussion due to the ways Tsuge has revised it. But it isn’t just the criticism of one important comic that leads to the depths Holmberg plunges. Following Tsuge’s post-“Nejishiki” notoriety, Tsuge attempted a retreat from both career and life, vanishing from Tokyo in an attempt to fade into some deserted resort town. This incident, its effect on Tsuge’s output, the things he did instead of making comics, and his ever-present creative partnership with Kitaro manga-ka Shigeru Mizuki are all worth discussing and deeply inform the comics themselves.
While some of the comics here have some holdover elements from “Red Flowers’” travelogue era, this volume jumps to the moment that Tsuge became associated with dreams. “Nejishiki” started that reputation, with its Kafkaesque logic, startling imagery, and bizarre sexuality. But twisty and surreal works like “Master of Gensenkan Inn” and “A Dream Stroll” cemented it. Simultaneously we see his realist stuff take a sharp edge. His previous square-headed traveler appears but becomes ragged before disappearing entirely, replaced by a neurotic wanderer who frequents sex workers and eventually by a married mangaka whose sexual transgressions nearly frame him in a hit-and-run. Paired with unrestrained perversion, what few pastoral vibes remain are exposed as a fantasy with unchaste roots, as abandoning a modern Japan for its thatched-roof past becomes inextricably linked to a sex dream of taking the girl at the rural inn.
The disturbing sexuality of “Nejishiki” is probably its highest barrier to entry, but Tsuge is not supposed to come off as saintlike. Holmberg is clear in places where Tsuge’s attitudes as a postwar man suck, but Tsuge eagerly flagellates his worst aspects. particularly as he degrades his self-caricature from a harmless figure to a pathetic molester, frightened by dogs and insistent that his wife display an award to convince the police that he’s a respected citizen. Following the publication of “Nejishiki,” Tsuge was the sort of figure handed such awards, deemed worthy of the fifty-page introduction. In detailing the perverse nature of his dreams and ascribing such terrible behavior to himself, Tsuge pushed back against the stature he had achieved, perhaps justifying it in the process.
By Yoshiharu Tsuge
Drawn and Quarterly, 284 pages