|ę 2004 Yoshiharu Tsuge / Ego comme X
More than a decade after Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira
and Akira Toyorama's DragonBall
hit series arrived in Europe, manga is now well established in the European market, drawing a younger audience than traditional European comic books. In his 2003 yearly report on Francophone comics, ACBD (Association des journalistes et Critiques de Bandes DessinÚes) secretary Gilles Ratier states that Korean and Japanese comics now account for more than 30% of comic books released in French.
As of today, most Japanese titles translated in French are either "sh˘nen manga" (for boys) or "sh˘j˘ manga" (for girls) but "seinen manga" (for adults) have also started to appear. Last year, Jir˘ Taniguchi's Quartier Lointain
(Harukana Machi e
- A Town Far Away
) was a huge success in bookstores and it even received the Best Story Award at the Angoulŕme International Comic Festival. This success was followed by other translations of Taniguchi books, and lead the way for other "seinen" authors to be translated into French. Among them are Keiji Nakazawa, whose Gen d'Hiroshima
is finally receiving the success it deserves after failed publishing attempts in 1983 and 1990, and
founder Yoshihiro Tatsumi, with a collection of short stories published under the title Coups d'Úclat
. Both books are published by Vertige Graphic.
Consistent with its reputation for avant-garde autobiographical comics, Angoulŕme-based publisher Ego Comme X has recently published Yoshiharu Tsuge's L'Homme Sans Talent
(Mun˘ no Hito
, literally "The Incapable Man"). Although a few of his stories have already been translated into English , this is the first time that Tsuge's work has been translated into
and it took more than a year to convince him to accept this project. At the request of Tsuge, and unlike the stories already published in English, the French version of L'Homme Sans Talent
reads from right to left, as drawn by Tsuge.
Most critics divide Tsuge's works into three categories: travel stories, dream stories and autobiographical stories. Originally published between 1985 and 1986, L'Homme Sans Talent
belongs to the last category. It depicts a man named Sukez˘ Sukegawa who stopped drawing manga and is now trying to make a living for himself and his family. From selling stones to repairing cameras, he tries different low-life jobs but constantly fails every project he starts. Harassed by his wife who thinks he is useless, Sukez˘ spends most of his time thinking about ways to make money, but this usually consists of doing nothing and feeling sorry for himself.
Tsuge was one of the first Japanese cartoonists to use autobiographical elements in his work, and he initiated what is now called watakushi-manga or "comics about me" (watakushi means "I" in Japanese). L'Homme Sans Talent
's main character Sukez˘ does, indeed, suggest a lot of similarities with the artist, but Tsuge's watakushi stories are not personal diaries telling his own life. Instead of giving a truthful account of real events, he uses pieces of his own experiences to create realistic first-person stories. In L'Homme Sans Talent
, one can recognize many situations or reflections taken from Tsuge own experiences: refusal to draw commercial manga, depression, and uneasiness with women.
One of the most personal aspects in L'Homme Sans Talent
is probably Sukez˘'s refusal to do commercial manga. To his wife, who says he was successful as a cartoonist and that he was even considered an artist, Sukez˘ responds "What does the comics industry care about art? For them, art is superfluous and cumbersome" (p. 171). Later, when he refuses a publisher's request to draw a story, his wife reacts violently and tells him: "Who do you think you are? We're just talking about comics and you think you are an artist. Comics will never be an art." (p. 177).
Similarly, Tsuge himself has always refused the Manga industry and its market laws. He stopped drawing more than a decade ago and he seems to think that producing no body of work Ś as painful as it may be Ś is better than producing a body of work perverted by marketing pressure or by publisher constraints.
To illustrate this point, it's interesting to see that Sukez˘ considers lots of crazy ways to make money (including collecting and selling his own hair and even carrying people across a river on his back so they don't get their feet wet) but he never considers comics as a way to make a living. When the owner of a second-hand bookstore offers him 30,000 yens for some original art, Sukez˘ doesn't seem to be interested in the true value of his original edition books or his drawings. Compared to the 50+ pages devoted to his search for valuable stones, Tsuge tells this whole art-selling episode in 2 pages without a blink from the main character.
Another similarity between Tsuge and Sukez˘ is their depressive moods. Born in 1937,
Yoshiharu Tsuge was raised by his mother alone. As a child, he had to work after school to
help support his mother. After World War II, Japan's economy was devastated and, like
many others, Tsuge had to survive through very difficult times. He even had to sell his
own blood to earn some money. At the time, poverty and depression led Tsuge to attempt
Tsuge survived but suicide and death remained recurrent Ś although discrete Ś themes in his work.
In L'Homme Sans Talent
, suicide is mentioned directly as well as indirectly several times. For example, at one point in the story, Sukez˘, his wife and his son take a trip to the country side to go look for new stones. After a long walk, they lay down to rest for a while. What could have been described as a bucolic situation turns into a gloomy conversation with Sukez˘ unexpectedly stating, "We sure look like a family ready to commit a collective suicide." His wife ironically says, "Hmm, maybe it would not be so bad after all..." Sukez˘ responds, "What can we expect from the future? ... Except aging in silence..." In this case, death is not so much to end his sufferings but a logical conclusion to the uselessness of life in a world where he does not fit.
Later in the story Sukez˘ climbs on top of a canal gate and, in a very dramatic scene, is about to jump into the emptiness like someone else did before. The fact that Sukez˘ knows that the other person died after jumping makes us wonder whether he might be considering committing suicide. However, as in several chapters of the book, Sukez˘'s son suddenly appears and asks him to come back. Somehow, it is as if his son brings him back to reality.
Even though the themes of the story tend to be quite pessimistic,
Tsuge sprinkles bits of light humor to make sure that the end result is
not excessively morbid. For example, when Sukez˘ is about to jump into
the emptiness, Tsuge creates a humorous scene where his son's sudden
appearance almost makes him fall of the canal gate. Overall it's more a story of
disenchantment than true sadness. The book simply illustrates the author's
difficult relationship with the world and his discomfort with some widely accepted
standards for success. As the author puts it, "I don't preach a religion, nor do I
try to change the world. It's very difficult for me to adjust to it and I just aspire
to find how to live my differences without feeling destabilized."4
Tsuge was one of the first Japanese cartoonists to deconstruct the classic Manga narrative structure. L'Homme Sans Talent
, like many other stories by Tsuge, does not have a clear beginning, development and conclusion as one would expect from a traditional drama. As a matter of fact, the story's first panel directly displays a large shot of Sukez˘ in action (or lack thereof) and the second panel reads "So I began selling stones." It is as if the story had already begun earlier, with this statement the result of a long reflection. Whereas traditional mangas such as Tezuka's flow steadily forward, Tsuge enjoys slowing down the storyline and taking his time to set a contemplative atmosphere before moving on to another scene. To represent the slow passing of time, Tsuge uses bigger pictures of nature or silent contemplative panels, with some occasional birds flying or leaves falling.
Although Tsuge currently lives a secluded life somewhere in Japan and refuses all interviews, he used to travel a lot around Japan, in particular between 1966 and 1976. He is especially fond of hidden places off the beaten paths such as quiet neighborhoods, small anonymous mountain towns or river banks. In Tsuge's work, landscapes and backgrounds reflect the sad mood of the characters themselves, which he excels at drawing using different techniques: cross-hatched lines, larger brush strokes, speed lines (for the wind) and screen tone. Contrary to other magakas of his time, Tsuge's backgrounds are not just decorative artifacts but are truly part of the story.
From a graphical point of view, it's interesting to see how Tsuge shows and hides faces as a way to express the character's mood or discomfort. After he turns down a publisher's request to draw a manga, Sukez˘ explains that his wife became gloomy. Which is exactly what Tsuge represents by casting a constant shadow on Sukez˘'s wife. After this episode, his wife's face is always hidden either by careful framing techniques or by casting a shadow on her face.
Similarly, Tsuge uses the same technique to express Sukez˘'s shame when his wife blames him for refusing a job offer and for being useless.
All these hidden faces accentuate the expression of Sukez˘'s inability to communicate with his wife, reflecting his uneasiness with the surrounding world.
Although Tsuge's art in L'Homme Sans Talent
is relatively classic, it still demonstrates his abilities to master narration and graphical rendering. In contrast with other mangakas, he tries to create a pace through careful narrative techniques rather than through grand dramatic events. In that regard, his work is closer to artists such as Yoshihiro Tatsumi.
Something he particularly likes to do is illustrate the narrative text with close-up
pictures of people and objects. He can even fill a complete page without showing any
character such as on page 167.
Tsuge changes his drawing techniques to shift from a photo realistic landscape to symbolic art (99).
When needed, he can even reproduce other mangakas cartoon-like rendering during some comical situations (104).
With L'Homme Sans Talent
, Ego Comme X surely brings to French readers a true masterpiece
of independent Manga. Yoshiharu Tsuge demonstrates advanced narrative techniques and succeeds in
creating an exciting 200+ page comic book without any classical drama dynamics. Although the
main character has a defined goal (earn money one way or another), it is by no means the true
dramatic motive of the story as, in fact, Tsuge merely tries to show the difficulty for a man
to fit in in a rapidly changing world and to live his own life. Even in 2004, L'Homme Sans
remains a brilliant piece of art by "a singular genius".5
In 1957, Yoshihiro Tatsumi creates the term gekiga (geki = drama and ga = art) to differentiate his work from Mangas traditionally geared towards children.
2 RAW magazine
published two stories by Tsuge: "Red Flowers" and "Oba's Electroplate Factory." In its 250th issue, The Comics Journal
published a 23-page story called "Screw-Style" ("Nejishiki" in Japanese) inspired by one of the author dreams.
From Tsuge biography established by BÚatrice MarÚchal and Julien Bastide for Ego Comme X
Un gÚnie singulier by Romain Brethes in Chronic'Art
According to Frederick Schodt, [Tsuge] is invariably introduced in the
media with the words ishoku, meaning "unique" (written with the characters for "different" and "color") and kisai, meaning "singular genius" (written with the characters for "demon" and "talent").