A Stark, Desperate Post-War Japan in Tadao Tsuge’s Trash Market

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I have not delved too far into Japanese manga, not to mention gekiga, so the recent collection of Tadao Tsuge’s comics collected into a volume entitled Trash Market was a sobering breath of fresh air into new territory for me.

Cover of the Trash Market Volume

Perhaps the Japanese counterpart to America’s Harvey Pekar, Tadao Tsuge’s work has the same spirit of sharp observation as American Splendor but with a bleakness and dourness only possible from a person living in the slum and red light district of post war, attempting to reconstruct Tokyo. And, if the approaches toward comics realism did not parallel Tadao’s work to Harvey Pekar’s enough, his brother, Yoshiharu Tsuge is known as the Robert Crumb of Japan, who attempted to get Tadao work as professional cartoonist and who also included Tadao’s works in his own publications. However, while Tadao did have a few years where he worked solely as a cartoonist, he spent most of his life working low skill blue collar or white collar jobs by day to make a living and drawing and writing at night as somewhat of a hobby, making his life and perspective that much closer to those of Harvey Pekar.

But, unlike Pekar, Tadao Tsuge’s stories, though somewhat autobiographical, do not have Tsuge in the foreground teaching a specific lesson to the reader; they attempt to capture societal issues faced by the lower and middle classes in a Japan devastated by war purely through observation combined with a layer of surrealism and absurdism without explicit rhetoric or argument. In addition, Tsuge’s work has an overwhelming sense of sorrow that punches you in the stomach, for his stories have few moments of lightness and focus on the desperation of people trying to survive after a devastating war that not only destroyed the land but also the morale of the nation.

Trash Market contains six stories: “Up on the Hilltop, Vincent Van Gogh…,” “Song of Showa,” “Manhunt,” “Gently Goes the Night,” “A Tale of Absolute and Utter Nonsense,” and “Trash Market.” In addition, the volume also contains, “The Tadao Tsuge Revue (1994-1997)”, a short memoir about his life and the people and issues he encountered as a dual working class Japanese man and cartoonist in the late 1950s and early 1960s. With all six stories and the memoir, Tsuge reveals a side of Japan rarely seen by Western audiences, devoid of the honor and stoic countenance of the samurai culture Westerners have come to love and completely devoid of the hyperbolic style and sexuality of manga. In relation to film, Tsuge is less Akira Kurosawa and more of Susumu Hani, with his realistically surreal style to portray a decrepit Japan stumbling from the ashes of war.

Tsuge at his best captures masculine pain and men’s misguided attempts to handle it in a highly repressive culture where most of the men have died and those who remain carry the shame of losing a war. As a result, “Song of Showa,” “Gently Goes the Night,” and “Trash Market” rise as the strongest stories of the Trash Market collection. The most autobiographical of the bunch, “Song of Showa,” details the erosion of the family unit in Japan’s red light district. “Gently Goes the Night” follows the mental breakdown of a veteran once sent to fight in Burma who is now at home attempting to live a normal life with a loving family. And lastly, “Trash Market,” a perfect closer to the volume and the ideal title piece, expands on a note in a urinal at the blood bank Tadao worked at from a former Japanese naval lieutenant forced to sell blood to live. Tsuge’s Japan has no glory, no honor, just plenty of broken people trying to make ends meet.

Consequently, Tadao Tsuge’s work walks the line between existentialism and pure nihilism. Defiantly apolitical, Tsuge’s stories in Trash Market do not glamorize or celebrate any of the student movements and protests occurring as he wrote and published in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In fact, he articulates his own sense of politics in the supremely nihilistic “A Tale of Absolute and Utter Nonsense,” where revolutionary, idealistic students clash against the police and soldiers of the government, and both sides completely destroy each other, leading to no progress whatsoever. From this destruction, we are able to see that Tsuge had far less interest in the politics of the government and of the rising youth and far more interest in studying people in their daily lives without a political lens stemming from any manifesto or ideals.

A page from Song of Showa

Given his topics and perspective, Tadao Tsuge’s comics are incredibly far from manga. His drawings are simple and at times coarse, and his storytelling methods are more atmospheric, lacking a definitive plot structure and clear protagonists and antagonists. His work focuses on the daily activities of a declining civilization, and, as a result, Trash Market conveys a unique, stark sense of despair and gloom. Thus, it is of no surprise that Ryan Holmberg, the editor and translator of Trash Market, reversed the orientation of the original stories, making the volume read from left to right instead of the right to left that we as the West have come to correlate with the novelty of manga.

Tsuge’s work may not be the best reading choice on a bad day, but his own portrayal of life’s small brutalities will force you to see a world hardly discussed in Western history and will provoke sympathy for a former enemy nation during a time when it was still considered as the enemy. Through interactions between people, Tsuge details a rotting, abject world that few deserve to experience. Altogether, Trash Market reveals a part of Japan’s history that we should better understand.

Expect no babydolls or samurai here–only the honest, somber post-occupation Japanese reality lurking beneath the luster of Japan’s exports lies in Tadao Tsuge’s stories.

Trash Market is written and illustrated by Tadao Tsuge and edited and translated by Ryan Holmberg. It collects six stories published from 1968-1972It is available now via Drawn & Quarterly.

 

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