ONE OF THE MOST unnerving effects of many Franz Kafka stories is simply the way they keep going. Instead of progressing toward resolution, every turn leads to some further complication, every advancement is followed by a paralyzing reminder that there is more hardship ahead. Take, for example, Kafka’s story “A Country Doctor.” In the translation by Willa and Edwin Muir, the title character opens the story by stating, “I was in great perplexity; I had to start on an urgent journey; A seriously ill patient was waiting for me in a village ten miles off.” But a thick blizzard makes the journey treacherous. Also, the doctor’s horse died the night before. In fits and starts, the doctor eventually puts together a team of horses that can get him where he needs to go. But when he arrives, the sick young man simply begs to die — too quietly for his loving family to hear, all of them intently watch the doctor in anticipation of some miracle. The situation constantly developing and regressing, the doctor reflects on the angst of his life. “Poor boy,” says the doctor to himself, “you were past helping.”
With everything constantly going wrong, each moment subverts resolution and bleeds into the next, accumulating a sense of overwhelming absurdity that conjures something of the random gathering effect of life. It’s quite different from Chekhov’s gun and the idea that every element of a story contributes to and triggers other pieces of the story. Instead, fleeting suggestion and unclosed loops linger. Kafka didn’t abandon narrative arc, but he undoubtedly prioritized narrative mood.
Kafka’s combination of momentum and paralysis is unusual but not singular. It’s also a large part of the effect of Japanese manga artist Yoshiharu Tsuge’s stories in The Swamp. Tsuge was born in Tokyo, in 1937, and has lived there most of his life. In the mid-1950s, 30 years after Kafka died in Kierling, Austria, Tsuge began making comics. Kafka and Tsuge’s common interest in obsessive and anxiety-fueled stories may partially stem from some of their shared experiences: their preference toward reclusiveness, their self-doubt and neuroses, their poverty. Most of what’s now considered Kafka’s oeuvre was unpublished in his lifetime. Tsuge, meanwhile, stopped drawing altogether in 1987. “Sometimes […] he can’t be found for days,” Tsuge’s translator Ryan Holmberg writes in his introduction to Tsuge’s The Man Without Talent. “He will simply disappear, which has aggravated editors for decades and given devotees something to write about for just as long.” Holmberg says that these days, Tsuge often just hides out in a Tokyo-area hotel, so that he can disappear from his life without having to really go anywhere. Holmberg writes, “He might buy a new suit for an awards reception, then not only fail to show but also fail to return home.”
Tsuge’s characters, like many of Kafka’s, are creatures of angst driving toward alienation. Take the title story in The Swamp, the first in a seven-book Tsuge series from Drawn & Quarterly. The story begins with a young woman — eyes big like portals — discovering a wing-shot goose. She breaks the bird’s neck and beheads it. Then she befriends the young male hunter chasing it and persuades him to come back to her house for the night, assuring him “no one will come in.” After a strange erotic encounter with a snake, the restless man gets up in the middle of the night, strangles the young woman, and then stops. He wakes up the next morning to her angry husband confronting her: “Stop lying! Do you really expect me to believe nothing happened?” her husband shouts. “Look at you! You sneak around and don’t care what anyone thinks.” While they argue, the young hunter sneaks back off into the woods. In the final frame, he fires his gun into the trees.
Who is this girl? And who is the man? In Tsuge’s work, many of the traditional preoccupations of narrative — giving characters backstories, or elaborating articulable desires driving their actions — are abandoned. In his preface to The Swamp, Mitsuhiro Asakawa writes about this opening tale, “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.’” Asakawa writes, “Tsuge abandoned what has been considered one of the bare minimum requirements of the comics medium — storytelling — by exploring the possibilities of the irrational and the surreal.”
Tsuge was the second of five children. His dad died when he was young and, in a time of widespread poverty and turmoil in Japan, Tsuge grew up in a single-parent household. At a young age, he fell in love with the work of Osamu Tezuka, the creator of manga series such as Astro Boy, Princess Knight, and Kimba the White Lion who is often considered the Walt Disney of Japan. Tsuge demonstrated skill in drawing at a young age. After World War II, a “rental book” (kashihon) market exploded in Japan because books, manga, and monthly magazines were too expensive for many to buy. In 1954, at the age of 18, Tsuge published his first rental book, then spent the next 10 years primarily working for kashihon houses. These houses had one important benefit for Tsuge. Larger publishers that produced books for retail typically paid much better than kashihon houses, but they dictated content and played more to a juvenile market. Tsuge was interested in his own vision.
Masaharu Endō, a fellow cartoonist and friend of Tsuge’s, remembers asking him, “You mean to tell me that you have no need for entertainment, no need for usual storytelling, and no need even for logical dramatic principles (kishōtenketsu)? That such things just cloud pure art, is that what you’re saying?” Tsuge responded, “I don’t have the courage to take things that far. But I have this idea to break up and rearrange the various parts of dramatic composition, like by drawing just the climax and folding the other elements into it.”
But the pathway toward this off-kilter effect was not without difficulty. Throughout the 1960s, the pay rate for rental books was so low that Tsuge barely had enough money to support himself. “Not only was I having trouble making a living,” Tsuge wrote about this time, “but I simply could not bear the idea of drawing comics simply to entertain people.” He says that even just a single panel made his hand shake and gave him 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.”
Then, in 1964, publisher Katsuichi Nagai started the now legendary manga magazine Garo, which specialized in alternative manga. The magazine hoped to get Tsuge as one of its regular contributors. But Tsuge rarely mixed with other cartoonists, and initially no one knew how to get in touch with him. So they put an ad in the magazine: “Toshiharu Tsuge, please contact us.”
The comics collected in The Swamp focus on Tsuge’s earliest contributions to Garo, where he finally had the paid opportunity to pursue his more avant-garde techniques. “Chirpy,” another of the most unnerving and richest stories in this collection, features a struggling manga artist living with his girlfriend. His career is stagnating, and she is working at a hostess bar to support them both. With pocket money she saves by abstaining from pachinko, she buys a baby sparrow. That same night, she fails to arrive home on her usual train. The artist waits at the station to pick her up, then angrily returns home to find her drunk and collapsed in the hallway, dropped off by a car driven by another guy. The two argue about the fact that her work involves flirting with other men. She resents that his failure forces her to do that kind of work.
But in the days that follow, the sparrow Chirpy lightens the couple’s mood, joyfully flying around the apartment and alleviating tension in their lives and relationship. One day while the girl is out, the artist puts Chirpy into the sleeve of a cigarette box to keep her still while he draws her. Then he playfully tosses the box into the air. Chirpy escapes and flies to safety. Charmed, the artist tries to repeat the trick but this time Chirpy fails to escape, hits the floor, and dies. The artist tries to convince the girl that Chirpy just flew away. The girl spins into a bizarre gaslit delusion that instead of offering closure, pries open lingering concern.
The Swamp is one of two Tsuge books that have appeared this year, both translated by Ryan Holmberg. New York Review Comics published The Man Without Talent, Tsuge’s final book, which he created in 1987 before resigning from the medium. The Man Without Talent is an unforgiving self-portrait of frustration and failure. If features a character very much like Tsuge swearing off cartooning as a profession and instead taking on a series of jobs selling rocks and used cameras, hoping to find success with hopeless endeavors. He fails again and again. Many frames feature his wife yelling at him and his child’s pained crying in the background. It is a haunting exploration of the liberation involved in turning away from domestic expectations, as well as the sort of self-sabotage that stretches to include families.
There is much more Tsuge work coming in English. In January 2021, Drawn & Quarterly will publish Red Flowers, the next of six more volumes, coming in chronological order. Red Flowers features Tsuge’s travels in the Japanese countryside and encounters with poverty-stricken rural life in the late 1960s. The stories in Red Flowers capture parts of Japan that had been left behind by postwar economic growth. “By the end of the second volume it's clear that the master has become a master,” Drawn & Quarterly Executive Editor Tom Devlin says.
Drawn & Quarterly’s publication of Tsuge expands upon the instrumental role the publisher has played in bringing manga to English-speaking audiences in North America. Devlin notes that publishing manga artist Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work was a real triumph for manga in English. “I think there are a lot of sensibilities that North American and Japanese comics share and finally we were getting a chance to see them,” Devlin says. “At a certain point it became clear that we were missing an important part of the story. Virtually every Japanese comic we had published was deeply informed by Tsuge's work. An important part of the puzzle was missing.”
Tsuge’s comics are uncanny and unnerving. They involve haunted people caught up in dangerous and winding trajectories. They end with both fixed materiality and lingering ambiguity. As in Kafka’s stories, Tsuge’s manga establishes a powerful anchoring mood that allows his stories to get continually more absurd. In Kafka’s “A Country Doctor,” the ill man’s father gives the doctor a glass of rum to steel his nerves. Against the doctor’s weak will, the family undresses him and places him in bed alongside their son. “Never shall I reach home at this rate,” the doctor says, “my flourishing practice is done for.”
Similarly, Tsuge leaves his characters in a place of preserved tension and ambiguity. It’s viscerally rendered but still unclear whether the girl knows that Chirpy is dead, or if she thinks the sparrow is somehow recreated by the drawing made by her partner, or if something else entirely is happening. Regardless, they each remain stuck in the endless grind of their lives, which include, for better or worse, each other.
Tsuge and Kafka use images that draw attention to the surreal uncertainty of ordinary life. In the spirit of Kafka, the mysterious endings of Tsuge’s comics often feel fable-like with their haunting final images. But in both cases, these are images that linger rather than conclude. These are fables where the sense of virtue, truth, and reality evocatively swings.
Nathan Scott McNamara is a nonfiction and fiction writer whose work has also been published at The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Village Voice, The Poetry Foundation, Literary Hub, and more.