Friday, January 8, 2010

Manga Reviews: Yoshiharu Tsuge's Early Works, vol. 1

Yoshiharu Tsuge is listed in the Japanese wiki entry as one of the visitors to Tokiwa Sou (Tokiwa Manor) when Tezuka's assistants lived there, but he's not mentioned in the exhibit book for "Heroes of Tokiwa Sou". The English wiki for him says that he drew his first gekiga manga at age 18, having been influenced by Tezuka, "one of the first mainstream gekiga artists" he'd encountered, but that would have been in 1955 and Tezuka supposedly didn't get into gekiga until after the magazine Garo started up in '63, while "gekiga" as a term wasn't coined until 1957. In any case, if Tsuge had been influenced directly Tezuka at all, it would have been when he was a teenager visiting Tokiwa Sou.

According to the English wiki, Yoshiharu, born in 1937, had started drawing manga to make ends meet following the end of WW II; his father had died when he was 5. He was very shy and introverted; when a girlfriend broke up with him when he was in his early 20's, he stopped drawing and attempted suicide. In 1965, Garo's editor and publisher, Katsuichi Nagai, heard about this, and ran "Yoshiharu Tsuge - please get in touch!" in one of its pages. From 1966, Tsuge worked as an assistant for Shigeru Muzuki ("Gegege no Kitaro") and some of this work may have appeared in Garo at the time (Shigeru ran at least one story through Garo). Tsuge's best known story is probably "Neji Shiki" ("Screw Style") which was published in issue 250 of The Comics Journal, and was turned into a movie in 1998. Look here for his manga list in the Japanese wiki entry. Indy Magazine has a good write-up on him.

Yoshihiro Tsuge Early Works Anthology, Vol. 1, by Yoshihiro Tsuge, Grade: C
Which brings me to the review of this particular collection, which came out in 2008. The editors wanted to reintroduce Tsuge to modern audiences, and this anthology was intended to run at least 4 volumes. The cover was designed by Billy Blackmon for Flamingo Studio, Inc., but it's a Japanese release. The first few pages include a chronology for Tsuge and his manga, then the book presents his early yonkoma panels before running a number of attempts at longer story telling. While the wiki entry, mentioned above, says that he was drawing manga following WW II, his commercial debut is actually at age 17, with the yonkoma published in Thrilling Book in 1954.

The magazines his work in vol. 1 appeared in are:

痛快ブック (Tsuukai Bukku, Thrilling Book) 1954-55、 57
冒険王 (Bouken-Oh, Adventure King) 1956-57
漫画王 (Manga-Oh, Manga King) 1957
少女 (Shojo, Girl) 1957
ぼくら (Bokura, Us) 1957-58
迷路 (Meiro, Maze) 1959
Meiro 1960

As can be seen in the first few yonkoma, his style is very childish and ill-developed. He looks like he's drawing the panels too small (rather than the standard practice of drawing on oversized paper and then resizing the artwork at the printing stage), and it looks like he's copied from out of Tezuka's manga. The jokes are pretty much set-up then punchline. In the above strip he actually mentions "Sazae-san" (by Machiko Hasegawa), and some of the jokes also seem to be "Sazae-san"-like.

Pretty quickly, Tsuge moves into longer story-driven manga, first about a young brother and sister that travel to a country-side village in order to start up a bus company only to be met with sabotage from the owner of a horse-drawn cart service. Naturally, there has to be a disaster (a forest fire that spooks the horses) that causes the villagers to change their minds and welcome the two intruders. Then, we have a pair of stories set at sea. One follows a young boy that works a fishing trawler who is up against a team of smugglers; a second about a strange man that asks a trawler captain to help salvage a sunken ship, only to discover a wanted criminal that has been stuck living underwater in the shipwreck for the last year. There's also a set of detective stories pitting young investigators up against clever villains.

In all cases, Tsuge follows specific patterns for his "mysteries". The characters have gag names (Dog-boy, Turd, Ship Insect) and the twist endings pick one of the supporting good guys to be the real enemy in disguise. He also recycles his characters, as did Tezuka with his "star system". Further, the villain always dies at the end while trying to escape. Interestingly, in one detective story, the investigator turns out to be an Arsene Lupin-like jewel thief in disguise, trying to catch the person currently out smearing his "good" name.

(Compare this page with...)

There are a lot of flaws in these early stories. One of the most blatant being supporting characters that look so similar (or are actually the same character) showing up in two different locations at the same time. There's an element of naivety in the way the characters are presented to the audience, as if Tsuge hasn't had enough life experience yet to understand how people really behave. There's also a very clear break in his art style between two similar stories that appeared in two different magazines at the same time, indicating that either he finally got a good editor, or someone like Tezuka, or one of the Tokiwa Manor gang, had started teaching him how to draw.

(... and this page from a different story that appeared in another magazine at the same time. the panels have gotten bigger and the drawings are cleaner. Note how the villain uses Tezuka's classic "hood over the head" disguise.)

Tsuge's techniques really improve after Shigeru Mizuki gets done with him, but that's not until 12 years after these stories first appeared. And, when we get to "Screw Style", there's almost nothing left of the naive teenager to be seen in him.

Summary: Vol. 1 of the Tsuge Early Works Anthology gives us a clear view of how a struggling young manga artist can appear on stage and slowly improve over time, while making all of the mistakes that you'd expect (weak pacing, rough drawings, consistency issues). This book is best suited to people starting out in the manga field as a "what not to do" guide.

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