The Man Without Talent by Yoshiharu Tsuge, translated by Ryan Holmberg [in Shelf Awareness]
Readers have an easy choice here: to read this resonating six-chapter collection as an entertaining, albeit sobering, manga about the middle-aged life of a seeming slacker, or approach it as a prominent, pivotal example of 20th-century graphic literary history. Originally published as a magazine serial from 1985 to 1986, Yoshiharu Tsuge’s The Man Without Talent makes its English-language debut, translated by comics historian and professor Ryan Holmberg.
Tsuge’s protagonist, Sukezō Sukegawa, has “been reduced to selling stones” in a makeshift tent along the Tama River after several unsuccessful career ventures, including “cartooning, selling used cameras, junk and antiques.” Despite the wrath of his agitated wife and pathos of his neglected young son, Sukezō lingers on in an aimless existence: he recalls his past hopes and failures, visits other doomed businesses and their ineffective proprietors, and occasionally, half-heartedly, ill-fatedly attempts to improve his impoverished conditions. Drawn in stark black-and-white panels, Tsuge’s frank narrative portrays an artist-in-decline, an anti-Bildungsroman that offers effective storytelling, enduring characters, poignant reflection and, most notably, gratifying art. Audiences who shut the book after the final panels would certainly leave Sukezō in his solipsistic reverie with satisfying closure.
But, yes, there’s more. Presented in its original Japanese back-to-front reading format, the manga’s final pages run into translator Holmberg’s essay, which, by the standards of Western publishing’s front-to-back order, could act as the book’s introduction. Whether read before or after Tsuge’s manga, Holmberg’s “Where Is Yoshiharu Tsuge?” is an illuminating enhancement – biographically, historically, literally. Augmented with black-and-white photos of Tsuge and his family, as well as selected book covers and panels from Tsuge’s other publications, Holmberg’s piece firmly places Tsuge and The Man Without Talent into the modern graphic canon “as one of the premier examples of the ‘I-novel’ (shishōsetsu) [autobiographical fiction] in comics form.” Although Tsuge stopped drawing in 1987, new editions of his books, as well as film adaptations of those works continue to proliferate in Japan, ensuring his pioneering cult status.
Tsuge’s debut for Anglophone audiences is not without a few missed-in-translation stumbles: “worshipped as the bee’s knees” is not a Japanese aphorism; the valley-girl affectation of “Do you, like, ever…” certainly would not have been in 1980s vernacular Japanese usage. Minor missteps aside, Tsuge’s path toward recognition and praise in the West seems paved by the success of his established brother, Tadao Tsuge (Slum Wolf; Trash Market), and internationally bestselling pioneer Shigeru Mizuki (Kitarō series), for whom Tsuge worked in the 1960s. Indie publisher Drawn & Quarterly has already announced a Tsuge series, beginning with a collection of his early works, The Swamp, due in April 2020. For urbane manga aficionados, the coming proliferation of Tsuge titles should promise further delight and enlightenment.
Shelf Talker: Cult manga artist Yoshiharu Tsuge makes his English-language debut with his autobiographical stand-in, The Man Without Talent, whose frustrated, aimless wanderings prove more resonating than ever.