Hot on the heels of the 2018 English language publication of Slum Wolf by cult manga artist Tadao Tsuge, New York Review Comics now brings us a collection by his equally acclaimed brother, Yoshiharu Tsuge. Both were part of an alternative manga scene centred around the manga periodical Garo in the 1960s and ’70s. The Man Without Talent is one of Yoshiharu’s most popular and accessible works, translator Ryan Holmberg explains in the outstanding analytical essay which opens the collection, having even been adapted for film in 1991. It was originally serialized in the Comic Baku quarterly in 1985-86.
The story follows the misadventures of Sukezo Sukegawa, a former comics artist who has given up producing comics because although he is good at it, he finds the discipline thankless and financially unrewarding. Instead, he devotes himself to the pursuit of entrepreneurial success, undertaking a number of hopeless get-rich-quick-schemes.
He is the prototypical aspiring capitalist entrepreneur. From collecting and repairing old cameras, to collecting unusually-shaped rocks and stones, every scheme has its internal logic and should be successful, yet for a variety of reasons rooted in the conflicting tensions of the real world, none of them are. However much time and effort Sukezo devotes to his schemes, he remains just as poor and unsuccessful as he was as a comics artist, but without even the sustaining knowledge that he’s doing something for which he has talent.
There are layered parables here: the contradictory nature of capitalism and its pointless entrepreneurial drives; the tension between success as a matter of respect and dignity versus success as reflected in material wealth. Tsuge is relentless in his exposition of these themes: Sukezo never seems to learn his lesson, however obvious it seems to the reader. But then, how many of us would get the lesson, were we in his shoes, dreaming big?
There is a bleakness to the art that mirrors the narrative’s underlying sense of despair. The black and white pencil sketches add a sense of barren cold to the landscape: trees bow under the relentless wind and dark crows gaze on forebodingly. Superficially similar to other manga art, Yoshiharu tweaks his panels with shading and deft use of darkness to add a layer of foreboding. There’s a sense of buried promise in the backdrops: full forests, thinned out by sparse dark sketching, appear on the cusp of blossoming; the dark and lowering clouds feel as though they could part and fill the panels with colour. Yet they never do.
Here too art echoes narrative: Sukezo is convinced success lies just around the corner, within his grasp. Yet it always eludes him. Every encounter produces a new idea for a get-rich quick scheme; untold riches are always just a step away. The narrative and art combine to deliver this tension: a bleak and barren backdrop which is on the cusp of blooming into joy. But it remains forever on the cusp, never entering into a state of becoming.
The Man Without Talent is an ironic statement on capitalism’s hollow promise. Sukezo is full of ideas for making it big – all he has to do is apply himself, work hard, persevere, trust in his ideas. At least, that’s what he tells himself. But success constantly eludes him. And when it does, he follows the path of so many men in blaming external circumstances for his failure, above all his wife and their marriage.
Misogyny is a common refuge for men’s faltering egos, and Sukezo along with his fellow entrepreneurs, plays the part to the full. Dialogue is sparse, yet this makes the characters’ misogyny all the more disturbing. If the comic wasn’t intended as an ironic parable, the protagonists’ misogyny would rapidly become too much to handle.
The story should resonate particularly with creators; one of its ironic elements is that Sukezo does have talent as a creator of comics, yet he’s convinced that he doesn’t. His conviction that he has no talent stems in part because it brings him very little money. Surely, there must be a connection between talent and money? Convinced that one’s worth is of necessity defined by one’s earnings, he sets aside the one thing for which he has talent, to pursue an array of alternate money-making schemes. Even his long-suffering wife recognizes the futility in this and begs him to return to his work in comics: if they’re going to be poor, the poverty might as well flow from something that he’s good at. Yet he resists her pleas to return to comics, and instead relentlessly pursues the call of the entrepreneur.
There is always an element of fantasy reflected in the childish utopianism of free market capitalism and the committed entrepreneurs who are its happy-go-lucky evangelists. I don’t know many millionaires, but one of the few times I met with one for a coffee, he tried to convince me nothing could go wrong by taking a gamble with life: “Are you married? Do you have children? No? Then you’re bullet-proof! Nothing can harm you! You can do anything!” I often use this conversation to remind myself of the fantasy world in which wealthy entrepreneurs dwell. It’s the world into which Sukezo aspires to hurl himself, yet the author deftly balances him on the brink between capitalism’s entrepreneurial fantasies and the material realities of social existence.
Insofar as Sukezo tries to immerse himself in the romantic myth of the capitalist entrepreneur, he is constantly pulled back from the brink of losing himself to that myth by the very real material demands of his family. His young son appears at the end of several of the chapters — just as the action is about to take Sukezo down a path of no return — to cut the action short with the plaintive cry: “Time to come home, Daddy.” In one chapter, Sukezo is on the verge of hurling himself suicidally off a dam into a river, ending it all with a gesture appropriate to the flamboyancy of fantasy capitalism, when his son appears to drag him home. In another, he’s on the verge of running off for an amorous encounter with another woman – the wife of a business partner – when his son appears to drag him home.
“Time to come home, Daddy” could be translated as “Time to wake up, Daddy”. The call is to wake up from the romantic myth of the entrepreneur and instead focus on the material demands of the real world. Come home, help with making dinner and putting your child to bed.
In the end, explains Holmberg in his introductory essay, Tsuge committed a disappearing act worthy of his protagonist. He gave up comics in 1987, finding the discipline and its anxiety-inducing social obligations too much. It’s a shame, for his talent was prodigious (appropriately, his early retirement has only spurred his renown). Yet one can hardly blame him, for he deftly if indirectly explains himself in comics such as these.
The story balances a complex moral line. Outwardly, it’s full of bleak despair, yet there is something intangibly warm and touching to the tale as well. Perhaps it’s the resilience of his family, despite it all. Perhaps it’s the implicit nod to creators to stick with what they’re good at and avoid the get-rich-quick temptations which cause Sukezo so much pain.
Perhaps it also comes from the driving quality of shishosetsu (or ‘I-novel’; a form of often-embellished literary autobiography). As Holmberg explains in his superb opening essay, drawing on his subject’s personal diaries, Yoshiharu was a fan of the genre. “[T]he reason why he was interested in writers’ personal lives, he explains, is because most of their lives were, like his own, beset by poverty, self-doubt, and neuroses, and because reading about their hardships provided him with ‘life examples to emulate and the encouragement to find the strength’ to navigate his own.”
Or as Sukezu puts it, describing why he likes visiting the stalls of antique junk dealers, “Whenever I get sad and lonely, this is where I go / … / Their air of poverty soothes the soul.”
Much like this superb collection of Yoshiharu’s work.