There’s something pleasantly perverse about an internationally acclaimed autobiographical novel centered on a supposedly “talentless” main character. The Man Without Talent was so successful, manga artist Yoshiharu Tsuge was able to retire not long after publishing it in 1986. The 1991 movie adaptation must have helped.
If Tsuge was anything like his talentless narrator, comics were never his passion anyway, even during his pioneering days in the 1960s and ’70s. He stopped making them in 1981, but returned three years later, apparently heeding the pleas of his narrator’s wife: “Comics are the only thing you’re good at! Please, just draw.”
Though the graphic novel has been reprinted many times in Japan, Ryan Holmberg‘s is the first English translation, and the new New York Review of Books‘ edition is the first available in the US. Any manga enthusiast needs a copy—if only to dispel wrong impressions about the limits of the genre. Tsuge found his initial success in Garo, the same magazine that published Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy, which Drawn & Quarterly published in 2018 with an essay by Holmberg. His opening essay in The Man Without Talent is equally helpful, establishing the novel’s context and its autobiographical parallels.
Tsuge was a leading voice in the genre of “I-novels” (Holmberg’s translation of “shishosetsu”), which offered diary-like presentations of their author-narrator’s meandering lives. Or at least they appeared to be. Each of Tsuge’s chapters focuses on one of his hapless narrator’s failed attempts to start a business. Though Holmberg assures us Tsuge never set up a ramshackle shop beside a river to sell river rocks to the occasional and deeply uninterested passerby, the Tamagawa River and its sluice gates and the town of Chofu it borders, including the Tamagawa Housing Block and the Fuda Tenjin Shrine flea market, these are all accurately depicted.
The character and the author also both enjoyed a briefly booming business repairing and reselling second-hand cameras before the flea market supply of broken cameras ran dry. But the camera business is revealing because it actually was a success, and so not an attempt of either Tsuge or his narrator to “evaporate”. Or, as the lazy owner of a used book store observes to the narrator: “It’s the same as doing nothing … you serve no purpose. Your very existence is worthless … Be useless, and society will abandon you. Thus abandoned, I practically cease to exist. Present yet nowhere, that’s me.”
Each chapter meanders into the life of one of these fellow nowhere men. The assistant to the last remaining stone expert and auction scam-artist can recite his pseudo-employer’s lectures by heart. If that’s not sufficiently pathetic, the expert wooed his wife from him. The owner of the depressing-looking bird shop behind the velodrome sells only Japanese birds, but no “vulgar” parrots and myna that customers want. Though his business is a failure, he at least “understands what riches lie in crushing the ego.”
The 19th-century poet Seigutsu literally walked away from fame, wandering the countryside in poverty until he collapsed in his lice-infested and shit-stained clothes. But like Tsuge, Seigutsu was far from talentless, and according to Holmberg, Tsuge’s homage rescued him from obscurity to join the haiku cannon.
The nowhere-man aesthetic is reminiscent of slackers of US pop culture. Though Richard Linklatter’s film, Slacker appeared a year before the film adaptation of The Man Without Talent, the Japenese I-novel tradition is decades older. The pseudo-autobiographical approach also has its western parallels, since the author-narrator blurring metafiction of authors like Kurt Vonnegut was making it onto best-seller lists around the time of Tsuge’s early successes.
Holmberg’s meticulously researched parallels and contradictions between Tsuge and his narrator ultimately suggest that the two are distinct, and Tsuge is only pretending to present a thinly-veiled version of himself. His narrator’s mustache is no more convincing a disguise than Superman’s Clark Kent glasses—which is the paradoxical point. “I thought,” the author explains in an interview Holmberg quotes, “perhaps I could use the style of shishosetsu to confuse fact and fiction, mislead people about what the artist is like, and thereby hide my true identity.”
Hopefully, Tsuge’s actual marriage was less horrific than the one he portrays in his novel. The wife (whose face goes noticeably unseen for the first three chapters) complains viciously, and though her criticism seems accurate, the point-of-view favors the husband, making her seem shrewish rather than suffering. The unsympathetic portrayal also aligns with an underlying misogynistic tone. The stone expert’ wife is “an easy piece of ass”, according to her ex-husband, and Tsuge draws her crotch in a revealing close-up crouch as she begins her campaign to seduce the narrator. When the bird salesman “socked” his wife after he caught her lying, he complains: “Arrested for assault. I had to eat prison slop for a week.”
The narrator is incredulous: “For a domestic dispute?”
“Even between a man and a wife, if the victim doesn’t forgive the assailant, it’s still a crime, that’s what they said. What’s the world coming to?”
It’s hard to gauge the scene since the fact of the arrest and jail time suggest that the narrator and his fellow nowhere man are the ones out of sync with their culture and certainly its laws. But again, Tsuge’s I-novel conceit and his narrator’s developing philosophy of Buddhist-like self-negation seem to want to place these lying, complaining, easy-ass wives outside reader sympathy. I also suspect that the presumably unintended discomfort I felt reading has less to do with cultural differences than with the three and half decades since Tsuge drew the novel. I know essentially nothing about the gender norms of early ’80s Japanese culture, but I do recall early ’80s US culture wasn’t much better than the world of the novel.
So Tsuge and Holmberg offer a much-appreciated if occasionally problematic time capsule in the form of a manga classic that is utterly unlike the teen fantasy genres that have come to define the form in the US and UK. I predict these wandering and supposedly talentless nowhere men will continue to outlive their competitors.