by DW McKinney
The Swamp by Yoshiharu Tsuge
Drawn & Quarterly, April 2020
256 pages (Hardcover) / Book Depository
Yoshiharu Tsuge’s The Swamp is a phenomenal work. The cover features a man, shotgun in hand, trudging across verdant terrain. The man offers no discernible expression, but there is solemn determination in his body language. It’s a hint at Tsuge’s skill as a cartoonist and storyteller and it’s further solidified once readers open this short story collection.
The Swamp is 11 stories gathered from works Tsuge created in the 1960s. Then, Tsuge was a cartoonist for Garo magazine, where he gained distinction in the comics world. His early life and influences as a cartoonist are vast and I encourage readers to review the book’s concluding essay by Mitsuhiro Asakawa, which provides a very detailed look into this part of Tsuge’s artistic development.
The manga collection, designed to be read right to left, is gripping from the start. The first story, “The Phony Warrior,” is about a samurai who encounters a famous master ronin while vacationing at a hot spring. The young samurai admires the older ronin, who is formidable in appearance and reputation. Ensuing events reveal that the latter is an imposter. The damning part is not the fake master’s deception but both characters’ recognition that lying plays a role in the “…the heavy weight of simply getting by in this unforgiving thing we called life.”
Tsuge leans into the calamitousness that comes with survival in each successive story. He doesn’t shy away from the stark realities of poverty and moral uncertainties but portrays them in both a humbling and chiding manner. In “Destiny,” a destitute couple attempts to fulfill their suicide pact, but they’re interrupted by the impending arrival of a friend. While they wait for their friend, the value of human life unfurls in a riveting subplot. The story is a masterful sleight of hand that leaves readers breathless.
But there’s much more to Tsuge’s stories. Once below the surface, readers encounter deeper complexities where poverty and survival combine with power, sex, and relationships to create comically dark realities. In some cases, they bump up against surrealism, but never in a way that erases the thread of plausibility. “Chirpy” and “The Swamp,” from which the collection derives its name, focus on women seeking satisfaction outside of normalized sociocultural expectations. “The Ninjess”—one of my favorite manga in the book—tells the story of the incredible lengths a ninjess goes to fulfill her assassination orders. It reminded me of a distorted version of Han Christian Andersen’s The Emperor’s New Clothes in that the feudal lord in this story allows his paranoia and unwavering belief in misogynistic stereotypes to be his undoing.
Tsuge deftly creates a sense of place. Through striking detailed scenes, readers become situated in the traditional settings of post-war Japan. There’s just enough illustrated on the page for readers to feel the rough wood of the derelict homes underneath their palms and feel transported into a bedroom. However, the scenes are secondary to the people and Tsuge’s manga are primarily character driven. He wants readers to concentrate on the people dominating the panels. The pain held in their tight shoulders. The anguish sliding down their faces. How they shift from innocence to murderous desire to self-preservation in a few short panels. Some of the characters have similar physical characteristics, almost as if the reader is following the tumultuous life of one person from one story to the next. Even so, this isn’t a distraction. Tsuge’s manga are an exploration in the complexities and elasticity of human nature.
It’s this focus on humanity that drives the underlying parables straight into the reader’s gut. The messages stick with you. Yet, there isn’t always an obvious conclusion to these shorts and the ambiguity often elicits a more powerful reaction—I’m still thinking about the implications of “A Strange Letter” and “Handcuffs.” But Tsuge also captures joy on the page. “An Unusual Painting” is a sly take on perception and luck. And “Watermelon Sake” is a delightful sprint in storytelling that leaves a sweet smile on your lips. It’s no wonder that Drawn & Quarterly plans to publish subsequent volumes of Tsuge’s work in the coming years. I look forward to reading each one.
DW McKinney is a writer based in Las Vegas. Her work is featured in Bitch Media, Linden Avenue Literary Journal, Stoneboat Literary Journal, TAYO Literary Magazine, and others. Her essays have appeared in HelloGiggles and Elite Daily, and she currently serves as creative nonfiction editor at The Tishman Review. She holds an MA in Anthropology from Texas State University and a bachelor in Biology from Dominican University of California. She has essays forthcoming in Narratively and Road Grays. Learn more about her at www.dwmckinney.com or follow her on Twitter @thedwmckinney.