Scenes from a Marriage: Fujiwara Maki and Tsuge Yoshiharu

A husband and wife who are both composers: how do you envisage that? Such a strange relationship between rivals: do you have any idea how ridiculous it would appear, can you imagine the loss of self-respect it would later cause us both? If, at a time when you should be attending to household duties or fetching my something I urgently needed, or if, as you wrote, you wish to relieve me of life's trivia - if at such a moment you were befallen by 'inspiration': what then?

-Gustav Mahler, in a letter to his wife-to-be, Alma Schindler, dated December 19th, 1901, as translated by Antony Beaumont in Gustav Mahler: Letters to his Wife (Cornell University Press, 2004)

I am not fond of floating into cafés or wherever with Maki.... It feels like a distraction from the responsibilities of daily life. Housewives these days seem happy killing time playing pachinko or going to cafés, but I can't see that as anything but frivolous and irresponsible.

-From Tsuge Yoshiharu's Diaries (1983), excerpted in translation by Ryan Holmberg in "Fujiwara Maki: The Art of Life with Tsuge Yoshiharu," a supplementary essay in the English edition of Fujiwara's My Picture Diary (Drawn & Quarterly, 2023)

There's a very real problem with depression, which is that it asserts itself both inwardly and outwardly as selfishness, even though it is not, in itself, selfish. Inwardly, it convinces you that your own feelings are stupid, that they are valid only insofar as they can hurt you, yet an indulgent trifle the moment you feel driven to do anything about that hurt, driving you to retreat into yourself like your own brain was quicksand. Outwardly, your pain dulls the edge of your surroundings, so that you feel yourself more urgently than you feel your fellows. So that you feel weakened in your engagement on any terms but your own.

How do you deal with that? The less healthy course of action is to externalize it, problem and solution alike. At first you say, "Well, maybe someone can pick up my pieces, as I do not feel equal to the task by myself"; if you are unlucky enough to feel lucky enough, you may find that "someone" and all-too-readily let them shoulder the brunt of your burden. But then, gradually, you will come to find this insufficient. That your problems are still there, and that the person by your side, having diminished themselves for you, is not enough. And what happens then?

What happens then?

* * *

The English edition of My Picture Diary by Fujiwara Maki (1941-1999), published in 2023 by Drawn & Quarterly with a translation by Ryan Holmberg, opens on a rather jarring endpaper: a self-portrait of the author washing the bathroom of her home with a hose, with the accompanying narration, "'Women must always make sure to at least keep the bathroom clean,' my Osaka mother often used to say. It always irritated me." This, the reader might guess, is what I was expecting: frustration toward dichotomous gender roles, expressed through domesticity. But it quickly turns out to be more gutting than just that: on page 24, you are confronted with the unedited version of this narration, which continues, "But when I got sick with uterine cancer, I wondered if the gods were punishing me for not listening to her. Since I'm supposed to go to the hospital tomorrow, I scrubbed the bathtub and sink until they shined. Then I cleaned the bejesus out of the toilet." It is not just that this dichotomy merely exists: it is that its rigid enforcement is made possible by convincing those it affects that it is vital to a fundamental, nigh-cosmic degree. It's not that my mother thinks this way - it's that the gods ardently agree, and will back up their opinions with action.

Later, when Fujiwara's husband makes a rare substantial appearance, he cooks his delicious dumpling soup; their son, delighted, exclaims, "Daddy's become Mommy and Mommy's become Daddy!" Down through generations, the binary triumphs.

Images in this section from My Picture Diary (Drawn & Quarterly, 2023); written and drawn by Fujiwara Maki, translated to English by Ryan Holmberg. Click to enlarge.

My Picture Diary is not a comic, but a prose tallying of given days across the span of one year accompanied on each facing page by an illustration thereof. It is drawn in a charmingly simple fashion that could be described as a variant of the heta-uma aesthetic ascendant at the time of its Japanese publication in 1982, with a slight shaky quality to the lines and a flattened sense of perspective. It is also, more than anything else, not a book that was conceived for publication. This is not a criticism, or conjecture, or a theory, but mere fact: when Fujiwara began working on it in January of 1981, it was not, strictly speaking, meant to be printed and distributed; the idea for its publication only came during the drawing process - a decision that, as Fujiwara herself attests in an Afterword, made the actual work harder. The title is accurate in its diminutive nature: it is, for all intents and purposes, a diary.

Fujiwara concedes that she could not document everything happening on a given day, and so her summaries are little more than a brief paragraph or two, lingering briefly on some isolated emotion; a feeling, intense as it may be, that quickly passes by. This results in an intimacy, albeit shorthanded, that is often absent from public-facing works. Consider the contemporary diary comic, a formal mode largely uninfluenced by My Picture Diary, but nonetheless emergent from the same well of inspiration. The diary comic is inescapable online, popularized in no small part by the internet ethos of quick-and-easy digestibility, but such works often run into the same conceptual problem: a struggle to mediate visceral interiority in a fashion appealing to the reader. The artist's preoccupation with their comic's role as an object to be observed by an outsider often forfeits the pure introspection of the authentic diary by way of rehearsal and polish.

Granted, Fujiwara also had an audience in mind from the start, but with one important divergence: where most comic diarists think of their readership as a hypothetical collective entity, Fujiwara has one specific person in mind - her young son. It is for this reason that, throughout My Picture Diary, Fujiwara does not write out her husband's name; he is, as far as the book itself is concerned, Daddy, always that epithet. The function of it is clear: in a book conceived for their son, Fujiwara wants to establish a connection to the familial structure.

Yet the book in practice is not romantic in a way that one would associate with the eyes of a six-year old; Fujiwara's predominant emotional range of despair and frustration, punctuated by only occasional relief, is not masked or hidden. Beyond the appearance of being made for her son (who, despite being ostensibly addressed throughout the text, is nonetheless referred to in the third person), the book appears to be more a vessel for internal processing - the documented venting of a woman whose surroundings are constraining to the point of alienation.

Fujiwara is, simply put, profoundly alone in her own home. Her husband exists as a living diktat: he is to be relied on for allowance (January 23) and for permission to go out to the movies (February 28), but he cannot be relied on to do much in the way of work (note the barbed parenthetical on January 30: "Because Daddy works (?) from the time we go to bed until dawn, he doesn't get up until midday"). Daddy is hardly complimentary to her—his best attempt, on February 5, is a not-dismissive but likewise noncommittal "Hmm…" regarding her cooking—and he does not demonstrate much in common with his wife beyond their similar hair (March 15). Fujiwara's son, meanwhile, tends to see his mother as prone to complaining, a housewife frustrated with her calling; not-so-coincidentally, this is the same way Daddy views her. Even the ostensible recipient of this diary, then, is malleable enough to be at least subconsciously, at least momentarily, turned against her.

If her son can serve any cathartic purpose, then, it is only in a limited, hypothetical fashion. The figure of the son can in fact be viewed as something of a duality: there is the concrete, real son whose day-to-day reality is described within My Picture Diary, and the theoretical son who will, one day, read the diary. These are decidedly separate figures: the "real" son, the third-person son, young enough to be legitimate in his status as a non-entity, passively inherits the views of his father; the theoretical son, then, is the subject of greater expectations. Fujiwara appears to feel a great responsibility: she is the hypothetical mother of this reader—embodied, disembodied, specific, abstract—who is, in turn, expected to bear witness, to understand her. But there is an only partial catharsis in being witnessed when you don't know who, or whether, your witness actually is.

The result is a reduced interiority. Fujiwara depicts her life with no great romance or interest; she has hardly any friends, and she only meets with them on rare occasions. Though she mentions taking ballet lessons for about a year, this hobby is depicted exactly once, two months into the diary, and is forgotten (at least in the eyes of the reader) as quickly as it is mentioned. When some days later she makes mention of her own depression, it comes with a grim resignation: "Today was really bad… so bad that I didn't want to talk to anyone. But as a housewife, I can't get away with doing nothing. So I scrubbed the stove and the kitchen, something I'd been avoiding for a while." Dysfunction itself becomes a luxury that she cannot afford, obliged as she is to maintain the appearance of domestic function - in the existence of the role, of the external perception, the person behind it disappears.

And there can only ever be one result to that diminution: My Picture Diary is a crescendo of simmering frustration. Even during increasingly rare moments at peace, such as the February 24 entry—"I'm usually too busy with chores to be in the least bit metaphysical. But today, for a moment, I felt high on life."—come with a sting to them. Consider Fujiwara's illustration of the scene: while the father and son sit on the balcony, "playing house," she sits inside, smoking a cigarette and reading the newspaper; her expression looks cold, blank, staring off into the distance, hardly the picture of "high on life."

There is, of course, the other side of that frustration, the side of the husband. A "subplot" of sorts in My Picture Diary is the ever-deteriorating mental state of Daddy, who from the very beginning is depicted as a man rendered largely "nonexistent," or retreating from larger communal/familial existence, by his anxiety and depression. In the pages of Fujiwara's diary, these struggles inevitably project onto their surroundings as well, either passively, by way of his incapability to attend his son's school enrollment ceremony (April 10), or more actively, when he is physically violent to Fujiwara (March 24). Toward the end of the diary, he finally reaches a low he cannot ignore and decides to seek treatment. It's a surprising development, in a way, insofar as it is the first time we are exposed to something of an interiority: this is the first mention of how he experiences his struggles, rather than how difficult it makes life for his wife.

Notably, the progression of the husband's therapy, whether beneficial or not, exists for the most part outside of My Picture Diary: he dials the psychiatric ward on April 15, shortly before Fujiwara's diary breaks away from its established nature of near-daily updates to become sporadic; April 28 transitions to May 23, then July, then November, before wrapping up on Christmas Eve. It's an open ending, of a sort, and the impact of the work's diaristic nature only becomes clear as whole months pass without mention. Time moves on, unwaveringly; is the ultimate narrativizing force, shifting the priorities and foci of those caught in its flow. The struggles and pain and crisis all become routine; the routine, in itself, becomes crisis. Time subsumes, and is subsumed in kind.

* * *

The Daddy of My Picture Diary does, of course, have a name, and that name is, of course, Tsuge Yoshiharu (b. 1937), author of a great many celebrated works, including The Man Without Talent, his semi-autobiographical narrative which covers, to some extent, the same time period as My Picture Diary. But there is one key difference: where Fujiwara made her book one day at a time in 1981, bound to the whims of real time, Tsuge's work appeared four years after the events in question, serialized 1985-86; where chronology lent Fujiwara intimacy, relative distance gave Tsuge an extimacy - a chance to rehearse, refine, and rewrite. Unlike Fujiwara, Tsuge does not write things down as they come; he collects as he recollects, an active curator, a cartographer of a map that actively rejects its own territory.

Images in this section from The Man Without Talent (New York Review Comics, 2019); written and drawn by Tsuge Yoshiharu, translated to English by Ryan Holmberg. Panels read from right to left.

In his essay "Where is Yoshiharu Tsuge?", included in the 2019 New York Review Comics English edition of The Man Without Talent, Ryan Holmberg (again the translator) contextualizes the interplay of fact and fabrication in Tsuge's work amidst the Japanese "I-novel" (shishōsetsu); in what can be described as almost a rejection of the separation of art from artist, Holmberg quotes the cartoonist as saying, "When I write in a shishōsetsu style, since I say whatever I wish about myself, people often mistake it for truth. But that itself provides a kind of reality."

It is hard, then, to say exactly what happened to Tsuge in a literal sense from his book, and what merely fit into that reality of principle (though Holmberg's essay certainly delineates fact from fiction at several stages). But the presentation—that is, the overall pattern of character—still stands tall, overshadowing the importance of mere biographical accuracy. Tsuge's stand-in, Sukegawa, is above all else a master of cognitive dissonance: he is aware of his faults, but not aware, really, of being at fault; his self-flagellation, more often than not, is served with is concurrent self-justification. Like many masters of this craft of psychology, he is his own worst critic - and self-deprecation serves as the greatest weapon in his arsenal, as it preempts anything even his worst detractors can say about him.

This self-justification is evident in a recurring idea throughout The Man Without Talent: the rejection of any societal utility of the individual, and the embrace of a form of life that allows one an aimlessness, an ambulation for its own sake. Sukegawa frames this in a great many ways, particularly as a means to oppose the function-mindedness of capitalism (a psychological equivalent, one might say, of the Situationist dérive), but Tsuge, at every step and turn, makes one thing clear: these claims are nonsense. Sukegawa excels at reframing his emotional myopia as ideological rigidity, but the only audience he is interested in getting on his side is, invariably, himself.

The final chapter, "Evaporation," reads as almost an escape, a buckling of confidence, albeit not on the protagonist's part but Tsuge's own. It opens on a dialogue between Sukegawa and a bookseller he knows, a healthy and not altogether old man who nonetheless takes on a sickly, frail affectation and spends most of his time lying on the floor of his shop, not appearing to do much. The bookseller tells Sukegawa that it was him, the Tsuge stand-in, that inspired him to act this way, the same way Sukegawa lies in an outdoor stall, ostensibly selling stones but really doing nothing. Sukegawa, of course, protests, saying that he's trying his best. But the bookseller cuts right through him: "You mean, you want it to look like you're trying."

Perhaps the most striking divergence between Fujiwara and Tsuge can be summed up like this: in My Picture Diary, Fujiwara is a mother and wife first; in The Man without Talent, Tsuge—by way of his stand-in, Sukegawa—is a father and husband last. Sukegawa wants it to look like he's trying; Fujiwara has no choice but to actually try.

Which is why in Tsuge's book, home signifies, above all else, an inevitable disillusionment - a reminder of one's own failures. Each of its first three chapters feature a similar moment: after the protagonist has afforded himself the questionable luxury of drowning himself in escapism, his son appears out of nowhere. "Daddy," he calls, "it's time to go home."

Sukegawa's wife, inevitably, becomes the greatest "victim" of that disillusionment; her humanity is reduced to a canvas onto which Sukegawa—and, implicitly, Tsuge—can project his failures. This reduction of his wife is a defense mechanism: by externalizing his negative feelings, he can pretend they did not come from him; when he fails and fails once more, it is not he who has to diagnose himself as such - that's the wife's job.

It is not that Sukegawa is absolutely incapable of viewing his family as people in their own rights; indeed, in his more lucid moments, when he avails himself of a more panoramic view, he takes some degree of comfort in them. In a rare warm sequence in Chapter 4, Sukegawa takes his family on something of an improvised vacation, tacked onto a "stone hunting trip" - a search for new wares for his stone-selling business. The trip is punctuated by bickering and discomfort, but Tsuge attempts to frame this as a factor that strengthens ties within the family; at the end of the chapter, Sukegawa's wife observes, "We don't have any close friends. We aren't close with our families. We might as well be isolated from the rest of the world. It's almost like it's just the three of us, alone in this vast universe." To which Sukegawa replies: "Just the three of us, that sounds fine to me…" Yet that comfort, as Tsuge the author chooses to display it, is fleeting, finally defeated by the comfort of the individual; this exchange, pleasant in isolation, will always be warped by the bitter irony of its surroundings.

A notable choice in The Man Without Talent is the smoothed edges of Tsuge's fraught mental state. Whereas My Picture Diary and Tsuge's own published diaries (as quoted by Holmberg in his essay supplementing Fujiwara's book) are both very open about the cartoonist's struggles, Sukegawa does not appear to hit the same lows as his real-life counterpart: where Fujiwara's Daddy is in an increasingly ramshackle state, the author himself, perhaps deeming his state consistent with lifelong struggles, does not address this fever pitch in his autofiction. Where his fear and despair are invoked, they are primarily anchored in external circumstances, tangible and addressable.

What this means, in practice, is that Sukegawa—and perhaps Tsuge himself—does not come to the same conclusions about his path forward. There is a note of empathy, of hope, in the fashion My Picture Diary ends: with Daddy having come to face his struggles, perhaps things will get better from now on. The final chapter of The Man Without Talent, on the other hand, makes it rather clear that Sukegawa has no real plans to change.

In that final chapter, the bookseller gives Sukegawa a book of poetry by a forgotten 19th century poet, Seigetsu. Something of a renaissance man, Seigetsu was educated and talented in poetry and calligraphy, his skill stunning everyone around him, but he chose to travel the uneducated, simple-minded countryside; he spent 30 years not really doing much of anything but sleeping, drinking, and staying with one host after another, thus gradually ridding himself of the dignified perception of others, before finally dying: a genius voluntarily sinking into contempt. But, as one final twist of the knife, one final "See? Get it? See?" from Tsuge, Sukegawa understands why he was given this book: because the poet is the same as… the bookseller. No moral! The end.

The Man Without Talent, often regarded as a peak of Tsuge's work, is also one of his last comics, concluded only a year before he retired in 1987, with his physical and psychological struggles cited as reasons. It's one hell of a statement after a 20-year career, finding humor in its hopelessness but nonetheless announcing its hopelessness outright. And perhaps there is a truth there, in spite of its self-deprecating sheen: perhaps it is foolish to see an open ending and assume change. In Tsuge's world an open door appears to mean one thing, and one thing alone: another option to regret in advance. Time moves on, unwaveringly - but that doesn't mean it brings with it anything new that did not come before.

* * *

And yet I must be frank, dear reader: I am of two minds about all of this. The promotional copy for My Picture Diary readily namechecks The Man Without Talent, and that is a sensible and illuminating piece of context: yes, the two books speak of the same time period from different perspectives; yes, they are both about the home life of the two sides making up one marriage. And yet, this framing is so easy it feels almost unearned. Context is an unruly beast, isn't it? It tends to overwrite entirely the experiential nature of the text itself.

I am reminded of Tom Shapira's observations surrounding the American cartoonist Jack Cole's short-lived newspaper strip Betsy and Me; following Cole's suicide mere months into the strip, it was historically reframed into Cole's "final statement," hints of depression and loathing projected onto it, rendered part of the text by critical consensus, leaving a reader no choice but to wonder if those signs would even be evident, let alone pertinent, to the actual text.

The same is true to the inadvertent duology at hand. Context—being the very connection between Tsuge and Fujiwara, the fact that these two stories are at least partially the same story—is a shock to intertext, insofar as the two texts are distinctly separate, underlining the disconnect between the partners themselves. The shadow that looms tall over My Picture Diary is Tsuge the husband—Tsuge the emotional presence—more than it is Tsuge the artist, who is largely absent; the Fujiwara that appears in The Man Without Talent is likewise a shadow, not one of influence but a lack thereof: an archetypal frustrated wife, shaved clean of any identifying edge, devoid even of a name! Where Tsuge had his paternal epithet in My Picture Diary, Sukegawa's wife does not even have that.

So the Tsuge emphasis seems both compelling and unfair, inadvertently attributing a greater significance to an imbalanced narrative: always the wife of, always judged by relation. Yet My Picture Diary is not, as the promotional copy suggests, a text about being married to this titan of comics, or at least not so much as it is about being isolated, compartmentalized by him. See the perfectly tragic summation provided in Holmberg's essay: "While every attempt has been made to foreground Maki's own perspective, Tsuge's words and images take up more real estate in this essay simply due to their greater volume."

In Fujiwara Maki, Tsuge Yoshiharu saw a great many things: passive muse in his favor, active cudgel turned against him; her own thwarted ambitions, his own failure. He was not unaware enough so as to view her as a grateful servant, but not, it appears, aware enough to understand entirely her lack of gratitude. It's not that Tsuge did not see Fujiwara as a real person; it's just that he saw himself as more real than she was. His own broken pieces took precedence over her whole.

Yet it goes without saying: Tsuge did not do himself any favors, either. "I imagine having met me was ultimately not to her benefit," Holmberg quotes him as saying in 2003, four years after Fujiwara's passing. He was not—never could have been—a muse for her in that same way; he was not a figure of romance, of encouragement, nor was he docile enough to be romantically diminished the way the "muse," burdened by imbalance of powers (emergent in no small part from gender), typically is. The only thing he encouraged her to do was pick up his own pieces; he could only ever embody her own resentment, her own self-diminishment.

When My Picture Diary was published in Japan, it saw its fair share of success and was followed by several other publications by Fujiwara - the first semblance of a career that she had in over a decade since leaving behind her first passion, acting, in favor of the dubious privilege of a home life with Tsuge. And this second career would always be dictated by those circumstances: Tsuge's wife, best known for her diary on life with Tsuge, her career encouraged and inspired by Tsuge (at least if you take his word for it). Even in her success, she was forced into the framing of a mere satellite in orbit.

Not much, then, remains: just a broken man, and the pain of a woman who got cut by the pieces.

And what happens then?

What happens then?