Note: This essay discusses depictions of sexual violence at great length. It will cause some readers distress. Nobody has to read any of this. Not if it is painful.
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Nejishiki: The Complete Mature Works of Yoshiharu Tsuge Vol. 3 collects a series of rape fantasies sporadically penned by Tsuge between the years 1968 and 1972, which many consider to be his finest works. These comics are stories about men uprooted from place and roaming unfamiliar, eerie towns, driven by obscure needs or by nothing at all. Each story except one revolves around sexual violence: the kind that we can all recognize, the kind we are taught to fear (or expected to want), the sensational act of a man (our eyes) taking a woman by force. These masterpieces of surrealism do not allow you to look away.
The titular “Nejishiki” (1968), the story which cemented Tsuge as an icon of the Japanese avant-garde, is a work of obscure hints and dissociation, which can be read in such a way to absorb the entirety of postwar Japan and a complete map of the unconscious. Tsuge said it was made to meet a deadline. However, the best critique comes from its own grotesque protagonist, a foul young man with a bleeding vessel casually bulging out of his limp left arm, interrupting an attempt by a bourgeois man to interpret the meaning of his demand for a doctor:
“Please stop with the bad jokes. This is a matter of life and death! [...] Please, just tell me where I can find a doctor?!”
Nothing is here but horror and urgency, a need to be filled amid confusion. To my knowledge, this is the third English translation of "Nejishiki," the first in 1971 by an anonymous translator in the English-language Japanese theater magazine Concerned Theatre Japan as “The Stopcock,” and the second in 2003 by Bill Randall in the pages of The Comics Journal #250 as “Screw-Style.” CTJ's translation tends towards functional vocabulary and syntax but teases out the techno-sexual innuendo of the (stop)cock, while Randall's aims for a surreal and literary calm. Ryan Holmberg's 2023 translation deploys vernacular speech to hone in on the humor of Tsuge's story, which earlier adaptations have arguably neglected. “Damn it,” the man exclaims, walking past a row of signs on shops with images of eyes. “Nothing but eye doctors here.”
"Nejishiki" can function as a collection of potent images. Beaches, railways, factories, dilapidated houses, grit, shadow and overgrowth passed over by the indifferent and urgent sneer of a skinny man who emerged from the ocean with a jellyfish wound. This phantomlike man is unphased by his grimly alluring surroundings, only thinking of whether he can get his arm fixed. All he sees is whether help can be extracted from the space he inhabits, only once genuinely diverted by a discussion of candy production with an old woman who might be his mother. For the purposes of this essay, I will be like this man and disregard much of the striking compositions of “Nejishiki” and their possibilities to seek out the story's terminal satisfaction.
The man's wound is cured while he rapes a woman doctor. She is an OB-GYN, the only kind that can cure him, or so the man insists constantly. His act can only be seen as premeditated, perhaps mandatory. As he attacks her under the dirt encrusted contortions of sheets, a wrench is raised... by whom? The absurdity of seeing a women's doctor (who is, by the story's reasoning, naturally a woman as well) to treat a burst vessel and the unspoken inevitability of the rape—or was it rape? did she expect this as well? we can't ask her, and Tsuge is not telling—impress upon the reader that this is a transgression into the realm of women, a discovery of the red light district, or perhaps a forced entry into a private dwelling. “This is no place for men,” she says. After his procedure, the man compliments her skills (as a surgeon, of course!), moving his hand away from his wound, which has been stopped up by a valve. The valve can be shut off by tightening it, and so the rapist can live on happily, either continuing his existence or going numb as he pleases, wherever that is. As he is sped across the sea in a motorboat, now dominating the primordial waters under which he emerged, he looks down at the valve, the stopcock, the prize that fixed his arm. He seems happy with himself. The arm which was once limp has become muscular.
Tsuge created these comics in the waning years of his work at Shigeru Mizuki's manga studio; he would quit for good in 1973. They bear many of the marks of his master's methods: the yawning photo referenced backgrounds, the small wide-eyed protagonists and wizened storytellers. Tsuge and Mizuki even shared assistants. As Holmberg notes in an exhaustively researched 66-page essay in the back of the book, Tsuge's comics fall into the kaiki genre of Japanese folk horror where uncanny phenomena or hints of supernatural possibilities lurk in the dank corners of crumbling residences. Tsuge's work also bears the influence of Mizuki Production's work environment, rife with typical misogyny and sexual harassment.1 Tsuge presents readers with what could be considered an iteration of the Mizukiesque ghost story unbound by traditions of yōkai or the need to speak to children - tales of cruelty so typical as to become ethereal, haunted violations.
Although "Nejishiki" also bears many of the genre's formal markings, Master of the Gensenkan Inn (1968) is closest in narrative and structure to Mizuki's kaiki stories. A gloomy traveler cast in shadow wanders into a nondescript, desolate town and hears strange stories via knowledgeable gossip by eerie old locals; later, a present-tense revelation of some alarming contradiction suggests deeper patterns of supernatural horror. Rooted explicitly in Japanese folk legend, Buddhist philosophy and studies of rural places, this is all the stuff of Mizuki. However, it is a literary, evil version. There is no yōkai, no curse, but rape and common hatred of women.
The traveler learns that, years ago, a disheveled, ugly man stayed at Gensenkan Inn and attempted to rape the madam of the house, seduced (or enraged, or perhaps amused) by the sight of her praying nude by the baths. She is an obscene, ugly figure by Tsuge's own visual idiom, lingering on rolls of fat and lumps of skin; her countenance is that of vile leering, painted with vanity and spiritual hypocrisy. Escaping his first assault, the madam grins at the man. Perhaps she is demonic. The old villagers speak of ghosts and past lives, present suffering. No matter. She cannot escape for long. The man, now master, returns to the madam, donning the mask of a tengu, spiritual iconography which, by 1968, had long taken a crude second meaning of powerful erection, sexual entertainment - just see how proudly the nose stands. It seems she wants this now. The old folks relaying this story figure the rest goes without saying, but cannot resist tittering amongst each other about sex and ownership. The master of Gensenkan Inn has been rooted to the place since the success of his sexual conquest, a lousy dominion. At the end of the story, he encounters the traveler, who looks very much like him. The wind howls, the mistress clings to the master—in horror or possession?—and to the horror of both, the traveler looks down upon them with an identical tengu mask.
Any reading of this story risks reduction of its symbolism, but the dualism of the master and the traveler is palpable. The traveler is the life which the master once lived, and the spiritual world from which he strayed - an unrooted life of travel without possessive obligations, a life where to be a tengu was not to embody one's phallus, but to be a yōkai born from a past life's vainglory. If the traveler is a yōkai, then he confronts literary naturalism as well as the sexual violence of the master's story, which was folklore undone, reduced to a raw truth that even Mizuki's comics cannot hide - that lives are transformed by rape, that misogyny creates violence that seemingly cannot be explained under patriarchy's own moral discourse. Tsuge unravels the euphemism of folklore into a literature of urges, and reconstitutes kaiki as the all-too-human horror of how people treat each other, before breaking that maturity as well by reintroducing the possibility of yōkai - suggesting that everyday violence might not be so human in nature.
But in reintroducing the supernatural, might hatred of women in fact be reaffirmed? Might the madam be a spirit as well? Isn't it really her fault the master became rooted to this awful place? Perhaps she wanted it. Perhaps she is a curse. She never speaks, so her intentions are hideously unclear. What speaks for her is the abjection of her appearance: what Tsuge himself considered her ugliness, her smirk, her hungry gaze, the way she tugs at the master's sleeves and clings to him as his double approaches. Contempt courses through Tsuge's line in every drawing of the madam. When we look at her, the artwork whispers to us: to hate her for creating her rapist's desire, for trapping her erect rapist stiffly in her foul dwelling. Tsuge's interest in the dynamics of misogyny and rape does not come from empathy for women. He has no love for victims.
I am a young woman and like many women, many people, it has happened to me. It was nothing like the ones you've read about here. I do not care to discuss my own stories, certainly not in a piece of online comics criticism. I am not special. It's a common pain. You know this. But I sit here with these comics and I cannot help but ask the question that I have asked myself too many times while confronted with major masterpieces made by men with massive minds:
Am I reading a confession?
There are questions implicit in that grim curiosity that I try to resist, namely “Is it okay to read this?” and “Will reading this hurt me?” There is a moralizing impulse that victims are subjected to after our rapes have long since ended. It begins as a necessary wish to avoid seeing reminders of our trauma, of peering into the minds of rapists and seeing our own rapes fresh in their eyes. Sometimes we also know who they are and that they are active, and we want them far away from our communities, our shelters, our world. But it becomes a pervasive shame, doesn't it? Our concerns mingle with a cultural expectation that rape should not be talked about - the same attitude that blames victims for speaking because it makes people uncomfortable, because it could threaten someone. I am sick of criticism that explains why it's okay to show this. I am sick of criticism that mentions sexual violence as a flaw in a work that could have been fixed. When it happened to me, nobody was there to glorify or condemn it. So enough of that.
Let's talk about Yoshiharu Tsuge again. And let's ask ourselves if it matters.
I think that it might.
Yoshiharu Tsuge’s era of surrealism is one where meaning is elusive and hints at a unifying context are disturbing. If Tsuge were, as many in the arts are and have been, a serial rapist constructing thinly veiled recollections of his own violence, these stories would suddenly become very boring. That elusive psychogeography that has pulled readers in for decades would be nothing but a tacky curtain hung over the bland imagination of an average sociopath. Rapists are incredibly dull people. In reality, harming others on purpose is a thoroughly banal activity indulged in by vacant people so bereft of imagination that targeting victims is the closest thing to a personality they have ever dreamt up. This is not an authorial voice I find in Tsuge. What I find in these works is something that some readers might actually find just as disturbing, but is infinitely more interesting than a rapist:
Yoshiharu Tsuge's stories are fantasies for someone who envies rapists.
What do we know about the legendary gekigaka Yoshiharu Tsuge? We have tremendous, downright voyeuristic access to the man. Japanese readers can peruse Tsuge's published diaries and a glut of critical essays. English-speaking readers have the furious wealth of context from Holmberg's mammoth essays which fill the backs of Drawn & Quarterly's ongoing series and others besides. Thanks to Drawn & Quarterly and Holmberg, we can also turn to the spare reflections left by Tsuge's late wife, Maki Fujiwara, whose My Picture Diary paints an unflattering, tender image of a domineering yet inattentive husband, wracked by illness, dismissive of his partner, prone to bursts of aggression and long days swallowed up by hobbies and unexplained absences. Fujiwara's illustrated memoir was composed in 1982, nearly a decade after the stories collected in Nejishiki, but nonetheless reveals an instructive impression of Tsuge as a man who expects much of women but does not care much for women's lives.
Tsuge's legend, however, is moreso embodied by his own The Man Without Talent, a 1985-86 serial I-novel that at first blush reads as withering autocritique, but may be closer to wishful thinking. Tsuge's talentless narrative stand-in Sukezo Sukegawa yearns through his fruitless endeavors for the same thing as Tsuge: to vanish, to evaporate, to be cut loose from the obligations of family and work, to fade into the mist. By the time of The Man Without Talent's serialization, Tsuge's desire to vanish had refined into a philosophy: a meditation and a reflection on his years of frustration.
When Tsuge was drawing the stories collected in Nejishiki, that desire was a fetish.
I use the word fetish in several senses. On one hand, the fantasy of drifting as reflected in these earlier works is fetishistic in that it is unrefined and compulsive, and stretches across the collected book with an unspoken intensity. Like many fantasies, Tsuge's vision was not reality - his writing and reminisces elide the brevity of his absences as well as his pursuit of steady income from royalties, commissions and assistant jobs (all of which Holmberg carefully documents in his essay). But also, Tsuge's dream of vanishing is fetish because it is a desire so consuming as to be inescapably erotic - this is a sexual fantasy, full of contradictions, repulsions and sensation.
What does a rape fantasy have to do with non-existence?
“A Dream Stroll” (1972) was Tsuge's first story to abandon the photorealistic backgrounds of the Mizuki house style since he'd embraced that approach in 1966; it represents a newfound speed and creative freedom in Tsuge's art. It is a story of a man's freedom. Over 12 pages of spacious minimal compositions, a man catches sight of a mother and child, stalks the pair across a barren ditch, and impulsively rapes the mother in front of her child. The mother's body heaves, panting, her face flushed, as the man grasps her. It ends. There is no consequence. The man departs on a clear, flat road while mother and child remain on the more difficult steep clay slope. The man wonders if he will see this woman again. And that is all. Rape without punishment. A daydream perhaps, or an intrusive thought. Violence and pleasure alike vanish in the climax. There is no more. Everyone fades into the distance.
One might recall another surreal gekiga story in which a child bears witness to his mother's rape: Seiichi Hayashi's “Red Dragonfly” (1968). Unlike the fantastic reverie of "A Dream Stroll," Hayashi's story is situated in social realities of survival sex work, albeit from the perspective of a child too young to understand it. The child's mother is at the mercy of a man hidden in shadows, who gives toys to the child and an allowance to the mother. He is unseen because the child does not want to see him. What the child does see is his mother's tears, which escape her quietly when she believes the boy is not looking. Playing war alone with the man's toys, the boy briefly spies on the man with his mother, peering through a window at heavy limbs placed atop slender limbs, outstretched to a violent breaking point. The child returns to his game of war, his expression blank. The reader cannot access the child's feelings, and surely the child cannot make sense of the confusion and violence he has seen. But there's tragedy in this moment, poignant and aesthetic. Hayashi finds beauty in exploring the traumas experienced by women under patriarchy through the eyes of men and boys who cannot quite access that feminine reality.
There is no social context for "A Dream Stroll" - its commanding aesthetic is a turn away from reality. “A Dream Stroll” is from the perspective of the rapist, and confronts the reader with his thrill. His violence is an impulse, his excitement as palpable as his victim's agony. In both Tsuge's and Hayashi's comics, the raped mother's feelings are mysterious: in “Red Dragonfly” because the child voyeur is too young to fully understand them, and in “A Dream Stroll” because the rapist does not care. “Red Dragonfly,” while minimalist, is a comic composed of enclosures, peepholes and oppressive shadows - stolen glances at the horrible world of adults. “A Dream Stroll” takes place in wide open terrain, endless liminal spaces where a man can assert dominance and slip away unseen. The child witness is not a character or even a cipher, but rather a texture, fading vaguely into the background and serving only the end of making the rapist's transgression more scandalous, more spectacular. Both stories are disturbing, but “A Dream Stroll” challenges the reader as an alluring depiction - not glamorizing rape, but fantasizing about it.
This is one version of rape as beautiful oblivion. The getting away with it. The becoming inhuman and slipping out of existence. There is nothing meaningful or humane about “A Dream Stroll”; it is senseless. The rapist abandons his humanity and in so doing escapes society and disappears. Yoshiharu Tsuge deeply wishes to disappear.
Going unnoticed is not the only way in which Tsuge's literary rapes embody his ultimate fantasy. In “Master of the Willow Inn” (1970), as in the earlier "Master of the Gensenkan Inn," a man wandering from town to town assaults the madam of the titular decrepit inn. In an extraordinary, queasy touch of misogyny, Tsuge's protagonist likens himself to a sex worker he had visited before, a girl at a nude studio. “I debased myself,” he muses, exposing his naked body. “After all, that's what she wanted, wasn't it?” After the act is finished, the madam tells her assailant to take responsibility, to which he quickly responds with a promise of marriage, sharing the upkeep of the inn as its master. She is delighted. Her labor will be lightened. He quietly leaves the next day.
The rapist, long after his departure, imagines himself aging with the madam and her obscure inn, an anonymous life “faded like an old photograph.” Years pass. He visits the inn again. The madam does not remember him. How disappointing.
Like the rapist in “A Dream Stroll,” the would-be master of the Willow Inn appears to succeed in committing a rape without consequence. His unseen act is forgotten; even his victim forgets his face. He has no connection to any place. He vanishes like mist. But true oblivion would have been to remain. The Willow Inn is a liminal nowhere, and to become its master, to take responsibility for rape with marriage, would truly be to become no-one. A face in a faded photograph to one day be lost. Because he is forgotten, this rapist is forced to exist.
Back, briefly, to the Gensenkan Inn. The master and his double are two visions of oblivion. One of rape and consequence, staying in place, becoming the master of a decrepit inn and fading into the background of society forever. Another of endless travel, of uprootedness from place, of having no home. The two come into contact, and it is horror. It is horror because the two cannot coexist, and yet they are the same dream. So it goes with Tsuge’s imaginary rapes. These rape fantasies are about oblivion, with two ends that come into immediate conflict: either to escape penalty and disappear, or to accept consequence and become obscure. Neither fantasy is real; they are spiritual fetishes whose coexistence splinters into its own inherent contradictions. One cannot escape and be punished at the same time. There is no liberation in sexual violence.
“A Summer Memory” (1972), as Holmberg describes it, is Tsuge's first story of domestic life since 1965's “Chirpy,” with many more to follow. It is also the most naturalistic depiction of rape which appears in the pages of this collection - or rather, the most psychologically honest. A man is sole witness to a hit and run, a woman struck by a moving vehicle and knocked into an overgrown field. Walking down to the unconscious woman, the witness catches sight of her legs splayed open, revealing her panties. As in “A Dream Stroll,” he acts on impulse. Later, the man's wife breathlessly informs him of the hit and run in the neighborhood, which he did not report - how the victim was found with her underwear pulled down. The man frets to himself about hounds catching his scent, about footprints, about passing police cars - much to his wife's confusion. The domesticity of the two unravels what could be a story of intense paranoia into an absurd portrait of frustrated masculinity. This rapist must not only hide his crime from the world, but hide his fear—or rather, his fixation on being caught—from his wife. It quickly becomes apparent that he will never be caught; his anxiety mingles with fantasies of fleeing his home to escape capture by the law or of being found and arrested. Meanwhile, his wife nags him about his strange, erratic behavior, the time he spends listlessly fretting at home or out on unannounced outings, wishing he would help with housework, or at least get back to drawing manga. Months pass. The man sees the hit and run victim pass by on the street and feels a brief rush of nostalgia for her crotch. The sight of it. Its smell.
“A Summer Memory” dispenses with fantasy and trains its eye on the daydreamer who wistfully envisions such things. Tsuge, like his protagonist, wastes his days imagining scenarios of rape, of capture or flight in the wake of the act: of disappearing. Tsuge, like his protagonist, would go on to frustrate his wife endlessly, as Fujiwara herself documents scrupulously in My Picture Diary. Tsuge's rapist protagonist, in his paranoia, invents the meanings Tsuge sought in his prior visions of rape, but finds no real meaning in it at all - none of the dreaded and craved rupture from the normal. Instead, he is left leering typically at his unknowing victim with the dull and possessive pride of knowing her body. No different from any other lecher.
Do rapists seek to divine meaning from their actions? Do rapists seek to destroy meaning? Is it about power? Is it about transformation? Rape accomplishes harm to its victims. Rape accomplishes the reinforcement of patriarchal power structures. It enacts no transformation. It is not an allegory. Tsuge's fantasy of rape can never be consummated. “A Summer Memory” realizes, at last, that rapists are not transformed by their rapes. Nobody leaves, nobody fades away. The daydream just ends.
What are women in Tsuge's gekiga?
Never subjects. Hardly objects. Often viewed with disgust or suspicion, contempt or confusion. They are the weight of the world. Ball and chain. And yet the facade of misogyny cracks and bursts. Tsuge’s women, his matrons, sex workers, wives and helpless victims, are undefined people, full of possibility. Their lives and emotions are inaccessible and threaten to unravel the masculine world known to Tsuge’s protagonists. Women hold the potential to unmake meaning and destroy fantasies. Tsuge’s rape victims contradict his rape fantasies.
Tsuge’s women are ugly. These are his words, not mine; Holmberg quotes a 1970 interview where Tsuge explains, “How I drew [middle-aged women] is meant to emphasize ugliness, actually. Ugliness makes me feel a kind of calmness. [...] I was aiming for ugliness more than eroticism. That’s why I drew them chunky and fleshy.” It is a misogynistic fondness for imperfection, one that documents fat, wrinkles, and any other feature a man might find off-putting in a woman. These are not dignified images, nor are they clinically matter-of-fact. They are horror shows playing to the shock and titillation of readers disgusted by the notion of women smelling or sagging. So, how is this calming? In the same passage, Tsuge likens the portrayals of women which he deems ugly to his landscapes: “Ugly things, like dilapidated houses, for example, make me feel calm.” This is crucial. Tsuge’s women, his rape victims, aren’t full people, but they are places: liminal and captivating. Like the inns, taverns, alleyways, dilapidated neighborhoods and red light districts which Tsuge’s travelers pass through, the Tsuge woman is grotesque, barren and threatening. To grasp her is to become entangled in the mysteries of her dismal place. And so Tsuge’s vagabonds can be nothing except rapists, taking what they will and vanishing without a word. Tsuge’s women are places. Worthless property. Real, interesting places.
“The Mokkiriya Tavern Girl” (1968) is one of Tsuge’s more subdued stories in the wake of “Nejishiki.” Its protagonist is a more innocent observer, a wide-eyed young man who takes an interest in Chiyoji, the mama-san of a local tavern. Unlike most of the women in this collection, she is drawn in a cute manner. She drinks and laughs to herself, babbles loudly about her frustrations, and drunkenly attempts to seduce her guest. “Who taught you to do that?” the young man asks. “Are you angry with me?” Chiyoji pouts, indignant. In the evening, the young man wakes from a drunken stupor to the sound of regulars at the tavern, urging Chiyoji to drink. The men grasp at her body, pawing at her bare skin, cheering her on. The young man watches through a crack in the door. She pulls away, sobbing. The men get her another round. The young man averts his gaze. When he leaves, he averts his eyes from Chiyoji, blushing sheepishly as the sounds of drunken cheers resound behind him. Chiyoji is suffering, she is beautiful, she is living, and she is undeniably fascinating. She is someone.
Who is the madam of the Gensenkan Inn? She is an ugly woman. She is a helpless woman. A spiritual woman who prays before bathing. A leering, vain woman, who paints herself and gazes at her own reflection. An aggressive, assertive matron. A rape victim. A wife who clings to her husband. She is someone who repels her aggressor, biting down on his arm and grinning at the blood on her mouth as he recoils. She is the woman reclining and waiting when he returns. This woman may be revolting to Tsuge, tantamount to an evil spirit. Speaking rarely of herself, she is the embodiment of the Gensenkan Inn, a remarkable femme fatale ensnaring a master into the depths of her abode. But she is a complex person, living with many contradictions and habits. Like we all do.
“Master of the Willow Inn” begins with the image of a young woman rendered with photographic naturalism, nude, in shadows, looking down and pointing to her thigh, drawing a map of Tokyo around her genitalia. The reader may notice that she is pretty, but she is not an attractive cartoon like Chiyoji from the Mokkiriya Tavern; rather, she is drawn with the same ugliness that Tsuge renders older women, like the madam of the Gensenkan Inn. Perhaps the realism of her likeness makes her a part of the scenery, an extension of the dilapidated room. Part of her face is often obscured, covered by shadows or by her hair. Gradually, she turns further and further away while obscurely referencing a trauma she will not name. “I screwed up...” she says, turning her back, her form swallowed into a deeper darkness. Tsuge’s rapist protagonist cannot understand the pain of this sex worker: “...it’s not like anyone forced you to work here.” They are both in darkness, but the young woman disappears from the story, along with her visage, her interiority is abandoned save its haunted memory. Tsuge the author turns away from her as well. To what horrors do her words allude? Are her words horror? Justification? Performance? She turns away from our sight, from interrogation, from comprehension, access. Maybe she is crying. Maybe she is catatonic. Maybe she is stifling laughter.
New possibilities open. The self-declared master of the Willow Inn may not be so masterful. "My mind raced with wild fantasies," he relates at night in the Willow Inn, recalling the madam's "provocative pose." In the misogynist space of the aroused tenant's fantasy, the madam coaxes him, coerces him to expose himself to her, like the sex worker he visited exposed herself to him. The madam is aggressive, leering at him and smirking after the act, asking "Now what're we supposed to do?" - as a rapist might blame a victim for setting him off. Perhaps this is Tsuge's perspective: this tough, domineering woman may be the double of the Gensenkan Inn's madam, a yōkai, a temptress, an ugly woman exercising obscene powers to ensnare men. She is a masculine woman in the sense that she is both strong and revolting. And yet the young man, at once her assailant and her mark, is obscenely feminine, degrading himself through his own erotic performance. These scenes are indeed wild fantasies. As in "A Dream Stroll," it's a misogynist’s reverie from which the drifting tenant cannot bring himself out as he imagines his life fading like a photograph into the wedlock he never consummated. Why didn't the madam remember him years later? Was it because his violence wasn't special? Did it even play out as he remembers? Did it happen at all? And really, do we actually believe she forgot him? Perhaps a working woman does not owe a client remembrance. Forgetting might be part of her profession.
I began this essay with a reading of “Nejishiki.” I described the violent sexual climax of the work as rape, but I was equivocal. It is an ambiguous encounter. It is literally hidden from sight under the raucous movement of sheets and bedding. If a reader is to give credence to a biographical allegory, this scene is not likely to be a rape. It’s a scene of paying for sex, likely inspired by Tsuge’s own memories of visiting a red light district as a young man (Holmberg’s essay delves into this at length). The gynecologist is a professional woman in that way. She is in a realm of women, and of maturity. The man enters, she does her work, and he is repaired. Revulsion is palpable throughout. She is a transgression to enter. A client is not permitted to know how she feels. Perhaps it is dreadful to imagine how she suffers, or to notice her disinterest. Perhaps it is equally dreadful to imagine her taking pride in her labor. Her client has the air of a conqueror to him, but it is impossible to know from the work's perspective if she is so much a victim. Her perspective is a vortex of uncertainty that, were it possible to understand, could radically rewrite the entire work.
The most victimized, least human women in Tsuge’s stories, are depersonalized but never bereft of particularity. Sometimes it comes down to detail, to gesture. The face of the mother in “A Dream Stoll” is obscured beneath an umbrella up until the moment of her rape, and again after. Tsuge never draws her eyes. The proverbial window of her soul is shut. But the three awful panels of her violation, she can be seen just a little. Her hair, groomed with care but fraying in the heat of the day and the labor of her walk. Her physique, matronly, the sturdy weight of someone who works to care for others, not often for herself. Her face, or what we see of it, in one panel, flushed, gasping, in horror and resistance, but also exhaustion. She was already tired, now she is caught in a shocking, sudden struggle. For that moment her pain is visible. It lives outside that moment.
The wife in “A Summer Memory” is the fullest woman in these stories, anticipating the tough women in The Man Without Talent, ever conscious of the responsibilities that their men shirk and unafraid to protest their negligence. She smokes and loiters like her husband, when she can - her eyes sharing the tired, beleaguered creases which mark his. Sitting with her husband, she discusses local gossip, critiques his art, nags him. She isn’t a voice of reason or a foil to his existence: her very way of being contradicts her husband’s barely concealed anxieties. The victim in “A Summer Memory,” however, hides beneath an umbrella just like the victim in “A Dream Stroll.” At the sight of her, the protagonist recalls her crotch, his hand on it. Her life is outside the story and he cannot see any of it outside of the body which he felt. She is as invisible to him as the spouse he ignores. These are in fact, stories about women. However, they are written from the perspective of men who do not understand them and do not care to. Stories about rape told through the eyes of rapists.
Earlier I compared “A Dream Stroll” to a comic by Seiichi Hayashi. Like Tsuge in this period, Hayashi’s gekiga is often preoccupied with sexual violence in general and mistreatment of women in particular. Hayashi is far kinder to women in his stories, nearly feminist in the respect his portrayals offer. In works like “Flowering Harbour” (1969), it is hard not to see the respect Hayashi feels for the sadness and resilience of his suffering women. But Hayashi’s women are always sad, and they are always beautiful. His women are waifs. They shed single tears. Their grief is aesthetic; it recalls cultural iconography from ukiyo-e down to enka ballads. When heroine Sachiko curls into herself up in the closing pages of Hayashi's 1970-71 serial Red Colored Elegy, we know that she is crying, we know that she’s sad - she’s sad because she’s poor and her relationship with her boyfriend is deteriorating. Hayashi’s tragic women are a fetish as well. They are gorgeous, miserable - easy to understand, to pity. Hayashi's aesthetic, of slender frames and negative spaces, is undoubtedly erotic, enamored with tragedy. Tsuge’s women aren’t nearly so accessible. They are vividly confusing. They are ugly.
Yoshiharu Tsuge is an artist whose comics often reflect a deep and complex hatred for women, and the stories collected in Nejishiki explore a fascination with rape. Refusing to engage with this facet of his art is a refusal to engage with his art at all. In these stories, men seek oblivion, placelessness, meaning and meaningless existence, through the sexual assault of women. But women are (in) places, context, society. The power of the rape fantasy persists, but the world unmakes it. The arm may be repaired in "Nejishiki," but it goes numb so easily. Rape will not transform a man, it will not explain the condition of women to a man. It does not tear men away from their homes, nor can it make a home. Rape is not an escape from modernity. Tsuge knows this, yet he cannot stop dreaming of escape. Tsuge’s vagabond rapists push forward into contradictory fantasies and frustrations, famished with no possibility of fulfillment, because no woman can ever be a perfect victim.
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- In The Sky Is Blue With a Single Cloud (Drawn & Quarterly, 2020), a collection of works by Kuniko Tsurita (1947-1985), Holmberg and Mitsuhiro Asakawa note that Tsurita worked at Mizuki Production for no more than one month - time enough nonetheless to prompt Mizuki to expound upon her body in a 1985 memorial essay: "She was a diligent worker, but wore these short skirts that made her smooth legs visible for anyone to see. I feel like Tsuge was always staring at her legs, too." The authors further observe that Mizuki Pro was often animated with discussion of strip clubs and sex workers, concluding "it is easy to imagine that the environment was less than ideal" for Tsurita.