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Fumbling around on the internet recently, I came across some scans of Yoshiharu Tsuge’s 1968 story “Nejishiki” (translated in the Comics Journal 250 as “Screw-Style”). I have a great fondness for the short story form in comics, and I love seeing anything translated from the Japanese avant garde comics magazine Garo, so I thought I’d highlight the story’s existence here. (A quick note, though, to point out that, unlike the other two Tsuge stories published in English, this one is still in print. So you should probably buy that thick and lovely issue of the Comics Journal, even if only to direct some money toward the folks who went to the trouble of importing the story in the first place.)

We have so few western authorities on manga, god bless ’em, that they can only begin to map out the traditions and history of Japanese comics for us; thankfully, “Nejishiki” is one of the landmarks they’ve flagged. The June 1968 issue of Garo, they tell us, was given over entirely to Yoshiharu Tsuge. Here, among essays by critics focusing on his work, the 30 year old Tsuge published “Nejishiki” for the first time. Since 1965 or ’66, Garo had acted as Tsuge’s patron, providing him with a showcase that had been lacking since the collapse of Japan’s pay-library market for comics earlier in the decade. Some of his first publications in Garo had already caused a stir: the non-ending and sexual underpinnings of “Numa” (“Marsh,” download .zip file here) had scandalised readers and galvanised critics, while the veiled autobiography of the following month’s “Chîko” (“Chirpy,” .zip here) marked the beginning of what would come to be known as watakushi-manga (Mitsuhiro Asakawa’s term), or I-comics (Béatrice Maréchal’s). With “Nejishiki” Tsuge would go one further and innovate a sub-genre within I-comics: the dream comic.

A nap on his building’s rooftop left Tsuge with the inspiration for “Nejishiki,” which retains the vivid imagery and narrative logic of a dream. The protagonist—an ugly, shirtless young man—emerges nonplussed from the sea, having been bitten by a jellyfish. A bomber hovers overhead, silhouetted against a stormy sky, summoning an air of vague but imminent danger that looms throughout the following pages. As he searches for a doctor to tend to his wound—a lacerated vein, snaking out of his arm—a series of curiously uncaring characters stall his journey. Inhospitable villagers, chief among whom is an imposing managerial type holding a wrench, avoid the young man’s questions and browbeat him before he decides to look elsewhere for help. Next a masked child offers him a ride in a locomotive, only to return him to the same village he’d just left, where he comes across an old merchant woman who is either a thief or his mother. Finally, he finds a doctor who performs an aggressive kind of surgery/intercourse in order to install a “screw” in the young man’s arm. The story ends with the character back at sea, this time speeding along in a boat, telling us his arm goes numb when he tightens the screw. A chaotic wake trails out behind him, the troubled waters taking up most of the page.

It’s a skeletal, nonsensical plot, but it’s conveyed with great immediacy and moment. Each panel moves to the next with supreme assurance, even though everything changes between them with bewildering abruptness. In one panel the main character may be writhing in agony at the feet of a marching band, while in the next he’s calmly framed against a turbulent sky. Or he may swing from indignation to despair to resignation over the course of a few panels. And in one disconcerting sequence his figure, a blobby pool of ink, grows to the size of a giant, overtaking the nondescript village below him. “Compared to that, death is nothing,” he says. “It’s nothing at all.”

Location, mood, perspective—every aspect of the story shifts and swaps around, with the questing main character the only constant. Even him, though, Tsuge molds and manipulates without clear intent. Now the character is a long-eyelashed nostalgic, now a leering predator, now a stippled and out-of-proportion primitive, and now quite simply a nothing. Tsuge accomplishes these transformations by drawing in an array of styles, embellishing backgrounds or dropping them altogether, taking up and discarding hatching and detail as he sees fit, and presenting figures as silhouettes, or mere line drawings, or monstrous accumulations of marks.

This distinctive approach to every panel—changing style, tone, focus—sets each apart from the other, forcing them to register as iconic, at the least, if not totemic. It’s almost as though they referred back to whole religions, entire systems of images with their own internal logic: the wounded figure arising from the water, the field of shirts hung fluttering on posts, the unwelcoming village streets, the gutted office, the imposing industrial site, the lonely train tracks flanked by strangely blank signs. The emptied, enigmatic locales of these images seem like they’re waiting for something to happen in them, though the character only ever passes through them, never staying, never acting.

It’s only in the climactic pages that events of any consequence transpire. In the comic’s lengthiest, most primal, and most stylistically consistent scene, the main character finally discovers a doctor, a woman gynecologist, seated by a window that overlooks a far-off Japanese warship engaged in naval battle. She tries to turn him away, but when he assaults her—and I think that’s pain on her face—she quickly becomes the aggressor—and could that really be a look of pleasure? Here, by conflating matters of individual and public importance—personal injury, sexual unease, large-scale warfare—Tsuge suggests the difficulty of healing or at least patching over our originary traumas.

But even now I’m missing much of what makes “Nejishiki” work: it’s a surprisingly inexhaustible story. I didn’t want to put too much burden on it at the beginning of this post, but it’s probably apparent that I do think of “Nejishiki” as one of the all-time short comics, and Tsuge as one of our finest living cartoonists. Now if only he’d allow more of his work to be translated…

* * *

These scans below are here because they’re so great; they’re not actually from “Nejishiki.”

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