Literary manga ‘The Man Without Talent’ speaks volumes in hermetic angst

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A crane framed by a moonlit windowsill. A family hike, and the arguments and nihilism that ensue. A poet dissolving into the mist. These are some of the moments that make up “The Man Without Talent,” a compelling work from one of Japan’s masters of literary manga, Yoshiharu Tsuge. With the release of “The Swamp” last year, and “The Man Without Talent” in January (both translated by Ryan Holmberg), Tsuge is finally coming alive for English readers. “The Man Without Talent” explores the daily life, meditations, and human interactions of Tsuge’s cartoon stand-in, Sukezo Sukegawa, as he attempts to support his family through selling stones, fixing up broken cameras, and any other endeavor that seems destined to fail.

The real merit of the work comes from its breadth: While the focus remains trained on Sukezo, images, stories, and mythologies float in and out of the background: the wonder of beautiful stones, bird-whisperers in the forest. It is a thoughtful work enveloped in the authenticity and crudeness of its self-centered protagonist, broken down by the cruelty of modern life and the inability of Sukezo, or rather Tsuge, to connect with others.

Tsuge is nothing short of one of Japan’s most important manga artists. His unequivocal influence on manga begins with his use of mature themes in a comic format and his integration of autobiographical material and extends to his blend of the fantastic and surreal with meditations on traditional Japanese culture and customs. He has had a pronounced impact on generations of artists and writers, from seasoned horror master Hideshi Hino to contemporary author Hiromi Kawakami.

“The amount of writing about Tsuge is probably second only to (“Astro Boy” creator) Osamu Tezuka,” says Holmberg. “I think Tsuge’s mastery and influence will naturally dawn on English-language manga readers.” While Tsuge’s early work from the mid-1960s was compiled in “The Swamp,” “The Man Without Talent” was published during the late 1980s. It became immensely popular and was even adapted into a film in 1991.

Today, the book serves as a prime example of the I-novel — a Japanese literary genre that is characterized by an autobiographical narrative — done in manga form. Author Osamu Dazai is another champion of the I-novel, and in some ways, “The Man Without Talent” is reminiscent of Dazai’s novel, “No Longer Human.” Both works draw out the self-pity, misery, and narcissism of a philosophical deadbeat — a man both pathetic and admirable, as easy to loathe as he is easy to empathize with. “If you’re puzzled about how a deadbeat like Sukezo could be considered a sage, consider the times,” writes Holmberg in the foreword. “By the time ‘The Man Without Talent’ was turned into a movie, fissures in Japan’s real estate and stock market bubbles were the stuff of daily headlines. Being munо̄ (talentless) became seen as not helpless and shameful, but an affirmative way of life-based on using your skills in ways other than what society deems proper.”

Sukezo’s incompetence is astonishing. He insists on selling stones despite never getting even a single customer. He neglects his child. But this man without talent escapes drowning in self-pity. Suazo encounters the world around him with a philosophical flair, so his idleness (and perceptiveness) points the reader’s attention to the manga’s arguably more compelling vignettes and moments. Another obvious highlight of the book is Tsuge’s art. He uses cinematic angles and composed frames, cloaking characters in light and shadow. He depicts sunlight, wind, dirt, and rain with sensitivity and alertness. The last chapter of the manga explores the life of a poet named Seigetsu Inoue and features some truly beautiful and creative pages.

According to Holmberg, Tsuge’s comics and his accompanying real-life habit of shutting himself off from the world represented an ideal of masculine Hermitude to many critics in the 1970s and ’80s. Separating himself from family concerns and the burdens of a capitalist society was seen as a noble pursuit. “But the small nuclear family, regardless of its internal aggravations, is ultimately a ballast and refuge for Tsuge,” says Holmberg. Suazo is flawed but real, and that’s precisely why the angst makes for a compelling story.

Tsuge has received buzz in Japan and internationally in the past few years. Last February, Tsuge received an honorary award at the Angouleme International Comics Festival in France, the biggest manga festival in Europe. A few months later, major publishing firm Kodansha released a complete collection of his works in Japanese. After years of attempting to license Tsuge’s work in English, overseas publishers have only recently succeeded.

Tsuge is now 83 years old and long-retired, but his work has a cache, unlike others. As a Kodansha comics official told the Asahi Shimbun last year: “Tsuge’s way of life and his very existence is considered legendary.” While the self-pitying nature of the I-novel genre can feel off-putting at times, Tsuge’s thoughtfulness and attention to detail make “The Man Without Talent” a captivating read. It also speaks to a wider world of literary manga that remains underappreciated in English — and that we will hopefully see continue to be opened up in the coming years.

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