Of the many classic gekiga (reality-based) manga that Drawn & Quarterly has reprinted, Tadao Tsuge's collection Trash Market is easily my favorite. Reprinting stories from the late sixties, I was astonished to see how sophisticated, bleak and emotionally devastating these stories were. Originally printed in the famous anthology publication Garo, Tsuge's stories capture the Japanese zeitgeist so accurately in part because they're partly based on his own experiences. These comics are very American-looking in the way they emphasize facial expressions over backgrounds and rarely rely on the sort of exaggeration one expects from manga of this era. The stories have much more in common with filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa than cartoonists like Osamu Tezuka. The grittiness and lack of sentimentality that pervade these comics seems to be a direct response to the realism of cinema as well as a commentary on the malaise and trauma of everyday life in a postwar Japan that had not yet cycled into an economic boom.
"Up On The Hilltop, Vincent Van Gogh" is about a young student of painting obsessed with Van Gogh, and his rabble-rousing best friend who's been involved in protests against the government and the police. The nature of their argument is still astoundingly on-point even today, as the reader is treated to Tsuge's interpretation of Van Gogh (excellent) while still drawing loose and expressive characters. "Song Of Showa" is a brutal story of a young boy abused by both his father and grandfather, who are themselves victims of trauma. It's a cyclical story that has no happy ending, just an escape from abuse into squalor. "Manhunt" is about a married man with a comfortable job simply up and leaving one day and going missing. A couple of journalists try to put his story together in an interview with him after he's found, but a variety of contradictions and what may be outright lies cloud the issue, along with their attempt to put him into neat and easily identified psychological categories. This is one of the more uniquely Japanese of stories, reporting on what feels like a plausible phenomenon.
"Gently Goes The Night" is about yet another company man who's been in the war, only his post-traumatic stress syndrome is slowly driving him into insanity. So much so that he turns a vacation into being fired and takes out his general frustrations on a young woman who was being friendly to him, resulting in a grim and unpleasant ending. "A Tale Of Absolute And Utter Nonsense"is another story about revolution, this time from a near nihilist/anarchist point of view, as gangs of young men combine to attack the palace and police. It ends as one would expect, where the simple gesture of rebellion is more important than any actual chance of succeeding at it. His character design is superb here, with the sunglasses-wearing leader representing the apotheosis of cool and the younger rebel taking up arms at the last minute. Finally, "Trash Market" is about a group of young men waiting their turn to donate blood in exchange for money--many of them doing so more often than they should. The hot day in this story (and in many of the others) is given such a visceral feel by Tsuge that one can feel the discomfort and tension among the characters. This is the only story with something resembling a happy ending: a rainstorm that breaks the heat and the tension.
In the excellent accompanying material, editor and translator Ryan Holmberg talks about how Tsuge puts down his own drawing. I would argue instead that his lack of artifice puts the focus on character interaction, body language and emotion rather than plot or action. This may well have been highly unusual for the time, but this is what makes up alternative comics as we understand them now. Tsuge's work feels remarkably contemporary and fresh, even as it chronicles a particular time and place. The specificity of the references gives the individual stories power and also binds together each of the otherwise disparate short stories. They're all about people living and struggling in the poorer sections of Tokyo or else cracking up from the trauma of the war. They are people whose stories would otherwise go untold. There is a sense of authenticity on every page, even as Tsuge keeps the art loose. This is a book that should be studied by younger artists.