“Not always easy to swallow” – Slum Wolf by Tadao Tsuge

“…the neighbourhood in Tokyo where I grew up, I would say that it was a red-light district and a plywood market and a town of hoodlums in one.”

So wrote Tadao Tsuge, one of the pioneers of alternative manga, for Even Flowers and Storms, a nostalgic youth-culture magazine that ran throughout the 1990s. Comics historian Ryan Holmberg has taken a number of strips Tsuge wrote in the 60s and 70s and has had them translated into English for the first time – and those strips are rooted in the place where Tsuge’s artistic expression was forged.

What we have here are graphic short stories, to all intents and purposes, in the kind of black and white art that will be familiar to fans of authors as diverse as Jason Lutes and Chris Reynolds. According to Holmberg, Tsuge fashioned

“a gritty fantasy world out of post-surrender retrospection, filling his story vignettes with landscapes and characters derived from the war’s ruins and the black market and the slums that flourished around them.”

You push through these pages looking for “something like, but never quite, a story.” It’s good to have this in mind before you start the stories themselves, which can be strange, oblique, mysterious and, occasionally, baffling. There is an antidote to the mystery, though, and that is just to go with the proverbial flow.

These stories, with their recurrent gangsters and their wandering fugitives, function much like lesser Kurosawa (think The Lower Depths or Drunken Angel), narratively loose but with arresting imagery. There are street fights, long drunken nights, odd architectural intrusions (“a merciless landscape of burned ruins”), stories that close without anything as obvious as an actual ending. Like Kurosawa, Tsuge seems influenced by Dostoyevsky (he’s drawn to gamblers, and the gamblers cut quite the figure, as in the story called ‘Wandering Wolf: The Bloodspattered Code of Honor and Humanity’, which focuses on a man whose “strange reactions left (others) speechless.” He befriends a woman who runs a bar on the edge of town and you wonder if conventions might, for once, be satisfied in the form of a fledgling romance – but no.)

The latter third of the book – loosely bunched under the title of ‘Vagabond Plain’ – achieves a level of straightforwardness not seen elsewhere (which may have prompted Teruo Ishii to turn it into a film), as we see a community sprout up around the abandoned mushroom house of someone who loitered briefly on a burnt plain before disappearing. As in the aforementioned Lower Depths, you follow a group of semi-bohemian sorts as they attempt to live (struggling for food, struggling with sleep, struggling with each other), the weight of history bearing down on them, long-borne grudges coming to nothing.

All told, Slum Wolf is strange and unfamiliar and not always easy to swallow. It’s at its best when the strangeness stands out stark on the page (as the strangeness of Chris Reynolds’ best work does) or when Tsuge’s characters are swaggering like Mike Mignola’s Hellboy, duking it out for supremacy with a world that is inherently disinterested.

Any Cop?: It’s the kind of book designed to pique your interest, to introduce you to Tsuge if you’ve not dabbled before, and it isn’t always successful (there are times when not only is the past a different country, it’s a country you can no longer travel to because all of the roads have been blocked).

 

 

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