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by Rebecca Silverman,

The Swamp


The Swamp GN
Ordinary people struggle with ideas of destiny and meaning in this collection of short stories from the early days of Garo by Yoshiharu Tsuge, all dating to the mid-1960s when he was actively developing his avant-garde and surrealist style of storytelling.

Although mangaka Yoshiharu Tsuge is considered one of the great creators to have come out of the mid-twentieth century, translations of his works have been few and far between. Previous to this, the first of a projected seven volumes collecting short stories, his most recent English-translated work was in the early 2000s. Since it is emphatically not for everyone, that does make at least some sense, but for readers who are interested in the history of manga as a medium and more adult fare, it's something of a tragedy. Fortunately, those readers can now experience roughly 200 pages of Tsuge's work from the mid-1960s, when he was one of the magazine's early contributors.

The pieces in this collection are divided between contemporarily set stories and the more popular (at the time) historical fiction, and those latter inevitably feature samurai in one form or another. Of these, the most interesting are “Destiny,” “The Phony Warrior,” and “The Ninjess,” all of which play with ideas of what it means to be true to who you are. This is most explicitly spelled out in “The Phony Warrior,” the opening story in the book. This tale is set at a small hot springs inn where a samurai is relaxing when he is asked to share his room. His new roommate appears to be none other than Musashi Miyamoto, and he swiftly spreads the word around the inn. When he overhears a transaction between the supposed great swordsman and the innkeeper, however, he realizes that he's been duped, and that “Musashi” is simply a conman – but, as the conmen tells him, one who “as himself is the real thing.” While this may sound like nonsense, or at least the justifications of a man who makes his living by lying, it sticks with the narrator of the tale and he comes to wonder what the words really mean. Tsuge doesn't deign to explain them to us, but the thought of what it means to be truly yourself seems to be what he wants us to take from the work, even if it means owning that “who you really are” is someone who might be looked down on by others.

In some ways, this idea is also present in “The Ninjess,” about a daimyo who lives in fear of being assassinated and the female ninja he captures and forces to be his concubine. Like those who are preyed upon by the false Musashi, the daimyo is more concerned with what's going on in the moment, although he also gives in to his paranoia on occasion. But ultimately his pleasure in having captured a would-be assassin and “taming” her to be his woman override everything else, which allows the woman to eventually take advantage of his egotism. As with “The Phony Warrior,” the story explores the idea of people seeing others only as they want to see them, sometimes to their own detriment.

The theme of seeing things as you wish to is a key component of “An Unusual Painting,” which follows a man who finds a picture scroll and tries to understand what it is an image of. Everyone who encounters the scroll sees something different, but the initial man thinks it's a map and he follows it as such until he does eventually find the scroll's artist. The artist says that he himself doesn't understand what it's a picture of, but he enjoys hearing what others see in it, and in a much more lighthearted story than any of the others in the book, the two men form a friendship based on the “map” that led one to the other. It's a joyous story of seeing the world as you choose and finding delight in what it shows you and can also be read as a deconstruction of “art for art's sake” in that it simply encourages the reader to take what they themselves see in any given work and to find happiness in that. “The Secondhand Book” shares a little of this in that both stories involve someone seeking to return something they found, but where “An Unusual Painting” is about finding what you want to, “The Secondhand Book” is more about honesty rewarded when the child protagonist learns the truth about the thousand yen note he found in a secondhand book he'd been coveting.

Tsuge's art in the volume is interesting, as it shows signs of many of his influences, including GeGeGe no Kitarō creator Shigeru Mizuki, with whom Tsuge worked for a time. The essay in the back of the book by alternative manga authority Mitsuhiro Asakawa, notes that Tsuge often borrowed whole page set ups from works he admired, and while we today might scent a whiff of plagiarism, Asakawa mentions that most of the other artists were flattered that Tsuge liked their work so much. His borrowing does lend different tones to his art throughout the book, which is interesting; although his basic panel structures are roughly the same throughout, we can still see the influence of other creators – for example, “Mushroom Hunting” has a very Mizuki feel.

Readers who are just looking for pure entertainment in their manga may have a difficult time getting into this book, but if you're a fan of older works or Garo in general The Swamp is more than worth picking up. It's a fascinating collection of short stories by a creator who has definitely not passed his sell-by date.

Overall : A-
Story : A-
Art : B+

+ Interesting collection of works and compilation of themes. Essay in the back is worthwhile.
Limited mainstream appeal, the derivative artistic elements won't work for all readers.

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Production Info:
Story & Art: Yoshiharu Tsuge
Licensed by: Drawn & Quarterly

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