Trash Market reads like a sudden spotlight in a dark basement: Tadao Tsuge’s lurching manga stories illuminate the dregs of post-war Japan with characters haunted by their inability to adapt socially and financially to the world around them. In “Song of Showa,” we watch as a poor family, whose sole possession is each other’s company, pushes their loved ones away. In “Trash Market,” alcoholics and drug addicts queue to sell blood to financially support their vices. A faction of political insurgents plots a coup in “A Tale of Absolute and Utter Nonsense.” Illustrated with grotesque character renderings and sparse, surreal background scenes, Tadao Tsuge deftly renders Japan’s unseen and unheard populace with a compelling and disturbingly readable voice. He transposes the ugly world around him into something not necessarily beautiful, but full of life nonetheless.
Editor Ryan Holmberg has worked with a number of contemporary publishers (Picturebox, Breakdown Press, Drawn & Quarterly) to reprint important manga from the 60s and 70s and save them from obscurity. Each of Holmberg’s previous publications hold a weight of editorial, historical significance, but Trash Market is different: it is not a trailblazing, genre-defining body of work, but instead representative of a rarely-rendered dark corner of Japan. It is more culturally curious than artistically important, non-essential but still deserving of a rapturous read.
Just as the stories in Trash Market come from Tsuge’s well-tuned ear turned to the lives around him, the methods he uses to tell these stories come from a similar observational standpoint. Tadao Tsuge is well-read and an erudite patron of the blossoming artistic outlets of midcentury Japan. The stories in Trash Market all appeared in Garo Magazine in the late 60s and early 70s and were clearly influenced by the early output of cinematic, dark manga shorts that defined the magazine in its genesis. Further, Tsuge is just as influenced by literature and film: one can see traces of Kobo Abe (and the films of Hiroshi Teshigahara), Shintaro Ishihara and other Akutagawa prizewinners in his prose. Tsuge’s authorship is further discussed in Holmberg’s outstanding closing essay, where he explains the work “Up on The Hilltop, Vincent Van Gogh…” was originally a short story that Tsuge converted to a comic at the request of the editor of Garo. Hearing this is not particularly surprising after reading pieces like “A Tale of Absolute and Utter Nonsense,” which feels more like an illustrated one-act play than it does a comic strip. These are refined, literary works by an author immersed in the arts.
Each of the six stories in Trash Market are memorable in the glory of their emotional deformity, but “Manhunt” (first published in 1969) stands out by way of its unique narrative. Two journalists interview a man who is the subject of a missing-persons series they had previously featured in a magazine. Curiously, their subject has casually reappeared, and the interviewers sit with him, confounded, trying to figure out why he had previously vanished. The journalists explain the painstaking lengths of their research and try to confirm the sordid, scandalous details of what they think had happened, but the man is confused. The truth, to him, is far more meaningless, absent of any story or intrigue. “Are you sure about all this?” He asks with a mouth-breathing, blank stare. “It’s not what I remember.” He looks, as he tries to discount the interviewers’ sensational claims, like the least remarkable man that ever existed. “Manhunt” positions readers for all of Trash Market in curious proximity to the two journalists: we came for the story but instead found something simpler and sadder, something uncomfortably human.