Red Flowers. Sayako Kikuchi is lying in the shade of her tea shop. It is a warm summer day and far too hot to count the meager takings from the morning. There is the sound of cicadas in the background and we gaze up at this incessant activity with the girl. The tree before us is as firm and immovable as nature itself. The tea shop is cradled in its grasp, nestling in a womb-like clearing with tendrils and fruit running through its thatched roof.

The girl is drowsy…

…audacious in her business dealings…

…attentive to her customers…

 

…indifferent to her classmate’s (Masaji) playfulness…

….and surprised by his care and attention.

She is perhaps 12 or 13. Her classmate, two years younger. Each moment is described with a restrained elegance: her body leans forward intrusively as she accosts the passer-by; her eyes cast downwards in a slight frown as she describes Masaji; and she unobtrusively waves a small fan as she converses with her customer.

These moments of interaction are punctuated by the silent, entwining forest. The girl, her face turned away from us, is seen rushing through these woods, the branches like arteries and veins enfolding her as she sets about her work.

The Sound of the Mountain. The insects are also “screeching” at Shingo’s rural retreat in Yasunari Kawabata’s famous novel, The Sound of the Mountain.  There are “locusts on the trunk of the cherry tree…He had not known that locusts could make such a rasping sound.”

Shingo is old and beginning to forget, just as Sayoko Kikuchi is about to remember that which he is forgetting. His wife’s beautiful sister, an unattainable and long dead first love, is transfigured in his daughter-in-law, Kikuko, a young woman with whom he has an inexplicable bond. They dote on each other with the shyness of a new couple, an affection altogether absent between Shingo and his wife. It is a forbidden love which is never realized except in his subconscious. The very idea repulses him as it would the young couple of Tsuge’s tale.

Shingo’s path through the story is littered with failure and regret. The garden attached to his house has partaken of his melancholy and is a surrounded by a variety of trees: a great gingko still sending out buds despite its age and also a cherry tree, weak and drooping after a storm.  Broken amaranth blossoms lie in the street outside his house, the petals withered, “the stems dried and turned dirty and gray. Shingo had to step over them on his way to and from work. He did not like to look at them.”

It is autumn when Kawabata’s novel begins and it is autumn again when it closes (a death forestalled), the memories as relived through Kikuko still visible and palpable even as the novel draws to a close:

“There was an indescribable freshness about the line from her jaw to her throat. It was not the product of a single generation, thought Shingo, somehow saddened….That line from jaw to throat spoke first of maidenly freshness. It was beginning to swell a little, however, and that maidenliness would soon disappear.”

Time has been kind to Shingo as have the seasons. Both have stood still within the boundaries of Kawabata’s book. A series of minor disasters (his son’s affair, Kikuko’s abortion, an illegitimate child) have been rectified by the vagaries of fate. Still, it is August, the “autumn insects” have begun to sing and he is already starting to forget.

In these stories, Tsuge and Kawabata reveal a nostalgia for a vanishing era and its associated values. Senility, death and the modern world wreak havoc on Kawabata’s women even at their most idealized. That chimeric and flawless past never to be recaptured in Shingo’s deteriorating memories.

Those bygone times are distant, secluded and preserved in Tsuge’s comic. His heroine’s kimono and domesticity in sharp contrast to her strangely modern visitor; her innocence, strength and grace untarnished by contemporary life. The pace of living is slow and measured, the sound of the forest ever present and attended to by its single resident. Sayako is always seen amidst this lushness, color and overflowing abundance. Tsuge is utterly convinced of the value and nobility of her life, that it can and should exist together with the overwhelming changes of modernity.

Her classmate, Masaji, stands apart from this world in the middle of a crop of gnarly branches, raw and naive as those naked shoots in his lack of awareness.

The old army cap he wears originates from some buried history, its significance set aside, forgotten or disremembered in this pastoral landscape.

Having guided the traveler to a suitable fishing spot (a gourd-shaped stretch of water), Masaji leaves him in search of Sayako, finding her at the edge of the river at her toilet. Her face is once again turned away from us as it once was when she skirted the forest collecting water. The red flowers of her menstrual discharge fill the young boy’s eyes like a vision, a blossom hitherto unnoticed, now barely grasped by his awakened mind.

Soon she is resting in the shade of the tea house, just as she was when we first saw her at the start of Tsuge’s tale; now in more quiet repose under her classmate’s attentive gaze.

Wonderment and responsibility have begun to replace the frivolity of Masaji’s childhood. He tells her to close up the shop and go home and she agrees. The last we see of them is a mingled silhouette in the distance as Masaji carries his friend home. It is not merely Sayako who he carries on his back and urges into a fitful sleep towards the close of this short story but the entire weight of her world; a beautiful, painful and expiring dream.


 

More on Yoshiharu Tsuge

Domingos on Yoshiharu Tsuge

Gilles Laborderie on Tsuge’s Munô no Hito

Beatrice Marechal on Tsuge’s oeuvre (from The Comics Journal 2005 Special Edition)

Matthias Wivel on Tsuge’s translated works

A review of Tsuge’s Numa at Dusty Recollections

A short note on an old issue. The only English version of “Red Flowers” is an object lesson in why manga should not be flipped. The first example in particular demonstrates how Tsuge’s page composition and the flow between panels have been totally compromised. Original layouts are from a Chinese version of Tsuge’s comic.

Example 1

Page 2 top tier, read from right to left (original)

Page 2 top tier, read from left to right (flipped; from Raw Vol. 1 #7)

Example 2

Page 2 bottom tier, read from right to left (original)

Page 2 bottom tier, read left to right (flipped; from Raw Vol. 1 #7)

Example 3

Page 5 read from right to left (original)

Page 5 read left to right (flipped; from Raw Vol. 1 #7)

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