Rokunomiya Himeko no Higeki: Kuniko Tsurita

 Things I learned while looking for a link where you could maybe buy this long out of print book (I did find one; click on the cover image!): Kuniko Tsurita is a woman. She worked as Shigeru Mizuki’s assistant for a month and then she quit. This is the only collection of stories published while she was alive, unless you count a special edition of Garo. She was my age when she died. (And if you can read Japanese, I’ve just told you how old I am! I have failed as a coquette!) For some reason all of these little tidbits of information surprised me, but what surprised me the most was that she was a she.

I guess I should’ve realized. The “ko” tacked on the end of a name is a dead giveaway, but the style of the book made me think male artist. And now I am stuck trying to figure out what it is about Tsurita’s style that made me think “man”. Over half of the stories feature a male protagonist, so that’s definitely something, and she has a loose seventies vibe to her linework at times that feels masculine in that sleazy club way. But probably? It’s because this book was published in 1979, collecting stories from as early as 1966. Indie comics from the sixties and seventies written by women usually do not end up in my hands. 

Maybe that tide is turning? After all, Rokunomiya falls into my lap only weeks after I read Fumiko Okada’s mostly wonderful Hon no Sukoshi no Mizu. Funnily enough, like Hon no Sukoshi, Rokunomiya was pretty strong until the last long-winded pages of rambling boringness. Seriously, the last fifty or so pages are taken up with a story featuring some university guys during the student protest days. Or so I’m assuming from the fact that there were demonstrations everywhere, no classes at the university itself, and classes for dedicated students held at cafes around town. You’d think that this would make a good story since wow, that was a really interesting time in Japan. Lots of action!

Or: lots of longwinded pontificating about the meaning of life from generally shiftless asshats. And then there’s a big earthquake that destroys society! The overall tone actually made me think of United Red Army, a film about the student movement of the time, culminating in a hostage standoff. Hostage standoff! There was shooting! Two cops were killed! But before that, two long, long hours of comrades in dank rooms offering up self-criticism about how they have failed the movement and how they will work to be better comrades going forward. Don’t go see it.

And don’t read “Karera” (The Guys), the last story in this otherwise entertaining collection. Unless you want to see portentous doorways juxtaposed with the philosophical pronouncements of a university student who thinks he’s deep. But read the other stories. They are fun and interesting, with elements of magic realism and surrealism. Like “Oto” (Sound), in which the protagonist awakes to find he is gone. He notices this when he goes to brush his teeth and when he returns to the main room, there is some other guy taking over. The new guy points out that our hero is nothing but a voice and if he stops talking, then he’s nothing at all. Which understandably freaks our hero out, so he keeps talking and talking and talking. And then one day he gets tired of talking. “From that moment when I fell silent, I stopped existing.” The end!

Another story I really liked was the wordless “Onna” (Woman). We follow a young cavewoman from her abandonment by the man who knocked her up until her death in a desert. A story with no text really needs strong art and Tsurita brings it. The pacing is just right, tiny panels one after another when the woman throws herself at her former lover, long panels showing her reaching after him, chasing him. Strong lines, lots of blacks and whites, solid contrasts. And such expressive faces even though the overall expression barely changes.

The style of art in “Onna” is probably my favourite. I like angles and sharp lines. The later stories tend to get loose and more jive-walking seventies style, with some seriously rubbery leg action and a generally more generic look. The story “Anchi” is also in this tight, more angular style so maybe that’s why it’s also been stuck in my head since I finished the book. But the content is also pretty sticky.

A young filmmaker is out in the mountains trying to find something interesting to film, but it’s all majestic nature blah blah blah. But then! Smoke! Rumbling volcano! A man hanging from a cliff in need of rescue! The filmmaker runs to grab a rope to save him and then realizes that the man was trying to commit suicide. So he drops the rope and picks up his camera. And shows the film to his friends later.

There’s a lot to enjoy here and even some things to think about. In a fun, interesting way with executions and dramatic revelations that end up being ridiculous and frivolous. Just avoid that last story. (Seriously, I was ready to punch someone after reading it.)


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