Anime News Network | Rebecca Silverman | December 5, 2021
Red Flowers reviewed by the Anime News Network
The second of seven projected volumes collecting the works of famed GARO mangaka Yoshiharu Tsuge, Red Flowers contains stories from 1967-68. As the informative, albeit dense, essay in the back of the book tells us, these were the years when Tsuge was both returning to manga creation and also breaking free of the strictures of genre fiction (fantasy, romance, mystery, etc.; anything that has its own section in the bookstore) to create a more literary style of sequential storytelling. The idea was, at least in part, to prove that manga has as much literary value as prose or verse works, and Tsuge began to be influenced by the so-called “I-novels” of the Meiji period. If you're not familiar with the term, the I-novel is a sort of confessional style of semi-autobiographical work, corresponding at least in part to the author's own life without the strict adherence to fact of a true autobiography. It's an off-shoot of Naturalism, itself a form of Realism; Naturalism often contains themes of social commentary and a sense that one cannot necessarily escape the circumstances under which one was born. (In American literature, Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephan Crane and Life in the Iron Mills by Rebecca Harding Davis are often used as examples of the style.) In the case of the Tsuge stories included in this volume, he combines that I-novel sensibility with the travelogue to create a type of manga that escapes the bounds of the genre fiction popular at the time.
The title story, Red Flowers, is among the most striking of the included pieces because of the way it also blends in a bit of surrealism. Like most of the other stories, Red Flowers features a nameless protagonist taking a solo trip around rural Japan in the late 1960s. He comes upon a small snack stand run by a teen girl, who entreats him to stop. When he asks about fishing, she tells him that a boy from her class can show him to the best spots. This is only tangentially related to the girl, whose relationship with her classmate is based on his fascination with her being two years older than the rest of the class, and therefore more physically developed. Towards the end of the tale, he observes her washing herself in the river and what he sees as Red Flowers floating downstream away from her. We recognize that she's menstruating; the “flowers” are her blood. But to the boy, they are as mysterious as the Red Flowers that bloom elsewhere along the river, and the implication is that he believes that the girl is the source of all of the flowers. While this is 100% rosier than many people view their periods, it is an interesting way to show his confusion and the way that he idolizes (or perhaps idealizes) the girl, even as it contributes to the notion that women are somehow more pure beings than men.
That story is largely unique in the volume for its fantastical or surreal elements, however. Most of the rest simply look at what the author stand-in sees and how he interprets the locals' way of life, with the very clear sense that it is not one that will exist for much longer in an increasingly modern world. The piece that shows this the most clearly is Futabata Gorge, where the traveler reaches a small town and asks to be directed to the most run-down inn in town. He's sent to a dilapidated thatched building right on the edge of the eponymous gorge, where he's welcomed by an elderly couple who are clearly barely making ends meet. When he's directed to their proprietary hot spring, he encounters an injured monkey; later that night, a terrible storm blows in and the monkey is killed, trapped on a branch in the river. The symbolism seems to be that the monkey is the elderly couple and the branch their way of life, endangered by the coming of modernity to their region. While that may be reading too much into the piece, the traveler's musing at the end that he was their final guest for the season seems to support it, even as he expresses the wish that next year he will be their first – more a hope for a “next year” than a certainty that the inn will still be there.
The peace and solitude of rural spaces is a persistent theme throughout the book, and there is something that feels a bit idealized about that, making it clear that the stories were written by someone who had lived more urban than rural for most of their life. Even when the traveler is annoyed by someone local, like in Mister Ben of the Honyara Cave, there's a sense that he's enjoying how different and colorful the people are. This is notably not the same when someone who disrupts his search for the ideal doesn't fit his image of a “local,” as we see in the traveler's reaction to the three loud young men in The Ondol Shack. This only contributes to the sense of quaintness that he finds in other rural spots, however, reminding us that he has some quite fixed ideas about what rural denizens are “supposed” to be like. There is some break up of that theme in stories where the traveler is not the narrator, such as The Dog From Prayer Pass, which explores the idea that who we are depends on where we are and how the people in each location view us. Identity, this story suggests, is more malleable than the traveler from the bulk of the tales believes.
Red Flowers is an interesting collection of early GARO pieces. The essay in the back, although perhaps a bit too academic for casual reading, is excellent, providing background on Tsuge and for each story in the book, which certainly can aid in forming your own interpretations of the pieces and themes. In some ways this volume is a bit more accessible than The Swamp, the previous Tsuge collection, but those with an interest in early literary manga, or an academic interest in manga as a literary form, will want to pick this up.