Red Flowers continues the collection of Yoshiharu Tsuge manga short stories by Drawn+Quarterly. The previous collection, The Swamp, showed Tsuge’s stories in 1965 and ’66, a dark time in his life as he literally struggled to survive and channeled that energy into creating stark and meaningful works. Red Flowers presents as different Tsuge in works from 1967 and ’68. Then part of the studio of Shigeru Mizuki, Tsuge made enough money not only to live but to travel, finding inspiration for a new kind of comics story.
As Mitsuhiro Asakawa and Ryan Holmberg write in the essay following the Red Flowers collection, “It is no exaggeration to say that the volume you hold in your hands contains some of the most important works in Japanese comics history.” In the 1960s, manga was in an interesting time with darker gekiga proving that comics were not just for kids. Tsuge, formerly working for years with the zine-style magazine Garo, took this aspect of literature even further with his comics stories. Tales did not need to tackle wrenching emotions or visceral action but could be just as deep in slices of life with interesting characters.
In Red Flowers, Tsuge pulls inspiration from numerous sources. Many of the stories find their roots in folklore as Tsuge contributed story notes and art to Mizuki’s exploding Kitaro adventures. Other stories come out of modern Japanese literature, like Masuji Ibuse’s 1929 “Salamander” about a giant salamander waxing philosophical about its life in a drain being practically adapted into Tsuge’s “The Salamander” comic nearly four decades later. As the collection progresses, more and more of the stories come from Tsuge’s own experiences traveling, expanding the canon of the autobiographical or semi-autobiographical “I-novel” (shishosetsu) that evolved from the new individualism following the Meiji period.
The first story in Red Flowers is “The Wake,” a tale Asakawa and Holmberg note is similar to Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, one of many volumes of Asian lore that Tsuge is quoted as consuming as a young man. Like stories from numerous cultures, a group of men come to an inn where the only room available has a dead body lying in wake. Different writers take the story in different directions, whether gothic and macabre or supernatural, but Tsuge makes it comedic with the men constantly teasing each other for being scared and one even claiming to be a former Buddhist monk and promising to give rites in exchange for the room for the night.
Many of the stories in Red Flowers carry that tone of irreverence, especially the titular “Red Flowers.” There a traveler meets a girl working a refreshment stand gaining her womanhood physically while also being forced into adulthood as the provider for the family. In “The Ondol Shack,” a traveler trying to have a relaxing stay in a sweat bath is constantly tormented by loud young men. He plans to stand up to them until another guest recommends he stays quiet since the songs they sing while gambling with cards reveal them to be yakuza. Still other tales feature fascinating character studies like “Mister Ben of the Honyara Cave” showing a lazy innkeeper who steals fish from his estranged wife’s farm and “Futamata Gorge” displaying old caretakers who find themselves dealing with a monkey as much as customers. Reading Red Flowers gives a feeling of following Tsuge on his travels, an early example that comics can evoke as much as any form of literature.