Always a Tough Guy at Heart



An essay by cult manga star Tadao Tsuge, translated by Ryan Holmberg


My comics have been turned into a movie. It’s titled Vagabond Plain.

The script and the direction are both by veteran director Teruo Ishii. Officially, I am “author of the original story.” But to be honest, I feel a bit guilty about receiving that honor. Upon reading the script, my initial reactions were “?” and “ … ” and also some “!!” My crude and naked stories had been dolled up and transformed into something bold and wonderful.

The script was super fun. Director Ishii had laced together a number of my short and medium-length stories, then embellished them with his own wild-spirited sections, to spin a yarn that is truly bizarre. I hesitate to call myself the original author precisely because I am so impressed with Ishii’s additions. His parts are the overall narrative’s true jewels. Had the script followed my manga faithfully, the resulting movie would surely have been too bleak. It’s presumptuous of me to think this, but I wonder if Ishii consciously set out to combat the darkness of my work.

I couldn’t wait for the movie to be completed. The shooting of Vagabond Plain was wrapped up early last December (1994)—which means it took all of one month!

I went to see the initial cut at the Togen Laboratory in Chōfu (west of Tokyo). The movie was more fun than I expected. It had singing and dancing and eros and daring action scenes and the bizarre and grotesque. It had anything and everything, and all the charm of the “grand motion pictures” of yore. It wasn’t a movie that required difficult philosophizing. If you tried too hard to make sense of it, you would probably just get knotted up inside your own clever thinking.

I am not going to summarize the story here. Suffice to say that it’s set in an anonymous shitamachi neighborhood soon after the war. The landscape and customs of those days flash across the screen one after another. Men crossing paths on their way to the red-light district. People loitering in front of a blood bank. The mixed magnificence and shabbiness of the revue clubs. The alleys stinking of sewage, and a thug charging through them. Prostitutes squatting beneath the train tracks.

I must have been in second or third grade …

Suddenly a scene from the past comes to me. It’s a summer night. I am with my two brothers selling ice pops on the street that goes through the red-light district. We did this on all festival days. We had an icebox and next to it a vessel holding prize tickets folded into triangles. On a cloth spread over the ground, we set celluloid duck toys as prize giveaways. This open-air business we inherited from our stepfather’s friend, who couldn’t bear seeing us destitute after my stepfather got sick and became too weak to work.

One day, two or three girls from a nearby brothel skipped over to buy ice pops. One of their tickets was a winner. The girl let out a scream and pressed the toy duck to her chest with great joy. I couldn’t pull my eyes away from their faces, caked with white powder and accentuated with bright red rouge. I thought they looked beautiful, truly beautiful. Leaving behind echoes of cheerful laughter, the girls disappeared back into the house tinted by a naked red lightbulb. I watched them spellbound all the way. It’s not like I had a special relationship with those specific girls. Any number of girls could have left me with such limpid memories.

And over the years, any number of them did. Once I was old enough to better understand the circumstances of their lives, those girls imparted yet more memories. For various reasons, there were times when I couldn’t stand being at home. My feet always took me to the street where the girls hung out. Eventually society decided such places were unacceptable, and quietly disappeared them.

There, on the silver screen, were the streets of Tateishi, the neighborhood in Katsushika ward where I once lived. From yonder, beyond Vagabond Plain, distant memories came back to life. I huddled up on the chair in the screening room, my mind shuttling back and forth between past and present. Don’t laugh, but when I was a kid I really thought that, once I became an adult, I would protect those girls from the shadows, just like Sabu and Ryū, the two thugs in the film, do. How easily those dreams were quashed.

Nevertheless, even today, when I am sitting around by myself doing nothing, my heart softly, timidly mutters excuses to itself. “Don’t worry,” it says, “you really are a tough guy at heart.”


Though I have watched countless movies, the following are my oldest memories.

Night. A boy in (I think) about the first year of elementary school is walking frightened, oh so frightened, along a road passing (I think) through some trees or a forest. There’s something there. Something scary is going to happen. His chest pounds with anxious expectation. On cue, a ghostly spirit appears, floating through the trees.

I screamed and shut my eyes. I plugged my ears. I have no idea what happened to the boy …

Another memory. This one takes place in the middle of the day on some country road (I think), where a rickshaw driver and his passenger are quarreling about something. What led up to this, I have no idea. Anyway, when the driver then lets out a hi-yah! and begins pulling his rickshaw, the passenger bops him on the head from behind with his cane. The driver is knocked out cold on the road and then … I can’t recall what happens after that either.

Those two fragments are all I can remember. How the stories unfolded has been stripped from my memory, like an old and crumbling mud wall.

The title of the movie is Wild Man Matsu [Muhōmatsu no isshō, (also known as Rickshaw Man in English)]. It was directed by Hiroshi Inagaki, starred Tsumasaburō Bandō, and was released by Daiei Studios during the war, in 1943. I must have seen this film around 1947 or 1948, when I was about six. It was definitely after the war, though I don’t remember who took me to go see it. I only learned that it was called Wild Man Matsu ten or so years later. Allowing for a bit of dramatic license, let’s say that that was when my movie-going career began.

In 1949–1950, I saw The Lonely Whistle [Kanashiki kuchibue, 1949 (starring Hibari Misora)] and Blue Mountain Range [Aoi Sanmyaku, 1949 (starring Setsuko Hara)]. As for Western films, there wasn’t an installment of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan or Abbot and Costello that I missed. There was plenty I didn’t understand, thanks to the illegible characters produced by old subtitling technology. Like with Wild Man Matsu, I only remember a few scenes from those films. Tarzan’s strange trademark yell, however, still rings clearly in my ears. Similarly, I’ll never forget Bruce Lee’s eerie birdlike cry.

Yes sir, I sure saw lots of movies. From when I was seven to about twelve, I must have managed to see two or three a week. Our family’s poverty was top-ranked in the neighborhood, so there was no chance that we children would get an allowance. Nevertheless, getting into the movies was easier for me than obtaining gum or candy drops. It simply required knowing the ins and outs of each theater.

Though my little neighborhood had nothing more than a red-light district, a plywood market, and a bunch of small bars, it boasted four or five theaters (some showing Japanese films, some foreign) and they were usually full. Even the aisles were packed with standing customers. “Hey, you in the front!” someone would complain from the rear, “Put your head down! We can’t see!” They say that movies reigned as the “king of entertainment” back then, and they sure did.

They had a deal in those days in which preschool-age kids got in for free if they accompanied a paying adult. Me being a runt, I exploited this frequently. What you did was walk right behind a stranger and try to look like their kid, then disappear inside with the crowd. But as I got older, my body also changed and so naturally this trick stopped working. That’s where “Operation Looking for My Parent” came in.

“There’s been an emergency! My mom’s here somewhere! Can I go in and look for her?” Go up to the ticket girl and say that with a serious face while a movie is playing, and she’d usually let you in. Back then, you were allowed to enter in the middle of a movie, and they didn’t clear out the theater between screenings. So once you were in, you were golden. I pulled this trick at all four neighborhood theaters. But it wasn’t long before it, too, stopped working. That left the “bum rush.”

Scope out the ticket girl’s blind spot, then bolt for it like a rabbit. I am ashamed to say that there wasn’t a law I didn’t break to get into the movies.

The movies are pure joy. Their ability to lure us into their world of dreams and illusions, however temporarily, is simply a miracle. When I was a kid, home life was a tangled mess of problems. Nothing was more certain than fists flung at my head frequently and for no reason at all. Movie theaters were my emergency refuge. The only time I felt safe was while sitting in their dim glow. Yet even then, in those moments of happiness, bitterness gnawed at a back corner of my mind.

These days, foreign films are shown all the time, with the result that now everyone is familiar with Western culture. I no longer find it odd to occasionally see a foreign man and a Japanese woman walking arm in arm. As this year (1995) marks a hundred years since the birth of cinema, I will talk about movies again next time.


By the time I was a sixth-grader, films from the West took absolute priority in my movie-watching. For starters, foreign stars were just too cool.

Male or female, they had chiseled facial features, they were tall, and their legs were ridiculously long. Their hair, eyes, and skin came in different shades. They were literally colorful. And their presence was all the more magnificent when they appeared on the screen in that dye-based process known as Technicolor.

Foreign films, especially those made with American money, were big and impressive in every way. Whether or not one considers Gone with the Wind a true masterpiece, its unprecedented production costs guaranteed that it would be the movie of the year (when it was released in Japan) in 1952–1953.

When America emerged as the world’s number one superpower after World War II, that all-too-self-assured Americanism and that forthright, openhearted, and stubborn “we-first” American spirit took charge of the world—cheerfully, generously, but also, to a degree, by force. The same can be said for the movie industry. Not just the people who made them, but also the beautiful stars and starlets in them, brimmed with confidence and pride. With their chests puffed out, they strutted across the screen.

That, anyway, is how it looks with a slightly cynical eye. But the eleven- or twelve-year-old kid that I was back then couldn’t have cared less about such things.

I gravitated toward Western films simply for their large scale, the fun of their showy action, and the coolness of their stars.

Fairly early on—let’s see, probably by fourth grade—I was borrowing and reading adventure and mystery novels, as well as all kinds of kōdan (classical hero) books and biographies, from my friends and the library. I thus naturally learned a lot of difficult Chinese kanji characters. And so, by the time I was in middle school, I could easily read film subtitles and—“Oh, I see!”—understood quite well what was happening.

I read anything and everything. How I got my hands on them, I don’t remember, but erotic magazines also came my way. On such occasions, my friends and I would giddily steal away into the shadows. “Oh, I see, I SEE!”—and thus I learned about yet other matters.

Meanwhile, I was still employing the “bum rush” technique to get past the ticket girls. But there was no way my lawlessness would be excused forever. There were four theaters in my neighborhood, but only one showed Western films. I bum-rushed every visit, so I imagine they had their eye on me.

One day, as I charged in and attempted to hide in the crowd, someone grabbed me by the collar. “Gotcha this time, you little punk!” So said a middle-aged man, probably the manager or security. Where do you live? What’s your name? Where else have you been doing this? And so on, battering me with questions in rapid fire. I answered him meekly—lying about the important points—while the ticket girl looked on with amusement.

“Oh really? You go to K Middle School? Good old K Middle … How’s Mr. Y doing? Does he still teach there?”

“Huh? Uh … yes.”

The man looked at me silently, then grumbled, “Dumbass, how would you know? I was just making that shit up.”

The earth stopped in its tracks. Was I headed for prison? I was utterly beside myself.

But then the man and the ticket girl burst out laughing. “Don’t do it again” is all he said, and let me go. After that, I properly paid to see movies. Well … you bet I did!

No movie made a greater impression on me in those days than Shane (1953). Generally, I loved Westerns and saw more of them than of any other kind of film. But this one took the cake. I still think so. If you ask me my top three Westerns, I won’t hesitate to answer: Shane, My Darling Clementine (1946), and The Wild Bunch (1969). Everyone raves about Stagecoach (1939), but I’m not so crazy about it.

I want to be like Shane! I dreamed of being like him. Quiet, strong, dark, and a little lonely, a wanderer—that was my idea of a hero back then. Can’t say for sure, but the reason Shane said so little and looked so impassive must have been because he bore some horribly heavy and heartbreaking “something” on his shoulders. I could feel it even back then.

Alan Ladd was on the small side for a foreign star. It was like he was made for that role. Still, that one film was it. Nothing he made after that is worth mentioning.

As for me, the man who failed to become Shane, you ask what’s happened to him? He plays hooky from work and squanders his time addicted to fishing.


Tadao Tsuge is one of alternative manga’s cult stars. Debuting as a cartoonist in the rental kashi-hon market in 1959, he was a leading contributor to the legendary magazine Garo during its heyday in the late 1960s. He has drawn extensively for magazines like Yagyo and Gento, often pulling from his experiences growing up in the slums of Tokyo, working for ooze-for-booze blood banks, and daydreaming while fishing. He currently lives in Chiba Prefecture, north of Tokyo, where he splits his time between cooking for his family and drawing even stranger manga.
Ryan Holmberg is an arts and comics historian. He has taught at the University of Chicago, CUNY, the University of Southern California, and Duke University, is a frequent contributor to Art in America, Artforum, Yishu, and The Comics Journal, and has edited and translated books by Seiichi Hayashi, Osamu Tezuka, Sasaki Maki, and others.
Copyright @ Tadao Tsuge 2018; Translation copyright @ 2018 Ryan Holmberg; courtesy of New York Review Comics