The Groundbreaking Female Artist Who Shaped Manga History

A new collection introduces English-speaking audiences to an overlooked Japanese cartoonist who smashed both gender and genre norms during her short life.

Drawn & Quarterly

In 1962, when she was still in middle school in a coastal town of Japan, the cartoonist Kuniko Tsurita sent a despairing letter to The City, a popular comics magazine. Manga was her life. The 14-year-old loved reading a variety of genres, including shōjo, which was aimed at adolescent girls, and the more male-targeted kashi-hon, which often featured grit, gore, and gunfights. Tsurita had dreamed for years of becoming a mangaka, or manga artist. But her repeated failure to win any of the contests that she submitted her comics to had dimmed her hopes. “From the moment I wake up, until late in the night, I spend all my time drawing manga,” her letter read. “I have been submitting work to you for some time now, but am embarrassed by the fact that I’ve never ranked above fourth place. This has really made me realize just how difficult comics are (much harder than school exams, for sure).”

If Tsurita’s letter was subdued, the response she received from the all-male editorial staff was bleaker still. “It looks,” the reply read, “like you’ve been drawing action stories, but I would recommend you stick with subject matter that you’re familiar with and draw about girls instead.” The naked sexism of the recommendation was unsurprising. The world of manga in the 1960s echoed Japan’s stark gender divisions; significantly more men were published in the field than women. Beyond that, women cartoonists were primarily expected to draw shōjo, which, in those days, typically followed formulaic heterosexual-romance plots and was tacitly aimed at preparing its young readership for the societal norms of womanhood—namely finding and supporting a husband.

Tsurita, however, had little interest in creating work that upheld gender norms. Although shōjo would become more complex and even transgressive in the ’70s, Tsurita viewed it in the ’60s as a category both limited and limiting. She liked comics aimed at men and craved the freedom to write and draw whatever she wished. She had nearly given up, though, when Garo appeared in 1964. An alt-manga magazine that explicitly offered amateur artists a space to try out aesthetic experiments, Garo became her comics’ home base until her death in 1985 from lupus. The magazine gave Tsurita room to publish the dark, dreamlike work that she desired.

Her iconoclastic work is the subject of a new book, The Sky Is Blue With a Single Cloud, a career-spanning collection of Tsurita’s comics, released this summer by Drawn & Quarterly. The first authorized anthology to showcase Tsurita’s work in English, it includes an exhaustively researched afterword by Ryan Holmberg (adapted and expanded from a shorter piece by Mitsuhiro Asakawa). The essay, which recounts the story of young Tsurita’s letter in great detail, seeks to explain her place in the heavily gendered world of Japanese manga, particularly alternative or alt-manga. While the comics assembled here are uneven in quality, and though the introductory essay may seem intimidatingly academic to readers unfamiliar with early manga, the book is overall a fantastic, continually surprising look at one of Japan’s most innovative—and least remembered—manga artists.

Tsurita was the only woman consistently published in Garo in its early years, and what made her stand out even more was the literariness of her best work. “There weren’t … that many female cartoonists back then, so you have to understand how special she was for that reason alone,” Garo’s co-founder, publisher, and head editor, Katsuichi Nagai, reflected in 1982. Later, he added that what set Tsurita apart from other women mangaka of the era, such as Masako Watanabe or Hideko Mizuno, was that she was clearly “trying to make manga like works of literature.” Some of Tsurita’s cartoons were akin to gekiga, an intensely personal form pioneered by Yoshihiro Tatsumi that often read like snapshots of a life, but many of her comics broke genre barriers altogether.

As Holmberg catalogs throughout his essay, Tsurita’s art shifted over the course of her career, betokening her many cross-cultural influences. In some early comics, such as “Nonsense” (1966), a circular tale about a man who kills evildoers because he thinks that is his God-given duty, Tsurita’s art appears simple, almost crude. By contrast, “Woman,” from later that year, with its stunning black-and-white backgrounds and near-complete lack of dialogue, hearkens to the modernist wordless novels of Lynd Ward in the early 20th century. As Holmberg speculates, the manga’s lushly illustrated design was likely a response to Young Aphrodites (1963), a Greek art-house film that featured similar characters and settings.

Panels from the comic “Max” in The Sky Is Blue With a Single Cloud. (Drawn & Quarterly)

Other manga, such as “Money” (1974) and “Max” (1975), portray languid, cigarette-smoking, black-clad women who often look as though they could have been drawn by Marjane Satrapi—albeit with sharp lines and shading that seem to echo Tsurita’s interest in the German artist Käthe Kollwitz. The collection’s titular comic features a haunting Grecian landscape reminiscent of the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico, and an androgynous figure who rides a motorcycle through a seemingly empty world toward a cloud: a mushroom-shaped mass, rendered across a large, stunningly shaded panel. Later pieces, such as “The Sea Snake and the Big Dipper,” resemble the fantastical, seductive illustrations of the fin de siècle artist Aubrey Beardsley, whose style Tsurita admired. The quality of Tsurita’s late work is remarkable, given how severely lupus ravaged her ability to draw; before her death, she was barely able to finish tracing the lines of her panels.

She was also influenced by Japanese painters and manga artists, including Yoshiharu Tsuge and Seiichi Hayashi; the latter’s 1971 Garo cover of a kimonoed woman seems to appear, in an aesthetic echo, in a panel of Tsurita’s surreal comic, “My Wife Is an Acrobat.” Some of Tsurita’s figures recall the sensuous posters and paintings of the avant-garde artist Aquirax Uno, whose images freely blend the tropes of Art Nouveau with the iconography of Edo-period artworks.

Notably, Tsurita’s manga influences tended to be men, a fact that reflects both the relative paucity of women in alt-manga then and Tsurita’s distaste for conforming to the stereotypes of shōjo: smiling girls with wide, sparkly eyes and fashionable haircuts who swooned over boys. Tsurita’s protagonists were sometimes men, as in “Nonsense,” “Anti,” or “Mr. Jin Roku,” but many of her comics featured women in complicated roles and functioned as subtle commentaries on the paralyzing weight of sexist expectations in a patriarchal society.

For instance, as Holmberg’s essay explains, the title of the manga “Woman” was a bit “bolder” in Japanese than it might seem in English: The term used—onna—was often an insult at the time, connoting “female bodies and subjects in a raw state, as pure sex, or as social aberrations,” and was reclaimed in the ’70s by radical feminists. Tsurita’s “Woman,” which seems set during humanity’s earliest days, poignantly captures a woman betrayed by a man who has callously replaced her with another woman; she is beaten by him and, in turn, by the patriarchal assumptions that others make once they see that she has been rejected. The only word that appears in the comic is his name; she says it once, but his cruelty silences her for the rest of the manga, like other women who have been victims of trauma and have not felt able to speak up.

The other women that Tsurita drew ranged widely. Some are glowering and melancholy, like the eponymous protagonist of “Princess Rokunomiya.” Others are tomboys clad in gender-neutral attire, as in “Sounds” and, most notably, the 1969 lesbian story that Garo refused to publish, “Occupants,” which features a classically femme girl and her androgynous roommate, who appear to have sex in a dreamlike sequence. “Occupants,” unpublished in her lifetime, is one of the special joys of The Sky Is Blue With a Single Cloud, showing Tsurita at her most atmospherically oneiric and representationally unafraid.

The queerness in “Occupants” can be read, to a degree, as presaging the burgeoning market for depictions of yuri, or “girl love,” in more subversive shōjo in the 1970s; had Garo accepted it, the magazine would have been one of the first alt-manga publications to feature an openly lesbian relationship. But the more plausible raison d’être for “Occupants” was simply Tsurita’s predilection for depicting gender nonconformity and queer desire, albeit in coded forms. She often included cameos of herself in her manga, in the form of short-haired, androgynous characters; these authorial avatars were not infrequently portrayed as ogling women, as in “The Struggle for Survival,” a 1967 comic featuring panels of a Tsuritaesque figure gazing at a passing woman in a minidress, thick makeup, and an elaborate coiffure.

These moments captured a larger truth about Tsurita, who frequently transgressed the traditional roles expected of Japanese women. She smoked in public, something common for men but virtually verboten for “decent” women. More disruptive still, she frequently went to pornography theaters by herself, an act that her husband, Naoyuki Takahashi, described in an interview with Holmberg as “rare for a woman to do  … even now, and … unheard of back then.” She sought out sexploitation films aimed at older men, like 1968’s popular The Genealogy of Tokugawa Women, from the cult director Teruo Ishii. “She was interested in women’s bodies from a man’s perspective,” Takahashi said. When asked about her manga’s queerness, Takahashi responded that Tsurita was heterosexual and had no gay friends. The truth, of course, may be unknowable, and speculating about Tsurita’s identity from her work and these anecdotes is imprudent. What is clear is that she was unafraid to be a gender outlaw of sorts, both on and off the page.

As Holmberg muses, the uncategorizable quality of Tsurita’s manga may partially account for how little has been written about her. Tsurita’s work straddles genres, and the philosophical questions she explores—the Cartesian question of existence in “Sounds,” the bleak Sartrean existentialism of her more morbid stories in which characters question the value in living—offer additional intellectual challenges. Moreover, as Holmberg posits, scholars studying manga tend to focus on specific genres, and because Tsurita’s work doesn’t neatly fit into any one area, critics have largely left her alone. Although she was the subject of special issues of Garo, hers has become a name few know, and the present volume, along with the larger anthology of her comics it was adapted from in Japan, seeks to remedy this neglect.

The Sky Is Blue With a Single Cloud succeeds in establishing Tsurita as a truly singular cartoonist whose versatile oeuvre deserves more critical attention. Her work, including somber sphinxian riddles and the quiet, unforgettable terror of the titular comic, reflects a complicated artist who fought against the sexist strictures of her era, leaving behind a rich, multivalent collection of art wholly her own.