Life can seem so binary at times; you either color within the lines or boldly outside of them. In patriarchal cultures where ancient gender-norms are still strictly enforced – like in Japan – many women encounter blockages when they try to step outside of their pre-set roles. It’s absolutely possible to fight the system – but only if you’re willing to continue pushing past the line that has been drawn for centuries.
Born in post-war 1947 following Japan’s surrender, an action many Japanese felt was culturally emasculating, Kuniko Tsurita’s work offered a personal perspective of a bohemian culture juxtaposed against the political movement of the 60s. Known for her surreal and iconoclastic comics in obscure magazines such as Garo, non-Japanese fans can now enjoy her only work in English with The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud (translation by Ryan Holmberg), a rare and timeless treat for those looking for something outside the typical manga fare.
The themes throughout the collection are dark and existential, creating a surreal setting for those unfamiliar with her work. Tsurita revels in drawing her characters in androgynous ways, consistently blurring the lines between the masculine and feminine. Perhaps this was her way of showing everyone how there isn’t much difference between male and female. Or her frustrations of constantly being restricted to what society believed her gender should be allowed to draw.
During the first pass, it was hard to grasp the layers of complexity built into Tsurita’s comics. At times her artwork can be difficult to take in, and yet it’s impossible to avoid the sense of turmoil percolating beneath the surface. The philosophical questions she poses, the ethical ones, the amoral violence she drew in that world – all of these themes were meant to push women’s thinking beyond what society had deemed proper for them. And it worked – she captivated women craving an anti-establishment diet during the mid-20th century.
Her themes around death and existence provide us with a bird’s eye view into her own life at the time as well. At 26, Tsurita was diagnosed with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE) – the most common and aggressive form of the disease. During that time, her comics showcase her journey in an ethereal way – her mortality, how her body was taken over by an alien invader, or the numerous lonely hospital visits. Sadly, this struggle cost her the energy to continue drawing, with many comics left unfinished when she died at 37 in 1985.
Though her drawings take some getting used to, some of my favorites include: “Nonsense”, a cyclical story where a vigilante is sent to hell, yet returns to the living to collect more evil souls. “Anti” shows a filmmaker who has to make the choice of saving someone dangling from the cliffside or capturing their death for their movie. “R” is about having another being replace you in life – a nod to her own illness. And “Max” is a reflection of her life breaking barriers in Japan.
Configured in its original Japanese fashion, The Sky is Blue with a Single Cloud is a dystopian and cinematic collection of parables that will take you on a psychedelic trip. The grittiness and radicalism Tsurita evokes is absolutely amazing. As one of the first published female cartoonists who pushed the boundaries, she explores concepts that aren’t typically shown by women and does it in such a fearless and bold way. Instead of coloring within the lines drawn out for her, Tsurita showed women what life is like on the other side of ‘normal’.