Slum Wolf is a collection of short stories that were written and illustrated by Tadao Tsuge in the sixties and seventies. As I write this review, that’s 50 years ago! There’s nothing dated or old fashioned about the book, though. The stories and characters are rooted in post-war Japan but it reads like it could have been written yesterday.
The narratives revolve around the characters. Although these start as a seemingly disparate collection of drifters, vagabonds and waifs, they’re soon weaved into a broader overarching piece about Japanese veterans in post-war society. You can understand how life’s meaning might have been lost for this generation of men, who were trained for violence, told their lives mean nothing beyond the service of their country, then ultimately defeated by an incomprehensible display of nuclear force.
In these stories, the characters react to their history in different ways, but Tsuge concentrates our attention towards his vagabonds, who wander the landscape without aim and thrive on fights and thuggery. Their existence seems aimless, until someone builds a shelter, and a town springs up; a prostitute shows someone a little kindness; or an old shop owner offers a meal in return for protection. Community is built, albeit formed around and constructed by criminals, but a spirit of communal value pulls together into something that’s more than a sum of its parts.
Tsuge’s art is uncomplicated but hides depth in its simplicity, showing as much in the spaces as it does in the lines themselves. This helps with that timelessness: although socially deposited in the post-war narrative of Japan, there’s nothing here that couldn’t transpose to any other time or place. Perhaps it’s cyclically ready to inform and prepare us for the next slump in the world’s good fortunes, to remind us that chaos waits beyond the comfort of our homes, and that war and economic crisis isn’t about nations and stock markets, but the lives of the people who suffer the consequences.