From the late 1960s to the mid-’80s, Kuniko Tsurita’s work broke the mold for women comic artists in Japan. As the sole female regular contributor to the alternative Japanese manga magazine Garo,  Tsurita rejected shōjo, a cutesy style that infantilized women. The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud, a new anthology of her work, translated by Ryan Holmberg, brings to light her innovative style, dark humor, and feminist ethos.

The cover of The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud

The lengthy contextual essay at the end of the collection (the book reads back to front, right to left, in traditional Japanese fashion) draws out not only the stylistic evolution of Tsurita’s work, but also the cultural context in which she lived and worked. As Holmberg and Mitsuhiro Asakawa write, “her early work often followed ‘masculine’ norms in genre and expression, while also growing increasingly androgynous or female-centered in ways that marked it different from what was being drawn by men.” The selection of 18 black-and-white comics illustrates this approach, as well as the stylistic shifts and diversity of her imagery over such a short period of time.

The stories “Nonsense” (1966), “Woman” (1966), and “My Wife is an Acrobat” (1974) favor more minimalist styles, solid black backgrounds and simplified faces and figures, making use of the margins, blank space on the page and in the frame, as well as asymmetrical layouts. “Woman” in particular has very little dialogue or text, and instead uses bold patterns and textures to create drama and plot. Meanwhile, others, such as “Anti” (1967), “Sounds” (1969), and “Occupants” (1969), are drawn in a Pop Art style, with dense, busier layouts featuring large text bubbles and bursts, like the “ZHK ZHK ZHK ZHK ZHK” and “COUGH COUGH” that begin “Anti” and the “PSSH” at the start of “Occupants.” 

From The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud

Gathered together in The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud, such stylistic differences across her oeuvre are now more discernible, affirming Tsurita’s role as pioneering comic artist (no gendered qualifier needed!). At last, her short career (she died at 35) can finally be recognized in mainstream comics.

The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud (Drawn & Quarterly, 2020), by Kuniko Tsurita and translated by Ryan Holmeberg, is now available on Bookshop.

Megan N. Liberty is the Art Books section editor at the Brooklyn Rail and co-founder of Book Art Review. Her writing on artist books, ephemera, and graphic novels also appears in, ArtReview,...