Boat Life, Tsuge Tadao (tr. Ryan Holmberg), Floating World Press

Tsuda Kenta is a fiftysomething novelist who splits his time between thwarted attempts to write and equally ineffectual assistance with his family’s clothes shop. One day, on a whim, he buys a small boat and rigs it out with a canvas cabin, intending to use it as a writer’s retreat. Instead, he’s drawn into the extended quasi-community who use the river as a way to break out of their prescribed lives in post-boom Japan. Drifters, lecherous monks, off-grid wanderers, cagey amateur artists and stray cats cross Kenta’s path. He’s as effective at river living as he is at anything else – he catches few fish and spends a lot of time getting ill – but he’s at least occasionally content.

This is the first half of Tsuge’s Boat Life, in a beautifully presented English translation by Ryan Holmberg, who is doing a heroic job at the moment getting alternative manga out into the English-speaking world. Holmberg also provides some backmatter: an essay, alongside two of Tsuge’s own prose pieces, on the 80s and 90s “fishing boom” in Japan. This sudden uptick of interest in angling created an audience for not one but two manga anthology series entirely devoted to fishing, and it was in the shorter lived of these that Boat Life originally ran.

Fishing is as much a part of the Boat Life series as Kenta’s quasi-bohemian lifestyle – in one episode, Kenta’s editor at ‘Fisher Bum’ magazine commissions an urban fishing feature and he and two pals head off to Tokyo to catch some carp. (They fail to do so) Like most of Boat Life, it’s drawn from Tsuge’s own experiences – as well as his art, he had a fishing journalism side hustle.

While the setting of the urban fishing episode is unusual the tone isn’t – nothing much happens, Kenta gets little done, but it’s charming, philosophical and gently funny, and captures the rhythms and waning energies of middle-aged friendship beautifully. Tsuge’s art seems basic at first when really it does what it needs to – get across the earnest, likeable but slightly feckless nature of Kenta’s life and relationships. And his minimal approach is perfect for the landscapes of the series – the seas of reeds and wide river plains, flat and lonesome, welcoming only to the already partly-lost.

Tsuda Kenta has something in common with that other boat-addled patriarch, Tove Jansson’s Moominpappa, who drags his family off to islands and yearns to follow the Hattifatteners on their wicked, eternal voyagings. Both have extraordinarily tolerant partners, but the resemblance only goes so far – Moominpappa is a bourgeois Dad having a mid-life crisis; Kenta is a working class man who comes to recognise in the precarious world of the river an existence on the margins which he nudged up against and opted out of in his own youth. It’s a world Tsuge apparently explored – in its vivid and violent aspects – in his other manga (some collected as Trash Market, which I haven’t yet read): in Boat Life we see its older, more rural parallel, as Kenta meets people who have settled into their choices and embraced itinerant lives in a way he couldn’t. Even if he knows enough to visit.

Tsuge’s protagonist is certainly having a quiet kind of crisis, but by not focusing wholly on it and making the comic as much about the people he meets and the family who tolerate his whims, Tsuge makes Boat Life a richer and more sympathetic comic. The comic doesn’t flinch from the fact that its protagonist is a bit selfish and a bit foolish, but that’s also where the gentle comedy often comes in. Kenta thinks of himself as an experienced man of the world, but he’s still shocked by a pair of lovers wanting to rent his boat as an impromptu love shack, or by the bawdiness of the local monk. It helps Boat Life walk its particular tightrope – a relaxing slice-of-life comic about river living which is still clear-eyed about the lifestyle Kenta is flirting with and his ultimate lack of fit for it. One of the best things I’ve read all year.