Story and art by Osamu Tezuka
Originally published by Daitosha (1973, 2 volumes)
Set in 1949, Ayako takes place in a Japan crushed by the Allied Powers. As a result, the nation has entered a massive societal shift, with the Agricultural reform dissolving large estates and redistributing plots to tenant farmers. For patriarch Sakuemon, leader of the Tenge family, it means he must watch his clan’s 400 year legacy be sapped from under him. But that is not all, as he must deal with the villains in his own house also. One of his sons comes home alive from a P.O.W. camp instead of having died for the Emperor, which is topped only by the revelation that another of his is consorting with “the reds.” What solace does he have but his youngest Ayako, apple of his eye, at once daughter and granddaughter?
The godfather of manga, Osamu Tezuka, alongside his capacity to create compelling stories, is also able to produce the some of the darkest plots in manga. Ayako is without a doubt the most immoral he’s made. His portrayal of a rural traditionalist family on the edge of extinction, and the acts they are “forced” to commit to stay alive is truly horrific, yet gripping at the same time.
It was very interesting experiencing the relationships between the Tenge family. And when I say interesting, I mean demented and claustrophobic. Learning about the twisted morals of a rural family struggling under post war agreements was terrifying, and I truly felt like for many members ranked low in the social hierarchy (wives, slaves) there was no escape. At first, the audience believes the Tenge’s motives are restoring honour to themselves and the local country side, but there actions soon begin to reek of greed, jealously, and fear. While his execution may not always be perfect, Tezuka is able to create hundreds of compelling storylines, all of which spawn cult followings. I admire the risks he took in his lifetime. Exploring some of the social and political ideas that occur in this manga would be still be challenging by today’s standards, yet Tezuka was doing it 45 years ago.
While the primary focus of this manga is the Tenge family, Tezuka weaves a second storyline into his piece, focusing on one of the Tenge sons, Shiro, who leaves the country and establishes a life in the city. This was important for two reasons; it would have been a bit boring reading only about the Tenge family, without any knowledge of the outside world (as one of the traits of the Tenge’s was there seculsion) and also there needed to be cuts so that characters had time to grow and develop. Unfortunately, the double agent story was disappointing. I admire the idea behind it; it gave Tezuka the chance to link his fictional family with real life events that occurred in Japan’s history, but it was very unbalanced. I didn’t really follow the progression of Shiro during his quest take over the underground. It became more of a suspension builder, while I was waiting to read about Ayako again. The other issue was the amount of time jumps Tezuka uses. This was his primary way of developing characters, and you couldn’t really root for them because you had no insight into their lives. Only the most important plot points were actually portrayed, and it made those moments lessen in value.
Ayako herself is an interesting character. She embodies child-like purity, while also representing 1940’s Japan, being dismantled physically and psychologically by surrounding powers. Another issue with the characters is how smitten the are with Ayako. In every scene the doesn’t have her in it, a character is talking about how they miss her or wonder what she’s up to. While reaffirmation of her importance is fine, the characters aren’t able to stand on there own, using relation to Ayako as a crutch. The depiction of accents emphasised the family’s rural origin, but at the end it was very jarring, and it took me out of the story instead of adding an element of engrossing complexity (as I had to decipher what they were saying). While I enjoyed Tezuka’s criticisms of the twisted patriarchy of traditionalist Japan, I didn’t like how all males were driven by only lust or money, while all women were innocent and pure. It was an unrealistic interpretation of humanity for a piece that was meant to explore the evils of humanity, irrelevant of gender. It could be argued however, that only those who held power exercised these negative traits, and with women holding no substantial power, they were unintentionally exalted.
As I touched on before, the idea of linking historical events to characters is an incredibly smart way to add depth with little effort. For example, having an immortal antagonist be present for the assassination of Cesar allows the audience to make instant judgments about the character without needing chapters of backstory. However, the way in which Tezuka uses this technique feels out of place, and quite farfetched at times. This historical events themselves were highly detailed and seemed accurate to the reader, but there connection to the family seemed strange and untrue.
One thing I can never fault Tezuka on is his imagery. Throughout all his pieces, his great ideas are usually accompanied with very vivid images and signs. I especially liked the poetic irony of this manga’s ending. But Tezuka has a habit of making characters spell out what is happening to the reader. Implementing the motif of show don’t tell would have resulted in more effective story telling. Unfortunately it took away from the visuals, diluting them with explanations that the reader could extrapolate from the images.
Osamu Tezuka has given me yet another intriguing storyline to discuss, filled with murder, incest and status anxiety. While the concept of linking his story to real post-war events and political conflicts was interesting, the pacing lead to a somewhat lacklustre execution. In some instances, his characters were the embodiment of humanity, in other instances the embodiment of archetypes. Overall, Ayako is a twisted tale which I recommend to anyone who wants insight on how conflict, ignorance and seclusion can lead to the most horrendous actions possible.
Art – 7/10
Story – 8/10
Writing – 6/10