Ayako by Osamu Tezuka

Posted by on February 24th, 2011 at 12:01 AM

Vertical; 704 pp., $26.95; B&W; Hardcover; ISBN: 9781934287514

Of the darker, more adult-oriented manga of Osamu Tezuka that Vertical Inc. have recently translated and lavishly reprinted for the English-speaking armchair reader, Ayako stands out as the most consistently enigmatic and sophisticated. Originally published in three volumes from 1972-1973, Ayako is Tezuka’s attempt at creating a realist epic by way of a spy drama. This is odd for a number of reasons, most notably because of Tezuka’s famous affinity for Walt Disney cartoons and tendency to soften the impact of even pessimistic works like MW and Ode to Kirihito with sentimental flourishes.

The conflict generated by the contrasting moral and escapist imperatives of Tezuka’s manga is what makes his manga, and the three aforementioned titles especially, so thorny. For example, provincialism is condemned and parodied at every turn throughout his various series, whether it’s ignorant thieves in Buddha or superstitious and intolerant villagers in Ode to Kirihito. Rubes and monsters alike are not spared in Tezuka’s manga, even if the former group often at least has the potential to change. Vertical Inc.’s new translation of Ayako doggedly replicates the hickish dialect that characterizes the Tenge clan, a group of formerly influential landowners. Like his manga, Tezuka’s heroes are naïve through and through but they also strive and sometimes, as in the case of Ayako, come very close to justifying their complex actions through mostly black-and-white logic.

Throughout Ayako, the Tenge clan is shown to have a history of self-hatred unique to post-WW2 Japan. Jiro Tenge, a soldier who is introduced to the reader as an American collaborator, is the most noble of his clan but even he becomes corrupted by his family’s legacy of insular backbiting. That cycle of introverted violence begins after Jiro returns home to discover that his father has raped his brother’s wife and sired the titular young girl. Everyone in the household knows that to be true and it’s whispered about actively, but for some reason keeping Ayako’s background a poorly kept secret remains a point of pride for the Tenges. From there, the Tenges’ tenuous living conditions are dominated equally by the disposal of bodies and convoluted dueling schemes to wrest control of the family’s estate. Ayako, Tezuka’s natural-born martyr, gets the short end of the family stick and winds up living for more than 20 years in a basement, eventually only seeing human beings when they lower a bucket with food, water, clothing and other supplies down to her.

Family values in this context are just a perverted ideal that Jiro desperately tries to uphold later once Ayako comes of age and becomes a sexually active woman. The fact that her body has matured is a large part of what makes Ayako such a fascinating figure in Tezuka’s canon. The problems that her confused but budding carnal appetites pose force Tezuka to deal with knotty issues of dominance and willing subservience that he unsuccessfully tackled three years later in MW. The fact that after a point, Ayako prefers to live in an enclosed space and eventually retreats into boxes and trunks, speaks to a solipsistic assumed preference to be obedient that may be founded on a latent sexism in Tezuka.

But it also speaks to the fact that Tezuka, whose clean style of drawing is entrenched in its literal representation of symbols thanks to the influence of Disney’s animated cartoons, is entering foreign territory in ways that he hadn’t before. Even a pure-hearted character like Shiro, who begins as a plucky, wise-beyond-his-years 12-year-old, eventually gets in line with the rest of his family and starts to take advantage of Ayako.

No one comes out of Ayako looking good, not even Jiro, a character that wants desperately to do right by Ayako but ultimately he, like any man that comes into contact with her, has, er, amorous feelings for her. Ayako’s a grim and, for Tezuka, ideologically complex work. By the story’s dire denouement, it’s apparent that not even the noblesse of the most upright of his protagonists is enough to temper the cynical streak inherent in his signature sense of frustrated romanticism.

image ©2010 Tezuka Productions

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: ,

Comments are closed.