Before we begin, a double disclaimer: we can’t really discuss Ayako without revealing at least a little bit of the plot, including a few bits of the premise that will probably shock. If you want to come into the book with zero knowledge, then skip this review and go buy the book. It’s worth the money. Of course, we’d know nothing about all that, as this review copy was provided by the publisher, Vertical.
In the last few years, a lot of shorter Osamu Tezuka material has come out in English that’s had the man at his darkest: the nihilistic MW, the utterly mad Swallowing the Earth. After the last couple of these to come out in English, I was a little bit hesitant to read Ayako, the grim story of a fallen rural landowner family in the aftermath of WWII. As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. The disturbing and deeply human Ayako has turned out to be some of my favorite Tezuka thus far.
Ayako is a the product of an abusive, incestuous relationship, and it’s not the first one of those you’ll see in this book. On top of that, in order to save face over another ugly family secret, the Tenges chose to lock her in a cellar at the age of four and try to collectively forget she ever existed. Even before the cellar, nearly every step of this story involves a different person betraying, abusing or failing Ayako (usually a family member) in a different way.
As such, the stunted girl only becomes stranger and more traumatized as she grows. Remaining essentially innocent and with the mind of a child, the imprisoned Ayako grows into a beautiful young woman, desperately lonely and yearning for love that she only understands via women’s mags left in the cellar and the clandestine, non-consensual family trysts to which she is a regular witness. Despite her condition, the girl draws men who are all torn, in varying degrees, between the urge to protect her and the urge to violate her. Did I mention the post-war labor disputes, the spy-comic espionage and the murder mystery? There’s all that going on, too. It’s a big, heavy, twisting book, and you barely notice the pages going by.
Ayako goes to dark places, but the characters — not necessarily the plot, which by the end has nearly strangled itself to death — remain believable. Where the villain in MW was so evil as to look cartoonish, the Tenge family are flawed (though often irredeemably monstrous) human beings. Of the main players in this story, there aren’t any genuinely good people: those who appear upright at the start inevitably take a fall, and likewise some monsters try for redemption. The fate of the Tenge bloodline may indeed be cursed, but until the very end it doesn’t feel like Tezuka forced it.
The ending is a little odd — despite all the time he has to wrap it up, Tezuka stops everything to shove poetic justice into the story with much too heavy a hand in the final pages — but the long trip is worth it. At 700 pages (at nearly $30, the striking hardcover volume is actually not a bad deal), the book refuses to be put down and it’s complex and ambiguous enough to warrant multiple readings. This comes highly recommended, particularly if you are one of those folks who can’t abide cartoony Tezuka.