(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.
The Japanese countryside serves a backdrop for what I can only describe as a family horror story where the monster is everybody. The Tenge family, having already lost its land, its standing, and its dignity after the war, falls apart over the course of twenty-some years. The men (even the boy!) are perpetually locked in power struggles, and the women look on helplessly. Amidst this domestic hell, we watch the Tenges’ youngest and most grievously abused daughter, Ayako, grow up.
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.
Readers of Tezuka’s works tend to either praise or complain about one particular quirk of the author. Even in his work for adults, he loves to lighten the mood, seemingly at random, with sight gags you’d expect of the typical newspaper comic: there is no image so upsetting and no message so serious that Osamu Tezuka was unwilling to insert a faceplant reaction shot into it. (See also Tezuka’s Buddha, or Hey, What’s The Deal With Enlightenment?) Ayako is the only time I’ve yet seen Tezuka completely straight-faced. Working in a self-consciously realist mode, he spares only a few fantastical images as breathtaking metaphors (and one equally spectacular misfire). There is not a pratfall to be seen.
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.
The bit where the narrator acknowledges a character's remarriage following his wife's death, but explains on the same page that she's such a non-entity in the story that she will not even be introduced is a massive head-scratcher, though. It feels like an afterthought, as if Tezuka realized part way through penning the story that a character in such a position in society would probably want to marry again for status/face reasons, but couldn't actually think of what to do with that. It's such a weird moment.
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