Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Vertical Inc.
Volume: This book contains the entire work, in hard back form, $26.95
Vintage: 1972-73 in 3 volumes by Shogakukan, November 30, 2010 by Vertical
Genre: Drama, post-war (WWII) politics, 16+ (for good reason)
Ayako is a beautiful story from late manga master Osamu Tezuka. Taking place after World World II, the story explores the immense changes that occurred in Japan in the following years, both in the government and in the culture of the average citizens. Tezuka carefully weaves in real historical mysteries of the period, changing some details (like names) to make them work within the confines of his fiction. The book opens in 1949. With the Americans occupying Japan, massive reform is taking place across the country. Agricultural reform is dissolving long held plots of land owned by generational land owners, redistributing the land to tenant farmers. The Tenge family has been a dominant land owning family for generations, but the new laws are dismantling their ancestral property. Middle son Jiro arrives home at this time, carrying the shame of surviving through the war as a POW rather than dying for his Emperor. What he comes home to shocks him. His mother is frail and weary, his sister Naoko is working for an underground political group, and his older brother Ichiro has been giving his wife Su’e to be ravaged by his father in exchange for inheriting the family lands. The result of this twisted union is a 4-year-old girl named Ayako, being raised as a child of the family head and his wife, not of Su’e and Ichiro. Of course, Jiro has his own secrets – he has been spying for the Americans. Only the youngest boy, Shiro, appears to have any real sense of decency about him. The precarious balance in the family comes crashing down when Jiro is involved in a murder and is witnessed disposing of the evidence by the young Ayako and a mentally challenged maid named O-Ryo. Poor Ayako not only witnesses this, but also violent assaults by Jiro (ending in the murder of poor O-Ryo), as well as Su’e having sex with her father. As the family tries to cover up their dark secrets, Ayako becomes the victim and is thrown into a cellar and listed as dead to stow away the only evidence that could ruin the family. Ayako grows into a woman in the cellar, locked away with her only window to the outside world a single, small skylight. Su’e and Shiro are the only members of the family who try to help her, which eventually leads to an incestuous relationship and a brutal murder. Twenty-three years later, Ayako escapes. Jiro, constantly on the run from the cops, has changed his identity and become a mob boss; Naoko is married and estranged from the family; their father is dead; Ichiro is the head of the house, haunted by his past misdeeds; and Shiro has become buried beneath the family’s garbage, just as Ayako begins to break out. Unfortunately, 23 years cut off from the world have left the now 27-year-old Ayako mentally unprepared for the real world. But as the world comes crashing down around the Tenge family, their biggest victim may get to finally fly free.
My biggest complaint about this book is the translation. It’s ridiculous. The house servants come across as southern black plantation slaves, and Jiro’s parents as uneducated hicks rather than dominant, generational land owners. At least the kids speak properly (well, for part of the time anyway). But the little retarded servant girl is the worst; I had to reread everything she says because it absolutely doesn’t make sense at first glance. I get what the translators were trying to do here, but it’s quite the headache, honestly. I could have done without, or at least something not as drastic. Ōoku: The Inner Chambers does heavy accents too in its translation, but at least they don’t all sound like inbred hicks. I imagine it didn’t come from nowhere, and that Tezuka himself may have used dialects in his original work, but the translation shouldn’t be difficult to read. What’s the point in flipping the art for accessibility if the text isn’t accessible?
I do have one other serious issue with Vertical’s release. While I think the book is beautifully bound, I wish there was a dust jacket to cover up the naked Ayako on the cover (there’s also the bottom half of a figure hanging from a noose on the back). I can’t take it anywhere. There’s no way I could read that in public, and I can’t take it to read at any family gatherings, nor can I leave it out on the coffee table because my husband has a 12-year-old son. Tezuka should never have to be embarrassingly hidden away.
Vertical rated this one 16+, and you definitely shouldn’t let anyone younger read it. It deals with very mature, and often violent, themes. Rape, incest, suicide, murder. Two people are murdered and then left to be run over by trains, their bodies dismembered as a night of trains crushes them. Ayako is frequently nude and very sexual, tries to have sex with two of her own brothers and a perfect stranger, and is nearly raped twice. Her mother is constantly violated by her father-in-law, and beaten by her husband. Women are not treated very well in this book, so if you’re sensitive to those things, you have been warned. I’ve seen some reviewers note the book is very misogynistic. I think it’s written properly for the time period it’s set in. I love the exploration of the post-war feminist movement. The struggle between the traditional and those wishing to break out of that mold. I feel it’s an accurate representation of its period. Both the men and the women in the story are equally guilty in their involvement in the story’s tragedies. The men for enacting the atrocities, and the women for standing by and letting it happen. That they are mostly brutally mistreated does not show some sort of authorial hatred toward females, but rather highlights the darkness in the hearts of the male characters. The men of the Tenge family are warped, power hungry, selfish, and violent. Shiro discovers that this sort of behavior goes back for generations, creating a cesspit that the women are struggling to climb out of (and that one quite literally ends up in). This twisted and tragic family takes all their troubles out on the innocent Ayako, but in the end, she gets her revenge and vanishes, free from the Tenge family’s abuse and warped history.
If you’re a fan of Tezuka, this shouldn’t be missed. For everyone else, if you enjoy a good story, you’ll enjoy Ayako.