Osamu Tezuka (2010), Ayako, Vertical
[Translated by Mari Morimoto]
So, it turns out just because you like a book very much, that does not necessarily make it particularly easy to talk about. Most recently, for me, this was the case with Osamu Tezuka’s fantastic comic Ayako, which was published in one massive gorgeous volume in Mari Morimoto’s translation by Vertical. Over the course of 800 dense black-and-white pages, it tells a disturbing and suspenseful story set in postwar Japan and it manages to be several kinds of books at once: a sharp narrative of how the defeat in the Second World War affected Japan on a social, political and cultural level, a dark horror tale of a village committing a terrible, prolonged crime, a revelatory take on actual political/criminal mysteries of the day and the biography of a young woman, who comes to represent both the promise of the coming modern age, and the darkness lurking within. All of this written and drawn by perhaps the foremost manga artist/writer, several of whose books have become permanent fixtures in the evolving canon of Japanese comics culture. He has written comic books for both children and adults. Ayako is written in the Seinen manga genre, mangas targeted at a 18-30 year old audience. Have I possibly overstated the magnificence of the book? That might well be true, but I still recommend this book highly to anyone even remotely interested in reading comics. I just lack a certain vocabulary and context to discuss the book properly, not being very well versed in either postwar Japanese society & culture or Japanese comics in particular, although I have read a few (and even reviewed one or two here). So overall I am not 100% sure how to explain to you that this is a fantastic book, but if you trust my opinion on comics at all, go get this one. Ayako feels significant historically, but mostly it is a tumultuous, engrossing read that spans decades, and contains so many lives, so many ideas and appeals to my love for both historical narratives and a certain, slow burning kind of sense of terror.
The book, initially set in 1949, starts out as a kind of seedy postwar narrative that reminded me so much of Carol Reed’s masterpiece The Third Man that I suspect it was an influence on the book somehow. The man this part of the book focuses on is called Jiro Tenge, who returns from the war and he is shown to be enmeshed in a web of espionage that survived the end of the war and left him indebted to several unpleasant figures. If we compare his story with the movie, somehow he ends up being both Joseph Cotton and Orson Welles. He is this book’s most complicated character, battling various moralities and his eventual demise is foreshadowed by the noir structure of his storyline. Tezuka makes sure we see little of what is happening, he insists on literally not giving us the whole picture, telling the beginning of Jiro’s postwar spy career in fragments: we see feet and shadows and eyes, and fleeting fragments of dialog. The major motivation for Jiro’s actions, his spying for the United States in the war, basically committing treason, is hinted at, but there is no flashback, no explanation for how he came to be a spy, we just know he is now, and he can’t turn his back on the network that survived the war and quickly became enmeshed with the mob. As in Italy, the immediate postwar period and American occupation was an immense boon to the local mafia, which thrived on the enforced secrecy and black markets. In this way, Tezuka transcends narratives like The Third Man by showing us how closely crime and politics were interlaced, and not in a simple way either. It’s not just corrupt politicians, it’s a country being forced at gunpoint to enter a different kind of modernity, a country forced to accept the dictates of another and individuals within that country torn between different loyalties. Think Wolfgang Koeppen’s Pigeons on the Grass (which, by the way, if you haven’t read yet, you should, along with everything else by Koeppen that has been translated into your language. The English translation of Pigeons on the Grass has been done by David Ward and published by Holmes & Meier), atmospherically, if that makes sense to you. Jiro re-enters society burdened by feelings of guilt and by the silence enforced upon him. This is the moral thread from which his whole moral fabric eventually unravels. And here is one of the difficulties in reading this book for me. I am a German reading it in 2013. It was written in the 1970s for a Japanese audience. For me, someone turning on the murderous Japanese emperor is “a good guy”. But for 1970s Japan, that was not as simple. His moral ambivalence, his guilt had to have been palpable to the book’s original audience, and while to me it is a tale of a good man going bad, for a Japanese audience Jiro had to have been at least ambivalent to begin with.
As for the other main characters, Tezuka offers no such ambivalence. They are either clearly good, or clearly evil. But in a way this is because they live in a different setting. Jiro comes home to a rural household. His dealings with the agencies and later the mob take place in Tokyo, but his family lives in the countryside. The Tengo family, moreover, is rich and owns a large farm and holds sway over the whole village. Through Jiro’s eyes, we get to know that deeply dysfunctional family and the estate. The father is a violent, sexually abusive man, who treats everybody like shit. The rest of the family is composed of the lickspittle older brother and various younger siblings, as well as the older brother’s wife, who has just given birth to a girl called Ayako. As it turns out, Ayako has really been fathered by the head of the family, and the older brother just acquiesced, hoping to curry favors and power from his father. Jiro is the only one not bowing to every insane whim of his father’s, the rest of the family is suffering in silence. What happens next is too complicated and disturbing to recount in detail, but eventually, Ayako is thrown in a windowless room in the cellar, with only a trapdoor bringing in light and food. In that windowless room she grows up into a beautiful young woman. And there is a sense of safety for her in there, even though the sexual abuse rampant on the Tengo estate does not spare her in her hidden place either. Officially she is declared dead. A few hundred pages later, the death of the head of the household precipitates another series of events that lead to an unexpectedly dark ending. Having read a few other books by Tezuka, including the splendidly imaginative Dororo, the relentlessness of Ayako is stunning. The author offers us no compromise, there are no copouts and there is really very little respite in this story of one huge downward spiral.
Ayako, the girl/woman, is the only light in the darkness, but her character is strange, odd (there is a footnote in the beginning of the book,, pointing out that her name in Japanese is written with the character for “odd”), she almost seems fantastic. In a story of unrelenting realism, where consequences have to be faced and suffering can at best be delayed, she adds an almost supernatural element. I am not spoiling the ending for you (and you can see I tried my best not to tell too much of the story), but throughout the book and especially in the last panel that we see her in, she reminded me so much of Junji Ito’s work. Now, Ito is a younger writer/artist, so he was not an influence on this book, but I guess I am using the comparison to try and explain how the girl, Ayako, feels to me as a reader. Junji Ito is a writer of horror manga and the only writer in the genre of comic book horror who has genuinely terrified me with his work. I recommend, nay, urge you, to read his work. Here is a blog post that might get you started. Ito writes horror that is metaphysical as well as intensely physical. Bodies decay, are warped, torn apart and transformed in his work, but the same happens to people’s souls. And while Ayako’s body remains unblemished, one can’t help but feel the horror of a whole lifetime of abuse coiling up inside this innocent mind. The last panel we see her in, she looks at us and we are terrified, even though she is the most unequivocally ‘good’ character of the whole book. She seems to have contained the horror of that whole Tengo family, all their guilt and violence and suffering and sadness and abuse, without even losing a bit of her innocence. There is a purity to her that nothing can diminish and this is deeply fantastic, deeply unrealistic, as the book itself keeps reminding us by showing us all the bruises on all the other characters. She is a wonder, and terror, at the same time.
It is hard not to see the family, and its eventual breakdown, as somewhat analogous to the state of Japanese society, which went from a monarchy to a democracy. I said earlier that it is never explained what happened to Jiro in the war, but some things that happen to some characters in the book can be read as explaining the spirit – if not the substance of what happened. And there is another element that ties the personal stories to the actual events in Japan that are verifiably true. The story of Jiro is a relatively straightforward crime narrative that gets tangled up in the mess that is the Tengo family. At its heart is a murder mystery. Now, that is a mystery to the characters in the novel, and further murders and deceptions follow from it on the level of the fictional Tengo family. But at the same time, the murder of a political figure called Shimokawa is, according to a very helpful footnote, modeled on the murder of a real life politician called Shimoyama, whose death is one of the enduring historical mysteries in Japan and is described as the “Shimoyama incident”. 1970s Japan was an audience that was sure to recognize the massive similarities, and Tezuka offers us a revelation of the way the murder took place and the reasons for it that is less Dan Brown and more James Ellroy in Black Dahlia. What it also does is tie the Tengo family to an urgent strain of Japanese postwar history. The historical murder is mirrored and repeated by intra-family murders, strengthening the idea that the Tengo family is analogous to Japanese society. And Ayoko, the milky skinned young woman might well be read as the soul of the Japanese nation, in the way that Romanticism has invented ‘national’ essences, a notion that many modern nationalisms have built upon.
However, we are left with a bit of a stale taste: the girl who has been used by her family all her life, is being exploited by the author as well. There is an uncomfortable amount of female nudity in the book, and while I would like to think that part of the discomfort is intentional, and that it does intentionally reference exploitation, the fact remains that the book visits terrible abuse on its female characters to make a narrative and a political point, and one can’t help but be reminded of the “women in refrigerators” trope that was so well described by Gail Simone and others in her wake: the tendency of comics to kill or abuse women to make a plot point, or to motivate the male superhero into action. The case here is not as simple as that, thanks to the incredibly layered nature of the book, but a distinctive unease remains, especially since the Seinen manga genre is primarily targeted at a male audience.
A note on the translation: the book reads very fluently and the occasional footnotes are very helpful, but there is one big weird flaw: the rural populace speaks a ‘hick’ dialect and Mari Morimoto attempts to approximate it in English, yet the result is frequently awkward. And as I close this review, I have barely mentioned Tezuka’s art. The reason for that is that by now, any panel drawn by him is instantly recognizable: his mixture of realism and Disney-fied cuteness has been a defining influence on manga artists. I find it hard to describe without also describing so much of what was to follow him. Suffice to say that this is a complex and masterful tale, and the art doesn’t just accompany it – it makes much of it possible. So much of the strangeness is conveyed in images rather than in words: it is a story of secrets, silences and looks. And Tezuka’s art is always in complete control of the story. Ayako is a masterful book by one of the greatest comic book writers/artists of his or any time. I can only repeat what I said earlier: if you are at all tempted by comic books, give this one a whirl.
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