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"Ayako": Osamu Tezuka Plumbs the Depths of Familial Depravity

Ayako is a graphic novel that is defined by acts of betrayal and moral degeneracy, with one of its major inciting incidents being an act that is spiritually if not literally incestuous. By the time this massive tome by master mangaka Osamu Tezuka is finished, even that taboo has been broken, along with all 10 Commandments and many, many other injunctions on civilized behavior. It is not an easy work to read by any means, wallowing in the depths of human depravity. The end effect is something like a multi-car pileup on the highway or the average reality TV show: it is awful and ugly, and yet you find it impossible to look away. Unfortunately, while the power of the work is undeniable, Ayako doesn’t quite match up to some of the other epic-scaled Tezuka graphic novels that Vertical has translated to English and imported.

Ayako is the epic tale of the Tenge clan, a former noble family fallen on hard times in the aftermath of World War II. Their second son Jiro returns to the ancestral family home after his service in the Japanese Army and a stretch in a prisoner-of-war camp. However, the fact that he allowed himself to be taken prisoner rather than dying an honorable death has made him something of a pariah to his father, the Tenge patriarch Sakuemon. The biggest surprise in store for Jiro is the newest addition to the family: the young girl Ayako, who is treated by the whole family as Sakuemon’s latest daughter even though it quickly becomes obvious to Jiro that Sakuemon fathered the child with Su’e, the wife of the eldest Tenge son, Ichiro. Family secrets soon begin bubbling up, each more shocking and noxious than the last. Jiro’s younger sister Naoko is revealed to be involved with the Japanese Communist Party, putting her in the crosshairs of the occupying American forces and their Japanese government enablers. Jiro worked for those same forces as an informer in the P.O.W. camp and is compelled to continue working for them afterwards, soon placing him on a collision course with Naoko. When events boil over and criminal investigations ensue, Jiro must take flight from the law. In turn, these events lead to a deeply ugly and upsetting decision to forcibly separate Ayako from almost all human contact, placing the name and reputation of the Tenge clan above her personal welfare. While intended as a temporary measure, this separation is carried out far, far longer than any normal sense of human decency would allow, soon becoming a seismic fault line that sends shocks of increasing intensity through the Tenge clan through the decades, continually threatening to tear it apart and forcing ever more extreme actions.

Anyone familiar with Tezuka’s gekiga (“dramatic pictures”) manga has come to expect technical brilliance mated with charged themes, potent metaphors, and compelling storylines. Ayako certainly fits that description, and it shares the same slightly overheated, operatic theatricality as works like Ode to Kirihito or MW. Tezuka’s mastery of the comic form is in full display here as well, guiding the eye and triggering narrative flow as well or better than American masters like Will Eisner. A particularly striking sequence involves a locked-down “camera” over a span of pages, chronicling the unfolding events in a small room from the same perspective. It’s a fascinating manipulation of space and time in printed media that controls the narrative and the reader’s emotional reaction to it. As with all of Tezuka’s work, Ayako is virtually a master-class on comic-book storytelling that any aspiring comic artists would benefit from studying.

However, a number of factors make Ayako much more difficult reading than some of those other works. The evil on display in many of Tezuka’s other gekiga often falls so far out of the norm that it becomes comfortably distant from our own experience. In contrast, the actions of the characters in Ayako are banal and familiar enough that they become uncomfortably real. While the extreme deviancy of MW is more outrageous than that in Ayako, it is the latter work that triggers a stronger and more uncomfortable response. It doesn’t help that so few of the characters manage to garner any sympathy or empathy from the average reader. The defining traits of almost every single character in the book are a broken moral compass and an incredible capacity for repetitive, self-destructive behavior. The exact ways that these traits manifest may differ from character to character, but the end result is that it’s a little too easy to find oneself despising the characters rather than feeling any pity over their situation. The Right Thing is always made clear to everyone, and yet nobody has the courage to ever do it out of nearly perverse senses of obligation and external validation. The one character who ever shows any sustained interest in Ayako’s welfare is Jiro’s younger brother, Shiro, but even his motivation seems driven less by human decency and more by an unexplained but palpable desire to stick it to the family. Even the book’s title character is not immune to this effect; while she is definitely more sinned against than sinning, her ignorance doesn’t fully mitigate some of her actions. There are few characters that we can find admirable (notably a dogged police inspector who refuses to give up a murder investigation, along with his upright son), but their roles are relatively small and it soon becomes clear that their moral fortitude will be little help to them or anyone else. The germs of hope that leaven Ode to Kirihito and MW give them the cathartic property all good tragedies have, but this same sense of catharsis is curiously absent from Ayako.

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