Post-war family matters
By Joseph Luster
Ayako brings us another massive single-volume tale from the manga master, Osamu Tezuka. Like some of Vertical's previous long-form Tezuka releases—MW and Ode to Kirihito in particular—Ayako isn't afraid to get dark and dreary. In fact, Ayako may be one of the bleakest yet. That is, of course, said as a term of endearment; this nearly 700-page work sucks you into its twisted narrative from the very first chapter, and its grip only gets icier as the pages turn.
Much is at work both in and out of the public eye in post-war Japan, and Ayako captures this transitional period of mystery and uncertainty through the lens of the Tenge household. We get our first glimpse of the family at their countryside farm, as Jiro Tenge returns from service to find even the dynamics of his closest relatives have taken to their own gnarled roots. His father, Sakuemon Tenge, shuns him for being taken in as a POW rather than dying for his country, his sister Naoko is secretly involved with the Democratic Progress Party, and this is just scratching the surface of the Tenge family's deep-seated woes.
But Jiro has dark secrets of his own, as he remains tied to hush-hush obligations and shady operations that run their dark course through the governmental underworld. It's his first assignment since returning home—he is to dispose of a body on nearby train tracks to eradicate any trace of wrongdoing—that triggers the primary conflict in Ayako, sending a rippling wave through the Tenge household that will continue to crash for years to come.
Most tragic of all is the way this single act affects the titular Ayako, only four years old at that point. Conceived in an illicit affair between Sakuemon and his son's wife, Ayako is both Sakuemon's daughter and granddaughter. She is eventually locked in a cellar and publicly pronounced dead in a desperate and diabolical attempt to keep the things she knows, and what she's seen with her own eyes, buried for good. As in real life, however, it's the things buried deepest that are most likely to surface when least expected.
Thanks to Tezuka's storytelling prowess, Ayako needn't primarily focus on an individual member of the Tenge family. Rather, it's about the family as a whole as it spirals through a generation of tumult. Time is manipulated deftly; seasons, years, and decades pass naturally, and the result is a voyeuristic front seat before a variety of keyholes. There is little to none of Tezuka's trademark humor present throughout. That doesn't necessarily make the dramatics overbearing, it's just honest, and it should succeed at making the audience just a little uncomfortable at times. With all traces of levity more or less scorched from the earth, Tezuka is left to concentrate his talents on turning a potentially convoluted web of events into one that seems almost effortlessly clear.
With so much going on both visually and narratively, one should have no problem excusing the occasional lack of subtly, like waves crashing against a phallic rock, or rushing waters turned calm after an erotic encounter. These are classic metaphorical Tezuka transitions, after all. Elsewhere, he manipulates panels with remarkable expertise. There's a 10-page chunk preceding the book's climax that's like the manga equivalent of a single-take scene on film. Or perhaps it would be more apt to compare it to a stage play. The scene is set and the actors play their parts.
Ayako's full package is an impressive one, indeed. From Peter Mendelsund's elegant cover design to Mari Morimoto's dialect-infused translation, this is another must for fans of Osamu Tezuka and comics in general. If you've yet to delve into this aspect of the man's career, it's as good a place to start as any. Just be sure to devour it at the measured pace appropriate for its lengthy and layered chronicle.
Publisher: Vertical Inc.
Story & Art: Osamu Tezuka
© 2010 by Tezuka Productions
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