Jirou Tenge, the second son of what used to be an influential Japanese family, returns home after being a POW in an American camp during the Second World War. He finds his family corrupted by the terrible social aftereffects of the war.
His elder brother, determined to keep what remains of the family patrimony after the Government's forced land reallocation, has prostituted his wife to his father to secure his blessing, while other members of Jiro's family have been drawn into similar corruption, and he himself is being forced to spy for the Americans after being broken as a POW. Now the family's youngest daughter Ayako will have to bear the brunt of the family's sins.
The late Osamu Tezuka needs no introduction. Over his lifetime he created dozens of classic stories that have helped shape manga and anime into what it is today. ‘Ayako’ is one of his lesser known works. Rather undeservingly so seeing as it’s yet another excellent demonstration of Tezuka’s imcredible storytelling abilities.
The story begins in 1949. Japan is slowly getting back on its feet following the devastating losses it suffered during World War 2 and Jiro Tenge, son of a wealthy family of landowners, has come back home. Reluctantly so, I might add, seeing as he finds out upon returning that not much has
changed. His father Sakuemon (the head of the family) is still grumpy, condescending and more than a bit xenophobic while his older brother Ichiro tries his best to match him. The women in the Tenge family are treated as non-entities which reflects how sexist Japanese society was in that time period. The children, meanwhile, are raised to fill in similar roles once they grow up. There is one exception, though. A child named Ayako, a new niece of Jiro’s who is particularly favored by patriarch Sakuemon.
The story spans a time period of approximately 25 years and during that time a series of events, varying from shifts in the political climate to personal tragedies, take place that greatly affect members of the Tenge family in different ways. We see a family desperately clinging to their power as the world around them begins to change, an ambitious son who’ll use his children as pawns to win favor with his father, a man who gets caught up in espionage for shady agencies in order to build up a personal fortune and a child trying in vain to change his family from the inside out. The lynchpin of the entire narrative is young Ayako (hence the title). Her role as an innocent child is initially played straight but as the story goes on it eventually becomes clear that it serves a symbolic purpose. She represents an undying innocence that is cruelly repressed and (if possible) denied by a society that sacrifices integrity for personal gain.
This, in turn, is the major theme of this manga. And Tezuka deserves props for brilliantly exploring the way principles and innocence are corrupted in the face of selfishness. Other themes that pop up in the story ultimately serve to support it.
Some may be surprised at how cynical all of this sounds coming from the man who’s mostly known for rather upbeat stories (though he also wrote ‘MW’) but let it be clear. This is a very somber story with a very harsh view on human nature and society. It is nonetheless a very thematically rich and frighteningly timeless work that deserves to be read by any serious fan of manga.
It’s not all perfect though. There are a handful of events that are rather rushed and/or contrived, while most characters ultimately functions as little more than pawns in the grand scheme of things. Characterization is minimal seeing as their roles in the story are largely symbolic. Some may also find that Tezuka pours his (political) views on a little too thick at times. Tezuka was never one for subtlety.
The visuals of this manga are excellent. Osamu Tezuka’s ability to frame all sorts of emotions in tiny pictures is on full display and he doesn’t stuff his panels with unnecessary detail. Another great aspect of the art is the way the characters are designed. They’re all very distinctive and they really look different yet instantly recognizable as they get older. The art does a perfect job supporting the narrative which is the main attraction here. And in that regard, Ayako delivers in spades. Very highly recommended.
I was fortunate. Fortunate in that I had a learned individual informed me of the background in which ‘Ayako’ was created which allowed me to understand the reasoning behind many of the plot points and the overall theme.
Because the story would have looked awful without the understanding of that background.
The reason being that much of it isn’t presented well, and it ends up looking silly and vapid without the proper presentation. Eventually, the story does get around to leading readers in the right direction of understanding, but that is well over 50% into the story and it is still fairly easy to lose sight of.
is that the themes within Ayako are actually pretty universal and timeless. Intra-family power struggles, changing times upheaving old knowledge/structures/understanding, complex individual personalities acting immoral in some cases and moral in others, and all forced within the rigid framework known as ‘society’.
However, the above themes get lost due to the seemingly simple and rather blunt story. The simple and crass characters. The simple and unsubtle plot. And so on. It's unfortunate, but the manga is really outdated, though it was likely good for its time. Today, though, even low-ranking modern manga tend to create superior stories with more well defined/created characters.
But, again, I was informed that much of the story was written as a sort of overview of post-WWII Japan and the feelings Tezuka has about the American occupancy and the dirty laundry of Japanese aristocracy. Due to that background knowledge, I had read the story while viewing all the characters within the story as symbolism rather than actual characters. Each character we are presented are representative of an aspect of Japanese society. They’re inter-connected and the actions of one ultimately affect the other in a sort of circle of tragedy, uplifting, and just plain ol’ life.
Through this view, it seems to me that the story made much more sense and the complexity which seemed non-existent seemingly came into play and became visible. The events that happened which seemed to have made little to no sense suddenly became understandable. As a result, Ayako became vastly more enjoyable.
Should everyone read the manga as I did? No, absolutely not. I believe manga (or any medium, really) is better experienced and perceived by individual's own taste. However, I think many people would enjoy Ayako much more so long as they do not accept everything at face value as I might have done had I not known.
Usually when I get paid every month, I'll try and at least buy something different from my usual reads. I've been a slight fan of Astro Boy and the sort of spin-off Pluto series. I looked up some of Osamu Tekzuka's other works and had a look at Ayako. After reading the synopsis, I thought it would be an interesting read seeing how much darker than it seems in comparison with Astro Boy.
The start of this was very promising, you get a good feel for each of the characters, their motivations and all of that. The culmination of the first arc, so to speak, led
for an interesting read. However, as the manga continues, it sort of begins to lose its momentum in terms of plot and how the characters were used.
The art is what you expect of a Tekzuka work, one of a kind. It still surprisingly holds up to this day and was great to look at.
My gripes are more to do with maybe mid-end of it. Without spoiling anything, the titular Ayako becomes character of circumstance and faces punishment. The timeskips, which were well done, I have to say, show how she has been affected by this. However, it becomes very frustrating when the same thing happens over and over.
The ending is very confusing in terms of how I felt when I finished it. I suppose it's punishment for the characters involved and justice for Ayako but it ends very abruptly with a couple of lines of text that basically say "and Ayako was never heard from again." I suppose it just came down to constraints on the author at the time of creation.
Overall, I wouldn't say i'm disappointed by this by any means. My gripes are more to do with some of the plot and character development. I would recommend this definitely if you're a fan of Tezuka's. The journey is definitely a strange one and some of the stuff will have you cringing at the mere thought of what happens on the way through it.