A dark and twisted look at a Japanese family full of dark secrets.
Writer/Artist: Osamu Tezuka
What They Say
Initially set in the aftermath of World War II, Ayako focuses its attention on the Tenge clan, a once-powerful family of landowners living in a rural community in northern Japan. The war and American occupation have begun to erode the fabric that binds them all together. The increasing influence of political, economic and social change begins to tear into the many Tenge siblings, while a strange marriage agreement creates resentment between the eldest son and his sire.
When the family seems to have completely fallen apart, they decide to turn their collective rage on what they believe to be the source of their troubles: the newest member of the Tenge family, the youngest sister Ayako.
The cover here is a bold one that readers will likely either love or hate, presenting a very basic, centered image of a nude Ayako covering herself over a plain background. The back cover similarly displays only a basic silhouette of a person’s lower half dangling as though they have been hanged. The book itself is a rather large hardcover with a nice sturdy feel to it. No extras are included, and the paper quality feels solid. Honorifics are not maintained, sound effects are replaced with stylized translated text, and the text reads smoothly (though dialects may cause some readers trouble.)
The art here is very much in Tezuka’s style, meaning that characters are drawn in a somewhat basic style. However, in exchange motion and emotion are displayed well here (though sometimes in ways that feel a tad cartoonish for such a dark story), and backgrounds appear often and look rather nice. It is also worth noting that there is a decent amount of toplessness on display in this book, generally Ayako, though it is all relatively tasteful and presented solely to tie into the story.
The story begins in 1949, with a former soldier named Jiro Tenge finally returning from the war, back to his family. He soon learns, however, that things aren’t quite as he left them. It turns out that his new younger sister that he has yet to meet, Ayako, isn’t his mother’s child. We also soon see that Jiro was in fact a spy during the war who sold out to the Americans. Upon returning home, he finds that his father no longer accepts him, as he didn’t die for his country in the war, instead shamefully returning home alive. He also finds that his older brother Ichiro had given his wife Su’e to his father to use sexually in order to gain his favor and insure his inheritance, which resulted in Ayako’s birth.
Finding that there is no place for him at home, Jiro sets out to find work and is soon given a dirty job to deposit a body on railroad tracks at an appointed time. Upon staking out the target to gain information, he discovers that the man is the leader of the local chapter of the Democratic Progress Party, an extremist group that the government finds troublesome. Not only that, but his younger sister Naoko is a member of the party, and the man is her lover. This causes Jiro some turmoil, but in the end he decides to damn himself and become a part of the death of Naoko’s lover. During the task, Jiro gets some blood on his shirt, and is discovered by Ayako and the addlebrained servant girl O-ryu when trying to clean it off. Upon finding similarities between Jiro’s crime and a larger crime, a detective begins to investigate the case, and comes to suspect Jiro. Eventually, Jiro’s suspect nature is revealed to the family, and though he is able to divert the charges so they appear to be something less gruesome, the family decides to murder O-ryu and hide Ayako in order to protect the dignity of their name. When the cops begin snooping around, the family takes things further, locking Ayako alone in a secret cellar, and planning to have her live out the rest of her days there and officially writing her off as dead. Though Jiro’s clever younger brother Shiro does his best to prove Jiro’s guilt and free Ayako, this all amounts to nothing. However, thanks to heat from the government and deadly threats from his old organization, Jiro is forced to go on the run, eventually teaming up with a Korean man named Kinjo for criminal activities, and sending his earnings back to Ayako out of guilt.
From there, we skip ahead to the time of the Korean war, a time in which Ayako is a young woman who has lived in the cellar for quite a while. Around this time, Ayako begins to come to grips with her womanhood, but her sexuality expresses itself in a twisted way, causing her make advances on her brother Shiro. At first he tries to resist, but instead gives in and declares himself just as disturbed as the rest of his family, and places himself as Ayako’s protector. Meanwhile, the head of the family finally passes away, and his will declares that his fortune goes to Ayako’s birth mother, Ichiro’s wife Su’e. Furious, Ichiro secretly does away with Su’e before she can leave him, and forces his way in as new head of the family.
Over the rest of the book, we see Ayako mature further and become even more twisted, becoming afraid to leave her cellar and, once that is destroyed, refusing to leave a crate except around those she truly trusts. As time passes, Jiro becomes something of a crime lord, and he eventually becomes the protector of a frightened Ayako who feels she has nobody to turn to. The predecessor of the detective who was hunting Jiro continues to pursue him, and that detective’s son ends up in love with Ayako by a twist of fate.
Things reach a breaking point when Jiro learns that his right hand man Kinjo has had it for him for as long as they’ve known each other. Jiro confronts Kinjo, but ends up unintentionally killing him, sending the law after him once again. As such, Jiro returns home once more, only to be stabbed by his sister Naoko upon revealing his role in her lover’s murder. Desperate to save Jiro in order to earn his favor and fortune, the family rushes him to a hidden cave for treatment. All the key players are gathered there, and in anger Shiro causes a cave in, trapping the group. Confined in a way not unlike what happened to Ayako, with little hope of rescue, and insanity starts to set in. Ironically, Ayako is the only one to keep her cool, and the only one to make it out alive in the end.
Ayako is certainly an interesting tale, and one that touches on a number of dark subjects that are rarely discussed, including the faults all sides in postwar Japan, incest, and the twisted reaches of the human mind. From beginning to end, the characters and twists remain intriguing and are sure to keep you reading. However, the ending feels unfortunately a tad abrupt, leaving a few things feeling unresolved (Jiro’s story in particular). The ending itself may also be a bit too dark for the tastes of some, though fortunately the author’s intents remain clear provide an interesting allusion to earlier events in the story. Regardless, this is a highly intriguing and enjoyable tale that should feel at home in anyone’s collection, assuming they can stomach the subject matter.