Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 329 (12/29) -- Ayako by Osamu Tezuka

Family stories get short shrift these days, both from the high art side -- which usually sees them in the form of "women's fiction," as if half the human race was a minor specialty audience -- and from fans of genre works, who prefer to concentrate on zippier and more exciting materials. But families are one of the few things we all have in common -- no matter who we are, or where we came from, someone cared for us when we were small, or we wouldn't still be alive. (Any wolf-boys who want to dispute that can speak up in comments.) And family stories, since they tend to sprawl and drag in all kinds of social and personal concerns, have the scope to really show how people really live and what they care about.

The great writers of the past knew that -- from Dickens to Tolstoy, from Balzac to Zola, from Eisner to Spiegelman. And so did Osamu Tezuka, Japan's "godfather of manga," the man who almost singlehandedly created the idiom for an artform for an entire country, and then managed to run ahead of that artform for another forty years. Tezuka created many stories, in many styles, but for a decade or so, starting in the late '60s, he made a sequence of tough, adult, long graphic novels with subject matter that's groundbreaking even now, and must have been startling then. And alongside such stories of that era as MW (my review), Apollo's Song (my review), and Ode to Kirihito (my review) stands Ayako, the saga of a twisted, tormented family originally serialized in 1972-73 but only now translated for an English-speaking audience.

Ayako is the story of the Tenge family, major landowners in rural Yodoyama, beginning at the moment when their power and influence has started to wane -- inevitably, unstoppably, completely. In early 1949, second son Jiro returns home from a POW camp to find his older brother Ichiro married and utterly settled to succeed their father, Sakuemon, in the ownership of the family estates. (Though land reform has peeled away much of their land over the last several years, granting it to their former tenant farmers, and that loss might not be completed.) Jiro returns to find that his younger siblings -- teenage sister Naoko and grade-school brother Shiro -- have been joined by a little girl named Ayako, who was born while he was off at war. Ayako is clearly doted on by Sakuemon, but she's equally obviously not the daughter of his wife Iba. Jiro soon learns the sordid secret of Ayako's parentage, and how it's caught up in the inheritance of the Tenge lands.

But he has his own secrets: he became a collaborator for the Americans while in that POW camp, and is still active as an agent of the occupying army's General Staff Office Section 2. And those are only the beginning of the secrets, lies, and crimes that the Tenge family inflicts -- mostly on each other -- over the next quarter-century. Ayako is at the center of all of it, the still, innocent center -- keeper of some secrets, subject of others, and, before long, a gigantic, completely hidden secret herself. They lie and commit crimes for money and for power, but primarily to save face -- primarily to hide the horrible things that they've already done.

Ayako is the closest thing to an innocent this story has, but she's warped by her very unusual upbringing -- she had very little chance to begin with, and the Tenge family made sure that she didn't even get that chance. By the end of the story that bears her name, she's nearly thirty and utterly alone, despite her burning need for (and sad lack of understanding about) for connection and love. Ayako isn't quite a tragedy, though all of the Tenges are eventually destroyed by their own flaws -- or, if it is a tragedy, it's the Tragedy of Clan Tenge, the fall of a once-proud (and presumably honest and upright) family.

Tezuka uses something close to his most realistic style for most of Ayako; there are none of his sometimes distracting cartoony urchins and comic relief. The entire story maintains a unified tone and approach; there's no respite from the grime of post-war Japan, the rise of gangsters and war profiteers, and the nastiness of the Tenge family, which gives Ayako a growing power and force as it sweeps across twenty-five years of history. This is the work of a master of comics working at the height of his powers: the story of one girl, destroyed by her family, that can also be read (slyly) as a metaphor for Japan itself in those years.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index

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