Manga Spotlight: Ayako
by Osamu Tezuka
Released by Vertical
Preview online here
Knowing that it chronicled the downfall of a powerful Japanese family starting with America's post war occupation in what sounded like Absalom, Absalom! fashion, the promise of a serious approach to history and tragedy placed Ayako at the top of the list of works by manga pioneer Osamu Tezuka that I'd long wanted licensed and translated for North American release. I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing Tezuka apply his gifts for involving, inventive storytelling to such a dark look at a family's unspeakable post-war skeletons in the closet.
Tezuka created over 80,000 pages of manga over his career. When he was turning out a weekly serial, not every story was a gem. But, you could tell he had a staggering capacity for transmuting stimuli into compelling that was further boosted when he had a subject that he felt needed addressing. In a short, chapter long Astro Boy or Black Jack story, that stimuli might be a news headline or factoid that grabbed his attention. For Ayako, it was the weighty issue of how traditional institutions contended with the changes of the post war decades. Knowing that his tools were up to the challenge, the promise of a subversive story full of the type of moral implications that got Tezuka's wheels turning fueled my desire to read Ayako.
Ayako didn't exactly conform to my preconceptions. What I'd read about it had explicitly stated as much, but I didn't realized the way in which the central sexual misconduct extended from a position of power and I misjudged its relationship with the American occupation. I'd weighed my impression too deprived and insufficiently depraved.
On the other hand, my expectation of an engaging, opinionated, unique approach to the subject were certainly satisfied. A consummate storyteller Tezuka establishes the gravity that drags the reader down 700 pages, following land slide over the quarter century to a point contemporary with the manga's publication(1972). Constantly pulling along with "what happens next?" provocations, it's manga not to start when you don't have time to devote.
Hopefully, by this point, Osamu Tezuka's capacity for seriousness is known to North American comic/manga readers. Beyond the hard consequences and adult themes explored in manga for children and young audiences, in beloved works like Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion and Black Jack, his huge body of hundreds of volumes of manga included plenty of works specifically written for adult, serialized in older-audience publications.
More than just serious, Ayako is Tezuka at his steadiest. Mw, which express Tezuka's anger about cycles of violence and war, started off with a tense chase scene and continued down a thriller's road. The brutal religious contemplation of Ode to Kirihito was couched in a sort of multi-national epic medical mystery. In contrast, while there are bits of intrigue, spying and crime in Ayako, especially compared to other Tezuka works, there is hardly any genre wrapper on the subject. Without the head speed of Mw or Ode to Kirihito, though it might be as compelling, Ayako is a more draining read.
In terms of how Tezuka relays the story, there are cases of extravagant symbolism, including a sex scene using a metaphor that blows away the recent Panty and Stocking anime at its own game. Characters don't always behave in the most subtle, naturalistic way. Its American powers-that-be are quick to draw a pistol to wave in a face or gavel a table at any provocations. But, it rarely undercuts its tone the way that some serious Tezuka manga does. It doesn't have the humorous quirks that work themselves into his other serious manga, such as Hitler acting Looney Tunes daffy in Adolf, his equally dangerous and daffy depictions of legendary queen Himiko as a crazy flake in Phoenix: Dawn, the funny animas gags in some of the Phoenix entries or standby tension breakers like the gassy, pig nosed gourd Hyoutan-Tsugi.
Tezuka serialized Ayako in Shogakukan's old audience stronghold, Big Comic from January, 1972 to June, 1973. From a biographical point of view, the time frame could be considered a low point. COM, an experimental anthology launched by Tezuka as a response to Sanpei Shirato's alt anthology Garo in 1967, that housed his life's work, Phoenix, folded in 1971. Mushi Production, the home of the 1964 Astro Boy anime that revolutionized the medium's television presence, went bankrupt. Medical morality parable Black Jack would later be considered his most popular manga (as opposed to Astro Boy, his most popular character), but when it began at 1973, it was staged as something of a last hurrah for the "old man of manga" to the artists who grew up after the age of post war censorship.
At the same time, Ayako brings the feminine, sexual themes Tezuka had been working on to a head-on-a-swivel level of harshness. This was the period when he was creating the strange, transgressive material that fascinates many of his North American readers. In 1968, Tezuka responded to the turbulent times with Swallowing the Earth, one of his first novelistic stories, in which a cabal of women seek to destroy money, law and patriarchy through sex and drugs. Swallow's episodic sibling, I.L, presented parables centered on a woman with the power to become any other person (a concept re-explored with the Phoenix cycle's Moopies) hit in 1969.
In 1970, Tezuka wrestled with love, sex and reproduction in often violent, disturbing fashion in Apollo's Song (released in North America by Vertical) and he launched its younger audience sibling, Marvelous Melmo, a sex education work about an orphan girl who receives magic pills from God , allowing her to transform into an adult. At the same time, he began Human Metamorphosis (upcoming from Vertical), a satire comparing the human world to the insect's, centered on the story of a woman who parasitically takes the works of others.
Ayako was written in the 70's hang-over from the 60's improvements in prosperity. It was a time to take stock of how matters arrived at their current state.
Following Japan's defeat in World War II, Jiro Tenge returns from incarceration in an American prisoner of war camp to find his family in the midst of unraveling. Once, they were wealthy land owners in the (northern) Tohoku region , but agricultural reforms already began splitting the fields among its farmers. Attaching themselves to the political turbulence yet to come, Jiro's younger sister Naoko has begun acting on her sympathies with the radical movements as they began planning major strikes. A collision course is set as Jiro pinned his survival to corroborating with America, now undertaking anti-Communist work on their behalf.
Jiro also finds a new addition to the family, a young girl named Ayako. Though officially a full sister, this girl turns out to be the daughter of family patriarch Sakuemon and Jiro's elder brother's wife Sue. Ichiro, the eldest Tenge son, agreed to pimp his wife out in this way in return for a guarantee of his inheritance. However, Sakuemon does confide to Jiro that if he could arrange for a pretty young wife for Jiro and work out a similar arrangement, Jiro could also manage to inherit a slice of land.
In July 1949, Japanese National Railways president Sadanori Shimoyama died under mysterious circumstances following the release of a list of 30,000 employees to be laid off as part of the Dodge Line monetary policy driven budget reductions.
Tezuka works this history into Ayako, with Jiro taking part in a dry run for a Shimoyama-like killing, tested with the death of a radical agitator, who happened to be the lover of his sister Naoko.
The case becomes personal for Police Inspector Geta, who learns that Ayako might have seen Jiro disposing of evidence of the radical's killing.
Disposed to acting like the lords of their domain, and thinking themselves clever, the Tenge clan hold an internal trial, with the aims of avoiding as much official scrutiny as possible. Given their troubles with wealth distribution, Naoko is exiled as a traitor. Jiro offers an upsetting alibi and detaches himself from the family. Ayako is struck from the family records, declared dead and permanently confined to a storehouse in the family component.
Two decades later, none of the Tenge conflicts have been settled, but a road construction project cutting into what was the Tenge land cracks open the storehouse, releasing an adult-in-body Ayako into the world.
In an earlier time, this sickness might have remains contained, to be played out in a controlled domain, but in this story it is exposed beyond those confines, to infect further and or to become disinfected. The troubles of the dysfunctional Tenge family are exacerbated by how this clan strains against the shifting currents of new times, shaped by American occupation, changing social rules and priorities, defined by new power dynamics between political tectonics, corporations, and organized crime. While Sakuemon and Ichiro scheme to maintain an entrenched position, Jiro and Naoko look to how Japan is transforming.
As they attempt to assert themselves and not be swept up in the changes, they dig themselves deeper. This is captured in Tezuka's remarkable depiction of how the cast ages over the decades. Their bodies, attitudes and even speech changes during the course of the decade. For example, Shiro, the youngest of child of Sakuemon and his wife Iba starts the manga a socially engaged school boy, but his speech and perspective changes as he spends his years on the family's fields rather than the classroom, such that he end up with the back country isolation voice of Sakuemon and Ichiro by the manga's conclusion. (Translator Mari Morimoto deserves some praise for capturing this.)
Tezuka looked to film for techniques to adapt for manga. And, like other Tezuka works, Ayako does employ cinematic vision. And, because Tezuka was always innovative/creatively restless, there are bits that are stagey. And, they are bits where he tries other ways to frame the story, such as sections that look more documentary or chapters taking place in one room, captured from a fixed point of view. But, beyond this, manga is not film or stage or any other medium.
The serialized Ayako does not read like it was laid out precisely . Characters' plans break down, are lost or never materialized, with projected avenues for the story cut off or abbreviated. One way to see is this is that Tezuka may have had a destination for the story in mind, and allowed the manga to wind a bit in its course to get there. Another is that, given how teetering its events are, the manga is purposefully inefficient. While characters do try to, or at least swear to, redress the broken history of the Tenge clan, their story is less defined by the tension between better and sword angels than it is being pulled down by a brutally heavy anchor.
Unfolding Ayako's destructive dynamic is not an task easy for anyone, perhaps Tezuka least of all.
In The Astro Boy Essays, Frederik Schodt says "the first word usually associated with Tezuka and all of his work is hyumanizumu or 'humanism.' Most Japanese writers immediately seize upon this term and use it in either a positive sense (referring to Tezuka's love for humanity) or a derogatory sense (implying that he has an overly simple or naive view of human nature). Yet, in Japanese, as in English, humanism is an extremely vague term, and it is doubtful that most of those using it are aware of its sub-meanings."
Here, Tezuka's humanism isn't just contending with difficult circumstances, it's dealing with difficult people
Tezuka in English suggests that suggests that Jiro Tenge was a prototype for Black Jack's euthanist adversary Dr. Kiriko. Given that the cast connections in the reused templates of Tezuka's Star System are generally acknowledged, if Jiro and Kiriko do have a connection, it's probably along the lines of Astro Boy's mustached buddy, regularly use Shunsaku Ban with the similar look, but more criminal Butamo Makeru. The only Tezuka star who has much of a presence at all is Police Inspector Geta, the inspector who sticks with Jiro's case for decades to honor his outsider mentor. Ayako is far from the only Tezuka manga to eschew the stars, but it does still have the appearance of an act of segregation.
Keeping the stars out of Ayako feels like a symptom of Tezuka's regard for the manga's players. Tezuka generally appears to have affection or compassion for his characters and casts, giving them redeeming qualities or chances for redemptions. Even if the cast is complex and no one is purely evil, Tezuka appears to be actively bothered by a group that he wishes to hold accountable.
Tezuka work is full of dialectics, especially between compassion for humanity and outrage over the species' sins, as well as between hope and pessimism. Ayako contrasts Tezuka's self identified life's work, the Phoenix cycle of reincarnation. Its ending is a bleaker mirror to how one of the thematically linked stories of Phoenix ended.
Beyond the circumstantial parallels, there are connections in what the manga considers. In Phoenix, among numerous works, Tezuka places high value on perseverance. For example, the Nostalgia chapter of Phoenix, launched in COM in 1971, then resumed in Shounen Magazine in 1976, follows a couple who are swindled into a dud planets during a Diaspora from Earth; when the husband dies, the pregnant wife undertakes desperate measures to keep her colonizing dreams alive; after giving birth to a son, she cryogenically freezes herself, mates with her son, and because she keeps on giving birth to sons, keeps on repeating this process until the shape changing alien Moopies are brought into the blood line. This is certainly weird, but not an exceptional example of what Tezuka frequently represented to be an imperative with unsettling requirements.
In Ayako, "survival" is almost a dirty word. Jiro becomes a counter-revolutionary assassin to survive. In the name of survival, he assaults a woman to guarantee her silence (there's some human dynamics, not-unknown to manga, in that exchange that will bother some readers, with irritation directed at the author more than the characters). Tezuka does not suggest that Jiro is opting for an easy route, and he isn't compassionless in his handling of Jiro and the rest of the cast, but, there is less compassion and more distain in this than in other works.
Transcending the quick pleasure of works that you might enjoy a year or two down the line, Ayako is what I call "bookshelf manga," something to be preserved in your library. And at that, the immense volume is bound to have quite a presence on that shelf.
Yet, while I would recommend the book to readers who know and admire Tezuka, I'd even more vehemently recommend it to those who are less experienced or more ambivalent about his work. In its consistent seriousness, it's devoid of the jarring humor and cartoonishness that turn some off. However, while this is bound to create some Tezuka converts, as someone fascinated by his work since reading Adolf in the late-90's, I found myself not quite as surprised or moved by Ayako as I'd hoped to be.
Tezuka was a dynamo of manga creations. The quantity as well as the quality of his work is staggering. His ability to convert a wide range of inspiration into the fuel of his manga was genius. And yet, there are points at which he seemed to have exhausted that inspiration. Warring States horror action Dororo, another of the Tezuka I yearned to see released in North America, peters out before its abbreviated conclusion three volumes in.
That Ayako runs a tense 700 pages is beyond remarkable. I still fault it for not leaving me agape. It might have met Tezuka's laudable standards, but, already familiar with Adolf, Phoenix, Ode to Kirihito, Buddha and the like, I was hoping to be won over once again.
In trying to explain why it didn't succeed in amazing me, I can't unconvinced myself that Tezuka had so effectively created a situation so intractably criminal, with characters so broken that he could no longer take the case in a truthful direction and still put up with them. Even if it's not a tacked on ending, it feels to me that he got to that suitable ending because the manga was not something that he wanted to continue to engage.
Manga Spotlight: Hagakure: The Code of the Samurai - The Manga Edition
by Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Sean Michael Wilson, William Scott Wilson, and Chie Kutsuwada
To be released by Kodansha International January 3, 2011
The Hagakure or Book of Hidden Leaves explains the bushido virtues of the samurai warrior class through anecdotes - over 1,000 in the original text. Having a notion of the complicated history of these instructions for The Way of Dying is essential to understanding what exactly you're reading.
Author Tsunetomo Yamamoto served as a retainer to daimyo lord Nabeshima Mitsushige, during the Edo Period, the time in which the Tokugawa Shogunate ruled over a unified Japan with policies instituted to keep power consolidated. The Sengoku Period, in which samurai were actually serving on the battlefield as their lords contested land had passed. Because a samurai's death in the service of his lord was no longer going to occur while on the battle field, storming or defending a castle, how to die became less a given and more a subject for consideration. It was during Tsunetomo's life that The Forty-seven Ronin Incident occurred. In a chain of events that still captures the popular imagination, daimyo Asano Naganori was forced to commit seppuku ritual suicide for assaulting Kira Yoshinaka. Naganori's retainers, made masterless ronin, waited two years before taking their revenge on Naganori and in turn committing seppuku. Forbidden to perform junshi ("suicide through fidelity"), when Mitsushige died Tsunetomo Yamamoto retreated to a hermitage to live as a Zen priest. There, he was visited by young Tashiro Tsuramoto, who recorded Tsunetomo's thoughts on how samurai should behave, from etiquette to their relationship towards life and death.
The Hagakure, Tashiro's 11 volume collection of Tsunetomo's thoughts was held by the Nabeshima clan until the Meijer period, during which the shogunate was replaced with a restored emperor and Japan underwent rapid modernization. It was during the 20th century that Hagakure became significant in shaping notions of bushido. By the 30's it had found a place in the culture and its warrior's death ethos is often credited as informing the attitudes Japan's Imperial Army as well the kamikaze pilots. Following the war, it was still being evoked by thinkers like writer Yukio Mishima, who'd end his own life by ritual suicide
So, Hagakure teaches a warrior's code, shaped by the martial conflicts of the Sengoku Period but interpreted and inscribed in the Edo Period, during which the code was struggling to adapt to a less martial, more materialistic age, then popularizing leading up to the conflicts of the first half of the 20th century. It's essential to recognize that this is more about an ideal than an ongoing way of life.
For this manga edition, Sean Wilson (Ax: Alternative Manga) adapts William Scott Wilson's 1983 translation (called "definitive" in press releases, and it pretty much is). Bridged with conversations between Tashiro and Tsunetomo, its main concession to the reader is a structure that builds up an understanding of the values being illustrated. And in this, it does succeed in explaining even the non-obvious concepts, like the seemingly contradictory dictate "matters of great concern should be treated lightly."
The punchy string of short stories works as a single volume representation of the hundreds of stories translated by William Scott Wilson, of the thousand recorded by Tashiro. Given that the manga that gets released in North America is largely from long serials, longer narratives are generally what is expected. Though the Hagakure develops and embellishes concepts, it is Tsunetomo instructing Tashiro and not a longer story. And yet, the chain of short anecdotes is just narrative enough to alleviate any didactic strains.
Chie Kutsuwada's (Manga Shakespeare: As You Like It) illustration works for the material because, as much as despite, not being flashy. While there is some precision and detail, the art's slight presence leaves a light impression. Since the stories are supposed to be true and supposed to be parables, balancing touches of reality with vagueness looks appropriate.
It's well justified to read the Hagakure manga with hopes of enhancing a sociological interest in samurai culture. And, if you're looking for background on genre media that works with samurai, there is perspective to be gleamed from Hagakure. Beyond that, to some extent, it is possible to read Hagakure with motivations other than drawing perspective. If you're just reading Hagakure to read samurai stories, you're not going to be entirely at a loss.
Departing from the 47 Ronin's two year wait, Tsunetomo emphasized quick, action: don't wait to enact revenge, strike down an offender, respond to uncertain bravery by taking a position on the front line. Divorced from its implications, it's real brutal "manly manga" stuff, punctuated with pissing and beheading. One of the stories finds a group of shogun's retainers playing go. One excuses himself to answer natures call and returns to find that a fight had broken out. The samurai handles this situation by killing the other players lest anyone think he was a coward who slipped out to avoid the fight. This is presented as exemplary behavior.
However, the distancing the material from further considerations difficult. As unbuffered as the adaptation is, I don't think that there is an extent to which violence can be romanticized that Tsunetomo's suggestions aren't jarring. They don't sit well with a modern value system. Thinking about wider consequences, what the proscribed actions might do to family, law and society, the frequently death concluded anecdotes are troubling. It's almost incredible that any lived that way. And, the extent to which people lived up to these ideals is actually questionable. These are the preserved thoughts of a person who believe that the more settled, materialistic people of his day were not living up to the ideals of a more war defined past. The lasting importance of Hagakure is that it spells out how people like Tsunetomo and his 20th century descendants believed that samurai should behave. That the ideas appear in sharp contrast with modern thought is significant, since the value the Hagakure manga is in how it illustrates those notions of a samurai ethos.