Of all the great manga authors out there, few if any have ever managed to come close to matching Osamu Tezuka for either their impact on the industry or even just the sheer number of works they've created. Now, from this legend famous for the likes of Kimba the White Lion and Astro Boy comes Ayako – a tale of murder, sex and incest so dark and deeply twisted I can barely believe that Park Chan Wook hasn’t announced the film version yet...
Our setting is post-war Japan, with America in all but total control over the country. The tale follows the Tenge family, who are straining under pressures from dark secrets within the family as well as from external forces which are forcing them to sell off the majority of their property under new laws. Into the midst of this, Jiro Tenge returns home following a stint as a prisoner of war with nothing but the clothes on his back and a new and somewhat cringe-worthy new place to hide secret documents. Though he keeps things close to the chest, Jiro has been a collaborator within the camps, and now on his release he’s working as an operative for a shady operation. The first part of our story sees him balancing work against the reds (i.e. the Japanese Communist party) and also discovering family issues closer to home, particularly regarding the birth of his innocent new sister, the 4-year old titatular Ayako. Later on... well you’ll have to see for yourself but suffice it to say that this isn’t going to be a comedy.
You have to give Tezuka a lot of credit for Ayako; its a difficult task to keep the interest of your audience for such a huge work when all you’re presenting are a succession of highly unlikeable characters being increasingly horrible to one another. The few characters that could be called "good" tend to be killed off suddenly or do something unpleasant later on in the story, so you’ll never really relate to any of the characters. Even Ayako is very much just a passive character for most of the book and she barely even appears for the first third, serving more as a plot device to keep the other characters interacting with each other. What keeps you coming back for more punishment is the almost morbid fascination of needing to know what they’ll do to each other next and if any of them will receive their comeuppance.
The presentation of the book is excellent, with a brilliantly simple yet elegant cover holding a single volume with almost 700 pages (you’ll be a lot fitter after holding it up long enough to read it!) and it all feels refreshingly sturdy. Inside, Tezuka’s artwork is that classic style he’s known for, blending Disney-esque character designs with Japanese sensibilities and stories - though Disney characters admittedly are rarely seen nude, admittedly (what about Donald Duck? He wears no pants! - Ed). It has to be said however that whilst Ayako is primarily a story about sex it’s not presented in any particularly explicit way, nor is it particularly titillating. Partially this is to do with the basic nature of the character designs when compared to, say, Queen’s Blade’s level of detail - one partially suspects this is due to the limits that Tezuka could get away with against the censors of the time.
The only real flaw with Ayako is the translation. Don’t get me wrong, the script appears to be a good translation of the original text, the story makes sense and the typeface is clear and readable (and never disappears into the spine of the book, which is a relief). However, the translator here has decided that it would be a good idea to have most of the characters speak in an awful sort-of American Redneck style of speech with most words broken up, in improper English or abbreviated. Whilst this is likely an attempt to show the country characters as separate from their city counterparts, and whilst this may well be an attempt to translate something Tezuka did in the original, here it’s just downright annoying.
Other than that, there are a few occasions where the story jumps forward by several years and Tezuka doesn’t bother to explain this until several pages later, leaving you to puzzle out what’s just happened and how long has passed. Thankfully, it’s not a major problem here.
So there you have it – an incredibly dark tale about a family tearing itself apart through murder and sex from a man perhaps best known for lighter fare. It’s like finding out Enid Blyton wrote 50 Shades of Grey. You may not read Ayako more than once (and you’ll certainly want to have something lighter and less depressing on hand for when you’ve finished. Like Battle Royale.) but this is certainly well worth a read at least once and it will really showcase the incredible variety that the God of Manga was capable of putting out.