I once read that there were two François Truffauts — one being a filmmaker of life, light and laughter (Day for Night, Love on the Run, etc.) and the other a director fascinated with death and stark emotional horror (The Bride Wore Black, The Green Room, The Story of Adele H). In the same way, there are two Osamu Tezukas. One is the creator of Astro-Boy and Unico and any number of other sunny, optimistic stories. The other is a man smashing his heart against all the walls of the world: MW, Ode to Kirihito, Apollo’s Song, Phoenix, Buddha, and now Ayako.
And yet as more of Tezuka’s work is translated into English, the more I see this dualistic view as being fundamentally wrong. The same fundamentally transcendent impulse runs through all of his work, great and small; he was simply seeking tirelessly for any number of different ways to express it. Sometimes he could seek it in a more upbeat or commercially acceptable fashion (Dororo, Black Jack); sometimes, he sought it by flinging himself into a place where it seemed no one else would dare follow.
Ayako is one of those into-the-void works. It is loaded with excess, but it’s all fearless stuff, and all in the service of a story that looks pitilessly at the way people cling desperately to scraps of power and influence even as it corrupts them from within all the more. No lie is great enough to tell, no sin mortal enough to contemplate, no life sacrosanct in the face of such need. What’s remarkable is how Tezuka’s storytelling makes such dank and horrific things into the stuff of compulsively readable, wide-gauge visual drama. You’re drawn in despite yourself, not just once but many times over. Even if the final product doesn’t quite have the focus and force of his best work in this same category — for me it’s a tossup between MW and Kirihito for such honors — it still deserves to be read by as broad an audience as possible.
The book opens in 1949 with the repatriation of Jiro Tenge, son of a family that were once powerful landowners. Time and the ravages of the war — and the sternness of the American occupation — have not been kind to them, and it certainly hasn’t been kind to Jiro. He lost an eye for his country, and has since become a sort of double agent for the occupying forces. It’s not something he’s proud of — it’s just what he’s done to survive. He returns home and finds that sentiment has more or less dominated the rest of his family, from his rustic, domineering father to his outwardly cheerful sister who’s now joined a Communist cell.
The one member of the family who has no agendas or closet skeletons is the youngest, four-year-old Ayako, fathered incestuously under one of the many, many twisted sets of circumstances that for all involved was, again, more about survival than anything else. She’s terrified and puzzled as to why almost everyone else despises her so — not because of what she is, but what she represents to them. She eventually becomes a sidelong witness to one of Jiro’s bits of black-bag espionage. To keep her secrets, she’s not killed outright but instead imprisoned in a cellar with only the occasional visit from her biological mother (whom she thinks is her older sister) for comfort and companionship.
Ayako’s years in the cellar turn to decades as, over time, Jiro assumes control of the family. The bulk of the story’s plotting is about his machinations in the underworld, and how he stays determined to keep the family’s secrets — a determination that in time is weakened and replaced by his need to do the right thing by Ayako and give her back the life she never had. Ayako, however, becomes not only accustomed to her life in captivity but prefers it to freedom when it’s finally offered to her. This leads to some material that might be funny on the face of it but is ultimately uncomfortable: when she’s taken to a restaurant for the first time in her life, she’s too terrified to step out of the car. The waiters ultimately serve her there. Irony compounds irony: the first time she experiences intimacy, it’s with her own brother — incest seems to be a defining feature of this family — and so she has trouble understanding love outside the context of sex.
In time Ayako — and by extension the reader — is offered a sliver of hope in the form of the son of a detective ruthlessly pursuing Jiro over the years, and we are led to believe there will be a kind of redemption for her in the arms of a loving and understanding outsider. What we get is far darker and more unforgiving — downright Jacobean, actually. Most everyone of consequence dies, and the only survivors are outsiders who either a) piece together one horrible clue after another and arrive too late, or b) look on helplessly as decades of repressed secrets explode out into the open. The few who survive aren’t even given the dignity of a proper postscript; they simply vanish.
It’s grim storytelling, compounded all the more by the way Ayako’s characterized mainly by her naïveté and sexual promiscuity. I don’t think Tezuka is being willfully misogynist — there are other female characters in the story who stand in sharp contrast to Ayako — and I also don’t think he gets a kick out of showing us Ayako’s suffering. Ayako’s significance in the story is ultimately symbolic anyway, and Tezuka reminds us of that with merciless regularity. But that doesn’t make what we see any easier to swallow, and if nothing else it’s a reminder of how something that might have passed without analysis in 1972 sets off many, many alarm bells in 2010. When Roger Ebert watched Antonioni’s 1966 Blow-Up in 1998, he noted that the sex scene in the film (which was cut to avoid an X rating) was impossibly tame by today’s standards; the scene that raises audience’s hairs today was when David Hemmings’s photographer character verbally attacks a fashion model he’s photographing.
I have yet to read any of Tezuka’s works without taking some time to marvel at the way his storytelling and visual designs complement, comment on, bounce off each other. There are any number of masterful visual sequences in Ayako; my favorite by far is one that spans several pages where he uses the same wide-gauge panel to look at several minutes’ worth of events in a single room. It has the same effect as a scene in a movie where the camera has been locked down, watching passively as whatever must happen will happen. He’s used this technique before (at one point in Phoenix, I think, among others), but he doesn’t overindulge in it over the course of any one work, and so it always comes off as fresh and eye-opening.
Something came to me while reading Ayako that does not normally surface when I read a graphic novel, and I suppose that makes it provocative in a positive way. I asked myself: What sort of impact would this same story have if it was told as a conventional, non-graphic novel? At first I thought it would be helpless to its own melodramatic excesses, but then I realized something. Yes, visual storytelling lends itself that much more to melodrama, because it is easier and more effective to show emotion — outwardly, in the form of gross drama or acting-out or what have you — than to simply mention it. But that may not be an automatic shortcoming, since well-executed melodrama is much harder to pull off than it seems, and has a weight and resonance of its own. That and every story is at least as much about the telling, the delivery process, as it is about the contents.
All that said, I still put Ayako a little lower on the ladder of Tezuka’s major works than I want to. It is ambitious and angry, and it weaves in a good deal of period history (including an absorbing plot element about the real-life murder of the president of Japan National Railways). It is also cold and frustrating, since most everyone we are inclined to root for evolves in such a way that our sympathies are tested and ultimately revoked. There are no heroes here, just villains and victims. Maybe Tezuka felt to say anything else, in the light of the muck he stirs up, would be a lie. It’s not as if we can’t see him straining at the bit, though — but he knows all too well some stories have no happy ending, and sometimes no real ending at all.