“No one who has not sat in prison knows what the State is like.” – Leo Tolstoy.
In terms of Osamu Tezuka’s work, Ayako certainly fits into his darker side. It is not as dark however as some of his even later work like MW or Message to Adolf, but it certainly has some stuff you probably would not expect to find in Astro Boy.
This collection of three volumes tells the story of the Tenge family starting in 1949 when Japan was still occupied by the Americans following the end of the war and ending at the then present day when the manga ended in 1973. The family is led by the conservative patriarch Sakuemon, who is annoyed by the fact that his middle son, the one-eyed Jiro, did not die but surrendered. Jiro is now working, unknown to the rest of the family, as an American agent.
The family has several problems. Their land is being taken away from them by the government, the younger sister Naoko is a communist, the eldest son Ichiro beats his wife, and there is also the little issue of the youngest child in the family, four-year-old Ayako. Ayako ends up witnessing incest and murder at a very young age. As a result, Sakuemon and Ichiro decide that the best way to stop Ayako from learning anything more is to lock her in the cellar for the rest of her life.
As the manga goes on, there is more fighting, death and mystery. Amongst other things, Jiro leaves the family home and gains power in the criminal underworld; Sakuemon has a stroke which leads to Ichiro waiting for him to die for a long period to claim his inheritance; and the youngest son in the family, Shiro, has an affair with Ayako. Ayako is not freed from her cellar until the building above is demolished in 1972, and then runs away to start a new life, albeit still keen to hide herself away at times in a large crate. Soon after she gains her freedom however, her activities begin to affect the rest of the Tenge clan.
There is quite a lot to take in concerning this collection. For starters there is the issue of the title character being locked in the cellar for 22-and-a-half years, who ends up being abused and who has incestuous sex, often quite willingly. Safe to say that this is just one reason why this manga will not be for everyone. Then there is all the other stuff which occurs: domestic violence, murder and attempted rape, all feature.
However, these acts all build up to the tragedy of the piece. It does feel a bit rather like a soap opera at times. With all the beatings and rest of it, you cannot help but feel that at some point one of the characters will turn to the other and exclaim: “Leave it, he’s not worth it!” The plot does grip you, like most of Tezuka’s plots. However, I am not sure it is as gripping as some of his more thriller-like work like Message to Adolf. The whole manga, though, builds up nicely, especially in the ending in which many members of the family – and indeed others – get their comeuppance.
Overall, Ayako is a pleasing work, and if you are not easily offended you should find it to be an enticing enough collection.