Title: Ayako
Japanese Title: 奇子 (Ayako)
Artist: Tezuka Osamu (手塚 治虫)
Translator: Mari Morimoto
Publication Year: 2010 (America); 1973 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 700

Every once in awhile I will play a game with myself in which I try to imagine the perfect setup for a Gothic novel. Family secrets! Incest! Murder! A madwoman locked in the basement! Sex! Revenge! I was thrilled, then, when I found that Tezuka Osamu’s mid-career manga Ayako hits all of the Gothic genre high points, one after the other. In 1949, a man named Jirō returns to Japan from an American POW camp to find his homeland significantly changed. The political situation in Tokyo is bad, but Jirō’s family situation in rural Japan is even worse, as the powerful Tenge clan has lost most of its holdings in the postwar land ownership restructuring movements. Through a convoluted series of events, Jirō ends up committing murder and has to flee the countryside. Through an equally convoluted series of events, Jirō’s four-year-old sister Ayako, who is made to bear the blame for the family’s misfortunes, is locked in a cellar for more than twenty years before finally being rescued by her older brother Shirō, who has been biding his time while witnessing the slow decay of his family. Ayako escapes her family and flees to Tokyo, where she is reunited with Jirō, whose rise to power reflects Japan’s economic ascent in the sixties. The Gothic elements of Ayako’s family drama are enhanced by the Gothic elements of postwar Japanese history, with its unsavory secrets and shady backroom deals and assassinated activists all swept under the historical carpet.

The whole thing weighs in at exactly seven hundred pages, making it a book to be reckoned with. It is in fact a Book, beautiful and well-published (but probably too big to carry around casually; an e-reader edition would have been awesome, but alas). Perhaps because of the way it has been published, in a tasteful, hardcover, single-volume edition, its ad copy attempts to market it as a Novel, stating, “Ayako looms as a pinnacle of Naturalist literature in Japan with few peers even in prose, the striking heroine a potent emblem of things left unseen by the war.” I read the publicity for the graphic novel, got excited, and had Amazon ship it to me on the day it came out. If people were comparing Ayako to Faulkner and Tolstoy, why shouldn’t I read it immediately? Unfortunately, although Ayako is certainly a major accomplishment in the field of graphic novels, I am going to have to put my foot down and declare that it is not in fact on par with the best of Japanese prose. Far from it. As literature, Ayako is riddled with problems.

Let’s start with the storytelling. The plot is highly improbable from beginning to end, and its developments often don’t make much sense if the reader begins to question them. The ending, which reeks of poetic justice, feels especially heavy handed. If one simply accepts the story as it unfolds, it’s not so far-fetched that it’s ridiculous, but “a pinnacle of Naturalist literature” it is not. The pacing is also highly uneven. I am not referring to the beautiful drawings of city- and country-scapes that Tezuka often inserts under blocks of third-person, scene-setting narration, but rather to certain key plot points that happen way too quickly. This refusal to let the reader slow down and figure out what’s happening is especially bad at the beginning and end of the book. Perhaps this why the plot at these points feels so contrived, or perhaps Tezuka himself wishes to rush across his plot holes. In any case, I didn’t feel that I was in the hands of a professional at the top of his game.

Another thing I expect from the “literary” novels I read is a cast of deep, multi-faceted characters, but the dramatis personae of Ayako are all one-dimensional. The Tenge patriarch and his oldest son Ichirō, for example, do what they do simply because they’re evil people. The two most complex characters, Jirō and Shirō, merely flip between “good” and “bad” like cutout paper puppets. Perhaps the female characters possess a greater depth of personality, but the narrative doesn’t really seem to care about them. Of Ichirō’s second wife, Tezuka says only that she is “so bland and devoid of a role in this tale that she is not worth mentioning.” Why is this woman driven to marry a man who obviously murdered his first wife, and how does she deal with his moodiness, alcoholism, and deranged family? It’s not worth mentioning, I guess. Ayako, who has the potential to be the most interesting character, is the most disappointing. The image of her on the cover of the book says everything you need to know about her. She is young, beautiful, and mysterious, and she very much wants to have sex with you. We see her breasts, butt, thighs, and panties more than we hear her speak. (I am exaggerating, but only a bit.) Of course she is seriously psychologically damaged, but Tezuka doesn’t give this the narrative weight it deserves, choosing instead to have us view her through the eyes of his male characters, who regard her as both pitiful and sexually irresistible. A “striking heroine” and a “potent emblem,” indeed.

Other minor characters are so cartoonish and caricatured that they don’t add much of anything to the story. In fact, one might say they detract from it. Clones of Popeye, Olive Oil, and Dick Tracy don’t really help the story construct itself as “serious literature,” and Tezuka’s brief attempts at humor feel inane and misplaced. On that note, the art quality in Ayako can sometimes be shockingly bad. For example, I don’t think Tezuka was even trying in this panel:

There are many examples that are far worse, but it would be cruel to beat such an ugly dead horse. Furthermore, some scenes that should be highly dramatic, like Jirō murdering one of his subordinates, come off as silly because the artwork is so immature. The cartoon character designs and the rushed artwork are much better, however, than Tezuka’s occasional attempts at realism. Such drawings are, quite honestly, unlovely, and their effect on the flow of the story is akin to someone jumping onto the train tracks. I’m sure that someone at some point will write a paper on Tezuka’s changes in artistic style in Ayako, but I came away with the feeling that his excursions into realism were randomly placed and artistically useless. They strike the reader forcefully – not in the way that an amazing photograph on the cover of a news magazine does, but rather in the way that someone suddenly vomiting in a crowded train does.

Such an awkward analogy brings me to my final point of contention: the translation. Again, the ad copy bills Mari Morimoto as an veteran translator, but I’m afraid that her extensive resume gave her a sense of artistic entitlement that she then used to absolutely no one’s advantage. If you think that this is a mean, nasty thing to say, I encourage you to read a page of Ayako (click on the image for a larger version):

I believe that dialect is something that is much more natural and naturalized in written Japanese than it is in written English. In written English, one needs merely to say of a character that he has a French accent; there is no need to write his every line of dialog as something like, “Je would like zee wat-ere with mon caf-ey.” The translation of Ōoku, which employs a vaguely Shakespearean idiom to give a sense of all the de gozaru period speech patterns going on in the original Japanese, succeeds brilliantly because the touch of dialect is so light. It is suggested to the reader, not shoved into his face and down his throat. The translation of Ayako, however, not only draws unnecessary attention to itself but also robs the Tenge family of any power, dignity, tragedy, or pathos they might have possibly had by making them sound like a Family Guy parody of the Beverly Hillbillies. There are also strange aberrations in the speech of certain characters, like when Jirō suddenly and without warning starts calling people “Guv’nor” in the last quarter of the book. And then there are the occasional lines of dialog that make no sense, such as when a character who otherwise uses unmarked speech says something like, “Boss! Our lads will think you’ve prostrated yourself to the [rival gangster organization]! They’ll be all a-seethe!” They’ll be all a-seethe? Seriously?

Any of these problem areas – narrative structure, pacing, characterization, art, translation – would potentially be a deal-breaker by itself, but together they make Ayako awkward and almost unreadable at times. Ayako is a deeply flawed work, and its flaws are of the type that are simply annoying without adding any depth to the story. I am posting an abbreviated version of this review on Amazon, and I am giving Ayako four out of five stars, because, despite everything, it is an excellent graphic novel. If you come to it expecting a literary masterpiece on par with The Makioka Sisters or The Sound and the Fury, however, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Ayako is not high literature. It is a comic book: an engaging and thought-provoking comic book that was ahead of its time, but a comic book nonetheless.

I wholeheartedly recommend Ayako to librarians building a manga collection as well as to people who study manga, and I somewhat reservedly recommend it to people who are either Tezuka fans or otherwise used to reading manga published before the nineties. However, Ayako is not for literary types seeking an introduction to manga, and it is not for casual manga fans seeking an introduction to Tezuka. Unless you’re really sure that you want to read Ayako, warts and all, you’re better off trying a Tezuka title like Buddha or Phoenix. Better yet, skip the history lesson and go straight to Urasawa Naoki, who achieves the beauty of art and novelistic scope and density of character that perhaps Tezuka could have aimed for had he not been working on a dozen projects all at once.

In conclusion, I’m happy that Vertical has released Ayako in translation, but I find the ad copy misleading and counter-productive. It’s like talking about some entertaining yet vacuous commercial garbage like the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and saying, “Look! This is literature! It references mythology!” in an attempt to get people to take young adult fiction seriously. There are plenty of literary manga out there, but Ayako feels like a relatively minor work in the canon, no matter how much money its publisher put into its release. If Vertical insists on producing deluxe editions, I wish they would pick up classics like Rose of Versailles or The Heart of Thomas, which have aged remarkably well. Otherwise, it is my hope that, in their ongoing battle against scanlations, they publish more affordable editions (like digital ones!) that might appeal to poor students such as myself, who sometimes get upset when their shiny new $30 investment isn’t everything it was promised to be.

12 thoughts on “Ayako

  1. You’re right about how ridiculous that panel of Jirō talking to Ayako looks. I hadn’t even noticed while I was reading it, but I don’t have much of an eye for art either way.

    I agree with you wholeheartedly about how odd the translation is. I read it over the course of two days, due in part to the fact that there were several parts where the dialogue came off as so horribly stilted that I actually needed to put the book down and take a break for a while.

    Setting aside the question of how the translator handled the regional dialect, what often bothered me was how she decided to address the issue of kinship terms. I haven’t read the Japanese version myself, but I suspect that “兄貴” was what was being thrown around every single time a person would be referred to as “big bro”. Shiro often refers to Jirō as “Jirō big bro”, Jirō often refers to Ichiro as “Ichiro big bro”, and every time this happens I just can’t help but cringe. I have never been so annoyed reading a Tezuka manga as I was when the four-year old Ayako referred to Jirō as “Bro-bro” (which I suspect was にいーにい in the original Japanese). People just don’t speak that way in English! Not even children! “Bro-bro”?

    You are quite correct: Ayako is deeply flawed on many levels, but I must admit that it’s quite the enjoyable read if you simply accept what it offers at face value. Vertical has been doing quite a good job so far and I am looking forward to seeing which of Tezuka’s works they’ll take on next. I may not think as highly of it as I do of Ode to Kirihito or MW, but I do believe it was worth the cost of admission (it helps that Amazon sells products for well below list price, though).

    Unrelated: I wanted to let you know that I only stumbled across your site a week or so ago, but I’ve been having a great time reading through the archives. I’ll be sure to check back frequently for your recommendations!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment, and I apologize for taking a while to reply. I think you’re absolutely right about Ayako being enjoyable despite its flaws (like the translation of family honorifics, now that you mention it). I’m generally so impressed by everything Vertical publishes that I think I was much more disappointed by Ayako than I would have been if someone else had published it. You have to hand it to them for taking risks, though.

      I am eternally grateful to Amazon for offering many of Vertical’s graphic novels at substantial discounts, but one of the reasons I was prompted to write this review was a display at my local Borders, which touted Ayako as the most literary work of literature to ever come out of Japan while not offering any discount on the $27 cover price. I therefore might have to respectfully disagree with you about the book being worth the full price of admission, especially when it’s marketed to a demographic that it probably won’t appeal to.

      As a graduate student, I have had many experiences of people not taking me or my work seriously because I have a strong academic interest in popular culture, and such experiences are disheartening at best. Perhaps it’s not a very nice thing to do to take my frustrations out on Vertical, but I resent them for giving people a misleading impression about what manga is and what it can do. Every manga critic who has reviewed Ayako seems to love it, but I can’t imagine an old-school literature person taking it seriously.

      I apologize for the rant, which of course is not directed at you personally. Thank you again for your comments – and thank you for your recommendation of the Kirihito series. I will check it out!

  2. “he way that someone suddenly vomiting in a crowded train does.” hah! You have a way with words. Awesome line!

    It’s interesting how you mention how unreadable the translated accents made it. I remember reading some of Black Jack in the original and, my god, the way some of the characters spoke was near indecipherable. Just purely painful. Maybe this was the same and the translator just wanted to capture the inanity of it. “A-seethe” made me laugh though.

    1. Unfortunately, I have never read Ayako (or Black Jack, alas) in the original Japanese. From what I have read, though, Tezuka’s dialog can be very colorful, as you say. Still…. I think transliterated dialect works better in Japanese than it does in English. Even dialect in original English-language novels tends to come off as corny (the most recent example of this that I’ve read is The Psysick Book of Deliverance Dane, which somehow has its own website despite containing some of the most hackneyed and unreadable dialog I have ever come across). As a translator, what so you think?

      By the way, I recently set up an RSS feed (I’m a bit behind the times, I know) and wanted to add your blog to it – but your site is now marked as private! What happened?

  3. It’s good to read a review with more of a critical approach towards the book instead of getting carried away with hype. All your points were backed up with examples and, like the previous commenter mentioned, you’ve got a way with words. So thanks for this – I’ve added you to my RSS feed!

    1. This is amazing. You are one of my blogging heroes, especially with respect to not getting carried away by hype. I’ve found some of my favorite shows, like Tatami Galaxy and Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, through your posts. Wow. I am star struck.

      Anyway, thank you for adding me to your feed. This review was fairly impassioned, though; the rest are generally more low-key…

  4. Why there is no Rose of Versailles translation is inexplicable, sans the copyright hoopla. I mean, this manga was hugely successful not only in Japan, but in Europe, especially French and Italian. I know the art is not like it is now, but the art is still amazing, even if the style is a bit out of fashion.

    I really want to read Ōoku in English after I finish it in Japanese to see the translation style. I thought it would be a lot harder in Japanese, but, honestly, aside from some older terms for pronouns and some hard kanji, it’s not really that bad. I mean, it’s usually pretty obvious what the verb endings would be in contemporary Japanese, so I’ve been able to read it at a fairly normal pace for a text-heavy manga.

    Speaking of Tezuka, though, have you written anything about Adolf yet? I remember being impressed by it as a high-schooler, but haven’t read it since then.

    1. That sort of art never goes out of fashion! I mean, sure, it doesn’t look like the Monthly Cheese! house style, but so much the better?

      I have not read Adolf yet. I think the cover of the American edition (now out of print, apparently, I wonder why) is woefully hilarious, though. I am not a huge fan of Tezuka; but, if you say this particular title is good, I will do my best to check it out the next time I’m in Japan. Thank you so much for the heads-up!

      1. It isn’t on par with Nausicaa or anything, but it was really interesting. Tezuka is not my favorite. I appreciate what he did for anime and manga, but I like the derivatives of his canon better than most of his originals. And double on that for Disney, which I patently dislike.

  5. I think that Tezuka has a motive by portraying Ayako through the view of the male characters not because the King of Manga could not scuplt the characterisation for Ayako. As you’ve known, the post-WWII Japanese society was a strenuous, hierarchical and male-dominant one. This was the time where females inherently lived under suppression and depression, which Ayako was also a victim. Tezuka wanted to tell readers the perspective of the society and hope readers share sympathies for the victims of this era.

    To put in a nutshell, I don’t think the story is about character Ayako solely. Tezuka borrowed Ayako’s tale to portray the realism of the convoluted post-war Japan, the time of turmoil in any level of the society that could bend social prejudice and ethics.

    P/S: I love your writing style.

  6. I finally read Ayako this past week, and I actually wasn’t that bothered by Tezuka’s use of dialect. I thought it served an interesting purpose, highlighting the distinction between the urban and rural classes. I also thought it was interesting how even some characters within the Tenge family, such as Jiro and Naoko, didn’t use dialect. (And incidentally, both these characters end up relocating to the urban lifestyle.) Also, if you noticed, Shiro speaks in a very calm, eloquent manner as a child and adopts the family dialect as he grows older. (Possibly a reference to Shiro being drawn into the family’s rural lifestyle against his will?) I’m still not really sure why Jiro started referring to Geta as “guvnor”, though, unless this was supposed to be an attempt at a more elevated type of speech, one that was perhaps more in line with Jiro’s newfound social position. It did seem that, in her translation, Morimoto was trying to create some sort of link between the Tenge family and southern plantation owners. O-Ryo does refer to Sakuemon, Ichiro, and Jiro as “massa”, which sounds like something a black slave from the Civil War era would say. (Such a parallel may indeed be appropriate, since the Tenge family is in decline after World War II, much like southern landowners fell into decline after the Civil War.)

    1. O-Ryo does refer to Sakuemon, Ichiro, and Jiro as “massa”, which sounds like something a black slave from the Civil War era would say. (Such a parallel may indeed be appropriate, since the Tenge family is in decline after World War II, much like southern landowners fell into decline after the Civil War.)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s