Ayako

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.

Yotsubato!

Title: よつばと!(Yotsuba to)
Artist: あずまきよひこ (Azuma Kiyohiko)
Publication Year: 2003 (Volume 1) – 2009 (Volume 9)
Publisher: 電撃コミックス (Dengeki Comics)
Pages: 225 (per volume)

Let me get this out of the way first: Yotsubato! has no story. It is not “about” anything. There is no point. It does not go anywhere. The manga could be classified as falling within the genre of comedy, but it doesn’t really try to be funny. The reader never really learns anything about the characters, and the relationships between the characters show almost no development. Nothing important or exciting happens.

Let me also get this out of the way: Yotsubato! is one of my favorite manga in the whole wide world.

I have been fond of Azuma Kiyohiko’s four-panel manga Azumanga Daioh ever since the translation was released in America in 2002. I also enjoyed the anime based on said manga. When defunct American manga publisher ADV Manga started releasing translations of Yotsubato!, Azuma’s new project following the completion of Azumanga Daioh, I picked up the first volume immediately. Unfortunately, I found myself disappointed. It wasn’t a fun manga to read. I didn’t get it. The dialog was translated in a way that was supposed to be wacky and zany, but I didn’t think the manga itself was that funny. The art was a little weird, too. A year later, in 2007, I went to Japan to find Yotsubato! featured prominently at almost every major bookstore in Tokyo and Yokohama – most memorably at the Tsutaya in Shibuya, which had an entire wall devoted to Yotsuba paraphernalia. The cover of the Japanese publication of the manga was approximately five hundred times more appealing than the cover of the translation, so I picked up a copy. While reading it on the train home, I fell in love.

Yotsubato! follows the daily life of a five-year-old girl named Yotsuba. Having been orphaned on an island somewhere outside of Japan (the circumstances are never made clear to the reader), Yotsuba has been taken in by a man named Koiwai, who seems to be in his late twenties or early thirties and makes his living as a translator. At the beginning of the first volume of the manga, Yotsuba and her adopted father move into a new house in the suburbs of a city assisted by Koiwai’s friend Jumbo, a florist with a preference for Hawaiian shirts whose name reflects his comically enormous stature. After moving in, Yotsuba and Koiwai (and Jumbo, who visits from time to time) become friends with the family living next door, which consists of a mother, a daughter in college, a daughter in high school, and a daughter a year or two older than Yotsuba (the father of the family never makes an appearance). Although other friends of Koiwai and the next-door neighbors are occasionally introduced, Yotsubato! mainly revolves around this core set of characters and their interactions. The manga moves slowly from day to day. Over the course of nine volumes, its leisurely pace has taken it from the middle of summer to the very beginning of fall.

What I love about this manga is this very slowness. I wouldn’t describe this work as “contemplative,” however; Yotsuba herself is very curious and energetic, and her adopted father is something of a character as well. There is nothing boring about the manga, but its focus on the mundane allows the reader to take a step back from his or her own presumably hectic life and enjoy an endless summer full of daytrip adventures and small discoveries. This is not to say that Yotsubato! somehow resembles something like My Neighbor Totoro. The manga is written from an adult perspective, and the reader is constantly encouraged to identify with the people who surround Yotsuba rather than with the girl herself. The occasional jokes that the manga makes are sophisticated, and the adult speech and relationships are not sanitized or downplayed.

The attention to detail expressed in every aspect of the manga finds its most visible outlet in its gorgeous artwork. As I noticed when I first read the manga in America, it takes Azuma several chapters to settle on his character designs, which are drawn in his unique style. The rest of the visual realm, however, is drawn in an almost photorealistic way, from the tiniest detail of the interior architecture of Yotsuba’s house to the products lining the shelves of a neighborhood convenience store. Aside from the shade of Yotsuba’s unique hair, there is almost no screen tone used in the manga; everything is conveyed in understated ink work, which miraculously never clutters the page or busies the panels. The slightly cartoonish characters provide a pleasing contrast to this sort of detailed background. I feel like the background art in this manga captures the essence of a Japanese suburb far away from Tokyo; so, even while I was reading this manga in Yokohama, it made me feel nostalgic for living in Japan.

I suppose you could say that I enjoy this manga because of its pace, its narrative tone, and its art. I’m not really sure, though, what makes Yotsubato! different from any other “slice of life” manga, but it is different. I have said before that I think manga can be considered literature, but Yotsubato! is not literature. It is a masterwork of an entirely different medium of artistic expression. Really, I think Yotsubato! stands alongside the works of Urasawa Naoki and Asano Inio as an exemplar of what manga is capable of.

Although I am a great believer in translation, I feel that Yotsubato! is much more enjoyable in the original Japanese. Thankfully, even beginning students of Japanese should not find the dialog in the manga to be prohibitively difficult. For those readers who have no Japanese language background, however, a new English translation of the manga is currently being published under the title of “Yotsuba&!” by Yen Press.

I think the following two pages demonstrate the style of the manga. In the middle of a late summer typhoon, Yotsuba runs into the storm to warn her next door neighbors to be careful. In her haste, she forgets her umbrella, so her adopted father runs after her to give it to her. Upon catching up with her, he finds her already drenched, so….

Solanin

Solanin

Title: solanin
Japanese Title: ソラニン
Author: Asano Inio (浅野いにお)
Translator: JN Productions
Publication Year: 2008 (America); 2005 (Japan)
Publisher: Viz Media
Pages: 428

Is manga literature? In some cases, like Urasawa Naoki’s Monster or 20th Century Boys, one could make a very strong positive argument. Some manga, however, like Bleach or Yuzawa Ai’s Nana series, are nothing more than once promising but now over-bloated cash cows. On the other hand, many of my favorite manga, like Azuma Kiyohiko’s Yotsuba&!, are not literature simply because they are masterpieces of a completely different art form.

But Asano Inio’s 420 page work Solanin is literature, no doubt about it. Like many Japanese narratives, it is driven not so much by plot as by character development and a fascination with the beauty of everyday life, which sounds like a Hallmark greeting card but is actually quite gritty and satisfying. Unlike a great deal of manga, Solanin deals with the problems of Japanese young people who are not sailor-suited schoolgirls and have already passed through their fun and fancy-free college years. In other words, the protagonists of Solanin have already grown up, or at least are trying to. I suppose that, in this way, Solanin is like a more focused and mature version of Umino Chika’s popular shōjo manga Honey and Clover, which chronicles the struggles and heartbreaks of a group of friends who have just graduated from art school.

As I said, there isn’t much to discuss in terms of plot (although there are some fairly gut-wrenching twists in the story), but the basic premise of the manga is that the protagonist, Mieko, who has just graduated from college and moved in with her boyfriend, has gotten sick of her boring office job and creepy boss and decided to quit working for a few months. During this time, she focuses on her friends and boyfriend, who had formed a rock band together in college. Mieko wants her guitarist boyfriend Naruo, who also feels suffocated at work, to get the band back together and be more serious about his music and his dreams, which drives the story forward but causes tension between the two. What ends up happening is way beyond what the characters – or the readers – suspect. The ending of the manga isn’t happy, necessarily, but it is fulfilling.

Although the focus of the narrative is on Mieko, occasionally chapters will be told from the point of view of another character, like Mieko and Naruo’s friends Rip (the drummer) and Kato (the bassist). These chapters rarely have anything to do with the main story but are still interesting, especially in how they highlight different aspects of the group dynamic within the circle of friends. The alternate narrative chapters also provide the majority of the manga’s comic relief, which is actually quite funny in a quiet sort of way.

Although the characters and narrative style alone make Solanin worth reading, what really made me pick up this book and buy it was the artwork. The character designs, though simple, are very appealing. I also feel that, within the limits of Asano’s personal style, they are realistic in the way they depict different body types and facial expressions. The background art is wonderfully realistic, which is extraordinary when you realize how much of it there is. Unlike most manga, which only provide a panel of background art every page or two, Solanin is filled with beautiful drawings of the scenery and landscape of the Tokyo suburbs. Even if you think Solanin’s story is just basic Banana Yoshimoto style angsty emo crap (although, in my mind, it never gets that bad), the artwork makes the whole thing worthwhile. Really, it’s gorgeous.

So, although the cover isn’t that appealing, and although the $17.99 price tag is pretty hefty, I can’t recommend this book enough. I’m really happy I gave it a chance, despite my misgivings.

Just to give a feel for the art style, I’ll post some images from the manga. I apologize for the poor scanning quality…

Solanin Page 1

Solanin Page 2