Saturday, January 22, 2011


Ayako (1972)
by Osamu Tezuka
(Vertical, 2010, 704 pages)

I just finished reading this latest English translation of The Old Master from the folks at Vertical Books (thanks again for the loan, Chris Schatz!) and it may be my favorite by the Father of Japanese Manga, Osamu Tezuka. Like Adolf and MW, it's one of the dramatic social commentaries he produced later in his prolific career, one that may be - along with Yoshiro Tasumi's A Drifting Life - one of the best-ever mangas about life in post-War Japan; or, as the Tezuka in English site describes it:
"Ayako specifically treats the social impact of the American occupation of Japan after the conclusion of the war, and the damage done to traditional Japanese families, particularly wealthier families, by the dramatic land redistribution enforced by the government during the last stage of the war and afterward. It examines a single large landholding family of samurai descent, and shows how the war and the American occupation served to foster the seeds of decay and ruin already present in the depths of traditional Japanese family structure."

Ayako is no bare-boned character

Of course, there's also the usual graphic sex, violence, and complex dysfunctional relationships (incest, in this case), that we've all come to expect and love in Tezuka's works. But what really impressed me was the way Tezuka's story, covering the fortunes of the Tenge family between the years 1949-1972, incorporated so many real-life events in Japanese history, from the 1949 "Shimoyama Incident" involving the the disappearance and death (murder? suicide?) of Sadanori Shimoyama (first president of the Japan National Railways, who disappeared on his way to work and whose mangled body was found on train tracks the next day)...

Removal of Shimoyama's remains from the Jōban Line

...through the Korean, Vietnam and Cold Wars, and right up to the 1970s Yakuza gang wars (such as Hiroshima's 1972 "Yamamuragumi Incident") that culminated in the so-called "Battles Without Honor and Humanity" that inspired Kinji Fukasaku's documentary-styled film series The Yakuza Papers: Battles Without Honor & Humanity (a series often called "the Japanese Godfather").

I subsequently dug out Mark Schreiber's excellent (and rare) true crime tome Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan and re-read the Shimoyama chapter "Murder or Suicide? The Mysterious Death of a Railway Executive." Like Ayako, it is interesting not just for the stories it recounts, but for explaining why these events were of such importance to the Japanese people in the wake of the cultural revolution that followed defeat in the Second World War.

Ayako page spread

Originally serialized in 1972 in Big Comic magazine, Ayako is considered one of the best early examples of a seinen (young adult) narrative, as well as Tezuka’s answer to the gekiga (dramatic comics) movement of the 60’s. I can't recommend it highly enough!

Related Links:
"Ayako" (Tezuka in English web site)
Shimoyama Incident (Wikipedia)
Shocking Crimes of Postwar Japan by Mark Shreiber
Battles Without Honor and Humanity (Wikipedia)

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