He died in 1989, but some of his books are just being published in English, so it’s not surprising that the works of the godfather of manga Osama Tezuka are seeing a revival of sorts in the English-speaking world.
Volumes of Black Jack, Tezuka’s light-hearted series about the capers of a skilled but unlicensed doctor, continue to be published regularly. And every once in a while Vertical Inc. publishes books such as Buddha (in eight volumes), Ode to Kirihito, or MW. Ayako is the latest.
Ayako is set in post-war Japan and it is different from other Tezukas in that there’s no element of fantasy in it. Tezuka looks at the degradation of Japan and Japanese society through the story of Ayako, a girl who is the product of incest, and through the story of her family, the Tenges, a once-proud samurai clan that loses, along with most of its landholdings, its decency and morals. Ayako is abused and exploited by almost everyone around her, yet she somehow retains her innocence, stumbling from one misadventure to another; she spends almost her entire childhood and adolescent years locked up in a room and, even in later years, is most comfortable in a large box, yet, somehow, the world has its way with her. Her years in isolation seem to make her capable of only the most basic emotions and feelings—including lust (and we will come to this in a bit).
Ayako’s world: It’s set in post-war Japan.
That’s heavy stuff and could end up making a book dense, boring, and (forgive the stereotyping), almost Russian. This is where the medium helps. The book is shot through with dark humour and Tezuka’s lines are as clean and light as in his other books. A different visual treatment could have well ended up making Ayako unreadable. In its current form, despite being close to 700-pages long (that’s a pretty lengthy comic book) it is eminently readable (and this columnist read it, like he does most comic books, in one sitting).
Ayako also highlights Tezuka’s ability to use sex to amplify the messages he wishes to convey. At times, there is a certain sensuousness to his depictions of nudity and sex. At other times, there is a hint of desperation evident. And at still other times, the illustrations speak of degradation and depredation.
Tezuka was probably responsible for ensuring that nudity and sex became central to manga but there are few other artists who have been able to use them to as good effect as he has (which is why a lot of new-age manga and anime is almost pornographic). Unlike most other Tezukas Ayako doesn’t have a clean ending and that too is only apt. Most of the other characters die, but Ayako runs away and is never seen again. There are elements of freedom and hope in running away or disappearing and Tezuka may have well wished the ending to just evoke these feelings in readers.
After all, Ayako is outside the box.
R. Sukumar is editor, Mint.
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