Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with Melinda & Michelle! I’m joined, as always, by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.
MELINDA: So, Michelle, read anything incredibly depressing lately?
MICHELLE: Ha! Y’know, I actually found Ayako more confounding than depressing. Perhaps that’s because I just recently read some Barefoot Gen, which is an even bigger downer.
MELINDA: Oh, interesting. What confounded you so about it? Or are we just getting ahead of ourselves with a question like that?
MICHELLE: I think possibly we are, but in general, I just couldn’t figure out what the whole point of it all was. What exactly was Tezuka trying to say? Perhaps that’s something you can help me with.
MELINDA: I do have some ideas about that, yes. To make things easier on ourselves and our readers, though, maybe we should start with the basic plot. Want to take a stab at it?
MICHELLE: Somehow I knew my summarizin’ skills would be called upon! :) Spoilers ahead.
The story begins in 1949, when former POW Jiro Tenge returns home after the war to a chilly reception from his father, Sakuemon, who is described as arrogant, lecherous, and “thoroughly contemptible,” and learns that he has a new little sister. The girl, Ayako, is the product of Sakuemon’s liaison with his daughter-in-law Su’e, who has been offered up by her husband (Jiro’s elder brother) in exchange for a larger share of Sakuemon’s inheritance. Jiro is appropriately creeped out.
At first it seems like he’s going to be the sane one amidst his bizarre family, but then it’s revealed that he betrayed many of his countrymen at the POW camp and is currently spying for the occupying American forces. When they instruct him to convey a particular corpse onto railroad tracks, he complies, and when Ayako and a playmate later see him washing blood off his shirt, spirals into desperate attempts to cover up his crime, which ultimately leads to Ayako being imprisoned in a storehouse for 23 years while her family members either abandon or violate her.
Ayako finally escapes in 1972 and flees to Tokyo. Jiro, who has changed his name and is now the boss of what seems to be a crime syndicate, has been sending her money for ages and she mistakenly believes he’s her benefactor. Some dogged investigators won’t let up on Jiro and, finally, he ends up fleeing back home where all the offending family members get trapped in a cave-in and eventually die, except for Ayako. The end.
MELINDA: I know I was cruel to make you be the one to do that, but somehow I knew that if anyone could summarize 700 pages of human selfishness and degradation into a few short paragraphs, it would be you. :D
MICHELLE: I really don’t know where to begin with describing the depths of the degradation, honestly. Everyone in the Tenge family is guilty of something. You have the men, who are more obviously guilty of crimes like murder and incest, but the women are equally to blame, for allowing Ayako to be imprisoned and abandoning her to her fate. Nearly everyone wants to possess Ayako for some reason—even the policeman’s son, who attempts to acclimate her to the outside world, says, “Ayako is mine!!!”—while she herself equates feelings of affection with physical love, and so tries to put the moves on various inappropriate people.
There’s substantial violence against women, too, and for a while I thought the book was misogynistic. The only slightly strong female character seemed to be the fellow spy Jiro takes up with for a while, but after an absurdly comical seduction scene she becomes clingy. “Just don’t ever ditch me,” she implores him. But then I realized that the men are all portrayed just as horribly, too. They’re all greedy, sleazy, lust-driven cretins. It stopped looking like misogyny and more like outright misanthropy.
MELINDA: I don’t think misanthropy is a misread, and it’s an interesting viewpoint from Tezuka, who, though never shy about exposing the darkest aspects of humanity, has in the other works of his that I’ve read still found some kind of hope in it all… something of humanity worth treasuring. Yet here, as you say, everyone is contemptible in some way. All the men are morally wretched beasts, and all the women are helpless to stop them, eventually becoming complicit in Ayako’s ongoing abuse by their inaction. Even Shiro, the youngest of Ayako’s “brothers,” who for the longest time appears to be the one member of the family genuinely interested in doing the right thing (even to his own peril), is eventually corrupted by his own lust, to the point of being just as awful as any of them.
Only Ayako, who is not really a person at all in the construct of the story, remains innocent. And it’s a twisted kind of “innocent” that makes her really unfit to interact with anyone (not that this is a huge loss).
MICHELLE: I wonder if part of Tezuka’s intent was to subvert the audience’s expectation that a hero of sorts would appear. At first, Jiro appears the likely candidate, but that falls through. “Okay, Shiro then,” I thought, since he was such an honest little kid, but he succumbs to temptation and beds Ayako. Finally there’s Hanao, the young man Ayako cohabitates with, who remains more virtuous than anyone else, but still thinks of her as an object. Why did everyone want to possess her, anyway? Is it simply that she’s malleable and nubile?
MELINDA: I wonder if he just thinks a hero is impossible in Japan of that time. He’s obviously got a lot to say about post-war Japan and the American occupation. He illustrates both the sickness of old Japan (evident in the Tenge patriarch’s unchecked urges) and the sickness of the new (Jiro’s treachery, the government’s treatment of its socialist factions), and presents them as pretty much incurable ills. In Kate’s review, she suggests that it isn’t much of a stretch to see Ayako as a symbol for Japan, abused from all sides, and I have to say that makes a lot of sense to me.
MICHELLE: Ooh, that’s very deep. I’m afraid that thought didn’t even come close to occurring to me. Her eventual accommodation to and preference for remaining isolated and confined takes on a whole new meaning now.
MELINDA: I hadn’t thought of it in terms of a symbol that big, either, so I can’t take credit. But it seems clear that Ayako really is nothing more than a symbol, and Japan in particular makes a lot of sense. Thinking too, of the inappropriate appetites Ayako develops, without even really understanding what they’re about… it really could be seen as a pretty scathing view of western influence on modern Japan.
Grand symbolism aside, though, I think there’s a lot here being said about the insidiousness of moral corruption… the way it seeps into those who touch it until they become embodiments of the corruption around them. No one escapes, really, and Tezuka takes that to a stunningly literal point by having them actually die in a cave. He goes so far with it, it begins to feel clumsy and overstated. I mean, it’s powerful, there’s really no denying that, but more heavy-handed than is usual even for Tezuka.
MICHELLE: Poor Japan. It just wanted to stay happily in the cellar, but then it read a women’s magazine and now it wants to have the sex.
And yes, you’re right. I particularly found Shiro’s about-face very abrupt. There he is, saying, “I’ve let myself get drenched head t’toe in all th’ Tenge sewage” in a way that suggests he regrets what has happened, but then on the next page he’s dismissing the fact that Su’e was murdered by her husband and declaring, “I’m gonna keep violatin’ Ayako.” What? Shouldn’t there be at least more guilt or something first? I get that Tezuka needed to move the story along, since it spans such a long time, but this development definitely felt clunky to me.
MELINDA: I wonder if Tezuka betrayed himself a little bit here. You know, there he is, working so hard to show that everyone is inevitably corruptible when placed in an environment of such corruption, and he’s created this powerfully honest kid to make his point. Yet here you are, utterly unconvinced. Maybe that’s his own little shred of hope, betraying him in the background. :)
MICHELLE: Well, I am convinced that Shiro has turned into someone just as contemptible as the rest of them. It was just the speed of the progression that made me adopt my dubious face.
But, y’know, as much as we have mixed feelings about the work in general, it’s a testament to Tezuka’s skills that I devoured 700 pages with relative ease, and even though there were really no characters to care about—Ayako, as you mentioned, is largely a cipher—the momentum of the story kept me interested to the end.
MELINDA: Oh, absolutely. There’s nothing enjoyable about Ayako, and I wouldn’t say it’s Tezuka in his element. It’s too persistently dark, without enough contrast to gracefully make his point. But I listed it as one of the best manga of last year, because even with all that, it’s still masterful. The visual storytelling is incredibly compelling–I was transfixed by Tezuka’s artwork throughout, even in parts of the story I found most distasteful. A scene in which Shiro is having sex with Ayako, for instance, and the two of them are transported through the skylight (Ayako’s only connection with the world outside her prison) into the night sky… it’s really beautiful, and even moving. Yet it’s one of the more sickening sections of the story, which in a story like this is saying quite a bit.
MICHELLE: By contrast, I snickered heartily at the phallic imagery at play in the scene where Jiro seduces the female spy. It reads as ludicrous to me, but who knows, maybe at the time it was scandalous or something.
MELINDA: Ha! Yes, that’s perhaps an unfortunate side-effect of this having been created in the 1970s. Sort of the sequential art equivalent of the leisure suit.
MICHELLE: One particularly effective visual passage that I recall happens after Ayako has gone to live with Hanao. He’s gone off for some reason and one of Jiro’s goons sneaks in the window and attempts to ravish her, only to be thwarted by Hanao’s dad. There are about six pages in a row where the panel perspective and size is identical—the interior of this small bedroom—and I thought it was pretty effective in showing that even such an ordinary space can be the venue for violence and commotion. Plus, there are several pages broken up into unique panel arrangements the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere else.
MELINDA: Oh, I know exactly the passage you mean! Yes, there is something really effective about that scene, with the bed sitting there looking so normal all the time. Also, the stationary perspective reminds me of watching a play.
One sequence early on I think works really well, is the set of pages in which Jiro’s accessory to murder is carried out. It’s raining throughout, and we see the train come through and run over the victim, segueing into the older sister waiting for her lover to return on the train. There’s almost no dialogue at all, over the course of several pages, and even one of the few bits that’s there, the sister’s, “No one’s gotten off at all,” actually seems unnecessary.
MICHELLE: It’s a very noir kind of feeling.
MICHELLE: Talking about that first dirty job reminds me that I found the whole “who at GHQ hired me?” part tacked on at the end to be very random and kind of boring. I never could get very interested in that aspect of the story, and I didn’t understand either how Jiro evidently used the bomb provided by Kinjo to kill the female spy (Machiko?) instead of the American officer he was supposed to target, and yet still got to keep the money and be partners with the guy for the next twenty years.
MELINDA: I agree, that was the least interesting aspect of the story to me. While I can see why Tezuka wanted to let Jiro escape his fate back home and end up even profiting from it–his affluence and lifestyle change allow Ayako to poignantly mistake him for someone good in her life–the trappings of it all seem pretty clumsy.
MICHELLE: So, I guess what we’re getting at is, the story and characters are not the best, but it’s still a really well-made manga with some possibly deep themes that could escape a casual audience. I mean, I personally classify it as a keeper.
MELINDA: Yes, I think that’s exactly what we’re getting at. Though Ayako is problematic in some ways, it’s also a genuine work of art. I’d consider it an essential part of anyone’s manga library.
MICHELLE: I couldn’t have said it better myself.