Ayako is a story of post-war Japan, told from the perspective of the Tenge family. Made wonderfully rich by the vast amount of farmland they’ve owned, the American occupation of Japan has helped to establish new reforms that will now see the family’s chief source of wealth parceled out to their tenant farmers. Losing so much has the devastating side effect of airing the family’s very dirty laundry. Fueled by greed, incest, and murder, each member of the Tenge family is responsible for their downfall and no matter how hard they try to run from it, there’s no escaping such terrible sins.
Much like Tezuka’s other adult manga, Ayako weaves a dark and unnerving tale. The patriarch of the Tenge family is rotten to the core, drunk on power and status, and enjoys taking advantage of Ichiro, one of his more ambitious sons. As a means to secure his father’s fortune, Ichiro allows his father to have sex with his wife on a regular basis. The result of this incestuous union is Ayako, the family’s open secret. Ayako is born into a terrible environment, as she is doted on by her grandfather and led to believe her mother is actually her sister. The Tenges manage to live with the shame until the return of Jiro Tenge sets in motion a chain of events that lead to Ayako’s forced imprisonment for over twenty years.
During the war, Jiro is captured by the Allies and becomes a prisoner of war; to protect himself, he willingly becomes a spy for the American army. Upon Jiro’s return to Japan, his new allies force him to become involved in the murder of their political enemies, one of whom is the lover of his sister. When Ayako’s simpleton friend catches him disposing of his bloodied clothes, Jiro murders her. In doing so, he digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole, trapped in a spy game that has no winners. To avoid police attention and prevent the dishonor of any smear on their “great” name, the Tenges cast Jiro out and lock Ayako away in a cellar.
Ayako is mostly a story of two individuals: Jiro and the titular Ayako, after both have been forsaken by their family. Having left his old life behind, Jiro falls in with the yakuza and soon rises to a position of influence. To evade police investigations, he takes a new name and relies on massive social, economic, and political post-war changes to keep him hidden. Meanwhile, Ayako is trapped underneath a storage shed, forced to spend her days with very little human contact and no chance of escape. Ichiro would like nothing better than to have her killed, but because his father’s will stipulates that nothing will happen to the estate until she turns 15, he is forced to leave her alone. Ayako is a tragic victim, and when she grows into a beautiful woman, she has no idea how to interact with other people. She finds peace in her brother Shiro, but even he gets caught up in the family’s sewage.
This is what makes Ayako such a depressing story. The Tenge family is so corrupt, so rotten to the core, that no one is redeemable. There’s not one innocent soul among them, and those who have the chance to do something for Ayako end up bowing to the pressure and dominance of the family name. This makes their eventual poetic comeuppance all the more sweet, especially because they remain true to their nature until the very bitter end.
Ayako is told against the backdrop of history, reflecting a period of time when the country of Japan experienced a major shake-up. Throughout the story, there are allusions to and dramatizations of real-life events caused by the Farm Land Reform Law and the massive layoff of over 90,000 Japan Government Railways employees after the company was made public. Jiro Tenge’s story arc sees him involved in a dry run for what would later be known as the Shimoyama Incident, in which the president of the newly-named Japan National Railway was found dead and dismembered on a railroad track.
Much like Tezuka’s other mature works, there are very few heroes and smiles to be found in Ayako. It feels a bit less adventurous than Swallowing the Earth, Apollo’s Song, or Barbara, only because of how strongly it relies on historical events. However, that’s not a bad thing. Although I felt the JNR and Shimoyama plot lines went on a little too long, retelling such events gives readers—especially Western readers—a chance to see how Japan changed after World War II through the eyes of a family that had so much to lose.