It is hardly necessary to note that comics and manga are capable of conveying just about anything. Philosophy? See Ryan Dunlavey and Fred Van Lente’s Action Philosophers series. Travel? Try Guy Delisle’s accounts of his sojourns in tourist hot spots such as Pyongyang and Shenzhen. Memoir? Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s “A Drifting Life” is a massive and massively successful portrait of the artist as a young cartoonist. And in addition to all this, creators of comics continue to make up stories, too, and to tell those stories using conventions taken from the whole history of narrative art.

AYAKO, by Osamu Tezuka, translated by Mari Morimoto. Vertical, 2013, 701 pp., $24.95 (paper)

In “Ayako,” Osamu Tezuka draws on that offshoot of literary realism called Naturalism. Emile Zola and others working in that tradition were greatly influenced by Charles Darwin, though their understanding of his theory was idiosyncratic, and they put it to their own uses. Mostly what they took from Darwin’s work was the notion that we are all prisoners of our heredity (a notion that wasn’t exactly new: novelists had been using “blood” to explain their characters for a long time) and our social environment. “Prisoners” is the key word here: one’s heredity and circumstances seldom, in the Naturalists’ view, left one free to live a happy, healthy life: They were more likely to compel one toward vice, poverty, crime, incest and alcoholism.

The Naturalists set out to illustrate this in their fiction, and Tezuka, writing in the early 1970s, seems to have shared their pessimistic determinism, though he allows us, at the beginning of “Ayako,” to imagine that he might be offering a more romantic vision. The story begins with Jiro Tenge’s return to Japan in 1949 from the camp where he had been a POW since the war’s end. Met by his mother and sister at the port, he learns that another sister has been born while he was away. This surprises him since his mother is not young.

“Ayako isn’t ma’s,” the sister who has come to the port informs him, and declines to say more. Right away we sense that Ayako’s relation to the Tenge clan may involve something more squalid than garden-variety adultery. We can still believe, however, for a few more pages, that Jiro is different, that his will be the innocent eyes through which the family squalor is seen clearly.

Squalor there is, and Jiro does see it: he quickly learns that his father wishes him dead — “Why didn’ja die fer our motherland?!” — and that his brother, angling for the inheritance, would like him to disappear. As we observe the greed and evil that drive Jiro’s relatives, though, we also learn that Jiro has been spying for the Americans while in the POW camp, and is still involved with Japan’s former enemy in what might, today, be called black ops. He is not, it is soon clear, as innocent as the template of a more romantic tale would dictate that the protagonist should be.

In the early pages, though, he possesses a conscience, and an inner voice torments him by asking, “You think you have the right to condemn your family?” He attempts to justify himself by saying of his collusion with the Americans, “I had to do that to survive!” — thus demonstrating that he has no such right. We see, as the tale progresses, that this excuse, this quasi-Darwinian instinct for survival, is what drives all the Tenges, and that Jiro is no different.

We follow Jiro from the tale’s beginning in 1949 into the 1970s, and along the way Tezuka introduces aspects of postwar Japanese history that shed a less than favorable light on the occupiers, and also on the Japanese government that supplanted them. By entwining Japanese history with the decay of the Tenge clan Tezuka suggests that the rot is not limited to the family, but permeates the nation as well.

The rot, however, in family and in nation, is well hidden. The Tenges imprison the child Ayako in a cellar for over a decade, afraid that she will reveal what she knows about family crimes. Most of the Tenge family is complicit in the little girl’s imprisonment: They have to do it, they tell themselves, for the family to survive. Similar buried truths underlie modern Japan, Tezuka hints, but is never blunt enough to say.

This may make “Ayako” sound cumbersomely allegorical, but Tezuka, like the best of the Naturalists, knew how to cloak his bleak truths in a page-turner that is difficult to put down — and is, in fact, never just a page-turner.

David Cozy is a writer and critic, and a professor at Showa Women’s University.

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