Burying the truth to survive in postwar, modern Japan


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.

  • It is quite uncomfortable with me and maybe with many of other women, to see this graphic on your news forum, by checking other news.
    It is the photo of the Manga graphic of a naked girl, which is shown down there, in its pink aspect.
    It is not appropriate to offer your readers such a picture each time and very frequently on women’s eyes, which makes me just disgusting.
    It is not necessary to show this graphic to the people who’re just checking a news, or learning English, what kind of benefit would be supposed to come by showing it?
    You are insensible to a certain degree for running a decent news site, I hope this photo withdrawn immediately.

    • Chris

      Sex sells. They need the clicks. Sorry…

    • Sarah Fukui

      I’m a woman and this image doesn’t bother me..the girl is covered up so I don’t see the big deal..it’s an image from the Manga that they are talking about in the article..

      • Thank you for responding me.
        But you don’t have to say “I’m not uncomfortable” at all, don’t you think so?
        This is “about” someone who feels uncomfortable, and I never see the photo “girl is covered” at all.
        What exact would you want to appear?
        You’re not uncomfortable and you’re happy, it’s fine, not my business.
        The picture DOES BOTHER ME that’s all, anything matters to you?

      • Sarah Fukui

        same goes to you..you are scolding a website for putting something you don’t like..they can post whatever they like..you don’t have to read it or look at it you know. It makes you uncomfortable but it doesn’t make other uncomfortable. Don’t look at it then.

      • Thank you for your reply.
        I wonder if you knew, “You don’t have to see it if you don’t like it, and you’re going to be happy”, which made Japanese internet an awful place, then it finally made a Netouyo PM, or Zaitokukai a notorious racist group, since everyone was thinking just as you are.
        I don’t think JT is a place to offer such a photo, and I’m saying it because I thought so.
        You’re telling someone “don’t make a complaint””you look ugly by complaining”, contradicting what you’re saying as “they can post whatever they like.you don’t have to read it or look at it”, then what exactly are you?

      • Dani Reader

        I happen to find it quite an artful appreciation of the female form, and a well chosen thumb

        It’s their website, they can post whatever they want. Taste is completely subjective. It’s your right to like it but it isn’t yours to tell other people not to use it.

      • Manfred Deutschmann

        Why is it our business that you are uncomfortable? Do you understand that it is quite strange to tell her she shouldn’t say it but you are allowed to tell us about what you think?

    • Jacobus Smoak

      You’re saying the human body is disgusting?

    • Chelsea

      I agree with you Michiko that the photo probably does not belong here and that they could have put up something more tasteful from the manga. That being said however, I don’t feel it is an awful picture. The lady has covered herself up so you can’t see anything but the side of her body.

      So I don’t feel as if there is anything truly wrong with this photo other than general distastefulness of artwork that does not really need to be present.

      Everyone is entitled to their own opinions though and I respect yours.

      Have a good day if you get around to reading this. :)

      • Thank you for your reply.
        I’m pretty suprised, that at least two women obviously youger than me feel “it’s actually covered, then it’s OK”.
        It’s you two’s rights, fine, not my business but concerning all of other women’s rights, because “covering the private places is not necessarily meant for not humiliating women’s rights”.
        Way of covering or depicting is also a problem.
        We have to be keen to sense sexual humiliation, since women’s rights are easy to get violated, and it is something what elder women had won as their long time efforts, or a struggle, never a thing for us to take for granted.
        The right of “not to get humiliated sexually”.
        This right requires to be maintained all the time, by women.
        And if we kept ignoring or tolerating it, someday you might be suddenly aware of your rights getting lessened.

      • Chelsea

        I see what you mean, and I have never been to Japan personally but I know it is a male dominant society. In America, women’s rights are pretty solid and to be honest almost to the point of reverse sexism, where if a man violates women’s rights he is in quite a bit of trouble.

        I again agree with you that women fought hard for their rights. Women are objectified even in America still, I can only assume it is worse in Japan. (assuming you are from Japan, excuse me if you are not)

        In America women are absolutely bombarded with ‘perfect’ images of how we should look, how we should act, how we should live, etc. We have an almost Barbie Doll standard to live by.

        Unfortunately sex sells, America knows it and Japan certainly knows it. I don’t watch a lot of television anymore but when I do it’s almost impossible not to find anything sexual, even on some kids shows.

        I personally feel our rights as women are not going to go away anytime soon, we can only get stronger I feel like. If we can break away from the media telling us how we should live our lives we will be a lot better off for it.

        I can understand and sympathize with you that sexual humiliation is rampant in both cultures, and something should be done about it before it gets WAY out of control. However women have a right to express themselves, nudity empowers us as women, if we are afraid of ourselves then what is the point? It needs to be controlled to a certain degree but at the same time we can’t let it put shackles on us.

        Whew that was a long rant, sorry I typed your ear off. Have a good day!

      • Thank you for your reply, and explaining the situation of US.
        I’m aware of how it is almost like in your country, beside I never had an occasion to visit there.
        I know how women in US are different from ones in Europe, maybe sometimes it’s hard for you people.
        Circumstance in Japan is differently worse, it is like some racial group can rant “We can rape any of Korean girls””Let them raped now” in broad day light.
        Therefore, there has to be someone female to say “I’m uncomfortable”, with this photo, it is not acceptable when it is on JT, even they have no such a divided “adult corner”.
        I don’t make an objection in everywhere, it’s about place, about appropriateness.
        And if there seemed no one to do it, I just come taking “the role”, that’s it.
        Wish you US women are making a life feeling less pressure, it was glad to hear from you at this time, thanks.

      • Lothar

        You don’t see me trying to ban shounen-ai or yaoi because I as a male think it might “humiliate men sexually”. There’s this thing called “artistic expression” that other activists have also “won as their long time efforts”. They’ve just been more successful in the USA than in Japan, where artists still face handcuffs and prison for forgetting to mosaic a penis they drew.

        If you want to keep this at the level of “I don’t like this, and I want to speak out about it,” that’s fine. You have freedom of expression too. But when I come across support for a system of repression; literally, “Round up the artists and throw them in jail because they drew something I think is offensive,” that’s when the conversation ends for me and I pull out my protest signs and my wallet and support the ACLU (and Japan’s equivalent) instead.

      • Thank you for your response.
        I have no idea about what ACLU means, and I don’t think I have a reason to take notice of you trying to ban something, or take care of something.
        I’m not interested in you and all of your stuff, why would I, even don’t know you at all.
        I’m not interested in handcuffs of artists either, nor prison thing, nothing corresponding to my point.
        Therefore no mutual language that we share could be found, good night.

    • As a person who owns the book that is being reviewed, I can tell you that the image shown above is the cover of the book and is being shown likely for that reason.

      It’s a rather dramatic, but well written tale dealing with a traditional family failing to deal with a post-WWII Japan, and the problems that come with the head of the household being unwilling to change, and everyone else being too afraid to stand up to him.

      This kind of feels like you’re judging both the article and the book by its cover.

      • Thank you for your response.
        Sorry I don’t understand what you’re saying since I’m just talking about what if it’s approriate with “putting and showing such a picture on JT”, other things are not relevant.
        The relevance is only in the pink picture and JT, it requires JT to make them sure of how web site they want to be seen like, thought like.

      • It IS relevant because it’s the cover of the book and when reviewing a book, it’s almost a universal standard to show the cover of the book.

        There is nothing distasteful about the cover as it’s a tasteful nude image without even showing any details from the front or back that would warrant censorship.

        While the book is what some would call mature, it stems more from the content of the story than the sexuality (which isn’t done for cheap fanservice, but is an important part of the story). It’s a heavy read and deals with a lot of stuff that can be hard for someone to deal with (the loss of innocence, being set in tradition, how such things can affect the young growing up, and the general feel of the time).

        Osamu Tezuka isn’t just any comic creator, he’s the single most important creator of comics in Japan. From stories for young boys and young girls (Like Astro Boy, Princess Knight, and Unico) to mature tales of War and its aftermath (Ayako, Message to Adolf), to stories that examine culture and people (Barbara, The Book of Human Insects), to Sci-Fi wonder (Metropolis, Lost World), to medical drama (Black Jack, Ode to Kirihito), to countless other stories.

        He created many works for all ages, and founded many genre, but he wasn’t a smut for smut’s sake kind of creator. He created works of life and death, love and loss, happiness and sorrow…beautiful works that will have him remembered for generations. He either made or popularized several genres within the medium of comics in Japan.

        I honestly don’t believe you can post any of Tezuka’s fantastic work and be truly seen in a negative light. It would be like complaining that an art website posted a shot of the Statue of David or the Venus de Milo. Nudity does not automatically make something distasteful. Beautiful, well intentioned art can be done with the human body at its purest.

      • Thank you for your reply.
        As long as I’m not fond of your kind of 漫画, my favorites are kind of 萩尾望都, or 大島弓子, those of old girly ones, it seems you and me have no point to hit it off together, and I don’t feel it fair to discuss with someone who has no identity disclosed.
        I’m intereted in women’s rights, and as I told Chelsea, I come taking a role on if there’s no other one to do it.
        Since I believe I have the right to do so, while I’m a woman.
        You can say it’s not distasteful, fine it’s your right, not my business.

      • But Osamu Tezuka wrote some of the earliest girls comics. Princess Knight was started in 1953, and both of the comic creators you mentioned would have likely grown up on, or have been influenced by his early Shojo work. Apparently, Yumiko Ōshima even won the “2008 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize Short Story Award” for a story (you don’t get a “Cultural Award” named after you if you didn’t impact the culture). Without a great creator such as Tezuka, the comic landscape in Japan wouldn’t have been the same.

        As for identity, this wasn’t intentional, I’ve just never used this thing much (I should have fixed it). I’ve enjoyed both American Comics and Manga, and Tezuka’s work is something I’ve come to appreciate in the last few months.

        Women’s rights are important; both in terms of protecting people and for having respect for all people, regardless of gender. You do have a right to stand by this view. Just as I have the right to explain my view, and try to explain the situation as best I can to clarify any misunderstandings.

        I don’t feel it’s inappropriate for several reasons (that it’s the cover, that it’s fairly tastefully done for a risque shot, that the book itself is meant for an older audience, etc), but I’ve explained that already.

        I just wanted to clarify some of these things for an amazing creator who died far too soon in life, and an article writer who was just doing his job.

    • Carol Belle

      Actually, it’s a beautiful artistic illustration of a nude woman, and it is done very tastefully. There is nothing lewd or obscene about it. There are plenty of nude artworks that exist, you know, and because of their artist and tasteful nature, are typically exempt from the need for censorship.

      No need to be ignorant.

  • Lothar

    People in Japan like Michiko are the reason why manga artists get arrested for not censoring cartoon characters’ genitalia. Thanks a lot. (FYI, when an American says that, they’re being sarcastic.)