Ayako Conversation Cursed! Plus a Review

Poor Ed. First, we tried to record a group discussion about the historical manga Ayako (by Osamu Tezuka, published by Vertical) over Super Bowl weekend, but network traffic meant that the Skype conversation kept dropping. Ed and I did some testing of alternate methods, but by the time he rescheduled with the group the week after, I was in the middle of a cold. (Call it vanity, but I refused to be recorded sounded like that, plus I spent the weekend in bed sniffling.)

The podcast went ahead, but after, Ed discovered that his recording software had lied to him, and it hadn’t captured the conversation. So Ed has now posted his solo recap of the discussion.

My thoughts on Ayako are relatively simple: It would never have been published if Tezuka’s name wasn’t on it, because it isn’t very good. It relies on shock value — incest, murder, abuse — to say that the well-off, the rich and established in society, suck. Wow, what insight. Beyond that, the plots don’t make much sense, especially if you don’t have knowledge of Japanese society of the early 70s, and what U.S. reader does?

I think Vertical had a responsibility to include some framing material, an essay putting the work in historical context both within the culture and Tezuka’s career, and they didn’t. (What we get is one page of Tezuka biography and a one-page introduction that’s half plot description.) Perhaps that’s because the work is already immensely long — there is a lot of muck to wade through here in 700 pages of unpleasant behavior — and they couldn’t add any more pages, but it does both the work and the readers a disservice not to explain why they chose to publish it and why they think it’s significant.

If a company is publishing something historically important, especially when it’s so offensive to today’s readers and so unsatisfying as a story, they owe it to prospective customers to help them understand why it’s worthwhile enough to bring back into print and to spend time reading. Plus, without notes, many readers won’t understand the background events referred to. Anyone who remembers the early 70s setting is over 50 by now, so many readers won’t be clear on what was standard and what was Tezuka’s invention. I suspect this may have been downplayed or omitted because the U.S. occupation are shown as the bad guys. It would also have been helpful to know what the critical reaction of the time was to a work designed to outrage.

The main point of offense for me is how badly the female characters are treated. Beyond the sex slave treatment of the title character (the girl is raised in a locked basement and winds up throwing herself at her brother, who is one of her jailers), all of the women are plot devices, with no agency or choices of their own. They’re ordered around and used by their male family members, and most are overly sexualized. The treatment of women in the book can be summed up by one character’s quote from page 526: “You’re either a born harlot or a hopeless idiot.” Ed points out another example in the podcast, where Tezuka introduces a female character while completely dismissing her as so worthless she didn’t need to be named.


  1. The question I forgot to ask was, “Why incest?” Certainly, you can show how corrupting feudal and imperial systems of government are without including incest in the narrative. Perhaps, Tezuka is pointing out how fundamentally corrosive these forms of government/society are. They destroy the most sacred and foundational of relationships.

    You don’t think Naoko has agency? I would have to disagree. She refuses to give in to the demands of her family and instead chooses banishment. Also, doesn’t Ayako gain agency at the end?

    I’m not saying it’s a perfect book. But I do think there is a lot of value in what Tezuka is saying and trying to say. It’s just too heavy handed in the execution of the ideas.
    I’m very thankful to get your take on the work.

  2. Is Naoko the sister? We learn little about her life, and while we can assume she made her own choices, those aren’t shown in the book. Once she’s banished, she’s gone. What agency we see her having, WE bring to the story, so no, I don’t count that.

    I didn’t see Tezuka saying anything new or anything I hadn’t heard elsewhere, told better, but I don’t have the veneration for him that you do. :)

  3. Fair enough, fair enough.

  4. I purchased this volume when I saw it starting to go out of stock. I’m bummed to hear it’s not so great, I’ll still read it eventually…but I think My time would be better spent on Black Jack for now.

  5. I finally got around to reading this monster volume, even though I knew it would be a relatively quick read. All in all, as much as I like Tezuka it was not told with any real finesse and was pretty bleak. The characters were all pretty distasteful and the point seemed to just be to watch the entire family self-destruct.

    I think I’m getting to the point where the adoration I had upon discovering Tezuka’s translated works (Adolf, Phoenix) has faded enough so that I won’t be automatically purchasing future works. There have been too many mediocre-to-bad experiences with MW, Apollo’s Song, Ode to Kirihito, Dororo, etc. to tarnish the better works like Buddha and Black Jack. “Always worth a look but not a must-buy” is still a pretty good category to be in. A look at my orders shows that I already didn’t preorder Princess Knight or Book of Human Insects.

    And kudos to Google Reader for letting you star blog posts for later reading … sometimes *much* later reading.

  6. Normally, when I get a comment on a post this old, it’s spam, so thanks for breaking that pattern! I appreciate hearing your thoughts on the book. I think we agree — I appreciate how well-respected Tezuka is, but I don’t feel a need to read all of his works, given their age, when there’s plenty of new great work I want to read too.

  7. Ralf,

    Thanks for listening. I don’t always agree with the story Tezuka is telling, but his work speaks to me. I can understand you not feeling that same connection. I’m glad you’ve read so much of his work. Hopefully, the upcoming Princess Knight might be more in line with what you’ve liked.

  8. […] book”, since I find myself discouraged by Tezuka’s adult works and their problematic treatment of women anyway. Doesn’t matter — after two days, the project is already funded. So DMP will […]

  9. Ran across this cross-link while looking at the Kickstarter Barbara page – sorry for the really late comment.

    You mention how badly the female characters are treated. While re-reading Ayako I kept that comment in mind and I think, perhaps, Tezuka is doing that on purpose. It’s important to take Ayako and place it within it’s cultural context, keeping in mind it was written during the early 1970’s (during a particularly dark time in Tezuka’s life) and details events that happened 20 years earlier.

    Tezuka does things for a purpose, and I think his greatest problem is that he tries to do too many at once. However, in this case I believe he’s drawing attention to the plight of the women in a somewhat unique way. On the one hand, simply having the men override the women in the story wouldn’t cause much comment in 1970’s Japan – so Tezuka ramped it up a few notches and made the women’s situations quite harsh to illustrate the point of their treatment.

    At the same time, Tezuka never forgot that his manga was a commercial commodity with a duty to entertain his readers, and sex sells.

  10. […] Ayako […]

  11. […] (unlike the sci-fi Ode to Kirihito or Swallowing the Earth). It’s not too creepy (unlike Ayako or Apollo’s Song). I’m glad it’s back in […]

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