If you like your graphic novels to unsettle and disturb, Ayako won’t disappoint. It’s a stark portrait of a patriarchal family unwilling to lose its stranglehold on local power and wealth, going to any means to get what they want from life. Each generation’s patriarch gets his position by birthright, but still has to bend to their own father’s cruel whim before they ascend to the top of the family.
Ayako is a tragic personification of this cruelty, the product of an incestuous union between the head of the family and his son’s wife. This alone could bring the family into disrepute, but to top it off, the four-year-old Ayako is witness to a murder that has to be covered up. Her own death is faked and she’s locked up in a cellar to rot.
Years pass and the poor little girl’s subterranean prison becomes her world, with only a few visits from well-meaning but ultimately equally tragic members of her family to look forward to. As she blossoms into a woman she’s a blank slate, brainwashed and abused by those she should be able to trust and rely on.
In the background there’s another character, Ayako’s older brother Jiro. Being a middle sibling, he isn’t in the running to take over the family business, so he puts his morally vacuous upbringing to other uses, and leaves home to eventually become a gangster. By the time Ayako has grown up he is head of an ultra-successful crime organisation, and becomes an unlikely ally of Ayako’s, sending her vast sums of money.
Tezuka’s illustration is smooth and understated, occasionally slipping into beautiful illustrated landscapes, but more often zooming up close to the characters to let them tell their story. The script can be dense at times – the family is given a colloquial accent, reinforcing the impression that they are perhaps a little backward. The pacing is superb, though, with a page-turning momentum that pulls you through the book’s 700 pages.
It’s impossible to categorise Ayako as an enjoyable book because the subject matter just doesn’t suit the description. However, it’s heartily recommended if you don’t mind being subjected to a traumatic and heart-wrenching story about a young girl who has her childhood stolen, and certainly doesn’t live happily ever after.