December 17, 2010

Osamu Tezuka – Vertical – 2010 – 1 volume

I can’t tell you how much I love love LOVE these gigantic Tezuka volumes. I eat them up with a spoon every time. I hope Vertical does well with them, I look forward to many more in the future.

There’s one major issue I had with this book, so I’m going to get it out of the way right now: the cover. There is a naked little girl on the cover. I don’t care if this is the classiest book in the world. Because there is a naked little girl on the cover, that meant I couldn’t pick it up in a store, I had to buy it online. I also couldn’t read it on the bus or at work. It’s just plain creepy, and a bad choice. I already knew I wanted this book, but what if I was browsing, or had heard of it and wanted to take a look in the store? I wouldn’t have looked twice. That’s just my opinion, though. I do like the color choice and the minimalism, the design of the cover in general is excellent. I just wish a different image had been used.

This is a sad, depressing story. It differs from the other long one-shot Tezuka volumes I read, because it is entirely devoid of psychopaths, mysticism, dog people, synthetic skin, and bat-shit crazy in general. It’s firmly rooted in reality, and all the evil it contains is born out of desperation rather than… whatever else Tezuka usually throws at his unfortunate cast. Evil begets evil here, in a sense, and it’s interesting to see how things escalate.

It studies the Tenge family in post-war Japan a formerly wealthy family that goes back hundreds of years, recently losing much of its power and money to the occupation dividing up the family land in the name of saving Japan’s economy. The second son, Jiro, was a POW who is forced to collaborate in a murder cover-up conspiracy presumably with the occupation. When facts of this start coming forward, his family covers for him as he kills and kills again and the sole witness, his youngest sister Ayako, is locked away in a storehouse and declared dead. As the family grows older and Jiro flees forever, there are disputes over the family money and more death and suspicion from the more morally balanced members of the family. Years later, Ayako escapes her confinement a young woman in a state of arrested development and finds her brother Jiro in Tokyo, who is now a yakuza boss.

That’s a vast over-simplification, because the story is about the relationships between the family members (the Tenge family includes three sons and two daughters along with an old-fashioned patriarch), their relationship to society, how they are perceived in the area, their own personal missions in life, and just what depths they will go to to protect themselves, their reputations, and their pride. Ayako, the youngest daughter, winds up being the scapegoat for all this, and it is ultimately Ayako that bears the brunt of everyone else’s pent-up guilt, despite the fact she is innocent and remains so for the rest of her life.

Ayako even begins life on the wrong foot: she is the daughter of the Tenge patriarch and the wife of his oldest son, begot in a bargain between father and son to share the wife in order to gain all the family’s money. The woman in question, Su’e, does not approve of this, but she is quiet about the arrangement, and father Tenge is quite fond of young Ayako. Su’e’s opinion is of little consequence. Of such little consequence, in fact, we don’t learn her name until almost two-thirds of the way through the book. In fact, in a story of such an old-fashioned family, it’s interesting that all the women are either killed, driven away, imprisoned, or keep their mouths shut. The book is quite terrible to women.

The narrative perspective shifts over the years, which makes this an interesting read. We begin from Jiro’s perspective, which is necessary if we are to see why he does what he does early on. After he steps out of the picture, the story does focus on Ayako and the third Tenge son, Shiro. Shiro is the most morally upright in the Tenge family, and was the only one that spoke out about justice being done to Jiro. We see him age and dote on Ayako in her prison, and much later, even moral Shiro has problems when it comes to Ayako. Again, seeing the story from his and Ayako’s perspective is imperative for this part to work, because otherwise it would be quite terrible. It’s terrible anyway, but at least we know what drives the two of them to the act. Later on, the perspective switches again to Jiro and Ayako.

The two “villains” throughout the book are the Tenge patriarch and the oldest son, Ichiro. Both are maniacally driven by money and reputation, and it is on their say that most of the terrible things in the book happen. They are simultaneously terrible to individual members of the family and driven to help them all in the name of Tenge. The two of them protect family’s reputation by “killing” Ayako translates to protecting Jiro from the law as well. It is only in regard to Jiro that their actions are “noble,” however. It is a terrible thing to the Tenge patriarch to imprison his beloved Ayako, though it was his selfishness that begot her in the first place. Similarly, Ichiro is driven to terrible acts himself in order to keep the Tenge inheritance in his name and stay head of the family, though by doing so he continues to provide a home for his mother and younger brother. Later, Ichiro goes to great lengths to not move Ayako, who by that point does not want to live in the outside world and is scared of anybody but Jiro and Su’e. Moving her would be too stressful for Ayako, but there’s also the fact that anyone who saw her might remember the young Ayako of 20 years ago and make the connection, thus tarnishing the Tenge family reputation.

In the end, it is all their crimes that haunt them and come back to the bad people in this book. They come back to everyone, really, even the oldest sister, who commits no crime. And everyone seems to love Ayako unconditionally, possibly because she suffers so they don’t have to.

Her arrested development is part of the story too, though it doesn’t quite fit in as well with the family politics. She has a sexual awakening while in prison, though she doesn’t know what that means and what may and may not be appropriate about it. She’s scared of crowds and open places, and as a grown woman hides in boxes and plays with children. She also doesn’t realize she’s “seducing” men when she wants to have sex with strangers. It’s twisted and tragic, though in a more grounded way than Tezuka usually tells.

Interestingly, I did not spot Tezuka’s usual cast of characters in this book. Perhaps a few of the less common, less recognizable characters make an appearance, but none of his “stars.” It’s unusual. You even see them in Adolf.

One more thing… I think the accents the characters use might be a point of contention, but I found them rather comforting. They all speak with a kind of contracted, abbreviated English that is supposed to imply provincial roots. It’s not perfect, but it gets across the idea, and there’s nothing more heartbreaking than the characters (particularly the women) yelling “NAW!” during the scenes of intense struggle and violence. There’s something haunting about it. The accents also keep their status as rather simple country dwellers in the back of your mind while you read. I think Jiro is the only character that doesn’t speak with the accent. Hmm.

Ultimately, it’s a dark story of family politics in post-war Japan, and it even works a few real-life incidents into the fabric of the story as a reference point. It’s quite successful in its quiet and down-to-earth depravity, and somehow one of the most understated Tezuka stories I’ve read. Probably a good place to start off new readers of Tezuka, though it is a rather dense story with a lot of talking. I do enjoy Tezuka’s more… out-there efforts, but I enjoy almost everything I’ve read by him, and this is no exception. Kudos to Vertical for continuing these one-volume looks at his wide variety of work.