Vol: 3; Ch: 19
1972 - 1973
3.81 out of 5 from 171 votes
Rank #11,859

The year is 1949. Crushed by the Allied Powers, occupied by General MacArthur’s armies, Japan has been experiencing massive change. Agricultural reform is dissolving large estates and redistributing plots to tenant farmers—terrible news, if you’re landowners like the archconservative Tenge family. For patriarch Sakuemon, the chagrin of one of his sons coming home alive from a P.O.W. camp instead of having died for the Emperor is topped only by the revelation that another of his is consorting with “the reds.” What solace does he have but his youngest Ayako, apple of his eye, at once daughter and granddaughter?

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The late Osamu Tezuka needs no introduction. Over his lifetime he created dozens of classic stories that have helped shape manga and anime into what it is today. ‘Ayako’ is one of his lesser known works. Rather undeservingly so seeing as it’s yet another excellent demonstration of Tezuka’s imcredible storytelling abilities. The story begins in 1949. Japan is slowly getting back on its feet following the devastating losses it suffered during World War 2 and Jiro Tenge, son of a wealthy family of landowners, has come back home.  Reluctantly so, I might add, seeing as he finds out upon returning that not much has changed. His father Sakuemon (the head of the family) is still grumpy, condescending and more than a bit xenophobic while his older brother Ichiro tries his best to match him. The women in the Tenge family are treated as non-entities which reflects how sexist Japanese society was in that time period. The children, meanwhile, are raised to fill in similar roles once they grow up. There is one exception, though. A child named Ayako, a new niece of Jiro’s who is particularly favored by patriarch Sakuemon. The story spans a time period of approximately 25 years and during that time a series of events, varying from shifts in the political climate to personal tragedies, take place that greatly affect members of the Tenge family in different ways. We see a family desperately clinging to their power as the world around them begins to change, an ambitious son who’ll use his children as pawns to win favor with his father, a man who gets caught up in espionage for shady agencies in order to build up a personal fortune and a child trying in vain to change his family from the inside out. The lynchpin of the entire narrative is young Ayako (hence the title). Her role as an innocent child is initially played straight but as the story goes on it eventually becomes clear that it serves a symbolic purpose. She represents an undying innocence that is cruelly repressed and (if possible) denied by a society that sacrifices integrity for personal gain. This, in turn, is the major theme of this manga. And Tezuka deserves props for brilliantly exploring the way principles and innocence are corrupted in the face of selfishness. Other themes that pop up in the story ultimately serve to support it. Some may be surprised at how cynical all of this sounds coming from the man who’s mostly known for rather upbeat stories (though he also wrote ‘MW’) but let it be clear. This is a very somber story with a very harsh view on human nature and society.  It is nonetheless a very thematically rich and frighteningly timeless work that deserves to be read by any serious fan of manga. It’s not all perfect though. There are a handful of events that are rather  rushed and/or contrived, while most characters ultimately functions as little more than pawns in the grand scheme of things. Characterization is minimal seeing as their roles in the story are largely symbolic. Some may also find that Tezuka pours his (political) views on a little too thick at times. Tezuka was never one for subtlety. The visuals of this manga are excellent. Osamu Tezuka’s ability to frame all sorts of emotions in tiny pictures is on full display and he doesn’t stuff his panels with unnecessary detail. Another great aspect of the art is the way the characters are designed. They’re all very distinctive and they really look different yet instantly recognizable as they get older. The art does a perfect job supporting the narrative which is the main attraction here. And in that regard, Ayako delivers in spades. Very highly recommended.

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