Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories

By Moto Hagio, translated by Matt Thorn (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN: 978-1-60699-377-4

It’s Great Big Gift Giving Season: Win’s Christmas Recommendation: 10/10

Girls’ comics have always taken a secondary role in publishing – at least in most countries. In Japan this was the case until a new wave of female artists and writers stormed the male bastions in the 1970s transforming a very much distaff niche into a viable, autonomous marketplace, consequently reshaping the entire manga landscape in the process. At the forefront and regarded as part of a holy trinity of astoundingly gifted and groundbreaking creators is Moto Hagio. The other two, if you’re in the mood to Go Googling (and of course, other search engines are available) are Keiko Takamiya and Yumiko Oshima…)

This lovely hardback collection presents ten of her best short stories gleaned from a career than spans more than forty years, over which time she and her revolutionary compatriots created whole genres, advanced the status of fantasy, horror and science fiction tales, reinvented and perfected the shōjo (“girl’s story”) form, and introduced a degree of literacy, symbology, authority and emotional depth to the medium that has gone on to transform comics in Japan and globally.

Editor, translator and cultural ambassador Matt Thorn has contributed an informative historical treatise on Japan’s comic world and those revolutionary comics creators (thoroughly annotated) as well as providing a far-reaching, moving and engrossing interview with the artist and academic herself.

Although her most popular works are generally science fictional (another arena where she broke new ground in such sagas as ‘They Were Eleven!’, ‘Marginal’ and ‘Otherworld Barbara’), socially probing human dramas like ‘Mesh’ and ‘A Savage God Reigns’ explored previously forbidden realms of psycho-sexual and abusive family relationships with such deft sensitivity that they served to elevate manga from the realm of cheap escapism to literature and even Great Art – a struggle we’re still waging in the West…

This volume traces her beginnings through more traditional themes of romance, but with growing success came the confidence to probe into far darker and more personal subjects, so whereas my usual warnings are about pictorial nudity and sexual situations, here I’m compelled to say that if your kids are smart enough the contextual matter in these tales might be a tad distressing. It is all, however, rendered with stunning sensitivity, brilliantly visual metaphors and in truly beautiful graceful tones and lines.

The comics section (which is re-presented in the traditional front-to-back, “flopped” manner) begins with ‘Bianca’ from 1971: a wistful reminiscence and disguised disquisition on creativity wrapped in the tragic story of a childhood companion whose parents separated, whilst ‘Girl on Porch with Puppy’ (1971) is a disquieting cautionary tale about disobedient little girls who don’t try to fit in and ‘Autumn Journey’ from the same year is a complex mystery concerning a young man trying to meet his favourite author – as well as a painful exploration of families growing up apart.

‘Marié, Ten Years Late’ from 1977 is a heartbreaking example of a “Sophie’s Choice” as a lonely, frustrated artist discovers the truth behind the breakup of a perfect friendship which twisted three lives whilst the eponymous science fictional ‘A Drunken Dream’ (1980) describes a doomed reincarnating romance which has spanned centuries and light-years. This is the only full colour story in a generally monochrome volume.

Moto Hagio is one of a select band of creators credited with creating the “boy’s love” sub-genres of shōnenai and Yaio: sensitively homoerotic romances, generally created by women for women and now more popularly described as BL (as opposed to Bara – gay manga created by men for men) and this lyrical, star-crossed fantasy is a splendid example of the form.

Hanshin: Half-God’ (1984) is a disturbing, introspective psychological exploration of Hagio’s favoured themes of familial pressure and intolerance, described through the lives of anther girls’ comic favourite; twin sisters. The siblings here however are conjoined: Yucy is a beautiful angelic waif whilst her monovular other Yudy is an ugly withered homunculus.

The story is told by ugly Yudy whose life is changed forever by an operation to separate them. This incredibly moving tale adds barbed edges and ground glass to the ugly ducking fairytale and cannot fail to shock and move the reader…

From the same year comes the longer romantic tale ‘Angel Mimic’ as a failed suicide eventually evolves into a slim chance of ideal love, which poesy leads into the harrowing tale of rejection that is ‘Iguana Girl’.

Although couched in fantasy terms this tale of contemporary Japanese family life follows the life of Rika, an ordinary girl whose mother thinks she is a monster, and how that view warps how the child perceives the world throughout her life.

‘The Child Who Comes Home’ (1998) again examines rejection but uses the memory of a dead son and brother to pick open the hidden scabs of home and hearth – or perhaps it’s just a sad ghost story to clear the palate before this superb commemoration ends with the elegiac and almost silent, solitary pantomime of 2007’s ‘The Willow Tree’ which shows yet another side of family love…

Abuse of faith and trust. Love lost or withheld. Isolation, rejection, loss of purpose: all these issues are woven into a sensuously evocative tapestry of insightful inquiry and beautiful reportage. These tales are just the merest tip of a cataclysmic iceberg that invaded the stagnant waters of Girls’ comics and shattered their cosy world forever. The stories grew up as the readers did; offering challenging questions and options not pat answers and stifling pipedreams.

Until the day our own comics industries catch up at least we have these stories – and hopefully many more from the same source. Sequels please, ASAP!

All rights reserved. Original Japanese edition published 1977, 1985, 2007, 2008 by Shogakukan Inc. English translation rights arranged through Viz Media, LCC, USA. © 2010 Fantagraphics Books.