A Drunken Dream and Other Stories by Moto Hagio
If you don’t know, this book is a collection of short stories by Moto Hagio, one of the women who reinvented shojo (girls’) manga in the late 1960s. Her work, while famous and hugely influential in Japan, has barely been seen in the U.S. So this is an “important” book. And Fantagraphics has done a nice job with it and made a good choice to include Matt Thorn’s interview with Hagio.
But is this book any good?
In the end, yes, but it’s an odd collection. The stories are very different, though the same themes tend to come up repeatedly. Still, there are plenty of overly dramatic, one-dimensional stories here to confirm some people’s bias that shojo manga is silly. “Girl on a Porch With a Puppy” is incredibly simplistic in its message and the end is so shocking and unbelievable it reminded me of a bad Twilight Zone episode. And “Angel Mimic” is so mired in shojo manga stereotypes and full of forced dialogue that it feels more like a genre exercise than an actual story about human experience. Other stories are less cringe-inducing, though melodramatic: “Bianca,” “Autumn Journey,” and “The Willow Tree.” Yet while I may wish some of these stories hadn’t been included they do help to show the breadth of what Hagio can do. And they get you to open up to the “heart on its sleeve” attitude that these stories tend to have. As others have pointed out, these are not ironic stories with cynically distanced perspectives. These stories try to go right after the emotions they are exploring. And I think if you give yourself over to that and have experienced something of what the stories are about that these are really affecting works that talk about things few other comics stories do.
“Iguana Girl” and “Hanshin: Half-God” are the stories that most critics praise. Stylistically, these are the most experimental, especially “Iguana Girl.” In the story, a mother’s lack of love for her daughter manifests as her seeing her daughter as an iguana. So the daughter herself comes to believe that she is an iguana and is depicted as one throughout the story. What this tale presents is how our parents’ perception of us forms our self-identity even if that identity contradicts what others see. Comics are a particularly good medium for depicting this sort of thing (imagine the main character being an iguana in a film; it wouldn’t work) and it makes me wonder why I haven’t seen more stories like this. What makes this story so good is how far Hagio goes with this theme, how deeply she explores it. It isn’t simply a story that blames a mother for being heartless; it also explores the sibling dynamic that happens as a result and the young woman’s feelings about becoming a mother herself. And it feels true. For instance, when the mother dies, the woman doesn’t stop seeing herself as an iguana. As in life, our conflicts with our parents don’t end when the parents’ lives end. Our conflicts belong to us. Hagio has the maturity to look beyond easy blame.
Next to “Iguana Girl” and “Hanshin: Half-God,” my favorite stories in the book are “Marié, Ten Years Later” and “The Child Who Comes Home.” Both these stories border on the melodramatic, but the emotions in them seem real if overdramatized. “Marié, Ten Years Later” is similar to “Iguana Girl” in that it’s about self-perception and how we create narratives that both delude us and cover over pain. Yet this story is about a love triangle, not a family. While this story wallows a bit in time lost and opportunities untaken, it also offers some hope in the fact that life goes on. While the main character finally learns that Marié may have loved him and he never realized it, this realization offers the possibility that he can finally let go and move on. We mourn the loss of our youth, but perhaps that mourning is also the entry into another phase of life.
“The Child Who Comes Home” deals with the death of a child and its affect on a family. The main character is the surviving older brother. Hagio does a nice job of keeping this character silent, so when he finally releases the emotions he’s been feeling it has a real weight to it. But it also adds a level of complexity because it shows him to be more affected than he let on previously and ends up giving another dimension to the mother who at first seems a little one-dimensional.
Overall, what Hagio seems best at depicting is damaged characters, people who carry around some loss or hidden pain. What she shows is not just the pain itself, but how one lives with that pain, how one learns to be an adult, learns or doesn’t learn to move on. In other words, she explores how people come to deal with their scars, and sometimes realizing that the scars are not scars at all. Maybe I’m just getting older, but this is a theme I can really relate to. I’m not sure I would have said the same thing ten years ago. And so while these tories are often imperfect, they are often trying to depict something real. For that reason, and because they sometimes succeed, I think Hagio is, regardless of the hype, an important creator, not simply because she redefined a genre, but because she tries to make an art form speak about real human experience. And as I get older, I get hungrier for such art.
Noah Berlatsky did a series of interesting reviews on this book: