Before Moto Hagio and her colleagues came along in the late 60s/early 70s, shojo manga — Japanese "comics for girls" — looked very different. The plots were formulaic and soap-operatic, fueled by the sudden revelation of family secrets ("your mother isn't your mother!") and/or — but very often "and" — amnesia.
Of course, both of those hoary devices are things that happen to the main character, not actions she takes. That's because many heroines tended to be victims of fate — passive, pretty, virtuous and poor.
Not unrelated: At the time, most shojo manga was written, edited and published by men — men who, Hagio has noted in interviews, were fond of telling the few female writers in their stables just what it was that young girls wanted to read about.
That changed as Moto Hagio's generation — which featured several female creators — came on the scene. They broke new ground, occasionally using (gasp!) boy protagonists. Hagio, in particular, brought a new sensibility to bear; her work is inspired by Americian science-fiction and European film, suffused with markedly fluid notions of gender and evinces her unflinching eagerness to explore some very dark psychological places.
Publisher Fantagraphics has translated ten of Hagio's shorter works (she's known in Japan for sprawling stories, serialized over the course of several years), many for the first time, in the collection A Drunken Dream and Other Stories. It's a deeply impressive — and immersive — piece of work that's full of complex emotional truths. And deep weirdness.
Full disclosure: I haven't read lots of shojo manga over the years, so I'm relying on others to put A Drunken Dream into a wider cultural context. Cue Deb Aoki over at the About.com/manga website, who's put together a great piece that combines a brief Hagio primer, a transcript of Hagio's Q and A at Comic-Con, and Aoki's own interview. (SPOILER: Hagio's pretty charming.)
As for my take: I dug this, and I think many, many people not conversant with manga will, too.
Stylistically, it's a curious mix: Her linework gives each page a sense of openness, conjuring a world of light breezes, flowers and sunshine, even as her characters struggle with inner darkness. This darkness can take many forms: doomed eternal love, grief, guilt or — in the collection's most satisfyingly creepy/affecting tale — a parasitic conjoined twin.
It’s not overwrought or melodramatic – Hagio's got too good an eye for locating the emotional center of her work for that. But it is sincere, and often abashedly poignant.
Personal favorite? Easily "Iguana Girl", in which a woman gives birth to what she perceives to be a lizard, though the rest of the world sees only a normal, healthy baby. That's a fairy tale setup, of course, and the story pokes at the same tender psychological truths that lie beneath the Brothers Grimm at their very grimmest.
It’s couched differently — Hagio’s twist is to locate the reader in the point of view of the daughter, who quickly comes to view herself as an iguana. It works as a metaphor for how children internalize the cruelty of parents, but it also works on a surface, story level, thanks to Hagio's closely observed handling of familial relationships. You believe this family, even if you don't want to.
You can download a lengthy PDF preview of A Drunken Dream on the Fantagraphics site.
A week or so back, critic David Welsh — who blogs as the Manga Curmudgeon — posted a thoughtful, well-argued piece that detected a nagging, sniffy dismissal in reviews of the book, and in the treatment of the "girl's comics" genre by US critics in general. He offers several examples to back up his thesis, and the ensuing discussion is serious and chewy, coming as it does amid the discussion of women, fiction, Franzen and contemporary book criticism.
(Just went back to check that link, and noticed that Welsh gives me a shout-out in it, which I'd forgotten. Read it anyway.)