Review: A Drunken Dream

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories by Moto Hagio (Fantagraphics Books)

In 2010, Fantagraphics released A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, a sometimes quiet, often daring 10-story collection by the Japanese comic artist Moto Hagio. The stories span 1977 through 2008, and chart how one woman’s writing career went hand-in-hand with the revolution in girls comics in Japan.

Prolific since the 1970s, Moto Hagio is part of the group of female manga artists, born around 1949—called the Magnificent Forty-Niners, or the Year 24 Group—that re-imagined girls comics. When Hagio first started illustrating shoujo manga—comics geared toward women—the male artists who dominated the field were writing tame, conventional stories geared toward little girls. Hagio and others like her took the risks that won shoujo manga respect, created lifelong manga devotees among women, and established the tropes that continue to shape anything shoujo: beautiful characters, tragic undertones, emotional depth,shounen-ai (the boys’ love genre), and a visual layout that emphasizes atmosphere over action.

As a testament to Hagio’s artistic evolution, this collection ranges from the conventional to the masterful. In the first story, “Bianca” (1977), an elderly woman recalls her childhood friend, who would dance in the woods to escape her grief over her parents’ divorce. By this time, Hagio had already had a hit series (The Poe Clan) and won the prestigious Shogakukan Manga Award (1976), yet this nostalgic, sweet story reads a little boring, safe in its neatness.

Mere pages later, however, we see Hagio testing the medium and pushing the boundaries of both her panels and her narratives. She plunges into science-fiction and the fantastical while exploring the knotty aspects of love and family. Her 1985 story Hanshin: Half-God, focuses on an emaciated, clever little girl whose beautiful yet vapid conjoined twin is sapping her strength. Iguana Girl(2008)—about a mother convinced she’s given birth to an iguana, and the daughter who believes she’s that iguana—comments with surprising humor on the potential for cruelty in mother-daughter relationships. The Willow Tree(2007) closes out the volume; using almost no dialogue and only one setting, it still manages a heartbreaking turn on the final page.

Happy endings don’t seem to be common in Hagio’s work, but her career itself has been both fortunate and a product of persistence. Writers should take heart from Hagio’s 1995 interview with The Comics Journal, reprinted at the back of this volume, in which she describes how difficult it was to start a career that so shamed her parents. Here Hagio reflects on the difficulty of getting into print:

“So I would send them [the comic magazines] story ideas that I wanted to do, and every idea was rejected, every finished story I sent was rejected. [Laughter.] So I thought, “How am I going to eat?” [Laughs.] And there’s a big gap between what I want to do and what they want me to do. And I thought, “There’s no way I can become a pro this way.” So I wondered if I should change my direction. But I want to draw what I want to draw, right?”

Gina Rodriguez, Layout Editor