by Moto Hagio; translated by Matt Thorn
published by Fantagraphics; $25 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
As the title indicates, A Drunken Dream and Other Stories is a collection of short stories spanning the career of Moto Hagio. Hagio is considered one of the pioneers, not only of shoujo manga, but also the boys love genre (non-explicit, romantic stories of boys/young men) and by extension yaoi (explicit, romantic stories featuring men). This book serves as an introduction to both Hagio and her body of work.
Drunken Dream contains a wide variety of styles and genres. “Autumn Journey” is a shoujo coming-of-age story about a boy. The title tale is josei, a science-fiction story of star-crossed lovers. (Imagine Romeo and Juliet constantly reincarnated.) The editor/translator Matt Thorn has selected a nice mix of stories to give readers a feel for the depth and breadth of Hagio’s abilities as a writer.
In general, there is a melancholy that permeates each of the stories in this book. Reading the 2004 interview with Hagio (included), I get a sense that this is true of most of her works. Certainly, her discussion of the “Poe Clan” and “A Savage God Reigns” makes them sound like sad, if not at time depressing, series. Befitting such a mood, these are also quiet tales. People expecting some of the more over-the-top shoujo hijinks will be disappointed. Hagio’s work is more reflective of the meditative side of shoujo that isn’t as well known here in America.
I’ll just highlight the three stories I found most striking. The first is “Girl on Porch with Puppy”. This story has a very Twilight Zone ending that completely caught me by surprise. It’s a pointed critique of the hegemony found in Japanese society. It’s not subtle, but it’s extremely well constructed. I’ve read it several times now and enjoy it tremendously each time.
“The Willow Tree” is a beautiful story with a very moving ending. The majority of the story is silent, about a young woman standing next to a willow tree watching as the life of a man unfolds before her. He ages through the story, and she stays eternally young. The ending will send you back to re-read the entire story. It’s bittersweet in the finest sense of the word.
Once of the longer stories is “Angel Mimic”, a romance between a college student (Tsugiko) and her biology professor (Shiroh). They first met on the beach when Shiroh finds Tsugiko passed out from swallowing a bottle of sleeping pills. Not the most auspicious beginning for a relationship. They slowly warm up to each other as they are forced to spend time together in the classroom.
The story is heartrending as you watch these two awkward, incomplete people slowly trying to connect. Shiroh relates everything back to evolution, and Tsugiko can only speak of her desire to be an angel. Yet, they are speaking the only language they each have at this point. They see in each other what they lack. Their relationship begins as a mutual support system.
The ending of “Angel Mimic” encapsulates the mood of the book. The story ends well, but I wouldn’t call it a happy ending. Shiroh’s and Tsugiko’s relationship is so fragile that you can’t be sure it will last. Tsugiko struggles with her melancholy but still has a way to go before she will be able to put it behind her. Hagio leaves you with a cautious hope.
The artwork is as beautiful, subtle, and well-crafted as the stories. Hagio uses nice clean page layouts that pace the narrative through use of different-sized panels. Large panels actually work to slow the reader down since they contain more details. Small panels are like short sentences in getting the reader to move quickly across the page. There are a delightful variety of layouts used. No two pages are alike.
Significant to Hagio’s stories is her ability to so masterfully communicate emotions in the artwork. Hagio uses body language as well as facial expressions. Her artistic genius is seen in character’s eyes alive with emotions radiating off the page. Looking at just the eyes, you know exactly the emotional state of the person in that panel. The key is her ability to know how subtle changes are all that are needed to convey radically different emotions. Any artist would be richly rewarded studying her art.
I want to thank Fantagraphics for including the Hagio interview Thorn did in 2004. It’s a fantastic look at her life and career, a must-read for any manga fans who want a deeper understanding of the medium.
A Drunken Dream and Other Stories is a wonderful collection of stories for mature readers. The stories embody a complex mix of emotions. Hagio isn’t offering us easily digestible pap, but solid food that will take time to process and absorb properly. I wish we had more manga written for adults available. I look forward to the next Hagio book. Fantagraphics has done a great service to all English-language comic fans by making these stories accessible. A PDF preview is available at the publisher’s website. Greg McElhatton’s review mentions additional stories with some art samples.