My most common lament about anime, manga and Japanese popular culture generally has been the language barrier. I’ve tried to learn Japanese but I was only able to make so much headway, and with my spare time at an even greater premium now it’s not likely I’ll ever develop the skill needed to read manga without a translator. A great many titles I know I want to delve into — Azumi, for instance, or Yoshiharu Tsuge’s works, or the endless one-shots I’ve collected along the way — are more or less off-limits for now. In this regard I have, and most likely always will, depend on the kindness of strangers.
The good news is the strangers are getting a little kinder with each passing year. Not just manga publishers like Dark Horse taking intelligent risks with titles like Hiroki Endo’s Tanpenshu, but Drawn & Quarterly bringing out Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work, or Vertical, Inc. digging through most of Osamu Tezuka’s back catalog. Now joining their ranks are graphic-novel greats Fantagraphics, and their debut release in this category is a gorgeously-produced best-of collection from shojo manga creator Moto Hagio, A Drunken Dream and Other Stories. (Even apart from the content, the book is a keeper — a large-format hardback, in color, one of the best productions of its kind since something like the domestic printing of Seiichi Hayashi’s Red-Colored Elegy.)
Moto was distantly familiar to me before I ever opened the book. She’d produced the original story behind They Were Eleven, a remarkable and underrated little animated feature that didn’t outwardly proclaim itself as a “girl’s story”. The pieces anthologized in Drunken Dream have a lot of the more obvious shojo elements — the main characters are predominantly girls; much of what happens involves either romance or family ties — but Moto doesn’t assume that a good story just needs to contain the requisite marketable elements. She infuses all this stuff with an extra layer of depth, a strength of hard-won spirit that makes you go back to her well and drink even more deeply.
The material showcased here has been assembled from across thirty years of Moto’s career, and shows her switching nimbly between storytelling modes. On the face of the evidence there was very little she could not do, some things she did well, and a few things she did magnificently. The title story’s a mix of SF and fantasy (two of her own self-professed escape routes as a young woman); the unnerving “Girl on Porch with Puppy” is a foray into Shirley Jackson / “Lottery” territory; “Angel Mimic” starts with the ingredients of romantic melodrama but ends up with something a great deal deeper and more satisfying. My favorite story of the bunch, “Iguana Girl”, uses a clever extended metaphor — which runs through both the art and the storytelling — to demonstrate how a person’s most deeply-held beliefs about themselves can either be a source of strength or a hindrance. It’s all about what they do with them.
You may, as I did, develop very different views of the material depending on which way you read the book. If you open from the “back”, you encounter the stories themselves, laid out in the Japanese right-to-left format. Open from the “front” and you’ll read a left-to-right formatted series of interviews between editor/translator Matt Thorn. It is not difficult to read those discussions and sift out from them the seeds of many of the conflicts, internal and external, that sprout and come into full flower elsewhere. It’s not hard to see Moto transmuting her mother — always weirdly unable to come to terms with her daughter being a comic artist — into the equally-dissatisfied mother of “Iguana Girl”, but that’s ultimately just additional perspective. The story doesn’t need autobiographical footnotes to be innately powerful.
The more I read about the best of shojo manga — and the more I read of it — the more I am convinced there is really no direct Western parallel to the phenomenon. It’s nominally aimed at young girls, but like any art form it becomes that much more universal as it reaches its peak. The very best of the material in this category — e.g., Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra, or (my own not-so-guilty-pleasure favorite) Shinji Wada’s Sukeban Deka — is only limited to its original audience by dint of others not yet having a chance to see it in its full flower. This book’s further evidence that “shojo” need not be thought of as closed-ended and insular a category as “science fiction” once was.