Well, another year has passed here at the Manga Test Drive. This May marks the third year I've been writing for this blog, and unlike the last time, I was able to do so without disappearing for weeks or months at a time due to burnout. It's been a busy year and a relatively fruitful one. Not only have views have been higher than ever, but very recently I discovered that The Manga Test Drive has fans in high places.
What you see there is the back of Volume 8 of Vertical's Knights of Sidonia, a back cover that happens to feature a quote from my previous review of the first volume. You can only imagine my surprise and shock at the sight. There in front of me were my own words on a professionally published book! My humble little blog was getting the kind of prominent placement that's usually only reserved for major review sites and critics who are far more seasoned and professional than I. I'd be lying if I said that it wasn't a total ego boost, but it's also a good reason to celebrate with a full month of manga reviews! That's right - for every day in May, there will be a new review for everyone to enjoy! So let's kick things off with a blast from manga's past.
A DRUNKEN DREAM AND OTHER STORIES, by Moto Hagio. First published from 1970 - 2007, and first published in North America in 2010.
This anthology features a wide selection of stories from Hagio's career, ranging from some of her earliest works all the way to the 21st century. Within are stories of children haunted by the choices of adults, love stories that carry throughout the ages, broken families, and much more, all from the pen of shoujo's most influential creators.
As is the problem with so many manga anthologies, it's hard to do a concise summary of the book because there are so many of them collected here. Fantagraphics, in conjunction with translator and longtime Hagio champion Matt Thorn, chose these stories to introduce not only manga fans, but also comic fans to Hagio's works, and I can say that they chose exceptionally well. A Drunken Dream does a great job of showing off how Hagio's art and writing have evolved over the years, and while the subject matter may vary wildly, the themes within are all still very relevant and touching.
It's rather appropriate that the earliest stories here are also the most immature in both story and choice of characters. Most of these focus on innocent children whose lives are affected by the cruel adults and broken families that others try so valiantly to hide from them. This sort of melodrama was something of a tradition in the early days of shoujo, where the reader was meant to sympathize with the noble suffering of these impossibly good and saintly children, but these days such melodrama comes off as cheap, even a little ridiculous. Still, as the stories progress through time, we see Hagio's storytelling evolve from talkative melodramas to nearly silent and highly metaphorical works.
Even from her early days, she was not afraid to tackle some very heavy and complicated themes. One great example of that is "Iguana Girl," a story about a young woman whose whole life and outlook have been colored by her mother's constant verbal abuse who nonetheless manages to find a sense of acceptance for herself, her lot in life, and even towards her terrible mother. "Angel Mimic" starts off with the heroine trying to commit suicide, who also must deal with not only depression, but the prospect of an abortion. "The Silver Willow" is all about death and letting go of loved ones. In the hands of lesser writers, such topics could become ridiculously dramatic or moralizing, but Hagio is able to weave them deftly into the story and strives to help the reader understand and sympathize with her protagonists and their choices.
There are also a lot of stories that deal with much more simple matters - lost love, death, regret, and so forth. These too are handled with the same degree of seriousness and sympathy, and some of these rank amongst the best of the entire book, such as "Marie, Ten Years Later" (a story of a friendship torn apart by jealousy and suicide) as well as the titular tale (a love story that transcends both time and gender set amongst the stars of the far-flung future). The latter is familiar territory for those lucky enough to read the Moto Hagio stories that Viz published nearly 20 years ago, and it also called to mind the works of fellow Showa 29 artist Keiko Takemiya.
If you've ever been curious to read her works or wanted to get some understanding of why Moto Hagio is considered one of the great names of shoujo, then A Drunken Dream is a great place to start. It lets the reader see just how much she advanced as a writer over the decades, and while the details of each story may differ greatly, the themes are both affecting and timeless.
This anthology also lets the reader see how Hagio's art style evolved over time. Not surprisingly, the earliest stories are the ones that look the most rough. There are loads of jewel-eyed children with flowing hair that move through their worlds with the grace of a dancer, but they're drawn more flatly and crudely than similar figures in Hagio's later stories. Still, there's a surreal quality to some of these that's very typical of 1970s shoujo, and I'll admit that I find myself drawn to the ghostly silhouettes and swirling backgrounds of her early works. Over time, though, there's a far more confident and grounded quality to her work, and she starts to draw a lot more grown men and women with a wider variety of looks and body types, even if they never quite lose those jeweled eyes.
The biggest visual highlight of the book is also the only one in color, the titular story. Here Hagio took a cue from the classical setting and makes her leads look something like Greek statuary come to life, which stands in contrast to the sci-fi content of the story. The color adds a sense of warmth to the present of the story, as it desaturates into sepia tones during the flashbacks accented only with the occasional flash of red. This warmth and visual distinction between the two worlds is something that would have been lost had it been printed in black and white. The closest rival is has is "The Willow Tree," which is told almost entirely in silence. In it, a woman stands vigil under a willow tree, watching the seasons and years go past, and it manages to communicate so much with such a simple montage. Of course, it's helped by the fact that Hagio draws such fantastic backgrounds, ones that are full of detail and life. She's also very good with panel and page composition, and every work is framed as beautifully as a painting. It's just a visually stunning book, and a fine testament to Hagio's skill as an artist.
A Drunken Dream deserves to sit on the shelves of anyone who loves good shoujo. It's a great introduction to one of shoujo's great women, one that is full of beauty and emotion that anyone can connect to regardless of age.
This volume was published by Fantagraphics. It is currently in print.