The Moto Hagio Interview conducted by Matt Thorn (Part One of Four)

Posted by on March 9th, 2010 at 1:40 PM

Anyone who knows me will testify that I am fiercely un-superstitious. I roll my eyes at anything even remotely “paranormal.” Living in Japan, this frequently puts me in the awkward position of having to smile and nod as people tell me about their horoscopes or the significance of their blood types or the Chinese characters that comprise their names. Yet even I, who abandoned notions of alien abduction and Sasquatch at the tender age of 13, cannot help wondering about the significance of the fact that I share a birthday with Moto Hagio, one of the foremothers of the modern genre of girls and women’s manga. After all, Hagio is the creator of the comic that changed my life. If it wasn’t for my encounter with The Heart of Thomas some 15 years ago, I would almost certainly not be teaching in Kyoto Seika University’s Department of Comic Art, and I wouldn’t be typing this sentence. After reading the first two volumes of Hagio’s most recent work, Otherworld Barbara, and spending a day talking with her about matters ranging from the abstract to the intensely personal, I feel even more a sense of … synchronicity. “Synchro” is a word that comes up frequently in conversation with Hagio. Barbara is, in a sense, all about synchronicity, and Doctor Jung’s good name is mentioned more than once in that book.

The Heart of Thomas

As I type this, in the bullet train that is taking me back from Hagio’s home in Saitama Prefecture to my own home in Kyoto, I find myself pondering the nature of fate and the place of Hagio’s work in contemporary Japanese culture. True, Hagio’s manager, Akiko Joh, did pour me three (or was it four?) glasses of wine while I discussed life and art with Hagio, and the nice young woman rolling her cart of goodies down the aisle of the Bullet Train has contributed a couple of beers, so my judgment may be somewhat impaired. Nonetheless, it is objective fact that Hagio occupies a very prominent position in the pantheon of postwar Japanese comics.

For the past 36 years, Hagio has produced one masterpiece after another. Her first hit series, The Poe Clan (1972-1976, 800-plus pages), explored the nature of life and death, growth and aging, joy and grief, all through the eyes of a vampire trapped for eternity in the body of a 14-year-old boy. It also earned Hagio the Shogakukan Manga Award in 1976. In 1975, she published the gender-bending science-fiction mystery They Were Eleven! (which I translated some 10 years ago for a now-out-of-print edition from Viz), and the next year she came out with its sequel, Horizon of the East, Eternity of the West. In the late 1970s, in addition to a string of original short pieces, Hagio did three major “covers”: the first, Ray Bradbury’s “R is for Rocket” and other short stories; the second, Japanese novelist Ryu Mitsuse’s mind-blowing sci-fi epic, Ten Billion Days and One Hundred Billion Nights; and the third, Jean Cocteau’s disturbing Les Infants Terribles.

The Poe Clan click to view larger image

As the 1980s dawned, Hagio returned to her own original work with zeal, launching what was to become one of the major series (at 700-plus pages) of her career, Mesh. Portraying a turbulent few months in the life of a teenage boy determined to kill his drug-dealer father, Mesh became a vehicle for Hagio to purge her own familial demons. In Mesh, as in virtually all Hagio’s works, there are no “normal” families, no “normal” relationships. Human relationships are intense, yet fragile. Trust is hard-earned, and subject to renegotiation at any moment. Catharsis, redemption, revelation and reconciliation are never cut and dry. Nowhere is this more elegantly captured than in the last scene of the last chapter (titled “The Realistic Death of a Surrealistic Love”), in which the protagonist suddenly finds himself stranded, by his own choice, watching two trains pull away in opposite directions, and then, utterly alone, turns to set off on a new path.

In the meantime, Hagio continued to pursue serious science fiction, such as A, A’ (again, translated by me for Viz, and, again, sadly out of print), as well more fantastic, dreamlike short works. In the latter 1980s, after Mesh, Hagio occupied herself with another major project, her first long (1000-plus pages) science-fiction series, Marginal. Set on a planet where everyone is male except, it seems, for the one “Mother,” who is said to give birth to literally everyone else, and who is periodically reborn, phoenix style. Hagio portrays a rich and convincing culture (strongly reminiscent of Arab culture) in which men take post-pubescent boys to be both their lovers and apprentices. As it turns out, though, there is far more to this planet than meets the eye. “Mother” produces fewer and fewer babies each year, and the population is dwindling. When two nomad men, with the beautiful, confused boy they find and adopt, go in search of an answer to the mystery, they find more than they could ever have imagined, and they also find that the boy, Kira, is the key to the future of the planet.

By now, a clear pattern had begun to emerge in Hagio’s works. The story will center on a remarkable and strange character who, for one reason or another, seems incapable so-called “normal” human interaction (and who is usually small, beautiful and androgynous). But we see this character through the eyes of an unremarkable (but invariably handsome, and often long-haired) young man, unsure of his place in the world, and just trying to muddle through. This “straight man,” usually through arbitrary coincidence, forms a unique bond with the “eccentric.” In A, A’, the eccentrics are the so-called “unicorns,” whose unusual genetic makeup is the source of their eccentricity (compounded, in Tacto’s case, by childhood trauma), and the straight men are Regg Bone and Mori. In Mesh, the eccentric is the title character, and the straight man is Millon, the painter of forgeries who takes him in. In the case of Marginal, the eccentric is the boy Kira, and the role of the straight man is split between Assidin and Grinja, the former representing life and hope, the latter representing death and grim resignation.

We also see the coalescing of certain motifs. One, of course, is childhood trauma — including sexual abuse — and dysfunctional families. Another, related motif is genetics (and genetic engineering), heredity and environmental factors in psychological growth. Also related is the notion of synchronicity, in this case meaning a powerful resonance between two or more characters who often seem to be extremely different from one another. And while the ostensible genre may be science fiction or “realism,” almost all of Hagio’s major works take the form of a mystery.

In her shorter works, though, Hagio pursues every idea and theme that catches her fancy, and in the late ’80s, music was one such theme. Hagio, using music by rock musician Yoshihiro Kai, created in 1988 what may be the world’s only “musical graphic novel” (or should that be “graphic novel musical”?), The Perfect Crime: Faerie. It was also around this time that Hagio fell in love with ballet, and began a series of short stories revolving around ballet, most notably the somewhat longer An Ungrateful Man.

Between 1989 and 1993, Hagio created two “psychological sci-fi mysteries,” both of which featured an alien or aliens appearing in unexpected places in contemporary Japan: Aria of the Sea and House on a Dangerous Hill. While Hagio is characteristically careful in her use of science, these tales, like most of Hagio’s, are ultimately more about psychological issues, and individuals overcoming trauma, fear, and insecurity in the process of forming bonds with each other.

But Hagio’s career in the 1990s is dominated by her longest (3000-plus pages) and most serious work to date, A Savage God Reigns. The title comes from A. Alvarez’ The Savage God: A Study of Suicide (which in turn, although Hagio did not know it, comes from a diary entry by William Butler Yeats lamenting the rise of what would come to be known as “Modernism”). Beautifully executed, yet brutal in its frankness and often painful to read, A Savage God Reigns is the story of a teenage boy, Jeremy, who is sexually and psychologically abused by his stepfather, Greg. Although the abusive stepfather dies early in the story, Jeremy is all but incapacitated by his trauma, and also wracked with guilt, since his mother died along with his stepfather in the car crash Jeremy himself orchestrated. The straight man in this story is Jeremy’s blissfully ignorant stepbrother, Ian, who must come to terms with the reality that his father was not the man he had always thought him to be. Ian becomes Jeremy’s de facto guardian, and struggles awkwardly to help Jeremy regain some semblance of sanity and self-esteem, while simultaneously struggling with his own unexpected and frightening feelings of lust for Jeremy. Although the psychological scars of sexual abuse can never be completely healed, Ian and Jeremy manage in the end, after literally coming to the very brink (of a very real cliff), to end the downward spiral and begin to crawl back up again. This amazing contribution to graphic literature was recognized in 1997 when it was awarded the first Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize.

Hagio had time for very little else during the 1990s, and after finishing A Savage God Reigns in 2001, she took a well-earned, year-long vacation. In 2002, understandably wanting to turn to less emotionally draining material, began her most ambitious science fiction work since Marginal. Otherworld Barbara (and, no “Barbara” is not a woman’s name in this story) contains many of the themes and motifs I discussed earlier, as well as Hagio’s most current interests, which she describes in detail in the interview. Though it will probably end up to be less than 600 pages in length, it is one of Hagio’s most complex stories, and is not easily summarized. At the center of story is a teenaged girl who has been in a coma since the age of 9, when she was found with her dead parents. The mother had apparently killed the father, and then killed herself. Oh, and the girl, Aoba, was found to have her dead parents’ hearts in her stomach. The core mystery, of course, is why this girl ate her parents’ hearts, but there are plenty of other mysteries to chew on (if you’ll forgive the metaphor). Why does the presumably imaginary dreamworld — Barbara — that Aoba now inhabits seem to affect the real world, and what is her connection to the boy, Kiriya, who she has never met and who shares her dreams of Barbara? And what does this have to do with a mysterious scientist looking for the secret to eternal youth, or, for that matter, with a long extinct race of Martians? Well, if anyone’s interested in publishing the book in English, here’s one translator who would be happy to provide the answers. The final episode should be hitting the stands in Japan just about the time this issue of TCJ (2005) is going to press.

Otherworld Barbara click to view larger image

Hagio’s influence is not limited to the world of comics. Hagio’s works have been turned into an animated feature-length film (They Were Eleven!), a movie (Summer Vacation 1999, based loosely on The Heart of Thomas), several plays (Hanshin, The Heart of Thomas, The Visitor, They Were Eleven!, Mesh), radio dramas (The Poe Clan, Marginal), and televisions dramas (They Were Eleven! Iguana Girl). She has even written a musical for children, Curdken’s Hat: A Jigsaw Puzzle of the Land of Grimm, based loosely on the Grimm Brothers’ story, “The Goose-Girl.” Almost every comic she has ever created remains in print today, in some cases in multiple editions, and her works have been analyzed and written about by dozens of scholars and critics. To quantify Hagio’s popularity in globally meaningful terms, on June 4, 2005, the third volume of Otherworld Barbara was ranked 1,699 on Amazon.co.jp, and the current edition of her 1974 classic The Heart of Thomas was ranked 4,690. (Batman: Year One Deluxe Edition was ranked 1,469 and Blankets was ranked 6,729 on Amazon.com on the same day.)

This interview was conducted on December 6, 2004, at Hagio’s spacious home in the sleepy sub-suburb of Tokyo known as Hanno City. Also present was Hagio’s housemate and manager of many years, Akiko Joh, who was herself a cartoonist for a brief time in the early 1970s. Hagio had just woken up when I arrived at  3:00 p.m., and I stayed till after 8:00 p.m., just barely catching the last bullet train back to Kyoto.

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7 Responses to “The Moto Hagio Interview conducted by Matt Thorn (Part One of Four)”

  1. […] Matt Thorn’s interview with Moto Hagio from The Comics Journal #269, Part One […]

  2. […] Comics Journal is publishing Matt Thorn’s interview with Moto Hagio (part 1, part 2), which first appeared in the shoujo manga issue of The Comics Journal. Also, Dirk Deppey […]

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  4. […] Comics Journal is publishing Matt Thorn’s interview with Moto Hagio (part 1, part 2), which first appeared in the shoujo manga issue of The Comics Journal. Also, Dirk Deppey […]

  5. […] was reading Matt Thorn’s interview with Moto Hagio yesterday (hosted at The Comics Journal), and they talked about the theme of synchronicity that often crops up in Magio’s works. To quote […]

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