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

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

Matt Thorn: Let’s begin with the beginning, shall we?

Moto Hagio: OK.

Thorn: You were born on May 12, 1949, so you and I share a birthday.

Hagio: That’s right. Florence Nightingale was also born on May 12.

Thorn: This was in Ohmuta City, Fukuoka Prefecture.

Hagio: That’s right.

Thorn: Can I start by asking about your childhood?

Hagio: All right. My childhood …

Thorn: Your father worked for a mining company?

Hagio: Yes. Ohmuta is a mining town, and there are some chemical companies, too. My father worked at the port from which they shipped coal as well as timber products, so the kids in the elementary school were all either children of local shop owners or of mine workers. Our Baby Boom generation was of course very large, so each class in the elementary school had more than 50 children, and I think there were five or six classes in each grade.

Thorn: So it was a pretty big school.

Hagio: Yes. It was a two-story wood-frame school, but they kept adding new buildings to accommodate our generation.

Thorn: And you were one of four children?

Hagio: That’s right. My older sister, me, my younger sister and then my brother came last.

Thorn: And what are your siblings doing now? [Hagio laughs.] May I ask?

Hagio: Sure. Ours was something of a matrilineal family. Practically every child born is a girl. My older sister married and gave birth to twins, a boy and a girl. Her husband is from a town in Fukuoka called Yanagawa. They live there now with his mother. My younger sister is married and living … where is it? Off on the edge of Saitama Prefecture. They have three girls. The youngest is married, but the older two girls are still single and working. And my little brother was working for a computer company, but suffers from depression and quit about two or three years ago. Now he just takes it easy, photographing birds and going to hot-spring resorts.

Thorn: I see.

Hagio: And I never married and have done nothing but make comics. [Laughs.]

Thorn: So you’re married to comics.

Hagio: That’s right. Oh, and I have a few cats. [Laughter.]

Thorn: And you started drawing at a very young age?

Hagio: Yes. I really loved drawing. If there was a piece of paper around, I’d draw on it. I’d draw on the back of advertising fliers, wrapping paper, and for some reason we had this thin, B4-sized paper in our house. My mother would give me one of those if I asked her. At the time one sheet of that cost half a yen. [Laughs.] So I would play at drawing picture stories.

Thorn: What do you think the act of drawing meant to you at the time?

Hagio: Well, all children like to draw. But I was more passionate about it than most. There’s something interesting about watching a picture take shape before your eyes as you draw it — a world of pictures drawn in lines, a world of comics. When I started reading comics, I would grow to like the characters, they were interesting to me, so I would draw them myself, making them move in my own way, creating my own stories. It was a game. But I would come up with one story after another. So when I entered elementary school, I bought a notebook for drawing comics in, and proceeded to fill it up with all kinds of stories.

Thorn: What kind of stories?

Hagio: You have to understand the situation in [Japanese] comics in those days. In the girls’ comics, you would have stories in which the woman you thought was the mother turns out not to be the mother [laughs], and the real mother is actually somewhere else. There were a variety of settings. For example, the poor child in the story turns out to actually come from a rich family, or the child of a rich family turns out to have been adopted from a poor family. And one of the standard devices was amnesia. [Laughs.] There’s a popular Korean drama that’s using the same device. It appeared so often, it makes me think that what with the war and the harsh social conditions, people had an unconscious desire to forget everything. So the heroine goes off in search of her real mother, but along the way she develops amnesia, and ends up being taken care of by a string of kind strangers.

Another popular motif was ballet. There was quite a boom in girls’ comics about ballet for a while. For example, the heroine would be a girl from a poor family who’s really good at ballet, but she loses the lead to an untalented girl from a rich family. [Laughter.] In the standard story, there would be a mean girl and a kind-hearted heroine, and there would be a very clear-cut struggle between good and evil. [Laughter.]

They were very simplistic stories. But the good artists would draw these standard stories with an interesting twist; for example, Miyako Maki and Masako Watanabe. There were only about seven artists drawing girls’ comics in those days. Women, I mean; there were plenty of male artists drawing girls’ comics then. Tetsuya Chiba’s girls’ comics were particularly good1.

Thorn: Chiba’s first serial, Mama’s Violin, was a story like that. The heroine is looking for her mother, who is suffering from amnesia.

Hagio: Right, and the mother regains her memory when she hears her daughter’s violin.

Thorn: And of course the heroine goes through all kinds of troubles and is eventually reunited with her mother.

Hagio: Right. Mitsuteru Yokohama also did a story titled Tomboy Angel, which featured a tomboy as the heroine. I really liked stories like that, in which the heroine was lively.

Thorn: But, generally speaking, most girls’ comics of the day featured passive, helpless girls who were cute and sweet and nothing else.

Hagio: Yes, that’s the way most of them were. So anyway, as I continued to draw, I found a “comics friend,” and one day she said, “Let’s make a proper comic.” But we were just in our first year of junior high school, and we had no information, no idea how to go about it. Comics are of course printed on both sides of the paper, but one of us had heard that you mustn’t draw on both sides of the paper. [Laughter.] And after we had already drawn it, we learned that you’re supposed to use a ruler when you draw the panel frame. [Laughter.] We had drawn them freehand.

Thorn: At the time, there weren’t many books available on cartooning, were there?

Hagio: No, there weren’t.

Thorn: I think there was Osamu Tezuka’s akahon “Cartoon College.”

Hagio: Yes, in fact it was in an akahon that included a solicitation for original work that we learned a lot of the basics. You know, “Use India ink and opaque white. Draw with a crow quill pen; pencil drawings can’t be used.” [Laughs.] That sort of thing.

Thorn: So that’s where you learned.

Hagio: Yes. We had never seen a page of original art, so we wondered what one should look like. [Laughter.]

Thorn: So you read a lot of akahon comics?

Hagio: At the time, in addition to regular bookstores, there were also a lot of book-rental shops. You could borrow a book for about five yen. So I would help around the house, get five yen, and sometimes use that to rent a book. The scariest were the ones by Kazuo Umezu2. [Laughter.] Seriously. Somebody told me he was good, so I borrowed something, but it was so incredibly scary. The book I borrowed contained serialized stories by various artists, so I never read the rest of the continuation, but most of the stories created this feeling of dread that something creepy was coming.

Thorn: And how old were you then?

Hagio: This was from elementary school to the beginning of junior high school.

Thorn: So you encountered comics rather early in elementary school?

Hagio: My older sister — Well, I started renting comics in about the third grade. And there was a space in the classroom for kids to put old books they had finished reading, and some of them were comics. My sister bought the “grade” magazines, which contained some comics3. And I knew a woman — she was a apparently a distant relative — who had a bookstore, so I would visit her shop on the day a comic was released and ask her to let me read it. Maybe once or twice a year, I would actually buy a comic.

Thorn: Really? So you didn’t buy many comics?

Hagio: No. My mother hated comics, so I needed special permission: for example, if my grades went up, some special event like that.

Thorn: So your mother hated comics.

Hagio: Yes. My mother and father both saw comics as something for children not old enough to read. They firmly believed — and still believe — that comics are an impediment to studying.

Thorn: You mean they still believe that even now?

Hagio: Yes. I think human beings cannot easily shake off an idea once it’s planted in their head.

Thorn: So what does your mother think of the fact that you became a cartoonist?

Hagio: You know, she seems to think I’m some kind of art teacher. [Laughs.]

Thorn: An art teacher?

Hagio: You know how there are some people who teach art privately to children? She seems to think that’s what I do, like someone who is teaching tea ceremony or flower arrangement.

Thorn: [Laughs.] All these years? Hasn’t she seen your work?

Hagio: Oh, she’s seen it, but she seems incapable of comprehending the notion of cartooning as a profession. [Thorn laughs.] She’s come with me to the editorial offices, she’s been to Shogakakun’s End-of-the-Year Party with me, she’s seen my books, and she’s even seen me working, but … she just doesn’t seem to get it.

Thorn: Wow. That must be hard for you.

Hagio: Yes. Until I was about 30 years old, she constantly told me to stop doing such work.

Thorn: Really? [Laughs.] Until you were 30?

Hagio: [Laughs.] And the reason she stopped was that we had a huge fight about it.

Thorn: Is that so? When you were in your 30s? And had received the [Shogakukan Comics] Award4?

Hagio: Oh, that made no difference at all.

Thorn: That didn’t matter?

Hagio: Not at all. Oh, when I won that award, she bragged to all her neighbors that her daughter had won an award. But then she turned around and told me to quit. [Laughs.]

Thorn: Quit and do what? What did she want you to do?

Hagio: Something with a higher status. For example, she said, “If you like making stories, why not write children’s literature?” Or “Why don’t you appear on television?” [Laughter.] Because I had been interviewed on TV a few times. In the minds of my mother and father, cartooning was the most pathetic and sleazy sort of work, and they apparently thought I would eventually give it up.

Thorn: Is your mother still alive?

Hagio: Alive and well.

Thorn: How old is she?

Hagio: She’s about 77.

Thorn: And your father?

Hagio: He’s about 83. When he was young, he wanted to be a violinist, and studied with local teachers for many years. He then joined the company orchestra, where he played and even took on students of his own. So in his mind, classical is the peak of beauty. Any other kind of music is worthless, be it enka5, folk, or the Beatles. [Laughter.] So my parents have very clear ideas of what is good and what is bad. And comics are bad.

Thorn: So your parents have never accepted your career?

Hagio: That’s right.

Thorn: That must be very difficult for you.

Hagio: Yes. But everyone has their own likes and dislikes, right? There’s nothing I can do about that, but I at least want them to keep their mouths shut about my work. [Laughs.] So we now maintain a certain distance on that subject.

Thorn: It must have been very difficult when you first began cartooning.

Hagio: Yes. So I kept it a secret from them for a long time. I would draw comics with a friend at school, and then hide what I had drawn. I think they had an inkling of what was going on, but they never confronted me about it. But I hid it all along.

One day my father ran into my friend, and she told him that she and I were working hard to become professional cartoonists. Then he came home and, teasingly, told me what she had said. If I had said, “That’s true,” a lengthy lecture would be sure to follow, so I lied and said, “That’s her own idea, not mine.” I betrayed my friend. [Laughs.]

Any comics-related mail would be a problem if it came directly to my house, so I had it all sent to my friend’s house and she would give it to me. [Laughs.]

Thorn: So that’s what you did when you first began submitting work to publishers?

Hagio: Right. When I remember my parents and comics, my only memories are of being scolded. [Laughs.]

Thorn: Is that so?

Hagio: The only exception was when I first won a prize, and the magazine published a panel from the winning work and sent me a check. I showed it to my mother, and she was taken by surprise and said, “You mean your comics can earn money?” Until then, I had been lectured so many times. “At your age you shouldn’t be doing such nonsense.”

“But I want to become a cartoonist.”

“Well, you can’t make a living just doing whatever you want.” She would say, “These cartoonists get paid just one hundred yen a page; you can’t live on that.” [Laughter.] Where did she get that figure? I once heard in an interview someone say that long ago the page rate was one hundred yen. So I suppose my mother must have heard that, too, way back then. [Laughter.]

Thorn: So what was your page rate when you first began?

Hagio: The page rate for my debut piece was 1,200 yen per page6.

Thorn: 1,200 yen per page?

Hagio: And for my second piece it was 1,500 yen. When I was doing The Heart of Thomas [in 1974], my page rate went from 3,000 yen to 6,000 yen7.

Thorn: Tell me the story about the drawing of the carp streamers you did as a child.

Hagio: [Laughter.] Yeah, well, I don’t remember it myself. You see, at the time, my older sister and I were taking private art lessons. When the teacher was telling us how to draw, he used carp streamers as an example8. “Children tend to draw carp streamers standing straight out from the pole,” he said, “but do they actually look like that when you see them? No. They’re twisted by the breeze, aren’t they? You have to draw things as you really see them. The same with a forest. Children draw green leaves and brown branches, but if you look carefully, you see many more colors.” This is what he told us. So I thought, “Oh, so I can draw what I see.”

Thorn: And how old were you?

Hagio: The first grade. Or maybe kindergarten.

Thorn: So you were taking art lessons?

Hagio: Yes. My older sister was going on Sundays, so I tagged along. We also did calligraphy. It was common for children to take some sort of lesson like that. I can’t remember anything about my calligraphy lessons, though.

Thorn: So when you drew a picture of carp streamers for school, you were accused of having an adult draw it for you? [Laughter.]

Hagio: Apparently my teacher contacted my parents about it, yes.


1. Miyako Maki (born 1935) and Masako Watanabe (born 1929)  were two of a handful of female artists working in comics in Japan in the 1950s and early 1960s, and were both enormously popular among girls of the day. The illustrious career of Tetsuya Chiba (born 1939) spans nearly half a century and includes a great many hits, such as the boxing classic Tomorrow’s Joe, which he co-created with writer Ikki Kajiwara. Mitsuteru Yokoyama (born 1934) is another of the most successful cartoonists of the 1950s and 1960s, in both girls’ and boys’ comics.

2. Kazuo Umezu (born 1936) is the best-known horror cartoonist in the history of Japanese comics. Among his classics are the terrifying Snake Girl (1968), and the deeply disturbing Floating Classroom (1972-1974), which can be seen as a harsh and heart-rending critique of the Japanese education system of the day.

3. Shogakukan Publishing’s “grade” magazines (First Grader, Second Grader, etc.) have been standard reading for Japanese children for decades.

4. Hagio received the 1975 Shogakukan Comics Award for They Were Eleven! and The Poe Clan. She also received the first ever Osamu Tezuka Culture Award in 1997 for A Savage God Reigns. She now serves as a judge for the latter award (as does Matt Thorn).

5. Enka is a genre of sentimental Japanese folk song that is popular with working-class and elderly Japanese, and in some ways parallels American Country & Western music.

6. During that time (the late 1960s), the yen was fixed at 360 yen per dollar. Since a dollar was worth about one-eighth what it is now, that would work out to about U.S. $25 per page in today’s money. A reasonable starting page rate today is about 3,000 yen, or roughly $30 per page. Page rates in Japan tend be much less than those in the U.S., but creators generally receive 10% royalties from sales of subsequent paperback reprints, and thus end up earning significantly more, on average, than do their American counterparts.

7. This sounds like a huge leap, but the yen was “unmoored” from the dollar in 1971, and its value rose rapidly. In 1974, 3,000 yen was worth about U.S. $40 in today’s money, and 6,000 yen would be about US $85 today. Still, Hagio’s page rate more than tripled in buying power in the first five years of her professional career.

8. Carp streamers, or koinobori, are colorful, wind-sock-like streamers, made to look like carp, that are hung on a sort of flagpole in front of the home in early May to celebrate Children’s Day.

Part Two: Literature, Tezuka, and more.

Part Three: Shoujo Manga Renaaissance

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

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