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

Posted by on March 11th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Waiting for the Trade

Thorn: Speaking of comics reprints, in the old days, instead of the smaller trade paperbacks we have now, reprints were in the same format as the magazines, right?

Hagio: Hmm? Oh, oh, I see what you mean. Yes, in the old days they were like that.

Thorn: Did the kind of paperback we have now first appear in the late 1960s?

Hagio: I think so. I wonder when exactly that started. I think it was actually in girls’ comics that they began to put them out regularly in that format. [Riyoko Ikeda’s] The Rose of Versailles [1972] came out in paperback, and it sold very well, and I think that was the impetus for them to begin to systematically put out paperbacks of every serialized work. When I was in junior high and high school, Asahi Sonorama Publishing put out a lot of trade paperbacks. But none of the other publishers thought that paperback reprints would sell well. It all changed in just a few short years, but before that they rarely put out reprints.

Thorn: Today, the magazines are essentially advertisements for the paperbacks40.

Hagio: That’s right. So when I was growing, I had no idea what might be reprinted, so I clipped and kept every story I liked. [Laughs.]

Thorn: I heard from Yamamoto that your Poe Clan [1972] was the first girls’ trade paperback Shogakukan ever published [in 1974].

Hagio: That’s right. So I went to talk with them about putting out the paperback, and they told me the first print run would be 30,000. I said, “Huh!? Do you really think you can sell that many copies?” and they said, “We don’t know. But we should be able to sell them a bit at a time over one or two years.” [Laughs.] And I said, “Really!? But what if it doesn’t sell?” And Yamamoto joked, “Your page rate will be paid by the paperback sales, so you’ll just have to go to Ikebukuro and hawk them on the corner.” [Laughter.]

Thorn: So until then, you never received royalties?

Hagio: Right. Oh, but they once reprinted a story in the magazine, so I got paid a reprint fee for that. But no royalties.

Thorn: So The Poe Clan

Hagio: … was the first work I received royalties for, yes.

Thorn: Whether or not you get royalties is a huge difference.

Hagio: It sure is, in terms of income.

Thorn: That’s probably even truer today.

Hagio: Yes. When you know you’ll eventually get royalties for the work you’re doing now, you can blow your entire per-page fee on paying assistants without having to worry. It gives you some breathing room.

The Heart of Thomas

Thorn: I’d like to ask about The Heart of Thomas in some detail if I may.

Hagio: Of course.

Thorn: I’ve told you this before, but the whole reason I’m here in this world [of comics] today is because I read The Heart of Thomas.

Hagio: Yes. [Laughs.]

Thorn: You said that the idea came from the film Les Amitiés Particulières, but it seems to me the theme is very different, and I’d like to ask about that theme.

Hagio: Yes. The theme is … hmm … “When does a person learn love? When does one awake to love?” Something like that. [Laughs.] So the whole crazy premise — a boy leaving a letter and dying right at the start of the story — is something I could only have come up with when I was so young. [Laughter.]

Thorn: The title character dies on page two. [Laughter.]

Hagio: Yeah. If I had written it after the age of 30, I probably would have worked out some logical reason for the character to die, but at the time I thought, “He doesn’t need a reason to die.” [Laughs.] I could have said that he died because he was sick and didn’t have long to live anyway, or something like that. At the time, I thought, how one lives is important, but how one dies might be important, too, and so that’s how I wrote it. In a sense, that mystery of why he had to die is never solved, and I think that unsolved mystery is what sustains the work.

Thorn: Every year I have my first-year students read The Heart of Thomas in my History of Manga class, and it seems to be a difficult read for many of them. [Laughter.]

Hagio: Is that so?

Thorn: Some students say they had to read it twice before they felt they could understand it. Was that published in Special Edition?

Hagio: No, it was in the weekly.

Thorn: So it was read by girls ranging from elementary to high school.

Hagio: In actuality, yes, but on paper the magazine was supposed to be for elementary-school girls, so the editors always told me to make the stories easier to understand. And after it started, it was unpopular with readers, so they asked me to cut it short. [Laughter.]

Thorn: So you originally planned to make it longer?

Hagio: Yes, at first I had in mind a serial that would run for at least a year. Thirty-three episodes.

Thorn: I see.

Hagio: But midway through the run, the paperback of The Poe Clan came out and was selling well, so the editors decided to take a risk and let me finish The Heart of Thomas. So it was spared the axe.

Thorn: So, from the start you had the whole story plotted out?

Hagio: Yes. The overall arc of the story was planned out, but I only had planned the details of each episode for the first half of the story. When I was first asked to do a weekly serial, they said they wanted a long story, so I told them that the only things I had that could be sustained through a long serial were science fiction [laughs] or Thomas, so they asked me to do Thomas. So I took these episodes I had drawn for myself and used what I could.

Thorn: You had already penned them?

Hagio: Only partially. The rest was pencils. So there are penciled episodes that I never used. [Laughter.] Really, my earlier drawings were not well-proportioned, so I only used the better portions for the serial.

Thorn: I first read Thomas at the age of, I think, 22. And when I read the scene where Juli is explaining how he lost his figurative “wings,” I just naturally interpreted it to mean that he had been sexually abused.

Hagio: Yes.

Thorn: So I gave a paper at an academic conference in which I said that, and then I put the paper up on my website. And a Japanese woman, a fan, read it and was furious. “How can you say such a thing!?” [Laughter.]

What do you think of my interpretation?

Hagio: I think it’s on target.

Thorn: About eight years ago, when I was still living in Manhattan, I lent Thomas to a Japanese woman friend. Until then, she had never really read any girls’ comics. She’s the same age as me. And when she returned the book to me, she also gave a letter. In the letter, she said that reading the book had been cathartic for her. She herself had been sexually abused by her father when she was a child, and reading Thomas helped her to come to terms with that experience, and see how that experience is affecting her life today as an adult. She said she was grateful to me for recommending that book.

Hagio: Is that so?

Thorn: So when I read A Savage God Reigns [1992], I thought, “Oh, this is the adult version of Thomas.

Hagio: Right.

Thorn: Is that right?

Hagio: Yes it is. When I was conceptualizing A Savage God, the characters kept overlapping [with the characters in Thomas], which was a problem, so I had to always consciously strive for a different image. In the beginning, I just couldn’t get Julian [the older stepbrother of the sexually abused protagonist] to come to life. I really struggled with that one.

Thorn: It’s interesting, because even the names are similar: “Juli” [pronounced “Yuli,” as in the German] and “Julian.”

Hagio: I suppose so.

Thorn: The root is the same.

Hagio: Oh! Now that you mention it, that’s true! [Laughter.]

Thorn: “The seventh month.” Anyway, that’s how I read it.

Hagio: Right.

Thorn: I’m regressing, but I see some recurring themes in your work. One is this theme of an abused character that has to come to terms with and overcome that experience.

Twins and Mothers

Thorn: Another is the motif of twins, which comes up so often in your work. Can you talk about the twins? Is this related to the fact that your sister had twins? [Laughter.]

Hagio: Well, she had the twins after the fact. [Laughs.] When I was in elementary school, there was a set of twin girls in the next class. They wore the same clothes and had the same hairstyle, and you couldn’t tell them apart. I thought that was so neat. What I thought at the time, in the first grade, was that to have a twin was to have another of yourself, someone who would understand you perfectly and take seriously everything you said; she would be a sibling you could really have fun with. So I dreamed of having a twin. Masako Watanabe drew a lot of stories about twins, and I think that was an influence on me, too. Anyway, there was something enormously appealing to me about twins. Of course, when I got older, I realized that twins are not truly identical. [Laughs.]

I suppose it’s a variation of the idea of narcissism, but when you explore the question of what it means to love, you run into various problems. For example, you fall in love with someone who is not yourself, but just how much difference can be accepted? I think there are certain points or aspects you love. The idea of loving a thing completely seems unnatural. But what degree of difference can you accept? It’s a difficult question. Cats or dogs are lovable because you love them specifically for being cats or dogs. It’s focused. It’s not as if they make themselves useful by, say, locking up the house at night or making dinner. [Laughter.] You love them in a specific way and don’t ask anything more of them. But when it’s another human you’re in love with, you can’t help having a selfish desire for that person to be as much like yourself as possible. And that’s where the difficulties arise. So that’s why I always come back to twins. [Laughs.]

Thorn: Of your works that involve twins, I think the one that is … How to put it? … most highly regarded? is probably “Hanshin.”

Hagio: Right.

Thorn: It seems to me that “Hanshin” is very different from what you were just talking about.

Hagio: You’re right. “Hanshin” is the other side of the coin. It’s the idea that love and hate are in a sense the same. The thing you hate is actually the thing you desire. So after the operation, the protagonist ends up becoming the very thing she had said was the one thing she wanted to destroy. It’s an exploration of that feeling.

Thorn: So is it really one character in the end?

Hagio: Yes, maybe it’s one person looking first one way and then another. But to express that in a single character is difficult, so I tried separating out the two elements.

Thorn: The one is intelligent, yet by society’s standards, ugly. The other is basically empty-headed [laughter] … and yet loved by everyone. It’s an encapsulation of the irrational pressure women are subjected to in society today, isn’t it.

Hagio: Yes.

Thorn: I just thought of this as we were talking. These days it’s extremely common for women to undergo cosmetic surgery. Were you thinking of that at all when you made “Hanshin”? What does one lose in order to gain beauty? Something like that?

Hagio: I wasn’t thinking of cosmetic surgery, no.

Thorn: You see it a lot on TV these days. Extreme Makeover kinds of things.

Hagio: You mean in which someone is transformed?

Thorn: A woman who thinks she is ugly undergoes some kind of cosmetic surgery. There’s something really creepy about that to me.

Hagio: It’s like [Kyoko Okazaki’s] Helter Skelter [1995]41.

Thorn: Right.

Hagio: You have to have a real tenacity of purpose to subject yourself to that.

Thorn: Another motif that comes up often is that of “mother.”

Hagio: Yes.

Thorn: Is that your own mother? [Laughter.]

Hagio: Yes, it is. Once I was working on a story and someone watching commented, “There are always mothers dying in your stories.” [Laughter.] Scary mothers. And I thought, “Come to think of it, that’s true.” Basically, I’m afraid of my mother. [Laughs.]

Thorn: A lot of your mothers seem incapable of loving their own children in the ordinary way.

Hagio: Yes. The mother in “Iguana Girl” [1991] is a typical case. I had various faults when I was a child, so I suppose our relationship when I was small it couldn’t be helped, but as an adult I tried in various ways to make peace with her. All different ways. And every one failed. [Laughs.]

Thorn: Oh, my. But you see the same themes in Yumiko Ohshima’s works. [Hagio laughs.] Maybe she had the same kind of problems?

Hagio: Maybe.

Thorn: Is [your manager and roommate Akiko] Joh your twin42?

Hagio: [Laughs.] Not at all.

Joh: What’s that?

Hagio: We were talking about twins.

Thorn: [To Joh] Are you twins?

Joh: We couldn’t be more different. [Laughter.]

Thorn: How long have you known each other?

Hagio: Since the age of about 21? She came to O-izumi to help with cooking and also as an assistant.

Thorn: Through what sort of connection?

Joh: I was invited by Takemiya.

Thorn: Oh, really?

Joh: You see, I was a fan of Shotaro Ishimori, and was involved in a sort of fanzine that he was overseeing. So the leader of this group took me to visit Ishimori, and Ishimori told me there was a young cartoonist the same age as me, Keiko Takemiya. So I looked at her work, and it was just around the time she had done “In the Sunroom.” And since I was crazy about this whole boys’ love thing, I was thrilled to find a kindred spirit. [Laughter.] So I sent her a fan letter with a caricature of myself, and she replied with an invitation to visit her at O-izumi. So I went, and Hagio came through the cabbage patch to meet me. I think she was putting her cat out.

Hagio: I had a cat then, too. So that was our first meeting, but she was still a full-time employee in a company at that time.

Thorn: In Tokyo?

Hagio: No, in Fukuoka. She worked in a bank.

Thorn: So you’re from Fukuoka, too?

Joh: That’s right.

Thorn: But that was just a coincidence, right?

Hagio: Right.

Thorn: And Joh was hoping to become a cartoonist, too.

Hagio: That’s right.

Joh: Yes.

Hagio: And she did become a cartoonist.

Joh: Just once, yes. [Laughter.]

Hagio: So after that, she worked as Takemiya’s assistant and drew her own comics to submit to publishers. There was another cartoonist named Yuko Kishi, and originally Joh moved to Tokyo with the intention of becoming her assistant, but she injured her eye, so we invited Joh to come live with me. Then I went on a long trip to Europe, and I asked her to take care of my home while I was gone. This was my flat here in Hanno City. But then she decided she couldn’t stand living out here in the country, and she ended up staying in Takemiya’s place in Tokyo. It’s all very complicated. [Laughs.]

Thorn: But she ended back here in Hanno anyway. [Laughs.]

Hagio: Right.

Thorn: And how did she end up as your manager?

Hagio: She became my manager after she quit cartooning. Or rather I asked her to become my manager.

Body and Soul

Thorn: If I can go back to an earlier subject …

Hagio: Please.

Thorn: About “boys’ love.” We lump these together as “boys’ love,” but it seems to me, reading your The Heart of Thomas and Takemiya’s The Song of the Wind and the Trees that they are completely different. The Heart of Thomas seems to me to be about spiritual or mental love.

Hagio: That’s right.

Thorn: The body has little to do with anything. But Takemiya’s work, on the contrary, is specifically about physical love.

Hagio: Yes.

Thorn: Even in the case of A Savage God Reigns, the body obviously plays an important role [laughter], but it’s still basically about the mind.

Hagio: Yes.

Thorn: You said that as a child, you were drawn to the fantastic or the ideal. Do you think that is still reflected in your work today? Is that at the core?

Hagio: Yes, you could say it’s the result of an internal fantasy. As I write these kinds of stories, I’m sometimes asked why I don’t make more realistic stories. “Aren’t you just running away from reality?” they ask. They suggest that I go off in that direction because I cannot face reality. The genre of fiction itself is that way. The genre of science fiction itself is that way. The genre of fantasy itself is that way. This is the kind of thing people say. How can I put this? I wonder if what they call “reality” is actually reality. [Laughs.]

Thorn: I’ve never thought of your work as being escapist at all. On the contrary, I see you as addressing reality from these different perspectives. For example, if you were doing escapism, you would never write a story like A Savage God Reigns. [Laughs.] You’re addressing reality straight on. No, not straight on. But you’re addressing the question of how Jeremy can go make sense of his experience; how he can go on with his life after his abuse.

Hagio: Right. From my point of view, I’m not avoiding reality. What I’m trying to do — and this sounds so pretentious — is trying to get at the truth, at what is real. That’s why I prefer those kinds of situations and settings.

The Poe Clan

Thorn: The Poe Clan — pardon me for suddenly changing the topic — but The Poe Clan is of course a fantastic story, but it explores fundamental questions of human existence.

Hagio: Right.

Thorn: What kind of theme were you pursuing there?

Hagio: Stories about monsters, about vampires, whether they’re movies or comics, portray vampires as zombies, as villains who attack human beings. And when I read stories like that [as a child], I was afraid of the vampires and didn’t like them at all, but then I read a story by Shotaro Ishimori titled “Mist, Roses and Stars.” It’s just 40 pages or so, but it’s a sort of omnibus that follows the life of a vampire girl from the past to the present and into the future, a science-fiction future. It was quite beautiful. The heroine is of course a vampire, so, for example, if she falls in love with someone, she worries that he’ll hate her if he finds out she’s a vampire. In other words, she thinks in a very human way.

It seemed very beautiful to me, and around that time I was thinking I wanted to draw something that involved costumes, so I put the two together and decided to draw a beautiful vampire story. So I put myself in the shoes of a vampire and tried to see from a vampire’s eyes. A vampire doesn’t ask to become a vampire. He may long to return to a normal human existence, but he’s rejected by humanity. He is hated unconditionally by all, and told he should not exist. But he does exist, so what is he supposed to do. In my own case, I was told by mother that comics were utterly unacceptable, and yet I had drawn comics. So what am I supposed to do? [Laughter.]

Joh: Run away from home. [Laughter.]

Hagio: That’s what it comes down to, yes. Ever since the third grade, I had planned on how to run away from home, but I never put my plans into action.

Thorn: But in the end, you did put your plans into action.

Hagio: Yes, I suppose I finally did, didn’t I? I always wanted to portray my frustration towards my mother in comics form, and I tried to think of all different kinds of situations, but the problem is, in real life I am frustrated with my mother, so if I were to portray it straightforwardly, it would just end up as nothing but an expression of resentment. So I would think of a story, then decide it was too ugly and scrap it. And I did this over and over, until I hit upon the idea of the Iguana Girl. I thought, now this I can write, and can make interesting.

Thorn: Oh! So you came up with that idea quite a long time ago?

Hagio: The idea of making the daughter an iguana, yes, I came up with it a long time ago. When you don’t like someone, you can come up with all kinds of reasons, right? The mother is so responsible but the daughter is so irresponsible, so she hates her daughter. Something like that. I wanted to try to make things work with my parents for so long, I read all sorts of psychology books, but could never find a solution, so I finally turned to a book on fortunetelling, and according to the book, we are just incompatible. [Laughs.] “Oh, so we’re just incompatible!” Redeemed by fortunetelling. [Laughter.]

Thorn: I see. So, going back to The Poe Clan, why did you make the protagonist a young boy?

Hagio: Doing “November Gymnasium” made me want to keep drawing boys. So I came up with the “boy version” of my vampire idea. And that became The Poe Clan. It’s interesting you can have a girl and a boy say the same line, but though the girl sounds so cheeky when she says it, the boy can sound so cool. [Laughter.]

Joh: That’s because the readers are girls. They’re ruthless in judging female characters, but they forgive male characters for just about anything. [Laughter.]

Hagio: That’s true. So when I started making The Poe Clan, I found that the boy characters could say what I wanted to say so easily. They were standing in for me. It went very smoothly. It was so easy to make Poe. But once I had done that, I found that when I created a female character, I would put myself into her, and I was told that I was imposing my own notions of what a woman is on the character. I thought, “Ouch!” I was surprised at myself. [Laughter.]

It made me realize that I am still bound by stereotypes.

Thorn: Why do you suppose that’s the case?

Hagio: That’s a good question.

Joh: We complain about discrimination, and then we do it ourselves. [Laughter.]

Hagio: That’s true. I suppose we all have a powerful desire to not be hated by society or those around us, so even though I’d love to create a completely selfish female character, I don’t think that’s what the readers really want.

Thorn: Is there a particular reason you made the protagonist a young boy? I mean, I think it’s perfect myself. He’s not a child, he’s a not an adult, he can never become an adult.

Hagio: First of all, I wanted to make him non-sexual, so I thought it would be best to have a character whose body had not yet changed in that way. But also, that was just about the average age of the readers at the time, so it seemed just right. Long afterwards, it occurred to me that if I had made him slightly older, I could have had more story options available to me.

Joh: But then again, you didn’t know anything about men. [Laughter.]

Hagio: Well, I knew about middle-aged men. [Laughter.]

Thorn: But then it would have become an adult comic. There would be sex involved.

Hagio: That’s true. There’s the difficulty.


35. Clan of the Rose was founded in 1971 by the remarkable Bungaku Itoh, and was Japan’s first serious gay magazine. It continues to this day, but in response to declining sales, and also in response to a rapidly aging society, it has narrowed its target audience to older gay men.

36. Machiko Satonaka (born 1948) began her professional career in 1964, when she was in her junior year of high school. After a long and successful career, she is now something of a manga ambassador, involved in a wide variety of organizations and activities.

37. The first girls’ weekly anthologies, Kodansha Publishing’s Weekly Girls’ Friend and Shueisha’s Margaret, appeared in 1963, four years after the first boys’ weeklies were founded.

38. Actually, Shogakukan Publishing’s Girls’ Comic was founded as a monthly anthology in 1968, and became Weekly Girls’ Comic in 1970, at the same time that the monthly Special Edition Girls’ Comic was founded.

39. Yumiko Ohshima (born 1947) — One of the Magnificent Forty-Niners.

40. With few exceptions, comics anthology magazines in Japan today are not intended to make a profit. They are printed on cheap paper and sold almost at cost in order to generate interest in works that are then sold for a profit in paperback form. But while magazines do not directly generate profit, they are extremely important in promoting the paperbacks, so publishers are acutely sensitive to fluctuations in magazine sales.

41. Helter Skelter, by Kyoko Okazaki. Okazaki was close to finishing this disturbing fantasy of cosmetic surgery when she was struck by a drunk driver in 1995 and left a quadriplegic, unable even to speak.  In 2003, Okazaki’s former assistant, Moyoko Anno (who had gone on to be a bestselling cartoonist herself) finished the story by working with Okazaki’s roughs and painstakingly consulting with Okazaki. The book was awarded the 2004 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize, nearly 10 years after Okazaki had been forced to abandon it.

42. Akiko Joh (born 1951) worked as a professional cartoonist for several years, until she developed a stomach ulcer and quit cartooning to become Hagio’s full-time manager. The two have lived together ever since. This combined with the fact that both women have never married has led to some curious whispering, but a student of mine who accompanied me on one of my visits, and who has recently come out as a lesbian, came straight out and asked Hagio if she was one, too. Hagio, never one to be offended by a sincere question, answered “No.”

Part Four: Craft, theater adaptations, revelations.

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

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

  2. […] of good stuff to read this weekend: Here are parts three and four of Matt Thorn’s interview with Moto Hagio at The Comics Journal, and at the same […]

  3. […] of good stuff to read this weekend: Here are parts three and four of Matt Thorn’s interview with Moto Hagio at The Comics Journal, and at the same […]