An Interview with Moto Hagio

Posted by on July 27th, 2010 at 1:07 AM


Detail from the cover of Hanshin,
a Japanese collection of Hagio’s short stories, ©1996 Moto Hagio.


One of the first manga I ever read, back when only a trickle of manga had seeped into the U.S. market, was Moto Hagio’s A, A’.  According to the back cover of my 1997 Viz Graphic Novel edition, Hagio’s gender-bending science fiction triptych “is a ‘prime’ example of shojo manga, a uniquely literary genre of Japanese comics in which the relationships between characters are as meticulously crafted as the story’s action.  Shojo artists are also renowned for their visual innovations… Experimenting with page layout, panel placement, the interplay of text and image, and expressionistic background effects, Hagio creates a uniquely absorbing reading experience.”

Ah, if only all that were really true of shojo manga!  But it is true of Moto Hagio’s work, and that early exposure to A, A’ (and the handful of classic shojo published by Viz around that time, including Hagio’s novella “They Were Eleven”) spoiled me for other manga.  I’ve spent the past 13 years searching for a manga that touches me as profoundly, and with few exceptions I’ve failed.  Now Fantagraphics has taken pity on me and begun translating more of Hagio’s work, starting with the luminous short story collection A Drunken Dream.

I was lucky enough to speak to Hagio at the San Diego Comic-Con through her translator Matt Thorn, the editor of A Drunken Dream.

SHAENON GARRITY:  To start with, I’m interested in your influences.  What were some of the manga you read growing up?

MOTO HAGIO:  When I was little, manga mostly ran in monthly magazines for boys and girls, as opposed to weekly magazines.  I read mostly boys’ magazines.  I got them from manga rental shops or borrowed them from friends.

My favorite artists were Osamu Tezuka, of course, Shotaro Ishinomori, Tetsuya Chiba and Hideko Mizuno.  There were three popular women artists at the time that I really liked: Mizuno, Masako Watanabe and Miyako Maki.  And I also liked Leiji Matsumoto.

SG:  I had read that you were a fan of Ishinomori.  He’s an artist I like too, although I think the only work of his that’s been translated into English is Cyborg 009.  [Note: A few other Ishinomori titles have been translated, including Kikaider, The Skull Man, and the out-of-print and gloriously weird Japan Inc.]  I was wondering what you liked about his manga.

MH:  I also love Cyborg 009, but before that Ishinomori did some beautiful science fiction short stories.  They were the kind of short stories that left a deep impression long after I read them.

SG:  What prose science fiction did you read growing up?

MH:  The first science fiction story that got me into the genre was Isaac Asimov’s The Currents of Space.  After that I read every translated science fiction story I could get my hands on.  I liked Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon.

SG:  Your work also shows the influence of psychological theories.  How did you get interested in psychology, and how has it affected your writing?

MH:  I had always been interested in psychology, but when I was in my late twenties my relationship with my parents, which had never been very good, got worse and worse.  To try to understand them, I started to read more about psychology.  Unfortunately, most of the books at the time talked about people with clearly defined mental illnesses and where they could go for treatment.  There wasn’t as much about people who were just ornery.

Finally I turned to a book on astrology and compared my parents’ birthdates with my own.  According to the book, we were just incompatible.

SG:  Is this your first visit to the United States?

MH:  I’ve been here several times, but this is the first time I’ve been to an American comic convention.

SG:  How do you feel about it?

MH:  Stunned.  I had no idea it would be so big.  I’d heard that all the geeks in the world gathered here, but I had no idea it was true.  But everyone here looks like they’re doing what they want to do and having fun, and I’m having fun too.

SG:  How did you get involved with Fantagraphics to publish A Drunken Dream?

MH:  Matt Thorn introduced me to them.  I first met Matt when I went to Osaka to present at a symposium.  Matt was also attending, and Junya Yamamoto [longtime editor of Hagio and many other shojo manga pioneers of the 1970s] introduced us.  We went out to dinner together.  That was sixteen years ago now.

SG:  Why were the particular stories in A Drunken Dream chosen?

MH:  Matt chose them.

MATT THORN:  I wanted to make as representative a sample of her whole career as possible.  I asked a lot of fans for ideas and compiled stories based on their feedback.

SG:  Ms. Hagio, do you feel the collection Matt chose is representative of your work?

MH:  Yes.  I find it very embarrassing to read my very early work, but when you see the stories arranged chronologically it gives a good overall impression of my career.  In Japanese, too, it’s common to present an author’s works in a sample spanning his or her whole career, so it’s turned out very much like that.

SG:  What are you working on right now?

MH:  I’m doing a story called Leo, based on my cat Leo.  It’s an anthropomorphized version of my cat.  He tries to go to school; he goes to a human restaurant and orders a rat pizza.

I’m also doing a more serious collection of short stories called Anywhere but Here.  “The Willow Tree” in A Drunken Dream is one of those.

SG:  I notice you often use fantasy to make psychological ideas literal.  For example, in “Hanshin,” as a way of showing two sides of a girl’s personality, you draw her as a girl who is split in two, and in “Iguana Girl,” you draw the rejected daughter as an iguana.  Do you find it easier to approach such issues through fantasy?

MH:  I do find it very useful to approach these kinds of real-life problems through the lens of fantasy.  For example, take my relationship with my parents.  You can analyze it in different ways, and there’s a cause somewhere in there, but it’s not a cause you can explain rationally.  I try to capture that feeling through fantasy.

SG:  How did you get interested in doing Boys’ Love stories?

MH:  It’s hard to put into words.  I discovered that when I did a story about boys, I found it incredibly easy to write.  So after that I started to put more and more boys in my stories.

My question for you is, why is it popular here?  Feminism is supposed to be more advanced here in the U.S., but are there still some things that cannot be said?

SG:  That’s a good question.  I think, although in some ways feminism is more advanced here, in other ways it’s not.  We generally don’t have a lot of mass media aimed specifically at women and girls.  These kinds of stories have been popular in American fandom for many years—back when the original Star Trek was running, there were women writing stories about Kirk and Spock.  But it’s very exciting to see professional comics with this material.  And that’s true not just of Boys’ Love, but of shojo manga in general.   Comics aimed at girls were something new here.

MH:  I’m surprised to hear you say there aren’t more girls’ comics in America.  When I was little, in the school library there was a series called Famous Books for Boys and Girls from Around the World.  They had Anne of Green Gables and Little Women.  Today you can go into any bookstore in Japan and see rows of translated Harlequin romances.  So I’m surprised to hear you say there is not much media for women and girls.

SG:  Yes, we have a lot of books for girls.  But not comic books.

MH:  In America, comics were always seen as a boys’ thing?

SG:  Yes, or at least that was the case for many years.

MH:  So now there’s a great big market opening up.

SG:  What advice do you have for young people now who want to make comics?

MH:  Have confidence in yourself.  Also, these are two seemingly mutually exclusive things, but ask other people for their opinions, and at the same time ignore people’s opinions.

SG:  Were there ever times in your career that you were prevented from telling the kinds of stories you wanted to tell?

MH:  There were editors who tried to stop me from doing certain things, but they never succeeded in stopping me.  I always drew what I wanted.

SG:  Any examples you recall?

MH:  When I first started working as a professional manga artist, a lot of my stories had people dying and other sad endings.  My first editor at Kodansha tried to stop me from drawing such grim material.  So I tried to make my stories more cheerful, but he still said, “Too dark!”  Then Junya Yamamoto took a liking to my work.  He let me draw whatever I wanted, even if it was too dark.

SG:  Many of your stories involve child abuse and similar traumas.  How did these themes enter your work?

MH:  My own parents were very intense about their children’s education, and very strict.  They decided who I could be friends with, what time I could come home, and even what books I could read.  There were a lot of things I wanted to do when I was growing up, but if my parents had the slightest disagreement with these things they would scold me severely.  So I’ve always been interested in children whose parents do not understand them.  From there I started to become interested in stories of child abuse.

SG:  I understand that manga was one of the things your parents didn’t approve of.  How did you manage to read manga as a kid?

MH:  There were manga in my school library, and my friends were into manga.  If I got good grades, my parents would let me spend money on manga books.  But for the most part I read them in secret.

SG:  How did you get started as a manga artist?

MH:  When I was in middle school, the first weekly manga magazines for girls appeared.  The introduction of weekly magazines created a shortage of artists, so the magazines were constantly soliciting new talent.  Around the time I was fifteen years old, some very young women and girls started getting work as manga artists.  So I started submitting work myself.  I had to draw ten stories before one was accepted and I made my professional debut.  I was hired at the age of nineteen, so I had four years of submitting work before I became a pro.  [Pause.]  It might have been three years.

SG:  What do you hope American readers take away from your work?

MH:  I just hope they find it interesting.

San Diego

July 24, 2010

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7 Responses to “An Interview with Moto Hagio”

  1. […] of the day Over at The Comics Journal, Shaenon Garrity has published a perfectly gorgeous interview with Moto Hagio: MH: In America, comics were always seen as a boys’ […]

  2. Shay Guy says:

    RightStuf doesn’t seem to have anything of hers. Pity. And neither does my library. Guess if I want to look into A, A’ or anything else, I’ll have to resort to ILL.

    It’s funny she should find the lack of American girls’ comics surprising, because pretty much all our cultural exports from comic books are superheroes. (Think she realized that when you said “Yes, or at least that was the case for many years” — that for the American public, comics are almost synonymous with superheroes?) It really is puzzling that there aren’t more mass media aimed specifically at women and girls here, though to be fair, shonen manga is more popular than its distaff counterpart even in Japan. For some reason.

    The bit about weekly magazines coming after monthlies struck me as well — think future developments in American comics could follow such a pattern if the market were to really open up in terms of genre?

  3. […] Garrity interviewed Moto Hagio at San Diego Comic-Con, and Hagio goes beyond the usual bland manga-ka cha and really talks about […]

  4. […] am trying very hard to make a manga that my fans will enjoy." So Shaenon Garrity's interview with Moto Hagio (and her translator, Matt Thorn), is a bracing blast of fresh air. Hagio is one of the most […]

  5. […] Garrity interviewed Moto Hagio at San Diego Comic-Con, and Hagio goes beyond the usual bland manga-ka cha and really talks about […]

  6. […] Hagio-sensei was presented an Inkpot Award at the start of the panel and I believe she more than earned it by the time the panel was over when she generously donated all the manga she spoke about to Comic-Con for posterity. For more about Moto Hagio, check out Shaenon Garrity’s excellent interview. […]

  7. […] The folks at Pink Tentacle round up a macabre collection of monster images from 1970s children’s books… Wired Magazine’s geek-mom-in-residence Corrina Lawson reads Hyde & Closer with her sons, who pronounce it “awesome”… Glen Wheldon does a SDCC post-mortem at NPR’s Monkey See blog, listing Alice the 101st (hooray!) and Cigarette Kisses (hooray!) among the con’s buzz-worthy titles. But no love for A Drunken Dream? C’mon, NPR, Moto Hagio is the perfect candidate for a feature story… and speaking of Hagio, do yourself a favor and read Shaenon Garrity’s funny, candid interview with the “godmother” of shojo. […]