Guest review: A Drunken Dream and Other Stories

By Erica (Okazu) Friedman

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories
Written and illustrated by Moto Hagio

Every genre, whether it is based on content (horror, romance, action) or age and gender, (shoujo, shounen) develops tropes. Tropes do not develop overnight. They are created by the creators – who use their training, their inspiration and the input of mentors, peers and editors to inform their work. Tropes are also driven by tension from the marketplace. Fans get used to certain things, or those who do the buying require certain conventions. Tropes that are successful are measured by sales – if Book A sells a lot of copies and it has Vampires, you can be sure that Book B and C will have Vampires too (or Zombies, or whatever the hot meme of the day is.) And publishers create tropes, when costs allow or don’t allow for certain things. If the market is doing well, then you might see extras packaged with a title. After three volumes of that title with extras, you can be sure that fans will start to expect extras with that next volume.

One of the fascinating qualities of fandom is that when fans have been around a long time, and still love a genre to death, they become dismissive of the tropes and start looking – in that same genre – for something more. I’m guilty of this myself and have created a nickname for stories that fit neatly within the boundaries of the most typical tropes of Yuri. I call those stories “Story A,” and yes, I absolutely mean it dismissively.

So, when people who have read a million shoujo stories look at the genre, they tend to be very offhand about it. “Spunky young heroine who makes friends easily. Hot older guy she falls instantly in love with. Sullen and withdrawn guy her own age who she’s clearly going to end up with in the end. And of course a tragic past full of secrets. But again, shoujo is not where you go for originality.” (With apologies to Sean Gaffney who is not at all dismissive of these things – in fact, he embraces them with fervor.)

What this means is that anyone who does NOT read the genre, is likely to read all these jaded, dismissive accounts of the genre (often by people for whom the genre is not intended) and assume that that’s just the way it is. Couple this with the natural tendency of the “critic” to pretend their condescension is in some way objective and …yes, I’m going to say it…the unrelenting, aggressively clueless sexism of about 80% of the men involved in the comics industry and their less creative, but no less vociferous male counterparts in comics criticism…you get a world of upturned noses and sniffiness at anything created by, or worse – for – females.

Shoujo manga is aimed at girls. Young girls are casteless in the world of entertainment. Basically no one gives a crap about them. The color pink is regurgitated at them endlessly as if being 9 and female means that one is essentially color blind to any other color. And heaven forefend that anyone, anywhere, that makes books for girls should EVER be taken seriously.

Except Moto Hagio. Her work, we are told sniffily, is NOT LIKE those other, pinker, sparkle-pony-er kinds of shoujo. This is *serious art,* that we are meant to take very seriously. You can tell it’s serious and important, because male critics deign to look at it at all.

Humility, thy name is shoujo manga.

Moto Hagio is a woman who drew manga for girls. Young girls – girls of the age where it is perfectly acceptable for many people to eroticize them, but not to take them seriously as people, with their own requirements, fantasies and interests. She took them seriously. No surprise, as she had been one herself. As hard as this is to believe I also was a young girl once. Moto Hagio’s works talked *directly* to the young girl I had once been.

I began this review noting that fans have a tendency to dismiss what they are already familiar with. The first story of this collection, “Bianca,” is exactly that kind of story. It’s been done, we say with a handwave, many times. True. But never have I seen it done this well. In 12 pages, Moto Hagio tells me a story I’ve read any number of times before – and tells it to me in a way that makes my heart feel like it’s so *full* of something that it might explode. Art, I’m told, should evoke a reaction. Is gripping my chest and taking heaving breaths enough of a reaction to call this ‘Art?’ Or is my reaction supposed to be more objective? Then… It called to mind the reaction I had when first encountering Stonehenge and realizing that I was in the presence of something masterful, precisely because it was not meant to be so when it was created. (I have always thought that Stonehenge was a Public Works Project – meant to keep people productive and busy so they felt like they earned their food at the end of the day.)

This collection may, in fact, not be the best way to encounter Moto Hagio’s work. Collections have an agenda, and fans are not typically subtle thinkers. I’ve seen a number of reviews that fall prey to the belief that the stories in this collection beat the same drum over and over. There are certainly themes that repeat, some more than others; Being Different; Perception; Family

Family is something that is addressed repeatedly in Moto Hagio’s work. She talks frankly about the tension between her and her parents, especially her mother. This is a theme she explores from many different angles – family as the obstacle to a life, rather than a support; family that you create for yourself being as powerful, even more powerful than blood relatives. Call me typical, but as a girl, something like “Iguana Girl” would have rendered me into a sobbing heap of sympathy. Of course I understood *exactly* what Rika was feeling! No one I know wouldn’t. We’re all Outsiders, we’re all Different. For those young readers who might be LGBT, can you imagine the power of this story? Different? You don’t know that half of it….! And for those readers, the idea that Family is something you create for yourself will still resonate as a powerful message.

Perception of self is another unavoidable theme in this collection and I think it’s probably fair to say in her body of work as a whole. What characters see themselves as, what others see and what “reality” is are three entirely distinct things. In most stories, the lines between these are blurred enough that the reader might not be able to clearly differentiate which they are perceiving at any moment. “A Drunken Dream” is titled well. We have no “reality” to hang on to, no idea if any portion of the story is real or not. In “Autumn Journey” the truth of Johann’s “reality” completely changes the Luise’s life and we’re left not really knowing how things will turn out for either of them (albeit, we’re left hopeful that it will all turn out well.) “Hanshin Half-God” and “Iguana Girl” are clearly the vanguard in this theme, with altered perceptions presented as both real and false at the same time. And in the “Child Who Came Home,” the reality we’re presented is nothing more than a desperate delusion. Through all the stories, there is a very strong emphasis on individual perception being at odds with the consensus perception of the people around them – something that would have resonated deeply – or jarred horribly – for the Japanese audience. “Girl on Porch With Puppy” is an object lesson of what happens to people who fail to conform in a society that values the group over the individual.

Shoujo manga is (often dismissively) summed up as stories of the heart. But shoujo manga is not just about romance – it is about emotional interplay. Where shounen heroes gain physical power, shoujo heroines gain emotional power. Shounen heroes beat their enemies to make them their friends – shoujo heroines love their enemies until they love them back. Th characters here are lovable – which is a risk we take with these stories. We’re not sure that the heroine will be plucky or that everyone will love them back. But like most contemporary shoujo, A Drunken Dream contains stories of emotional interaction, and emotional growth that comes from communication.

Moto Hagio is, like all other “classic” writers, doomed to be over-thought by adults, when if you just handed the average teen her work without making an assignment out of it, it would probably go over well. (Better yet, make is slightly forbidden, like Death Note.) Fantagraphics has done a lovely job with the book and in doing so has all but guaranteed the separation of Moto Hagio from her *actual audience* – teen girls.

I think there’s a real risk, though, in over-analyzing this volume. Moto Hagio’s stories are, as I said at the beginning, masterful largely because she did not set out to be so. She wrote from the heart, stories that girls could understand, enjoy, identify with. She was the Stephanie Meyer of her time and only now, when we look back on a body of literature that spans decades, we see that it’s a little silly to dismiss it (or glorify it) because it’s shoujo manga. What A Drunken Dream offers is as much or as little as we want to see. If we stare too hard past the cute girl looking back at us in the mirror, we might in fact see the deathly crone behind her…but why would we want to do that? Can’t we just take the cute girl at face value? Isn’t she “important” enough on her own?

Moto Hagio is a woman, who draws stories for girls. She is a Master of her Craft. She is a groundbreaker in her field. None of these statements are contradictory.

A Drunken Dream is a must-read for any serious student of manga. While you’re getting a copy, buy one for a niece or friend – and don’t tell them it’s “important.” This way they’ll be free to just enjoy it, tropes and all.