Over the last couple of months, I’ve written five lengthy posts about A Drunken Dream Fantagraphics’ collection of stories by the great shojo manga-ka Moto Hagio. I’ve spent so much time on this book for a number of reasons. Hagio is a central figure in the history of shojo, a genre in which I’m interested. Matt Thorn, the volume’s editor and translator, is one of the most important manga critics around,so anything he does is worth thinking about carefully. And, finally, this is meant to be the first in a series of reissues of classic shojo tales by Fantagraphics. That’s an exceedingly worthwhile project, and I wanted to draw attention to it.

To finish up my series, I thought I’d look briefly at what other critics have said about A Drunken Dream.

I certainly haven’t been alone in seeing this book as important. Deb Aoki at About.com gave it 4.5 stars and said it was “a long overdue glimpse into Hagio’s 40-year career. Melinda Beasi picked it as her book of the week, calling it gorgeous. David Welsh in a discussion of the best manga of the year similarly, if more somberly, commented that on best of the year lists, “Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories (Fantagraphics) didn’t seem to make much of an impression outside of dedicated manga readers, which is disappointing to me as a dedicated manga reader.”

So…many stars, pick of the week, should be on best of lists. Check, check…check! Sounds good! Long awaited collection by a manga master, critics love it — there must be a lot of juicy articles out there discussing why the book is so wonderful, right? Right?

Well, as you’ve probably guessed, that is not right. It is wrong. Because, while there has been a lot of praise directed at the book, there has been very little sustained criticism beyond vague generalities. The book is Important, it Moves People Deeply, it is Beautiful and the work of a Great Artist — but why it’s important, what’s moving, and the exact nature of the beauty in question are all tripped over lightly. Wonderful as this book is, it seems, it hasn’t actually inspired anyone to want to pause for a moment to, you know, think about it.

For a flavor of what’s out there, here’s a discussion of probably the most accomplished story, “Hanshin,” by two different reviewers.

Kate Dacey:

Other stories explore the complexity of familial relationships. “Hanshin: Half-God,” for example, depicts conjoined twins with a rare medical condition that leaves one brilliant but physically deformed and the other simple but radiantly beautiful. When a life-threatening condition necessitates an operation to separate them, Yudy, the “big sister,” imagines it will liberate her from the responsibility of caring for and about Yucy, never considering the degree to which she and Yucy are emotionally interdependent.

David Welsh:

From there, it’s fascinating to watch Hagio set aside visual delicacy for a style that matches her unflinching commitment to emotional detail. Take “Hanshin: Half-God,” a tale of conjoined twins. One is beautiful but virtually unable to function, with her bright, starved, ugly sister literally doing all of the heavy lifting. The amount of punch Hagio derives from the scenario is just staggering.

Both of these short reviews are essentially plot summaries; they frame the story as emotional melodrama, about the interactions between two sisters. Unfortunately, Hanshin is not a story that is about its plot; it’s poetic and evocative, not primarily narrative. The conflation and confusion of identity that’s at the core of the story is completely lost — unmentioned in Welsh’s review and turned into “emotional interdependence” in Dacey’s. Both assume that which the story insistently question, i.e., whether there are two people there at all. Or for that matter, even one.

I’ve enjoyed work by Kate and David in the past; Kate’s actually been kind enough to post on HU a couple of times, and one of her thoughtful comments inspired a roundtable on HU earlier this year, which she helped organize. But despite my appreciation for their work, in this case, I think Kate and David’s approach to Hagio — basically a few sentence discussions of each story focusing on plot with a few quick accolades — is almost completely useless. Or perhaps worse than useless. After reading those descriptions of Hanshin, you’d think that it was about a moral or about relationships. In short, you’d actually know less about the story than you would have if you hadn’t read a review at all.

There have been a few discussions of the book that have taken a more fruitful approach. I think without exception, they’ve been by people writing from outside the manga blogosphere; people who don’t see themselves as especially focused on shojo or manga. Joe McCulloch at Comics Comics covered the comic only briefly, but managed to pin down both the book’s thematic obsessions and its (not inconsiderable) faults.

The other nine stories are b&w, but proceed in much the same way – pioneer Hagio’s identity here, now, is that of a super-direct communicator of torment in the absence of love and the thrall of art. She is not a subtle worker — remember, some of this work is squarely aimed at children, rarely suggesting any poetic image or lingering character motivation that won’t eventually be spelled out via dialogue or narration — and some stories lapse into a self-pitying rapture, only kept from falling to pieces by artful visual compositions. A near-wordless vision of a ghostly woman watching a boy grow to a man (inevitably capped by a tearful confrontation!) borders on saccharine, while a double-barreled blast of soap opera sees a suicidal girl hauled off death’s doorstep by a rough but handsome man who *gasp* turns out to be her new biology professor, resulting in detailed, evolution-themed educational segments (not unlike the learning bits in Golgo 13 or a Kazuo Koike manga) inevitably lashed to Our Heroine’s Dark Secret. “I wonder if humans will evolve into angels?” she muses, probably gauging the reader’s appetite for comics of this tone.

I actually think there’s more subtle poetry there than Joe does, and I think Hagio is at her best when she’s not being as direct as all that — but “communicator of torment in the absence of love and the thrall of art” is a phrase that can’t be much improved upon.

Probably the best review of A Drunken Dream was written by another CC contributor, Nicole Rudick. Rudick placed Hagio in the context of science-fiction and fantasy creators like Tarkovsky, Cocteau, and Philip K. Dick, arguing that the central theme of the manga-ka’s work is fantasy vs. reality, or internal worlds vs. external ones.

The confusion about what exists as fantasy and what exists in reality is especially well done in “Hanshin,” where the conjoined twins—simultaneously a single being and two distinct people, one ugly, one beautiful—are mirrors of one another, interchangeable reflections. This relationship offers the possibility of transcendence, but only for one sister, and Hagio leaves the ending unresolved in the same way the ending to “Iguana Girl” is unsettled: How much of the character’s conflict exists only in her mind? And does that make it any less “real”? The notion that there might not be one, objective reality is echoed in the fiction of Philip K. Dick, who had published most of his novels the decade before Hagio began writing the earliest tales in this collection (they span from 1977 to 2007). I’m not certain, however, whether Dick’s work would have been translated into Japanese by then, so it seems unlikely she was influenced by him. Still, the theme of powerfully shifting perceptions is significant in the narratives of both writers.

Again, I don’t agree with all of Reddick’s review; I think she glosses over the clumsiness with which Hagio handles these themes in some cases (as in “Bianca”) But she’s absolutely right that Hagio’s strongest stories center not on what happens, but on what may or may not be happening — and to who, if anyone.

The last review I want to discuss is a much maligned piece by Chris Mautner. Like Rudick and Jog, Chris is not primarily writing for a manga crowd, and his essay reflects that. It’s focused primarily on trying to think about how alt comics folks will react to Hagio’s work.

Dream, on the other hand, has both feet firmly planted in the world of shojo manga. The ten tales that make up this book all consist of overly sincere, heart-on-the-sleeve-style work. There’s very little ironic distancing and self-effacing humor here, although it does peep its head out occasionally. Mostly though, that’s been ignored in favor of heightened melodrama and earnest heart-tugging. While it avoids the sort of contrived, romantic, situation-comedy type plots that mark a lot of the shojo manga that has been translated into English over the past decade, there can be little doubt that Dream has more in common with Fruits Basket and Boys Over Flowers than Red Colored Elegy or Abandon the Old in Tokyo.

As I said, Chris (who has also posted here) has been raked over the coals for this approach, both by Matt Thorn in comments and (less confrontationally) by David Welsh. Both Thorn and Welsh argued that Chris was denigrating femininity — lumping Hagio in with modern shojo and damning them all as over-earnest melodrama for those who like pink. Chris disavowed any such prejudice and apologized.

All of which rather obscured the fact that his review, whatever its faults, was actually trying to struggle with a fairly important issue — which is, how are we supposed to place, or think about Hagio’s work? Is Drunken Dream an art comic? Is it just another example of shojo genre fiction? If it’s an art comic, how do we reconcile its genre trappings, its sporadic clumsiness, and its sometimes painful forays into cliche? If it’s genre fiction, are we interested in it for historical reasons — and/or why should a modern audience pay attention to it rather than to genre fiction that is more modern and less clearly dated? Chris sees “A Drunken Dream” as problematic — in terms of how to classify it, how to evaluate it, how to think about it and how to approach it. He doesn’t arrive at any answers, and (as he’d be the first to admit, I think) his piece has some serious problems (though I’m inclined to think it’s because he was not sufficiently harsh, rather than because he was unfair.) But, in any case, he’s asking questions that need to be asked when you look at a work like “Drunken Dream” which is, for various reasons and in various ways, difficult.

Kate and David and other writers focused mostly on manga (like Ed Sizemore) didn’t ask those questions. Kate did provide some historical context for the stories, which was certainly helpful — but historical context isn’t really the issue. Instead, what I’m talking about is the difference between a review aimed at buy/not-buy, and criticism aimed at struggling with a work’s themes and inner logic, and with its place as a work of art within the world of comics and beyond.

I want to be clear: I don’t think there’s anything wrong with buy/not-buy reviews. I publish that kind of writing on HU all the time (by, for example kinukitty) and I’m pleased and proud to do so. And I have no doubt that, for example, Deb Aoki knows her audience quite well, and is entirely justified in thinking that they, as a whole, are not especially interested in (let’s say) a 10,000 word discussion of mirror imagery in Hagio’s stories.

But I also think that an audience that isn’t especially interested in a discussion of mirror imagery in Hagio’s stories is not, unfortunately, likely to be interested in the stories all that much either. I quoted David Welsh earlier expressing some distress that A Drunken Dream hadn’t garnered more popular enthusiasm. But surely that lack of popular enthusiasm is of a piece with the lack of critical engagement. VM is going to have my head for saying this, but…I do think that, compared to art comix, there is little writing from within the manga community that is firmly committed to criticism as opposed to review. I don’t see that as an evil thing, or even as a sign of intellectual laziness — it’s just an indication of what people are interested in. I do believe, though, that as long as those interests are what they are, it’s going to be difficult to find an audience for something like “A Drunken Dream,” which, despite its genre links, doesn’t fit easily into current marketing demographics, and which, therefore, has to live or die as art.

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