SHOUJO MANGA MONTH: MOTO HAGIO DOES EVERYTHING RIGHT
Last week we began our elegant, stylish voyage through shoujo manga, or Japanese girls’ comics. This week we’re going to go a bit further. If you want to get some background on what shoujo manga is and why it’s so important, please check out last week’s article.
Last week we discussed the most egregious type of shoujo manga: the painfully boring, derivative cash cow. This week we’re going to talk about a thoroughly good collection of shoujo stories, why these stories are so essential to girl comics as a whole, and why all this gabbing about feelings and emotions is actually pretty cool stuff. Please check your cynicism at the door because this is gonna be some earnest real talk.
As always with manga, please remember to read the clips from “A Drunken Dream” from right to left.
The Magnificent 24 Year Group / The Magnificent Forty Niners
Moto Hagio belonged to a group of manga artists called the Magnificent 24 Year Group, or the Magnificent Forty Niners. This group of artists all hung out together and made awesome, mind blowing comics in the early ‘70s. You like good shoujo manga? Thank them for it. Are you into sweet, beautiful dude on dude lovin’? Yeah, these guys pretty much started that trend too. The Forty Niners themselves say that critics and fans made up the nickname, but they never thought of themselves that way. The name itself refers to the fact that most of the members were born around 1949, the 24th year of the Showa Period in Japan. Some argue that the only members of the 24 Year Group were those that hung around the apartment shared by Moto Hagio and Keiko Takemiya between 1970 to 1972.
Before the 24 Year Group, girls’ comics were mostly drawn by dudes and didn’t properly address the actual thoughts and feelings of girls—unless they were talking about love and romance. (Sound familiar?) It took the mad creativity of the Magnificent Forty Niners to really turn all of that on its head. The Forty Niners pushed the conversation in girls’ comics from the default I-want-a-boyfriend talk to self-actualization through emotional journeys. They tackled themes such as “science fiction, rock and roll music, horror, homosexuality, gender, identity, and fantasy” and weaved stories about “sportswomen, epics, love between boys, and history or social problems.”
So why does this matter? For essentially the first time, shoujo manga was made by women for girls and was real live arts. That’s really something we’ve never mimicked over here in America Comics Land, on any significant scale. This was a group of badass ladies saying badass things and changing the conversation about women and comics completely.
There isn’t a lot of further reading, aside from, say, Wikipedia, but I highly recommend this amazing tumblr.
The translator of this volume, Matt Thorn, is also a huge resource for learning more about the Twenty Four Year Group. The 2003 interview with Moto Hagio from the back of the collection can be found here and his website covers a lot of interesting stuff about shoujo manga overall.
Making Something Beautiful and Real
I believe that the “Drunken Dream” collection of stories lays the groundwork for measuring all of the wonderful components of girls’ comics. It’s a heck of a yardstick, I’ll tell you that. While some stories are weaker than others, as a whole, “A Drunken Dream And Other Stories” spans the breadth of what makes shoujo manga great.
Borrowing from Kinko Ito’s work A Sociology of Japanese Ladies’ Comics and my own observations from last week, here is my rubric for measuring what makes up a real, excellent shoujo manga:
- Similar stylistic elements—commonly including large eyes, lack of or reduced secondary sex characteristics (such as breasts), elegant clothing and rich, luxurious environments.
- Focus on character development, interaction, and feelings above action and plot.
- Female characters are multidimensional, having non-romantic goals, desires, thoughts, and experiences.
The “Drunken Dream” collection isn’t just a beautiful compellation of good comics. It’s a good collection that is so essentially shoujo, that it’s good because it’s shoujo. These elements—the stylistic elegance, the connectedness to human emotion, that’s what’s great here.
Some US reviewers take issue with the “melodrama” of Hagio’s work in this collection, deploring that the characters and plot points are too simple and obvious to challenge readers. I think those simple plot elements give the comics their emotional charge!
In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talked about how simple character designs allow readers to infuse the character in question with their own personality—and by projecting ourselves in, we’re making the act of reading comics a bigger emotional investment. This is because we can anthropomorphize anything and make it our own.
The simple plot devices in Hagio’s works act a lot like the simple character designs in some other comics. We see our own loneliness echoed back in her characters, the same spark of life. Hagio gives us stories we can relate to, and in their simple structure we see our own lives.
The obvious symbols don’t really matter that much. They’re just points to keep you moving on your way. The experiences of the characters are much more important than any mind-blowing realization at the end of the story—so pretty much, Inception this is not. In Iguana Girl, you find out that the main character is a human being and not actually an iguana like she is drawn. Her iguana face is a metaphor for the low self-esteem her mother passed down to her. Iguana Girl doesn’t have any real “big reveal moment” hinged on that mindfuck moment where you realize that she’s really a person. You learn about that incredibly early in the story. The comic is really about one girl’s struggle with low self-esteem. Isn’t that incredibly powerful in its own right?
Even the super simple “Girl With Puppy On Porch,” lays itself out on the table for you with its obviousness. After a few pages, you realize that the girl with her puppy is just a kid trying to keep the terrible world from destroying her beautiful imagination. No mystery, no suspense, just pretty much a message saying “the world sucks, but doesn’t it suck that things have to be this way?” Hagio is opening up some real genuine shoujo manga catharsis for all of us to share in the experience.
The “Drunken Dream” collection is a buffet of emotion.
Anger and helplessness.
It’s impossible to read through these panels and not feel your own life in them—and that’s why Hagio is such a brilliant writer. Shoujo manga is all about feelings, and Hagio is the master of feelings. The Queen of Feelings. THE EMPRESS OF FEELINGS.
I think I’m getting ahead of myself.
I had never heard of the 24 Year Group before reading this anthology, but I feel like my life has been dramatically enriched by this collection. I want to buy three copies of it so that I can loan 2 to new people and have a back up loan copy for the eventual time when one of them gets stolen.
Fantagraphics will be putting out an English-language release of one of Moto Hagio’s most renowned works, Heart of Thomas, this summer. You can bet that you’ll be hearing from me about it as soon as it’s out.A drunken dream Benchmarks CC Matt Thorne Novi magazine fantagraphics fehyesvintagemanga handshin half god iguana girl shojo shojo manga month shoujo manga shoujo
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