When I told my wife my next review would be for a collection of shojo manga, she wasn’t familiar with the term. I told her it meant “girls’ comics” and she made a sour face. I can’t blame her. To someone accustomed to the glut of pretty pink princesses usually marketed to girls in American culture, “girls’ comics” is not an appealing prospect. The ten stories in A Drunken Dream could not be further from what she’d feared. We do find a princess, a ballerina, some star-crossed lovers, and plenty of highly-charged emotions, but author Moto Hagio has more on her agenda than simply trotting out tired “girly” storylines. Her protagonists struggle with loss, rejection, and insecurity in a manner sure to strike readers as honest and familiar, never reductive or patronizing.
Many of these works have an element of science fiction or fantasy and the first in the collection, “Bianca”, serves as a fine opening argument for the relevance of fantasy to the emotional lives of teenagers. The title character is a young girl who escapes a difficult home life to dance in the forest, alone and barefoot, finding joy and solace by losing herself in nature and movement. The strength of her emotion elevates the scene to a mystical romanticism. Reaching the story’s ambiguously tragic ending, we’re stuck somewhere between a banal mundane explanation and an emotionally resonant supernatural understanding — an experience familiar to anyone who’s known the internal conflicts of adolescence.
Throughout the collection, I was drawn to the more overtly fantastic stories. “Girl On Porch With Puppy” is a very short piece in which a starry-eyed young girl runs into a plot twist straight out of a Twilight Zone episode. The excellent “Iguana Girl” opens with an iguana princess who’s fallen in love with a man and asks a sorceress to transform her into a human. What follows is a surprisingly effective exploration of body dysmorphia and its socially hereditary aspects. Hagio’s metaphors could feel blunt if overstated, but she does an admirable job of simply telling her story and trusting the reader to draw real-world conclusions.
Artistically, Hagio’s style is fairly traditional. She puts a lot of emphasis on carefully rendered costuming and expressive facial closeups. Her emotive characters are definitely a strength and she does equally well with quiet moments large emotional climaxes. The stories collected here span 31 years of Hagio’s career and, while the later stories do seem a bit looser and more confident, the earlier stories certainly don’t suffer by comparison.
The publisher doesn’t provide an age rating for this book, but it’s likely to be of more interest to older teens or adults. In one story a character reveals that she had an abortion while in college, which may be a red flag for some, but Hagio’s sights are squarely on the emotional truth of the situation rather than the political implications. Enthusiastic readers will appreciate the inclusion of two relevant pieces from The Comics Journal, an interview with Hagio and a history of the manga industry when she first gained public notoriety.
A Drunken Dream and Other Stories
by Moto Hagio