The Comics Journal Message Board
Contact Us

Three By Moto Hagio
Lost in Translation by Bill Randall
from The Comics Journal #252
Drawing by Moto Hagio for the short-story cycle A, A', from the artist's private collection ©1983 Moto Hagio

"...early in the century ? there was a quietly parochial venture into the vague but hopeful notion of 'a new age' heralded by Walt Whitman and Edward Carpenter in which love among males would be allowed to flourish as it had in Greece, medieval Japan, Persia, Arabia, and other cultures that had tolerated and encouraged what has always existed furtively, or as privileged cults (in the Italian and English Renaissances, among the British aristocracy, among French intellectuals) or as a guarded but poignant theme in art and literature (Housman, Hopkins, Montherlant, Mann)."
- Guy Davenport, "The Drawings of Paul Cadmus"

Dig far enough in manga, and chances are you'll run into Osamu Tezuka. Again. In 1953, he began a story that birthed an entire subculture, even if he couldn't foresee what would come later. When he started Ribon no Kishi in Shojo Club magazine, he planted the seed for shoujo manga as we know it today, the unique genre of comics for girls, written and drawn by women. About 15 years after Tezuka's first steps, the genre had evolved to encompass shounen ai stories. In other words, from the '70s on, most Japanese girls grew up reading about boys in love with other boys. It's a far cry from Anne of Green Gables.

The changes came with artists like Riyoko Ikeda, author of The Rose of Versailles, and Yumiko Oshima, author of Banana Bread Pudding. They belonged to a generation of artists who penned stories about men who resembled lithe, gorgeous women. The group came to be known as the nijuuyonnen gumi, or "24th Year Group," because most of them were born in the 24th year of the Showa Era. The easy English approximation is to call them "49ers," since Showa 24 is 1949. Their rise to prominence changed the look of the field. Beforehand, most girls' comics were written and drawn by men; now, the field is composed mostly of women, resulting in a unique realm of women's expression. While many of the artists in this revolutionary generation remain artistically important, perhaps the one most so is Moto Hagio.

Hagio began her career in 1969 at the age of 20 with the publication of her story "Lulu and Mimi" in Nakayoshi. Like most early manga-ka of her generation, Tezuka's influence pervaded her early work. Soon enough, though, she came into her own. Two years after her debut, she published "The November Gymnasium," a short story openly dealing with homosexual love between two boys at a boarding school. The story was one among many that had a watershed effect, making explicit the undercurrents just below the surface of girls' comics all along. Tezuka had given these artists a wellspring of material: Ribon no Kishi literally means "Knight of Ribbons," but has been translated as "Princess Knight," a title that fully conveys how it plays with gender. The story follows a young girl, Sapphire, born to a royal family in need of a male heir. They raise her as a boy, disguising her when necessary. Unhappy with her lot, she secretly longs to wear beautiful dresses like a normal girl. Because the story is a fairy tale, Sapphire eventually gets to marry her Prince Charming and live as a girl, even if the path to that ending brings not a little gender confusion.

Hagio simply literalized the fairy tale elements in Tezuka's work, transplanting them to the real world. If Tezuka cast his woman as a false man, then Hagio seems to cast her men with women in the roles. These gender-bending tactics have their roots in the Takarazuka theater, a stunningly kitsch all-woman revue. In comics, the Rumiko Takahashi short story "Reserved Seat" in her anthology One or Double gives a feel for the revue. The short description of Takarazuka is that women play men romancing women playing women, and Tezuka's mother often took him to see it when he was a child. The revue is often cited as the main inspiration for Ribon no Kishi and thus shoujo manga as a whole; it also links the manga to a longer tradition of gender bending in Japanese culture, stretching back into the cross-dressing actors of noh and kabuki theater. In this light, Tezuka was primed to write about a cross-dressing little girl. What mattered was not so much the players, but the emotion they were playing. In their world, sex itself became indistinct, fluid. It became an ideal, Platonic, even. Hagio took this ideal and ran with it; later, Keiko Takemiya threw it back into two bodies and a bed in her own landmark book Kaze to Ki no Uta. But that's another story.


Since Hagio's first "boy meets boy" stories, girls' comics have had a license to play fast and loose with gender. The genre has evolved into something quite fascinating, if not easily understood. Love stories of ambiguous or openly gay sexuality sit comfortably alongside heterosexual romances, and doujinshi (fanzines) often take popular characters and recast them as gay lovers. The contemporary extreme is the genre known as yaoi, an acronym for the Japanese phrase "yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi," meaning "no climax, no resolution, no meaning," so named because yaoi emphasizes sex and violence to the detriment of plot and character. An alternate acronym means "yamete! oshiri ga itai," i.e., "stop! my butt hurts." These comics typically play out as gay slasher comics: Known for their extreme violence and explicit sexuality, they stand far afield of Hagio's sensitive, sentimental works, existing mainly for how "usefully" they deliver violent sex.

To a Western reader, the whole field can be quite a puzzle. While manga is often compared to television in its scope, the United States' most prominent TV homosexuals are on Will and Grace. To add to the confusion, homosexuality finds less acceptance in Japan than it does in the urban United States. Few homosexual communities exist outside the largest cities, so some men remain closeted their entire lives, perhaps even marrying while secretly carrying on love affairs. Furthermore, while Japanese society doesn't show the homophobic zealotry common in the United States, it doesn't understand homosexuality very well: When a friend of mine came out in Japan, most of the people he told reassured him he'd get over it soon enough.

From here, it's tempting to look at the frequency of homosexual love stories in girls' comics as just another bizarre, funny Japanese quirk: "those crazy Japanese, always bowing and eating raw fish." After all, why would a country mostly unaccepting of the homosexual lifestyle fully accept this kind of story? Indeed, the mainstream American media -- most notoriously the New York Times -- loves to caricature Japanese culture, from the news stories of outlandish sexual perversion, passed off as the norm, to the dubbing of Iron Chef, which makes Japanese women look like tittering morons. Admittedly, Japan can seem like an upside-down parody of Americana to Western eyes -- they built a Statue of Liberty in Tokyo Bay, for pity's sake. But the incredulous gawking of Western observers usually says more about those selfsame observers than it does about Japan.

As for the question of why these comics enjoy mainstream popularity, I can't really say. My main interests in studying manga skew to the aesthetic, not the ethnographic. I at least know of several explanations that have made the rounds, among them the idea that teenage girls use these comics as a way of exploring sexuality without feeling threatened by it, as the stories lack female characters. Another idea holds that the stories make for a unique kind of escapism. Since Japanese culture has very specific standards for behavior in every situation, an adolescent struggling to leave an anything-goes childhood for a strict adulthood can fantasize about someone else facing far more difficulty. Forbidden love has always been an escapist staple. Since homosexual love is more forbidden, stories focusing on it increase the stakes for the lovers tenfold. These two explanations make the most sense to me, but I'm just a lowly aesthetician.

Fortunately, an increasing number of anthropologists have started to look at shoujo manga seriously. Among them, the scholar most closely identified with the field is Matt Thorn. In fact, he has earned the right to be called the preeminent ambassador for shoujo manga. A cultural anthropologist in the department of cartoon and comic art at Kyoto Seika University, Thorn has translated several volumes of shoujo manga for Viz in addition to his academic work. In this work, he approaches his subject with genuine zeal rather than the strictly antiseptic, lifeless rationalism that has infected academic thought. In fact, it was Hagio's Thomas that set Thorn to studying shoujo manga in the first place. In his studies of the field, he has opted out of easy answers to these questions, and underscores the varied ways readers use their favorite manga, whether as simple escapism or more complex sexual exploration. No one answer exists. The truth is far more complex.

Coming back to Hagio, all these explanations show just how her work can be read quite differently by different readers, to say nothing about how cultures themselves can be read. I find Hagio's homosexuals rather sterile; in other words, they're not exactly creatures of the flesh ready for hot, sweaty lovemaking. Instead, theirs is an idealized love, one with nuances of meaning not immediately apparent to the neophyte. One can very legitimately read Hagio's shounen ai stories as genre pieces, taken as one more riff on the love-over-all theme prevalent in girls' comics. Or one could take them at face value. The culture supports both readings, as do the texts.


In her body of work, Hagio has played almost every variation conceivable on the shounen ai formula. That is not to say she repeats herself. She has tried her hand at horror, science fiction and fantasy as well as her stylized brand of realism. For instance, Po no Ichizoku (The Poe Clan) consists of a series of short stories dealing with a family of vampires. On the other hand, the five-volume serial Marginal explores a science-fiction scenario in which women no longer exist on Earth, and the men remaining are unknowingly controlled by an alien race. While this series and many of her other science-fiction works seem light on the science, she has nonetheless adapted a volume of Ray Bradbury's short stories.

Hagio has also explored the bizarre, as in her story "Hanshin," which follows a linked pair of Siamese twins. One is beautiful, the other repulsive; miserable together, they are surgically separated only to switch appearances. When the beautiful one has withered away into nothing, the ugly one has metamorphosed to look exactly like the beautiful one. Hagio has even tackled heterosexual love. Works like 1989's Flower Festival, in which the aspiring ballerina likes boys, most resemble what Westerners would traditionally consider "girls' comics." The common thread running through these various works is Hagio's influential art style and storytelling, reliant on interior monologue and intricate, expressionistic page layouts; in other words, her own unique "voice." In all, her collected works run to over 30 volumes, and she's still publishing today. Fortunately, a tiny portion of these works has been capably translated into English by Matt Thorn. The first of these to be published was They Were Eleven.

They Were Eleven #1-4
Four Shojo Stories
Viz/Flower Comics
ISBN: 1569310556
Out of print due to licensing issues

This science-fiction tale, also available from Central Park Media in a competent, faithful film version, won a Shogakukan Manga Award in 1976. In many ways, it stands as the quintessential Hagio science-fiction story, and covers many of her major themes -- including the fluidity of gender and the hard road to maturity. Like many of her stories, Eleven focuses on a group of people crossing the threshold from childhood to adulthood. Its ten protagonists face their final test before they graduate from an intergalactic academy; the test requires that they survive being left on an abandoned space station to fend for themselves for 45 days. After their arrival, they realize that one too many students has been left on the station. Their confusion quickly becomes suspicion, creating an atmosphere not exactly congenial to cooperation.

This story epitomizes Hagio's unique style even as it works as a primer for the basics of shoujo manga. In it, she covers all the fundamentals: the interior monologue, the expressionist backgrounds, the wistful imagery. Most striking in this particular story, especially for those who have first seen the film version, is the looseness with which Hagio approaches her artwork. Classically animated films rely on well-defined shapes bounded by thick lines, and Osamu Dezaki's film version follows this rule to the letter. Hagio's original comic, however, flouts the rule by radically distorting character designs and settings when the situation calls for it. It's not unusual for her to replace background machinery with a downpour of flower petals, if that's how a character feels. Most strikingly, Hagio often uses panel borders as a mere suggestion rather than a strict closure of a moment in time. For her and many of her descendants, the panel can fragment not just time but also space, or even serve as nothing more than a decorative part of a larger composition. In fact, in the single page montages that most define the shojo style, these "borders" don't separate anything at all, but just serve as guidelines to lead the eye through a unified, full-page composition.

Only a few comics artists have tried to make a story work using nothing but full-page compositions, among them Lynd Ward, Franz Masereel and, most recently, Nick Bertozzi with "Mt. Fuji" in Rosetta. While their stories seem more akin to narrative painting than comics, Hagio's complex pages bridge the two. In fact, I would argue that Hagio's montages violate the "sequential art" idea of comics, even though joined to a longer narrative doled out in tiny panels. These pages break the rapid succession of time through the story, forcing the reader into moments of repose along with the characters. With them, the story becomes less linear and less like ordinary science fiction. Given that They Were Eleven hinges on Frol, an androgynous alien with a rather fickle gender, such breaks are almost necessary for the uninitiated reader.

A, A' (A, A Prime)
Viz, ISBN 1-56931-238-9, $15.95

Hagio's only book-length work in English, A, A' covers territory that should be familiar to fans of Solaris, whether the Lem, Tarkovsky or Soderbergh version. Their works concern a man visited by his dead wife. At first, it seems as though she has been resurrected; soon, a very different truth emerges. How she has returned has a different meaning for each of the three artists, whether metaphysical or existential. Hagio, however, doesn't concern herself much with these questions. Instead, she brings back the loved ones by cloning in the first story, and just by the appearance of a look-alike in the second. She is mostly concerned with each character's individual psychology, not the speculative fascination science fiction offers.

In fact, Hagio often uses science fiction just as a background. The basic scenario of Eleven, for instance, could have taken place on a derelict aircraft carrier provided by the Navy instead of the Cosmo Academy. Not one of her alien characters differs in any considerable way from human beings in either appearance or understanding, even if Hagio tries to give them insights an average human being might not have. Frol, even with his unique biology, just stands in for one of Hagio's typically androgynous men. Compare Dr. Who -- while that show's aliens had to look like people dressed in rubber suits, Hagio could draw her aliens however she wants. Her choice to make them bipedal humanoids underscores all her characters' too-human psychology. She doesn't need to dabble in fantasizing about alien races: she has enough to handle with people already. I suspect her use of the genre says more about the market than her desire to explore SF.

The science fiction in these stories provides us with the Unicorns, a genetically engineered race of humanoids designed to cope well in space, being rational rather than emotional. It's an obvious metaphor for alienation, since the Unicorns, like most teens, are clumsy, socially awkward and inarticulate with their feelings. The romantic plots of these stories rely on this alienation, when two alienated people (or aliens) hook up. The title story follows heterosexual love on a distant station in the Proxima star system. When one of the two lovers dies, a clone arrives to replace her, though without any memories of her former lover. The weakest of her translated works, "A, A'" makes a short stab at emotional resonance without paying any attention to credulity -- why ship single clones across space? Why ice skate on an alien planet without a safety rope? Why are the scientists so articulate with their feelings? As it stands, the story seems like a half-baked attempt at SF.

The longer story in the volume fares far better, allowing the characters to grow and change. It's also somewhat disquieting, as the protagonist, Mori, falls in love with a Unicorn boy who reminds him of a Unicorn girl he once loved. Mori is shallow, sure, but it happens, and he mulls over the situation at considerable length. Meanwhile, Hagio introduces enough gender twists to fill Almodóvar's All About My Mother. What's more, she plays it straight throughout, never stooping to self-conscious irony. The final product compares to nothing else, earnestly bizarre as it is. If you don't dismiss it outright, it speaks of a universe where the rules are completely different. And it's not even the most interesting part of that universe. Those works haven't been translated yet. One in particular should be.

Toma no Shinzo (The Heart of Thomas)
Shogakukan, ISBN 4-09-191013-0, 700 yen

Hagio's masterpiece, The Heart of Thomas transcends its genre's boundaries even as it establishes them. In 1974, Hagio expanded "The November Gymnasium" into this masterful novel, a 450-page shounen ai story that doesn't shy away from the intense emotions of adolescence. Set in a German boarding school, the story follows two young boys, Yuri and Oscar, who have lost one of their classmates, Thomas Werner. Thomas had fallen in love with Yuri, but when Yuri spurned him, he committed suicide by throwing himself onto the train tracks. Unlike Anna Karenina, who falls from a station platform, Thomas jumps from a bridge. Adolescence is never subtle.

So, Yuri looks through the fence one day and sees Thomas. Probably, it's a vision, since Yuri has already had dreams about him, and he possesses an extreme sensitivity that only grows as the story progresses. But it's not Thomas. It's Erich, the new kid in town, who just happens to resemble Thomas so perfectly that his schoolmates stop their soccer game to gawk in awe. From this point, Hagio spins a tale that's luxurious in its breadth, covering the gamut of adolescent emotions, unafraid to mix comedy and grief, and unflinching as it examines the sometimes painful, confusing world of adolescent sexuality.

The plot concerns both ideal love and sexual violence. Like real children, the three principals seem simple when first introduced, yet only grow in complexity with every scene. Like many real children, they also turn out to possess a sadness belied by their youth. Each character has pain in equal measure with innocence. Erich and Oscar both have estranged parents, while Yuri refuses to allow even the smallest degree of intimacy with his classmates, as though he's punishing himself for something. Most of all, Thomas's suicide looms over the book from the first page. The story follows these three (four?) characters as their relationships develop: Oscar tries to watch over Yuri, who grieves, though not for Thomas, it would seem. Meanwhile, Erich's angry reactions to the constant comparisons with Thomas act as a catalyst for the emotional confrontations of the book's climax. The plot approaches Dickens not in its complexity but in its melodrama: look-alikes, hidden loves and coincidences both fortunate and tragic abound. Melodrama may be a dirty word, but I'm not one to censor. The main question is whether Hagio pulls it off. She does, with all the energy and directness that adolescence demands.

The complex, sometimes bombastic emotions of adolescence get the full shoujo treatment on the page. In doing her part to create a new idiom for a fledgling field, Hagio frequently abandons traditional layouts. Instead, she lets the images, words and symbols flow into one another. One of the glories of this idiom in the hands of its greatest practitioners is its cheerful disdain for tidiness. A literary comparison could be stream-of-consciousness, though the comics page renders it more like a puddle than the quick flow of a Joyce or a Woolf. Hagio takes single emotions, moments of deep introspection and dreams, and draws each in a way that allows the reader's eye to explore it, to get lost in the whole composition. Rather than break the emotions down analytically into multiple panels, Hagio gives the reader something approaching the moment itself, thus encouraging not a distanced consideration of the emotion, but a willing acceptance of it. Her technique is naked in its emotional content, and quite effective for a sensitive reader.

Not only does she let her visual imagination fly, she creates a system of codes for each character's emotions. Such codes have since become standardized in shojo manga. Some codes are obvious, and in lesser hands stink like a sewer -- angel's wings and rose petals especially. Unfortunately, the field today is crowded with artists who trot these codes out without having earned them. Hagio's use of them here, however, has all the heightened energy of new discovery. Some of her visual metaphors, like an image of Erich shot through with arrows, have a powerful visceral force. When she does use more obvious codes like angel's wings, she does so because the story calls for it. Yuri sees other people as angels, not because he's wistful, but because he's struggling with a call to the priesthood. Hagio treats his struggle with sensitivity, and weaves Christian imagery throughout the fabric of the story. In one early scene, Yuri runs away from Oscar toward an arched doorway and two crosses. On the next page, the whole church seems to shake in a loosely sketched panel. Both images underscore the importance of the Church to Yuri, while showing the full range of Hagio's storytelling strategies.

Throughout the book, she employs storytelling techniques both subtle and dramatic. Like many shoujo artists, she often relies on the latter, such as when Yuri, visibly shaken, hides from the brash Oscar. In the panel, Yuri's sketchy, crosshatched body contrasts sharply with the deep, solid black of Oscar's school uniform. However, Hagio also employs subtler effects. When Yuri runs away from Oscar in anger, Hagio tilts the staircase, resulting in an image that violates the laws of perspective, making Yuri's descent seem that much more frenetic. By employing almost unnoticeable techniques like this one, Hagio emphasizes the inner lives of her characters over their environment. It's the pathetic fallacy: emotions create environment, not the other way around.

Indeed, these characters' honest, direct emotions dominate the tone of Thomas. Throughout the novel, Hagio gives an almost delicate attention to how Yuri reacts when Erich appears, or to Oscar's hidden feelings. It's hard to imagine boys this sensitive. But they can be, especially if they've been replaced with the androgynous, idealized creatures of shoujo manga. In fact, Hagio continually plays on this kind of substitution throughout her work. The stories in A, A' center on people who have lost someone, only to have someone else appear as a replacement. The same process takes hold of Yuri, even though his substitute for Thomas resists comparisons to his dead predecessor. By focusing on how the lovers find new objects for their desire, Hagio realizes one essential truth of desire: It exists for itself, not its object. In other words, the loved one matters no more than the act of loving itself. So love becomes an abstraction, like courtly love in medieval Europe, and Hagio fully explores this territory with her earnest, vulnerable characters. If abstract love has little to do with real relationships, it nonetheless makes a great set of rules for art, an art that has continued to be vital since Hagio and her fellow 49ers created it 30 years ago.

Bill Randall lives in Kentucky. His column appears regularly.

All site contents are © 2002