Otherworld Barbara, Vols. 1-2

By Moto Hagio | Published by Fantagraphics

otherworldIt’s 2052 and Tokio Watarai, a dream pilot, is coming home to Japan for the first time in three years. Although his ex-wife and son are in Japan, he’s actually returning for a job involving a girl who’s been sleeping for seven years since being found with her parents’ hearts in her stomach. Her name is Aoba, and when Tokio enters her dream it’s all about an island called Barbara in which kids can fly and cannibalism factors in to funeral rites. Soon, he learns that his son, Kiriya, actually invented Barbara. So how is Aoba able to dream about it?

That introductory paragraph actually simplifies the story greatly. There’s also Tokio’s horrid ex-wife Akemi and the creepy priest Johannes whom she loves and who could possibly be Aoba’s grandfather but also head of an American orphanage in which cloned children were created, including one called Paris who comes to Japan and believes Kiriya might be a boy he knew called Taka. There’s Kiriya’s massive angst, his dreams of Mars, his dream conversations with Aoba, the girl Laika who fancies him, a psychiatrist who treated Aoba who is killed by a tornado she created, his identity-swapping and cross-dressing fraternal twin children, anti-aging research (potentially conducted upon the residents of Barbara) including a suit that turns Aoba’s grandma into a young woman who calls herself Marienbad and has a fling with Tokio, Daikoku’s ominous hinting that Kiriya will kill Tokio someday, parental regrets, etc.

By the end of the first volume, so very many plot threads are in the air that I was not at all sure that Hagio-sensei would be able to make everything make sense in the end. To use just one example: If Barbara is just a dream—and, indeed, no such island actually exists—then how is it possible that the blood of its residents is used for anti-aging medicine? And yet we see evidence that such advances are already in the works. And because of all this plot stuff, there’s not a lot of time for building solid relationships. There is angst aplenty, especially courtesy of Kiriya, but the whole Marienbad/Tokio hookup, for example, is just extremely random. The strongest bond, though, is definitely the love Tokio feels for his son and his regret over having been a crappy father.

Happily, the second volume does make with the answers, starting almost immediately. Not everything is answered with absolute certainty—one particular narrative thread takes a completely unexpected and surprisingly poignant turn. Even 90% of the way through, I would’ve said there was no way Otherworld Barbara would be able to make me cry, and yet it did. I won’t reveal how, but I loved the devastating consequences of a desperate act on Tokio’s part, and how it led him to have faith that Aoba’s dream of Barbara really could be shaping a vision of the future. That ending makes everything else worthwhile. Too, I enjoyed the contrast between Hagio’s uncomplicated, light-filled artwork and the dark and weird story she told.

Ultimately, Otherworld Barbara is definitely worth reading. Thank you, Fantagraphics, for releasing it!

Otherworld Barbara is complete in two 2-in-1 editions.

Review copies provided by the publisher

A, A’ by Moto Hagio: B+

Back in the late ’90s, Viz dabbled in this weird thing called “shojo manga” and released a few one-shot volumes. A, A’ (A, A Prime), a collection of science fiction stories, was among these, and (lamentably) represents the largest chunk of material from Moto Hagio available in this country. Hagio, along with many other women who were pioneers of shojo manga, was born in 1949. These women came to be known as the Year 24 Group, as 1949 was the 24th year of Japan’s Showa era. Exploring themes of sexuality and gender, many of their works are considered classics. Hagio’s contributions include some of the earliest boys’ love stories, like The Heart of Thomas, and Shogakukan Manga Award-winning story “They Were Eleven,” published by Viz in floppy comic format as well as in the hard-to-find Four Shojo Stories anthology.

The three stories in A, A’ also deal with themes of gender and identity, each involving a member of a genetically engineered race of people called “Unicorns.” In the title story (my favorite), a team of people is working to develop an icy planet. Because of the dangerous nature of their mission, each person’s genetic information was saved prior to their departure so that they can be cloned if they should die. Adelade Lee has just undergone that process, and has returned to her post with no memory of the past three years she spent there or the comrades who greet her so warmly. The original Adelade’s lover has a great deal of trouble adjusting to the clone, insisting that it isn’t really her, but growing confused nonetheless. I really like the resolution to this one and would’ve been happy to read more about these characters.

Instead, the other two stories feature Mori, a young man with telekinetic powers and a “kaleidoscope eye” that allows him to see the infrared spectrum, similar to what the Unicorns can see. In “4/4,” we meet Mori as a teenager who, along with other kids with special powers, is living on Io and training to control his abilities. Things aren’t going well until he meets Trill, a Unicorn who is the subject of a scientific experiment. The pair of them “resonate,” allowing Mori temporary access to more control and also eventually providing Trill with the ability to object to the experiments being performed upon her. This story is my second favorite, and I particularly like how Trill’s lack of emotional involvement is portrayed; there’s a great scene where Mori seizes and kisses her and she just sort of blankly endures it, like a doll.

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the last story, “X + Y,” very much. There’s a conference being held on Mars to discuss plans to improve its conditions, and the team sent from Earth to take part includes a male unicorn named Tacto. On Mars, he meets Mori, four years older now, who becomes obsessed with Tacto. I understand that back when this was written, it was probably a stunning thing for one guy to confess his love to another, but in “X + Y” it all seems far too rushed to me and I never understood why Mori feels that way. He also gets on my nerves by behaving very stupidly when he and Tacto are out riding a space scooter on a ring of Saturn (really!), resulting in a life-threatening accident. The Mars theories don’t make much sense, nor does a subplot about Tacto’s chromosomes. Hagio tries to interject some humor into this tale, mostly by having Tacto (who refers to himself in the third person) say random things like, “Tacto likes pudding.” It’s cute, but not enough to improve my opinion of the story.

To modern eyes, Hagio’s artwork will surely look old-fashioned. Drawn between 1981 and 1984, it features some interesting fashions (particularly for Adelade) and a male romantic lead with a flowing mane of curly hair. There’s a lot of variety in the page layouts, and more than one image of characters superimposed over moons, stars, and other celestial bodies. I may mock it a bit, but I do genuinely like it; it’s nice to read something that doesn’t look like anything else.

For the title story alone, A, A’ is worth picking up. I can’t remember how much I paid for my copy, but I don’t think it was much. There are ten copies listed on Amazon right now so it shouldn’t be hard to find.

Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Four Shōjo Stories by Keiko Nishi, Moto Hagio, and Shio Sato: B+

From the back cover:
An unprecedented collection of stories by the greatest shōjo manga (girls’ comics) artists of our time!

In shōjo manga, a uniquely literary genre of Japanese comics, the relationships between characters are as meticulously crafted as the story’s action. Shōjo artists are renowned for their visual innovations, as well. Experimenting with page layouts, panel placement, the interplay of text and image, and expressionistic background effects, the three female manga artists of Four Shōjo Stories create a uniquely absorbing reading experience!

It would be impossible to write a review of Four Shōjo Stories without referencing its unique history. Who better to shed light on its origins than Matt Thorn, the original translator and author of the book’s introduction. Here’s a post he made on MangaBlog in March 2007. Suffice it to say that, although this wasn’t cheap, I am pleased to’ve found a copy significantly below the price range stated in Matt’s comments.

Of the four stories, two are sci-fi works by shoujo creators and the other two are by josei artist Keiko Nishi. I liked those by Nishi least, though they weren’t bad. The second one in particular had a melancholy vibe that I liked, but none of the characters were sympathetic.

I’d expected to like Moto Hagio’s “They Were Eleven,” since I’ve seen it praised before. I wasn’t disappointed. It seemed to drag a little initially (at 120 pp, it was by far the longest story in the collection) but picked up steam and by the end it was clear that all the stuff that happened at the outset had served a purpose. Fans of sci-fi in general but also fans of shoujo series that feature what I call “gender hijinks” would probably enjoy this story.

The surprise for me was Shio Sato’s “The Changeling.” I’d never heard of Sato before, but I liked her story just about as much as Hagio’s. In it, a competent and boyish female space pilot received a signal from a previously uncontacted planet and went to investigate. Her opinions on the inhabitants she encountered were thoughtful and different than I’d expected. The story stuck in my head after I had finished and made me wish something else by Sato would get licensed. It also had a cute final panel.

While the contents of Four Shōjo Stories might not be uniformly stellar, they’re still enjoyable. It’s too bad they probably won’t see the light of day in a readily accessible, $8.99 sort of package any time soon.