A Drunken Dream
Tuesday, September 14, 2010
I saw Joe’s post that included Moto Hagio a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve had the galley of the book in hand for a while. Still, not being a big manga reader, I didn’t expect to like the stories nearly as much as I did. But then smartly done genre tales make for some of the best literature, comics, film, etc. What I liked most about the different pieces in A Drunken Dream is the psychological form of sci-fi she employs (strictly speaking, the title story is the only sci-fi one, but I think a looser definition that incorporates the social aspects of the genre also applies here). I thought often of Tarkovsky’s Solaris. The idea of a reality that is simultaneously real and imagined—like Rika’s appearance to herself and her mother as an iguana, or the little girl sitting on her front step joyfully appreciating a world in which she is an aberration for doing so—are very much the same as Kris Kelvin’s unreal existence in his very real past on the surface of the planet, at the close of Solaris.
This aspect of her storytelling makes a lot of sense when, in the interview with Matt Thorn, she mentions that early in her career, between 1970 and 1972, she was deeply interested in a special kind of existential literature: the work of Hermann Hesse, whose books (Steppenwolf, Siddhartha) explore the solitary, internal lives of his characters. Hagio’s characters, those involved in more science-fictiony tales as well as those following a more traditional trajectory, are invested with the same kind of searching reflectiveness. Though what I like about “Girl on Porch with Puppy” is how the girl’s difference isn’t presented through her own conscious recognition of the fact; instead, it’s turned outward, so that her behavior, so contrary to everyone else’s, is immediately laid bare, and the reader only fully understands the consequences of her uniqueness at the end. Shades of Ray Bradbury, whom Hagio also mentions she was reading. (Among her illustration work, she once drew a cover for a Bradbury book and for Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terrible—about Cocteau more below.) The theme of spiritual crisis runs throughout Hagio’s stories—from the mundane (“Angel”) to the surreal (“Hanshin: Half-God”) to the phantasmagoric (“A Drunken Dream”).
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.
Mirrors also appear in “Bianca,” as an entrance to another world, which is a visual theme in Cocteau’s films (yet another artist whose work Hagio was attuned to early on), particularly as a doorway between worlds, life and death. He also engages with the Orpheus myth, which I think is partly what “Bianca” is investigating. Though the forest seems to claim her in death, implying a sinister aspect, Hagio never makes it clear which world is more humane—the forest that “kills” but in which she can behave as a free being, or the real world, where she is betrayed by her own family.