By Moto Hagio. Released in Japan by various companies in various magazines, currently licensed by Shogakukan. Released in North America by Fantagraphics.
I actually feel bad that I need to write a review of this. While reading A Drunken Dream and other stories, it felt like I was not so much reading the stories as getting submerged in pure book, and rather than try to explain why that is, I just feel the need to force everyone I know to buy it while making vaguely incoherent happy cries.
But review I will, just in case someone thinks about passing this up, either due to the expensive price ($24.99 at your local comic shop) or due to it being a book of 'arty' shoujo manga, by a publisher new to the genre. They should get it anyway. It is a dazzling treat, and will mesmerize you.
First off, I rarely talk about the look and feel of the book, but Fantagraphics really have gone all out for this volume. This is a handsome hardcover, larger than most manga trim sizes, with color pages scattered through a few stories. The art is crisp, clean, and has no defects whatsoever. It's clearly a labor of love, showing that this is not just your average collection of shoujo short stories.
I'd known of Moto Hagio by name for years, of course, but I never did get around to reading A, A' or They Were Eleven back when Viz first put them out eons ago. One of the Magnificent Forty-Niners, her interview with Matt Thorn that Fantagraphics put out in their Comics Journal (which is reproduced here for those who missed the issue) made me curious, but as most of her work was only in Japanese or long out of print, that was about all.
Now we have this collection. First off, despite having stories that are from the early 70s to more recent times, there are no issues whatsoever with so-called 'old-school art styles'. Even her earliest work has a delicacy and grace that makes you pause at every page, taking in the art before you even read any dialogue. The last story in the collection, The Willow Tree, is told almost entirely in silent segments, and is beautiful.
The stories are laid out in chronological order, and the earliest ones tend to feel more like they take place in Victorian England than Japan. But even the 'normal' shoujo stories have experimentation to them. The only story in the entire collection that read like something I might read in a normal collection of shoujo was Angel Mimic, and even that is selling that story short, as it takes its premise and gives it a solidity and humanity.
I'm trying to avoid spoiling any of these stories, as they really do read better coming into them cold. Many of them deal with the way people have trouble finding acceptance, and how perceptions can be a much bigger influence on other people than what a person might be like inside. Girl on Porch with Puppy is all about perception, and absolutely blew me away. (I loved seeing the subtly different art with the girl and her family, which only grew more pronounced as the story went on. In the final panel the family look more like they stepped out of a Charles Addams cartoon.)
And for those worried that this will be angsty and doom and gloom, don't. While many of these stories are tragic, I'd argue that the mood overall is more one of melancholy, of things lost that can't be regained. Bianca and Hanshin especially gave me this feeling, though it's another theme we see throughout the book. Even the happier stories, such as Angel Mimic or Iguana Girl, have a feeling of longing and yearning to them, a sense that if their protagonists could reach just that one extra inch, then all would be understood.
In the end, I'm very happy that Matt Thorn was able to get Moto Hagio, Shogakukan, and Fantagraphics to come together on this collection, which makes me insanely curious about the author's other work. If this doesn't win some awards it will be a travesty. Wholeheartedly recommended.