A Conversation With Moto Hagio

by Carlo Santos, Aug 4th 2010

Soft-spoken and barely five feet tall, Moto Hagio is not the kind of person one might imagine as a revolutionary figure. Yet her accomplishments in the world of shoujo manga have granted her legendary stature—a stature that is only now being made known to English-speaking readers, thanks to the new-released anthology A Drunken Dream and Other Stories. For true manga connoisseurs, the real highlight of Comic-Con 2010 was not a movie preview or a celebrity sighting, but simply being in the presence of a living legend. In this interview, Hagio sits down to share the wisdom of her years as an artist, with renowned manga scholar Matt Thorn interpreting.

(Thorn's comments during the interview are included in italics.)


I'd like to start in a slightly unusual fashion. There's something I'd like to show you—it's one of my favorite illustrations of yours. Do you remember this?

Ah~! This is from ... what book is this?

CLAMP no Kiseki.

Yes, yes. That's right. I drew this for CLAMP.

This is the first time I've seen this.

Which of CLAMP's works was it ... Clover.

I was wondering if you could summarize what your concept was behind this illustration.

This is a story by CLAMP, Clover, and this is my interpretation of the characters. It's an image I have of the characters performing on the stage—the way I would like them to appear. The costume design is based on the Takarazuka Revue.

Oh, Takarazuka!

It's a very flashy show, I don't know if you're familiar...

Yes, I saw their performance of Ribon no Kishi [Princess Knight].

Ah, so you have!

So, while we're on this subject: you represent the beginnings of a revolution in [shoujo] manga, while CLAMP represents, let's say, the modern age of manga. What do you feel is the biggest difference in how manga has changed since you started your career?

I grew up reading comics as a little girl in elementary school, and most of the artists creating shoujo manga were actually men. There was also a certain number of science fiction stories in shoujo manga at the time. When I read the works of CLAMP, it reminds me of the thrill of reading the sci-fi shoujo manga from when I was little—although, CLAMP's stories are much more sophisticated and complex than what I was reading when I was a little girl.

There are many fans at this convention who may not even know who you are. What would you say to these readers to persuade them to take an interest in your work?

How would I make an appeal to them ... hmm ... the mainstream in America is mostly heroes, but I would like American readers to understand that there can be many kinds of stories. You can still use dialogue and images to develop all sorts of stories—the same medium, but different kinds of content.

Are you familiar with today's shoujo manga, and what are your favorites today? What would you recommend?

My favorite is Fumi Yoshinaga's Ōoku. Also, Tomoko Ninomiya's Nodame Cantabile.

Oh, Nodame Cantabile! I play piano—

Me too.

There's also a new artist—Akiko Higashimura, who's doing a story called Kuragehime [Jellyfish Princess]. It won the Kodansha manga award this year.

What are the greatest challenges facing today's manga-ka, and how do you think they can overcome them?

One problem is that the choice of entertainment has broadened greatly—computers, video games, and so on. In the past, manga was a crucial form of entertainment for kids, but these days it doesn't occupy the important position that it once did. On top of that, there are just fewer children—the population is shifting. So from now on, the biggest market will probably be China. [laughs]

And hopefully America, too.

A lot of your manga has consisted of sci-fi themes, and these days sci-fi is not as common as it used to be. Today's popular shoujo manga is often about everyday life, or school life—why do you think that's changed over the years?

In any generation, there's only a limited number of artists who can do science fiction well. The biggest challenge of doing science fiction is that, since it's not based in reality ... in order to bring readers into it, you need to have sufficient vision to create an attractive story. Also, readers tend to prefer stories that are closer to their normal, everyday lives. However, there are plenty of artists who are doing good science fiction, like CLAMP. Another good science fiction manga-ka is Reiko Shimizu, who's done a couple of long series like Moon Child and Kaguya Hime. Recently she's been working on a series called Himitsu - Top Secret. It's a story about an organization that examines the brains of dead people to find out everything they've experienced, everything that they've done. Because their brains are full of all kinds of secrets. [laughs]

It sounds very interesting.

Let's talk about your artistic process. When you started out, what kind of tools did you use as far as pens, paper, and other equipment?

When I first started drawing manga ... hmm. Well, nowadays, you can get B4 size paper that's pre-printed specifically for manga. But when I started, they didn't sell "manga paper" in B4 size. So you had to buy this great big sheet of paper, like 1 meter by 1 meter, and cut it yourself.

That must have been very challenging for you.

The only place to buy these big sheets of paper was in very urban centers.

And what kind of pens and nibs did you use? Were they at all different from what we have today?

I've been using a G-Pen [a pen with a G mark on the nib, used for lines of varying width] and a Maru-Pen [a round-tipped pen used for fine lines]. That's what I started out using and I haven't changed since then. And of course, India ink. One of the biggest changes, though, is that I used to fill in black areas with a brush and India ink, but now it's easier to use cockpit—

Copic?

[laughs] Oh, right! Copic [markers].

Have you ever tried using digital tools, like a computer and a drawing tablet?

I'm currently practising, but I'm not very good at it yet. I've done some coloring on the computer, but I've only tried using a tablet recently. I'm having a hard time getting the right kind of lines.

It happens to me too, it's very different from doing it on paper.

You also draw?

A little bit.

[Using a tablet] is difficult, isn't it?

Yes.

Looking at the art style of modern shoujo manga, what is the biggest difference—from a visual perspective—between the style today and what you did in the past?

The proportions of the characters. When I started out, it was common to have the head much larger relative to the body. Maybe it's because the Japanese have large heads. [laughs] Today, the heads are drawn much smaller, and the bodies are longer and more slender.

Do you think this reflects a change in the ideals of beauty among Japanese people?

Well ... back when I was young, shoujo manga was only being read by little girls, so the characters were also expected to look like little girls, which is why they had smaller bodies in proportion to the head. It's an age thing. As the age of the readers has grown, from elementary schoolgirls to middle school to high school to even college, readers have preferred characters that look closer to their own body shape.

Looking at your work—I read through A Drunken Dream, your collection of short stories—I noticed that there was a lot of death. Either characters die in the story, or they're already dead. What is it about death that interests you?

Ever since I was a child, I've thought about the fact that all humans eventually die. Particularly when I was in middle school, everyday I'd be thinking: here I am alive, but for all I know I could have a heart attack tonight and be dead tomorrow. [laughs] Growing up, I found it hard to imagine what it would be like to die myself. So while reading other people's books, I became interested in how others surrounding the deceased react to the death of that person.

Do you think death is something people should be afraid of? What kind of outlook should we have towards it?

Sudden death is difficult to accept, but when you die, it's ultimately something decided by God. There's nothing you can do about it—you just have to accept it. There's this one CLAMP story about a city where people live forever, and what happens is, because everyone lives forever, no children are born. I think that the human brain is designed so that a lifespan of a hundred years feels about right.

I see! That's a very interesting viewpoint.

In the collection of A Drunken Dream, how did you choose which stories to include?

Matt, please explain how you chose the stories. [laughs]

I was the one who chose them. I chose them by—actually, this is kind of interesting, I think—you know mixi, the Japanese social-networking site? There's a Hagio community there, for fans. I went on there and started a thread, saying, "If you were to have a 200-300 page book of short stories, less than 50 pages each, which stories would you choose to introduce English-language readers to Hagio's work?" I got all kinds of answers, but certain titles kept coming up over again, so that—combined with my own idea of what's representative of her work—probably my own tastes, too, that's how ...

I see, so that was the selection process.

Right, then after it was all decided and the book was announced, I confessed on the thread that [the poll] was for real, and not just a thought experiment.

So now we have, for the first time in America, a collection of your short stories. If we were to bring one of your long-running series to America, which one would you choose?

That's ... well, that's difficult, but if it were up to Matt he'd pick The Heart of Thomas.

Recently there's been controversy about scanlations, where people make scans of manga, translate it into English, and put it up online where everyone can read it without paying for it. What is your opinion on that issue, and what would you suggest as a solution?

I think the best thing is for publishers to find them, and then to demand royalties!

How would you feel if your work were made available digitally, so that readers around the world could access it?

I think that would be great, and I wish I could read all the comics in the world digitally too, since it's not always easy to get a hold of the physical books.


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