Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga: Special Guest Edition - A,A'

by Shaenon K. Garrity,

Special Guest Edition: A,A’

When I was sixteen, for no reason whatsoever, I developed a fascination with Japanese culture. I read The Tale of Genji. I practiced origami and flower arranging. I watched Kurosawa movies. It wasn't significantly weirder than my other teenage interests—Gilbert and Sullivan, the Algonquin Round Table, Star Trek—but it was the one that changed my life, because in my first semester at college I signed up for a class called “Intro to Japanese Culture.” I remember the single class period the professor, a Japanese woman from the language department, spent on manga. She held up an untranslated two-page spread from Swan, Kyoko Ariyoshi's ballet manga, and everyone laughed at how melodramatic it was, the feathers and lightning bolts flying everywhere.

“No!” she said. “You don't understand! It is so emotional!”

At Vassar, students could teach their own “mini-courses,” a way to share knowledge and skills with classmates. Mini-courses ranged from the practical (you had to take the bartending course to work at the campus pub) to the athletic (the girls from the Ren Faire crowd taught fencing) to transparent excuses for people to gush about their hobbies to like-minded geeks. The anime mini-course, which I signed up for to supplement Intro to Japanese Culture, belonged to the latter category. Taught by two gregarious otaku, it quickly devolved into all of us watching videotapes of Ranma 1/2 and Tenchi Muyo!, the cutting edge in Japanese pop culture, in a dorm common room. I made friends with an upperclassman named Mee-Lise, who, a few years later, would be working for Central Park Media in Manhattan and gleefully sending me tentacle porn. And one day Mee-Lise loaned me her copy of A,A’.

That was how, finally, following a daisy chain of irrational obsessions, I reached A,A’, a small and flawless jewel of science fiction by Moto Hagio, and set my fate. Because of A,A’, I fell in love with manga. Because of A,A’, comics became more than another shiny intellectual toy for me to play with and toss aside. Because of A,A’, I discovered that this art form could do more than I'd imagined—not just tell ambitious stories, which I already knew from reading Sandman and Bone and Watchmen, but tell them with passion, in lines drawn from nerve endings, using every weapon in the artist's arsenal to not just dazzle the mind, but stab straight to the heart.

It was so emotional.

Five years later I was on the opposite end of the country, working at Viz, the publisher responsible for the English edition of A,A’—and Ranma 1/2, and Urusei Yatsura, and many other manga that had fed my lovesickness. I picked up my own copy direct from the warehouse. I got to know Annette Roman, the editor, who's still working at Viz today. If I met Matt Thorn, the translator who pushed Viz to publish shojo manga in the first place, it was only briefly, since he was a freelancer working out of the office. But I got to know him a little better later on. I don't know if he ever knew what he'd done to me.

It's not Moto Hagio's greatest work, although it's very very good. A, A’ comprises three stories set in the same futuristic universe, all linked by the presence of “Unicorns,” people genetically engineered for space travel who now coexist somewhat uncomfortably with other human colonists. The Unicorns are extremely intelligent but have limited emotional and social skills, making them almost autistic. The first story deals with a Unicorn woman who is killed in an accident and replaced by a clone, who then has to deal with the reactions of the crewmates who knew her predecessor. In the second story, a boy named Mori—who is also a rare breed of human, gifted with psychic abilities—falls in love with an uncommunicative and secretly troubled Unicorn girl. The third story catches up with Mori as a young adult when he meets and falls for another Unicorn—but this one is a man.

In addition to the same-sex romance in the third story, Hagio works in sci-fi sex changes, making A, A’ one of the forerunners to countless modern manga with inventive gender-bending elements. (Rumiko Takahashi, creator of the much siller transgender romance Ranma 1/2, was clearly a fan; one storyline in her series Urusei Yatsura involves clones who are identified from the originals by apostrophes hovering next to their heads, a joking reference to the title of A, A’). But A, A’ is really about identity in all its forms: sexual identity, gender identity, cloning, lost memories, blocked emotions. Questions of identity run through many of Hagio's manga, along with other recurring themes: dysfunctional families, the lifelong scars left by childhood abuse, the need to form bonds with similarly hurt and needy souls, and the difficulty of reaching out to form those bonds. Hagio's characters inhabit an aching universe.

But it all looks so beautiful. Drawn in 1981, A, A’ visually occupies a halfway point between action-comics realism and the more abstracted, prettified style associated with shojo manga. Hagio was always the unfrilliest of the Year 24 Group, the classic shojo artist least interested in making her art cute. In A, A’, her characters have sharp faces and intense eyes, and her settings are mostly austere space colonies and washes of starry sky. But she composes each page with the hand of a master, leading the eye and the heart exactly where she wants them to go. The path she lays out in A, A’ is less harrowing than in some of her longer, more ambitious manga, but through the sci-fi action and romance runs a shudder of loss.

“I do find it very useful to approach these kinds of real-life problems through the lens of fantasy,” said Hagio in a 2010 interview. “For example, take my relationship with my parents.You can analyze it in different ways, and there's a cause somewhere in there, but it's not a cause you can explain rationally.I try to capture that feeling through fantasy.” She was in America that year, the summer of 2010, to promote A Drunken Dream, the first of her work published in English since A, A’. Matt Thorn acted, as always, as her translator. The interview was with me. We sat in a makeshift tent on the Comic-Con floor, the three of us, and reached out, fumbling, across gaps of language and distance and understanding. My copy of A, A’, the one from the Viz warehouse, now bears Moto Hagio's autograph. I have spent fifteen years looking for comics that touch me as deeply as it did. Once in a while I find one. But there is only one A, A’, one A, A’ and many paler clones, and don't you understand? It is so emotional.

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