Moto Hagio: Iguana Girl

To improve my manga knowledge, I bought a collection of stories by Moto Hagio. Glénat’s Moto Hagio Anthologie comprises two volumes, one titled “De l’humain”, the other “De la rêverie” and features stories that were selected to fit into these two thematic categories. The stories are of various lengths, genres and maybe quality. The two books come with a white slipcase that is very sturdy and looks appropriately elegant. Since I am new to Moto Hagio, I cannot really comment on the editors’ choice of stories, but they cover a variety of styles and topics, and probably give a good overview of Hagio’s work.

Of all the stories in the De l’humain collection, I like Iguana Girl best.

In Iguana Girl – originally Iguana no musume, and titled La princesse iguane in French a woman gives birth to a baby, but the baby is actually … an iguana! At least that’s what she sees when she looks at her daughter, but to everyone else, little Rika looks perfectly normal. The manga follows the strained relationship between Rika, her mother and her younger sister Mami (who looks human and is blatantly favoured by their mother) through the girls’ childhood and into adulthood. Influenced by her mother’s treatment of her, Rika thinks of herself as an iguana, too, which also affects how she relates to other people.

There is something intrinsically heart-breaking about a mother rejecting her child. It’s one of those scenarios that just hurt, without needing much context. Iguana Girl captures this feeling perfectly. It is a touching story. It made me tear up – though I admit I cry easily over fiction.

I think that this manga works on an emotional level first and foremost, by appealing to the primal fear of maternal abandonment, and by relying on Rika’s cuteness to evoke maternal instincts in the reader. I would propose that drawing Rika as a lizard, instead of a normal human child, actually makes her appear more cute, more loveable. Maybe because we’ve already seen these emotions expressed on human faces a million times, but with the face of a tiny lizard, they feel fresh and genuine instead of clichéd?

(And the rest will contain spoilers.)

I came across an old review by Noah Berlatsky on the comics website The Hooded Utilitarian, which I found interesting. That is, I found it to be wrong. I disagree with a lot of his ideas, and it all kind of boils down to a fundamental difference between his take on the story and mine: I think empathizing with Rika is the key to understanding the story, and to have it “work” for the reader – and Barletsky simply doesn’t seem to empathize with Rika, and actually appears to think that Iguana Girl isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about Rika’s feelings at all. He would “fix” the story by taking the focus off her.

No, really. All the things that Berlatsky describes as “serious problems” that “destroy the story” are, in my opinion, kind of the stuff that makes the story work in the first place – if you just accept the idea that we’re sharing Rika’s POV and that the story is about her – her loneliness, her fears, her self-image issues, in one word: her feelings.

I’m reminded of something Alicia said about shojo manga:

When people talk about what “defines” shojo, they typically talk about genres (romance) or big eyes or stuff like that, but honestly I would argue the defining trait of shojo (which has to some degree been imported into shonen) is how shojo utilizes many of the same elements as experimental filmmaking – how it uses abstract visual language to express the characters’ inner lives and story themes (or even plot points), rather than reaching for photorealism.

For Iguana Girl, this means: the iguana is a metaphor to give insight into Rika’s inner life. It’s not even important whether she “really” is an iguana-turned-human or if it’s “just” her and her mother’s imagination, a metaphor for self-hatred, depression or any other psychological issue.

And – animal transformations, or animal/human hybrid creatures, are commonly used in literature to symbolize some kind of outsiderdom, isolation, the failure to live up to parental or societal expectations. Just think of Franz Kafka – and I don’t just mean Metamorphosis, but a whole bunch of shorter Kafka stories as well. About Metamorphosis, it’s important to remember that the original text never specifies that Gregor Samsa becomes an “insect”; the German word Kafka uses is “Ungeziefer” which specifically means a parasitic, unwanted, worthless creature (usually, but not necessarily understood to be insects). “Insekt” is a neutral term, “Ungeziefer” is always negative, it is a value judgment. Kafka consciously leaves it vague what kind of animal Samsa has become, but he chooses a word that tells you exactly what to think of that sort of creature.

But back to the manga.

Berlatsky thinks that the story of Iguana Girl falls flat because Moto Hagio doesn’t flesh out the character of the mother. Much like, I am sure, he would criticize Kafka for not fleshing out and humanizing his father figures. Heh. She “remains a cipher”. OK – but: There’s one obvious explanation for why we might not get a lot of insight into the mother’s life story: we’re meant to take Rika’s side and share her perspective on the whole thing. She tries to attain her mother’ love, and doesn’t understand why she can never have it. That’s why we don’t get this information either. It’s not that this authorial decision destroys the story. It makes the story work. However, Berlatsky basically dismisses the idea that Rika is the story’s POV character, caling it just “one reading” among others. No, it is the most obvious reading.

He strangely insists that this story about a girl’s self-image issues would be improved by taking the focus off her feelings and by exploring other characters instead. Hilarious: by fleshing out a male character, Rika’s father. Berlatsky complains that we don’t “see any moments that explain what she [the mother] meant to her husband; we only see his grief, disconnected from its context.” Bwaahaahaa. Sorry. The father appears in literally 16 panels. He’s just not that important. I may not know a lot about shojo manga, but I don’t think you can”fix” a shojo manga by making it less about a girl’s inner life and more about that of her father. Come on.

Berlatsky also suggests that Rika’s dream was basically thrown in at the last minute because Hagio realized she had failed to humanize the mother and make her sympathetic to the reader! Does he assume Hagio just started drawing the story without any plan or outline at all? Dude. What would this professional mangaka know about writing manga, right?

Rika’s dream isn’t really meant to inform us about her mother’s life. It’s – again, this is obvious – Rika’s subconscious offering her a narrative that would explain her mother’s antipathy towards her, and allow Rika to make her peace with it and move on. I like that the key to Rika breaking free from this vicious circle of self-hatred is to recognize the similarities between her mother and herself.)

I don’t take issue with the fact he doesn’t like the story, or that he doesn’t understand it – and he really, really doesn’t understand it. But what annoys me about this review is the author’s absolute conviction that he’s just smarter than anyone, even smarter than the manga’s creator, who ~obviously didn’t know what she was doing. The absolute worst of all is this:

Hagio seems, in other words, determined to make us see Rika’s mother as soulless — and then tries to make up for it in the end by turning her into a faery, or a fiction. It’s not polite to psychoanalyze an author, obviously — but the implications are hard to ignore.

Yeah. I mean. Yeah, Moto Hagio has actually talked about this in interviews. She had a bad relationship with her mother, and Iguana Girl was inspired by this. Berlatsky seems to believe that Moto Hagio didn’t want anyone to pick up on this, that she didn’t put this into her story on purpose. I do wonder just how low of an opinion he has of Moto Hagio? And I dislike the insinuation that Hagio’s negative feelings towards her own mother are somehow shameful and wrong, like he discovered her dirty secret with his superior analytical intellect!

I’m sorry, I know this is harsh, but that’s honestly how this review comes across to me, and it really rubs me the wrong way, all the way. And it’s even referenced in the Wikipedia page about Iguana Girl, as if Noah Berlatsky’s opinion of this manga are especially noteworthy and insightful, when it’s really not.

So, what we are left with is a male blogger who thinks the reason that he can’t relate to a woman’s semi-autobiographical shojo manga, written for a female audience, about a mother/daughter relationship … is that it’s just not good, because she failed. Never mind that all his suggestions for “improving” the manga – make the mother more sympathetic and relatable! Flesh out that male side character! – would actually just render the story ineffective and pointless, by taking the focus off Rika’s feelings, watering down the perspective to something neutral and unemotional. He would “improve” a shojo manga by making it less about a girl and her emotions. It’s not polite to psychoanalyze a reviewer, obviously – but the implications are hard to ignore. ;)

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2 thoughts on “Moto Hagio: Iguana Girl

  1. My copy of A Drunken Dream and Other Stories (which includes this one!) seems to have been lost in the mail forever, BUT I still found this such an interesting post—particularly the criticism part, because YEAH, I get the frustration. The reception section on Wikipedia in English is almost inevitably a very, very sad place for manga, and IME it’s notably worse if it’s shoujo. Lots of clueless ANN male reviewers thinking they’re being knowledgeable when they’re really… not.

    (That last sentence made me giggle. :D)

    • Thank you for commenting. <3 Things getting lost in the mail sucks! I hope your copy arrives eventually …
      And I'm glad it's not just me who is perplexed by the "Reception" sections on Wikipedia pages for manga! Since I don't read manga in English (with very few exceptions), and don't know anything about the American comics scene, I just don't know any of these reviewers at all, and don't know why their opinions are deemed important enough to include in an encyclopedic article. It'd be interesting to know what people thought of the manga when it was first published, and in Japan. But … why is it relevant what a single American (?) reviewer thought about a manga twenty years after its original publication? XD Of all the people who’ve read it and who’ve undoubtedly shared their thoughts about it …

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