I’m working on translating an interview of Hagio Moto by Saito Tamaki. Here is the opening part that talks about Hagio’s difficult relationship with her mother. I think it sheds a lot of light on why her characters are usually cut off from their parents in her manga. There is a big discussion of Hagio’s gem of a story “Iguana Girl”.
Saito: …First, I can’t say it enough, but I just can’t put down Iguana Girl (Iguana no musume; [See Matt Thorn’s excellent translation of this story in A Drunken Dream; Fantagraphics, 2010]). There’s really nothing else to say about it except it is a true masterpiece, especially the idea how a person ends up being seen as an iguana. There’s something so visually exciting about that, and I think it’s really effective in the way you symbolically draw certain types of relationships. Well, I wonder why you chose “iguana” of all things?
Hagio: Thank you very much. I have a fairly strong reptilian side to me. (Laughs.) Their color doesn’t seem at all bad to me. I like lizards. A long time ago I would occasionally watch videos with images of iguanas from the Galapagos islands. When I looked at them, I noticed they had these bodies that would stomp around on all four and stare into the sun –– it seemed like all they were doing was sunbathing, but — one seemed to have a face saying, “Ah! I ended up becoming an iguana, but I really wanted to be human!” You probably know this but the human fetus while it’s developing in the womb has a tail, the eyes are on the side not the front of face, and they even have faces like lizards. It’s only over time that the fetus will become more human-like. Looking at those iguana faces, I thought, gosh, they have faces like a human fetus. I then started thinking how interesting it would be to have a story where an iguana wants to become a human. That’s how Iguana Girl was born.
An iguana princess living near the sea wishes “I want to be a human” and with the power of magic, she becomes one, grows up, and gives birth to two daughters. However, the eldest of the two girls ends up looking like an iguana. The mother ends up hating her own child, thinking, “It’s because she looks like me” but since the mother is the one who gave birth to an “iguana” then she thinks there must be something iguana-like quality even in me. That’s how this fantastic story goes.
Saito: You’re right in that when it comes to mother-daughter relationships, the body has an important element. So now I would like to ask you something because I was wondering if you thought the problem of development is tied up in that. In your work Alternate World Barbara (Barubara ikai, 2003-2005), why does your character Kiriya read Stephen Jay Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny [Translated into Japanese by Watanabe Masataka in 1988]. How did things come to get tied up to those questions?
Hagio: I’ve long been a fan of books on heredity and evolution. Because I often wonder how did humans come to human.
Saito: I see. So then we have a character who is compensated for having failed to become a human. In a sense, you’re stressing our similarities when you have the mother hate her daughter Rika for looking like an iguana. The younger sister Mami is the one who is showered with affection by the mother. Is it because they don’t look alike?
Hagio: That’s correct. It’s because Mami was born looking exactly like the mother thinks a human should look.
Saito: So it’s because the younger sister looks human, right? Only when the mother dies do we get the shock that even the mother had an iguana face. Did the mother then have a sense that she herself looked like an iguana?
Hagio: We learn from Rika’ aunt, that every time her mother was told by her sister, Rika’s aunt, “Rika-chan looks just like you,” the mother would become enraged. However the mother herself has the memories of her being an iguana locked away, and she has forgotten it all. But we do see her viewpoint of her daughter change bit by bit as she gets more objective.
Saito: As long as her self-awareness that they look alike is weak, it stays unconscious and only comes out in her action, so she has fewer and fewer chances of her fixing her behavior.
Hagio: That’s why when the mother is asked, “Why do you hate your daughter?” she herself doesn’t know the answer. Even so, there is this very thing part of her that notices how her daughter carries on the parts of that self she so dislikes. If only she could see things clearly and realize that well, she is my daughter so I guess we just live with it. But because she doesn’t want to acknowledge that, she goes on just seeing things she doesn’t like.
Saito: Could it not be the opposite? The daughter looks at the mother and goes, “I don’t want to become like her”? I think there are cases like that.
Hagio: I think you’re right, there are a lot of those cases.
Saito: So the possibility for the opposite situation is common?
Hagio: Yes, you’re right. When I was little, I long thought that if there is one thing I don’t want to become it’s my mother. (Laughs.)
Saito: Why was that?
Hagio: Well, you see, my mother is like an active volcano. (Laughs.) She’s a high-tension person, who for 365 days of the year is angry all 365 days.
Saito: Constantly erupting?
Hagio: Oh yes. She’s one who constantly erupts. As a child, I once asked my mother, “Why are you mad everyday?” But my mother said, “I am easygoing,” telling me, “It’s my mother [my grandmother] who was extraordinarily strict, and because I suffered that, now I want to be nice to my own daughter.” She then said, “That’s why this anger of mine is a result from you not listening to what I say.”
Saito: I see, I guess your mother has this strong side to her that wants to control things.
Hagio: She doesn’t admit it, and what’s more she is, I think, a person who really demands we [children] do things exactly the way she wants.
Saito: Even so, it’s not that it was an unreasonable kind of anger, a kind of abuse, right? She had her reasons.
Hagio: Hmm…I think she might have had them. Still, it was the kind of thing where all day long she would violently slam open the doors ga-shin ga-shin!
Saito: But she would have a reason every time, right?
Hagio: She would have a reason, sure enough, but she’d also take it out on people.
Saito: She would have no realization she was taking it out on others?
Hagio: Not really. I think my mother is not the type of person who could be aware of her own actions like that.
Saito: Nonetheless she seems to have this recognition that she was at least better [to you] than her own mother was to her.
Hagio: I was only in 2nd grade when my grandmother passed away, so I really don’t have a memory of her, yet there were times [I recall] she would come visit us, and, oh yes, I do remember she was a person who could easily get angry right away.
My grandmother ran a general store. Among my friends, “KenKen” [Hopscotch] was popular game and when my stone split and I couldn’t use it anymore, I went up to her and asked her, “I would like this kind of rock,” and she told me, “Next time you come, I’ll have one ready for you.” That was nice. So I said, “Bring me a big one!” But then when I saw her next, she brought me a small rock so I asked, “Granny, I told you didn’t I to bring a big one. This one is just too small!” When she heard that, she flew into a rage. (Laughs.)
Saito: She got mad at her granddaughter! (Laughs.) She never did anything like raise her hand to you?
Hagio: That she never did, no, but even so, she might really surprise me and so I always ran off crying to my mother, who would be angry. (Laughs.)
Saito: But she seemed to be justified being angry, right? Let me ask you – does a part of you understand now that your mother was a person who she was because she was raised by this kind of person [your grandmother]?
Hagio: Now as we talk about it, yes, I do.
Saito: What about the idea that maybe your mother was a bit better than your grandmother?
Hagio: My mother also has this tough side to her, so these days when I go home to visit, I’ll try asking her, “Mom, were there times when you’d fight with Grandma and cry?” There are a lot of things I want to ask her about.
Saito: These days does your mother still get angry?
Hagio: Right. Well, I take extra precautions not to burn her fuse, but suddenly her tension level will just go up. For example, let’s pretend my mother, who’s in high-tension mode, is here with us. She will get irritated at the unopened water bottle there next you, Saito-san, and she will go, “Saito-san, why don’t you drink it up? It’s right there, drink it!” (Laughs.) “But right now I’m not thirsty, so give me time. I’ll drink my water,” you say to her knowing you have to restrain yourself with all your might. But she will seem to suddenly get annoyed with that water.
Saito: She has these quick escalations where you don’t know why it happens. In one sense, I guess she is a treasure-trove of story ideas. (Laughs.)
So let me ask you, Ms. Hagio: you come from a family where there is 4 kids. Among them, there are 3 girls. Was there no discrimination among you like we see in Iguana Girl? Did you mother equally get angry at you all?
Hagio: Yes, she spread her anger out equally to us all, but my eldest sister was a daddy’s girl with a quiet disposition, so when my mother would go on a rant, she would burst out crying. At those times, my mother would complain to other ladies in the neighborhood, “That cries at no matter what I say, so I can’t do anything.”
Saito: Did her crying have a pacifying effect?
Hagio: She would calm down then, yes. But that’s why most of her anger would turn to me, my youngest sister, and my little brother.
Saito: Did you often cry?
Hagio: Yes, I did. And if I did cry, mother would tease me about it, and that would hurt.
Saito: Were there times when things would escalate beyond that?
Hagio: Sometimes my younger sister would hurl complaints back at her and she would cry.
Saito: The three of you each had their own way of coping. Until about when did that go on?
Hagio: Well, my mother really hasn’t changed over the years, so…
Saito: Ms. Hagio, didn’t you at one point leave home?
Hagio: That’s right, I did. I was around 20 when things got to the point where I left home and tried to live as a manga artist in Tokyo. After that, I was able to have some distance, both physical and emotional from my mother. She was living down in Kyushu, so I finally could relax being up in Tokyo.
Saito: I imagine you had quite a sense of liberation then.
Hagio: I didn’t really notice it myself, but sometimes when Mother would come visit me in Tokyo, I seemed to get fidgety. Friends would ask me, “Hagio, why do you fidget around your mother?”
Saito: Someone on the outside could clearly sense it, right?
Hagio: I would deal with her visits by always, always trying not have her get mad.
Saito: Would it go well then?
Hagio: I guess so. Because I was always on the lookout. But it really wore me out.
Saito: “Mother, please go home without getting mad.” (Laughs.) I understand that drawing manga was very important for you, but do you think perhaps you really ran away to escape your mother? Was that part of the reason why you went to live in Tokyo?
Hagio: That’s definitely true. Ever since I was a third-grader I had been thinking I’ve got to run away. At night I’d bury myself under the covers and think things like, “To run away, where would I have to go?”
Saito: I see, so from that time there was that kind of atmosphere in the house.
Hagio: Right, because my mother could be just so uptight about things. I wanted “anywhere but here”.
Saito: People often talk about a “family romance” where a child goes, “What if I am not really from this family?” Did you ever think that?
Hagio: Yes, my younger sister often had this competition over “Which of us is not really from this family?”
Saito: Since she would get scolded so harshly, your younger sister too often had those ideas?
Hagio: That’s right. But if one of us said, “Ok, then you were the one they picked up under the bridge?” then we’d have to make concede to each other and remind us that it wasn’t true.
Saito: But your older sister didn’t factor into those talks.
Saito: Your older sister then must have gotten along well with your father, right?
Hagio: She did, quite well. My father is basically a gentle person, so he was easy to get along with for everybody.
PARENTS WHO DON’T UNDERSTAND MANGA