Otherworld Barbara, Vol. 2

By Moto Hagio. Released in Japan as “Barbara Ikai” by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine flowers. Released in North America by Fantagraphics. Translated by Matt Thorn.

The second and final volume of Otherworld Barbara has a lot less actual Barbara in it, but that doesn’t make it any less strange. We don’t see as much of the city in Aoba and Dr. Watarai’s dreams because their own current reality is far too busy. We get a lot more revelations regarding Johannes, the guru who turns out to be responsible for a great deal of the plot. We find that Akemi, Dr. Watarai’s ex-wife, is more than simply “slightly hysterical” as I said in my last review, but borders on genuinely disturbed. And various events that seemed to be happening on Barbara, or on Mars, overlap with other events happening on Earth, so that by the end we have an emotionally rewarding but logically befuddling series of reunions. But it’s fine, because the emotional payoff is what you want here.

Despite all of the immortality research, past lives discussion, and reincarnation theories that pop up in this book, at heart it remains about Dr. Watarai’s awkward yet heartfelt efforts to bond with his son Kariya. He’s not very good at it, and Kariya is also not very good at accepting his father, and the tension between them feels very real. Kariya has several forces pulling at him here, none more so than the dream spectre of Aoba, who urges cannibalism without really going into detail about why it’s such a good idea. And then there’s the question of whether Dr. Watarai is Kariya’s real father – Akemi said he was, but she’s backtracking now, and saying “I did DNA tests that I totally didn’t fake honest” is not really the best reassurance. As it turns out, there really *is* something to the whole “eating hearts” thing, though fortunately we don’t have to go quite that far.

So much of Otherworld Barbara relies on being pulled along by the mangaka without asking too many questions, and it’s actually rather exhilarating. I’m sure that if I sat down and reread the entire series in one gulp most of it would make sense, but I am not actually sure I want to do that. There’s a certain joy involved in being just as confused as everyone else as to what’s actually going on, why Johannes is a young handsome middle-aged man but also an old guy who never leaves his room; why Kariya and Taka seem to swap bodies and lives, and what happened to Laika’s parents, which I admit caused me to say “Oh, come ON”, so that may have been one too many trips to the well. The art also serves the title well, being sensible and direct when it needs to be but gorgeous and evocative when hitting high emotional moments. The faces in particular stay with you, particularly Akemi’s 57 varieties of anger and rage.

Mostly, though, Otherworld Barbara makes me long for more works by Moto Hagio. I want to be pulled along by her as she lays out another story again. This, Heart of Thomas and A Drunken Dream just aren’t enough. What about a They Were Eleven rescue? Or A Cruel God Reigns? I bet Fantagraphics could pull off Marginal, it’s short and offbeat enough for them. Basically what I’m saying is, I think I’m addicted to this author. You should be too.

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  1. Eric Henwood-Greer says

    Moto Hagio is my number one (although I am a sucker for shoujo/josei manga from authors of that generation in general). I say this despite not being able to read Japanese–but ever since discovering They Were 11 when it was first translated back when I was a young teenager, I knew there was something *different* here that really grabbed me–more so than the other manga that was coming out at the time (although I did soon get hooked, hard, on Banana Fish, but that’s another subject…) I mean as a rule, I generally didn’t even care for stories set in space. Since then I’ve gotten what scraps in English that I can–and a few other titles of hers that have come out in French (which isn’t much more, but there was a great two book box set of short stories that has some overlap with Drunken Dream, but also some gems not included there including the sequel to They Were 11 which I could read, at last!) And I have shelves of her manga and art books in Japanese–again, despite not being able to read them (a personal fave–at least from the images and synopses I’ve read–is Mesh, a title that seems pretty unknown among English speaking fans, even out of her myriad other untranslated titles). I even broke my rule about not reading scanlations and read A Cruel God Reigns in that format–it’s perhaps my favourite, seems extremely unlikely to ever be translated due to its subject but mostly its length, and I have bought the Japanese original in several editions…

    I (nearly entirely) agree with your review. Honestly, Otherworld Barbara was not near the top of my list of titles I wanted translated–but it was also a title I didn’t know much about. I was blown away at how well it mixed *so* many different elements, and genres (even more so than is normal for Hagio) and made it all work. As you state, it probably works because it’s all grounded in Tokio and Kiriyu’s relationship. I admit I re-read part 1 (which I had already read twice) right before diving into this volume and, you’re right, things that I just sorta went with because it was exhilarating, even if they didn’t seem to really make sense, *did* make a lot more actual sense (not just emotional sense) upon re-reading. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a manga where I have honestly laughed outloud, or (seriously!) let out a gasp at a melodramatic plot turn, or honestly felt tears well up. But that’s Moto Hagio for you.
    You didn’t mention it, but Matt Thorn’s excellent translation of her four interconnected early 1980s sci fi stories, A A` (A Prime) can still be found on Amazon, used, for not completely crazy prices–I’ve seen copies for 15 bucks or so. It’s worth checking out…

  2. I’m looking forward to grabbing my vol 2, even though I didn’t quite finish vol 1 (because I was really really confused by it), and then I’ll just read them both together. But I am definitely going to take your suggestion and try not to think too much while reading it and just go with the flow. Fantagraphics are one of the publishers I tend to have more trouble getting manga from (I dislike Amazon, now that they charge tax in my state, so they tend to be a last resort)

    • Eric Henwood-Greer says

      Have you tried ordering right through Fantagraphics? I did that once, though shipping to Canada through them was outrageous, it might be better within the country.

      One problem I’ve had ordering online any of their Hagio books is the beautiful binding almost always gets badly damaged in transit–and I’ve had to return it for a replacement (yes, I can be anal about such things). I think this was the first time that didn’t happen.

  3. I waited to read volume one until I had volume two, perhaps because I had heard that it was confusing. So I had the experience of being confused followed by getting the answers. There were will some aspects that were fuzzy on the details, but I do think I’d recommend reading it this way. I also read it slowly, a couple of chapters at a time, rather than plowing through it, which probably helped.

    • Eric Henwood-Greer says

      I definitely found reading it slowly helped (and prolonged the enjoyment). Most manga I read can be read *very* quickly, so it was quite a different experience.

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