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.
For many readers, no review is necessary – just seeing the words “Moto Hagio” on the cover will make this a must-buy. But for those of you who have not yet been captivated by one of Japan’s premier artists, let me assure you that this first omnibus volume of Otherworld Barbara is absolutely worth the extra expense of a hefty hardcover. At times melancholy, amusing, heartbreaking and terrifying, it’s a trip through the senses, as with Hagio’s other work that’s recently come out over here (A Drunken Dream). This has the added benefit of being a complete story, and so you can see how she sets up various plot points and then allows them to sit percolating until they can be used again to devastating effect.
I was faked out at first, I admit. We’re introduced to an odd fantasy hybrid of a world, where a little girl who has difficulty flying like her friends do has happy fun adventures, but right away we see that Aoba is odd – eating the book gives it away if nothing else. It’s an odd hybrid of Peter Pan-style fantasy and reality, as there are several quasi-connections with the Tokyo we know. Then all of a sudden we’re away from that, and following the story of Dr. Watarai, a man whose job it is to enter other people’s dreams, and the troubled relationship he has with his teenage son Kiriya, who is a teenage boy in so many ways. I had assumed that the manga would now shift back and forth between the two “worlds”, but no, we don’t go back to the fantasy world till the second half of the book, where it becomes far more relevant – and creepy.
The fantasy stuff is excellent, but the book really shines when getting involved in the interpersonal relationships Dr. Watarai has with everyone from his bitter, slightly hysterical ex-wife to a somewhat overenthusiastic young protege. His fractured relationship with his son feels very real, especially as there are no good, easy fixes. Kiriya is also dealing with difficult times, as aside from his father he’s being courted – well, stalked to a degree – by a classmate, and also dreaming of Dr. Watarai’s latest patient, a woman who’s been in a coma for years ever since a devastating accident involving her parents. Where the two worlds collide is that this woman is named Aoba, and is clearly the same person as the young girl in the fantasy world.
There’s a lot more going on here, including age regression that almost turns into personality overlay, deadly psychic tornados, terrifying killer dolls, and a seeming suicide that makes you go back to the title page for the chapter and say “Really? You really went there?”. It’s definitely not a book for kids. But there’s so much going on here – in plot, which the reader figures out at the same time as the characters do, and in mood, which is always my go-to reason to read Hagio’s manga. things promise to get a lot more complex for the second and final book, as we also find out about a connection to Mars, and a sinister conspiracy led by a not-so-noble priest. If you enjoyed manga that rewards endless rereads with both its art and style, you can’t go wrong with Otherworld Barbara.