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A Very Old Paper on The Poe Clan

December 16, 2018

This is a paper I wrote in 1989, when I was an M.A. student in East Asian Studies at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and a new convert to shōjo manga. I was bursting to say something about this incredible genre I had discovered, and particularly about HAGIO Moto, but I had no idea what sort of approach I should take, so I went with what was essentially a comparative literature approach. I took some old theory that was nonetheless new to me (anthropologist Victor Turner’s idea of liminality) and tried to incorporate it into what was essentially an enthusiastic rant on the wonders of Hagio’s The Poe Clan. As I am translating The Poe Clan for publication in 2018, I can’t help thinking back on this piece, so I dug it up and reread it for the first time in maybe 15 years or so. I used to think it was horrible and embarrassing, but now, 29 years after I wrote it, I think it’s actually not so bad. The last paragraph really dates the piece, though. The T-shirt I mention can be seen in all its lipsynched 1984 glory here. I have changed the spelling and translation of names and titles to match the translation I am doing in 2018, but everything else is just as it was written when George H.W. Bush was in the third month of his term as President. 

 

 

Adolescent Liminality in the Manga of HAGIO Moto

 

RACHEL THORN

 

This is a paper presented at the Seventh Annual Association of Teachers of Japanese Seminar, Washington, D.C., March 1989. Please do not reproduce it without my permission.

 

The bracketed numbers refer to endnotes.

 

Although manga--Japanese comic books--have over the last twenty or so years come to be an accepted and respectable subject for popular and scholarly criticism in Japan, they remain largely ignored in studies of Japanese literature on this side of the planet. This is probably because any judgments we make of Japanese comics are likely influenced by understandably negative preconceptions based on comics that are produced in this country. To Americans, comic books are stories of the superheroic brawls of muscular men in tights, and are exclusively for young boys and eccentric adult (some would say “nerd”) collectors. Yet even the recent mini-boom of “mature” comics--so-called “graphic novels”--cannot be compared to the Japanese mass-culture manga phenomenon. The recent popularization of popular culture and mass media studies in American academia is a convenient opportunity to correct this oversight, before anyone takes notice and we are accused of being behind the times. 

 

It is not my intention to give an overview of the Japanese manga industry, but I hope to make clear that the close study of manga can reveal a good deal about today’s Japanese, and particularly, as the Fujisantarō strip in your handout indicates [Edit: Sorry, I have long since lost the strip and can't even remember the content], about the younger generation. 

 

Although Japanese of nearly all ages and types read manga, AKAMATSU Terumi, manager of the “Manga Kurabu” specialty store in Kobe, tells me that junior high and high school kids make up the largest age group amongst her customers.[1] And according to statistics from the Japan Youth Research Institute, 70% of Japanese high school students read manga. Accordingly, a large percentage of manga take as their subject the lives of people in this age group. 

 

What I would like to do in this paper is examine one such work in some detail and look at what is representative about it--specifically, what the portrayals of adolescents in these manga have to tell us about their real-life Japanese counterparts. But I also want to examine it in its specificity. It takes as its focus a theme which underlies in varying degrees nearly all manga geared to this age group--particularly shōjo or “girls’” manga: the theme of adolescent liminality. 

 

Liminality is a five-dollar word for the fairly common notion of a state of in-between-ness, of being “neither” “nor.” In the case of adolescence, and of the story I have chosen, it is the condition of being neither child nor adult. As with any great work of literature, however, it has universal appeal, and although it is centered on adolescence, on a deeper level it is about the nature of Japanese lifecourse, and human lifecourse generally. At its core, it is about the nature of aging and time. 

 

The work I have chosen is HAGIO Moto’s Pō no ichizoku (“The Poe Clan”), first published between 1971 and 1976 in Bessatsu shōjo komikku (“Special Edition Girl’s Comic”). In the four-volume paperback version printed as part of the Hagio Moto sakuhinshū (“Collected Works of Hagio Moto”), the order of the fifteen separate stories has been changed to good effect. In neither version are they presented in straight chronological order. Absurd as it may sound, the story is about two fourteen-year-old vampires, Edgar and Allen Poe, and is set in Europe between 1744 and 1976. 

 

A four-year-old boy, Edgar, and his infant sister, Marybelle, are abandoned by their parents [Edit: they were actually abandoned by their governess, who was ordered by the wife of their father to murder the children] and taken in by the main branch of the Poe Clan. At the age of ten, Edgar discovers that the Poes are in fact a clan of vampires [Edit: Hagio actually refers to them throughout the series as “vampirnella,” a word she invented]. In order to keep them from harming his sister, Edgar promises not to tell “the villagers” what he has seen--and promises to become a member of the Poe Clan when he reaches the age of twenty. Since vampires do not age, the Poes make it their practice to not “take into the family” anyone who has not reached physical maturity. To make sure they keep their promise of not harming Marybelle, Edgar has them send her far away to be adopted by a “human” family. When he is only fourteen, however, the villagers discover the truth about the Poes without his assistance. The Poe Clan evacuates, and the emergency situation requires that Edgar be made a vampire immediately--and frozen in puberty for eternity. 

 

Three years later, Edgar discovers the whereabouts of Marybelle, now only one year “younger” than he. He keeps himself hidden from her, but circumstances eventually bring them together, and, although he had not intended to, he turns her into a vampire and takes her away. Sometime in the mid-nineteenth century, Edgar loses his adopted parents and the sister he loves more than anything in a single day. Wracked with grief and loneliness at the prospect of spending eternity alone, Edgar takes Alan, a human boy he has befriended, “into the family,” and the majority of Poe chronicles their time together.

 

In the final story, “Edith,” Alan falls in love with a girl who, coincidentally (?), is a descendent of Edgar’s original family, and looks remarkably like Edgar. Alan decides on his own to make her a vampire, puts her to sleep, and hides her in a grandfather clock in her house while he goes to get Edgar, who has more experience in such matters. While he is gone, the house catches fire. Alan and Edgar run to the rescue, but as Edgar is carrying Edith away, the cuff of Alan’s pants gets caught on the clock (obvious symbolism here), he trips, and falls from the balcony, dying instantly. Edgar, in his shock, calls out Alan’s name again and again, but in his mind he is saying, “Let’s go home. Let’s go home. To the distant past. . . I won’t go to tomorrow anymore.” He takes the unconscious Edith to safety, and (we are left to assume) allows himself to die in the flames. [Edit: Hagio began writing a sequel in 2018 in which we learn on the first page that Edgar’s death was not a permanent condition.] 

 

Hagio does not present this story in order to show the reader what it might be like to be a vampire. Nor to show us what it might be like to live forever and never age. She shows us the impossible to make us look at the inevitable; she shows us people who live forever to make us think about what it means to be people who do not. Throughout the Poe stories, the emphasis is not on Edgar, Marybelle, and Alan, but on those whose lives they pass through. 

 

I have translated for closer examination one of the fifteen Poe stories, “Haruka na kuni no hana ya kotori” (“The Flowers and Birds of a Far Away Land”) and have included the key scenes I’ll touch upon in the handout. [Edit: I have misplaced this old translation, of which I never made a digital copy, and in any event reproducing it here would constitute copyright infringement, so you’ll have to wait for my new translation to be published by Fantagraphics Books in 2019.] In this story, Edgar becomes the friend--or rather pet unicorn, as she calls him--of a woman who, after being betrayed by her first and only love, has withdrawn to a seemingly happy single life in a rose garden, directing a local boys’ choir. 

 

It is interesting to note the positive way in which Elsey deals with her betrayal. Having every reason to lose faith in and reject humanity, she might well have ended up like Sensei, in Soseki’s Kokoro, trying in vain to cut off all her ties with others. But as anthropologist David Plath points out in his book Long Engagements, “The Japanese cultural nightmare is to be excluded from others, for this renders one unable to do anything with his ‘personality’” (Plath, 1980:217). 

 

But Edgar feels that she is living a dream, and, after discovering that her old lover has forgotten her, confronts her. He claims that she refuses to face reality and that she isn’t really happy--that, in fact, she has no right to be happy. It becomes clear that what really upsets him is that he, having lost his sister, cannot be happy the way this woman seems to be. He asks her how he can be happy without his sister:

 

“You picked the roses for your sister?” (she asks)

“Those were for a friend. But he’s not my sister.”

“. . . This is love: to stretch out your hand and give.

“Your love. Your sister’s love.

“It’s good to have a place to go. It’s good to have someone who’ll take your roses.” 

 

Here we have the ironic situation of a person pushing a hundred and fifty asking advice from someone not yet thirty on how to deal with a kind of life crisis nearly everyone must face at some time or another. In this instance, at least, Elsey is clearly more mature than Edgar. How can this be? Although Edgar has a century and a half of experiences, they are all the experiences of a fourteen-year-old boy. Maturity is not gained simply through the passage of time, but through specific culturally and biologically defined experiences. 

Although we perhaps take it for granted, it is important to keep in mind that this process of maturation does not take place in a vacuum. The experiences that make adults of us are experiences we share with others. Edgar lacks not only adult experiences, but shared experiences. To use another concept of Plath’s, he has no convoys (1980). He lost his only true convoy, Marybelle, long ago. When she dies, he says, “I don’t have to go on living to protect Marybelle anymore. I don’t have to go on living. . .” He needs someone in order to go on living, in order to have someone who’ll take his roses, and he takes Alan. But, as Alan realizes all along, and Edgar perhaps realizes when Alan dies, Alan is “just a replacement for Marybelle.” 

 

Hashimoto Osamu, in Hana saku otometachi no kinpiragobō,[2] a book of criticism of girls’ manga, asserts that The Poe Clan is about the Japanese Baby Boom generation. They were the first children in recent history, he says, who were allowed to be children, in contrast to those who were children during the war, when there was no room for childhood. They grew up in the fifties, when the world--to them--made more sense, when the distinction between right and wrong was clear, and when Mom and Dad worked hard, believing that they were working toward a Golden Age. Hashimoto cites from the first page of “Kotori no su” (“A Birds’ Nest”), one of the longest and most significant stories in Poe, in which Edgar and Alan attend a boys school in West Germany:

 

“At that time (1959), what we knew about our world was a hodgepodge of Khrushchev, Eisenhower, and Adenauer. . . 

“There were civil wars, and the threat of nuclear war, but none of it had anything to do with the immediate concerns of school life.”

 

A child who was fourteen in 1959, Hashimoto points out, as the boys in this story were, would have been born in 1945--the year World War II ended. 

 

In the sixties, these same children had grown into idealists, still believing in and fighting for a Golden Age which they saw threatened. By the mid-seventies, when Poe was drawing to a close, these children--now adults--were losing faith in their ideals. The world made less sense, and it seemed unlikely that there was any Golden Age to come. In fact, the Golden Age had already passed; it was their childhood in the fifties. The reason Poe ends in the present (1976), rather than taking Edgar into the future, is that Edgar represents the dream of the Golden Age. He represents the eternal children of the films of OZU Yasujirō. When he is forced at last to awake from his dream, he must die. The death of Edgar is the death of the dream of a Golden Age. 

 

Hashimoto’s argument is compelling, but in seeing Poe as being specifically about one generation of Japanese, he overlooks the existential comments it makes about time and aging. He also overlooks what it has to say about being fourteen in Japan, not just for the Baby Boom generation, but for all Japanese in recent history. Hashimoto does not tell us why Edgar and Alan are fourteen. Why not ten? Why not seventeen? Why, for that matter, are so many heroes and heroines in Japanese manga between the ages of thirteen and sixteen? [Edit: Note that I had a limited knowledge of the history of manga in 1989, and I currently believe there are very different reasons that protagonists in manga are so often adolescents.]

 

It is significant, I think, to note that guaranteed education in Japan ends after junior high school, rather than high school. Although many children take exams to get into good private middle schools, there is no exam required for entrance to public schools. This is not so at the high school level. At the end of their junior high careers, Japanese children are enjoying a moratorium, the last years of childhood, but also must make some important choices. A few choose not to go on to high school at all. They must think about job training and choosing a career right away. For the vast majority who do go on to high school, there is the choice of which one to go to. This choice is often the choice of the path a person will follow the rest of her life. By the time she is seventeen, she will already be immersed in the busy life of the jukensei (“exam student”), and well on her way to (what seems to her now, at least) a fairly predictable adulthood. It is in this period of early adolescence that a good deal of thinking must be done. 

 

I believe that for Japanese children in this stage of life, manga are a sort of laboratory of the imagination, offering them tastes of life’s rich possibilities. Perhaps The Poe Clan, or one of Hagio’s other masterpieces, Tōma no shinzō (“The Heart of Thomas”), are to Japanese junior high kids what Catcher in the Rye is to American high schoolers. [Edit: Yes, the analogy is dated. What would the 2018 equivalent be, I wonder.] 

 

In one of the Poe stories, “Gurensumisu no nikki” (“Glensmith’s Diary”), Edgar and Alan appear only at the very beginning and the very end. The story follows the diary of a man who met up with Edgar and spent time in the Poe Village, where a family of vampires live forever, never growing old. The diary passes through five generations, and the story is simply that of the ordinary lives of Glensmith’s descendants. In one scene, Glensmith’s daughter tells her young granddaughter about the diary, and the daughter asks if Glensmith was a vampire. “No,” she says, “Glensmith was. . .” And then she remembers the words of her own daughter who had run away at the age of seventeen, in search of the Poe Village: “Aah, to live one’s whole life in that village where the roses bloom. . . How wonderful. . .” She continues on to her granddaughter:

 

“You see, living is a very difficult thing. It would be fine if we could simply chase the days, but time is very hard on us.

“Weak people--particularly weak people--have dreams that can never come true.”

 

This seems to be a dark look at what it means to live, grow old, and die, but when we see Edgar and Alan again at the end of this story, unchanged after experiencing the same century that was the ups and downs, the births and deaths, the richness of five generations of common mortals, we are left feeling that, in spite of all the pain that time may inflict on us, we wouldn’t want it any other way. 

 

If I were to reduce it to its simplest level, the message that I think runs through the works of Hagio Moto and other manga artists is the same one that has been seen so often, recently, in bold letters on the baggy white T-shirts of teenagers in England, America and Japan: “Choose Life.” It is corny and mundane, but it is a message that perhaps can never be repeated enough to those coming of age in high-stress, contemporary Japan.

 

Notes:
[1] The rest are salary men/women, college students, “office ladies,” and housewives. The only group noticeably absent from the manga market is the middle-age-and-older bracket, although Akamatsu-san tells me she gets an occasional ojiisan (grandpa). Pre-Baby Boom generations, which is to say those who grew up before and during World War II, tend only to read the yonkoma (four-panel) funnies, like “Fuji Santaro,” and editorial cartoons that appear in newspapers, and do not read the manga magazines with which I am primarily concerned here, no doubt because those magazines did not appear until the late ’fifties, and were then geared exclusively to children.


[2] “The Kinpira Gobō of the Blossoming Maidens.” Kinpira gobō is chopped burdock root cooked in soy and sesame oil--a dish as plain and common as baked beans.

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