1)Review by Marina Cerame
2) A, A’ (A, A Prime) by Moto Hagio is a collection of three science fiction romance stories. While each story differs greatly, they all explore relationships between humans and a species of genetically engineered people known as Unicorns. The Unicorns are so named for the bone ridge on their skulls which causes them to grow an unusually colored tuft of hair resembling a mane. Unicorns are generally assumed to have no capacity for emotion: an assumption which is proved false, sometimes with disastrous results.
The title story, A, A’, follows a newly awoken clone of a red-maned Unicorn girl named Adelade Lee. The original Addy had died in an avalanche after three years of work on the planet Proxima. Following her death, the clone Addy, referred to as A’, is constructed, restoring her to her sixteen-year-old self before she went to Proxima. A’ is sent to Proxima to replace Addy, and is welcomed by the crew, who eagerly expect to get along with the new Addy just as well as they had the old. The only exception is Regg Bone, who was Adelade’s lover and rejects A’ on principle. Regg insists that a clone would never truly be able to replace his Addy.
The second story, 4/4, is that of a telekinetic boy who falls in love with a Unicorn girl. Mori is a student with strong telekinetic abilities which he struggles to tap into. He meets a particularly reclusive Unicorn named Trill, who is being studied at the station where he lives, and soon notices that he has a better grasp of his powers when he is around her. Trill, too, is more social around him. As Mori falls in love with her, and Trill expands her ability to express her emotions, they create an emotional resonance that causes Mori’s telekinetic powers to surge out of control.
The final story, X + Y, again features Mori and his relationship with a Unicorn. Four years after the incidents on the station, Mori moved to Mars to continue his studies. While there he meets Tacto, a male Unicorn who reminds him strongly of Trill. To his surprise, Mori finds himself falling in love with Tacto. Meanwhile, Tacto’s doctors discover that, though he appears male, he is genetically female and has fully developed female reproductive organs. This and his relationship with Mori force Tacto to examine his gender identity and sexuality.
3) The illustration of A, A’ is predominantly ink pen. Certain occasions are illustrated in ink painting, generally depicting flashbacks or large scenery views. The style is fairly typical of Japanese manga, with fairly abstract and simplified faces that are dominated by large, detailed, expressive eyes. The clothes, hair and scenery are depicted with a high level of detail, with great attention paid to the patterns and draping of clothing. Hagio works to create a balance of values on each page, usually by setting the figures against either a plain white or black background. If the general values of a page are heavily skewed one way or the other, it usually depicts something like dreams or memories, which are predominantly white, or nightmares which are mostly black. Also typical of manga, the book makes heavy use of bleeds, images which continue to the edge of the page without being bordered by a panel or gutters. Even images which are mostly bound by gutters will sometimes overflow them, expanding into other panels.
4) The main purpose of this collection of stories is the exploration of different kinds of relationships. In A, A’, Regg struggles with learning to love after the loss of his Addy, while Addy’s clone faces difficulties forming social bonds with the crew that she’s only just met, but knew her for years. 4/4 is a story symbolizing young love. Mori and Trill find a connection with each other which seems wonderful at first, but soon runs out of control. X+Y is an exploration of gender identity and sexuality. All three also use the Unicorns to demonstrate the way people tend to treat things they don’t understand. For the most part, the Unicorns are not fully accepted by the people around them. Their lack of apparent emotion makes most people see them like ‘dolls’ or ‘drones.’ Only a few come to understand them fully. It’s a very interesting social commentary.
5) I think the biggest strength of this story set is the overarching social commentary that Hagio makes so clear. She creates a story using completely fantastic settings, space stations on some unheard of planet somewhere in the far-flung future, and populates it with unusual people such as the Unicorns and telekines, but uses these extraordinary elements to portray very relatable themes. Stylistically, the stories are well executed. Hagio uses facial expressions and body language very effectively, contrasting the Unicorns’ generally limp postures and expressionless faces with the very exuberant and expressive humans around them. Most of the panel transitions are subject-to-subject or aspect-to-aspect, which is highly effective in these narratives, as it allows the reader to see the expressions and reactions of many characters to a situation or scene.
6) My biggest problem with the book is just lack of character development. These stories are very short, and so it is difficult for much development to fit in so short a space. However, I’m not a fan of inexplicable romance. “Love at first sight” is one of those tropes that I really think doesn’t work well for a story’s development. Rather than having them really cultivate a relationship, it’s just suddenly stated that one of the characters is in love with another. In some ways, it sort of makes sense for these stories. A, A’ notes that Addy and Regg had developed a relationship, but little time is spent creating a relationship in return with A’. 4/4 is, of course, about first love which is often depicted as being sudden and irrational. X+Y, though, was kind of disappointing in the way that Mori, now older and perhaps wiser, is again falling in love suddenly and without really first having a rapport with Tacto. My only other real problem with the book is the publisher’s fault, not Hagio’s. They reformatted the book from the traditional left-to-right structure to the Western right-to-left, and in doing so inverted all of the images. While it’s not a huge thing, it creates some quirks such as all the characters suddenly being left-handed, and can change the mood or effect of an image.
7) I would recommend this book to high school students and above. Anyone younger would probably want to read it with their parents’ approval, simply because some might not like its dealings with sex, gender and sexuality. Though it is classified as shojo (girl’s manga), I think the story could be enjoyed by men or women. The social themes apply to both genders, and the science fiction element is easily enjoyed by anyone who likes the genre. The first two stories in particular are not particularly controversial. I, personally, was a bit shocked initially at Hagio’s dealing with gender, transgender and homosexuality all in one story (and all in one character), but it was so inseparably part of the theme of that story and of the story set that I quickly latched onto the idea.
8) Moto Hagio is called “one of the founding mothers of shojo manga,” and has many published works. Unfortunately, few of them have been set in English. One of these is another sci-fi romance set called They Were Eleven, which is both a manga and an anime serial. The other work available in English is an anthology titled A Drunken Dream and Other Stories.
9) Rating: 4/5. Definitely a book worth reading.