Whenever I see the name Moto Hagio “paranormal and scifi” and “complicated family relationships” instantly come to mind (and of course, “The Heart of Thomas”). The shorts “Iguana Girl” and “Hanshin: Half-God” certainly fit there, but I wasn’t expecting them to feel so personal.
Both stories play with altered realities and the perception of oneself, to the point you’ll sometimes have a hard time discerning what’s actually real. Spoilers ahead!
“Iguana Girl” uses a fairy tale story about iguanas and humans to portray a strained mother-daughter relationship from the daughter’s point of view. The mother–a former iguana “who changed with magic” when she fell in love with a human–sees her daughter as a literal iguana. Meanwhile, everyone else sees a human girl identical to her mother. Such is the mother influence over the child that she’s drawn as an iguana for most of the story–and her life, since we see her grow up and becoming a mother herself–telling us that she also sees herself that way.
The relationship is so strained that when her mother passes away, she actually feels relieved at first. However, there’s a change when she sees the body–only to find an iguana, just like her. Ironically, the woman turning into an iguana in front of her daughter’s eyes suddenly humanizes her.
Did the mother struggle with her self-image as well? Did she bury those negative feelings, trying to lose herself in her marriage? Did she project those negative feelings onto the daughter that was her spitting image, causing said daughter to view herself negatively and thus creating a toxic cycle?
Seeing the mother as an iguana causes the daughter to look at her not as a parental figure, but as a person. As an adult, considering that her mother and she were perhaps not that different gives her the perspective maybe not to forgive, but to understand, and so she weeps.
While “Iguana Girl” deals with a complicated mother-daughter relationship and self-esteem (as a result of it) it’s a relatable tale for everyone who has ever felt unwanted, rejected, lonely. An outsider in their own homes.
“Hanshin” plays with certain levels of visual and narrative ambiguity that leaves room for multiple interpretations. I can think of two, to be exact.
Yudy and Yucy are twin sisters literally attached at the hip. To put it simply: Yudy’s smart but “ugly,” and Yucy’s beautiful but mentally “underdeveloped.”
It’s soon revealed that Yucy takes Yudy’s “nutrients” because her body can’t “create its own,” literally sucking the life out of her sister to remain alive. When it’s revealed that both will die because Yudy can no longer support both, she agrees to undergo a separation surgery in hopes to at least save her own life.
The first interpretation is very literal. Yudy has to take care of Yucy (who can’t do much on her own) practically all the time. Her parents themselves insist that she has to look after her “angelic” sister, so Yudy–who often feels like her sister’s holding her back–could resent having to sacrifice herself to take care of her sister while all the praise goes to said sister.
However, she does love her. When Yudy finally has “a chance to live her own life” after the operation, it could be said that she struggles with survivor’s guilt.
The second interpretation–and here’s where things really get interesting–is that there never was any sister. Both Yudy and Yucy are different sides of the same person: the beautiful, delicate and “pure” who can’t do much on her own, but who’s accepted because she conforms to gender convention, and the smart girl with endless potential who gets angry and looks physically “ugly.”
Pure and beautiful “Yucy” sucks “Yudy’s” nutrients because it takes all of her energy to maintain the image that allows her to fit in. Said acceptance is the source of her love and her hatred: it makes her fit, but why does she has to do this to fit in the first place?
It’s curious that the separation comes during the girls’ puberty, when they’ll start facing–and arguably be more exposed–a whole new set of societal expectations. With that in mind, being forced “to pick a self” to face the world makes more sense.
As the one who can sustain herself, “Yudy” has a chance to survive, but when “Yucy” dies, “Yudy” becomes confused. On the bed, she sees the withered image she has come to associate with herself, and suddenly, she’s not sure who’s actually dying.
This takes even more strength when “Yudy,” no longer needing to support someone else, becomes a healthy and beautiful teenager–the living image of the one who passed away.
She perhaps made the decision of killing the more accepted self “to be free,” but in the process of becoming a teenager, she ended up clinging to that image out of fear, killing the “ugly” and “unacceptable” parts of her instead. Or perhaps, external pressure forced her to bury parts of her identity to find acceptance, leaving her feeling incomplete, at odds with herself. Does she call that beautiful part “a deity” because it gathers her admiration and acceptance?… Because others, valuing “her purity” considered it “angelic”?
“Iguana Girl” ends on a hopeful note, with the daughter using her newfound understanding to break the toxic cycle, rather than perpetuating it. “Hanshin” ends on an unsettling note instead, leaving us with a sense of loss. We could say that the girl who becomes a beautiful and healthy teen finds happiness in the freedom to live a normal life, however, there are times when expectation and pressure are just too much.
The stories give a lot to think about. However, rather than doing so, I believe their strength lays in how they make you feel. They provide worthwhile explorations of acceptance and self-image, and they’re open enough to allow multiple experiences to be reflected on them.
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