The latest Moto Hagio manga to come from Fantagraphics features a first chapter that is confusing, weird, and likely going to turn off readers unaccustomed to the kind of strangeness this old-school shojo mangaka likes to traffic in. It takes place on the island of Barbara and focuses on young Aoba and her two friends, Taka and Pine, who can also fly. There’s also a long-haired oracle who specializes in interpreting dreams (and can fly as well), plant women who live on the roof of Aoba’s house, rumors of cannibalism on the island, and the story of how Aoba was brought to the island by the moon princess. That’s a lot to dump on the reader in the first chapter and some of the odd ways that the characters interact with each other make it very hard to get a handle on where Hagio is going with any of this. It’s to the point where Aoba’s encounter with an unknown man with a dark hat and coat hiding in the fields outside of town feels like one of the least strange things there.
If you’re able to get through that first chapter, you’ll find that even if things don’t get any less crazy they do become more comprehensible. That’s because the focus shifts to a near-future setting and onto Dr. Watarai, a dream pilot who specializes in entering people’s dreams mostly to get information in criminal cases. However, he’s now being asked to look into the psyche of a girl who has been in a dreamlike state for the past seven years following the brutal murder of her parents. What he finds there leads him and his estranged son Kiriya down a rabbit hole of craziness involving poltergeist phenomena, pharmaceutical rejuvenation therapy, imaginary islands, life on Mars, cannibalism, and more. It’s not hard for me to see how people could be put off by this level of craziness, but I was entertained by it more often than not. “Otherworld Barbara” mainly kept me reading to see how strange things would get, yet there’s also some emotional resonance in how Watarai struggles to untangle this mystery and reconnect with his son. While the kind of crazy we get here isn’t too dissimilar from the unforgettable train wreck that was “Future Diary,” Hagio shows us how that approach can work when the madness in the story is organic rather than (likely) motivated by impending deadlines.