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Roland Kelts, Japanamerica (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)

– Do you know nothing about modern culture, Bernard? Beckham, Posh, Pokemon…
Pacman. It’s pronounced Pacman.

The Pokemon invasion may have passed the albeit fictional curmudgeon Bernard Black by, but Roland Kelts has it marked in Japanamerica, nine fascinating essays on ‘How Japanese Pop Culture has invaded the US. For Kelts, Japan once “seemed very distant whenever I returned to the United States.” Kelts, whose mother is Japanese, notices a shift, and begins to see “a lot more copies of My Neighbor Totoro and other Miyazaki films in American friends’ living rooms, and also seeing more Pokemon figures on the sides of buses, more Akira posters on college campuses, and more Japanese or Japanese-influenced titles of all types on American television.”

What America is undergoing is “a third wave of Japanophilia,” a new-found infatuation with all things Japanese. Borne out in the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix, and spurred on by Sofia Coppola’s (overrated) Lost in Translation, Hiyao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle enjoyed tremendous box office successes, with Hollywood always quick to embrace the phenomenon: James Cameron is to create two movies based on Battle Angel Alita, Samuel L Jackson voices Afro Samurai and Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy is to be made into a live-action film.

America’s interest in anime — the “kinetic cousin” of manga — is skyrocketing: the Anime cable network debuted in 2002 broadcasting Japanese titles 24/7, sales figures of DVDs netted a staggering half a billion, not to mention the profits weaned from enthusiastic merchandising deals. And, the Japanophilia and anime style is not confined to tv, movies and comic books but extends into music as well — the Damon Albarn/Jamie Hewlett vehicle Gorillaz and Gwen Stefani’s Harajuku Girls, being the most obvious examples. As Kelts puts it, “Japan is now the region’s arbiter of cool, via video and computer games, postmodern pop music trends, cuisine, clothing, mix-‘n’-match light speed fashion scenes and, especially, its iconic animations and graphic novels.”

But why now? Animation critic Charles Solomon tells Kelts, “aspects of anime do appeal to young Americans, specifically at a time when the institutions of government don’t seem to represent them.” He continues: “They feel powerless. A pervasive theme in a lot of anime is industrial corruption, or military-industrial corruption, that is pervading society and using people against their wills. The vision of shadowy power structures and dark experiments going on does resonate with people today.”

Add to that superflat artist Takashi Murakami’s theory on Japan being the first post-apocalyptic society (after Hiroshima and Nagasaki), with manga and anime emerging as expressions of trauma, and set it in a contemporary American context, Kelts comes up with a chilling vision: “Unlike… the Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination, which has become an iconic touchstone of American mystery and tragedy, blurry but singular in its talismanic significance, we do not have a single clear visual image of 9/11 [..] The odd-angled footage I saw, shot from up, then down, then running through the streets, scrambling perspective — the absence of cause and effect, the enemies and heroes, the sudden perversity of two massive skyscrapers collapsing in place… 9/11 doesn’t look like a movie, or a photograph. It looks a lot more like anime.”

Unlike Peter Carey’s bewildered, middle-aged stumble through Tokyo in Wrong About Japan, Roland Kelts’ Japanamerica is diligent, brisk and above all entertaining, especially in his meetings with otaku (obsessives) and fans of hentai (“tentacle porn”). “Isn’t this just a little disturbing?” asks Kelts of the “demonic-tentacle/weeping-schoolgirl rape scene” in No Mercy. “They’re just pictures, and anyway, you’ve seen it before. Hokusai did a woodblock print of a pearl diver being raped by an octopus more than two hundred years ago. It’s the same thing. And you people put Hokusai in art museums.”


Susan Tomaselli lives in Ireland where she edits the inimitable Dogmatika and is Comics Co-Editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, April 10th, 2007.