Brain Diving So Wrong It Can't Be Right
by Brian Ruh, Oct 19th 2010
Ah, it's book awards season again, as I'm sure you're all aware. What? The Anime News Network audience doesn't pay close attention to the latest developments in world literature? I'm shocked! To be honest it's not something I follow obsessively, either, although I do like to keep tabs on things. In case you hadn't heard, for yet another year Haruki Murakami has been overlooked for the Nobel Prize in literature. (Although my man Yukio Mishima never won that distinction either, so I guess it's all right.)
One author whose name I kept seeing pop up for a couple of major prizes this year (both the Man Booker Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award) was Peter Carey. Hmm. I'm sure I've heard that name before in some anime-related context. Oh yes, he wrote a book that came out in 2005 called Wrong About Japan, chronicling his journey to Japan with his otaku son and the people they met along the way. I read it when it came out, and I remember that I didn't like it at all. When I recently mentioned it on Twitter, a couple of the choice adjectives used describe it were "dismal" and "absolutely painful," so I knew I wasn't alone in my opinion. However, I couldn't really remember what it was about this book from an award-winning novelist that I found so distasteful, so I decided to give it another go.
But I don't want to bog down this week's column with a bunch of negativity from the get-go, so as a quick and refreshing palate cleanser let's go with something that gets anime culture right. For this week's Read This!, I'll point you to an article by Laurie Cubbison titled “Not Just for Children's Television: Anime and the Changing Editing Practices of American Television Networks.” In it, she explains how anime television programs in the 2000s were re-edited for content and to shift the focus to the demographic that the producers were aiming for. She also examines the specific ways different networks approach the cultural elements in the anime that they show, with the Cartoon Network being least likely to remove things that seem too specifically “Japanese.” In analyzing how an anime TV show is edited, Cubbison discusses how the popularity of some anime (particularly Gundam Wing) led to the development of Cartoon Network's Adult Swim programming block, which went on to show much more Japanese animation. (Of course, this research was conducted a few years ago, back when they still actually showed anime on television.)
This article contains a lot of solid information about the television side of the anime industry, and I think an awareness of this aspect of anime is important for fans. When we see something on television, online, or for sale in a store, we need to realize that there were countless decisions that were made in order to produce the final product as we see it. While we may not agree with the decisions that were made, the fact is that conscious calculations went into making them and it wasn't random, capricious, or arbitrary. Understanding the industry side of things also reinforces the idea that as much as we may love certain series, the general reason they exist (as with all popular entertainment) is to make money.
Now, let's talk about what's so wrong about being wrong…
Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey
Early in the book, Peter Carey's son begins being drawn into becoming something of a Japanophile. He begins by renting Takeshi Kitano's Kikujiro seemingly on a whim, which leads him to other Japanese popular culture, including translated manga and anime. As an educational adventure, Carey and his son go to Japan one summer, with his son's admonition that they stay away from the “Real Japan” – the world of shrines and tea ceremony. The son is of course more interested in anime, manga, and video games. Even so, Carey keeps trying to drag him along to places, first to a swordsmith, then to a kabuki performance, which he tells his son was “like the manga of its time.” However, they do get to meet with some anime luminaries, including Yoshiyuki Tomino (Gundam), Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Blood: The Last Vampire), and Hayao Miyazaki, and meet a number of other people in the manga industry.
The title Wrong About Japan seems to imply some sort of personal journey will be forthcoming – like the author will realize how he has been wrong but has come to a greater cultural understanding. It doesn't seem too hard since he seems to come to the country with a minimum of cultural knowledge, since it's not difficult to be wrong about a country and a culture if you haven't actually tried to educate yourself about it. For example, while they are wandering around Akihabara, Carey notes, “Price tags hung from the ceilings in fluorescent orange and red and green and blue. Actually, they may not have been price tags, but the names of fish or the days of the week.” Not only did Carey not know enough to be able to make his way around and navigate the basics of daily life, he wasn't even curious enough to try to find out. At one point in the book he refers to a man as Mr. Yazaki simply because “I cannot translate the first name on his business card.” Of course, having been able to press his contacts to arrange a trip to Japan, it's highly unlikely that there was nobody he could ask for help with such a matter. I can't tell if Carey is trying to be humorous here, by making a cute show of his Western ignorance, but it's grating in its air of cultural superiority.
Along these lines, Carey seems to make a number of basic assumptions that he doesn't really question. For example, when he first brings up anime, he notes that he is not sure “why the name is French,” not stopping to think (or even look up) the reason behind the name. Like most newcomers to anime, Carey tends to overstate the case when he writes “anime is as much respected as live-action films, and not at all limited to a specific age group.” As I'm sure many of us know, anime is certainly more widely-ranging than US cartoons. In general, animated shows and movies made in the US tend to be comedies, for kids, or both, while Japan produces all manner of animated fare. However, it's not like anime fans in Japan are looked on as being particularly normal. It's certainly still a stretch to say that animation in Japan has the same standing as live-action films. Additionally, most anime is still produced for a young audience if they're not being made with otaku in mind. There's really not all that much that's made for the general adult viewing audience.
He also expresses wonder at the many “foreign characters” in anime and manga, making the hackneyed assumption that if a character is not expressly drawn to “look Japanese,” then he or she must for some reason be Western. And in the process of discussing such characters, he throws in some incorrect word explanations as well, stating that the “word gaijin, politely translated as ‘foreigner,' literally meant ‘barbarian.'” Actually, there's not a good way of “politely translating” gaijin since it's not a polite word; gaikokujin is probably a better word to use when talking about someone who isn't Japanese. (Note: Please don't ever call yourself or anyone else a gaijin. And if someone calls you a gaijin, don't think they're being nice to you.) Even so, there's nothing about the word that denotes “barbarian” – the characters that make up gaijin literally mean “outside” and “person.” I've never heard Carey's explanation of the word before, but it speaks to the level of cultural sensitivity and fact checking throughout the book.
In reading this book, the average anime fan will probably be alternatively jealous and infuriated with the way that Carey approaches the anime creators he gets to speak with. Since he is a famous author with connections at publishers around the world, he is able to arrange interviews with many people in the anime industry seemingly at a whim. And not only that, but Carey acts positively entitled to be able to do so. Early in the book, he tries to arrange an interview with Hiroyuki Kitakubo. While trying to make the arrangements, Carey's translator writes to him that “the triumph of business over art and kindness is now complete: they want to know what's in it for them…” Which, if you think about it, is a perfectly sensible position to take. Here is an Australian novelist with no industry or entertainment journalism ties asking to meet with a busy animator / director. Of course the studio would be wondering why they should take the time to meet with this guy. And Carey's response? “Well nothing—except that I could perhaps tell the story of the film [Blood].” Wow. Just the sense of self-importance present in that single sentence alone boggles the mind. Here's a guy who speaks no Japanese, has little understanding of Japanese customs and culture, and has watched a few anime films suggesting that of course the studio would want him to write about the production of one of their films and bend over backward to allow him to do so. He is, after all, a famous novelist. We should all be thankful that he is deigning to even write about this kind of throwaway popular culture.
Carey's arrogance comes through in his accounts of his interviews as well. At one point, Carey gets to interview Yoshiyuki Tomino, and he rather aggressively tries to impose his view of Gundam on the man who created the franchise. When Tomino asserts that Gundams and samurai are very different in terms of the role they play in warfare, Carey exasperatedly writes, “I did not ask how, for God's sake, he could say that Gundam Mobile Suits are not exactly like samurai.” Certainly similarities are there on the surface of things, but this is constantly Carey's problem with the way he approaches Japan– he seems often too reluctant to go beyond his own shallow interpretations, clinging to them as a life raft for fear of downing in a sea of cultural knowledge. At one point he even writes that “as a foreigner, I could never know the truth.”
Luckily, Wrong About Japan is not a particularly long book, and is illustrated throughout with examples from anime and manga. However, this short length doesn't give Carey much room to work with for his travelogue and explanations, many of which are unfortunately recycled from a myriad of previous observations others have made about Japan. Did you know the Japanese eat weird stuff like fish for breakfast? And Japanese rooms are small? And Japanese toilets are computerized with the latest bells and whistles? All there, all properly noted. Additionally, when he is at a loss or wants to describe something in detail, more often than not Carey will quote from a more authoritative source. However, this means that in such a short book, but many of the paragraphs within don't even belong to the author himself. (Although I was happy to see Lawrence Eng, a scholar of otaku culture I know from an online mailing list, listed as one of the sources Carey chooses to quote.) Other questionable approaches include taking the better part of a chapter to summarize (with just a bit of commentary) the events in Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro.
Even when Carey and his son meet Hiroyuki Kitakubo toward the end of the book, it doesn't really seem as if Carey has learned much from his previous interactions with Japanese people. According to Carey, Kitakubo “responded to my written questions in the same style as every other damn Japanese I'd questioned,” and Carey despairs at ever really being able to get to the heart of what he sees as the true meanings present in anime and manga. In spite of all of this, we're never told what specifically they discussed – obviously Carey doesn't actually care enough to try to “tell the story” of Blood: The Last Vampire or to let the audience in on the conversation. (Which was, in theory, the whole point of making this trip.)
In the end, it's okay to be wrong. It's okay not to know things, at least initially. The main crime of Wrong About Japan is that Peter Carey makes a show of parading his ignorance around for the reader. He never seems particularly humble, and he seems to approach situations with the mindset that he knows what is best. This happens repeatedly with his son, who gets dragged around to Japanese cultural events for his own good, even though Carey promised that he wouldn't. And if Carey had shown a bit more introspection about why he was doing such things and why he was getting so frustrated when the people he was talking to would not give him the pat answers he was looking for, perhaps the book would have been more interesting.
Wrong About Japan reminds me of some undergraduate papers I used to have to grade – the student has an assignment and a general idea of what to do, but meanders throughout, trying his hardest to get to a certain page count. Carey's filler material is banal, and his unoriginal thoughts show an unappealing cultural smugness. The book spends far too much time rehashing the most basic assumptions and misperceptions of Japan and anime / manga. (Carey would have done well to pick up some basic introductory books on the history and cultural meaning present in manga and anime, such as something by Schodt, Poitras, or Napier.) As it stands, he has created a book with little to say to anyone interested in anime, manga, or Japan in general.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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