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Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga - Peepo Choo

by Jason Thompson,

Episode CL: Peepo Choo

"I can't be an otaku where I'm from. I can't be myself openly without being judged! If Japan isn't a nation of otaku, where do I have left to go?"
"How should I know? Don't arbitrarily make our country your weird neverland."

I want to apologize to all the manga-influenced artists that haven't been covered in these articles, or in Otaku USA, or in Manga: The Complete Guide, or in any blog anywhere, because they aren't Japanese. It's hard to get attention as a Western artist drawing in a "manga style," particularly now that the Tokyopop-sponsored "OEL manga boom" of 2005-2007 has collapsed and the label "manga" is more a burden than an advantage. Haters will say that most OEL manga is just plain bad, and thus unworthy of being talked about on quality grounds—but even the crappiest Japanese manga gets talked about more than a middling-crappy OEL manga. As for Korean and Chinese artists drawing in a manhua/manhwa/manga style, unfortunately they're even more out of luck, falling outside the Western fascination with Japanese culture that's existed since the late 1800s. Chinoiserie is a thing, but Japonism tends to be bigger.

Of course, a lot of it boils down the old question: is "manga" a style anyone can use, or (as I defined it in Manga: The Complete Guide) does it just mean "comics produced in Japan"?   Is it a medium or a culture? Obviously if you were writing a book on Indian Cinema, you wouldn't be obligated to include The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge just because Baz Luhrmann likes Bollywood. If you were writing a book about Japanese cuisine, you wouldn't be obligated to mention some American restaurant called "Sushi Burger" that serves hamburgers with wasabi and ponzu sauce on them. On the other hand, your book on Japanese cuisine might also have problems if you didn't mention yôshokubecause you had decided to draw a line and eliminate all post-Meiji-Restoration Japanese cuisine because they were corrupted by foreign influences. Yet if such things as "cultures" exist, don't you have to draw arbitrary distinctions and say that Thing X is an aspect of American culture, and Thing Y is an aspect of Japanese culture, if only to explain to your non-manga-reading friends why there are so many panty shots? Asian Fusion exists as a restaurant type on yelp, but not as a U.S. publishing category, at least not anymore.

But what about work produced by non-Japanese people for the Japanese market? Is it manga? Obviously, say, 300 is not manga just because it's been translated into Japanese, but I'm talking about works published in Japanese magazines, edited by Japanese editors, polished and fine-tuned according to those editors' perception of Japanese tastes. Despite language and cultural barriers, a few Western artists have indeed worked in the promised land: Jamie Lynn Lano and Jeremy Mauney have worked as assistants to Japanese mangaka, and there have been manga written by Westerners but drawn by Japanese artists (such as Robert Whiting's Reggie). Rem won the 2007 Morning Manga Contest. Even more impressively, Paul Pope attracted the attention of Kodansha editors in the late '90s and went to Japan to work for them…but although he drew pilots for several manga none were ever accepted. In an interview in Pulp magazine Pope told Carl Gustav Horn that Kodansha ended up instead hiring a Japanese artist whose style was like Pope's but just a little more 'normal', a little more Japanese. "So you mean…after all that, you ended up providing training for a Japanese artist?" Horn asked incredulously. Pope accepted the pay for his manga (they didn't publish them, but they did pay him, of course), took his new manga skillz and went back to America; the fascinating rejects from his time in Japan are collected in his book One Trick Rip-Off/Deep Cuts.

Another artist who went farther than Pope is Felipe Smith, whose three-volume Tokyopop series MBQ blew my mind when I discovered it in 2006. (Smith's 8-page comic Deadline Ass-Beatingis available online at mangareborn.jp.) MBQ wasn't a huge seller for Tokyopop, and it sort of just ends abruptly, but the comic artists I knew were really excited about it, passing it around talking about the exaggerated expressions, the great art and crazy dream sequences. The story of a wannabe comic artist named Omario who works at a burger place in a bad neighborhood full of crime and weirdos and corrupt cops, it's laden with sex and violence and filthy humor. Smith knows manga perfectly well: his characters at times resemble Tatsuya Egawa (one of the greatest still untranslated manga artists), and his pacing is incredible. But unlike some Western mangaka who just want to write stories set in Japan or in some fantasyland, Smith's subject matter is totally original and totally American, full of the kind of social satire and the kind of stereotypes who actually might hang out in a fast food place in east L.A. The characters are all grotesques (whether grotesquely lovable or grotesquely hateable), with freaky kimengumi faces and crazy body language. Smith loves Simon Bisley, and he used to work at Spümco, Jon Kricfalusi's animation studio, and his work is a good reminder that manga is basically caricatures and cartoons, and there's no reason everyone has to look like a stiff expressionless mask of cuteness (or hero-ness, or villainy-ness) all the time. Smith is great, and one of the best things Kodansha ever did was to hire him to do a series in Morning Two magazine, which ran from 2008-2010: Peepo Choo.

Milton is a 16-year-old kid who lives in Chicago's south side, on the rough streets where he has to look hard to survive. But under the surface, he's actually a total nerd, who's obsessed with his favorite anime series, "Peepo Choo." When he's alone, he wears Peepo Choo cosplay and does the "Peepo Dance," which involves saying nonsensical phrases and contorting his body in various spine-twisting Junji Ito-esque positions such as kicking himself in the head. And he dreams of going to Japan: "I love Japan! I want to go so badly! I want to go to the land of Peepo Choo!…If I lived in Japan I could be me! The real Milton!"

Milton works at a comic book store, where his immediate boss is Jody, a 23-year-old who hates nerds and only ever talks about getting laid. (The thirtysomething geeks who shop at the store drool listening to Jody's sex stories and eagerly beg him, "Tell us one more time what it's like to touch a woman!") The actual owner of the store is Gill, a 9-foot-tall middle-aged behemoth of a man, always quiet and impeccably dressed in his business suit. Gill has a secret: unknown to his employees, he's actually a deadly assassin-for-hire. Using the name "Fate," he wears a terrifying mask and body armor and rips his targets to shreds with axes, knives and his bare hands, like the missing link between Jason Voorhees and an American superhero. When Gill is hired to perform an assassination in Japan, he brings along Jody and Milton as his cover story, and Milton at last has the chance of a lifetime. In fact, it's a journey that will change all of them, as the three Americans go to Japan to find a few surprises…and the fulfillment of their fantasies and dreams.

Peepo Choo is a story of culture clash, of Western stereotypes about Japan and vice versa. I love these stories, and frankly, I love that Japan also seems to love them. While there are plenty of manga which are anti-American or arguably racist, there are also plenty of self-mocking stories that make fun of Japanese culture and the way it's perceived overseas; for instance Hiroi Oji's Far East of Edenvideo game series, which is set in a fantasy world based on Western misconceptions of Japan. While such representations obviously poke fun at Western stereotypes and Western racism, it's clear they come from a position of considerable confidence. Of course, since World War II, America and Japan have always been political and military allies, so this may partly explain Japanese thick-skinnedness. But I think the saying "you'll catch more flies with honey" also applies; you'll catch more tourists with Cool Japan than by boycotting Michael Crichton's "Rising Sun". You'll catch more love from Americans by making movies and video games and manga and anime which show how awesome Japan is, rather than by censoring American books and movies that are anti-Japan. Arts and entertainment—more specifically, escapism—are the #1 cultural currency of the world, and the culture whose escapism is the most popular, wins. They make a lot of money, for one; but also, they sell self-image. Exoticism is power, escapism is power; it's all about wanting to be someone else, to step into another race, gender, culture, age, into another skin.

It works both ways. Gill's target in Japan is Morimoto Rockstar, an out-of-control yakuza who's grown so violent and unpredictable that his own aniki has hired a hitman to take him down. Once an ordinary, shy-ish Japanese guy who just happened to get into the yakuza, he became fascinated with American pimps, hos, and playas, especially the TV show "Brick Side," which is all scenes of African-American men killing each other with knives, pit bulls and machine guns. Soon, he transforms into a wannabe gangsta, living out his violent foreign fantasies, flashing mismatched gang signs and screaming "Mazza fakka! Mai neimu izu, mazza fakkin' Rokkustaa!" (His English isn't very good; he shows his "Brick Side" fandom by getting a huge misspelled gold necklace saying "Brick Said".) His aniki, a more traditional yakuza, is sick of it; sick of the unnecessary blood and gore, the cocaine and blowjobs, the whole gangsta thing. Unfortunately for aniki, Morimoto has got real killing skills, and it will take a monster like Gill to fight him.

With no less than eight main characters (a huge number for a manga), it's not till the end of volume one that Jody, Milton and Gill arrive in Japan and the story really gets going. From that point on, it's culture clash time as everyone's expectations are shattered one after the other. Milton is horrified to realize that Japan isn't the paradise he dreamed of, that not everyone cosplays all the time and that drunken salarymen stagger around at night vomiting in the streets and feeling up prepubescent schoolgirls. As for Jody, he has his own Japanese dreams to chase: he's secretly a virgin. "You're gonna help me get some pussy when we go to Japan. You'll be my interpreter!" he tells Milton. At first he's thrilled to see all the short-skirted women, and all the sleaze in Japanese advertising ("Ads have nothing but girls in bikinis in them! And they're everywhere! The feminist groups back at home would set this place on fire!"). And to his amazement, when he first walks the streets of Tokyo, girls swarm around him and giggle and want to get their pictures taken together. Unfortunately, he soon discovers they only like him because he's the identical twin of a gay American talento, "Beauty Judy." (Someone should write an essay about the cliché of gay African-Americans as a dual stereotype of Americans in Japanese pop culture; see also Tiger & Bunny.) As Jody desperately spends the whole manga trying to get laid and convince women he's not gay, it becomes clear that his fantasy life of porn and sluts is as unrealistic as Milton's fantasies of anime.

But what manga would be complete without a love story? At first, Jody isn't even interested in Japanese women. "I've seen all the magazines these twisted nerds buy. Full of costumed girls wearing wings, tails, cat paws and who knows what else. I'm not into that!" But to say that Japanese women aren't sexy (like Sean Connery told Japanese reporters when he was in Japan filming You Only Live Twice, sparking outrage) would be an affront to the nationalistic pride of Morning Two readers, so Mickey, a US Marine stationed in Japan, sets Jody straight: "Boy, you're gonna experience things you never knew existed. Haw haw haw! Sensations you never even dreamed of!…They love Americans. Once you get there, you'll be so deep in pussy, you won't know what to do!" Peepo Choo's embodiment of the yamato nadeshiko is Reiko, a tall, beautiful gravure idol. She's gorgeous, she's a model, and she's so busty, her breasts support the actual POV of the reader in vol. 2 p.134-135's two-page spread "super breast cam," surely one of the greatest panels in the history of comics. As far as Jody and Milton are concerned, there's just one problem: she fucking hates Americans. Based on personal experience, she knows all American guys are just sleazy creeps: "99% of all American guys come to Japan hoping to have sex with a Japanese girl! They suffer an illness…yellow fever." Of course, Reiko doesn't have much use for Japanese men either: she's a gravure idol who doesn't take shit from anybody, and in her first chapter, she shoves a pen up a skeevy cameraman's ass. In fact, the only person she really seems to like is her friend Tanaka, aka "Ugly-tan," a sweetly dorky little nerd who happens to be exactly Milton's size and a fan of Peepo Choo. When Milton is crying in the streets of Tokyo, kicking himself in the head, it's Tanaka who randomly runs into him and recognizes the Peepo Choo dance. "Peepo Choo?" she says, and their eyes meet.

On the most basic level, Peepo Choo is a story of nerds finding their passion. On a page-by-page level, it's full of crazy graphic violence, sex, weird poses, stereotype humor and Mickey Mouse ears. Some of the humor is obvious, like the scene when the Americans encounter their first Japanese toilet. Other bits aren't so obvious; there's deeper stereotypes within the stereotypes. ("Don't Japanese people wear helmets and chains? Feathers and platform boots? Ski goggles and bandanas with dyed hair and fancy make-up?" "Where did you get such crazy ideas about Japanese people?" "I saw it in a Japanese fashion magazine called Fruits!") Smith doesn't spare American otaku culture either; I'd be curious to know what Japanese readers thought of the scene in the comic shop early on, where the middle-aged superhero comics fans get in an argument with the tweenage manga fans, and then Jody tells them they're all losers. ("We have no interest in the kind of lame, cornball, super hero comics the old-timers read. We only read 'mahn-guh.'" "We simply can't understand this Japanese "man-gah" or "ani-mee" the crazy youth is so fond of. It's absolutely mindless and completely perverse. Good ol' American comics. Now that's entertainment." "QUIET! No matter how you look at it, you're all nerds!!")

Perhaps some of the best scenes are the subtlest. Tanaka is happy to meet Milton at first, but Milton embarrasses her by doing the Peepo Dance at a restaurant, violating the unwritten rule of Japan: be as much of a nerd as you want, but be it in private. Manga and anime are full of extroverted characters who speak their mind and act wacky, like Onizuka in GTO, but the reason they're popular is because they're fantasies. As Felipe Smith said in an interview on Robot6, "Half of these [manga] with foreigners who are interacting with Japanese people are nonsense. You got stories with people high-fiving people—Japanese people don't do that—and people hugging. I said [to my editors], “It's not in your culture, why is it in your comics?” They say “Because it's manga — you can do anything.”"

So actually, although Japan loves navel-gazing manga about wacky foreigners and their misconceptions of Japan (just like I love manga like Cipherthat are set in America), Peepo Choo is super ambitious. On top of its huge cast, it tries to address culture and race in a medium which avoids dealing with either in any depth. As Smith points out in the same Robot6 interview, manga characters don't even necessarily have any ethnicity, apart from "manga". Reading Peepo Choo, I can't help wondering what came out of Smith's mind, and what was added or modified by his editors. (I did hear that, according to a friend who knows Smith, the editors at Morning Two asked him to up the fanservice level; so if any sensitive fans out there don't want to read this story just because it includes decapitation, porn, and necrophilic sodomy, then…er…blame the editors! Yeah!) If this story was written for the American comics market, it would certainly be different than the way it was written for Japan. (For instance, in America, the gonzo way Smith draws certain characters might have provoked accusations of racism, nevermind that Smith is multiracial and only one of the main characters of Peepo Choo is white.)

"Peepo Choo," the manga within the manga, is totally bonkers and non-realistic; while vaguely Pokémon-like, it's an explosion of sumo wrestlers, ninja, ramen chefs, and Mt. Fuji, i.e., all mixed-up stereotypes of Japan. (Not to mention the scenes of exquisitely detailed human feet and giant lumps of sh*t spewing out of Peepo's mouth.) The contortionist "Peepo Dance" poses don't have any real-world analogue in otakudom that I can think of (it definitely ain't Haruhi dancing), and feels like something that was included, understandably, to show off Smith's rubber-bodied drawing talents. The terrifying truth that blows Milton's mind, as revealed in flashback, is that "Peepo Choo" was never popular in Japan, being merely a cheap-and-easy-to-get Japanese license scarfed up by the suspiciously Tokyopop-esque company, Japa-Tastic Manga Publishing & Licensing" (whose CEO gives a passionate speech about manga at Wizard World Chicago before going backstage, taking off his otaku outfit and gloating "It's so easy to sell to the otaku crowd!"). Everyone in America loves it, but in Japan, Peepo Choo was a massive failure, one of the sort of obscure indulgent cult manga Manga Zombiewas written about; the creator, Ringo Plum, even was said to have killed himself afterwards.

As a subplot, this is interesting, but as a commentary on J-pop in America it's a little outdated. Maybe back in the '80s American fans weren't aware of what was currently hot in Japan, but the rise of the internet has made Western and Japanese manga fandoms closely connected, and something like this would be unlikely to happen today. There are a few other ways that Peepo Choo doesn't feel quite current, or perhaps doesn't feel quite honest with itself. The story's criticism of the gravure industry, for instance, is hesitant compared to the way it slags on other aspects of pop culture. The scene where Milton observes Japanese people reading manga on the train ("So many people read comics in public!") is a bit nostalgic and quaint, since the heyday of public comic reading in Japan is long past; my own impressions from visiting Japan are that, like in America, everyone's just reading their smartphones. I also detect a bit of wish-fulfillment on the part of Morning Two's editors when Milton is shocked to see that (in this world) most Japanese manga have realistic topics: "Most comics here take place in everyday Japan. And the characters, for the most part, are common Japanese, people going about their daily life." That's half true, but it, too, seems more relevant to older manga; manga used to be mostly like this, but the vast boom in manga in the past 20 years have been in otaku-y manga, the moe and maids and Boy's Love and all the other fetishes for the deep-pocketed hardcore nerds.

In the end, Peepo Choo also aims for hardcore nerdiness and the warm sense of familiarity and camaraderie that implies. In the third volume Milton and his new Japanese friends go to Akihabara and geek out, a scene as predictable in otaku manga as training scenes are in shonen manga. The idea that Japanese geekdom might be more complicated than this, or might have divisions and subcultures within itself (like Smith acknowledges with the American nerds), isn't addressed, perhaps just because three volumes isn't a lot and Smith was running out of pages at this point. Coming out as an otaku and "being yourself" is the ultimate, time-worn moral of the story; even Gill, seemingly a brutal force of pure violence, turns out to have dreams of a different life on the inside. In the end, even Reiko embraces her true nerdiness and, overcoming her fear of social disapproval (and of American men), happily cosplays in public. (Perhaps the ultimate moral is actually "gravure modeling bad, cosplay modeling good.") Beneath the boobs and slaughter, Peepo Choo is a heartwarming otaku coming-out story, but it must be Smith's subversive side that makes Reiko's cosplay look less like cosplay and more like a latex fetish suit.

Peepo Choo is a little rushed and packs a lot into three volumes—it seems like it may have been cut slightly short, indicating it wasn't a big hit, although it obviously also wasn't a total bomb either. In any case, Felipe Smith is currently back in America working on Freelancers, a comic (not marketed as a manga) for which he's been described as "one of the best crazy-sex-and-violence comics guys around." But regardless of sex & violence, he's a great artist and I'm looking forward to all his new work. Peepo Choo is ambitious and demented, with the perfect flow and visual storytelling that makes a great manga. Or maybe what I love about it, as a "manga," is that it's 200 pages long and in black & white rather than 24 pages long and in color. I don't know. I can't define what's manga. I only know what I like.

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