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by Callum May,

Pure Invention: How Japan's Pop Culture Conquered the World

Pure Invention: How Japan's Pop Culture Conquered the World
Professional translator Matt Alt's "cultural detective story" details the birth of anime, from historical figures of post-war Japan to Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto's bathtub brainstorm sessions. Pure Invention: How Japan's Pop Culture Conquered the World takes a look at how exports from Japan culture have changed the worldwide cultural landscape in a narrative style that is accessible both to academics and laymen looking for an exciting read.

It's strange. While I've taken plenty of chances to read books about Japanese pop-culture, I don't think I've ever finished one before. Rather, I'll scan the table of contents, find the topic I'm looking for, check the sources at the back, and put it away.

Pure Invention is not that kind of book. Authored by professional translator Matt Alt, it's described aptly as a “cultural detective story”, detailing the circumstances behind the creation of Japan's most influential exports. Here, the historical figures of post-war Japan aren't just facts and numbers but are instead introduced as characters within surprisingly detailed vignettes, built from an equally surprising amount of sources, including his own original interviews.

Pure Invention is split into two main parts and told chronologically. Following an introduction filled with inspiring prose about video games, gadgets, and the reinvention of Japan, we're dropped straight into occupied Japan and introduced to one of the country's most important post-war creators: a guy who made toy cars. I couldn't help but smirk. Alt draws us in with a cover adorned with sparkling anime eyes, Godzilla and Mario pipes, only to start with a tin jeep. But as you read on, the question turns from “Why wouldn't he start with something more exciting?” to “What sort of person would I be today if it wasn't for Kosuge's tin jeep?”

As stated in the introduction, Pure Invention isn't just a story about Japan, but also the story of how it shaped our identities. While my most formative introduction to Japanese pop-culture, the Game Boy, is introduced relatively late in the book, I wouldn't recommend skipping ahead. Through the use of frequent callbacks and a gripping narrative style, Alt makes every invention and inventor into a part of an ongoing connected story. What would Pokémon be without Hello Kitty and Ultraman? What would the Game Boy be without the Walkman? In this way, it only makes sense to start at the start.

I refer to Pure Invention as employing narrative style, but it's not the form of narrative you'd expect from a novel, but instead the equivalent of having a (very well-sourced) friend regale you with the history of Japanese exports over a couple of drinks. Like a friend would, the storytelling isn't consistently chronological, and often gets off-topic to talk about a somewhat related story. One moment we're learning about the design of Hello Kitty, and then Shigeru Miyamoto's naked in a bathtub. After a short few paragraphs about Miyamoto's bathtub brainstorming, we're back to Hello Kitty design again.

It's a fun narrative structure that constantly draws connections, but it can somewhat mess with the timeline. Alt, as a localizer familiar with recreating the text of Japan's best writers, is a master of narrative prose himself. Rather than saddling the reader with dates and facts, we're given detailed descriptions of life and the attitudes at the time. The vivid imagery serves as a way for us to understand the circumstances of these inventors. Therefore, it can somewhat break the illusion when the book steers off-course to take occasional trips in time, slipping ahead a few decades to conclude an anecdote.

It's little criticism when Pure Invention is in itself, immensely engaging. Although it has a somewhat distracted structure that bounces around between different vignettes, it always lands on something interesting. It felt like every chapter I was excitedly distracting my fiancee by telling her about something new I'd learned. This happened most frequently during Alt's original interviews. One moment he's talking about the history of the karaoke machine, and the next, he reveals that he's literally sitting down with its inventor (this segment is available to read on Kotaku).

However, the more contentious parts of the book are in the latter half, where things get uncomfortably recent. In the final chapter, titled “The Antisocial Network”, Alt details the founding of 2chan and how it led to the founding of the infamous 4chan. This eventually leads to a discussion surrounding GamerGate and the usage of Japanese pop-culture during the life-destroying spat. The chapter manages to justify its tenuous connections, but I can't help feeling a little disappointed that the 2010s is almost entirely defined by misogyny. Surely there's something more to be said about the last decade? Although the epilogue labelled “The 2010s” briefly discusses Hatsune Miku holograms and Pokémon GO, it appears that Alt is implicitly arguing that a forum concept that eventually helped facilitate the rise of a reality TV show star to the presidency is one of the most significant Japanese exports. It's not something I want to agree with, but he makes a compelling case.

Pure Invention is engaging, informative, and occasionally depressing. Rather than being steeped in a stiff academic style, it's incredibly accessible. Within the narrative prose are occasional cheeky remarks or references from the author, helping the reader through some of the more dense historical recounts. I went into this review with the belief that I'd end up recommending it to journalists, academics, and researchers. But instead? I can't think of anyone who wouldn't find this at least a bit interesting. All of our modern lives are shaped in some way by Japan. Pure Invention tells you how.

Review copy provided by Penguin Random House

Overall : A

+ Excellent narrative writing style introduces history in a gripping way. Original interviews offer a chance to get intimate accounts of the creation of cultural exports.
Occasionally chronologically messy.

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