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Giant Robots and Dunkin Donuts

Book Review by Sasha Simic, February 2005

Review of 'Wrong About Japan', Peter Carey, Faber 12.99

In 2002 the distinguished Australian novelist Peter Carey took his 12 year old son Charley on a trip to Japan. Charley, like a growing number of western kids, was obsessed by Japanese popular culture - in particular by manga (Japanese comics) and anime (animated films). Enthused by this interest, Carey used his literary contacts to arrange a series of meetings with top manga creators and leading figures in the anime studios in Japan.

Previous trips had convinced Carey that Japanese society was incomprehensible to westerners. The manga phenomena seemed to offer him a way into its more general aspects. Manga is massive in Japan. In 1995 1.9 billion manga were bought - 40 percent of all magazines sold. The top selling manga of 2002, One Piece, sold an astonishing 2.63 million copies. While manga is a medium, not a genre, and covers a broad variety of subjects, science fiction manga featuring robots, alien invaders and near-magical technology abound.

So off they went - Carey in search of the 'real' Japan via the Rosetta stone of Astro Boy, Akira and their ilk, Charley determined to avoid the cliches of temples, tea ceremonies and Kabuki theatre, and up for the attractions of Sega World in Electric Town.

Carey's quest was doomed to failure. His attempt to decipher Japan through manga was like trying to understand 1960s Britain via the work of science fiction puppeteer Gerry Anderson. He couldn't even get a consistent definition of the term otaku, often applied to anime fans, which may translate as 'nerd', 'trainspotter' or 'obsessive', or have seedier applications.

Prior to their trip Carey evolved the plausible theory that manga contained elaborate and exclusively Japanese metaphors. This wasn't so. Leading manga artists acknowledged their debt to American comic artists like Mike (Hell Boy) Mignola and Jack (Captain America) Kirby. Also the motivation for manga could prove brutally commercial. Mr Tomino, creator of the phenomenally successful Mobile Suit Gundam series, frankly admitted that he drew giant robots because he was commissioned to produce a series about giant robots by a firm that made plastic models of giant robots and wanted to sell more.

Nor was Japan as unfathomably alien as Carey believed it to be. Sadly Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts and McDonald's flourish, and gave him refuge when he had enough sushi.

But as this very short, very enjoyable book progresses it becomes less about the so called inscrutability of a given society to outsiders and becomes a very clear assertion of the common humanity that unites people across the barriers of language and heritage. It's the people that Carey and Charley meet that put them right about Japan.

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