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Sunday, Feb. 11, 2007

There is nothing two-dimensional about Japanese manga in the U.S.


Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S., by Roland Kelts. Palgrave, Macmillan, 2006, 223 pp., $24.95 (cloth)

In "Japanamerica," Japanese-American writer Roland Kelts explores how and why Japanese manga and anime have become as familiar to Americans as sushi or karaoke in the 21st century. Manga's exquisite drawings, overtly unreal characters and lack of happy-clappy endings have developed from sideline pop culture to a major commercial and trend-setting enterprise in mainstream pop music and Hollywood movies.

Many books have been written about the contrast between American and Japanese cultures. In "Japanamerica," Kelts examines the less obvious and the more intriguing -- the mutual adaptation that occurs between two very different creative consciousnesses and marketing mind-sets as manga and anime cross the Pacific.

With the great anime producer Hayao Miyazaki's hit movie "Spirited Away" as an apt starting point, Kelts looks back on the history of anime that begins with the life of Osamu Tezuka, the "father" of anime and creator of Astro Boy. Kelts' writing style is unpretentious and easily digestible; yet his research is diverse and acute. His interpretations of anime's development throughout the decades are seamlessly interwoven with anecdotes and inspired by interviews with an impressive variety of academics, professionals and fans for whom the well-being of anime is all but a life cause. With their insights, Kelts observes the macro and micro issues of the anime world -- economical, artistic and conceptual. He compares the silence and stillness that dominate many scenes in Japanese anime with Disney's early classics. He follows how the production and distribution of anime have been affected by the Internet age, the digital age, the falling birthrate in Japan and 9/11 in the United States.

What is it about manga and anime that speaks to the American people of today? For Kelts, it is the surprising lack of adaptation to capture American consumers that lies at the core of this investigation. It is fascinatingly ironic that the U.S., the land that attempts to harmonize Puritan morality with free individualism, has welcomed a morally and artistically uninhibited medium whose freedom is deeply and uniquely Japanese. "[T]he strict codes of etiquette and behavior that govern daily life in Japan also allow for an extraordinary degree of creative and social permissiveness," suggests Kelts, "the freedom to explore other identities, to test the limits of possibility."

From creatures that resemble no human or animal, to bestial and supernatural hentai porn, the "cult of originality" that America so prides is actually literalized in the magic of manga. Meanwhile, the Japanese acceptance of, and even pride in, self-absorption in such fantasy, which is ultimately harmless and endlessly imaginative, is epitomized in former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Elvis pose at the Graceland mansion alongside a bemused U.S. President George W. Bush.

The book is highly informative and interesting in its documentation of the productive and economic history of Japanese and Japanese-turned- American anime. But the book's main achievement is Kelts' interaction with those who work at the heart of the anime world, and those for whom manga is a lifelong passion. It is the personal stories that precede the acute observations that make this work precious: the American author who grew up on manga, the Japanese company manager who worked alongside Tezuka, the fan-writer who is ready to be more commercial than individual for his work to be sold.

Kelts acutely pinpoints the attraction of manga aesthetics by interviewing a former Ghibli producer: "[W]esterners think in terms of light and shadow. Japanese people know that no matter how much you change a shape, the elements are still there . . . no other country thinks this way." He precisely captures the craftsmanship of anime movies by quoting a director, the craftsman himself: "You never have director's cuts of Japanese movies . . . because the film you're watching IS the director's cut."

People are interested in fantasy when the reality is neither interesting nor satisfying, says Kelts. In the age of disparate sensibilities and disillusioned moralities post-9/11, he explores the inspiration behind this fantasy without Western prejudice or Japanese wariness. This is a personal record of enlightening research on both sides of the Pacific, told with much loving detail and complemented by opinions of "insiders" who all share Kelts' love of anime.

Roland Kelts will be appearing at Good Day Books (3F, Asahi Building, 1-11-2 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 150-0013) at 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 18. See www.gooddaybooks.com for more information.


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