The Revolution Will Be Japanified: Pure Invention and the Multifaceted Influence of Japanese Pop Culture

My daughter has a plush octopus named Veronica. Veronica, a Squishmallow brand toy, came with her name, as well as a stated interest in pretzels, reading, and having adventures. She also has two perfectly round black eyes and a teeny tiny smile all set close together, a face that I would easily describe as “kawaii.” When I was a child, the general public would not have understood this descriptor. Now, however, it is easy to take for granted how much this Japanese ideal of cuteness has taken over the marketing of toys — among other things.

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Matt Alt’s new book, Pure Invention: How Japan’s Pop Culture Conquered the World details how we came to this point, beginning with the history of US-occupied Japan’s rise from the humiliation and devastation of World War II as the country who would take over the toy business. From the creation of a simple tin-scrap jeep in the 50s, to the invention and improvement of karaoke, arcade games, video game consoles, and the eventual export of anime and manga, Japan has wiggled its way into the Western consciousness even in spite of especially American fears and prejudices concerning a Japanese takeover. As Alt states, the science fiction of the 80s was littered with the idea of Japanese power dominating white Western culture (see: Blade Runner). Though we are not all speaking Japanese and committing our allegiance to the Emperor, these visions of Japanese aesthetic co-opting our everyday lives was remarkably prescient.

Not every aspect of this globalization of Japanese tastes has been as innocuous as toy design, however; Alt spends a great deal of time tracing the alt-right’s rise on 4chan, a forum inspired by the Japanese 2channel. 4chan originated as an anonymous forum for exchanging anime screenshots and the creation of memes, but in time anonymity provided a mask for disenfranchised white men and boys behind which they could say whatever they liked to whomever they wished. Despite anime and manga’s Japanese origins of affiliation with leftist radicals, Western Twitter is rife with belligerent users referred to as “anime avatars,” who seem to enjoy reiterating far-right talking points and harassing those whose views do not align with their own.

It is fascinating to see the trajectory of Japanese influence on the West, complete with both the ways in which it has fostered incredible progress and in which it has reinforced white supremacist ideals. The world we know today was not created in a vacuum, and Alt has given the historical context for a host of surprising facets of our modern lives. But he has also written a fascinating history of Japan itself, as both influenced by Western culture and drawing upon its own traditions and expertise. Take, for instance, the creation of Hello Kitty, that well-known ambassador of kawaii. Sanrio founder Shintaro Tsuji’s childhood exposure to the American “birthday party” inspired him to make cute necessities, something special for children from a man whose own childhood was fraught with war and poverty. The story of Sanrio’s growth, hiring women designers at a time when women were rarely in positions of power (and even here, would have to fight for top positions) and connecting with the children of a booming economy, is a testament to the way in which Japanese companies court the tastes of girls.

An entire chapter of Pure Invention is dedicated to the economic powerhouse that is female consumerism. Teenage girls have always been at the forefront of what is trendy, and no more so than in the popularization of pagers, cell phones, and fashion on Tokyo’s bustling streets. I remember when “Harajuku style” was all the rage to Japanophile teens here in the US (because I was one of those teens), and I still swoon whenever I see a photo of delinquent girls from the 90s in their over-long sailor skirts. They’re cool. They’re aspirational. And they helped drive sales for decades, even when the Japanese economic bubble burst, tossing Japan into a depression, the perfect example of the fallout of late-stage capitalism.

I am a great lover of history, and obviously a lover of Japanese pop culture, so perhaps I was predestined to enjoy this book. But beyond the subject matter, it is an exhaustively researched, eloquently written text which had me reflecting on my own experiences with the likes of Sailor Moon, Power Rangers, and my best friend’s Nintendo 64 in the 90s and early aughts. Looking back through my personal past, I can track the steady increase of Japanese and Japanese-adjacent sway on my media and consumer diet, a microcosm of what was happening to youth culture on the whole at the time. I look around my home and, though I am perhaps a special case as a manga collector and critic, see hundreds of examples of Japanese influence in my life. I recall having a lactation consultant, of all things, comment on the pile of manga I had sitting on my coffee table when she came to work with me, because her son reads manga — not a conversation I was expecting to have while preparing to learn about latching and milk supply! But so omnipresent is the saturation of Japanese goods that I did have that conversation, and have had many like it in equally surprising circumstances.

Manga has its own special place in Pure Invention, alongside anime and discussion of the student riots of the 60s and 70s. Osamu Tezuka is rightfully profiled, Alt even mentioning the God of Manga’s place in his own life. But the important takeaway is the rise of manga and gekiga as a catalyst for leftist movements, the heroes of these comics serving as inspiration for a group of young people who sought change and justice as they struggled to find work and purpose in their lives. It is the opposite of the American alt-right co-opting anime today, spouting ideas about how Japan is a country untouched by “political correctness” — an interpretation that shows just how little these individuals understand about Japan, and which implies that they are perhaps the ones who most need to read this book.

I am hesitant to say that Pure Invention is nostalgic, exactly, because Alt is far too aware of the drawbacks of Japanese globalization as well as the benefits. But he is open about his own youth being touched by the various new innovations in tech and media through the 80s and 90s. He never takes over the narrative with his own story, but rather provides context for growing up as a young American giving in to the onslaught of imagery and ideas from the East. That touch of intimacy helps the reader feel invested, as well, and like they can trust Alt — someone who, probably much like them, cares deeply about Japan. Matt Alt has been writing about Japan for many years, though this is the first of his books that I have had the pleasure to read. I intend on finding more of his work soon, as I was thoroughly impressed and engaged with this book.

You can learn more about Alt, his books, and his localization company at his website.

 

May Favorites

As I’m writing this, I’m gearing to move out of my apartment and into a new, slightly bigger one (the better to accommodate my ever-increasing manga collection, right?), and I’m surrounded by boxes and boxes of my stuff. There’s nothing that makes you want to consider a life of asceticism quite like moving. May has been very much a transitional month for me, in more ways than just a change of address.

I already wrote a little bit about my adventures at TCAF. That sojourn sparked a lot of excitement and motivation within me, so hopefully I’ll be stepping up on my manga writing even more in the aftermath — gotta ride that wave of inspiration for as long as possible!

And something I haven’t mentioned yet is that I have contributed a short piece on manga basics to the upcoming CBLDF Presents Selling Comics: The Guide to Retailing and Best Practices in the Greatest Modern Art Form. I am so, so excited to have been asked to do this; about six years ago, CBLDF and Dark Horse collaborated on a similar book all about manga that featured writing from many intelligent, excellent writers whom I greatly admire. And since I have a lot of strong feelings about comics retail and selling manga in particular, this felt like an excellent first foray into comics print publication for me.

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In between all the travel and writing, I did get a chance to read some really excellent books of all stripes. As usual, it’s time for me to highlight my favorite comics for the month!

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A Quick & Easy Guide to Queer & Trans Identities, by Mady G & J.R. Zuckerberg — published by Limerence Press

Last year, Oni Press’s Limerence imprint published A Quick & Easy Guide to They/Them Pronouns, which I thought was absolutely excellent, and I was gratified that we sold a ton of copies at Comicopia. With its friendly, non-judgmental tone and low price point, it was a really nice, gentle introduction to the topic of non-binary genders for people of all backgrounds. And so, I was very excited when Queer & Trans Identities was announced. It’s slightly less auto-biographical, but equally kind in its delivery with the added bonus of covering a lot of ground succinctly. There are two “stories” going on at the same time: A snail is teaching other snails all about different human identities and expressions, and a fantasy world populated by “sproutlings” shows the identity progression of one of its citizens. The artwork is adorable, bright, and fun, and the back matter encourages readers to create their own “sprout-sona” and design matching friendship jackets. I think what I enjoyed most about this guide was its dedication to inclusivity, and its patient guidance through myriad identities and sexualities — and a wonderful chapter on forging healthy, caring relationships that everyone, regardless of gender or sexuality, could use. I think this is a wonderful addendum to any coming-of-age talk that a parent or teacher might have with a young person, and it provides resources for further research as well. Growing up, I had to figure out my own ideas of gender and sexuality without the guidance of any adult queer person, and even though I have no real regrets or concerns about my own path, I think this is an endlessly valuable guide that I and my peers could have really benefited from.

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Kid Gloves: Nine Months of Careful Chaos, by Lucy Knisley — published by FirstSecond

It is a really, really scary time to be a person with a uterus in the United States right now. Abortion rights are being overturned state by state, causing people like me — even those of us who want to get pregnant and have children! — to worry about our autonomy and our value in the eyes of the law. So it was a really interesting time to decide to read Lucy Knisley’s autobiographical account of her very high-risk pregnancy — a book I had been patiently waiting to read since it came out, but scores of people already had on hold at my local library. This was actually the first of Knisley’s books I’ve ever read, though I do follow her avidly on Instagram, and it was worth the wait.

From the time most girls are born, there is an emphasis on them becoming mothers, whether intentionally or by accident. There is a lot of burden placed on girls and women to have babies and also to prevent them, lest they be marked “fast” or “easy.” But what I think doesn’t get talked about quite enough is how complicated and often dangerous pregnancy is — or how little control a pregnant person has over what happens to their body and their baby, in the grand scheme of things. So I appreciated Knisley’s openness about her two miscarriages, her extraordinary battle with constant morning sickness, and her concerns about pre-eclampsia that went unaddressed by her doctor. All these deeply personal and evocative anecdotes are peppered with chapters on the history of pregnancy and gynecological medicine, which is a personal interest of mine anyway (I love the Sawbones podcast!). And though she struggled so fiercely through her pregnancy, it is so clear how much she loves her son, how grateful she is for his presence in her life. This is an excellent read for our times, a good reminder that pregnancy and motherhood should never be forced upon a person, that it is a great risk and a great responsibility.

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Saint Young Men, Volume 1, by Hikaru Nakamura — published by Kodansha (digital only)

I feel as though I’ve been waiting for this manga all my life. It’s commonly known that mangaka Hikaru Nakamura has been hesitant for Saint Young Men to have an English-language release, for fear that it might stir up some religious controversy. But as a proudly lapsed Catholic, I am ecstatic that it has finally made it Stateside. I am a huge fan of religious comedies; my favorite novel is Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, and Dogma is pretty high up on my list of favorite films. So the premise of Jesus Christ and Siddhartha Gautama kicking it in a tiny apartment in Japan just for fun is exactly in my wheelhouse. I appreciate anything that humanizes the figures that people worship, that allows common people to identify with these holy beings. I think that at the root of spirituality is the understanding that at our most basic, we are all connected to one another. And somehow, I think that comedy often conveys this idea better than any fire and brimstone sermon, catching us with our hearts and minds more open than they would be when we’re expecting to be lectured. Nakamura has a knack for finding the little things that elicit the big laughs — like how Jesus is so enamored of the fact that teenage girls think he looks like Johnny Depp, or how Buddha loves Osamu Tezuka (and especially Tezuka’s biography of Buddha himself). She’s also extremely adept at illustrating extreme expressions and inserting funny little tidbits, like the text on the T-shirts that Buddha screen-prints for the two of them. I really hope that this volume sees a lot of success so that maybe a print version will follow along soon!

It looks like I covered some heavy territory this month — gender identity, pregnancy and parenthood, and religion. But I was left with feelings of immense peace and gratitude after reading all these books, and I was able to reflect on my own ideas and beliefs without feeling judged or confused. It’s a rare thing, in our world today, to come away from hot-button issues feeling refreshed rather than completely exhausted and demoralized — and trust me, I’ve spent plenty of time there lately, as well. I always appreciate when reading can both be informative and act as a refuge, as a tool of empowerment to be wielded in my day-to-day life. We are very lucky to see these kinds of works being published, and I can’t wait to see what else we can look forward to in the future.

My Favorite Reads of 2018

It’s that time of year again, where every single nerd news site tells you what the best-of-the-best comics of the year are.  I’m always wary of trying to make blanket statements about literature, but I did want to share a few of my favorites from this past year.  I’ve done a LOT of reading, and I feel as though I’ve branched out more than usual (or more like, there have been more titles in Western comics that have appealed to me than there have been in the past).

I didn’t give myself a limit to the number of books I chose, nor any kind of guideline as to theme, tone, etc.  I just picked the ones I felt strongly about!  These are listed in roughly the order I read them in, and by no means in order of quality.  They’re all top-notch, anyway!

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The Prince and the Dressmaker, by Jen Wang

Prince Sebastian has a BIG secret: sometimes he likes to wear dresses and go out on the town as Lady Crystallia.  In addition to keeping this part of himself hidden from Parisian society, he has to deal with his parents determinedly seeking out a bride for him.  Enter Frances, an extremely skilled seamstress with dreams of fashion design whom Sebastian employs to outfit him for all occasions, public and secret.  The story of these two growing together and learning to be their best selves is captured incredibly in Wang’s bright, flowing artwork.  Plenty of humor helps to balance out the heart-rending moments that remind the reader to never lose sight of the things that make them unique.

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Brazen: Rebel Ladies Who Rocked the World, by Pénélope Bagieu

I genuinely did not expect to adore this book as much as I do.  I’m not well-versed in the non-fiction graphic novel, and I’m often suspicious of cheery, pink-emblazoned “girl power” books — not because I don’t believe in girl power, but because it’s hard to encapsulate in one book what it is about womanhood that is so unique.  That said, I was truly fascinated and enthralled by the stories that Bagieu, in her whimsical style, has presented in this hefty tome of awesome and awe-inspiring women.  Women from all backgrounds, in all types of careers, with differing needs and goals, and with all sorts of romantic entanglements and personal dramas, are presented for the reader with reverence, joy, and good humor.

 

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Go For It, Nakamura!, by Syundei

I have been seriously reveling in the increased publication of good, sweet, not-super-fetishistic BL manga this past year or so.  In this exquisite example, young Nakamura knows for sure that he’s gay, and also knows for sure that he’s in love with his classmate, Hirose.  The problem is, he doesn’t even know how to become friends with Hirose, never mind try to ask him out!  Between caring for his pet octopus, perusing questionable BL for romance tips, and just generally trying not to act overly weird, will our stalwart hero ever secure Hirose’s friendship?  A familiar story for anyone who was shy in high school, Go For It, Nakamura! uses awkwardness, hilarity, and genuine heart to create a sweet and fuzzy one-shot that will make you yearn for more.  Syundei’s artwork is adorable, and very reminiscent of that of manga powerhouse Rumiko Takahashi.

 

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Tokyo Tarareba Girls, by Akiko Higashimura

I wrote about my initial reaction to volume one of Akiko Higashimura’s forays into 30-something woman angst back when the print version first came out.  The series is now three print volumes in (with all volumes available digitally), and it has not stopped being maybe the most anticipated title in my pull at work.  Higashimura’s ability to poke fun at the stupidity of a woman’s society-bred anxieties while treating the same character with sympathy and understanding is so incredible to me.  I often find it hard to articulate what it is that makes this series so good, because it’s really everything.  Please…I don’t often make demands, but read Tokyo Tarareba Girls.

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Claudine, by Riyoko Ikeda

I find this manga hard to recommend, even though I love it.  It is a quick read; I read it from start to finish on my half-hour bus ride home from work one day.  But it is also a dramatic and sad read, in true 70s shojo fashion.  Our protagonist Claudine is assigned female at birth, but knows in his heart that he is a man.  Even his own father embraces Claudine as more of a son than a daughter, going riding with him and treating him like his older brothers.  Society in early 20th century France, however, is not as kind.  To the rest of the world, Claudine is a girl, and the tragedy here lies in the outmoded concept that any woman he might love will never lead a fulfilled life with a “woman” partner.  So in many ways, this is a fantastic achievement, being a trans story from 70s Japan; but it is also a story about a trans man from the perspective of a cisgender woman, writing at a time when shojo manga was about deep, dramatic personal struggles and utilizing queerness as a vehicle for those struggles.  If you can go into it with the understanding that it is a sad story (and yes, I did cry on that fateful bus ride home), it is a simply gorgeous and heartbreaking work of tragedy.

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Making Friends, by Kristen Gudsnuk

I’ve been in love with Kristen Gudsnuk’s work ever since I read the first issue of Henchgirl, back when it was released by Scout Comics.  Her artwork is fun, her dialogue is funny, and she makes plenty of obvious anime references that I feel are speaking directly to me and my sense of humor.  So of course I was thrilled when Making Friends came out, and I was not disappointed.  Protagonist Dany is starting middle school, where she is separated from her friends and everything that was familiar to her.  She turns inward and begins to draw in the sketchbook she recently inherited from her recently deceased great-aunt.  Soon she discovers that anything she draws in the sketchbook — including the head of her favorite anime badboy — comes to life!  She quickly devises a plan to create a new, perfect best friend.  But as we all know, magic has serious consequences, and Dany is going to have to figure out how to fix the mess she’s made.  Gudsnuk does an excellent job of keeping this story about friendship and responsibility from becoming saccharine or tropey, instead treating every character with equal weight and relying on her uncanny knack for coming at a story from a slightly sideways perspective.

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Satoko and Nada, by Yupechika and Marie Nishimori

This was absolutely one of my most anticipated titles of the year, and man oh man did it hit a home run for me.  Upon initially receiving it I was uncertain, as it is laid out in 4-koma format, which I usually find cute but not particularly compelling.  And yet in this easy gag style, with simple illustrations, Satoko and Nada manages to be a profoundly intimate story of friendship between women and across cultures.  Nada is a college student from Saudi Arabia who is looking for a roommate.  Satoko, a student in the same school, has recently arrived from Japan and chooses to become that needed roommate.  Thus begins this tale of two people from very different backgrounds as they live together and learn all about each other and about their multicultural friends.  Warm-hearted, informative, and full of meme references, this manga really surprised me in the best possible way.  I want everyone to read it!

(Just an honorable mention here: I reread two of my absolute favorite series this year: Pet Shop of Horrors, by Matsuri Akino, and The Wallflower, by Tomoko Hayakawa.  One day, I’d like to write at length about both of these series, but as they’re old and hard to find, I opted against adding them to this list.  Look forward to an analysis of them one day, because I am very attached to them both!)

As you can see, I read a lot of very heartwarming stories by or about women this year.  I have been immensely impressed by the range in stories and creators I’ve had access to, and that’s something I want to see continue to grow year by year.  My reading list has been a bright spot in what has been a very tumultuous year otherwise (personally and in the world at large), and it gives me hope that more differing voices are being tapped to tell more and varied stories.

Looking forward to reading more in 2019!