Holiday Books for the OTAKU in You
by Roland Kelts
At a book signing in Washington, DC, two smartly dressed young black men plunked their just purchased tomes on the table and smiled up at me, their eyes intense.
"So, what do you know about Japanese rap and hip hop?" one of them asked, still grinning.
My response was a shrug. "Not much, I'm afraid."
Then I realized I was wrong. On the flight down from New York, I'd been reading Ian Condry's Hip Hop Japan: Rap and the Paths of Cultural Globalization, a thorough study of the trans-cultural interchanges between and among DJs and club scenes in New York, Los Angeles, London and Tokyo. Condry is a Professor at MIT and Harvard, and his work contains the appropriate academic bona fides. But his writing is also rich with vivid scenes straight from the Tokyo hip hop underground - often occurring well past midnight - the result of long hours of what anthropologists call "fieldwork."
I revised my shrug and answer and jotted down the book's title and author. Turns out the two were club promoters. Japanese DJs and performers, they told me, were becoming a very big draw.
A couple weeks earlier, I'd attended a performance by one of them, a Miss Monday, who rocked a jam-packed club of mostly white, college-age fans in downtown Cambridge, Massachusetts - at the behest of Professor Condry himself.
One of the finer dividends of the research and interview processes for Japanamerica has been meeting and befriending so many of its subjects: artists, writers, professors, fans, et cetera, some of whom produced books that have proved very valuable to me.
In addition to Professor Condry, I have become well acquainted with Professor Susan J. Napier, whose Anime from Akira to Howl's Moving Castle remains a revealing literary analysis of the medium's more sophisticated works. I will be reading her just published From Anime to Impressionism over the coming holiday season.
More recently I have come to know Professor Anne Allison, long a leading anthropologist in the field of contemporary Japanese Studies and a bold writer and cultural explorer. Allison's latest, Millennial Monsters, decodes the fantasies lurking amid the toys, games, anime and manga generated in Japan and consumed abroad, and examines their relationship to capitalism and the postindustrial sensibility.
And I can confidently recommend Professor Takayuki Tatsumi's dazzlingly capacious Full Metal Apache, which I've just reviewed. Tatsumi's insights into the increasingly synchronous imaginative output of East and West are mind-bending.
Beyond the ivy walls, you'll find the magic of Frederik L. Schodt's Manga, Manga, first published in 1983, but not dated a whit. I met Schodt in San Francisco during my tour, just before his latest book, The Astro Boy Essays - essential and infectious accounts of the life and work of Osamu Tezuka - was released to coincide with the first overseas Tezuka exhibition. In the same city, I also met Gilles Poitras, author of the Anime Companion series, illustrated guides to the 'Japaneseness' of anime and manga that provide children and parents with a deeper appreciation of the cultural traditions embedded in the art.
Tokyo-based author Timothy Hornyak views Japanese culture through the orbs of robotic eyes in Loving the Machine, an adroitly written and colorfully illustrated account of why, as he says, if robots are a part of our future, we should all hope they're made in Japan.
Sumie Kawakami interviews and analyzes disenchanted and independent-minded contemporary Japanese women in Goodbye Madame Butterfly, a tartly written, stereotype-blasting and beautifully made book from Indie publisher Chinmusic Press. And husband and wife teams Patrick Macias and Izumi Evers (Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno) and Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda (Hello, Please!) create utterly engaging photo booklets narrated with intelligence and authority that slip easily into the stockings of your choice.
If your own cultural traditions involve holiday gift-giving, consider this column a record of gentle suggestions for the bookish Japan-watchers on your list.
By Roland Kelts, Author of Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture has Invaded the US, Lecturer at The University of Tokyo and Contributing Editor of A Public Space
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