Looking back to move forward: A few good gift books

Posted by on December 21st, 2010 at 5:32 AM

Ishihara's big bill

Last Friday, after ramming through Bill 156—the so-called “non-existent youth bill” targeting manga and anime imagery while exempting live action photography and video, not to mention live human beings who actually possess child pornography—Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, the former taboo-busting novelist turned moralist politico, claimed in his monthly press conference that Japan had become “too uninhibited” compared with “Western societies,” and added that readers of offending manga had “warped DNA.”

The subsequent decision by ten top manga publishers to boycott next year’s Tokyo International Anime Fair (TAF), slated for March 24-27, amounts to an unusual act of corporate protest in normally conflict-shy Japan, prompting Japan’s otherwise reticent Prime Minister, Naoto Kan, to post his first message under his own name, pleading for both sides to find a resolution.

TAF 2011: ripe for China?

No wonder: reports out of this year’s TAF were dominated by the arrival of several Chinese anime producers on the scene.  Next year, they may have the floor all to themselves.

Given such dire prognostications, it may be better, or at least more fun, to look back at a few of 2010’s gift-worthy Japanese pop culture publications.

The folks at Kodansha International help us decode two of the most ubiquitous icons of Japanese pop imagery—schoolgirls and ninja—vis-à-vis two authoritative husband-and-wife teams. Wired magazine contributing editor Brian Ashcraft and his wife Shoko Ueda, based in Osaka, bring us Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential, a surprisingly capacious work that covers every permutation of the uniformed femmes in manga, anime and flesh and blood live action, fatale or not, even recording the history of the Sailor Moon-style uniform itself, imported from the US by a fast-militarizing Japan at the turn of the century.

Another conjugal pair, Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda, having already enlightened us about Japanese ghosts (Yokai Attack!) and everyday cartoon characters (Hello, Please!), turn their lucid lenses to the myths and realities behind Japan’s irresistible secret agents, spies and assassins in Ninja Attack!. Revealing what true ninja actually wore (not the sleek black uniforms and masks of popular rendering, of course, because they tried to blend into their surroundings—duh), ate, brandished and so on, the book admirably balances the seductions of ninja fiction with the astonishments of historical truth.  (Did you know, for example, that Matsuo Basho, Japan’s most renowned haiku master, may have served time amid his nomadic wanderings as a spy for the shogunate?)

Both books are tidy, lightweight and colorfully designed paperbacks with ample illustrations and photographs that won’t alienate or bore manga and anime enthusiasts keen for visual aids. Concise sidebar definitions, diagrams and cartoon bubbles keep the layout fresh and inventive, enabling readers to dip in and be edified at random.

"Western societies" go crazy for cosplay

At the other end of the scale is the substantial hardcover photography collection, Cosplay in America, by Ejen Chuang, featuring a plethora of schoolgirls, ninja, Super Marios and just about any other manga, anime and video game character imaginable—or at least a bunch of Americans dressed up to look like them.  If you’ve never attended one of the hundreds of manga and anime festivals and conventions held nearly every weekend across the United States, this voluminous bilingual (English and Japanese) tome offers a sneak peek at the variety and dedication of Japanese pop culture’s overseas fans, whose elaborate costumes are usually at least partly homemade, if not entirely stitched by the cosplayers themselves.

Perhaps someone should send a copy to Ishihara so he can see firsthand what those “Western societies” are really up to these days.

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