Republic of Pokémon


Roland Kelts embodies his book’s title: He is an American whose mother was born in Japan. Although he loves the increasingly entwined pop culture of the two
countries, his analysis is more nuanced than that of a typical otaku (basically, an obsessed fan, especially of anime and manga, Japan’s animation and comics industries). Like a Wired magazine article on steroids, Japanamerica segues between street-cred observation (“as with an explorer in cyberspace, among the first things that an explorer in Tokyo encounters amid the abundance is pornography”) and bullish corporate discourse (“The vanguard Japanese cartoons of the 1970s had softened the [American] market somewhat, but Pokemon was the driving force that tore it open.”)

Through the Internet, Kelts writes, we have all become “better acquainted with our virtual selves . . . the split between who we are or must be publicly, and who we yearn to be and sometimes are in private.” He believes that this cultural divide is less schizophrenic in Japan than in the United States: An upstanding Tokyo salaryman can grab a hentai manga (roughly, “dirty comic book”) along with his evening paper and read it openly on a jam-packed subway. As one hentai otaku informs Kelts, because of quirks in Japan’s obscenity code, “you can directly show girls being made love to by anything that isn’t an actual cock,” which leads to “demons with hundreds of tentacles, or trees with branches that do naughty things.” And despite entertainments such as a first-person rapist video game that allows “you, the player, [to] control everything, from the vigor of the attack to the tone of the victims’ pleas for mercy,” violent crime against women is exceedingly rare in Japan’s densely populated cities (if you except unwanted groping during sardine-tin-like commutes, which Kelts terms “a type of sexual harassment or assault that is very culture specific”).

Of course, early manga was mainly for kids (as much of it remains today), and Kelts recounts how the father of anime, Osamu Tezuka, was heavily influenced by Walt Disney, claiming to have watched Bambi 80 times. Now it is harried American parents who turn to videos of recent Japanese classics, such as Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle, to quiet the kids. Surprisingly, few Japanese artists have gotten rich through sales of their wildly popular wares. The creator of Pac-Man, the Ur-character of today’s ever more lucrative video game industry, is now a middle-aged salaryman working out of a cramped office, who poignantly emphasizes that he “received no particular bonus for inventing that game. People think I made a fortune and that I’m a rich man. I’m not.” Despite their success marketing cars and electronics to foreigners, the Japanese have done a poor job of profiting from their cultural exports. Nintendo’s Pokémon has earned $25 billion since its 1996 release—a sum, Kelts somewhat eccentrically notes, equal to “the annual GDP of Bulgaria”—but an American distributor has reaped the lion’s share of profits. Near the end of the book, Kelts visits the young, entrepreneurial president of Gonzo Digimation Holding, an up-and-coming Japanese anime studio. GDH wants to “leverage” anime into the States and has hired Hollywood actor Samuel L. Jackson (who has “otaku credibility because of his role in the most recent Star Wars trilogy”) to do the voice for Afro Samurai, one of the first anime projects primarily targeted at the U.S. market.

Amid the business reportage, Kelts, co-editor of the New York literary journal A Public Space, throws out some fascinating ideas (“Nostalgia is often a mask for rage”). And his descriptions of Tokyo’s neon-edged alleyways convey the kind of energy that feeds the country’s pop culture: A manga/anime shop is “crowded and noisily kinetic, like the insides of a pinball machine,” while an electronics emporium “makes Circuit City and Best Buy look like bodegas.” One of Japanamerica‘s most engaging chapters delves into DIY manga by otakus who mash up their favorite characters and sometimes print and sell the results. An executive of TokyoPop, one of the leading exporters of manga, tells Kelts, “[I]t’s totally illegal to publish these things, but it’s tolerated”—an outgrowth of what the Japanese term ” ‘permission of the dark’ . . . a kind of tacit approval.” In the long run, the concept of the artwork as original may be, in the author’s memorable phrase, an “analog-hardened mentality”—in other words, print and film, which are forever fixed, must now compete with a vast digital array of images, plots, and characters swirling around the planet at light speed, recyclable raw material available to the pros and fans alike.

If you wish to understand the nuances of otaku-dom, or are just hentai-curious, Japanamerica> is a broad primer; if you’re seeking investment opportunities in an increasingly incestuous world, it’s practically a prospectus.