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Wrong About Japan
Cover of Wrong About Japan
Wrong About Japan
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When Peter Carey offered to take his son to Japan, 12-year-old Charley stipulated no temples or museums. He wanted to see manga, anime, and cool, weird stuff. His father said yes. Out of that bargain comes this enchanting tour of the mansion of Japanese culture, as entered through its garish, brightly lit back door. Guided–and at times judged–by an ineffably strange boy named Takashi, the Careys meet manga artists and anime directors, the meticulous impersonators called "visualists," and solitary, nerdish otaku. Throughout, the Booker Prize-winning novelist makes observations that are intriguing even when–as his hosts keep politely reminding him–they turn out to be wrong. Funny, surprising, distinguished by its wonderfully nuanced portrait of a father and son thousands of miles from home, Wrong About Japan is a delight.
When Peter Carey offered to take his son to Japan, 12-year-old Charley stipulated no temples or museums. He wanted to see manga, anime, and cool, weird stuff. His father said yes. Out of that bargain comes this enchanting tour of the mansion of Japanese culture, as entered through its garish, brightly lit back door. Guided–and at times judged–by an ineffably strange boy named Takashi, the Careys meet manga artists and anime directors, the meticulous impersonators called "visualists," and solitary, nerdish otaku. Throughout, the Booker Prize-winning novelist makes observations that are intriguing even when–as his hosts keep politely reminding him–they turn out to be wrong. Funny, surprising, distinguished by its wonderfully nuanced portrait of a father and son thousands of miles from home, Wrong About Japan is a delight.
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    I was at the video shop with my twelve-year-old son when he rented Kikujiro, a tough-guy/little-boy Japanese film whose charming, twitching hoodlum is played by an actor named Beat Takeshi. How could I have known where this would lead?Over the next few weeks Charley rented Kikujiro a number of times, and although I was with him when he did so I had no idea how powerfully he'd been affected, not until he said, quietly, en passant, "When I grow up I'm going to live in Tokyo."

    Charley is a shy boy, and later I wondered if he had glimpsed a country where his own character might be seen as admirable. Whether this was true or not, his silent passion for Japan soon broadened, inflamed not only by Kikujiro but a whole range of other stimuli. I don't mean that he lay in bed at night reading Tanizaki or Basho. That would finally be my fate. He was twelve years old. It was the year before Iraq, before he discovered punk rock, NoFX, and Anti-Flag. He and his friends skateboarded. They had Xboxes and GameCubes and PlayStation 2s, and although he read for half an hour a night, he set the timer for exactly thirty minutes and closed the book the instant that it rang. What he then picked up were English translations of Japanese comic books.

    These came from stores inhabited by pimply youths sporting green hair and staples in their heads. Forbidden Planet is on lower Broadway, walking distance from our house, and I would accompany him there on Saturday mornings.

    Although I knew that Japanese comics were called manga, I would have said that a comic was a comic no matter what you named it. At Forbidden Planet I slowly began to understand that I was wrong. The first and most obvious difference in Japanese comics is the broadness of subject matter, from saccharine stories featuring little big-eyed girls to the dense and serious works of Osamu Tezuka, although this is not something one discovers in a single Saturday morning. What was immediately obvious was the startlingly graphic nature of manga which, in its clarity of line and dramatic blocky forms, echoed the Japanese wood-block prints of the nineteenth century.

    Charley and I were soon drifting uptown where, around Grand Central, we found places where the entire English language had been vaporised. Here, in stores catering to Japanese exiles, the graphic nature of manga was more dramatically apparent. Gone were the wordier English translations. Instead, we saw bold hieroglyphics stamped with two or three characters that could be read, although not by us, as unthinkingly as a traffic light.

    Charley soon became interested in a comic-book series called Akira--although a comic book is a skinny little thing, whereas a manga has an altogether different heft. Akira would finally run to six volumes with one-inch spines, and I remember how we walked for mile after weary mile in search of a store where the punk-faced slackers might have finally unpacked what we both knew was in their basement: freshly delivered cartons of Akira #6.

    Sometimes I was the censor but more often was delighted by artists I never would have discovered if not for my preternaturally tall, crew-cut son. While I never read Akira as attentively as he did, I looked closely enough to understand that it dealt with motorcycle gangs in Neo-Tokyo many years after an atomic devastation. Akira was the name of an immense, malevolent apocalyptic device or person--both, actually--that still lay dormant at the centre of the city. On Akira's graphic pages I found images so artful that I could imagine hanging them on my wall.

    Akira, born as manga, had also been made into an animated film which, being Japanese, is not called...

About the Author-
  • Peter Carey is the author of eight novels, including the Booker Prize--winning Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelly Gang, and, most recently, My Life as a Fake. Born in Australia in 1943, Carey now lives in New York City.

Reviews-
  • The New York Times Book Review "Manga and anime . . . become not only a key for unlocking Japanese culture, but a bridge over the generational divide between the author and his son. . . . Moving."
  • The Sunday Times "The mysteries of Japan and father-son relationships prove to be rich subjects, especially for a writer at the peak of his powers. . . . An entertaining and uplifting book."
  • The Denver Post "Curious and affecting . . . physically diminutive but emotionally huge."
  • The Economist "A pleasure to read."
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    Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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