Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Wrong about Japan

When I bought this book I thought the title referred to the fact that Peter Carey had used this little jaunt to the Japan that existed in the imagination of his twelve-year-old son in order to revise his earlier preconceptions about this singular nation. The Japan in his son's imagination is clearly much the same as the one I have in mine, so I was looking forward to Carey's adroit observations.

I soon realised though that the title in fact refers to the repetitive experiences of wrongness about Japan that the Australian novelist had during this visit. He really would have had an easier time of it if only he wasn't so pig-headedly determined to be right about Japan in the first place. It reveals itself to him literally as a floating world - every time he moves in with this penetrating analyses it simply floats away out of reach. "Better to know nothing than just a little" they taunt him as he struggles to de-codify everything and everybody around him.

V gets the arse too when she detects this sort of presumptuous scrutiny - when people seem to want to probe beyond her individuality for her share of encoded collective trauma, death squads, dictators et al.

Each time his agent sets up an interview with an eminent mangaka Carey probes for repressed memories of fireballs and calcified children, and is parried masterfully almost every time. (Yoshiyuki Tomino, creator of Gundam cannily insists he only drew robots to feed the market for spin-off toys.)

It's true though that a number of separate American WWII air-raids, both conventional and nuclear, each left death tolls in excess of 120,000. So, compared with the fire-bombing of Tokyo, 9-11 was arguably a pissy little event, but punched above its weight symbolically. A friend that's a massive fan of Japanese popular culture but let slip the other night that he thinks the Americans should have finished the job completely and bombed Japan off the cultural map. They are by no means the strangest fish in the Earth's Aquarium, but they do seem to have a certain kind of weirdness that gets everybody else's back up. And one aspect of this is a steadfast unwillingness to admit to a gaijin that their subconscious fears and fantasies can be read like a comic.

The author and his entourage also meet Mr Yoshiwara the master sword maker, much like the character in Kill Bill Vol. 1. This encounter sets me up rather nicely for Gohatto, a film that Miseryguts has keenly recommended, as Carey uses it to get out a little history of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This was an era when the Samurai made up for the unavailability of women by developing a taste for young boys, and made up for the unavailability of actual warfare by slashing away at the bodies of the dead and the condemned with their fancy swords.

Carey then tries to pin down the meaning of the term Otaku - not quite interchangeable with our own nerd. He concludes that otaku belong to a generation of Japanese young people disciplined into being reflex data hoarders - "socially-inept information junkies" who spin themselves a web of non-intimate connections with a multiplicity of self-selected peers.

Before setting off from Manhatten Carey promised his son that they would steer clear of "the real Japan" - meaning amongst other things Kabuki, temples and tatami. Carey doesn't quite keep this promise as he seems determined to disclose the continiuity between the old world and the brash new one of Electric City. Yet there's another kind of Japan that's also quite hard to avoid, and Carey's account of being on holiday with his young son is given a bit of sharp edge by the contrastingly fuzzy line that separates the safely adolescent and the (often disturbingly) adult in Japan.

No comments: