William M. Tsutsui & Michiko Ito (editors), In Godzilla's Footsteps: Japanese Pop
Culture Icons on the Global Stage
(Palgrave MacMillan, 2006)

Roland Kelts, JapanAmerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has
Invaded the U.S.
(Palgrave MacMillan, 2006)

 

As the caché of Japanese popular culture grows in the west, whether it's Takashi Murakami's paintings; Haruki Murakami's novels; the familiar roar of Godzilla on the big screen; or the seemingly omnipresent Pokemon or Yu-Gi-Oh toys, cards and tv shows, it should come as no surprise that the subject has come under academic scrutiny. Here we have two books with very different perspectives on the phenomenon, one scholarly, looking back in time, one more from a fan/insider's perspective, examining the Japan's more recent cultural impact, specifically on the U.S.

All but one of the essays in In Godzilla's Footsteps were presented at a conference of the same name at the University of Kansas in 2004 to mark the 50th anniversary of the first Godzilla movie. So unsurprisingly, the majority of the thirteen essays discuss that mighty saurian and his role as post-WWII cultural icon. Unfortunately, the first handful of essays are somewhat dry and probably a bit difficult for the casual reader to get into, and it's not until Aaron Gerow's "Wrestling With Godzilla: Intertextuality, Childish Spectatorship and the National Body," wherein he likens the manga version of Godzilla to pro-wrestling that the essays begin to loosen up -- despite the wordy title -- and readers can begin to slide past the academic language and discussion and simply enjoy the content (there's much more to that essay, but the wrestling comparison's the hook!). This essay, in particular, is well-illustrated, using scans from old manga and movie stills to drive home Gerow's points.

Another fun and fascinating essay is Kevin J. Wetmore Jr.'s "'Our First Kiss Had a Radioactive Taste': Ohashi Yasuhiko's Gojira in Japan and Canada." Here Gojira is a modern play in which a young woman has brought Godzilla (Gojira) home as her fiancé, much to her parents' chagrin. Amusement ensues as the parents trot out Mothra, Gamera and others in attempts to dissuade their daughter from making what they think is a mistake (Gojira comes across looking much better than they do). Wetmore posits that Godzilla (in his guise as man in monster suit) traveled from the stage to the big screen and then back to the stage, and draws parallels to such western monsters as Dracula and Frankenstein, in their novel, stage and movie forms.

Sticking to the fine arts, the next essay, "Godzilla Meets Super Kyougen, or How a Dinosaur Saved the World," by Eric C. Rath, discusses how a slightly morphed version of Godzilla landed into a traditional type of play (kyougan, related to noh) as a man in a dinosaur suit. In the super kyougen play "The King and the Dinosaur," a biting satire against George Bush and the Iraq war, there is a dinosaur character who, "like Godzilla, was awakened by man as a warning of humanity's hubris and destructive nature." Although it turns out that this saurian is less inclined to rampaging through Tokyo and tends more towards coyote-style trickery, as it turns out (for instead of providing the Bush-like character a power bomb, he gives him a poo-bomb).

In one of the very few essays not about Godzilla, Chrstine R. Yano takes on that tiny, mouthless cat, Hello Kitty, in "Monstering the Japanese Cute: Pink Globalization and Its Critics Abroad." It's a fascinating peek behind the marketing power of Sanrio, the parent company that produces Hello Kitty and all her friends. The volume wraps up with two more essays not dealing with Godzilla, one discussing the revival of a cult Japanese tv series airing in Hawaii, and another discussing the rise of anime and manga's popularity in Russia.

While casual readers may find the academic language in some of the essays a bit off-putting, overall, In Godzilla's Footsteps is a fascinating look back at the early seeds of today's blossoming Japanese pop culture abroad, albeit one with a decidedly saurian bent (Godzilla did pave the way, after all). The professional tone is actually a welcome one for those of us who are used to participating in one too many fan discussions. There are copious footnotes for each essay for those who want to do further reading. Unfortunately there only a few images, all in black and white, and over half of them in the Gerow essay. More would have been welcome, especially for the essay on the cult television series, which few readers would be familiar with.

Roland Kelts' JapanAmerica, on the other hand, is a far more casual look at the impact Japan's pop culture has had in the U.S. At least, that's the general theme Kelts has set out for his book; he actually spends more time examining the impact this sudden explosion in popularity has had on the anime and related industries in Japan, and how ill-equipped they seem to be to capitalize on this boom.

In the book's first chapter, Kelts describes American's first early brush with anime -- the 1970's importation (and bastardization, as it turns out) of an animated series called Gatchaman, better known to you and I as Battle of the Planets (or G Force). The following chapter hops back across the Pacific to discuss the careers of two of anime and manga's luminaries, Osamu Tezuka and Hayao Miyazaki, setting the scene for the chapters that follow.

Kelts then draws on his personal knowledge and interviews with industry insiders in Japan to describe the current state of Japanese animation (and related products, such as games, toys and manga) sand what the future holds for the industry, both at home and abroad. It's absolutely fascinating, as a fan, to realize that an entire industry, in some ways, doesn't fully grasp that there's demand for its product beyond its country's borders. Some companies are taking action to see that they don't lose young talent -- or money on their intellectual property, but it's an uphill battle at this point.

Further chapters delve into some of the quirks of Japanese anime/manga (such as "tentacle porn") that are likely to bring it afoul of censorship abroad and fan-based efforts to participate in the creative effort (fan comics, cosplay -- costumes), both in Japan and in the U.S. On the whole, though, it feels as if there's relatively little discussion about the actual impact of Japanese pop culture in the U.S. Yes, Kelts does discuss the growing popularity of anime, manga and their related goods here. But he barely touches on what some significant issues, such as the strong female demographic for manga readership and the wild popularity of anime conventions, new ones of which seem to spring up overnight here. He does briefly mention conventions in the "DIY" chapter, but devotes far more time to a visit to a Japanese character café. Hopefully if Kelts revisits JapanAmerica, he'll talk to a few con organizers. He also doesn't mention Tokyopop's wonderful young adult novel line PopFiction, something they might never have considered, if not for the popularity of their manga line (it's possible that announcement didn't come until after this book was finalized).

Kelts has an occasional tendency to hyperbole, such as proclaiming that the Ghost in the Shell franchise has hundreds of volumes of manga (there's a few, but nowhere near that many) or that the first New York Comic Con's wild success was due to anime/manga fans (I was a panelist – casual observance suggested the vast majority of the attendees were traditional comic fans), which undercuts his position as author and makes him sound a little too much like simply a fan.

Despite these quibbles, JapanAmerica is a terrifically fun read for anyone with an interest in Japanese pop culture. Kelts has an easy-going style that's readily accessible and he has a wealth of fascinating information to share. For example, he devotes part of one chapter to a discussion of the man who invented Pac Man: how he came up with the idea (he was looking for a game girls would play, and he was inspired by a partially eaten pizza), and what ever became of him (still working as a salary man; he didn't become rich and famous). And there's more where that came from. Just be prepared for an emphasis on Japan, and much less on its American impact.

[April Gutierrez]