Wrong About Japan: Peter Carey

★★½

This book caught my eye a while ago, not long after my return from Japan, because I hoped it would tell me a bit more about the country’s lively manga and anime culture. Only now have I got round to reading it (as lighter fare alongside the first five books of Livy’s History of Rome) and I’ve been left feeling rather perplexed. What is it actually meant to be? Part memoir, part travelogue, part pop-culture history, part social analysis, it skips between different guises without ever really settling on one, or fulfilling any. Strangely unsatisfying, it’s perhaps best described as a father-son road movie, in which Carey and his manga-obsessed twelve-year-old son Charley fly to Japan in search of the truth behind this international art phenomenon.

Carey is a stereotypical modern liberal father. He reads Charley’s mangas, watches anime with him and becomes intrigued by the storytelling techniques of this compelling art form. He offers to take Charley to Japan to find out more about manga, and Charley agrees, on condition that there is no earnest seeking after the ‘Real Japan’: museums and temples are forbidden. Carey plans a trip during which they will visit manga studios, talk to authors and seeks to understand more about Charley’s favourite series, notably Mobile Suit Gundam. This is where the alarm bells started ringing for me. I find it helpful, in a travelogue, to have a certain degree of sympathy with the author as they stumble through their encounters as a stranger in a strange land. But that sympathy is a little muted when all the author has to do is ring up, make some calls, and usher himself and his son into meetings with the big players of Japan’s manga world. I began to wonder whether the whole book hadn’t simply been contrived as an excuse for Carey to impress his son by taking him on a jolly to Japan. The idea of the book certainly seemed to follow on the idea of the trip, rather than the other way around.

So what do Carey and Charley actually achieve? Despite the ‘Real Japan’ being forbidden, Carey manages to book them into a traditional ryokan and forces the vocally reluctant Charley to attend a four-hour kabuki play, on the thin justification that kabuki is a parallel form of storytelling to manga. Instead of reading manga in the evenings, he seems to have brought a pile of novels by Tanizaki. During the days, they visit a swordsmith, talk to manga authors and unexpectedly meet a modern god of the manga world. Yet what do we actually learn from this? The book focuses on a tiny handful of named manga and anime, omitting any analysis of the immensely broad sweep of genres covered by these media. Carey himself admits that his discussions with the Japanese artists are unfulfilling: he comes full of questions about the deeper meaning behind the stories; about Hiroshima; about the impact of the Second World War on manga themes; about Commodore Perry forcing Japan to open up to the world; about robots as metaphors for atomic bombs, modern isolation or monstrous gaijin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the famously polite and reserved Japanese interviewees don’t really want to talk about such subjects, many of which might – I imagine – be rather offensive or upsetting to them. Carey’s reports of his conversations record graceful evasion and polite disengagement. We come away knowing a lot about what Carey thinks should underlie the development of manga, but not so much about what does.

There’s also the question of otaku. Carey is obsessed, throughout the book, with finding out more about this particular species of enthusiast. The word doesn’t refer to manga or anime fans per se, but to any obsessive fan who retreats from the world in favour of absorbing large numbers of facts about any given subject. Carey is far more troubled by these otaku than his son Charley seems to be: for Carey, there seems to be a tantalisingly dangerous angle to the term, gleaned from his forays into the dark side of the internet. And yet the most bizarre thing is that, despite being almost desperate to learn about otaku, Carey fails to take advantage of the most obvious source: Charley’s strange but compelling internet friend Takashi, who meets them in Tokyo. Takashi is like an allegorical figure in an old play, appearing at strange moments and dogging the Careys’ steps, both teenager and timeless spirit. He looms over the story even though Carey seems to spend most of his time trying to avoid him. Ultimately, if Takashi signifies anything, it’s that Modern Japan was under Carey’s nose the entire time he was there, but he chose to ignore it in favour of the Japan he wanted to see, with the authors and directors and swordsmiths in their elegant studios. Perhaps that’s a deliberate authorial implication?

The chief problem of the book is that I still don’t know what it was trying to do, having finished it. Carey is a good writer, of course – he’s won the Booker Prize twice, for heaven’s sake – and so it’s a perfectly acceptable tale of wandering in a strange city. He makes good points about how bewildering it can be to travel in a place where you don’t speak the language – something I’ve felt on numerous occasions:

This is how it is with travelling – the simplest things take on an air of great inscrutability and so many questions arise, only to be half born and then lost as they are bumped aside by others. The most mundane events take on the character of deep secrets.

But, ultimately, what does it do, as a book? I don’t feel that I know a great deal more about manga or anime, except that Grave of the Fireflies is inspired by the fireboming of Tokyo and sounds like a very powerful, if deeply depressing film. I don’t understand more about Tokyo or appreciate more about what the various artists were trying to do with their films. I do know that the Japanese sometimes see the wearers of large robot suits (as in Mobile Suit Gundam) as children returning to a womb-like state, rather than soldiers wearing artillery. But I don’t know why Carey wanted to visit a swordsmith, except that the heroine in one of the animes he has seen carries a sword. I don’t know why he was ‘Wrong About Japan’ either. What was he wrong about? He went looking for manga and he found manga. In my defence, most of the people he interviews seem equally bemused by what he’s actually trying to do. Their gentle, polite but evasive replies seem to be those of people who are humouring an unexpected guest. And what has Carey really learned? He keeps referring to the ‘stuff’ they’ve accumulated during their trip, but what about this journey really warrants being made into a book?

I’ve clearly missed the point. At least, I presume there is a point, because surely even a famous author like Carey can’t just rock up and say, ‘Hey, please publish this book about my forthcoming family holiday, and please arrange loads of cool meetings with these people my son likes.’ Can he? It seems unlikely. Maybe I don’t yet know enough about Japanese pop culture to ‘get’ what’s going on, but I felt distinctly underwhelmed as it skated over the surface of issues without ever really focusing on, or solving, any of them. There are throwaway references to Japanese history without really explaining how these relate to manga in particular, except sweeping generic statements about honour and the samurai code. Several times, Carey referred to Alex Lerr’s book Lost Japan, which I also have lying around somewhere, and which sounds like it might be a bit more up my street. I would really love to know of anyone else who’s read Wrong About Japan, and who can perhaps explain why I’m Wrong About This Book and what I’ve missed.

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6 thoughts on “Wrong About Japan: Peter Carey

  1. dehggial says:

    *‘Hey, please publish this book about my forthcoming family holiday, and please arrange loads of cool meetings with these people my son likes.’ Can he? It seems unlikely.*

    and yet here is the book detailing just that…

      • dehggial says:

        surely there is a lot of clout in publishing circles coming with winning a prestigious prize twice? Maybe he was too busy becoming a well known writer and realised he has not bonded with his son just yet – what better way?

      • The Idle Woman says:

        Well, in that case I feel justified in feeling so cynical about it all… Interestingly, the book has had very middling reviews – so more fool the publishers if they didn’t really look into the idea behind it. I can’t help thinking it would be far more difficult to get such a vanity project (if that’s what it is) through nowadays.

        But hey – I live in hope that someone’s going to rock up and defend the book and explain why it’s actually a searingly brilliant analysis that I’ve just failed to understand…

  2. Heloise Merlin says:

    I have not read the book by Peter Carey (or anything else by him) either, and do not have a clue what may have been going in there but I wanted to jump in here and mention (totally off-topic, of course) that I have watched Grave of the Fireflies (several times, in fact) and can confirm that is a very beautiful and extremely moving (if not exactly uplifting) film which I strongly recommend watching if you ever get the chance.

  3. Diana @ Thoughts on Papyrus says:

    Interesting! I find it hard to find books on Japan which are worthwhile, accurate and insightful, so I am not surprised that this one fell short. Frankly, Carey’s style of writing has not been my favourite (his Oscar and Lucinda was all over the place in my opinion), but that is a matter of personal taste, I guess. I have not read Alex Kerr’s Lost Japan, but I have read and was impressed by Kerr’s Another Kyoto. He takes usual things about Japan which we know and makes us look at them completely differently.

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