The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons

The Night Parade

Title: The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons
Author: Matthew Meyer
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Amazon CreateSpace
Pages: 224

The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, which began its life as a Kickstarter project, collects roughly four dozen entries on various yōkai, which are accompanied by lavish full-color illustrations. Both the pictures and the text are by Matthew Meyer, an artist heavily influenced by Japanese prints. Meyer has lived in a rural town in Fukui prefecture since 2007, and, as he explains on his Kickstarter page, he has been collecting and translating local folklore for years. There are a number of other books on yōkai available for digital download (such as Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda’s fantastic Yokai Attack!), but what The Night Parade does especially well is to add regional color and variety to Japanese legends of supernatural creatures that may already be familiar to many Japanophiles.

Compiled in such a way as to resemble an illustrated bestiary, The Night Parade is divided into several sections, which include “In the Wilds,” “Out on the Town,” and “In the House.” The book includes entries on yōkai that appear frequently in popular media, such as the kappa, the kirin, the kitsune, the tanuki, and the yuki onna, as well as many lesser-known creatures, such as the bake kujira (an enormous ghostly whale), the jorōgumo (a man-eating spider), and the nuppepō (a flabby, stinky lump of flesh that lives in temple graveyards), and the nopperabō (who looks and acts like an ordinary person but has no face). Each entry contains information on the diet and appearance of these yōkai, their behavior, their interactions with human beings, and the various forms they may take, as well variations on and translations of their names.

Many of the entries are also peppered with interesting information about the historical and cultural contexts of these creatures. For example, the entry on the takanyūnō, or “tall priest,” contains a special section on why suffixes relating to Buddhism and Buddhist priests are so common in the names of yōkai. (Apparently, it’s not so much a connection to religion as it is a certain wariness regarding traveling priests, or at least strangers dressed as traveling priests.) The entry on the kerakera onna, a gigantic “cackling woman” who haunts the alleyways of red light districts and hounds men into their graves with her incessant laughter, alludes to the tendency in Japanese folklore to grant great power to long-lived things, whether they be cats (which become neko mata) or eating utensils (which become tsukumogami), and surmises that prostitutes who managed to live into middle age may well have become yōkai, an interesting conjecture that leaves the mind to wonder about what such a bit of folklore might correspond to in a less numinous context.

Meyer has published his work through Amazon’s CreateSpace program, which offers both print and digital versions of the collection. I can’t offer an opinion of the physical copy of The Night Parade, but the digital edition is beautifully formatted, and its images are of extremely high quality. Although the book is relatively kid-friendly, it includes frank (although far from explicit) references to prostitution and human sexuality. Most of the images are stylized as colorful and cute or understated and eerie, but a few (such as the illustration of the ubume, a spirit of a woman who has died during childbirth) may be too intense for younger readers. My honorary nieces and nephews have been delighted by pictures like the illustration of the onryō, a vengeful ghost who is depicted as a pale shrieking woman bleeding from her eyes, but discretion might be advised for more sensitive children.

Meyer has recently launched a successful Kickstarter project for a second collection, titled The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits, so expect another excellent illustrated bestiary from him soon!

Matthew Meyer - Tanuki

Hyrule Historia

Hyrule Historia

Title: The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia
Japanese Title: ハイラル・ヒストリア: ゼルダの伝説 大全
(Hairaru hisutoria: Zeruda no densetsu taizen)
Japanese Editors: Aonuma Eiji (青沼 英二), Shioya Masahiko (塩谷 雅彦)
English Editors: Mike Richardson, Patrick Thorpe, et al.
Translators: Michael Gombos, et al.
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Dark Horse
Pages: 280

Hyrule Historia is divided into four parts. The first part, titled “The Legend Begins: The World of Skyward Sword,” is a collection of artwork and design sketches from the 2011 Wii game Skyward Sword. The second part, “The History of Hyrule: A Chronology,” runs through the plot of every game in the Legend of Zelda series and demonstrates how they are all connected. The third part, “Creative Footprints: Documenting 25 Years of Artwork,” is a collection of art and design sketches from the entire series with a strong emphasis on Twilight Princess. The fourth part is a 34-page manga (of which ten pages are in gorgeous color) about the mythology of Skyward Sword by Akira Himekawa, a two-person team that has drawn the official manga adaptations of many games in the Legend of Zelda series.

The “History of Hyrule” section, which is about seventy pages long, gives the book its name. When the series timeline from this section was released and translated into English, there was a bit of a kerfluffle in certain circles of video game fandom that had gradually been building their own theories and didn’t appreciate the retroactive continuity implied by the official version. That being said, the timeline laid out by Hyrule Historia makes sense (inasmuch as anything involving time travel makes sense) and should be interesting to a fan of the series. The main bulk of the section, however, consists of condensed versions of the plot of each Legend of Zelda game. These plots are more or less what appears in the game manuals with very little extra or “never before revealed” information thrown in for flavor. Unfortunately, the basic “Link must collect items in order to earn the right to wield a special sword so that he can save Zelda after she is imprisoned by an evil entity” story begins to grow stale as it’s continually repeated across two dozen three-to-four-page increments.

The main draw of Hyrule Historia is its artwork. In the first part of the book, which is filled with artistic development materials for Skyward Sword, the reader can witness the incredible attention to detail and world building that went into the game. These images are accompanied by myriad creator notes, which are often surprisingly humorous. Thankfully, unlike the Japanese original, in which many of these notes were handwritten in tiny characters, the typeface used to convey the creator notes in translation is large enough to read easily.

Hyrule Historia Skyward Sword Townscapes

The artwork on display for the other games in the Legend of Zelda series in the “Creative Footprints” section is also quite interesting. There are all sorts of designs for the main characters, secondary characters, enemies, weapons, and items. There are also rough drafts of dungeon maps, enemy treasure drop charts, and other developmental materials, such as different drafts of promotional concept art. Some of this artwork shows exactly how enemy wings, tails, and teeth work, with suggestions for how different designs accommodate different movements. There are fewer written notes in this section than in the first section on Skyward Sword, but there is still enough text to draw the reader into the image details. I particularly enjoyed the architecture and island sketches from The Wind Waker, as well as the full designs of the stained glass patterns that appear in the game’s building interiors. I also enjoyed getting a sense of the evolution of the Link character in each Legend of Zelda game, as different designs show him as younger or older, or more or less serious, or wearing entirely different sets of clothing and equipment.

Hyrule Historia Spirit Tracks Link Designs

You can’t really see this in the scans I made, but the image quality in Hyrule Historia is impeccable; the book is something that you need to hold in your hands in order to fully appreciate. The emphasis of Hyrule Historia is obviously on Skyward Sword, but all of the Legend of Zelda games get multiple pages of attention. A great deal of the book’s text feels like it’s selling the series, especially in the “History of Hyrule” section, and it can sometimes be a chore to read. Still, artists and art appreciators will love the incredible array of sharp and colorful images, and the physical book itself is sturdy enough to handle all manner of wear and tear that may occur over the course of reference use. Dark Horse did an excellent job with this gorgeous book. If you’ve been on the fence about buying a copy, Hyrule Historia is absolutely worth your time and money.

The Art of Video Games

The Art of Video Games

Title: The Art of Video Games from Pac-Man to Mass Effect
Authors: Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Welcome Books
Pages: 215

I am going to be critical of this book.

I actually really like The Art of Video Games; and, even though I wasn’t able to attend the exhibition, I think the curators who organized it are superheroes. There need to be more books and more exhibitions like this. Plenty of people have written about how fantastic the book is, and I especially enjoyed Becky Chambers’s review on The Mary Sue. Since she did such a great job of explaining what the book is and why it is great, I’m going to focus on the structure and organization of the book and why I think these elements are flawed.

In short, I don’t think the video games featured in this book should be collectively considered as canonical or representative of the entirety of the beauty and artistry of video games.

It is my personal opinion (and I am willing to be corrected if I am wrong) that there is a huge gap between the video-game-related knowledge of people who play video games and the video-game-related knowledge of people who don’t play video games. People who play video games will generally have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours engaging with video games, reading about video games, and discussing video games with other gamers in person and online. They will generally be fairly well informed about their areas of video game expertise and have strong opinions about the games they have played. Even gamers who don’t have the skill set to play certain games are assisted by online walkthroughs and “Let’s Play” videos on Youtube, and most gamers generally read or watch reviews of more games than they have actually played. This applies not only to “hardcore” gamers, but also to “casual” gamers who spend an hour or two every week fooling around with games on their tablets or smartphones. To gamers, people like Katie Couric and Lauren Simonetti, who make broad generalizations about video games without ever having played them, are being highly intellectually irresponsible – it’s like saying Shakespeare is all about killing and violence without having read more than the top paragraph of the Wikipedia page on Macbeth.

To non-gamers who want to know more about video games, a book like The Art of Video Games may seem like a great source of information and a reliable guide. Make no mistake, this beautifully published book, which features dozens of titles and developer interviews, is a great place to start, and the institutional weight of the Smithsonian lends an undeniable air of credibility to the endeavor. Nevertheless, this catalog is far from complete, and it reflects the biases of the exhibition’s curators.

What I would like to argue is that, although the selection of titles featured in The Art of Video Games is obviously not random, the video games featured in the book don’t collectively form any sort of artistic canon and should not be treated as such.

To begin with, the organization and selection criteria of the games considered for inclusion have resulted in several peculiar idiosyncrasies. The book is organized in two ways: first, by gaming generation and console; and second, by four arbitrarily demarcated genres of video games (target, adventure, action, and tactics). What this means is that video game consoles with relatively limited libraries (such as the Sega Dreamcast) are given equal representation with video game consoles with enormous libraries (such as the Sony PlayStation). Also, even though the four genres are so nebulous as to be almost completely meaningless, the curators did their best to ensure equal representation between genres. What this means is that successful and popular games will be excluded in order to include niche games that fit neatly into one of the four genres.

In order to get an idea of how this organization limits the games that appear in The Art of Video Games, consider the book’s section on the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. The Super Nintendo sold 49 million units, while the Sega Genesis sold 29 million units across its eight different releases. Although the two systems had comparable libraries in terms of number of available titles, the Super Nintendo had far more bestsellers in terms of millions of units worldwide than the Genesis. (I am not making these numbers up, by the way.) Still, in The Art of Video Games, both the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis are represented by four games each.

The single most iconic game of the Sega Genesis is Sonic the Hedgehog, which almost single-handedly rescued the Genesis from complete obscurity. Because there can only be one “action” game included, however, Sonic the Hedgehog is missing from the catalog, as it has been supplanted in the action category by Gunstar Heroes, which is just as excellent a game as Sonic (and Sonic II) but far less well known or influential. The strict genre categories thus limit effective representation of the strengths of the system and the unique characteristics of its game library.

Meanwhile, on the Super Nintendo side of the 16-bit section, the games featured are Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, Star Fox, and… SimCity? In their introduction to the section, the curators directly refer to all of the glorious role-playing games that sprang up like mushrooms in the console’s library, but the game they selected to represent the glory of the golden age of the RPG is a port of a simulation game that was released for personal computers. The organization schemata simply do not allow for the type of flexibility that would allow for both A Link to the Past and one of the role-playing games for which the system is so well known.

In 2011, the curators launched a website with 240 preselected games, which were divided into the aforementioned four genre categories. The website placed an open call to the online public to vote on which games would be included in the exhibit. According to Chris Melissinos, the chief curator of the exhibit, more than four million votes were tallied, and thus the eighty games featured in the exhibition and the catalog were selected.

Although this information may make it seem as if the games were selected by popular vote, what people were allowed to vote on was in fact severely limited by the curator’s decisions. According to the criteria established by the curators, voters had to choose only one game from each genre, and there was no option to switch a certain game between genres or to suggest a game that wasn’t listed on the form. Such voting mechanics effectively established a rigid quota system, which shut out evergreen gaming mainstays such as the Final Fantasy franchise.

Another major limitation of the selection of games in The Art of Video Games is that it does not include games from handheld consoles. There is thus no Pokémon, which is the second most profitable video game franchise in the world (after Mario). None of the amazing work that Nintendo did with the phenomenally successful Nintendo DS system (as exhibited in games such as Phantom Hourglass and Bowser’s Inside Story) is mentioned, nor are the bestselling social games popular on the PlayStation Portable, such as the many titles of the Monster Hunter franchise. Smartphone and tablet games such as the groundbreaking Angry Birds series are also notably absent.

Another obvious limitation on the exhibition is took place in early 2012, which is already more than a year ago. Thus, the catalog includes BioShock but not BioShock Infinite, and Flower but not Journey.

Furthermore, there are no sports games, no fighting games, no lifestyle or party games (like Wii Fit or Guitar Hero), and no MMORPGs. It’s almost as if these sorts of games don’t fall into the category of “art” that the curators are trying to promote. On the other side of the spectrum, the catalog also excludes the more experimental and artsy games released for direct download on platforms like the Xbox Live Arcade, such as Limbo and Fez and Braid. Steam and its vast library of indie games are also not mentioned.

Finally, fan favorite games that never officially made it to the United States, such as Mother 3 and Terranigma, are completely ignored. Shūkan Famitsū magazine (probably the most respected video game periodical in Japan) ran a survey in 2006 polling Japanese gamers on their favorite games; and, to no one’s surprise, the list is dominated by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. No Dragon Quest titles appear in The Art of Video Games, however; and Final Fantasy X, which is at the top of the Famitsū list and extremely well received worldwide, is absent as well. The “visual novel” games that are popular in Japan (and popular abroad when they are imported and localized, such as in the case of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors) are also ignored.

In fact, the entire project feels very centered on the United States. Of the fifteen creator interviews included in The Art of Video Games, none are with anyone working primarily in Japan or with a Japanese company. It’s almost as if Japanese people had nothing to do with video games at all. Of course the institution hosting the exhibition is the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but many (if not most) of the video games featured in the catalog are Japanese in origin, and Japanese industry professionals such as Kojima Hideo were invited to participate in the events surrounding the exhibition. The Art of Video Games therefore does a great job of demonstrating that Japanese video games are very popular with American gamers, but it doesn’t explain how or why this is.

As I wrote earlier, I admire and appreciate The Art of Video Games. It’s beautifully published, the gorgeous layout and page design make flipping through the book feel like an adventure, and the text is informative and concise.

Still, I hope I’ve given a convincing argument for why I think the collection of games featured in The Art of Video Games should not be considered canonical or representative of the relative merits of any single title included or not included. Moreover, the games represented are not necessarily the most innovative and influential video games to have ever been released. I believe that the inflexible organization and arbitrary genre-based selection criteria play an important role in what games made the cut for this exhibition and its catalog. As with any sort of “anthology” of this type, the selection of titles included has a great deal to do with the personal experiences and life histories of its compilers. I have to hand it to the curators: they did a fantastic job. My criticism of the book they’ve put together is not a result of any failure on their part, but rather indicative of the extraordinary development of video games as a medium of artistic expression.

Yurei Attack!

Yurei Attack!

Title: Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide
Authors: Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
Illustrations: Shinkichi (Satoko Tanaka)
Page Design: Andrew Lee
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Tuttle

This is the best book ever, and I love it.

Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, the authors of Yokai Attack!, have come out with another fantastic field guide to the supernatural phenomena of Japan. Everything about this book, from the selection of topics to the authors’ sense of humor to the colorful and creepy style of the illustrations, is wonderful, and the physical book itself is a work of art.

Like Yokai Attack!, Yurei Attack! is divided into four-page entries on famous ghosts, ghost stories, and haunted places. Each of these entries contains not just the legends associated with the ghost in question but also its real-world historical background, its method of attack, and a short section on “how to survive” (which is always appreciated). The second page of each entry is a full-page illustration, and photographs and woodblock prints are scattered across the rest of the pages. The entire book is printed in high-contrast full color, so the images and page layout are just as entertaining as the text.

The ghosts indexed include fictional characters from literature and kabuki plays, real historical figures, and legends that have arisen from historical events. Lady Rokujō from The Tale of Genji is catalogued (that’s her on the cover), as is Oiwa from the Yotsuya Kaidan. The outcast Heian noble Sugawara no Michizane, the crucified peasant Sakura Sōgorō, and the fallen soldiers of Saigō Takamori’s counter-revolutionary group make an appearance. You’ll visit haunted hotel rooms, weeping rocks, castle ruins, tunnels and waterfalls with terrible histories, and the “suicide forest” of Aokigahara. The range of material on offer in Yurei Attack!, which includes famous ghosts and hauntings as well as lesser known spirits and folklore, is incredible, and the authors treat all of their subjects with equal thoroughness and attention. It was immensely gratifying to me personally to learn the full stories behind the vague urban legends I had heard regarding places such as the Sunshine 60 building in Ikebukuro and the tiny shrine dedicated to Taira no Masakado in Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward.

I especially enjoyed “Chapter Five: Dangerous Games,” which deals with matters such as how to curse someone and how to summon ghosts. In this chapter, the reader can learn about Kokkuri-san (which sort of like an Ouija board), all the ways in which ghosts can manifest themselves in photographs, and how real estate agents deal with “houses with histories” (wake ari bukken or jiko bukken). Speaking of haunted houses, apparently agents are legally required to inform prospective buyers if something terrible has happened on the property. If, however, the house has been occupied – for however short a time – since the incident, they don’t have to say anything. Luckily there’s a website that can be consulted to make sure that the reduced price you’re being quoted for a property isn’t due to a ghost: Oshimaland. Good to know!

The opening of the book is really cool, as is its back matter. The five-page introduction is a well-organized discussion on yūrei that highlights trends without forcing any interpretation on the reader, and it’s followed by a seven-step guide to ascertaining if the strange ghostly presence in your life is indeed a yūrei. In the back of the book is a glossary of Japanese terms, a cool (and I mean really cool) photo collage of Japanese toys based on yūrei, a short section on the ofuda charms believed to be able to drive ghosts away, and a bibliography that is actually worth reading in its entirety. There’s also a short guide to the Japanese Buddhist hells, which are all lovingly illustrated.

I can’t exaggerate the awesomeness of the illustrations in Yurei Attack!. According to her short profile, the illustrator is an “active creator” of dōjinshi, or self-published comics. Shinkichi’s pictures do indeed have a sketchy, digitally colored feel, but this is not a bad thing by any means, and her slender-framed, angular chinned human (and not so human) figures are wonderfully expressive. What Shinkichi especially excels at is portraying all of the myriad calamities that can befall the human body. Blood, rotting flesh, missing teeth, emaciation, severed limbs, bloated skin, burn wounds, disfigurations, dangling umbilical cords, scalping, biting, rage, and extreme fear – Shinkichi does it all. The illustrations are generally more fun and dynamic than they are Stephen Gammell-style nightmare fuel, but they can occasionally be genuinely creepy. Shinkichi’s depiction of the frostbitten soldiers who died in a training exercise on Mount Hakkoda in Aomori prefecture in 1902 is particularly disturbing.

I can imagine small children being really upset by Shinkichi’s illustrations, but older children (such as myself) should find them morbidly delightful. I think kids would probably go nuts this book in general. The combination of colorful and imaginative imagery is perfect for a young reader, and the book eschews any serious discussion of adult topics such as sexuality and religion. The bound volume is fairly sturdy and can withstand hard usage (it is a field guide after all), so no worries on that end.

What I especially appreciated about Yurei Attack! is that asinine overgeneralizations about Japan and Japanese people are completely absent. Nowhere in the book will the reader have to suffer through idiotic statements about how “the Japanese have always revered nature” or how “funeral practices are very important in Japan” or how “there is no differentiation between good and evil in Japan.” It’s kind of nice. If nothing else, Yurei Attack! proves that it is entirely possible to write a fun cultural study of Japan for a broad audience without relying on meaningless stereotypes.

Isora from Ugetsu Monogatari

Isora from Tales of Moonlight and Rain

Tokyo on Foot

Title: Tokyo on Foot
Author/Artist: Florent Chavouet
Publication Year: 2011
Publisher: Tuttle
Pages: 206

While I was in New York City for the New York Comic Con last weekend, I met a friend of mine for lunch. Accompanying her was her new fiancé, a really cool guy who’s lived and traveled all over Asia. All over Asia except for Japan, that is. He said that, based on the Japanese movies he’s seen, he’s a bit afraid of Tokyo. It seems too big, and too modern, and too noisy – hyperkinetic and almost like science fiction. I asked him what Japanese movies he’s seen. Akira and Lost in Translation, he told me.

I think that, for a lot of people who are familiar with Japan but haven’t actually been there, Japan exists not as a real place where real people live but rather as some sort of strange and exotic fantasy land called “Japan.” For some people, “Japan” consists of towering skyscrapers and flashing lights and all-night karaoke rooms, while for some people “Japan” is all about green mountains and cherry blossoms and Zen temples and tea houses. There is a touch of good old fashioned Orientalism at play here; but, then again, Japan actively markets itself in such a way as to encourage these assumptions, even domestically. Furthermore, the fantasy of “Japan” is perhaps not so fantastical – places like the 109 Building in Shibuya and the Philosopher’s Path in Kyoto really do exist.

In the end, though, Japan is a real place where real people live, and it’s not any more beautiful or ugly or modern or rural than, say, New Jersey. What I love about Florent Chavouet’s Tokyo on Foot is that it visually depicts Tokyo as a real city with many, many faces. Yes, there are huge buildings and busy intersections in West Shinjuku, but there are also tiny restaurants and old houses on the verge of falling apart in West Ikebukuro. And then there’s everything in between, from architectural oddities in Ueno to cute little bars in Daikanyama to Shintō shrines nestled between skyscrapers in Takadanobaba. Chavouet draws them all beautifully.

Tokyo on Foot is divided into neighborhoods, with each section opening with a drawing of the local kōban (police station) and a highly detailed annotated map. What follows this map are several pages of drawings of buildings, street corners, storefronts, landmarks, and occasionally people that the artist observed in the neighborhood. Most of these drawings occupy a full page, and all of them are in high-contrast full color. Chavouet’s drawings of people are caricatured, and his drawings of buildings and objects are almost photorealistic, but all of his subjects receive the same careful attention to detail. Chavouet’s medium of choice is colored pencils, and his pencil work really brings out the colors and textures of everything he draws. Really, it’s gorgeous.

Chavouet often accompanies his sketches with annotations. He’ll make small notes concerning the weather, how he got to a certain location, and what interactions he had with the people who watched him drawing. He’ll also include small cultural details, like the fact the Mr. Donuts offers free coffee refills. In each section, there is usually at least a page or two of smaller sketches illustrating concepts like the vast insect population of Tokyo or how to make a disco lamp using cheap materials from Tokyu Hands (“like Target, only better”). There is occasionally political commentary as well, such as when the artist draws the heads of conservative male politicians attached to the bodies of young women in bikinis or mocks the nonsense spewed by the right wing campaign trucks that tour the streets of Tokyo (“Down with kisses and TLC, long live war and mean people”). In a scattered and roundabout manner, Chavouet also turns a satirical eye on the police officers who repeatedly harassed him for parking his bike in the wrong place and/or loitering (in other words, staying in one place long enough to draw it).

What Chavouet draws is a Tokyo that isn’t some futuristic (or idyllic) alien city but rather a city where people live, work, drink, smoke, have trouble finding parking, chill out in coffee shops to get out of the rain, hang out with their friends, sometimes act like assholes or creeps in public, take lunch breaks in the park, and all the other things people do in a huge urban area filled with millions of people. Through his pencil work, Chavouet depicts the beauty of the monumental, the grimy, the quaint, and the pedestrian. Rows of potted plants outside of someone’s house in a small back alley just behind a major train station can be just as calming and peaceful as a painstakingly manicured Zen garden, and telephone poles covered in posters can be just as awe-inspiring as Corinthian columns.

I can’t wrap my head around how much I love this book. Get this book for yourself. Get this book for your hipster art school friends. Get this book for your mom who doesn’t understand why you care about Japan in the first place. And get this book for your friend’s fiancé who thinks Japan is exactly like Akira. At least, that’s what I plan on doing.

Bye Bye Kitty

Title: Bye Bye Kitty: Between Heaven and Hell in Contemporary Japanese Art
Editor: David Elliott
Additional Essay By: Tetsuya Ozaki (小崎 哲哉)
Publisher: Japan Society Gallery and Yale University Press
Publication Year: 2011
Pages: 125

I’m glad someone finally said it: Japan is not all cute, all the time. Japan produces many cute things (I’ll admit it, pokémon are pretty cute), and Japanese cuteness is fairly visible in America, where there are vast subcultures of people who idolize it. Part of the reason why Japanese cuteness has spread to North America, Europe, and other countries in Asia is because cuteness appeals to people outside Japan, after all. (And it’s not like mainstream American media doesn’t produce its fair share of appeals-to-men-in-their-thirties cuteness on its own.) I think there is still an oddly pervasive idea, however, that everything that comes out of Japan is either Hokusai or Hello Kitty. I therefore want to hug David Elliott, whomever he may be, for putting together the Japan Society’s Bye Bye Kitty exhibition and catalog. The artwork is spectacular, and the essay by Elliott that opens the catalog strikes a powerful blow against the assumption that all contemporary Japanese art features huge anime eyes.

Elliott begins with a five-paragraph introduction to postwar Japan, from Douglas MacArthur to double-digit GNP growth to post-bubble malaise. He then moves on to Murakami Takashi’s cultural theory of kawaii, namely, that the Japanese nation is some sort of puer aeternus stuck in a neverland of cuteness and consumption. And then Elliott laughs and states the obvious:

Many artists, however, … have produced work that indicates a more complicated, adult view of life, melding traditional viewpoints with perceptions of present and future in radical and sometimes unsettling combinations. This hybridity … has created a fertile seedbed in which the struggle between extremes of heaven and hell, fantasy and nightmare, ideal and real take place. There is no room for Kitty’s blankness here.

In other words, Japanese artists deal with the same concerns as Western artists, and they do so as adults, intelligently processing cultural and political history and anxieties through creative and technically sophisticated artworks. Elliott identifies three major themes in the work of the artists represented in this exhibition: critical memory (how we deal with the legacy of the immediate past), threatened nature (how we deal with our fears concerning the immediate future), and the unquiet dream (how we deal with our selves). As a whole, the essay is beautifully worded, beautifully illustrated, and well worth the price of the entire book.

Elliott’s essay is followed by a short piece by Tetsuya Ozaki, the former editor of ART iT, a gorgeous bilingual magazine devoted to the contemporary Japanese art scene (if you happen to be in Japan, you can easily find back issues on Amazon.co.jp or at major bookstores like Kinokuniya). In this essay, Ozaki makes the connection between “a system that doesn’t make people happy” and the current “floating generation” of suicides, hikikomori, and otaku. He demonstrates how young Japanese artists are resisting “the kawaii phenomenon” as a means of escape and argues for a broader understanding of Japanese artists as adults both reacting to and transcending their cultural environment. Accompanying this essay are timelines demonstrating, for example, the discursive space of Shōwa Japan and landmarks in postwar Japanese art.

And then there is the art itself. The catalog showcases the work of sixteen artists, all in their twenties through forties, and all showing large and colorful pieces in this exhibition. In my opinion, the primary keyword for these pieces is detail. Yamaguchi Akira, for example, has two pen and watercolor paintings on the theme of Narita Airport in which the roofs (even those of the planes) are lifted to reveal a minutely detailed Edo-esque fantasy of Meiji bureaucrats rubbing shoulders with women in kimono excusing themselves after bumping into Caucasian tourists fumbling with their cell phones. Another of Yamaguchi’s paintings, The Nine Aspects, is a picture scroll reading from right to left and illustrating the nine stages of decay of a horse after its top-knotted master discards its corpse by the wayside. Except the horse is also a motocycle, and the architecture is half Edo and half Shōwa nostalgia. Time is also compressed in the huge pen-and-ink illustrations of Ikeda Manabu, which depict hulking architectural monstrosities so finely detailed that a magnifying glass is necessary to catch all the small touches, like the bomber planes flying in formation below the golden-ceilinged temple caught up in the branches of an enormous dying cherry tree. Finally, there is Aida Makoto (of Harakiri School Girls fame) whose acrylic painting Ash Color Mountains confronts the viewer with towering piles of dead salarymen, each individually detailed, which somehow makes the spectacle even more disturbing.

My one complaint about the Bye Bye Kitty catalog is that, with dimensions of about a foot squared, it really can’t do justice to all of the amazing detail of the exhibition’s artwork, the majority of which is at least as tall as I am. Therefore, if you can possibly get to New York to see the show itself before it closes on June 12, you should go! It’s one thing to see something like Ash Color Mountains while flipping through the pages of a catalog; it’s another thing entirely to walk into a room with no expectations and suddenly find that there it is all around you. The work of Ikeda Manabu especially must be seen to be believed, and the more installation-focused work of artists such as Shioyasu Tomoko and Chiharu Shiota should really be experienced in person. There is not a single boring artist in the exhibition, so it’s definitely worth traveling to visit. The best work of so many unique and high-profile Japanese artists doesn’t come together like this very often, so catch it while you can – or at least consider ordering a copy of the catalog.

Girl, Illustrated

Title: Girl, Illustrated: Japanese Manga, Anime and Video Game Characters
Japanese Title: ガールズグラフ:コミック・ゲーム・ライトノベルのイラストレーターファイル (Girls graph: Comic, game, light novel no illustrator file)
Art Director: Sometani Yōhei (染谷 洋平)
Translators: Shima Miya (嶋 美弥) and Marian Kinoshita (木下 マリアン)
Publisher: Pie Books
Publication Year: 2009
Pages: 205

A few days ago I was killing time in the Borders next to Penn Station in New York City. I love this Borders. Not only do they allow people to sit on the heating vents next to the windows when it’s freezing outside, but they also have the largest and best-stocked manga section of any brick-and-mortar bookstore I’ve ever been inside. Every time I visit this Borders I find something that I had no idea had even been published. This time I found several copies of Girl, Illustrated. While I was flipping through one of them, I kept thinking about the recent New York Times article titled “In Tokyo, a Crackdown on Sexual Images of Minors.”

I am not a big fan of the article. For one, it doesn’t bother to introduce Ishihara Shintarō, his racism, his sexism, or his vocal ultra-nationalist political stance. So, when Ishihara is quoted as saying of the media in question that “These are for abnormal people, for perverts,” his statement seems only natural from a moral perspective. (Although one does chuckle a bit when he says, “There’s no other country in the world that lets such crude works exist.”) Indeed, the media that Ishihara hopes to censor is sensationalized as child pornography, and an impartial reader has no choice but to view it with disgust. It is only in the very last line of the article that someone is quoted as saying, “It’s a completely imaginary world, separate from real life.”

I wish the journalist who wrote the article, Hiroko Tabuchi, had played up this side of the debate more. I wish she had mentioned that, while Ishihara and his cohort are drafting legislation against the depiction of imaginary girls, they are also fighting an ongoing battle against feminists who want to change the law that doesn’t allow a married couple to maintain separate surnames (which hinders the career development of many female professionals). I wish these things because, in the past two weeks, enough people have quoted from or referenced the article that I am starting to fear how it may have influenced a non-specialist’s view of Japanese popular culture.

As all of this ran through my mind while I paged through Girl, Illustrated, I decided that the best way to look at Japanese illustrated images of girls is to actually look at Japanese illustrated images of girls. I would therefore like to review Girl, Illustrated, a bilingual art book published in Japan and available in America through online retailers like Amazon, Borders, Barnes and Noble, and Tower Books. Before I begin, I would like to state that this book does not contain child pornography. I myself do not support child pornography, and it is not my aim to defend or justify it in any way. Instead, I hope to challenge common notions regarding “anime-style” Japanese illustrations of young women.

The style of illustration in question is known as bishōjo-kei, or “bishōjo style,” with “bishōjo” meaning “beautiful young woman.” A bishōjo (as opposed to a regular shōjo, or “young woman”) is usually a female protagonist or central supporting character in a manga, anime, or light novel that belongs to a genre generally regarded as being targeted towards a male audience, like science fiction or adventure fantasy. Good examples might be Nausicaä (from Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind), Nadia (from Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water), or Ayanami Rei (from Neon Genesis Evangelion). Bishōjo are rooted firmly in fantasy, whether that fantasy is a post-apocalyptic technological wasteland or a halcyon senior year of high school. They need not be connected to an actual narrative, however, and are often depicted in original artistic compositions.

Girl, Illustrated is a collection of such compositions. Each artist is allotted two pages and four to six full-color illustrations. Accompanying these images is a section for information about the artist, which includes fields for the artist’s birth date, gender, hometown, webpage, inspiration, and comments. More often than not, most of these fields have been left blank, but the information is written in both English and Japanese when it is available. Unfortunately, the translation isn’t always perfect. For example, something like 銃器・武器と女の子を描く (drawing girls with guns or other weapons) might become something like “drawing girls in their underwear with guns,” but these short artists’ comments are still fun to read.

This being said, the main draw of Girl, Illustrated is what the artists say with their illustrations. Through affective character design and rich, detailed backgrounds, each of these illustrations wordlessly suggests a story. The vast majority of these images have been created with digital ink in programs like Photoshop, Illustrator, and PaintTool SAI. Although most of the artists choose not to reveal their gender, judging from those that do, it seems that 2/5 are female. Among these female artists are young professional illustrators like Sakizou, Foo Midori, and fukahire. All of the artists, male or female, take beautiful young girls as their subject matter, and there doesn’t seem to be any discernable difference between the themes and style of the male illustrators and those of the female illustrators. For example, this is a piece by the female artist onineko:

And here is a piece by the male artist Ichikawa Takashi:

Both of these illustrated girls seem to be young, pure, and innocent. They are magical beings firmly enmeshed in their respective fantasy worlds, and there is a kind of “Alice in Wonderland” quality about them that probably seems familiar to a Western (and non-otaku Japanese) audience. Illustrations like these won’t raise any eyebrows.

Problems in the interpretation and judgment of these images arise when the girls are not quite so pure and innocent but instead betray hints of sexuality. For example, one picture by the male artist gorobots parodies the NHK (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) with the logo NPK (Japan Panty Corporation) and contains the text “When you sit down, I stand up,” double entendre absolutely intended:

Such sexualized images of young women are not just drawn by men, however. Exposed breasts, bums, and panties are also explored in the work of female artists like Higuchi Norie:

The portfolios of other female artists whose work appears in Girl, Illustrated are full of scantily-clad young women enjoying themselves and each other’s company. Regardless of the extent or intensity of the sexualization, however, the fantasy element of these pieces remains strong, and the girls are always more playful than pornographic.

As I mentioned earlier, I am not defending child pornography. Illustrated pornography in Japan is extraordinarily explicit, and it is quite clearly packaged as pornography and sold in separate venues, regardless of the imagined ages of its imaginary protagonists. As for sexualized but non-(overtly-)pornographic images of young girls, though, I might argue that they belong to a different discursive space altogether. Bishōjo simply are not real. They are not real because they are illustrated, obviously, but they are also not real because they are the embodied representatives of pure fantasy. Their world is not our world, and they are our gateways into that world. People who draw and appreciate them do so because of the beautiful otherworld they channel, not because they are fodder for onanistic inclinations. One might draw a parallel between the bishōjo style of illustration and the hyper-sexualized men and women on the covers of American fantasy novels; the tight leather pants and clinging silk dresses of these painted figures are not so much signifiers of pornography as they are emblems of a certain Tolkienian fantasy aesthetic.

The fundamental idea behind the proposed manga (and game and illustration) censorship law in Tokyo is that men are looking at women in a way that is psychologically unhealthy. There is obviously a pornographic gaze that is encouraged and exploited in many aspects of popular and commercial art, but I wonder if perhaps it wouldn’t be unreasonable to posit the existence of something like a “fantasy gaze,” or at least a type of gaze that is less concerned with the image itself than the story behind the image.

Moreover, the sizable percentage of women painting and consuming these bishōjo characters and illustrations complicates the idea of an all-powerful male gaze. One might argue, as have many feminist scholars, that these women have adopted an hermaphroditic gaze. In other words, female viewers have internalized the male gaze and therefore identify with male characters and viewers when they look at sexualized images of women. I myself would like to raise the possibility of a female gaze. This female gaze is responsible for the fanworks featuring male-on-male pairings from popular series like Naruto and Hetalia, of course, but I think it’s also a way for women to portray and look at themselves and other women. By creating and appreciating mildly sexualized images of girls, for example, women can embrace and celebrate a sexuality that lies beyond virgin/mother/whore stereotypes. For women, then, the appeal of bishōjo is not merely the asexual appeal of the fantasy world they represent but also the self-reflexive appeal of being young, beautiful, magical, and, yes, sexual. Furthermore, who is to say that male viewers don’t similarly employ this female gaze when looking at such images?

Girl, Illustrated isn’t just a collection of gorgeous artwork. It’s also a way of looking at and thinking about Japanese bishōjo illustrations. Included at the beginning of the volume is a (mostly) translated essay about how bishōjo characters are marketed and used to promote domestic regional tourism in Japan. Are the editors of the volume trying to suggest that perhaps bishōjo are Japan? It’s a stretch, but it’s also an interesting cultural perspective. In any case, this collection is both fascinating and beautifully produced. Even if you’re more interested in fine art than you are in anime, Girl, Illustrated is still an excellent resource for examining both portrayals of the body and the possibilities of new digital media.

Little Boy

Title: Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subcultures
Editor: Takashi Murakami
Publisher: Japan Society Gallery
Publication Year: 2005
Pages: 300

Little Boy is most definitely the contemporary Japanese art exhibition catalog to end all art exhibition catalogs. It quickly sold out when it was first released, and secondhand copies now sell for ridiculous amounts of money. The Japan Society of New York has finally released a softcover edition, which it sells in its headquarters in New York City. The new edition is just as gorgeous and well put together as the original hardcover version; so, if it’s at all possible for you to acquire one, go for it! Quickly! Do it now! Before you even start reading this review! Yes, it’s that good.

The first one hundred or so pages of this catalog feature full color plates of various artworks, photographs, and screen stills. Through these plates, pop artist extraordinaire Murakami Takashi attempts to demonstrate in images the thesis of his introductory essay “Earth in my Window.” Murakami’s main argument can be summarized in two points. First, the Pacific War, especially the two atomic bombs that ended it, left an indelible scar on the Japanese psyche. Second, the experience of having been defeated in war and thereafter occupied by America has turned multiple generations of Japanese people into perpetual children. The first point is illustrated by plates demonstrating recurring nuclear imagery in films and television serials such as Akira and Neon Genesis Evangelion and various tokusatsu (“special effects”) films released by Tōhō Studios, as well as in the artistic output of artists like Yanobe Kenji and Murakami himself. The second point is easily demonstrable by the overtly cartoonish and childlike work of artists such as Nara Yoshitomo, Ban Chinatsu, and Mr., as well as by the designs of popular and festishized kyara (“characters”) like Hello Kitty. Following these images and explanatory essay is a short manifesto penned by Murakami to support his superflat art movement, which is apparently based on the idea that contemporary Japan needs art that reflects its current cultural status of being awash in meaningless junk.

Next up is a transcription of a conversation between Okada Toshio and Morikawa Kaichirō (two self-proclaimed experts of “otakuology”) moderated by Murakami. Morikawa in particular states that otaku are characterized by an obsession with things that are dame (absolutely useless), whether it’s collecting antique model kits or falling in love with moe (young and innocent) characters. Okada seems to have a somewhat more optimistic view of otaku, who he thinks are simply resorting to childish things in order to escape a meaningless and unforgiving life. This conversation is superbly illustrated by images of the cultural paraphernalia the two men mention, and it also includes several dozen footnotes explaining their various obscure otaku references.

Following this conversation are two academic essays by Japanese scholars, Sawaragi Noi and Matsui Midori. Sawaragi discusses how the Pacific War has filtered through Japanese pop culture in movies like the Godzilla and Space Battleship Yamato series, and Matsui discusses the subculture of kawaii (“cute”) in postwar Japan, especially in terms of how it is connected to art depicting women and art by women artists like Takano Aya and Mizuno Junko. Following these two essays by Japanese authors are two essays by American authors, Alexandra Munroe and Tom Eccles. Munroe offers a history of otaku subculture from the perspective of a Western observer, and Eccles attempts to situate the superflat movement with the history of Western pop art. All of these essays (as well as everything else in the catalog) are presented in both English and Japanese, with a column of English text on the left and a column of Japanese text on the right. Finally, the “Further Readings” section at the end of the book is an invaluable six-page bibliography of related works in both English and Japanese.

In short, Little Boy is gorgeous, fun, and intelligent. The dual language presentation is unobtrusive for readers of one language but wonderful for readers of both. Murakami’s presentation of Japanese culture itself is both extremely interesting and highly controversial. This catalog is a work of art and an object of culture in and of itself. No matter what your field of interest is, I highly recommend picking up a copy before they’re all gone.

Shojo Manga! Girl Power!

Title: Shojo Manga! Girl Power!: Girls’ Comics from Japan
Editor: Masami Toku
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Flume Press
Pages: 80

Judging from its front and back cover, you might expect this catalog to contain big, glossy reproductions of artwork gleaned from shōjo manga, like watercolor cover illustrations or the artistic two page spreads that are a defining characteristic of the genre. Aside from six color pages in the middle of the volume, however, there are relatively few images, and majority of the book is printed in black and white.

What this volume does contain are thirteen essays, each three pages long, on the phenomenon of shōjo manga, manga in general, and the impact of Japanese comics on America, followed by page-long profiles of twenty-three manga artists. The essays mainly repeat the same outdated information and stereotypes about manga (and gender) that you can find anywhere. Typical of these short essays is the misleading and essentially meaningless line, “The popularity of the genre [of boys’ love] is reflective of the fact that in Japan, male love, loyalty, and companionship are considered of the highest virtue (Toku).” A few of the essays are well worth reading, however. One of them is Yoko Nagakubo’s essay “Yaoi Novels and Shojo Manga,” which contains the most reasonable explanation concerning gender identification in boys’ love manga that I have ever come across. Another is Frederick Schodt’s “A Different View,” which seeks to correct some of the most widespread American misconceptions about the Japanese manga industry (and which seems surprisingly prescient in light of the current crisis facing the American manga industry).

The main selling point of the book are the artist profiles. These profiles list two or three major works of each creator and briefly cover his or her thematic preoccupations. Each profile is accompanied by one or two small, black-and-white (but still gorgeous) illustrations that demonstrate the artist’s style. Most of these artists are still relatively unknown in America, as only a small handful of them have been translated into English. (And, even if their works have been translated, as is the case with Ikeda Ryōko of Rose of Versailles fame, they are almost impossible to find.) They include Watanabe Masako, Maki Miyako, Mizuno Hideko, Satonaka Machiko, and on and on.

In other words, this exhibition catalog might not be the most beautiful or academically rigorous book ever published, but it serves as an extremely useful field guide to the history of shōjo manga through its creators. It’s also an excellent reading guide, highlighting a manageable number titles as well as the reasons why they are important and enjoyable. I’m definitely taking this book along with me the next time I visit Japan.

Most major university libraries own a copy of this 2005 exhibition catalog; but, since there have recently been several copies floating around the internet (on Amazon and eBay), I thought I’d snag one for myself before they disappear. If you’re interested, I would encourage you to do the same!

Drop Dead Cute

Title: Drop Dead Cute
Author: Ivan Vartanian
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Chronicle Books
Pages: 160

When I first picked up this book several years ago, I was quite disappointed. With a title like “Drop Dead Cute” and references to Murakami Takashi and Nara Yoshitomo in the blurb on the inside cover, I had expected the book to contain more of what I saw as “anime art” (or perhaps “manga art”). In fact, however, the deliciously pink cover image by Takano Aya is as close as this book gets to anime art. The rest of the book isn’t even cute. It’s disturbing, yes, and violent, yes, and all sorts of interesting and creative, but not cute.

Which leads me to wonder, upon closer examination, what exactly the title means by “cute.” To me, “cute” is something that elicits an emotional response along the lines of “Oh my gosh I want to love on it.” The pieces exhibited in Drop Dead Cute aren’t exactly that sort of cute (and, to that effect, I would wager that the emphasis in the title is actually on “drop dead”). The book is filled with animals, however, and plant life. Much of this flora and fauna is anthropomorphic. There are also plenty of young women (and almost no men) and a profusion of soft pastel colors.

Kudo Makiko opens the book with her oil paintings of young girls, perhaps sleeping, perhaps dreaming, who have found themselves in strange landscapes guided only by cats and dogs. Murata Yuko renders animals and landscapes in simple compositions consisting of wide, sweeping brushstrokes. Hosoya Yuiko is represented by pencil drawings of sullen young women that look like the work of a beginning art student, with finger smudges and blank backgrounds. Ban Chinatsu, famous for her collaboration with Murakami Takashi in the New York Japan Society’s “Little Boy” exhibition of 2005, paints huge acrylic canvases filled with baby elephants in pursuit of underpants. Murase Kyoko works in all sorts of media, from traditional oils to white out pen on yellow legal paper, but her naked drowning girls are equally unsettling no matter what her canvas. Tabaimo’s work is, as always, something straight out of a horror movie.

My two favorite artists in this collection are Aoshima Chiho and Takano Aya. Although Aoshima claims that she doesn’t read manga or watch anime, her works closely resemble the anime style, filled as they are with fantastic, wide-eyed girls sporting wild hair of various colors and very little clothing. In her work, these girls are bound, eaten, digested, rotting, free floating, and reborn in amazingly detailed, brightly colored graveyards and Edens. Since the majority of her work is digital, her photo manipulations, which juxtapose her cartoon-like demon girls against ordinary Japanese backdrops, blend seamlessly into the rest of her oeuvre. Takano, whose artwork was used for the cover of this book, does in fact draw manga, or at least sequential art resembling manga, and she is represented in this collection by a short, colorful, manga-esque piece titled “Subterraned,” which I think is by itself worth the price of the entire book. Her artist’s statement, which delves into themes of sci-fi and eroticism, is also quite interesting.

Each of the ten artists is given a three page introduction, with doodles at the top of the pages and text based on interviews at the bottom. Following each introduction are eleven pages showcasing the works of the artist, with one, or occasionally more, pieces per page. The titles of the pieces are given in English, but each artist has also handwritten the original title of the piece next to the English entry. The book begins with a twelve page, well-illustrated introductory essay by Ivan Vartanian and ends with short biographies of all the artists. Everything is full color, and the publication quality is just about as high as it can go.

The artists featured in this book are:

Kudo Makiko
Aoshima Chiho
Murata Yuko
Aoki Ryoko
Hosoya Yuiko
Takano Aya
Ban Chinatsu
Murase Kyoko
Kusama Yayoi
Tabaimo