Danchi junrei

Title: Danchi junrei (団地巡礼)
Author and Photographer: Ishimoto Kaoru (石本 馨)
Publication Year: 2008
Publisher: Futami Shobō
Pages: 176

I learned about this book while doing research on the manga Hot Gimmick, which is about teenage romance and social hierarchies in company-owned danchi housing. If a certain living arrangement exerts such a strong influence on people’s lives that it can determine patterns of everyday interaction, I wanted to know more about what these danchi actually look like.

Danchi are apartment complexes. Unlike the stand-alone manshion apartment buildings found everywhere in the urban centers of Japan, danchi are sprawling arrangements of buildings situated in more peripheral locations such as suburbs and commuter towns. As seen from the windows of passing trains, danchi are almost monstrous, and I’ve always counted myself lucky to not have to live in one. After reading Danchi junrei, though, I’m now jealous of the people who have had the experience of living in a danchi.

In Danchi junrei, or “danchi pilgrimage,” professional photographer Ishimoto Kaoru takes the reader along on his journeys into danchi complexes of various sizes and layouts. His pictures don’t beautify the buildings, but he does give the reader a sense of the charm and livability of the danchi he visits. Although the buildings themselves, which were constructed in the housing boom of another era (usually the late fifties), are often dilapidated, the backyards and balconies and inner courtyards and playgrounds of these danchi are filled with children, pets, greenery, and the evidence of the daily lives of the people who live in the complex, from hanging laundry to bicycles to discarded toys to graffiti.

Of course, this is when there are people living in the danchi at all. Over the course of his pilgrimage, Ishimoto also visits complexes that are nearly abandoned, fully abandoned, or already demolished at the time of printing. Some of these danchi have historical significance, such as a structure in Daikanyama built in 1927 that was one of the first modern apartment complexes in Japan. Some of them, such as the “ghost danchi” in Meguro, are associated with urban legends and famous among people into haikyo, or the exploration of abandoned buildings. Although these derelict danchi are covered with rust and mold, they’re surprisingly well preserved, and one might think that people could still be living there were it not for the rampant, jungle-like plant growth that has filled the open spaces and started to encroach into the buildings themselves.

Ishimoto’s photographs are enhanced by his text. Each photograph is accompanied by an unobtrusive one-line description, and each set of photographs is introduced by a short paragraph of flavor text. What I really enjoyed reading, however, were the one-page descriptions of each danchi, which would usually include the history and occupancy status of the complex as well as any rumors that Ishimoto had picked up from fellow danchi enthusiasts or just people living in the neighborhood of the danchi in question. Ishimoto also describes his own experiences of walking around each danchi, which tend to be particularly interesting when the complex has been abandoned.

Ishimoto is an engaging writer, and the undoctored feel of his photography gives the reader a sense of proximity that wouldn’t be possible with more polished-looking set pieces. Danchi junrei is urban exploration at its finest, and I surprised myself by enjoying the book so much. I highly recommend it to people interested in Japanese cities and architecture. I might also recommend it to people interested in Japanese aesthetics, because you can’t get any more wabi-sabi than a deserted apartment complex slowly going to seed on the borders of Tokyo.

I should mention that Ishimoto ventures out of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area as well. Here are two examples from the end of the book…

Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential

Title: Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential:
How teenage girls made a nation cool

Authors: Brian Ashcraft with Shoko Ueda
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 191

When I first looked at the cover of this book, I thought, Wow, so this is the new Orientalism. The coyly smiling teenage schoolgirl with her bling-covered cell phone has replaced the coyly smiling teenage geisha with her understated yet elegant folding fan. A white guy with a Japanese wife tells us about the strange, mysterious, exotic land that is Japan. What is this world coming to, etc. But looks can be deceiving.

While recognizing the international icon status of the Japanese schoolgirl, the authors do their best to treat the girls not as fetishized cultural signifiers but as actual human beings. Even as they attempt to explain the collective power of the demographic as a symbol, Ashcraft and Ueda devote as much space as possible to giving a voice to the actual girls themselves. They accomplish this by interviewing female creators and performers whenever possible. This book is mainly a cultural history of the “Japanese schoolgirl” trope and is thus told primarily from the perspective of popular media, but I applaud the efforts of the authors to incorporate the actual people involved into this history as much as possible.

The book opens with a chapter on Japanese high school uniforms, giving a history of the tradition from its origins in the new educational code of 1872 through the sailor suits of the early Heisei period through the sukeban biker girl style of the 70’s through the designer socks and blazer-style nanchatte seifuku (professionally-designed fake uniforms that are cuter than real uniforms) popular with the after-school crowd today. Numerous photos, interviews with people like the curator of the Tombow Uniform Museum (Tombow being a major Japanese manufacturer of school uniforms), and details about cultural miscellanea (like boys giving their crushes buttons from their uniform jackets and the glue used to hold up the super-baggy socks popular with girls a decade ago) flesh out this chapter and take it well beyond the realm of tired stereotypes.

The rest of the eight chapters follow this model of history mixed with interviews, trivia, and tons and tons of pictures. The second chapter covers teenage idols (and legitimate rock stars, like the uniform-wearing musicians in the punk group Scandal), and the third chapter handles the depiction of schoolgirls in live-action film, including pornography and slashers like Battle Royale, Machine Girl, and, of course, Kill Bill. Chapters four and five are all about fashion, whether it’s on the street or on the cover of a magazine like egg. The sixth chapter begins the transition from reality into pure fantasy with its overview of the female artists in Murakami Takashi’s art collaborative Kaikai Kiki, with a focus on the schoolgirl-infused pop art of teenage prodigy Koide Akane.

The last two chapters handle girl games and anime, respectively. The final chapter on anime and manga is nothing special, although it admittedly does an admirable job of covering the distance from Rose of Versailles to Sailor Moon to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. The chapter on “girl game” dating sims (like Air and Clannad) is pure gold, however, with its extended interview of prolific female graphic designer Itō Noizi incorporated skillfully into the main body of the chapter’s narrative. The authors’ explanation of the moe aesthetic is especially worth reading (as is their aside on otome games).

Overall, the topics of discussion and the specific examples used seem to have been very carefully chosen, and all of the facts and information flow together nicely. The prose is intelligent, witty, and easy to read. I would say the photography and illustrations are worth the price of the book by themselves, but Kodansha, in its infinite wisdom, chose to publish every other two-page spread in black-and-white instead of the glorious full color that graces the other half of the pages. That aside, the page layout is flawless, and there are numerous small details that I will leave as pleasant discoveries for future readers. Japanese Schoolgirl Confidential is not only lots and lots of fun but also manages to transcend the schoolgirl icon by coalescing into a rich and informative cultural history. If I were teaching a class about contemporary Japan, you can bet that this book would be required reading.

Mechademia

Mechademia

Title: Mechademia
Editor: Frenchy Lunning
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication Schedule: Annually
Pages: 300

The annual publication Mechademia is, as far as I can tell, the best source for scholarship on contemporary Japanese popular culture in English, even surpassing recent essay collections like Cinema Anime (2008, edited by Stephen T. Brown) and The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture (2008, edited by Dolores Martinez), which are both fabulous. Each of the three volumes of Mechademia contains about fifteen 15-20 page articles on a specific topic, theme, or work. Although a wide range of authors, from academics to grad students to freelance writers, is represented, the editing is tight, and the essays are of uniformly high quality. These articles are well-illustrated with grayscale images, and the overall layout and design of each journal is visually attractive. Of course, the vibrant cover illustrations, taken from works by artists like Aoshima Chiho and Oksana Badrak, are quite eye-catching as well.

The subject matter of the various articles in Mechademia deals with broad cultural phenomena, such as fanfiction and the Gothic and Lolita subculture, important themes in Japanese pop culture, like shōjo and homoeroticism, and examinations of various anime, animated films, manga, and video games. Auteurs such as Miyazaki Hayao and Shinkai Makoto and famous manga-ka like Tezuka Osamu and Mizuki Shigeru are well-represented, as are controversial and provocative anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion and canonical films such as Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Blood: The Last Vampire. Lesser known but still noteworthy works of Japanese animation, like Haibane Renmai, have also been included in the selection of articles.

The tone of the journal is predominantly scholarly, and the authors and editors assume that the reader is at least somewhat familiar with Japanese popular culture. In other words, Mechademia takes the value of its subject matter for granted; there are no essentializing explanations of what Japanese popular culture is and what makes it so great. The journal is not directed at “specialists,” however, as most of the articles are quite approachable by scholars who don’t know much about anime and anime fans who don’t know much about post-structuralist theory. There is very little geeking out going on on either the academic side or the otaku side, a facet of the editing which makes each volume of the journal quite readable while preserving an atmosphere of intellectual rigor.

An interesting feature is the “Review and Commentary” section at the end of each volume. This section presents several shorter articles that, as the section title suggests, take the form of reviews and commentary, often in the guise of semi-philosophical musings. Two of my favorite mini essays in this section are a piece by Trina Robbins, a former editor and localizer for the “Shojo Beat” line of manga from Viz Media, on the inner workings of an American manga publisher, and a very short introduction to the psychology of dolls in contemporary Japan by Susan Napier, the mother of “Anime Studies” in America. This “Review and Commentary” section reads like a high octane version of a monthly anime magazine and provides plenty of food for thought in bite-sized chunks.

Since Mechademia is so readable, and also since it’s such an attractive publication, I would recommend it to any serious fan of contemporary Japanese popular culture. Although the first volume was somewhat shaky on its feet, the two subsequent volumes have improved dramatically, and the new volume, “War/Time,” comes out on October 30.

Gothic & Lolita Bible

gothic-lolita-bible

Title: Gothic & Lolita Bible
Editors: Jenna Winterburg and Michelle Nguyen
Publisher: Tokyopop
Publication Schedule: Quarterly
Pages: 128

This month has seen the publication of the fifth issue of the English edition of the famed Japanese “mook” (magazine-book) Gothic & Lolita Bible (ゴシック&ロリータバイブル). Since the theme of the Spring 2009 issue is “A Dreamy Gothic & Lolita Wedding,” and since I find the obsession with weddings somewhat troubling (blame my inner feminist), I will base this review on the Winter 2009 (fourth) issue of the Bible. The focus of this issue seems to be “badassery and cupcakes,” which provides more comfortable thematic material for me to work with.

So, what is the Gothic & Lolita Bible all about, anyway? Well, obviously, it’s about Gothic and Lolita fashion, but there is also information about visual kei singers and bands, as well as copious amounts of information concerning the Gothic Lolita lifestyle so vividly portrayed in contemporary Japanese fiction like Novala Takemoto’s novel Kamikaze Girls (下妻物語, published in translation by Viz Media). The English version of the Bible provided both translated material from the original Japanese mooks and incorporates new material of interest to Western (especially American) readers.

Because the English edition of the Bible just came into existence (the first issue was released in early 2008), the content tends to change from issue to issue, as features and formats still seem to be in a developmental stage. Each issue, however, will contain numerous fantasy-inspired photo shoots of both Japanese models and Western readers, a Fruits magazine-esque montage of Harajuku street fashion photos, and, of course, a detailed section featuring the season’s offerings from major Japanese Gothic Lolita fashion brands like Baby, the Stars Shine Bright, Angelic Pretty, Innocent World, h.NAOTO, Black Peace Now, and Atelier Boz. Also, like the Japanese version, each issue contains patterns and instructions for do-it-yourself pieces (mainly accessories). Other articles may feature interviews with American Gothic Lolita designers, information on American and Japanese artists specializing in Gothic Lolita art, and reviews of fancy cupcakes that would presumably complement a Gothic Lolita tea party.

Personally, my favorite features are the “Letters from Our Readers” section, which includes, for example, poetry and reader-submitted art of surprisingly high quality, and the occasional fiction and essays that make it into the magazine, such as Arika Takarano’s manifesto titled “Oh Maiden, Advance with a Sword and a Rose,” which encourages young ladies to follow their hearts and their dreams regardless of the social pressures they might face. Along these lines, the reader letters published by the mook tend to deal with issues of participating in the Gothic Lolita culture even though you’re too old, too fat (by Japanese sizing standards), or live in the middle of nowhere. If nothing else, the Gothic & Lolita Bible gives its readers a sense of community, regardless of whether they own a stitch of the clothing or not.

Does this sound corny? You bet it’s corny. The whole mook is corny, actually. If you’ve already made up your mind that Gothic and Lolita culture is the most silly, superficial thing you’ve ever had the misfortune to encounter, the Gothic & Lolita Bible will not convince you otherwise. If you’re even the slightest bit curious about Gothic Lolita, however, I would recommend picking up a copy of this mook. It’s a gorgeous publication and well worth the $20 price tag.

Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno

Title: Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno: Tokyo Teen Fashion Subculture Handbook
Authors: Patrick Macias and Izumi Evers
Illustrations: Kazumi Nonaka
Publication Year: 2007 (America)
Pages: 147

When a friend gave me this garishly pink little book as a present, I saw the name “Patrick Macias” on the cover and immediately prepared to be disappointed. Macias has authored and co-authored numerous books on Japanese popular culture. Two that might be familiar are Cruising the Anime City: An Insider’s Guide to Neo-Tokyo (2004) and TokyoScope: The Japanese Cult Film Companion (2001). These books are not only boring but were also outdated on the day they were published, primarily because Macias’s fascination with Japan’s popular culture during the seventies and early eighties fails to hold the attention of those of us who want to know what’s going on in Japan right now. In fact, I might even go so far as to say that Macias’s earlier books might have been better served if they were marketed as cultural histories instead of as guides to contemporary popular culture.

While it’s true that Japanese Schoolgirl Inferno is only up-to-date as of around 2005, and while it’s true that this book contains quite a bit of cultural history, I found it to be one of the most entertaining books I’ve read in a long time. Maybe it’s because of all of the bright and eye-popping photography. Maybe it’s because of Kazumi Nonaka’s fun and plentiful illustrations. Maybe it’s because of the concise prose and scandalous quotations. Or maybe it’s because of all the pink. In any case, once I picked up this cute and trim guidebook, I had a hard time putting it down.

One thing that I found especially charming about this book were all the suggestions the authors offer as to how to achieve these schoolgirl looks yourself. Far from being helpful, these sections actually serve to pinpoint how outrageous the fashions are. Another fun, recurring segment are the illustrated “A Day in the Life” inserts, which usually end with captions like “Mom says, ‘Take a shower! You two smell awful!’”

So, if you’ve always wanted to know what’s going on inside the heads of the Gothic-Lolita princesses, or if you’ve always been curious about how exactly the Mamba girls put on their makeup, this is the book for you. Even if you’ve never had the leisure to wonder about those things but have spent time in Tokyo, this is also probably the book for you. And if you really, really love pink, then I honestly can’t recommend this book enough. Go out and get it before it goes out of print. For the win. I’m serious.

Neko Nabe

Neko Nabe, by Okumori Sugari

Title: ねこ鍋:みちのく猫ものがたり
English Title: “Neko Nabe: A Tale of Cats in the Northern Provinces”
Author (and Photographer): 奥森すがり (Okumori Sugari)
Publication Year: 2007 (Japan)
Pages: 96

Neko Nabe is a photography book chronicling author Okumori Sugari’s attempts to raise a litter of stray kittens in a traditional farmhouse in the north of Honshū, an area traditionally referred to as “michinoku.” To scholars of pre-modern Japanese literature, this area will be familiar as the setting of Bashō’s famous haiku collection Oku no Hosomichi (“Journey to the Far North”). Scholars of contemporary Japan will recognize Neko Nabe itself as a major phenomenon in bookstores and on the internet.

As her kittens (neko) grow older, Okumori finds that they have a habit of sleeping curled up in Japanese cooking dishes called nabe, which are used in the winter for making potluck stews called nabemono. Pictures of kittens sleeping in nabe abound, but this book has quite a bit more content to offer, especially as the photographs and text detail life in a pleasantly rural part of a country that is often perceived as overwhelmingly urban.

Another joy of this book is that it is written in the local dialect. Because Okumori’s Japanese is fairly simple to understand, a student of the language should have no trouble picking out and deciphering the instances of northern dialect. For example, 先ず becomes まんず, 私 becomes おらほ, and the speech of Okumori’s father and grandmother becomes quite colorful indeed.

Neko Nabe, filled with amusing anecdotes and charmingly amateurish photography, is a short, easy, and oddly engrossing read for Japanese students interested in a depiction of life outside of Tokyo. Even when the dialect gets too heavy to be comprehensible, the cats are still cute, so there’s no way to lose.