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

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.