A review of Wrong About Japan by Peter Carey

As one would expect from an author who can write well about anything, the book is full of the kind of detail which makes for good travel writing: setting, character, anecdote, and scenery descriptions, but this is much more than a portrait of Japan, or a visit log. What makes Wrong About Japan a powerful book are the parallel themes of Carey’s desperation to get under the skin of his tall, shy twelve year old son, coupled with his desire to get under the skin of Japanese culture.

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

Wrong About Japan:
A Father’s Journey with his Son
by Peter Carey
Random House
ISBN 1740513258, November 2004, A$24.95, paperback, 122pgs

Wrong About Japan begins with a series of Saturday morning visits to the video shop and Forbidden Planet comic shop to procure Japanese anime films and manga comics. Carey the father initially comes along as censor, but soon becomes accomplice as he and his son Charley develop a fascination with the unusual and intricate popular art form. Both want more, and Carey arranges a working trip to Japan, where together, the Careys explore their differing notions of cultural meaning, art, and above all, the difficulty of communication, both within and between cultures. As one would expect from an author who can write well about anything, the book is full of the kind of detail which makes for good travel writing: setting, character, anecdote, and scenery descriptions, but this is much more than a portrait of Japan, or a visit log. What makesWrong About Japan a powerful book are the parallel themes of Carey’s desperation to get under the skin of his tall, shy twelve year old son, coupled with his desire to get under the skin of Japanese culture. The tension drives the book forward, and Carey’s depiction of himself and his son are as loving and detailed as any character he has created in his extensive body of fiction.

The book is peppered with plates, drawings, and a few personal photos so that even the most manga illiterate readers get a good visual perspective. We learn about visualists, people who dress up in a costume and perfectly recreate characters from fiction or films. We explore Tokyo, watch Kabuki, examine the otaku (a kind of loner unable to interact with other people), and get a good sense of the smells, tastes, and experiences that a foreigner would have in Japan. Carey lines up a series of interviews with well known manga creators, including Hayao Miyazaki (creator of My Neighbor Totoro), Yoshiyuki Tomino (creator of Mobile Suit Gundam), and Hiroyuki Kitakubo (creator of Blood: The Last Vampire). In an attempt to tease out the deeper implications of their work, Carey asks questions about connections with Hiroshima, with children in a post-war world, with the relationship between public and private entertainment, about the meanings of characters, themes and national identity, but his questions seem to be senseless to those who receive them, based on cultural misunderstandings occurring at the deepest level:

Mr Kitakubo responded to my written questions in the same style as every other damn Japanesse I’d questioned. That is, he made it clear that nothing in this country was as I thought it was. My misunderstandings were very interesting, he said. By which he did not mean to claim that his film did not have meanings-of course it did – but after a long,e xhausting Q&A it became clear that he would reveal none of them to me. (112)

A similar tension occurs between father and son, although perhaps there is a greater basis for understanding—love easing the gap between generations. Nevertheless, underneath the serious attempts at both bonding with Japan and bonding with reticent Charley, is a kind of gentle panic. It is important, we feel, for Carey to connect with his son; for the two of them to do this trip in a way which brings them together before the big ice age of adolescent really gets underway. But Carey Sr arrives in search of a place which is very different from the one Charley wants to explore. Communication is so difficult, at every level, and not just between cultures, but between generations. Carey unwittingly insults Charley’s e-friend Takashi, who couldn’t understand how Carey’s desire to meet Miyazaki would take precedence over an invitation to his grandmother’s house. In the name of the “real Japan” which Charley eschews, Carey takes young Charley to a four hour long Kubuki performance: “Bored and restless, the poor boy endured play after play, expecting each one to be the last.” (51) and drags him to meet a sword maker, and a war vet, all in the hopes that some point of understanding—of the real underlying sense of Japan and its inhabitants’ life, might turn their interest in manga into something deeper. Instead, Charley longs for (and thrills to) Sega world, insists on eating at Starbucks and Mr Donut, where they spy Takashi working, shopping for electronic gizmos, brightly coloured sci fi toilets, and sending SMS messages instead of looking at scenery. In other words, he’s a normal twelve year old, and Carey his normal, doting father, trying to get through. This struggle, and above all, Carey’s almost overwhelming modesty and honesty (which calls to mind Oscar Hopkins from Oscar and Lucinda) as he delicately explores and teases out the relationships between these twin themes about understanding and communication, is what makes this small book such a joy to read, even for those who have neither knowledge nor interest in manga or anime.

Carey isn’t really wrong, just a little bit trapped, as we all are, in our selves, our history and our culture. A kind of connection does take place, between Carey and his son most certainly, as they both come to realise their limitations. There is also a moment, and perhaps several moments when language is discarded and beauty provides a point of agreement between West and East:

He took us to the computer and showed a new work that featured the grandmother of the magical animated car-bus that Totoro had ridden on. And, thank God, we had no language. Thank God, there were no questions to ask, just the privilege of sharing the joy of a great artist telling a story to an audience. (116)

This is a charming, sometimes funny, tender story which has many bonuses for lovers of manga, but will appeal to any reader for the rich humanism which is a mark of all Peter Carey’s work.

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