Sunday, April 13, 2008
This Is Not A Graphic Novel: Japan Ai
Aimee Major Steinberger is a huge geek.
She’s a professional animator and a writer for Haute Doll Magazine whose interests include cosplay, anime, videogames, comics and ball-jointed dolls created by the Japanese company VOLKS, a type of doll she created one of the first English language websites devoted to.
She’s also six feet tall, which is taller than your average American woman and, in Japan, is tall enough to be considered gargantuan.
The amount of love she has for the various elements of Japan’s nerd cultures and the amount of distance between her scalp and toes accounts for the title of her hybrid cartoon/prose carnet de voyage, Japan Ai: A Tall Girl’s Adventures in Japan.
The book isn’t really a graphic novel, and it’s one of those peculiar types of books that gives sticklers like me such a hard time, because it’s not clearly one thing or another.
Some pages do look like they came from a graphic novel. Some pages are broken up into border-less, sequential images, with assumed, natural panels. Others are mostly prose with a little bit of illustration thrown in. Others are filled with maps or diagrams. Some are simply a single drawing with a caption, drawn in the loose, manga-inspired, half-chibi cartoon style that dominates Steinerger’s book. Others are more serious, representational drawings.
(Above: A comics style page, and an illustrated prose style page)
Publisher Go Comi! is apparently targeting the manga audience with the book, based on the digest-like format of it (Japan Ai will look perfectly naturally on a shelf dominated by manga), which is probably smart; manga fans are certainly the audience most likely to appreciate this.
Reading the book is a bit like having a visitor come to your house to show you photos of their recent vacation. Only instead of photos, they’ve got a bit stack of drawings, most of them in a pretty adorable style.
Steinberger introduces herself and her travel companions to the readers, and gives us the set-up: She’s going to Japan, home of VOLKS, to interview the people at the company, and is turning the trip into an excuse for “the ultimate otaku vacation” with her equally geeky gal pals.
Their trip is a mixture of touristy things (often with a geeky bent; a trip to the Tokyo Tower brings a mention to Magic Knight Rayearth, a visit to the shrines uses Sailor Mars as a touchstone to explain Miko).
They shop for cute things and clothes, they enjoy the local cuisine, they visit hot springs, they visit a photo studio that dresses them up as geisha, they laugh their way through theme cafes, they go to a kereoke bar, and visit Harajuku.
It’s all an awful lot of fun to read, but the parts I enjoyed the most were those that dealt with Japanese geek cultures I have no experience with at all.
For example, this crazy Takarazuka Revue scene? All-female stage musicals dealing with tragic romances? This looked downright fascinating from the outside looking in, as did the whole VOLKS/ball-joint doll scene.
After her interview and tour, Steinberger walks us through a VOLKS Omukae Ceremony, which she describes as “a doll adoption,” but is pretty elaborate. The person getting the doll sits in a chair at one end of a red carpet, while a guy in a robe with a book says that the company hopes “your doll will bring you peace for the rest of your life together.” The doll is laid out in a coffin-looking box covered with flowers and surrounded by candles and back-lit gauze.
At the climax of the ceremony, the down owner blows out a candle right in front of the doll, which blows life into it, and then everyone claps.
The book ends with a huge glossary of terms and lists of where to get practical information when planning a trip to Japan. Reading Steinberger’s drawing and hand-written account isn’t exactly the same as going, nor is it the next best thing, but it makes for a pretty cool way to hear about someone else going.
(Above: For all the cool things in Japan, for some reason it was during this page that I really, really felt a stab of "Wow, I've gotta get to Japan STAT!" That's how much I like coffee and doughnuts. And is Mister Donut's Japanese mascot a little lion with a crueller for a mane? Fantastic.)
You can read more about Japan Ai, and see plenty of Steinberger’s outtakes, journal entries and photos here.