Book review: Japanamerica

Ronald Kelts had me from the first page of his very good book about Japanese pop culture in the US by starting with the story of Battle of the Planets. It turns out that my experience with the show is far from unique. In fact, as I have long assumed, I am part of the first wave of North Americans to be “Japanized” through anime.

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Kelts’ book is extremely readable, and for the Japanophile, it is a must. He also “gets it”, so there is no fear-mongering or hysteria about sexual fantasies run amok. Instead, he explains to readers those elements of Japanese culture (Kelts is Japanese-American) that give context to anime and manga storylines. But the focus of the book is really the challenges the anime industry faces in the 21st century.

This book is 2 years old, written just before Afro Samurai came out. Kelts cites that show as an example of what anime might become in the future – as cross-cultural co-productions. But he states his concern that those elements of Japanese culture that make anime unique may be lost. 2 years on and I can attest to the fact that yes, in the case of Afro, they were lost. He also touches on the future of anime distribution and speaks with one producer who – gloriously – suggests that anime companies should work with funsubbers if they are to survive in the internet age.

Kelts also addresses the main crisis facing the industry: the decline of interest from young Japanese, both in production and in consuming anime and manga. What he did not foresee was the current focus on moe anime that is one attempt to survive by appealing to the core audience. Only problem is that core is growing older and I believe more and more obsessed with fetish over innovation.

Japanamerica ends with a sense of hope, suggesting that some studios in Japan are starting to figure out that global success is key to domestic survival. But Kelts makes the case that decades of business culture need to change and adapt before that can happen. And as much as anime has helped North Americans understand Japan, Japan is only starting to understand why it is that we are so in love with their pop culture. And how to capitalize on that love.

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