Sun, Jun 11, 2006 - Page 18 News List

Pink Godzillas, postfeminist cyborgs and the rent-a-family market

Takayuki Tatsumi, Japan's leading cultural critic, puts his country's popular culture under the microscope, and finds that the tables have turned for the West

By Bradley Winterton  /  CONTRIBUTING REPORTER

By Takayuki Tatsumi
235 pages

After the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by atomic bombs in 1945, not to mention the fire-bombing of other Japanese cities and their civilian inhabitants during the previous 18 months, you'd have thought that what any starving Japanese left alive would have wanted to do most would be tear any Americans they could find limb from limb and eat them. A famous essay published in 1946, Daraku-ron (An Invitation to Total Depravity) by Ango Sakaguchi, opened the door to such manifestations of cultural extremism. Who could have foretold, however, that what the culture turned to instead was a cult of eating, not the hated enemy, but metal?

An early expression of the phenomenon was Sakyo Komatsu's 1964 novel Nippon Apache-Zoku in which the entire nation is dominated by metallivarous and metallicized freaks, with the non-metal-eaters reduced to the status of a refugee minority. The origin of the concept, according to one of Japan's leading cultural critics in this endlessly refreshing new book, was the habit of margin-alized Koreans and others of stealing metal from the ruins of Japan's biggest arms factory outside post-war Tokyo, and ferrying it along the river at night in anticipation of large profits. The government, which needed the metal for (paradoxically) Korean War projects in the early 1950s, turned a blind eye to the operations. The practitioners coined the term "eating metal" to describe their activity, and from this a whole fictional culture was spawned, still alive at the end of the last century in cyberpunk Japan.

But what the media called these nocturnal desperadoes was "Apaches." This, writes Takayuki Tatsumi ("Japan's hippest literary critic," also an occasional jazz fusion pianist), was because the term had, in the wake of John Ford movies such as Fort Apache (1948), become current in the US for outlaws who defied the central government. But why should the Japanese have taken on an American term? Because of the phenomenon of "creative masochism," says Tatsumi. When you lose a war, you don't continue to resist the conqueror. You grovel at his feet, adopt his culture, and depict yourself in your films and manga comic books as eating scrap-iron.

The reason behind the apparent unrelatedness of many of the art-works studied here is that the book brings together several previously-published academic articles in which Tatsumi surveyed different aspects of post-war Japan and its ever-inventive popular culture. Metallic men are only a part of it, though the chapter dealing with them provides the book with its title.

Also featured, however, are pink samurai and punk cats in space, as formulated respectively in Nicholas Bornoff's study of love, marriage and sex in 1991 Japan and the dystopian post-anime feature Tamala 2010 from t.o.L (`tree of Life') in 2002. Then there's metafiction, and the Japanese neo-dada art form "Thomasson," named after a US baseball player signed by the Yomiuri Giants in 1982 before it was discovered "he could not hit the ball." Not much metal-eating here, but great fun for all that.

There's much else, including consideration of Bartok's 1919 ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, relevant because the avant-garde Japanese playwright Shuji Tera-yama based a hyperkitsch musical on it in 1977, with the mandarin as a cyborg, a 1995 article by a Greek-American post-feminist writer going under the name of Eurudice entitled Why Clinton's Foreign Policy Shows He Is Good in Bed, and Alan Brown's partially gay 1996 novel, set in Japan, Audrey Hepburn's Neck.

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