Cultural insight past the twaddle


FULL METAL APACHE: Transactions Between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America, by Takayuki Tatsumi, foreword by Larry McCaffery. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 272 pp., 2006, $22.95 (paper).

Literary theorist and critic Takayuki Tatsumi’s new book, “Full Metal Apache,” is both good and bad. As it is often in such cases, the bad is spread evenly throughout, making it difficult to appreciate the good with which it is mixed. Tatsumi, however, has done us the service of quarantining the twaddle largely — but not entirely — in his first section. That this section is entitled “Theory” will give ammunition to the theory-phobes out there, and this is regrettable.

It’s not that theorizing about literature and culture is a worthless enterprise; it’s just that here Tatsumi doesn’t do it well. However, once one has made it through the opening pages, there is, in “Full Metal Apache,” a great deal of insight and useful information.

Before one gets to that insight and information, though, one must endure the author tarting up the obvious with flashy language as when he tells us: “It was the capitalist passage from the postproductionist 1960s through the hyperconsumerist 1980s that had a disfigurative impact upon the literary status of Adolf Hitler.” Putting that through the descrambler, one comes up with: “Literary interpretations of Hitler have changed as the societies in which they have been produced have changed,” and sees that the observation is thunderously banal.

Other times he gets so carried away that his observations become not banal but absurd. Summarizing an anonymous item he found in a 1993 issue of SPA (a Japanese magazine popular with young men) for example, Tatsumi writes about a company from which one could hire actors and actresses to play the parts of family members if one did not want to go alone to, say, a wedding, and actual family members were unavailable. It might have been interesting to consider why this sensational little squib was published when and where it was, but that’s not what Tatsumi does. Rather, he attempts to convince us that it is a “typical, realistic fragment of postmodern Japanese life.” One wonders, if this book is to be published in Japanese, whether Tatsumi will try to slip this past his compatriots who will be well aware that such rentals are far from “typical.”

One could go on, but the point is made: The first 60 or so pages of this book are not all they should be. When, however, Tatsumi takes off his theory hat, rolls up his sleeves, and actually looks at some of the works that inspired those wasted pages one sees what a capable critic he can be.

First, as he is the sort of scholar who is more interested in the art of today and tomorrow than in the art of yesterday, Tatsumi is often helpful in making those of us who are less forward-looking aware of works and trends we might otherwise have missed. His analysis, for example, of Michael Keezing’s short story “Anna-chan of Green Gables” is illuminating. Tatsumi helps us to see that this “avant-porn” send-up of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s classic is, at the same time, “designed as the most serious tribute to “Anne of Green Gables.” We understand that Anna-chan’s move into Japan’s hardcore adult video industry — she’d gotten her start on Prince Edward Island in Anne-themed videos produced by her father — is, in fact, a twisted parallel to the happiness Anne found on the Canadian island. Tatsumi quotes Anna-chan’s father from the final paragraph of Keezing’s story: “If Anna-chan’s path followed back in the direction from which ours had come, who was I to stand in her way?”

Tatsumi’s book is useful not only as a guide to works we might otherwise have overlooked but also to works we thought we knew well. He makes us aware, for example, of Yasuo Nagayama’s “postcolonialist rereading” of “Godzilla,” particularly Nagayama’s insight that the monster may have had his genesis not in a nuclear mishap but rather in “a pseudoreligious and pseudoscientific theory championed by 19th-century Shintoist Masumi Ohishigori” — new information for most readers.

“Deeply influenced by the rise of Darwinism and paleontology, Ohishigori,” we learn, “came to invent an amazing theory that located the origin of man in dinosaurs born of Japanese gods.” Some of these divine dinosaurs, Ohishigori’s followers believed, survive deep in the ocean, and when one recalls that Godzilla seems to have emerged from the sea, one feels certain that the monster’s creators had Ohishigori’s theory somewhere in the backs of their minds.

Those interested in new art and writing, and new ideas about older art and writing, will enjoy Tatsumi’s book — except, that is, for “Theory.” Skimming and skipping will be necessary.