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Peter Carey
Wrong About Japan

By Max Leonard

Wrong About Japan is something of an oddity and, given that it comes from the pen of a double Booker prize-winning novelist, a bit of a disappointment. It's a slim but lavishly packaged memoir-cum-travelogue that recounts the journey of the author and his son to Tokyo, opening in New York with Carey junior's discovery of Manga and Animé. His father, on the other hand, is knowledgeable about Japanese history and traditional culture and is curious to know more about these startling new forms that hint at complex relations with the past. This proves excuse enough for a shared trip to Japan and a search for the intersection between the hyper-modernity of Charley's comics and the land of temples, engravings and swords.

Their guide along the way is an immaculately dressed teenager named takashi whom Charley met over the internet, but even he cannot stop the author from losing his way. For though it avoids the easy pitfalls of the lost in translation approach to culture clashes (Sofia Coppola's movie is a facile, insular film dressed as art house: it's OK to send up foreigners as long as they're nicely shot), it is difficult to say what Carey's inquiries actually achieve. Thanks to his status as an internationally renowned novelist, he can arrange interviews with some of the most important figures in the world of Japanese visual culture. But these interviews are unrevealing, as Carey's questions – probing to find an 'essence' of Japanese culture, or the link between modern Japanese life and history – are too often deflected with a flat assertion that his assumptions are mistaken. Of course, as Louis Theroux will tell you, the interviewer-as-ingénu can be a useful trick to gain the interviewee's trust. Here, though, stuck behind a translator, Carey frequently appears bewildered, unprepared, even outwitted. The final interview with Hayao Miyazaki – the man behind spirited away, and possibly the best known of the Animé directors – is skilfully billed as a lucky encounter with a reclusive, busy man. His eventual appearance should seem miraculous. When it comes, it's distinctly anti-climactic.

This is not to say that there's nothing of interest within the illustrated pages. The volume is at its best when Carey successfully connects art to history, as in his interesting discussion of children in wartime and the Manga series Mobile Suit Gundam. and the Japanese experience of the Second World War – often overlooked in Europe, aside from the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – is sensitively and shockingly conveyed.

There are some vivid descriptions, too, of Animé films and their distinctive graphic style. These sections prove Carey's ability as a writer to conjure up pictures with elegant prose, though they were, for me, far too brief. His skill with words has been put to great effect in the past: his last book, my life as a fake, evoked the sights, sounds and smells of humid, verdant Malaysia – rendering it as exotically tangible for the reader as it is for the prim English narrator. Unfortunately, in Wrong About Japan, there is little visual description and the metropolis is for the most part rendered drab and lifeless.

I just got the feeling that I knew too little of Japanese culture for the numerous references to mean anything. Who, for example, exactly was Basho? Carey also too often relies on broad statements (the monster Godzilla is a direct response to the atom bomb; woodcuts depicting Commodore Perry with a large nose signify a correspondingly proportioned manhood) that are tantalising and doubtless true, but for the uninitiated need to be analysed, or at least substantiated.

The book is subtitled A Father's Journey with His Son but, like the culture gap, the generation gap remains too wide to be bridged. The implicit theme here is of the young being more adept than their forebears with new technology, more at home in alien urban environments, but the insights are no more profound than 'my gosh, isn't he good at text messaging fast': a 21st-century update of the truism of little Johnny showing dad how to program the video. I'd say this book is a missed opportunity. For such promising subject matter, it's an annoyingly inconsequential read.
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