Pop Culture Gadabout
Monday, March 23, 2009
      ( 3/23/2009 11:00:00 AM ) Bill S.  


MILKY GOODNESS: To begin with, the title to Jonathan Clements' Schoolgirl Milky Crisis (Titan Books) is a running gag: a three-word non sequitur that sounds like it should be the poorly translated title to some Japanese cartoon but isn't. Instead, it's the faux title the writer uses whenever he wants to protect the guilty in one of his industry stories. He uses that madeup title a lot in this very readable collection.

Subtitled, "Adventures in the Anime and Manga Trade," Clements' grab bag of anecdotes, critical commentary, historical pieces and interviews with influential creators provides an entertaining intro to one large part of the monolithic world of Japanese pop culture. Author Clements has worked in the anime biz as a translator and voice guy -- and is co-author of The Anime Encyclopedia -- so he clearly has an inside track to the subject. In his native country England, he has also written novelizations and audio scripts for a variety of well-known British characters (Judge Dredd, Dr. Who) along with columns and presentations on the anime field. The guy knows whereof he writes.

In America, perhaps one of the closest comparison I can make is to Mark Evanier, the California-based comics and television writer who has, for years, written about the fields in the which he's worked from both a fannish insider and a historian's perspective. Both share a chatty love of their respective areas with a clear-sighted sense of humor about the flaws and often-dubious actions of each biz's bigwigs. They love to wax positive about their favorite creators, but also like to regularly shine the spotlight on those lesser-known figures in the industry. For years, Evanier wrote his insights in a column entitled "PoV" for the Comic Buyers Guide; Clements produced a comparable feature for the now-defunct anime and manga mag Newtype USA. Evanier ultimately collected his best pieces in a trio of entertaining paperbacks; Clements hits us with his best scattershots in this book.

SMC makes no claims of being a comprehensive look at the anime and manga industry, though it's packed with plenty of juicy historical tidbits. If occasionally, his insider stories don't provide a lotta insight (gosh, some foreign anime distributors don't know a damn thing about their product!), his experiences doing voice work for Anglicized dubs of anime series provide plenty of telling detail. Clements' appreciations of major manga figures like Keiji Nakasawa (author of the Hiroshimo memoir Barefoot Gen, one of the first manga series to get published in the U.S.), Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira), Miyazaki and more are also really fine, displaying both a historian's and an aficionado's eye.

Elsewhere in the book, the transcript of a presentation on erotic anime proves both amusing and informative (we learn, for instance, how the infamous images of tentacles in sci-fi and horror erotica rose from a desire to circumvent Japanense censorship laws), while a series of reviews of some lesser-known manga series (Golf Lesson Comic, two different manga adaptations of Harlequin Romances, a manga mag entirely focused on making big bucks at pachinko!) displays just how far-ranging the manga audience is. Additionally, we're provided informative pieces on two classic rubber monster series (Godzilla and Mothra) and brief glimpses of the Chinese and Korean markets. His one-page column on the Death Note controversy in China is a concise look at that particular teapot tempest, though I have to wonder whether Clements was familiar with the entire series, which he mis-categorizes as a blend of "The Ring meets The Equalizer."

Clements' book could use a little tighter editing. Occasionally, he can needlessly repeat a point that he's made in an earlier column, while at times he'll make an assertion that I wish he'd elaborate. (What is it, for instance, that makes the manga version of Ghost in the Shell "right wing in the extreme"?) Still, his breezy writing style and ability to place the works he discusses within their cultural contexts makes Schoolgirl Milky Crisis a good entry gate into a world that's had a prominent influence on Western storytelling in the past decade. The book is wittily illustrated by Steve Kyte in a comic pastiche of Japanese cartoonery, though some readers may be taken aback by the book's cover of the bovine breasted big-eyed heroine of Clements' imaginary anime/manga title. Me, I wouldn't mind perusing at least one episode of that imaginary series.

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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).



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