Aang is Asian?

Introspective Aang.
Introspective Aang

Derek Kirk Kim has been raising a big stink over the controversial casting of caucasian actors for thefeature film version of . While I am a little disappointed with the decision, I'm not really that surprised. For those of you who don't care that much about animation, Avatar takes place in a fantasy world modeled extensively after East Asian culture, with its myriad fighting styles prominently featured. Think of it as the quasi-eastern equivalent of , but a lot more hip. For all it's Asian trappings, Avatar is the creation of two for Nickelodeon. This work, however respectful, was ultimately done in the service of entertaining an American television audience. The fact that Avatar's visual style was strongly influenced by Japanese animation, and voiced in english by a multi-ethnic cast, has only served to further confuse the issue.

The portrayal of Asian characters by White actors has a long tradition in that is second to, and almost as embarrassing as, the portrayal of those with . And yet this practice doesn't get as much attention from the media, which may be why it has persisted long after blackface has been buried in shame at least within the U.S. In this historical context the woefully ignorant remarks of Jackson Rathbone, one of the prospective actors, has had the unfortunate effect of reinforcing the entertainment industry's image as culturally insensitive to Asians.

Annoyed Katara.
Annoyed Katara

Setting aside the present controversy, I found the choice of for director to be a pretty dubious decision when it was first announced. What makes someone think this hack can direct an epic fantasy aimed at children? Perhaps The Last Airbender will prove to the world that this is the genre Shyamalan has always meant to direct. But the oppressive tone found in many of his films contradicts the lighthearted effect needed for this kind of story. My doubts about his artistic sensibilities have been more a central concern than who gets to play what. But the casting compounds those doubts because it seems to indicate that he was unable, or simply unwilling to challenge pre-existing studio directives or the prevalent Hollywood culture. If this is true, then it's sad that one of Hollywood's most prominent Asians can do so little to change it.

More on Avatar Racebending



Dramacon Ultimate Edition by Svetlana Chmakova.
One trend I've noted within this month's posts is the emergence of a younger generation of artists influenced by the shojo manga imported from Japan in the last decade. It's a marked contrast to the previous generations of comic creators whose exposure to manga was almost exclusively shonen or seinen. This infusion of girl-oriented comics just happens to coincide with the recent trend towards the cross-gender aesthetic, felt even in the pages of the king of boys adventures magazines, Shonen Jump.

Developing these talents is undoubtedly a long-term effort. Russian born, Canadian educated Svetlana Chmakova is probably the most promising young creator presently active. I thought I'd take a look at Dramacon, her first long-form work. Chmakova seems to have followed the familiar advise of writing what you know, because Dramacon is clearly drawn from real life experiences. The entire story takes place in and around an anime convention - Actually an annual convention held three times within the comic to be more precise. Originally published in three separate volumes, each volume tells the events at one convention. The result of this narrative structure is that despite the large total page count, the character interactions have to be resolved within a smsller deliniated space. Another compromise starting from volume two is that offstage developments - what occurs between the conventions - have to be quickly summarized at the beginning of each volume, which isn't particularly elegant since it highlights the contrived nature of the narrative's serial nature.

In part one Christie Leroux, a high school student and amateur writer, travels to Yattacon with her artist/boyfriend Derek Hollman to promote their self-published book at the convention's artist alley. As a complete newbie, Christie immediately suffers extreme culture shock. But Derek is too much of a jerk to support his clearly distressed girlfriend. Left to fend for herself, Christie literally runs into cosplayer Matt Green. Matt's something of a lone wolf working out his own issues over fear of rejection. Nevertheless he lavishes more attention on Christie in a few minutes than Derek does during the entire con. Christie gradually begins to disengage herself from Derek as she falls in love with Matt.

Matt and Christie
The romantic plot is nothing new off course, but the chemistry between Christie and Matt is both very charming while containing just enough edge to make their relationship believable. That their romance takes place in an anime convention gives it a heightened surreal quality. Chmakova captures the bustle and energy of the event and neatly summarizes what goes on for the most part. But the convention also serves to frame the extent of the romance. After three days everybody has to return to their real lives.

Aside from falling in love, Christie is also an ambitious writer. Unlike other fledgling talents unable to take constructive criticism, she is open-minded and earnest. She briefly falls under the wing of seasoned professional Lida Zeff - a somewhat idealized comic creator/mentor figure whose encouragement motivates Christie to work harder on her book.

While only the first part of a larger work, volume one of Dramacon actually works well enough as a self-contained romantic comedy: A couple meet, fall in love, and separate in the end. A reader could stop at this point.

In part two there is a noticeable shift in attitude and emphasis. While Matt's new girlfriend prevents Christie and Matt from simply picking-up where they left off, other characters share center stage. Christie is accompanied to Yattacon by new artist Bethany Peters, who replaces Christie as the convention-going newbie. A trio of artist alley tablemates known as Firebird Studios can't help but listen in, and function as a humorous Greek chorus. Despite her inexperience, Bethany's own artistic skills are advanced enough for Lida to personally recommend her to a colleague for some future project. She is however ambivalent about becoming a professional comic artist, not in small part due to familial pressure to enter into a more respectable field. As always Lida shows-up later to give Bethany some sage career advice.

Christie and the Stampede
While the convention still retains its energizing effect, the snarkier side of fandom reveals itself to Christie and Bethany. Obnoxious artists, know-it-all fans, unwanted glompers, fussy cosplayers, mean-spirited cosplay haters, message board trollers, all get some commentary. One particularly self-indulgent scene has Lida debate, and win against, an annoying manga purist over the proper definition of manga. Naturally the purist looks to be about ten years old. This particular issue has obvious resonance to Chmakova. There's something heartfelt in her exploration of these aspects of fandom. But her attempts to juggle Christie and Matt's relationship, Bethany's professional aspirations, and myriad facets of the North American manga industry, produce a less focused narrative. By the end of part two, Christie and Matt have been reduced to smaller supporting roles.

The last volume is the weakest of the three. While the Christie/Matt romance finally moves forward after being put on a holding pattern in the last volume, the Bethany arc takes central stage. Her family visits her at Yattacon, which causes her mother to look on disapprovingly as Bethany tries to justify her behavior. Unfortunately there is little space to develop these new characters in this already crowded volume. Thus attempts to reach a satisfactory resolution fall flat not just for the Bethany/mother conflict, but also for the rest of the cast. There's a line uttered which is meant to lampshade another plot point, but could be applied to the conclusion of Dramacon: "This is a little too perfect and convenient. Where is the tension? Where is the drama? I call bad writing.”

Dramacon is still thoroughly enjoyable despite its disappointing third-act. Much of its problems stem from oscillating between the Christie/Matt romance, and the later additional elements which could have been helped with more space. But there's no doubting Chmakova's strengths as a visual storyteller. The art starting from volume one is highly polished, made more impressive when considering that the story takes place in a setting as rich in background detail as an anime convention. Chmakova has absorbed the language of manga - it's expressiveness, rhythm, and energy - and transliterated them into a North American milieu. This is far more sophisticated than mimicking the most superficial aspects of mainstream Japanese comics to reinterpret familiar American characters. I occasional wonder if Chmakova's training as an animator must have something to do with this, because Lida emphatically recommends art school at one point.

Lida wants to burn books
For what its worth, Dramacon is a very entertaining effort, and a heartening example for other young, aspiring creators. Hopefully Chmakova's style will continue to mature and deepen. It will be interesting to see whether she and her contemporaries will thrive in the coming years.

Note: The Ultimate Edition collecting all three volumes contains some additional material in the form of a short story that takes place after the events of Dramacon.


Tablet Needs: Modbook Pro

As one of the minority who relies on tablet computing, I keep hoping that my favorite notebook manufacturer will announce one at some point. A 17-inch laptop is nice, and a more realistic product. But aside from the fact that it's not a tablet, it's a little too large for my needs. The Cintiq satisfactorily fulfills the role of a tablet, but carrying two devices isn't a very portable solution. So the closest thing to an ideal form factor is this latest product from Axiotron:

Modbook Pro

It's very expensive, and won't come out till this summer. There probably will be changes before the design is finalized. But the base model is an improvement from the previous 13-inch offering. The simultaneous pen and touch input, and the ability to flip between horizontal and vertical orientation, are pretty interesting. I need to know how responsive the interface will be before I can consider replacing my beloved Wacom.

The number of potential customers for a tablet computer is still too low to mass produce one. But companies like Axiotron are doing the advanced research needed to develop the technology to the point where it becomes mature enough to be widely adapted, negating the demand for pricey modifications.

What else do I need? More external drive space for my growing photo library.


Journey Into The Heart of The Otaku

Of course to think that manga and transsexual otakus are somehow more authentic than temples is wrongheaded, but this actually was our Japan, and we liked it here.
- Peter Carey

Happy New Year. Today I'm going to look at two very different travel memoirs about Japan that I read back-to-back during the holidays. Their only obvious similarity is that they exploit mainstream America's fascination of, and ignorance over, anime/manga as a jumping-off point for exploring Japanese culture. Be warned that examining the two together could induce whiplash.

Wrong about Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son by Peter Carey.
In Wrong about Japan: A Father's Journey with His Son Booker Prize winning novelist Peter Carey and his twelve year old son Charley take a brief trip to Japan. Fascinated by Charley's new obsession with manga and anime, Carey uses his literary contacts to arrange meetings with some of Japan's leading creators. Charley wants to get his photo taken with some of his heroes, while Carey hopes to bond with his son during the trip. But he is also interested in discovering the connection between manga and anime to traditional Japanese culture. He develops a number of theories which he unsuccessfully attempts to confirm in his creator interviews.

Carey proudly admits to being a poor reporter: He's not good at remembering names. Unable to speak Japanese, he conducts his interviews by submitting a list of questions beforehand. These are usually so inept that they are brushed aside by his subjects, and he fails to ask follow-up questions. Carey is forced to to step back and admit that he's only grown more perplexed by his inability to understand the Japanese mind.

Based on the various anime and manga Carey's consumed, the history of Japan can be mapped from its feudal era, the opening of the country by Commodore Matthew Perry, World War II, the Hiroshima bombing, and the post-war recovery. His ideas don't sound unreasonable, but his overanalyzing leads him to jump to hasty conclusions. For example he learns that saya is Japanese for sword sheath. Therefore Saya, the katana wielding heroine of , is synonymous to sword sheath. But a colleague rebuffs this as being too obvious meaning for most Japanese. The interviewees seem mostly put-off by his theorizing. During a meeting with a famous swordsmith, his queries about the supposedly mystical nature of his craft are impatiently dismissed with matter-of-the-fact answers. When he asks creator Yoshiyuki Tomino about what possible symbolism inspired him to use giant robots, Tomino points out that the robots were simply there to sell toys to children.

GundamThis isn't to say Carey doesn't learn a thing or two. Tomino claims to have been interested in removing all specific national elements from Gundam. When Carey insists there must still be some Japanese elements left over, Tomino (or the translator) counters "that there is maybe something in your own character which is interested in national identity." The writer of the franchise's massive official guide insists that the cockpit of the mobile suit isn't the belly of the beast as Carey thought, but is more like a mother's womb. Fans of Neon Genesis Evangelion are already familiar with that idea. His only truly successful exchange is with a survivor of the Tokyo firebombing raids, which helps reinforce the popular onscreen image of national suffering found in the wartime drama .

Unfortunately Carey's failure to find clear answers to all his earnest questioning leads to an even bigger failure to appreciate the nebulous nature of language and culture. For someone who deals in words this is a pretty big failure. Learning many of the different definitions of the term otaku, he uses this as an example of how unique and baffling Japanese culture can be. Really? Is the Japanese language the only language that contains difficult-to-define terms with meanings that can change over time? Carey's too smart to use the word, but he is basically reinforcing the old idea of Japan as "inscrutable." Japanese nativists everywhere must be delirious with his observations.

At the heart of book is Carey's relationship with Charley. As the sullen, passive adolescent that Carey is attempting to get closer to, his failure to get manga and anime mirrors the generational gap between him and his son. Carey views Japan through the lens of its more traditional image: The Japan of temples, ukiyo-e paintings, and haiku. Carey's cluelessness apparently stems from his difficulty appreciating popular culture in general*, let alone one particularly obsessive subculture. His son on the other hand accepts manga and anime on it's own terms. He also has a grasp of modern technology that completely escapes his father. Watching him successfully navigate the labyrinth of Tokyo's subway systen, Carey comments with a litte bit of awe "You're a different species." Charley responds "We've mutated."**

Charley makes Carey promise before the trip not to show him the "Real Japan" - His words for traditional Japan. Carey breaks that promise once by forcing him to attend a kabuki performance, which Charley later declares the worst four hours of his life. Not surprisingly Charley opposes Carey's pedagogical attempts to introduce a little bit of "culture" into the proceedings. Oh boy! His father must be sooooooo proud of him. To be fair he is at that rebellious stage in his life. But Charley doesn't help himself by behaving like a stereotypically insular fanboy.

Charley is the uncommunicative type. He's unable or unwilling to express what he likes about manga and anime. He shows no interest in asking questions during the interviews conducted by Carey. While he may be the driving force behind the trip, as a character he's a black hole. This may be the reason why Carey creates a fictional friend for Charley to interact with called Takashi. He is an ethereal presence, materializing unexpectedly when something is needed to spice-up the narrative. He provides a more vocal adolescent viewpoint, guiding Carey and Charley through the streets of and other youth hangouts.

The gap between the high-minded literary father, and his pop culture consuming son is never convincingly bridged during such a short trip, and this colors Carey's experiences about Japan. Perhaps if Carey were less overbearing and Charley were more engaging or articulate, this might have proved to be a more entertaining experience for Carey and the reader.

 Japan Ai: A Tall Girl’s Adventures in Japan by Aimee Major.
As the Chip Kidd designed cover clues as in, Wrong About Japan is about two males exploring animated worlds mostly full of action, violence and war. In complete contrast, the cover to Japan Ai: A Tall Girl’s Adventures in Japan implies that one is about to step into a world populated by cudly, mostly female characters. It is unapologetically in-your-face-girly: Pink is the predominant color scheme. Ball-jointed dolls and cosplay fashion are the main talking points. There are some cute little design touches such as printing the respective heights of the production staff next to their names in the book's credits page.

One important difference from the former book is that this is a comics-style illustrated travelogue. Aimee Major Steinberger is a professional animator and is completely comfortable using images to convey information or a narrative. She draws in the slick linear style that is to be expected from an experienced animator, which she is capable of modulating into more complex realism as the need arises. Steinberger draws mostly intimate scenes, and she has the good eye for detail necessary for a effective travel journal. She draws mostly in black and white, but introduces color when appropriate to capturing the local ambience of a place.

 Japan Ai: A Tall Girl’s Adventures in Japan by Aimee Major.Steinberger is also a doll enthusiast who has written articles for Haute Doll magazine. When the Japanese doll company Volks invites her to visit their headquarters in Tokyo, she readily accepts, and gets two of her otaku friends to accompany her. Her visit's itinerary starts in Kyoto, makes a side trip to , and ends in Tokyo. Every activity is fan-oriented in some way. While the visit to Kyoto's temples and shrines may not seem particularly otaku-centric, Steinberger's views of traditional Japan have been colored by her exposure to various manga and anime. She's aware of mikos (shrine maidens) because of manga like Sailor Moon. The trio visit an onsen (hot spring bath) because almost every manga or anime character has spent time at an onsen at some point.

Takarazuka is known for the - An all-female musical theater company not only known for their staging of more conventional works, but also for their adaptations of various shojo manga. Steinberger manages to catch a showing of The Rose of Versailles. Despite (or maybe because of) her inability to understand a single word, she and her friends are moved to tears. Later they go to a salon that dresses their customers in costume to resemble their favorite on-stage characters.

Tokyo is naturally the highlight of the trip. Steinberger and her friends engage in a wide variety of otaku-related activities, including cosplaying at . The trip concludes at Volks offices with a surreal ceremony performed for every owner who orders a custom-made doll from the company.

lolita storeBeing a six-foot tall American, Steinberger is aware of how much she and her friends stick-out, and she's willing to play the part of the good tourist while in Japan. The book is full of good humored reporting of the sites they see, the strange things they encounter, the food they eat, and the little misadventures they have due to not being able to read the signs of the local transit systems.

Steinberger has no difficulty characterizing her entire visit as mediated through the lens of manga and anime. She neither claims to know or understand the "Real Japan," and she's perfectly unselfconscious about how much a fangirl she is. You'd have to be a cosplayer. It doesn't matter what country you're in: Dressing-up in costume and parading around in public will get you some strange looks. She's honest in admitting that the response from some of the people on the street seeing a freakishly large foreigner bedecked in gothic lolita wasn't always favorable. But her experiences have not dimmed her appreciation of otaku culture. If anything her trip just affirms that she's right to be comfortable in her own skin.

Because of her familiarity with the otaku subculture, Steinberger seems to have very little trouble adapting to her surroundings. A more cynical reader would observe that her enjoyment would last as long as she stayed in the otaku bubble. Once the novelty wore off and she leaves the bubble, culture shock would set in. True, but Steinberger doesn't claim to be anything more than a very observant traveller and a very enthusiastic geek who just happens to like the same things the Japanese like.

* Carey lost me when he called Walt Disney a merely successful artist, as opposed to a truly great artist like Hayao Miyazaki.

** Given that the Carey family lives in New York, Charley's performance shouldn't come as a complete suprise.