Peter Carey is the twice Booker prize winning author of ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ amongst others. ‘Wrong About Japan’ is a slim book – 140 pages with a largish font and a lot of pictures – book about a trip to Tokyo he took with his manga-mad son. Carey seemed to have had three motivations – to try and understand the ‘Japanness’ of the anime and manga such as Mobile Suit Gundam or My Friend Totoro, to bond a little with a boy who’d seemingly vanished into the murky fog of impending teendom and to test out his own rather literal projections of post/pre-apocalyptic angst onto the films and manga he’d begun to explore through his son.
Why should we read it?
Because Carey is a great writer taking a holiday front the serious business of penning the Great Australian Novel. And because it’s always refreshing to read about the great and the good dismally failing to communicate with their teenagers. He makes a twelve year old boy sit through FOUR HOURS of kabuki plays. He drags him along to visit a swordmaker where he no doubt embarrasses the poor boy yet further with a stream of over-cooked questions about the ‘spirituality’ of swordmaking. The swordsmith listens patiently then deadpans, “You’ve obviously been reading a lot of American books…”
Carey is refreshingly unstinting in documenting his failures and his son witnesses him mildly humiliate himself to a parade of amine’s aristocracy, from the director of Blood: The Last Vampire to the creator of Mobile Suit Gundam. He’s also touchingly concerned about protecting his clearly more streetwise son – who at least knows a Yakuza when he sees one – from the seamier side of Asakuza and the like. It climaxes in a memorable surprise encounter with Miyazaki himself, the auteur of Spirited Away where both father and son finally achieve something of the communion each is looking for.
And the downside?
It’s plainly a bit of a potboiler and it’s too short. You sense that Cary is barely scratching the surface of both his experience of attempting to engage with the essence of “Japaneseness” – doomed to failure, as he frequently admits – and his even bumpier ride into the concerns and headspace of his son. The latter was a story I felt that he particularly underplayed, wimping out on delivering what could have been a powerful exploration of a wholly different kind of journey in favour of yet another piece of reportage about thoroughly over-exposed ‘exotic’ Japan.
The low down?
It’s an entertaining diversion which tantalising offers quite a bit more which it doesn’t quite deliver on. An extended magazine article, perhaps. One for fellow dads and Japanophiles to take on a (shortish) train journey.