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Japanese pop culture hits home

Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop Culture Has Invaded the U.S., By Roland Kelts, Palgrave Macmillan, 238 pp., $24.95

Nearly 40 years ago, kids reared on Fred Flintstone and Bugs Bunny got their first shot of Japanese pop culture with "Speed Racer ," an animated series featuring a young race- car driver, his girlfriend Trixie, and (for some inexplicable reason) his simian sidekick, Chim-Chim .

While few may have realized that "Speed Racer" was a product of Japan, where it was known as "Mach Go Go Go," it was quickly apparent that the show looked a lot different than Mickey Mouse. Elegant and stylish, it seemed to cross an unseen line between cartoons and something decidedly more sophisticated, even adult.

Decades later, the children of those first-generation "Speed Racer" fans now watch such films as Hayao Miyazaki's Academy Award-winning "Spirited Away." Japanese animation, or anime as it is commonly known, may not yet pose much of a challenge to Disney's computer-generated confections at the box office, but it's no longer odd to find Miyazaki's "My Neighbor Totoro" or "Howl's Moving Castle" alongside "Finding Nemo" and "Ice Age" in American homes.

Still, anime hasn't so much invaded this nation, as author Roland Kelts declares in his intriguing book, "Japanamerica," as it has stubbornly refused to be ignored. Mind-bending, provocative, and often filled with sex and violence, anime has steadfastly gained a diverse audience in America.

"Japanese anime and manga (comic books) are frequently less inhibited and more diverse than American animations, more compelling in their narrative and character developments," Kelts writes. "Japan's motion picture industry, realizing that it would never match Hollywood's prowess, never fully took flight, so the best and most innovative visual artists took refuge in the underground forms of anime and manga."

And those forms, which in their earliest incarnations were greatly influenced by Walt Disney, are finding an audience here, Kelts contends, while remaining resolutely Japanese. Part of that cultural identity comes from being the world's first (and so far only) "post-apocalyptic society," as artist Takashi Murakami calls it. That's why so much anime, such as Katsuhiro Otomo's classic "Akira," unfolds in the wake of widespread ruin or feature characters profoundly altered by war or other man-made disasters. It's an artistic approach crammed with complex ideas -- sometimes too many -- about human existence, scientific exploration, and the clashes between the forces of man and nature.

At the same time, Japan is also a culture characterized by defined order. Hence, the no-holds-barred anime and manga style is a rebellion against the rigidity of society, Kelts maintains. Anime can explore areas that mainstream American pop culture wouldn't or couldn't touch -- such as yaoi , explicit comic books with androgynously pretty young men falling in love, which are very popular among teenage girls and young women.

And that anything-goes quality is enticing to those weary of unchallenging, watered-down pop culture offerings here. Kelts, the Japan-based editor of A Public Space, a New York literary journal, comes by his interest in Japan's pop culture naturally. He's the son of a Japanese mother and an American father, and despite his clear enthusiasm for his subject, he never skids into fanboy hyperbole. (On the other hand, while discussing Sofia Coppola's Japan-located drama, "Lost in Translation," he misspells her name as "Sophia.")

Given the subtitle's mention of Japanese pop culture, it would have been welcome if Kelts had broadened his focus to include its influence on music, such as Gwen Stefani's co-opting of Japan's hyper-trendy Harajuku style. Still, "Japanamerica" accomplishes its goal in showing how anime and manga may someday become as popular a Japanese import in this country as sushi.

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