December 17, 2010
If you’ve been following my thoughts on this series from the podcasts, then you’ll know that the first two volumes of this series left me with deeply mixed feelings. While mangaka Felipe Smith is a very talented artist who also has a keen eye for satire, he also has an over-the-top approach to his work that becomes wearying after a while and a taste for gratuitous sex and violence that doesn’t really add anything to the story. The amount of interesting characters was also running equal to the amount of obnoxious characters by the end of vol. 2. Despite the presence of these problems, vol. 2 was an improvement over the first one and that made me hopeful for how this volume would wrap things up. I enjoyed it, but some of this volume’s twists wound up being more conventional than I would’ve liked.
One such example is that of hapless otaku Milton who rebounds from his “rude awakening” about Japan and the popularity of his beloved “Peepo Choo” anime in its home country. Up to this point, Milton’s character has easily been the most annoying part of the series for me. He’s clearly meant to embody American fandom’s worst social excesses and general myopia about Japanese culture and anime fandom there, and does too good a job of it on the printed page. Rather than find some kind of identification with the character, he comes off as repellent and is likely to inspire Smith’s target audience to go, “Well at least I’m not as dumb/stupid/annoying as him,” than reflect on their behavior. After all, it’s hard to identify with some guy who can’t tell the difference between “Peepo speak” and Japanese.
In this volume, he gets a chance to redeem his idiocy from before when Miki and Reiko show up to make amends and take him to the otaku’s Mecca -- Akihabara! Through his visit there he learns that there are Japanese people who share his passion for anime, manga and videogames. It’s in Milton’s ensuing joy at his acceptance that the two messages Smith wants to convey with this series become clear: “You can find your place through the way you live your life and those you surround yourself with,” and “Don’t be a goddamn idiot and make assumptions about a nation based on its pop culture.” In case you’re wondering, it’s the latter idea that comes through loud and clear in the pages of this volume. I’ll admit that seeing Milton find acceptance and friends here was a little heartwarming, but we had to venture through some very rough territory to get there.
We also get to see a new side to Reiko, primarily defined by her anger, large bosom, and ability to speak English, through her interactions with Milton, Miki and their friends while in Akihabara. Smith does a good job of having her convincingly warm up to the otaku’s antics through some pointed commentary from Miki and Milton’s clothes swap with a senior citizen. Though I can believe her change of heart, one of the key ideas of that transformation comes up out of nowhere as it turns out that she has a secret passion for cosplay. The re-awakening of said passion results in some nice visuals, but I wound up wanting to believe it was possible more than I actually did.
As for comic shop owner/psychopathic assassin Gill, his arc winds up being fun through most of the volume. His antics provide Smith with the chance to provide some truly over-the-top violence as he continues to murder his way through the Tokyo underword. The hurt he inflicts on his victims is so cartoonish in its outlandishness -- punching through a guy’s chest, skinning an old Yakuza don, raping a guy with a missile launcher -- that it becomes more funny than shocking. If he ever reads this, I imagine it’ll make Garth Ennis go “Why didn’t I think of any of this before?” Regrettably, Gills arc culminates when his true nature is revealed after a heart-to-heart conversation with Milton. I won’t say exactly what it is, but Smith goes for the cheapest laugh possible in his “humanization” of the character. After all, what could be funnier than seeing this macho caricature engage in behavior that’s diametrically opposed to everything we’ve seen about him so far.
At the other end of the “likeable” spectrum is Jody’s fate. I made no secret about my distaste for his character on the most recent podcast as he is a character devoid of any redeeming features. Here, he finally gets his comeuppance as his efforts to get laid result in several beatings, the realization that all Japanese porn is censored, being mistaken for gay comedian “Beauty Judy” again, nearly sleeping with a transvestite, and beating up a Yakuza. It’s that last bit that brings him into contact with gangster extraordinaire Morimoto, who is very myopic in his own way about the “gangsta” lifestyle in America.
Ultimately, there’s nothing to be gained from Jody’s travails in this volume beyond a few laughs at seeing such a hateful and pathetic creature brought so low. The resolution to Morimoto’s arc, or lack thereof, proves to be more interesting. While I initially thought the fact that “Peepo Choo” had been cut down from a five-volume series to a three-volume one was a good thing, the truth turns out to be a bit more complicated. The ending implies that the setting would’ve changed to America and focused more on Reiko and Morimoto’s misconceptions about our culture. At least, that’s what I hope would’ve happened. Two more volumes of sex, violence, and culture-clash comedy probably would’ve been too much. Smith gets things wrapped up effectively in these three, so unless he was planning a change of locale, diminishing returns would’ve set in by the next volume.
As it is, I would’ve liked to have seen how Reiko and Morimoto responded to American culture. Considering my thoughts after reading the first volume, I’m impressed at how far this series has come. It’s definitely not going to be for everyone, but those of you who can appreciate the humor in series with a similar mindset (I’m looking in the general direction of “Detroit Metal City” here) will find a lot to like . Furthermore, as the first actual “manga” -- that is, a series created in Japan for a Japanese audience -- from an American creator Smith shows that it’s not only possible, but the results can actually be entertaining. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what he does next in his career.