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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #46 (November 14, 2006), page 20.

Animation guide offers tidbits on things Japanese — and nerdy

The Anime Companion 2: More … What’s Japanese in Japanese Animation?

By Gilles Poitras

Stone Bridge Press, 2005

Paperback, 160 pages, $18.95

By Oscar Johnson

Billed as "the best friend an otaku (anime fan) ever had," this follow-up to the cult but not-quite classic The Anime Companion may at times say as much about its target audience as the topic at hand. Say what you will, but The Anime Companion 2 is nonetheless an impressive collection of culled factoids on early to postmodern Japan. It references them with examples of Japanese animation and comics in which they pop up.

Diehard fans of the manga, or comic book, series Vagabond can learn more about the musha shugyo (warrior’s pilgrimage) that Miyamoto Musashi took to hone his skills. Likewise, anime buffs can bone up on the chikuwa, or fish sausage, that was so misfortunately used for a martial-arts exercise in the animation series Ranma. But this book’s value is not entirely limited to readers of such ilk. It sports an abundance of information on Japanese history, places, foods, and more.

Detailed entries on topics such as Noh (or No) theater, the Showa Emperor and corresponding historical period, and Mount Hiei (Hieizan) could make an interesting light read for the curious as well. And its encyclopedic format makes it an ideal cursory reference on some — but not all — things Japanese: from Akihabara Station, in a Tokyo neighborhood whose electronics stores and costume cafés make it an otaku Mecca, to zazen meditation.

Author Gilles Poitras’ research and meticulous cross-referencing put a wealth of information at readers’ fingertips. He even one-ups the first Anime Companion by cross referencing his new book with it and adding both old and new Japanese text along with its English counterpart. It’s all topped off with an English-to-Japanese glossary, another arranged by category, and maps of old provinces and contemporary Tokyo wards. But the cross references are at times too meticulous. Brief simple entries can require looking up three or more additional ones because definitions needlessly use Japanese words such as Tokyo "Eki" instead of Station or "sauce of shoyu" when soy sauce would suffice. Some of these words are only in the first book, which hints of a marketing motive. But then again, maybe it’s not.

Despite its encyclopedic nature, The Anime Companion 2 manages to come across with a tone that hints more may be at work. So-called otaku may not be fazed by it, but others may. While the book’s jacket defines otaku as an "anime fan," the Japanese word’s literal meaning — despite coming into widespread use for such fans — is more akin to "geek" or "nerd." And at times the book reflects that. Interspersed throughout its pages are boxes of often arbitrary information. Some of these factoids may be interesting. But like his impractical use of Japanese words in English-language definitions (for Japanese words), Poitras tends to use these to ramble in an annoyingly nerdy way — much like a know-it-all cornering victims at a party to bludgeon them with his arcane expertise.

In one, he whines about being "POed" over the blind faith some people have in the Internet and the misinformation that it offers the unsuspecting — this while his own entry for "bushido" on the adjacent page raises questions (it’s not the only one to do so). He declares that in Japan this traditional way of the warrior is, "widely rejected as incompatible with a democratic society." It’s something Japan’s International Budo University, which teaches it, as well as the myriads of martial artists and businessmen who claim to have adapted this unwritten code of ethics to modern times, might take issue with. Elsewhere, Poitras harps on the distinction between soap operas and TV dramas in a way that would leave even the most devout anime fan wondering, "Who cares?"

That said, The Anime Companion 2 is not bad and it’s no doubt a must-have for fans of anime and manga alike. It is indeed informative. But I wouldn’t take all it says as gospel, any more than I would a comic book, everything you see in cyberspace, or the word of that know-it-all who corners you at a party.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books