Booker-winning Carey (The True History of the Kelly Gang, 2001, etc.) ruefully describes a visit with his son in search of “the Real Japan,” during which he learns that his ideas, like all assumptions about the unfamiliar, are flawed.
The Careys live in New York, where 12-year-old Charley has accumulated an extensive collection of Japanese comic books (manga) and developed an interest in the animated films (anime), especially the ones about a malevolent entity named Akira that lies dormant in Tokyo. Wanting his shy, gangly son to enjoy the trip, Carey promises, “No temples. No museums.” Once in Tokyo, though they stay in an old inn and Carey slips in a visit to a Kabuki performance, he essentially concentrates on Charley’s interests, figuring that “we might enter the mansion of Japanese culture through its garish, brightly lit back door.” Perhaps he could learn from the manga creators, whose woodcut illustrations recall famous traditional Japanese prints, about their links to the samurai and the historical arts of war. Trying to eat only Japanese food, father and son begin their research. They visit a traditional sword-maker and Akihabara Electric Town, a six-story bazaar that dazzles Charley. The Grave of Fireflies, a novel that became a famous anime about children trying to survive in a fiery world, leads them to Mr. Takazi, a friend of the author’s who eloquently recalls the WWII fire-bombings. They also meet the creator of the popular series featuring Gundam, a giant robot, and have coffee with the director of Blood: The Last Vampire. This is primarily a travel memoir, not a sentimental effusion about a father and son bonding in a foreign land. Charley has a great time, but Carey is not sure that his understanding of Japan is any deeper: nothing is what he thought it was, and the answers to his questions are elusive and noncommittal.
Thoughtful, sensitive exploration of contemporary Japanese culture.