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Full Metal Apache: Transactions between Cyberpunk Japan and Avant-Pop America

by Takayuki TatsumI
Duke University Press, Durham NC, 2006
272 pp., illus.15 b/w. Trade, $79.95; paper, $22.95
ISBN 0-8223-3762-2; ISBN: 0-8223-3774-6.

Reviewed by Michael R. (Mike) Mosher
Saginaw Valley State University


Takayuki Tatsumi teaches in the Department of Literature at Keio University, the same institution where the conceptualizer of hypertext Ted Nelson held a position for several years in the 1990s. Among a wealth of other genres and cultural phenomena, Tatsumi studies science fiction and takes it seriously. He writes of his cozy familiarity "chatting" with US science fiction writers Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and especially Larry McCaffrey, author of the book's Introduction. McCaffrey appreciatively calls the object of Tatsumi's interest "Japanoids", multicultural mixmasters adapting Bartok and Poe to local imagery, passions and obsessions and coming up with results as peculiar as a Hummer stretch limousine. Tatsumi shares McCaffrey's appreciation of the Avant-Pop, the realm where distinctions are collapsed between the avant-garde and popular culture. Tatsumi dates the beginning of such postmodern fiction to works written in the US after the JFK assassination, to include the Cyberpunk wave of the early 1980s, Ridley Scott's movie, Blade Runner and Mark Jacobson snappy novel, Gojiro.

The year Tatsumi was 18, 1973 "turns out to be the year when Anglo-American writers' discursive ravishing of Americans coincided with Japanese writers' creative reappropriation of Jewishness, and ended up accelerating imaginary internationalism and protoglobalism." As this rich premise is left unpacked, the reader is left to presume that Tatsumi sees parallels between Japanese interfaces with influences from outside the Land of the Rising Sun with the generation of Norman Mailer, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Budd Schulberg, and Irwin Shaw in the United States, negotiating in big novels between multicultural urban America and their parents' circumscribed lives and culture. Yet Tatsumi can be quite insightful in his examination of exchanges between "oriental" and "occidental" tropes. He notes how playwright Shuji Terayama, stalwart of his clown-faced Tenjo-Sajki Theater in Tokyo, was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and adapted Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Bela Bartok for a young, experimental Japanese audience.

Tatsumi’s Japan embodies an ideology of technoconsumerism. It is found in a tourist campaign to discover "exotic Japan" by railroads, and in the 1980s and 1990s phenomena of western actors and celebrities selling consumer products (Warhol did, and the fad was the basis for Sofia Coppola's movie, Lost in Translation, with Bill Murray as the actor). He calls the dying Showa Emperor a cyborg, whose last days played out the "creative masochism" of Japan's postwar era.

Tatsumi calls a media saturated reality rooted in Japanese fiction "mikadophilia", seeing it as a mimcry of the west, its folktales based on shapes provided by immigrant Lafcadio Hearn to serve a Pax Americana, He finds a model "postoccidentalist" in Hearn, a.k.a. Koisumi Yakumo in Japan, whose book Kwaidan (1904) presented Japanese stories as similar to African American ones of voodoo and zombies the author had learned in New Orleans. Hearn in turn influenced Kunio Yanagita, whose book Legends of Toro evoked the "deep north Gothic" of America’s Washington Irving; the collection included one about a farm girl married to a horse, which Tatsumi compares to Peter Schaffer's play "Equus". Tatsumi also offers an insightful "postorientalist" reading of late nineteenth century novels predicting of wars with Asians, including one by of H.G. Wells published in 1898. Among anti-Chinese novels published in the US in the 1880s, one featured inventor Thomas Edison as its hero.

Tatsumi gives a "cyborg feminist" reading of Donna Haraway’s study of sexual indeterminate characters, human, android and things in between, the "gynoids" that inhabit these subterranean metafictions rumbling beneath our feet. Shozo Numa's strange, illustrated, frequently reworked (unfinishable?) novel Yapoo, the Human Cattle, appearing in installments and different forms between 1956 and 1991, presents the story of men morphing into furniture and utensils for the benefit of their mistresses.

He locates the "metallocentric imagination" of Haraway's cyborgs and celibate machines in the "Astro Boy" robot cartoons that have appeared in Japan since 1952. He reads the history of Japanese industrialism in the 1980s popularity of transformer robots. The reader is introduced to "Japanese Apaches", the urban Osaka scrap metal thieves and scavengers in the 1950s, influenced by John Ford's 1948 western movie "Fort Apache" and subject of a 1964 science fiction story. "Tetsuo the Iron Man" (1989) and its 1992 sequel "Tetsuo: Body Hammer", both films directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, present Japanese literally turning into metal.

Tatsumi continually hammers language into ad hoc, adaptive shapes, much as he praises William Gibson's Japanese slang signifiers, written without the author ever having visited Japan, as charmingly "Japanesque". In discussion of Gibson's Idoru, Tatsumi posits Warholian celebrity and cyberpunk celebrity as two different kinds of image management. He cites Gibson's self-destroying electronic book Agrippa, and the character Chevette the bike messenger in Gibson's Virtual Light, who encounters "Mark Paulinian" machines, as if all readers will recognize an allusion to the San Franciscan leader of Survival Research, purveyor of noisy self-destructive robot performances. He oddly refers to the "Birth of a Nation" director as "David Griffith", more commonly D.W. Griffith to US readers. In analyses of Idoru, Tatsumi writes of "queer tribes" of Otaku who relish the virtual female Yui Haga, enjoying a cybersex "interspecies marriage of human pop star with artificial idol". Reading Ballard's Empire of the Sun prompts Tatsumi to confesses his boyhood lust for "imaginary hyperqueer Americanism". What? Tatsumi offers a "queer reading" of J.G. Ballard's Crash, yet neglects any mention of the male narrator's climactic coupling with his automobile-erotics initiator Vaughan. It appears Tatsumi uses "queer" to mean any untraditional, not even necessarily transgressive, sexuality, yet studiously avoids references to homosexuality.

Many artists, appreciative of theoretical stances to decipher the multiple colored lights, synapses, cartilage and threads of twenty-first century culture, lament the tendency of continental savants to imbed a dozen pages of good ideas in a hundred pages of impenetrable erudition. Turning to literary and cultural criticism from Japan, it is enjoyable to read Takayuki Tatsumi's thoughtful, quirky, often breezy work, gleaming under the reading lamp, whirring and clanking with a motorized hum. Samurai sword and sexy robot. Metallic, man, metallic.



Updated 1st May 2007

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