There are an absolute multitude of aspects of “Dogs & Demons” I would like to address, but as I fear the tl;dr phenomenon, and believe that blog posts should not approximate the length of term papers, I guess I’ll just stick to addressing things one by one, topic by topic. At the risk of this turning into a Dogs & Demons blog, maybe I’ll come back and write future posts each centered around one quote from the book.
While I find Kerr’s writings, and lectures, and overall concepts quite intriguing and largely something I can get behind, his disdain for pop culture has always bothered me. Reading “Dogs & Demons,” it became apparent that he is also fairly clueless, or at least misguided, when it comes to his understanding of Japanese pop culture.
He makes a lengthy, and compelling, argument about the Japanese people being essentially coddled children – the obsession with cute, the ever-present super-saccharine automated announcements reminding everyone of things that any responsible adult should know already (be careful stepping over the gap; don’t forget anything when you leave the bus; make sure you have your ticket with you), etc.
But I truly do believe that his disdain for pop culture goes too far. He claims that animation is inherently a children’s medium, repeating the same misguided, stereotypical attitude that any and all lovers of anime, comic books, or other forms of new media are constantly fighting against. He cites Sailor Moon and Dragonball – shows blatantly aimed at children – as the key examples of what anime is all about, without mentioning Akira, Evangelion, Cowboy Bebop, Monster, any of Kon Satoshi’s work, or any of the other anime which address much more serious themes and which are perfectly appropriate as entertainment for adults (not “adult entertainment”, which is a whole separate matter). Perhaps a lot of those things hadn’t come out when this book was written – I’m not so kuwashii on the timeline – but even in talking with him, or hearing him speak, it seems clear that his impressions and attitudes have not changed with the passing years. I doubt he’d even be open to the idea of trying out any of these anime in order to see what he’s gotten so wrong.
More frustrating is his constant association of the building of monuments with some kind of manga aesthetic or manga attitude. Monuments feature heavily in the book, and it’s worth taking a moment to explain precisely what he means by these. An old Chinese tale involves the emperor asking his court painter what is easy to paint, and what is difficult. The painter replies, “dogs are difficult, but anyone can paint a demon.” Dogs are so everyday that we don’t pay much attention to what they look like, or how to paint them accurately. The world of the everyday fades into the background, it is so familiar. This forms the core of the argument of the book, and, of course, provides the title as well. It is difficult to effect real reform, the political and logistical complexities involved in fixing zoning regulations, burying power lines, eliminating the excessive political power of the construction (concrete) industry. Kerr calls these reforms “dogs”. On the other hand, it is easy to build flashy monuments, rename ministries, declare new policies or new committees, things that Japanese politicians and bureaucrats do all the time, to create the illusion of progress or improvement. These are demons.
Rather than address the systematic faults that have led to the depopulation of the countryside, i.e. rather than think of real ways to revive the rural economy, Japan’s municipalities have resorted to building monuments – massive concert halls, town meeting halls and cultural centers, highway cloverleafs in the shape of an eight-headed dragon, “new cities” on landfill – under the pretense that this is meant to revive the local economy. These concert halls, museums, and cultural centers lay empty, the construction industry and the bureaucrats wrapped around its finger lining their pockets while no efforts are made whatsoever to preserve or restore those aspects of tradition and history which would actually attract tourists, nor to solve the problems actually facing farmers and other rural residents.
I agree with Kerr completely that these monuments are a disgrace, a complete waste of funds that, while flashy, completely fail to address the real issue, and which, one by one, are destroying natural scenery and traditional livelihoods without replacing them with anything truly desirable, truly modern, or truly beneficial to the rural communities.
However, his insistence that these buildings are somehow “manga-chiku” (I’m not sure if this is meant to be 漫画築, “manga architecture” or 漫画チック “manga-esque”) completely misses the mark. Yes, Japan is overloaded with obnoxiously cute and totally unnecessary mascots, such as the Metropolitan Police’s Pipo-kun and Nara’s Sento-kun. But what does the Japanese obsession with concrete modern architecture have to do with manga? If Kerr believes that this is what a manga world looks like, then he obviously hasn’t read much manga. There are tons of manga which simply reflect Japan as it is – covered in ugly concrete buildings – not in any way advocating that this is the way of the future, or the way an ideal manga world should be. There are also plenty of manga which portray a shiny, sleek futuristic Japan, and perhaps this is what Kerr is rebelling against, as these styles can be seen here and there, in the new shiny towers of Roppongi Hills, for example. But there are also manga which celebrate traditional architecture, whether Japanese or Western. And there are no manga that I know of that truly celebrate and extol the kind of 1950s-60s concrete blocks that continue to slowly take over Japan.
More to the point, perhaps, is that I feel Kerr somehow conflates the sleek, shiny, futuristic world of some manga with the squishy, colorful, super cute world of other manga, as if they are somehow the same. Kameoka Station, which I assume had a very basic, concrete platform and overall 1950s sort of aesthetic, was recently rebuilt. And while I can somewhat understand Kerr’s distaste for the idea that such a rural town has any need of a big city style station, I truly do not understand what he sees when he calls the new station “manga-chiku”. He also seems to find RFID metrocards bizarre and unnecessary – is this also part of his perceived “manga-chiku” world? I mean, granted, the ICOCA card has a cartoon platypus as its mascot, but the card itself is simply a technology that improves ease and efficiency, one piece of the puzzle that makes the Japanese rail system so much better, and more modern, than for example the NYC subway. Maybe Kerr just hates progress and technology.
Furthermore, he criticizes anime for never advancing technically or technologically, writing that “while Japanese studios continued to paint pictures on celluloid with skills little changed from the 1930s, Pixar and Disney were inventing brand-new digital technology with dazzling visual effects that amazed the world in Toy Story [and] A Bug’s Life.” Pardon me, but I thought you appreciated tradition in arts, Mr. Kerr. Many of us who love anime – and that’s not a geek, niche thing, but a fairly broad appeal across a wide range of demographics, and including the vast majority of Japan specialists in my generation – love the beauty of the traditional handdrawn style, and are disgusted or simply disinterested in the heavy reliance on CG in Western animation these days. I realize this is a totally subjective thing, but I for one much prefer the texture and feel of flat, hand-drawn animation. Do Toy Story and A Bug’s Life really compare to the beautiful art of Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away?
In the realm of fashion, Kerr may very well be right to point out that the rebellious and crazy street fashions embraced by young Japanese does not translate, as it might in the West, to any actual socio-political statement or activity. These punks and goths will not be leading any kind of revolution, protests, or uprising. Nevertheless, I simply cannot share his dismissal of, and disdain for, street fashion. Just because it doesn’t have any kind of socio-political rebellious underpinning doesn’t mean it can’t be interesting, intriguing, alluring, captivating. How is it that someone who so appreciates art and culture cannot find anything aesthetically interesting about the myriad of creative and ever-shifting Tokyo street fashions?
All in all, I think it a terrible shame that Mr Kerr cannot seem to find much in contemporary Japanese pop culture which he appreciates. His disdain for all things he considers manga-chikku, which extends far beyond what most of us would associate with anime/kawaii culture, taints his arguments for traditional culture, damaging their objectivity, and making him come across simply as someone with bizarre tastes and a bone to pick against all things modern. In a country which he asserts is so obsessed with a misguided concept of modernization, and with sacrificing all in the pursuit of a modernization it fails to recognize it has already achieved, someone like Kerr, who comes across as bizarrely obsessed with the old, the primitive, the backwards, and who shows no appreciation whatsoever for the modern, is not likely to garner much popularity.