Friday, March 31, 2006

Sci-fi Reflections

Though I have read the occasional Philip K. Dick novel, I never really got into sci-fi (or manga or anime). However, I did find this essay by a Japanese sci-fi writer named Takashi Ogawa interesting. He starts by saying how Americans always tell him how "cool" Japan is:
Of course it feels good to have people praise your own country, but I would always stop and wonder what exactly they liked. Sometimes they would get more specific, praising our anime, technological gadgetry, or Haruki Murakami. On the one hand I'd agree, but then again their rock/punk/rap music, PCs, or William Gibson/Raymond Carver/Tom Robbins all seemed even cooler to me.
He says he originally held a dismissive attitude toward some of the same Japanese things his American friends praised. The artists they liked, he thought, were just "neophiles" ungrounded in tradition.

Now he says that neophilia is Japanese tradition, and what's more, gives a defense of it.

The very first Japanese novel—The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter—was a fairly tale, ending with a pun. We have always favored childish things like wordplay and spectacle over the subtler arts of the aristocratic "high culture" of the ruling class. We like to laugh away the gravity and smugness of the metaphysical musings of the elite. But it never amounts to real criticism, or to a genuine counterculture. People simply invent funny words or gestures and enjoy their silliness, just like kids. And by going back to their childhood this way, they can start their lives anew. Words and actions lose their serious, heavy meanings and become plastic and flexible. The childish element in our culture allows us to see things from a new, irreverent perspective. So it was all right to regard manga, anime, and all those silly things that otaku neophiles appreciate as quintessential arts of our pop culture.
Plastic, flexible, irreverent--sounds pretty good to me.


Matt said...

That really reminds me of some of the essays about "super flat" I've read. It's also a handy capsule explanation of why Japanese SF is so weirdly skewed towards the light novel stuff. Thanks!

amida said...

Yeah, like I said, I never got into that stuff, but that article made me wish I had!
(I don't know how Taketori monogatari gets to be "the first Japanese novel," though... maybe he meant first SF novel?)

Matt said...

Well, it does predate the Genji, and it is an extended multi-part story... On the other hand it doesn't have a definite author (even a nominal one) and it appears in many different versions, including ones where she hatches from an egg instead of coming out of bamboo IIRC. It's basically a folk tale that got lucky. I guess if you stretch your definition of novel a bit to focus more on the structure of the work rather than how it was composed, though...