published by Go! Comi; $16.99 US
Review by Ed Sizemore
Aimee Major Steinberger has written a delightful travelogue about her trip to Japan with two friends. While in Japan, Aimee and her friends sample a wide range of both traditional and modern Japanese culture. The book gives us anecdotes of their adventures and misadventure, along with illustrated cultural notes.
Japan Ai begins with a few pages of information about Aimee and the events that lead to her trip. Aimee is a professional animator, a Japanese doll enthusiast, an avid cosplayer, and six feet tall. Aimee and her friends, AJ and Judy, begin their journey in Kyoto, the capital of Japan until 1868. This portion of their trip focuses on experiencing traditional and older Japanese culture. In Kyoto, the trio visit various shrines, celebrate the lunar new year (Setsubun), and have portraits taken of themselves as geisha. They also still have a few hassles of the modern to contend with, like lost luggage (delivered the next day) and Japanese toilets (no resolution given on this). Aimee does a great job of explaining the cultural details and history needed for the readers to share the experience.
Next on the itinerary is a visit to an onsen, a Japanese hot spring resort. Anyone with tattoos should read Aimee’s notes to make sure the onsen you visit allows people with such adornments. From the onsen, Aimee and friends go to two plays by the Takarazuka Revue, an all-female theater company. Afterwards, they go to a photo salon and have portaits taken as major characters from the plays they’ve seen.
The last, and longest, stop on the tour is Tokyo. In Japan’s modern political and cultural capital, the trio experience all the wonders of contemporary Japanese culture. They visit the Tokyo Tower, go to a couple of themed cafes, shop in Akihabara (the anime/manga capital of Japan, if not the world), and go to a karaoke club, of course. They not only shop in Harajuku (the capital of avant garde fashion in Japan), but they cosplay there too. Aimee provides lots of great illustrations of the various sights, both places and people, she sees in Tokyo.
The book concludes with Aimee’s visit to the doll manufacturer, Volks. The main impetus behind this trip was Aimee’s desire to visit their headquarters. This location serves as office building, showroom, store, cafe, and factory all in one. Aimee is a staff writer for Haute Doll magazine, and her work is known by the people at Volks. This gave Aimee the chance not just to visit the headquarters but also led to a meeting and dinner with the company president. This section of the book gives the reader a glimpse into the world of doll collecting, a subculture just as serious and extensive as the worlds of fashion and the otaku.
There are two art styles used in the book. First is the the very cartoony style seen on the cover of the book and used in the narrative portions. Aimee’s art is clean and simple with strong lines. Her experience as an animator really shows here. Aimee’s drawing may be minimalist, but all the needed details are present and the characters express a wide range of emotion. The second style of art has more details and realism. This style is used most often in the cultural notes and landscape drawings. The transition between styles flows nicely and never distracts from the narration.
I would like to take a moment to talk about the construction of the book itself. The cover is quite eye-catching. The rays that emanate from the words “Japan Ai” are done in foil and have bubbles embossed in them. When I took the book out of the Amazon box, I was immediately taken by the effect the foil has against the soft pink background. About one-third of the pages have color illustrations, and Go! Comi does a beautiful job with the color reproduction.
The book does a great job with all the little details, too. The staff credits on page 2 not only tell you who the editor and creative director are but also give their heights. (Although AJ’s and Judy’s heights are never given in the book.) Also, in case you think the drawing where a woman has to use a step stool to put a wig on Aimee’s head (page 47) is hyperbole, a photo of the scene is included on page 185. The book includes a glossary of terms and anime references not fully explained in the text. Also, there is an appendix of web and print resources for those seeking more information or wanting to plan their own trip to Japan.
Finally, the very last page of the book guides the reader to the Go! Comi website for even more goodies, including a preview of the book. Also, there were about 60 pages of material cut from the book, mostly cultural notes that don’t tie directly to the narration. There are also some of the pictures that Aimee, AJ, and Judy took. My only complaint is that these pages weren’t included as another appendix to the book. Given the ephemeral nature of the internet, and my personal distaste for reading comics on a computer screen, I would have preferred to have the physical pages. There is also a link to Aimee’s livejournal.
Publishers Weekly has interviewed Aimee. For more Japan touring, you can see pictures of Chris Butcher’s weeklong trip. Also, Mike Lynch has posted scans of Anne Cleveland’s 1955 cartoon book about living in Japan, It’s Better With Your Shoes Off, which makes for an interesting comparison to Aimee’s book.