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Last Updated: Tuesday, 7 December, 2004, 14:58 GMT
Wrong About Japan
Peter Carey

In 2002, twice Booker-winning author Peter Carey travelled to Japan, accompanied by his twelve-year old son Charley, on a special kind of pilgrimage.

(Edited highlights of the panel's review taken from the teletext subtitles that are generated live for Newsnight Review.)

James Brown, he would have called it Lost In Translation if someone hadn't got there first. What do you make of it?

I think the title is misleading. Because he writes with such clarity and bite that you're halfway through this before you know what's going on. You were talking earlier about it being a travelogue. I found it more of an educational guide. You learn a tremendous amount about Japanese history. And there's some brilliant explanations about those things we've seen on television for years about Japan, why kids dress as punks or why people dress as rockabillies. And it's the obsession. It's an amazing obsession with the fact that for years they were told what they couldn't wear, what they had to wear. And now they have freedom of expression and they follow it. And also the fire bombings. I never knew any of that stuff. To me it wasn't the comics that were entertaining me, it was the back story.

I love it. I think it's a perfect book. But like all the best travel books it's about far more than travelling, at least it's about travelling in a different direction and not necessarily towards Japan. It isn't just because of this I've got one of these, a 12-year-old boy. And it made me do something which is fantastic when you read a book, it made me recognise things about my 12-year-old that I hadn't really noticed. It also made me look at the culture that my boy's into in a different way as well. It has this wonderful openness, it is about a father and son relationship, he's never sentimental, and I'm not sure how he does that because there are some very cute bits of dialogue in there and you completely go with it. And there's this character, Takashi whose sons met on the internet, they don't know what class he is, what his education is, whether he might be gay, and he turns up working in Mr Doughnut. Brilliant.

The stuff that worked for me is the interesting stuff about movies. Within that there are flaws. I lose patience with people who say, as he does Miyazaki is better than Disney, but he's not, Miyazaki is not better than Disney, they're two separate cultures. Just because you start liking Japanese anime doesn't mean you have to throw Disney out. The other thing is, there's a maxim halfway through where someone says to him a little knowledge is sometimes worse than total ignorance. I had a feeling he's at that point of his understanding of manga that he's talking about that he's at the very edge of what he knows about them. If you know anything about Asian cinema and manga, and I don't know that much, you very rapidly find out the point at which his knowledge ceases. I agree with James that the back story stuff is interesting, but I think he's floating very ephemerally on the surface of the popular culture. I didn't think it is a book about him and his son. I think it wants to be a book about him and his son. I think it's much more a book about somebody being fascinated by manga, Japanese cinema and culture, and not quite knowing enough about it to pull it off.

It's about finding out about things you don't know about. He never sets himself up as an expert, and he's very disarming about the things he doesn't know.

I feel like if I'm going to be led through the journey, what I want is the Takashi character to take me by the hand on the journey rather than Peter Carey.

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