Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Cultural Density of Kurage Hime

Books are one of the safest places to learn. Sure there is the non-fiction and the educational books that we are forced to read for whatever reason in school or at work, but that is not really what I am talking about. The whole emotional spectrum is wide open to readers no matter the subject or genre; the exhilaration of a high speed chase, a heartbreaking break-up, the first fluttering of a romance, heart-lifting victory. How do we deal with these feelings? How would we react if we were in their shoes?

When we read a text or watch a foreign film, we are confronted with the beliefs and learnings of another culture. The whole world has been taught American beliefs and American culture since Hollywood created a monopoly on the film industry. The cycle of globalization had been running on a very tight circle with not much being cycled back. 

Until Japan's soft power took equal footing.

Now anime is a million dollar industry and has spread it's power all over the world. JDramas are being imitated in Korea and KDramas are beginning to spread their wings in the US. A friend of mine was telling me that she had moved onto KDramas because she was tired of American ones going on forever. Truly proving that Japan is starting to, as Koibuchi says, change the center of globalization. 

When it comes to manga, I can honestly say that one of my favorite things about it is how you can me immersed in another countries expression of their culture. I went to a small college (less than 800 people) and had no Japanese culture classes to get me by. I watched a lot of anime and read a lot of manga and started noticing all the similarities I could. Learning what I could from my limited resources. When I moved to Japan and started learning Japanese, I read manga to get a better hand on conversational Japanese and to help with my kanji. 

There are certain mangaka that are unafraid to saturate their stories and characters with references and personalities that casual readers won't know or understand. They are like cultural homework with numerous translation notes about random nick-names for celebrities or slang. 

All of which Kurage Hime has in spades.

In 2010 there was this little 11 episode anime that was as awkwardly charming as its characters. There was a cross dressing illegitimate son of a politician and a boarding house full of otakus. 

It might as well have been the best thing ever. 

It has been years since I have watched the anime, but I can still hum the "Himitsu Himitsu" from the opening theme. I recently got back into reading manga (after over a year hiatus SORRY!) and remembered that I saw this manga in the bookstore before I left and decided to give it a go. I knew the story (kinda) and figured I would enjoy it. 

I had not realized it wasn't even over yet.

I had also not realized how dense it was with cultural commentary and references. It felt like every page was asterisked with a TN about a name that was a throw-away line. This really made me realize something: The whole manga is filled with cultural references. 

The scanlation translator is pretty amazing. The amount of reference checking and extra work that they must do is kinda staggering. The references aren't that mainstream either. Japan is full of minor celebrities who show up on random game shows and news shows. Looking up all those names must be exhausting. It also adds another layer to how much cultural knowledge you need to read this manga. If I had started with this manga as my challenge, I would have dropped it just for the amount of information I wouldn't have understood. 

This already layered with characters who live on family allowances and have otaku labels placed on them with the label of NEET on top of that. Since reading manga, I have learned a lot about the concept of NEETs and hikkikomori. But I truly only learned about them through books. 

As you continue to read Kurage, the more cultural indicators come into play. There is the old ladies who are in love with Korean actors, there is the continuing battle of old versus relentless modernity, foreigners who are blunt, and the Japanese love/hate relationship with cross-dressing men. All of these layers exist and reflect different aspects of the complex contradiction that is Japan. There is a love for foreign ideas, but a rejection of the Japanese who accept and practice them. 

We see this theme within the relationship of the Amars to the outside world. Their boarding house is there island in the sea of outside influences. They are safe to pursue their geeky interests without judgement, yet they are forced to accept outside ideas. Constantly pushing and pulling for control between their safe island the the forces that wish to push them out of it. 

They become almost an oasis for misfits in Japan. Otaku, cross-dressing college students, and foreigners on the outskirts. While the cross-dresser can act as the middleman between the outside and the island, he still comes to the island to slowly spread those outside forces while trying to save it. Pushing the acceptance on them to save themselves from extinction. 

It truly is amazing the different levels and layers that this comedy can bring up. The characters are truly flawed and personify the selfishness of those who hide themselves and those who had no interest in others unlike them. 

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