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When Andrew and I step out of the subway station at Akihabara, I think, "This isn't so weird." I see a few electronics stores, a couple of signs emblazoned with anime mascots, unlit in the noon sunlight. It's not so different from other parts of Tokyo. At some point the Japanese decided that every inanimate object can be improved by the addition of either a cartoon mascot or a cheery female voice chirping instructions at you, so signage with cute cartoon characters is common throughout the city. We've seen municipal sidewalk barriers shaped like happy frogs and pictograms at the zoo explaining not to feed the monkeys because it will make them cry. This street doesn't look significantly more cartoonified than the norm.
Then we walk through the East-West Passage, a bland commuter tunnel lined with mall shops and turnstiles, and come out in Toontown. Smile, darn you, smile
Every manga geek knows Akihabara. Originally Tokyo's electronics district (and, before that, the electrical district; it's been geeky since the 1930s), it's evolved into ground zero for all things otaku
. Geeks have burrowed into the cramped neighborhood like termites, filling every available space along the narrow alleys with computer stores, game stores, anime and manga shops, and the famous maid cafés, where girls in frilly French maid outfits serve tea European-style and greet their male customers with "Master."
Most buildings are packed with geek businesses from top to bottom: you climb dingy stairwells lined with old anime posters to get from one little floor of nerditry to the next. Stepping out onto the street again is a full-bore assault on the senses every time: huge primary-colored signs hawking games and anime, piles of discount electronics sparkling in the sun, video-game music blaring out of windows, salesgirls in vinyl hotpants, and huge-eyed cuddly cartoon characters everywhere. I see more white people here than I've seen anywhere else in Japan, mostly French and German guys, but native Japanese geeks are more than plentiful. As the afternoon wears on and the Saturday cram schools let out, the streets fill with otaku
I'm not here for manga. I can get Japanese-language tankoubon
paperbacks at the Kinokuniya bookstore back home in San Francisco, which I never do because I can't read Japanese. I am here for the utterly ignoble purpose of buying tie-in toys for my favorite manga, a mission that goes off without a hitch. If tacky manga merchandise is what you want, Akihabara is more than happy to provide. Later, I regret not picking up a roll of the Black Jack toilet paper
Since we got to Japan, our hosts from the Ghibli Museum have been asking us when we were going to see Akihabara. I kept insisting I was more interested in the Imperial Palace gardens and the cherry-blossom viewing at Ueno Park, but they knew it was a front. They knew that, sooner or later, by the same mysterious magnetism that draws the swallows to Capistrano, I would find myself in a room full of gay pornographic fancomics for girls reading something called Heavy Fucker and the Kingdom of Slytherin: Episode Red
Most of our hosts are not otaku, although the guy who used to write manga reviews for Comic Box
magazine is unable to conceal the fact that he still has strong, considered opinions about every Naoki Urasawa manga. For most of the people we talk to, manga is the stuff of childhood nostalgia. Were you a Shonen Jump
or Shonen Sunday
boy? Are you young enough that Dr. Slump
was a big deal, or do you hail from the older generation that can mimic Makoto's iconic hand gesture in Makoto-Chan
? Did you steal peeks at your sister's shojo manga? Do you still check in on your old favorites?
Some manga is mainstream enough that everyone knows it. Down the street from our hotel, Golgo 13 is hawking hanko
, personal seals for official documents, from a faded poster. When we went out for sushi on our first night in Tokyo, everyone at the table laughed approvingly at the news that Viz was translating Oishinbo
, a decades-long manga about gourmet food. "Kaibara!" they said, recalling the series' most unforgettable character, the hero's eternally disapproving, yukata
-clad father, who supposedly drove his wife to an early grave with his ruthless culinary criticism. And there are strong opinions on Urasawa's recent manga Pluto
, a gritty retelling of a classic Astro Boy
story: did Urasawa overstep his bounds in appropriating the great Tezuka? Despite reports that cell phones have replaced manga as the mass-transit time-killer of choice, I still see plenty of people reading manga on the subway.
But the Akihabara lifestyle, the toys and porn and maids, is out of the mainstream. You don't have to be an otaku to know comics, but you definitely have to be an otaku to spend an afternoon shoving past knots of Sweet Loli-clad teenage girls to get to a capsule machine that sells super-deformed figurines of Lady Oscar from The Rose of Versailles
. Which is what I'm doing. I might as well drop any pretense of sanity; the Japanese could smell the weeaboo on me from the Narita Airport.
Andrew and I finish our visit to Akihabara at the huge new Mandarake store, eight floors of nerdvana. Mandarake is a comic/geekery chain particularly renowned for its wide selection of doujinshi
(fancomics), and the Akihabara branch is stunning. There is indeed an entire floor of doujinshi
, thousands upon thousands of slim indie comics, 90% of them gay porn for girls, packed into bookshelves along narrow aisles. So the men don't feel left out, there's also a floor of erotic comics for guys, where none of the customers seem bothered by a huge Caucasian woman peering over their shoulders to check out the bondage art. A floor of anime soundtrack CDs. Two floors of toys. A cabinet of rarities like an early Leiji Matsumoto manga and $10,000 vintage Doraemon figurines. A display of short-skirted cosplay outfits, all of them modeled in the accompanying photographs by the same butch-looking man. And, of course, manga.
It's here that I break down and buy some actual comics. I really didn't think I would; there's so much manga in the States now that you don't need to visit Japan to stock up. More than once, Andrew pulls a quirky-looking manga off a shelf, commenting, "This doesn't look like anything that'll make it to the U.S.," and I inform him that Viz will be putting out the first volume a few months from now. As it is, I'm behind on the English editions of Pluto
and 20th Century Boys
and Black Jack
, and eagerly awaiting the first volume of DMC
. I'm trying to enjoy all the comics in the world, like it says on the masthead, but comics I can't read are low on my list of priorities.
And then, of course, a cover catches my eye and I melt. So I am now the proud owner of Volume One of Hiroshi Masumura's Atagoul
; at this point you can pick your romanization), a dreamlike fantasy set in a land of talking cats. The beautiful 1980s anime Night on Galactic Railroad
is based on Masumura's manga adaptation of a classic children's book, which is why the characters in the anime are drawn as cats. Masumura likes cats. Beyond that, I don't believe anything he's drawn has been translated into English. Now I'm poring over the crude but absorbing first volume of Atagoul
, trying to figure out why the snails in the garden by the lake started levitating and how this caused the protagonists to enter a labyrinth of womblike tunnels leading to a mossy tower inhabited by an evil gypsy woman who spits slime at them through a magic flute and summons a dragon. All because the big yellow cat on the cover is smiling and has a bottle of sake, and apparently that's all it takes for me to fall in love.
In a recent volume of Hayate the Combat Butler
, a popular series with otaku if the massive displays at the Gamers store in Akihabara are any indication, fangirl Nagi says, "An otaku without love and care is just a nerd." The Japanese word translated as "nerd" means something like "maniac" or "fanatic," which is exactly what "otaku" means, but maybe otaku want to be defined by more than just intense fandom. They want to be about the love. Sometimes, as the maids and the Harry Potter sex manga keep reminding me, love hurts. But other times it's the sweet, pure feeling of cracking the binding on a strange comic, silent upon the fourth floor of Mandarake.
"The important thing is love, right?" says Nagi. "Love." And sprawls on the floor to play with a vintage 1980s RC car. Love could be weirder.
Photos by Shaenon K. Garrity
Shaenon K. Garrity is a manga editor at Viz Media and is best known for her webcomics Narbonic and Skin Horse.
All the Comics in the World is © Shaenon K. Garrity, 2010