#27: The American Otaku and Japan-- with Peepo Choo
I noticed Felipe Smith's Peepo Choo on the front page of animeanime back when I started with this column, and I was curious what a Japanese audience would think of a comic that takes so much from the American fan experience. Would they get it? Would they know? There might be too much to explain. Did the book have ten pages of translator's notes in the back, like the English printings of titles like Oishinbo or Genshiken? Either way, I thought I would talk about it a little.
Peepo Choo is a really over-the-top comic, but the picture it paints of the American anime fan isn't too far off the mark. Our young hero Milton is a lovable, naïve kid who feels desperately out of place in the South Side of Chicago, sneaks off to the comic shop whenever he can, and dreams of escaping for Japan.
Now the Japan that Milton has in mind isn't the Japan you live in, reader, nor does it even resemble reality. Our hero is obsessed with a surreal kids' anime called Peepo Choo, in which the titular creature solves all the world's problems with his Peepo Dance. At the comic shop (and later, when he visits Japan), Milton proudly wears a Peepo Choo costume that he made himself.
The impression in the kid's head, unusually common among American anime fans and Japanophiles in general, is that Japan is a country that's entirely about the thing he loves. In the Japan Milton imagines, everybody can do the Peepo Dance. He's also been assuming that Peepo's gibberish language is actually Japanese; he takes notes on it and practices.
This is an exaggeration for comedy, of course, but it comes from the kind of things we hear from American anime fans-- both online and in real life-- rather often. Though eventually most grow out of it, the stereotype of the anime fan who thinks he's fluent in Japanese from watching English-subtitled anime, or who considers himself an expert in Japanese culture based entirely on information he's figured out from anime/manga is really fairly common. Milton is young, and so kind-hearted and naïve that we can give him a pass.
Over the course of Milton's adventure in Japan, he learns the truth about his beloved Peepo Choo: it was a total failure in its native land and was picked up for cheap by a cynical US company (called “Japatastic!” and very clearly Tokyopop, Smith's former employer). There is a two-page spread where our hero floats in the abyss of his shattered dreams, in front of the words “Peepo Choo was never popular in Japan”. For many American anime fans, who have perhaps lived this experience themselves, this satirical punch hits hard.
So yes, Smith is exaggerating with his towering, crossdressing assassin, and perhaps the propotions of his women... but there is a lot of truth in the character of Milton.