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John Biewen observing the tea ceremony with friend Nakagawa and his wife Yoko (pictured).



Reporter's Notebook
by John Biewen

My friend Nakagawa was glad to see me, but he couldn't have cared less about the subject that brought me back to Japan. Nakagawa is a government housing official in his fifties, a man with an overt affection for Japanese architecture, food, and gardening. (He's also a huge fan of American jazz and, lately, fly-fishing-the latter hobby inspired by the movie version of "A River Runs Through It.") Nakagawa and I met in 1985. He was an English student of mine. We became friends and, during the two years I lived in Japan, he showed me the temples and shrines in the ancient cities of Kyoto and Nara.

In May of 2006, Nakagawa and I sat in his house on the outskirts of Kyoto. I explained that I'd come back, with my colleague Chris Farrell, to explore the swelling popularity of Japanese cultural products for young people-in particular, manga (Japanese comic books) and their close cousin, anime (animated movies and television).

"Anime?" Nakagawa said with a scowl. "That's all just copying Disney."

There's a strand of truth there. Japanese adopted the art of animation after World War II, mostly imitating American animators. The Japanese word, anime, is derived from the English "animation." The Japanese artist widely recognized as the father of both manga and anime, Osamu Tezuka, was deeply influenced by Walt Disney. This helps explain some features still found in anime to this day, such as the Western-looking characters with huge eyes.

But my friend Nakagawa was unfair to Japanese animators. Dismissing them as mere Disney imitators is like saying Jimi Hendrix copied Hank Williams because the country musician picked up the guitar first. Japanese animators have taken their art to places Disney never thought of going.

Of course, Nakagawa made a common cultural mistake. Many of us assign a given art form to the country or ethnic group that developed it and assume that all "outsiders" who attempt that art are imitators at best and no-talent posers at worst.

When I moved to Japan in the 1980's I was intensely interested in Japanese culture. Read: traditional Japanese culture: Buddhist architecture, rock gardens, the Japanese language. I often shook my head in stunned admiration at Japan's aesthetic sensibility, developed (and borrowed from China and Korea) over two millennia.

But pop culture? Anything remotely hip, in the Lou Reed sense of the word? Cool, as in Coltrane? Forget it. "We" in the West had those categories covered, thank you very much. What I saw of Japanese pop music, for example, consisted of young female bubble gum singers on TV. They would have made Britney Spears seem musically edgy if she hadn't been in preschool at the time. When I saw Japanese rockers riding the trains in Osaka, my condescension knew no bounds. What a hoot, I'd think to myself. These guys have grown their hair long, died it blond, and taken up the electric guitar! Some of them might have been good, but I wasn't about to find that out by going to hear them play. I would have had a similar reaction to a non-Japanese kabuki actor.

So when Nakagawa scoffed at the achievements of Japanese animators, I recognized the reflex.

In researching "Japan's Pop Power," I watched many hours of anime, read some manga, and gave Japanese pop music an attentive listen for the first time in two decades-OK, ever. No question, some of the stuff is cultural cotton candy, just like lots of pop culture from anywhere. (What is the appeal of Power Rangers?) But much of it is brilliant-and, yes, cool.

Take anime like Serial Experiments Lain. It's a moody, captivating series about a teenage girl who communicates with the dead through the Internet. Or the manga Hikaru no Go; it's skillfully drawn and the stories are smart and unpredictable. J-pop artists are making music that's catchy and sly and vibrant.

The biggest pleasure of all: My family and I watched almost all of Hayao Miyazaki's movies-several of them more than once. Miyazaki is the undisputed genius who made the Oscar-winning animated film, "Spirited Away." People like John Lasseter, the artistic head of Pixar and creator of "A Bug's Life" and "Cars," genuflect at the mention of the Japanese master. Miyazaki's work is now available in the U.S. on video and DVD, overdubbed by top English-speaking actors, thanks to a distribution partnership with none other than Disney. My kids adore Miyazaki's films but I just might love them more-especially "Howl's Moving Castle," "Nausicaš of the Valley of the Wind," and, of course, "Spirited Away." (If your kids are younger than eight or so, start with "My Neighbor Totoro" and "Kiki's Delivery Service.")

Miyazaki's films are a refreshing departure from the jaded jokiness and good-and-evil formulas of many American movies for kids. His artistry and wildly imaginative storytelling leave Disney in the dust. He often draws deeply on Japanese literature and spirituality.

At its best, Japanese pop culture is made with originality and heart and genuine quality. Like the best American jazz or rock 'n roll. And like a couple of thousand years of Japanese culture-even if my pal Nakagawa doesn't know it.



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