Travel and Leisure: December, 2004
Peter Carey’s novels famously explore the terrain of his native Australia, but his latest book, Wrong About Japan (January, Knopf), recounts an anime-inspired trip to Tokyo with his son, Charlie. Carey talks with Travel + Leisure about what he learned from anime, and how cultural misunderstandings can lead to memorable experiences.
by Amy Farley
Did you travel a lot when you were growing up?
Australians feel so far away from everything—we travel insanely and for long periods of time—but I didn’t fly on an airplane until I was 24. As for my children, between London, Sydney, and our home in New York, they’ve flown tens of thousands of miles. Charlie’s older brother, Sam, even took his first steps on a flight from Sydney to London. That’s not exactly what you desire as a parent, though.
Where did you get the idea for your book?
It started with Charlie’s interest in manga and anime. He became fascinated with Japan, so I planned a trip to meet the directors and artists of his favorite movies. The highly detailed physical world of anime, when combined with the mystery of Japanese culture, gave me some insight into the country. You can’t look at any of Hayao Miyazaki’s dreamlike films without soaking up an enormous amount of information, but I always end up with more questions than answers.
What did you learn about Japanese culture?
Charlie and I went there looking for connections, for the history that shines through even in the comic strips. According to the Japanese, there are things that foreigners can’t and will never know. I reported all the misunderstandings, even if they didn’t lead me anywhere.
Were people in Japan particularly defensive about your investigation of anime and manga as an outsider?
Well, I think ultimately the Japanese were way more opaque and defensive than I would expect a confident culture to be. But who am I to judge? I’m Australian and we are wildly defensive about ourselves.
What sort of information can a traveler get from watching anime?
Films like Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, about the firebombing of Tokyo in World War II, have a lot of history in them. But My Neighbor Totoro from Miyazaki, or even Akira, which is about a sort of post-apocalyptic Tokyo, are also filled with interesting signs of another culture. They’ll really let you know the degree to which you are going to another place. I mean, in My Neighbor Totoro, there’s a scene in which a father and his two daughters are splashing away in the bath together. It’s very innocent in Japan, but you could get arrested for that in the United States.
Do you see manga and anime’s influence in the States?
Since I’ve been going to Japanese bookstores in New York with Charlie, I’ve seen manga, the comic book version of anime, expanding. More and more people are reading this stuff here. Anime is spreading too. Just by watching U.S. commercials, you can see how this country’s visual language has been affected by anime.
Any recommendations for travelers who want to follow in your footsteps?
It would be hard to replicate our trip. One of the great things about being a writer is that you can burst into people’s lives and demand to know things, as a humble tourist you really can’t do that. But I would recommend the Studio Ghibli Museum where Miyazaki has his office, near Tokyo. It’s wonderful. It’s like going into a real artist’s workroom with all the drawings lying out where you can touch them.
What was it like touring Tokyo with a 12-year-old?
We were so focused on what we were doing—meeting the directors and artists—that we rarely disagreed. That was rather unusual. I’m sure I’ll never have that experience again. I’m just lucky to have a record of it in this book.
Are you going to make a return trip with him?
Well, he has said he wants to go back, but I told him that I’m not going without a project that he’s passionate about. Because if we don’t have a project, he might just be a whiny little teenager telling me that he’s bored.
What does Charlie think of Wrong About Japan?
He liked it, actually. He liked it a lot. He even went through it one evening with his pencils and corrected my misuse of various manga references.