The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture
 Mark Schilling
Language: English Release: 1997
Publisher: Weatherhill Pages: 343
Genre: Non-fiction ISBN: 0834803801

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Back Cover
Nicholas Driscoll

The title The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture would tend to suggest a voluminous, encompassing text covering the spectrum of Japanese entertainment. Let's get this out of the way right now: Mark Schilling's book is not that comprehensive, which he readily admits in the introduction. This book is more a survey of notable pop culture trends and celebrities, as chosen by an expat writer on film and TV who has lived in Tokyo for over 20 years. What this means is that the text functions more as an overview of the pop culture, selectively pruned and approved according to national and international impact, or, in some cases, more by personal taste. The book may have been more usefully titled An Introduction to Japanese Pop Culture, but the book is what it is, and other than with the title, never pretends to be anything else.

The topics covered in the book are far-reaching, from trends, movies, scandals, manga, books, music, and even national crazes such as royal weddings, or the advancement of appliances in Japanese homes. As such, the book is very informative, and I was pleased to learn more about such things as comedians in Japan (my students would always talk about their favorite comedians, and I barely knew anything about them, despite having to dress up as one for a school event), or the history of pop music from rockabilly to the New Music sounds. There is a lot to interest Toho-philes as well, with essays on Godzilla and Ultraman, the Waka Daisho films, anime guru Hayao Miyazaki, and a number of celebrities that have appeared in Toho's films, such as Yusaku Matsuda (The Family Game), Momoe Yamaguchi (Izu Dancer), and the members of the super boyband SMAP. However, presumably because their works are considered more art than pop, Schilling omits Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, as well as the influential works of Ozu and Mizoguchi.

But for all the ground covered, Schilling shows clear favoritism for certain subjects, going on at length (about nine pages of text) about the scandals of Seiko Matsuda to the point that his book begins to sound like a tabloid, while giving other important topics, like the Guinness-Record-breaking series of films, Tora-san, not even three pages of text. Schilling particularly seems to scorn what might be termed juvenile entertainments such as video games and tokusatsu films, the essays about which feel much less researched.

Unfortunately for Schilling, this reviewer has read up on a number of those juvenile topics, and his essays are popping with an alarming number of mistakes, even at some points very basic errors. Starting with Godzilla, Schilling can't seem to decide whether to use the Japanese Romanized monster names, or the names of monsters established in America. He refers to Godzilla as Godzilla and Mothra as Mothra, but Anguiras is "Angirasu" and Rodan keeps his Japanese name of "Radon"—small but puzzling inconsistencies. More troubling was his insistence that Godzilla won all of his movie matches, including an bewildering assertion that the Big G actually did defeat King Kong, and no mention of his ignominious defeat at the web-shooters of the Mothra larvae. Schilling also indicates that Mekagojira no Gyakushu was titled Godzilla vs. the Cosmic Monster (instead of Terror of Mechagodzilla) in America, and that Kempachiro Satsuma was hired to portray Godzilla in a North Korean movie, completely missing the fact that the resultant film, 1985's Pulgasari, was essentially a propagandistic film with more in common with Daiei's Daimaijin trilogy than the nuclear dinosaur.

Not that the books factual errors end with the Godzilla entry. In the Mario essay, Schilling states that the original Super Mario Bros. was initially an arcade game, which is patently false—while the game was eventually ported to arcades (I actually saw one, complete with Famicom controllers hooked to the unit, while I was in Japan), it was first a killer app for Nintendo's "family computer" home console. Some other errors I found include Schilling's note that, in the initial run of Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers, Saban hired "one white, one African-American, and one Hispanic actor to play the three male roles"—except that there was no Hispanic Power Ranger at first; and Schilling says that Ultraman debuted in Tsuburaya's Ultra Q series, which never once had the giant silver superhero. Ultraman wouldn't debut until after that Twilight Zone-inspired show ended; the M78 alien hero came the next year with a full-color kids' show titled, predictably, Ultraman. These and other factual errors rendered the entire text as suspect to me; when reading topics I was less familiar with, I was always wondering if he had managed to get his facts straight.

In addition to all the unfortunate factual mistakes, The Encyclopedia of Japanese Pop Culture also holds the dubious distinction of having some of the most error-riddled prose I have ever encountered in a published work. In nearly every essay I found multiple obvious mistakes, some of the most common being omitted particles (a, the) and even incorrect verb tenses. (Several times he uses "become" where "became" would be appropriate.) These are the kinds of mistakes I would expect from a Japanese struggling with learning the English language, and I wonder if he is actually picking up the mistakes of the people around him—something I often found myself doing in Japan, making the same mistakes as my students because I heard them all day long. The book reads as if he didn't have an editor, and indeed there are places where presumably Schilling started editing the text himself but didn't complete the job, leaving a garbled sentence structure in his wake. It's like reading a particularly articulate blog.

Obviously this isn't a great book, despite all the work that went into it. I don't regret reading it, but the huge number of mistakes makes it hard to trust anything he writes. The book would work well as a rather dated overview if someone had given the prose a few more passes through an editor. As it stands, the book might be worth a look if found for cheap or free (like at a library), but at full price this book unfortunately isn't worth it.