By the end of the first volume of Peepo Choo I had, I thought, a solid idea of what Felipe Smith was up to. He was satirizing, in the bluntest and most caustic way, the ways some Americans (and some Japanese) see in each others’ countries a kind of self-mythologizing that they confuse with reality. He wanted to destroy this funhouse mirror by making us laugh at it. And laugh I did; the first book is terribly funny in a way that makes you feel guilty for laughing.
And now comes the second volume, where I now worry about whether or not Smith is in the process of erecting a new, even more grossly distorting mirror to replace the one he’s smashing. On the one hand, Smith is smacking the otaku crowd for being such shills. On the other hand, he goes far over the top giving them what they want and then some. What redeems all this, though, is how he makes you empathize with the people stuck in this story who most deserve it: misguided otaku Milton, who just wants a place to feel at home; his new friend Miki, who has the same problem; and Miki’s friend Reiko, embittered about men generally and Americans in particular (and who sees Miki and Milton as equally hopeless nerds).
If most of the first book was about setting up Milton’s delusions about Japan, and showing us just how hopelessly off-base they were, the bulk of the second book is the dropping of the hammer. He discovers, to his pathic dismay, that not only is otaku-dom a relatively tiny (and rather despised) segment of Japanese culture, but that his beloved Peepo Choo was a worthless throwaway. It was only because of the machinations of both American and Japanese merchandisers that it ever got an audience at all. Smith hammers hardest of all on how fans (specifically, Milton) have their sense of outsider-ness exploited by companies that, in truest Madison Avenue style, don’t simply sell you a TV show but — in this case quite literally — a whole way of life. It’s wicked, and not at all subtle, but I suspect the subtle touch would not have worked for the audience that Smith most wants to reach.
The underlying insight is that Japan isn’t something you can seal up in a blister pack or compress into a DVD box set. It’s a place where people live their lives, and where the delusional views of outsiders aren’t welcome. Case in point: Miki, whose initial friendship with Milton is strained when she realizes the guy doesn’t understand Japan except as a receptacle for his misguided enthusiasm. “Don’t go making our country your weird Neverland,” Reiko spits at him — advice I’ve thrown at myself, and others, more than a few times, which is why the lines sting as much as they do.
Other case in point: Reiko, whose bitterness about Americans stems mainly from her experiences with them all being horn-dogs who can’t think of anything other than getting it on with her. The way she spells this out for Miki is right in line with the way the book visualizes all the characters’ delusions, from Jody’s ludicrous sex fantasies to yakuza Rockstar’s idiotic aping of gangsta toughness. (The one major exception is a saddening two-page spread where Reiko’s ghastly experiences with American men are scripted out, foreign-language-lesson style. No images save for Reiko running with tears flying off her face: we don’t need to be shown what’s wrong with this picture.)
A lot of how people respond to Peepo Choo revolves, I think, around two things. The first is how much of a tolerance level they will have for outlandish sex and violence — and, in more than one case, sex plus violence. Some of it is thematic, I guess: the more deluded and fetishistic the character (Jody; Jody’s homicidal assassin boss; Rockstar; etc.), the lewder and more violent and more detached from reality they are. But it’s one thing to say that someone gets off on violence, and another thing to show them masturbating furiously while they watch guys get their teeth smashed out and their heads blown apart. My tolerance for this sort of thing is high, but not infinite, and was only counter-balanced by Smith’s care for and attention to the characters that actually mattered to me.
Thing #2 is trickier. If you are the target audience for this book, are you going to think its message is that you’re a pathetic shill who will throw money at anything that comes from Japan because it’s “cool”? I’m not saying that is the message — just that Smith’s shotgun-spray satire runs the risk of turning off the very people who most need to understand where popular culture ends and their own lives begin. But again, like I said, maybe a shotgun blast is the only thing that can reach them by now. To that end, if my interpretation is on target, having Milton’s delusions so brutally smashed might well prove to be the best thing for him … provided he lives long enough to understand it.