First, a statement: The last volume of Peepo Choo is a satisfying ribbon for the gift that this whole series has been, a way to tie everything together and give everyone more or less what they deserve. Second, a promise: I’ll try not to ruin too much when talking about the book, since the how of the final installment is as important as the what.
What’s clearest, now that the series is over, is how more than anything else Peepo Choo has been about delusion and illusion. The Japan that Milton saw through otaku-colored glasses wasn’t the Japan he ended up in when he finally got there. That Japan ended up being wall-to-wall with what turned out to be the same sort of prosaic, mundane folks he thought he was getting away from. His buddy Jordy is equally deluded, seeing either endless opportunities to get laid (none of which pan out) or some fleeting kinship in a fellow “gangsta” (who turns out to be far more of the real thing than he can handle). In fact, most everyone in this story — male, female, black, white, Japanese, American, law-abiding, law-breaking — is really looking for one thing: companionship. It’s only after the delusion is wiped away that they have a chance at finding it.
It’s an oddly sentimental core to a story which has been loaded with the kind of sex and violence that sends most publishers fleeing. It’s also the kind of emotional center that manga readers have come to expect from their material, and that’s a big part of why it works at all. When talking about manga vs. the Marvel / DC style of American comics, the one thing I keep coming back to is not the art style. It’s the way manga does its darndest to go for the heart first, to enlist us emotionally before it enlists us on almost every other level, to make us give a damn as a way of making us believe six impossible things before breakfast. Felipe Smith knows this, and he’s constructed his story in such a way that despite the bloodshed and the shootouts, the real conclusion to the story is emotional. It’s not about who gets shot to pieces and has their skin used for a seat cushion, even if that material is in the story (if only for the sake of brutal contrast).
In fact — and here I veer into spoiler territory, sorry — despite the amount of flying lead and slithering blades, none of the major characters bite it. What they get instead is a new look at what they already have. When Milton realizes the pseudo-culture of the “Peepo Choo” TV series is just that, a mirage, he brushes up on real conversational Japanese — and as a reward he gets to discover the geek haven of Akihabara. What’s most important to him there is not the goodies he finds, even if there are plenty of those, but being in the company of others who accept him as he is. This is something Reiko, the bored supermodel, discovers as well. Her endless photoshoots never gave her a chance to do anything other than pout seductively, but after Miki breaks down her aversion to anime culture (apparently because it taps into a long-suppressed part of her that’s not a hard-bitten cynic), she realizes she can express herself here, dress up and be a star her way instead of just being a puppet for a largely uncaring camera. For the first time she’s found a place where she can smile, for real.
I was amused at how a major focus of Peepo Choo is how fans of Japan and America, both, are chronically doomed to never understand the targets of their affection. What’s less impressive is how major points about such cultural crossovers are imparted to the reader with the sort of info-dumping found in most any manga when a technical topic comes up. Sometimes I feel Smith is not-so-subtly parodying this sort of thing, as when he gives us Jordy’s hilarious riff on the five sexiest outfits possible for a woman (which plays like outtakes from an issue of the fetish specialist manga G-Taste). But when the subject matter becomes that much more sincere, so does the data-dump, and people who liked the biting satire may be irked to see it replaced with gentle sentiment. It would collapse completely, I think, if it wasn’t buttressed by being about how his characters are finally finding something exclusively their own — not even a “scene” or a “hobby”, but a fellow human being’s company. A fandom means nothing without fellow fans, and even that doesn’t mean anything if you aren’t able to connect with them as people generally.
I’ve read a number of discussions over the past month about how anime and manga must broaden their reach to far outside Japan’s borders — that they must work as productions with international appeal by default, and not simply rely on fan evangelism, if they intend to survive. A better way to put it, in light of finishing this series, would be to draw a parallel: Some of the hottest jazz records I own are Japanese (case in point: Kaoru Abe), so why can’t one of the brashest, most ambitious manga I’ve read yet be from an American? Well, here it is. It’s the best argument for cultural cross-pollination you’re likely to find this year.
Footnote: One minor gripe I have about the way the last volume is constructed is how Miki essentially disappears for the end of the story — that part of the plot becomes more about Milton’s rapport with (English-speaking) Reiko. We don’t even get to see him say goodbye to Miki, which is a little strange given how fiercely the two of them connected across cultural divides.