Author & Illustrator: Aimee Major Steinberger
You’d think Japan already had enough nerds, but in fact, American otaku are all the rage over there now. Aware that Japan is cool in foreign eyes, private businesses and even government folks like Taro Aso are encouraging tourism from starry-eyed Westerners, bearing a love of Japan and wallets big enough to support foreign anime co-productions (okay, maybe not that, but at least they might buy some used manga).
But for those who can’t afford to go there quite yet, it can be fun to read about someone else’s adventures. Enter Japan Ai: A Tall Girl’s Adventures in Japan, which has the informal style of an extended blog entry from a happy tourist—or perhaps, given the illustrations, it’s like Craig Thompson’s travel sketchbook Carnet de Voyage if Craig Thompson were a Takarazuka-loving, Pocky-eating fangirl.
“This is me, Aimee. I’m a girl but I like video games and comic books. I really am 6 feet tall.” Thus begins the story of Aimee Major-Steinberger’s vacation, in which she travels to Tokyo andï¿½ Kyoto, stays at an onsen (hot springs) with her fellow tourist friends, and draws just about everything she encounters. Our heroine is on a mission to buy a Super Dollfie from , which turns into an official meeting with the company reps, and provides the slightest of plot structures. The chapter titles sum up her journey: “Dreams of Japan,” “Kyoto Shrines,” “Geisha,” “Onsen,” “Takarazuka,” “The Big Event!”, “Tokyo,” “Itadakimasu!”, “Otaku Tokyo,” “Tokyo Fashion,” and “VOLKS At Last.”
Japan Ai is not so much a narrative, however, as a notebook of whimsical things that can happen to tourists in Japan, of strange and squee-inducing sights, all of them copiously illustrated. There’s lots of little details which will be applicable to anyone’s tourist experience-rushing for the subway train with a packed suitcase, or getting used to nudity at the onsen-but the most interesting scenes are often the most unusual ones, such as the weird shops she finds in Harajuku, or the dungeon-themed restaurant.
There’s no pervy anime or video game stuff here, though, you Akihabara-goers. (Well, at least not much.) Fashion and costumes take up a large portion of the book, as Major-Steinberger dresses up in geisha and Goth-Loli attire, and enjoys the fabulous outfits of the Takarazuka revue. There’s also a Fruits-esque sequence in the “Tokyo Fashion” chapter, with lots of drawings of people with cool clothes. And true to the title, we are reminded throughout that yes, Major-Steinberger is tall; she can’t fit into things, her head peeks over bathroom stalls, and she inadvertently freaks out the locals.
Major-Steinberger is a talented artist with a fluid line, and Japan Ai (which isn’t a comic, but mixes color and B&W art and text) is great fun to look at. Her work combines the style of Western and Japanese animation; you can see a bit of Futurama, which she animated, in her character’s cutely pudgy bodies and three-fingered hands. She can also draw realistically when necessary.
In the end I found myself wishing for a bit more story or autobiographical insight, but as a travel catalogue and art showcase, the book functions very well. Another good comparison for Japan Ai might be Gilles Poitras’ Anime Companion books, in which Poitras exhaustively describes all the little bits of Japanese culture, food and architecture which show up in his favorite anime. But Aimee Major-Steinberger’s art gives the book a personal touch, and leaves me looking forward to her next print project.