When Felipe Smith's Peepo Choo originally landed back in 2010, I wrote the following hyperbole: "Peepo Choo doesn’t just break new ground for manga, it paves it and puts parking stripes on it. It is raunchier than the last issue of Penthouse Variations you found behind someone else’s toilet, violent enough to knock the teeth from your face, and entirely too funny for its own good. It will raise one hell of a noise. It ought to." I still feel much of that is true, even with the initial shock long subsided and the book's faults all the more in our faces.
What also remains true are the three key points I originally enumerated as to what make the book such a fierce blast of fresh hair. One, as has been discussed at great length elsewhere, it’s one of the first manga titles—if not the first—created by a non-Japanese native, but published over in Japan before being licensed in English. Two, it uses its outlandish seinen plot (which reads like an overheated portion of, say, Black Lagoon) to make some fierce points about the very audience that might well be lining up for this thing. It has at least as much to say about otakudom as it does its cultural obverse, the fetishization of all things American (or at least Western) by some Japanese. Three, it does all this in the whiplash style—not necessarily visual, but emotional—of some of the best manga: on one panel you’re getting your face slammed into the pavement, and then on the next you’re getting tickled until you can’t breathe. There's a kind of genius in executing all that at once, although it comes with the hazard of alienating the very audience you're trying to reach.
Go east, young man
Peepo Choo opens with, and is nominally about, Milton, a meek kid growing up in Chicago’s South Side. His love for Japan is boundless, and flows from his enthusiasm for an incomprehensible Japanese animated TV series called (what else?) Peepo Choo. The only place he feels remotely at home is his wannabe-hustler buddy Jody’s comic store, where he runs the register and gets paid off the books. Jody despises the “nerds” that flock to his shop, and makes only the most marginal of exceptions for Milton.
Nobody realizes the shop is little more than a front operation for its owner, Gill, a hulking psycho killer who’s just been tapped to head to Tokyo for a mission. Milton would love nothing more to do the same, and so Jody rigs an in-store contest to bring Milton along with them. But while Milton will be making pilgrimages to J-culture meccas, Jody's mission is to get laid. He’s heard endless stories about the country being a booty-seeker’s paradise, and he’s damned if he’s coming back from this trip still a virgin.
Over in Japan, the storyline revolves around Morimoto Rockstar—er, Morimoto Takeshi, as he was known back when he was a meek clock-puncher. He got drafted into the gangster life, found it more to his liking, changed his name, and adopted a personal style stitched together Frankenstein-style from equal parts Scarface and Get Rich or Die Tryin’. He’s the reason Gill has been summoned overseas, and it’s a toss-up whether Gill or Morimoto is the more unhinged. While Gill dons S&M bondage gear for his kills and leaves his victims stapled to the furniture, Morimoto thinks nothing of butchering a guy in a public toilet and leaving messages carved on the dead guy’s chest in bad Engrish.
Milton mercifully doesn’t know about any of this when he arrives in Japan, but but his discovery that the country of his adoration isn’t all cosplayers and cute mascots is jarring enough. He’s a Babe in Toyland, who hasn’t yet seen with his own eyes how the salarymen barf on the park benches and slip thousand-yen notes into the hands of teen girls for a thirty-minute roll in the hay. Worse, not only is otaku-dom a relatively tiny (and rather despised) segment of Japanese culture, but Milton's beloved Peepo Choo was a worthless throwaway fragment of same. It was only because of the machinations of both American and Japanese merchandisers that it ever got an audience at all.
Jody does not fare much better. He tries to hook up with cute-on-the-outside, homicidal-on-the-inside teen model Reiko, with her predilection for taking people who bother her and leaving them looking like the picture you see in the dictionary next to “f—ed up”. She has a good reason for being embittered with the likes of Jody: he's right in line with every other (male) American she's encountered who didn't see her as anything other than a prize to score.
A different take on the same dynamic, one no less heartbreaking, comes by way of Reiko's friend Miki. When Miki encounters Milton, the two of them initially bond enthusiastically. Then the friendship sours when Miki realizes Milton's whole view of Japan — and by proxy, her too — has reduced it to nothing but a receptacle for his own misguided enthusiasm. "Don't go making our country your weird Neverland," Reiko spits at Milton — advice I've thrown both at myself and others more than a few times, which explains why they stung as much as they did when I read them off the page.
It took me a second reading of the series to understand how Smith’s satire of otaku-dom—whether that of American or Japanese fanboys—is not meant to be indiscriminate flaming, a pox on everyone's houses. In Milton's case, the book doesn’t mock him so much as it sets him up to have his illusions demolished — painfully, but necessarily so. Milton doesn’t want to brag about what he is, just cherish it, but he won't be able to do that in a sincere way until he has the scales lifted from his eyes, and of course that will hurt.
This is the first key point made by the story: Japan isn’t something you can seal up in a blister pack or compress into a DVD box set. We live in a time and place where most every kind of cultural experience has become a commercial commodity, meaning it's all the harder to tell when our sincere love for something is being milked instead of merely fed. 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. Again, it's not fandom per se that's being mocked here; it's fandom as a dead end in itself, rather than fandom a revivifying force, a propellant fueling a journey towards greater things. (Towards the end of the story, we see Milton doffing his otaku-colored glasses, as it were, and swapping out the gibberish of the Peepo Choo show for actual Japanese lessons.)
What most everyone in this story really seeks — whether male, female, black, white, Japanese, American, law-abiding, law-breaking—isn't really cultural cred, anyway. It's companionship. Only after their respective delusions are wiped away, sometimes violently, do they have a chance at finding it. I mentioned Milton and Miki; Jody's dead-end quest for nookie leads him to find fleeing kinship in a fellow “gangsta”, who turns out to be far more of the real thing than he can handle.
But one particularly striking character in this respect is Reiko, the bored supermodel. Her endless photoshoots never give her a chance to be anything other than a surface, a reflection, someone else's idea of fun. Outside, she alternates between sweetness and seething; inside, she's heartbroken, as per a saddening two-page spread where Reiko’s ghastly experiences with American men are scripted out, foreign-language-lesson style. No images of what happened to her, save for Reiko running with tears flying off her face: we don’t need to be shown what’s wrong with this picture. 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.
The way the story stacks the deck against Milton also works as a critique — from 2010 and earlier, no less — of how the only thing more risible in mainstream culture than a nerd is a nerd of color. A black kid from Chicago is not supposed to be a goofball who loves that weird Japanese crap; he's either supposed to be Barack Obama or Ice-T — and not just in the eyes of whites, either. It's a sentiment mirrored in Reiko's change of perspective as well — that the way we're seen by peers or the culture we inhabit can direct us, and constrain us, in ways we're not always conscious of until we confront them head-on.
Laugh, it's a disaster!
One thing Smith gets right that is not easy to get right is an element peculiar to manga, and maybe also Japanese visual culture generally, that is next to impossible to ape from the outside. I’m not talking about the visuals (after all, Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga), although Smith's art is top-shelf stuff. I mean the attitude, the heart-tugging, the emotional gear-shifting, the way things can go from funny to horrible to heartbreaking in the span of a page. It's difficult to pull off because it has to be modulated well, typically by way of building an emotional attachment to the person to whom all this madman stuff happens — in this case, Milton, whom we can see is a good kid and just needs a chance to grow up a little. The story generates tension from making us wonder whether or not he'll manage that, and whether or not he'll even live through the lesson in question.
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.
Many discussions have taken place 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. Why can’t one of the brashest, most ambitious manga I’ve read yet be from an American? Well, here it is. It’s as good an argument for cultural cross-pollination as you’re likely to find.
Postscript: 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.