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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Cool Japan Guide - A Book Review

Welcome to another book review... the fourth book of four I had received earlier last month from Tuttle Publishing - a book publisher that specializes in East Asian topics.

Cool Japan Guide by Abbey Denson.

Did I like it? No.

Does the book have value for others? Absolutely.

Will others enjoy the book? More than likely.

Why didn't I like it? A few reasons… Chief amongst them was the fact that the book was a beginner's look at Japan, and despite living there for only three years as part of the JET (Japan Exchange & Teaching) Programme, I can say that I know a heck of a lot about Japan—not as much as some, but definitely more than most (and here I'm even including the Japanese who were born and raised there).

Having said that, this book didn't have any surprises for ME.

I can still be surprised about many a factoid on Japan—I am every day—but this book lacked (for ME) a 'wow' factor that I did get with every page turn of another Tuttle Publishing book, A Geek In Japan (my review - HERE).

I also am not a fan of Denson's overly simplistic art style, though I admit that it's cartoony, which makes it seem friendly and thus safe and trustworthy to the reader.

The thing is, I own over 35,000 comic books and I've also spent many a year sitting in comic book convention Artist Alleys watching geeks and nerds walked by to see if the books I had written with various hungry artists contained drawings of women with overly-large boobs. I've produced and self-published about 25 stories in 15 comic books, and while the art in them may not be on the same par (it wasn't ) as comic book legends Neal Adams...

(Click on all images to enlarge them!)
Neal Adams - Green Lantern/Green Arrow #76 from 1970 - one of my all-time favorite comic books... I had my copy signed by Neal last month! Very friendly man! Now I need to meet his main writer Denny O'Neil!
... or Carl Barks
Back when Duck comics were unsigned, us fans knew the anonymous Carl Barks as "the good Duck artist" for good reason. The Golden Helmet - Four Color #408 from 1952. One of the first back issues I ever bought. Worn, well-read, and well-loved. Carl wrote and drew everything, though his wife Gare did spot duty on coloring and lettering and some inking from time to time.
... or Hal Foster
Perhaps the best comic book artist ever. Hal Foster wrote, drew and lettered and created Prince Valiant back in 1937. Even today, nearly 80 years later, few can lay claim to Hal's crown. I bought a few volumes for my dad who first read it as a child - and we BOTH enjoyed them!
... or Frank Miller
After Neal Adams took Batman away from the biff-bam-boom pap circa the 1960s Batman TV show creating the Dark Knight Detective, Frank Miller here redefined Batman in 1986 with The Dark Knight Returns 4-issue mini-series, creating an anti-hero concept that has continued to resonate with fans and creators alike even to this day. (Julien.... see?). I own multiple copies of each issue, purchased new because I knew this was going to be an important book.
 ... or whomever is the hotshot artist du jour, it was as good, if not better than the stiff art presented by Denson in her Cool Japan Guide. I presented the above contrasting artwork to show that I do know my sh!t when it comes to comics and comic book artists and comic book art.

Now… I am also smart enough to know that art is subjective to the viewer. What I dislike, the majority might like, and vice versa.
I know it's the cartoony art style of Denson, but the smiles! Arrgh! Also, no one is buying clothes in Japan unless it's classic Japanese clothing. For the average Westerner... you are too damn big. Also, beware the Japanese accent. Track Number 4 will sound like "tu-rah-ku nam-ba fah" - and no... they don't all speak English. Or smile when they talk to you. They might want to, but it's not part of the job description whether you are a westerner or Japanese. When did the train station change its wall colors from blue to pink? Same with the point of her hair? Left or Right?
But is that fair—an old fart reading a book for beginners on Japan? Of course not.

But that's why I'm fairly suggesting that the book has value to those who are uninitiated with Japan or the best blog on the inter web thingy, Japan—It's A Wonderful Rife.

Despite not being my cup of o-cha (green tea), the art is NOT terrible. It's simplistic. It's clean. The characters and objects are all easy to discern. The print job is superb with the colors popping off the page.

The subject matter—for the uninitiated—is pretty complete… from offering advice on what to pack, what to see, what to sample.

It's all there… presented in a neat order… in a comic book-style format.

Good information! Clear and concise. Maybe that's why everyone is smiling all the time. I would check the country code on any DVD you buy in Japan to see if it will play back in YOUR home country.
Truthfully, if you were going to Japan for the first time, would I recommend the awesome A Geek In Japan book or Cool Japan Guide?

I'd recommend Cool Japan Guide hands down.

There's a lot of wordy words in Geek, while Denson manages to keep the dialogue short, snappy and even cute. So that's good.

My main problem, is that the book is presented to us visually in a comic book format - a graphic novel format, actually - but because it's a guide on what one should see and do in Japan, Denson doesn't really try to bring her two main characters to life.

They are dull and static, with Stepford Wife smiles.

Will others enjoy this book? Yeah… it actually seems to adequately cover all aspects of Japan that a tourist might be curious about.

In that respect, the book is perfect.

I dislike being a critic, as I feel critics are generally filled with self-important loathing of everything not related to them.

What I have offered is my opinion, and why my opinion is what it is. It doesn't mean you have to think my opinion is the bees kneez or anything.

Abby Denson is a cartoonist and a food blogger, and truthfully her chapter on food appears complete and concise. Lots of good and accurate information. With such diverse information on the Japanese foods, she is telling the newbie to be adventurous in their food choices! But... those smiles!!! Hmmm... maybe I don't care for the 2D art style that lacks depth....
Cool Japan Guide was a quick and easy read, coming in at 128 pages in length. It's a good-sized book, so you're not going to lose your eyesight reading as you probably will staring at your tiny-a$$ smartphone or tablet.

Paper books rule!

If I was going to Japan for the first time—say leaving in July for my first year on the JET Programme—and someone gave Cool Japan Guide to me as a good-bye and good luck present, I would find its contents very helpful - which, all things considered, is a damn good thing.

Cool Japan Guide by Abby Denson (and other great books on Japan and the rest of Asia) is available from

Andrew "I-can't-even-draw-a-smile" Joseph

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