So earlier this year, two of our Youth Librarians approached me with an idea for a summer programme. Since the theme of our Summer Reading Programme is One World, Many Stories they thought it’d be kind of fun to do a teen book group using Japanese manga and perhaps show some anime as well.

Now then, while my historical specialty is the history of science, I actually graduated from college with a degree in Japanese history and my focus was on Japanese popular culture. So I actually know something about this subject and I was absolutely thrilled to participate! We did a little whip around and decided to use the first volume of Death Note for the manga choice. Since we don’t have the DVD series of Death Note, I selected something with similar themes, Code Geass.

I read the manga and watched the first DVD of the Code Geass series and got some notes and thoughts lined up, some of which I’ll share below. See, the problem is that certain aspects of Japanese anime and manga go right over the heads of Americans simply because they’re from another culture with cultural references we don’t always get. So I wanted to talk about that, let the teens in on some “inside information” that may actually enhance their enjoyment of manga and anime.

We got together in the story time room here at the library. It’s nice and big and has an overhead digital projector and screen for watching movies and the like. Now, most of the time, teen book groups tend to be a limited number of participants. From what I’ve seen here, the participants tend to be the same people too. Now, that’s great, but it’s always good to get new people in.

And so we did, including three or four of those most elusive library patrons: the teenage male.

We had a blast. We talked manga and watched three episodes of Code Geass. I was happy we got through the third episode because there was something in episode three I wanted to talk about – a shower scene.

Now, Americans have this hang up with teens and nudity and that, the instant nudity is spied on a screen a teen will lose all control. I’m happy to report that our crowd of teenagers took the nudity in stride with barely a giggle. I mean, they’re teenagers, that doesn’t mean they’re stupid. I think the only giggle I heard was from a girl in the group who’d seen this series and knew what was coming.

Still, it was nice to be able to get up after that episode was over and talk about the difference in morality between the Japanese and Americans. Code Gaess isn’t really aimed at adults. It’s aimed at teens. Being a product of the powerhouse studio known as CLAMP, this is an anime with something for teen males and females alike. There’s plenty of romance, intrigue, storytelling, and character development for the girls. For the guys there are giant robots, large battles in bombed out cities, and strong, beautiful female characters. So the fact that this anime has nudity in it, however non-gratuitous it was, might shock some American parents who never even considered nudity in a teen programme.

Thing is, Japan doesn’t have the American hang up with nudity. You could see the character’s breasts and butt. While in America, this kind of thing would be shoved onto prime time premium cable, the Japanese don’t really care about it. Yes, you can see her boobs and butt. So what? Every woman has boobs and a butt. What’s the big deal? It’s not like they’re getting it on there in the shower. I talked about one of my all time favourite Japanese shows, Crayon Shin-chan, which features a character called Shinnosuke. Shinnosuke, also called Shin-chan, is a little boy, kindergarten age.

In many ways, he is a Japanese version of Dennis the Menace but without any inhibitions or reservations at all.

Shin-chan exists to embarrass the hell out of his parents. That’s what he does, and he does it well. Now, keep in mind, this is a show for children not teens,  though teens would find a lot to like here. One of the things he does to accomplish this goal is the buri buri dance, where he pulls his pants down, thrusts his butt in the air and wiggles back and forth shouting BURI BURI! Now, that’s nothing compared to his “zo-san” dance.

In Japanese, zo means elephant and san is an honourific roughly equivalent to Mister or Misses. So zo-san means Mr. Elephant. This dance involves him once again dropping his pants to reveal that, at some point, he drew a cartoon elephant’s face around his genetals and you can take a pretty good guess what was used for the elephant’s trunk.

Being able to share these differences in culture, and how the Japanese culture is reflected in its anime and manga was a real treat for me. I hope we do something similar again soon. The teens seemed to have a really good time and more than one commented to the Youth Librarians that they learned a lot. As a guy who’s been into history since he was 11 years old, that’s a hell of a thrill and something I look forward to doing again.