Pure Invention by Matt Alt is a new release that chronicles that wide-ranging impact that Japan’s pop-culture has had on the world from the years following World War II through today. The breadth of topics is fairly wide-ranging, rather than focusing on a single industry or phenomenon. It’s a testament to the sheer size of the pop-culture juggernaut that Japan has become over the 70-plus years that the book covers. While Pure Invention isn’t an “own voices” history, Alt lives in Tokyo and seems to have a deep love for Japanese pop-culture and has crafted a compelling and well-researched history.
Pure Invention opts for casting a wide net, drilling down enough to outline the history and background for each topic before moving on to the next. The chapters primarily focus on a single aspect of Japanese pop-culture, although in the telling of each story there are often deep side-bars on a fad or industry that’s relevant to the given topic. For example, Alt spends a chapter on the Pokemon juggernaut, but takes time within to cover the Ultraman fad of the late 60’s, as it is helpful for informing the underlying cultural mechanisms that helped Pokemon explode. This style allows Alt to touch on nearly anything and everything, even if a topic doesn’t warrant an entire chapter. The weaving together of the significance of Hello Kitty and the character design of Mario, for example, help paint a picture of the broader Japanese pop-culture.
That each topic is mostly relegated to a single chapter is not to say that Alt doesn’t do justice to the topics that he has chosen to explore. I actually appreciated that Alt takes a good deal of time explaining the cultural underpinnings that led to each piece of pop-culture dominance. Rather than a step-by-step retelling of who created the first karaoke machine, Pure Invention spends time on a preamble about why the Japanese corporate culture allowed for its necessity and explosion to follow. This is true for all of the topics covered in Pure Invention. The rise of Hello Kitty wouldn’t be possible without an explanation about the obsession with “Kawaii” and the importance of 90’s anime and Otaku culture must be viewed with an understanding of the crippling economic recession that shaped them.
Alt also isn’t afraid to also discuss the more problematic themes and motivations surrounding the topic of each chapter. Karaoke, for example, is partly a story of the toxicity of the Japanese corporate culture for men and the near complete exclusion from that culture for women. There are similarly problematic undercurrents in the background for several of the fads and movements in Pure Invention. These stories are the same in nearly every country, but it’s important to acknowledge that pop-culture is a representation and reaction to the actual country culture.
There’s just a ton here for even a casual Japanophile. Beyond the aforementioned topics, Alt covers manga, the Mighty Atom, Gundam, Akira, Hayao Miyazaki, Sony and the Walkman, Haruki Murakami, Tamagotchi, Pacman, and so much more. Japan has helped influence nearly every aspect of global pop-culture, from TV and movies, books and comics, music, electronics, fashion, and more. Alt spends time with at least some of the foundational fads that contributed to each of these movements and explains how they came to be. I imagine most anyone interested in those trends will find themselves being drawn in by at least a chapter or two. Those who enjoy broader exploration of pop-culture are likely to enjoy the elements found here, as well. I enjoyed Pure Invention a ton and I hope you will, as well.