Review: Japan Ai: A Tall Girl’s Adventures in Japan

Japan Ai: A Tall Girl’s Adventures in Japan
By Aimee Major Steinberger
Rated T for Teen, 13+
Go!Comi, $16.99

Japan Ai is Aimee Steinberger’s charming sketch diary of her trip to Japan with two female friends. Written in a cheery, casual tone, it’s more quirky personal story than travel guide, but it includes plenty of useful information like maps of shopping districts, addresses of stores and attractions, and a glossary of useful terms.

Steinberger is an animator who has worked on The Simpsons and Futurama, as well as for Disney and Warner Brothers. She’s also a dedicated cosplayer and doll enthusiast who is particularly obsessed with the dolls made by the Japanese company Volks. When she asked the Volks people for an interview, they replied by inviting her to visit their company as their guest. Seizing the moment, Steinberger drafted two friends to join her and designed a tour of Japan around her favorite obsessions, with trips to the temples of Kyoto, an onsen (hot springs), two Takarazuka musicals, and lots of stores catering to the cosplay-obsessed. The trip culminated with her visit to the Volks factory, where she designed her own doll and “adopted” it in an elaborate ceremony.

The book is light-hearted enough to be read by anyone who picks it up, but manga readers will find it particularly entertaining because Steinberger sees Japan through a fangirl’s eyes: she interrupts her description of a temple to note that Rei from Sailor Moon and Kikyo from InuYasha were temple maidens; she visits an onsen, just like the characters in Fruits Basket; and she watches the Takarazuka stage adaptation of Rose of Versailles. Side notes and a glossary in the appendix help keep the book from being too esoteric for newcomers, and Steinberger doesn’t present herself as a know-it-all otaku; she takes the wrong train, eats the wrong foods, and mistakes a sex shop for a costume shop. Her occasional miscues, and her willingness to laugh at them (and her height) add considerably to the book’s charm.

Steinberger draws Japan with economy and skill. Her simple line drawings are remarkably expressive, and she can sum up a complicated scene, including emotions, in just a few lines. That’s the sort of art that looks easy but really isn’t. And her enthusiasm really shines through in her sketches ostreet fashion.

Another thing I love about this book is that Steinberger is so comfortable in her own skin. She’s not self-conscious about her unusual hobbies, and it’s nice to see her and her two female friends having fun on their own, with a minimum of angst and no boys in sight. There need to be more girls’ books like that.

Go!Comi is known for producing good-quality books, and they pulled out all the stops for Japan Ai: high-quality paper, color plates, beautifully designed and produced cover. (OK, it’s a very pink cover, but it’s still gorgeous.) Extras include a glossary and an appendix with sources more information about travel in Japan and the specific sites mentioned. Steinberger has said in interviews that the Go!Comi editors were heavily involved in shaping the book, which she was originally planning to self-publish; one cute touch is that everyone involved listed their height alongside their names on the book’s copyright page. You can see a huge sample of the book, plus some deleted scenes at their website. (Warning: Clicking on Japan Ai makes the whole site go pink.)

Steinberger’s conversational tone, self-deprecating humor, and beautiful drawings make Japan Ai a great read and a wonderful gift for any Japan enthusiast.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)

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  1. Calvin Reid says:

    Japan Ai is just too much fun. Steinberger’s created a delightful account of her trip to Japan that anybody can relate too. Plus while the book is obviously influenced by manga, its really an effort to create something very personal. Its not a conventional comics work (while there are some conventional comics panels many pages hold single illustrations and she uses occasional color) and she’s produced a kind of hybrid graphic, travel book, memoir. But her account of the trip is so honest and funny and chocked full of detail, that this book will delight the otaku as well as the comics or manga newbie curious about what all the fuss about J-pop is all about.

  2. A great review for a great book; I agree whole heartedly. I hope more people pick it up and are as entertained by it as I am.

  3. Tokyosista says:

    I just read the book yesterday at Barnes & Nobles. WOW!! I really enjoyed every bit of this book and I can’t wait to get paid this week because I really want to buy it. It was such a wonderful real life story that contained awesome art work by the Aimee and her sense of humor is really cool. I’m glad I read it…it makes me want to go to Japan even more now. I so want to dress like a geischa (I know I spelled that wrong >_< ) my self :3

    I hope she does more in the future.


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