This weekend I headed down to London’s Tobacco Docks to check out this year’s Hyper Japan – a festivalian celebration of all things Japan. Set in an aging Victorian dockyard by way of a failed 90s shopping centre, it’s a place of misformed, malshaped lost ages – aging brickwork arches and twee ‘mini shops’ cupped away into alcoves. The usual vendors, good and bad – mountains of merchandise, mostly overpriced.
I make it sound like it’s a bad experience – it’s not. Hyper Japan remains one of the ‘must see’ events of any UK-based Japan-afficianado’s calendar, but the simple truth will always remain – it exists to sell stuff, laying the gauntlet at the feet of the multitude of the vendors to offer up their best wares to a crowd that seems to swell immeasurably every year. To such an extent that the show – for good and ill – now exists as a kind of mini MCM Comic Con.
Let’s talk about artbooks – without a doubt one of the most visually impressive, and resultingly expensive items on sale at Hyper Japan. Part of the allure of these for me has always been that they remain largely an ‘exclusive’ to events like Hyper Japan and MCM. Sure, you can order them online or import direct from Japan, but unlike manga or anime releases, you’re not likely to find them in your average high-street store. No, artbooks are the ‘rare beasts’ of anime fandom’s vast savannah – a ‘get em while you can!’ experience that promises pages and pages of visual splendour and mountains of Japanese text most fans probably won’t be able to read. But so what if you throw down £30 on one of these gorgeous books, flick through and then push its crisp pages into a bookshelf, rarely to be taken down again. It’s the experience that counts, right?
One thing I’ve always admired about Japanese anime artbooks is that the level of quality on display in them is so far away and beyond anything seen in the UK, it continues to blow my mind every time I see one. Outside perhaps lush art gallery hardbacks from the likes of the British Museum or something, you’ll very rarely see book productions of this quality in the UK. Anime Ltd have started to release artbook style content with some of their Ultimate Editions – and while their efforts are to be celebrated, frankly, the quality is still a far cry from the Japanese editions.
Maybe it’s the way the Japanese ones are always encased in their sleek dust jackets – so crisp and rounded. So pleasingly tactile. Whereas here in the UK, it’s the humble hardback that’s usually the sign of quality, in Japan, there’s something about the soft gentility of the slipcased softback that just feels so right in your hand. It beckons to you with a soothing call of exclusive imagery printed in eye-popping detail. Yes, those CLAMP illustrations will be yours. They will be!
I have to confess, I’ve largely steered away from amassing anime physical paraphernalia of any form over the past few years – driven by a lack of shelf space. But art books still seem to beckon to me – the missing link in a chain of globalized evolution. In a world where we now get so many anime and manga series translated into English mere days, weeks or months after their Japanese releases, artbooks remain tantalising out of reach and exotic.