Book Spotlight: Yellow Peril – Jamie Noguchi

To learn more about Book Spotlight, read this first.

Yellow Peril is a comic drawn and written by Jamie Noguchi, and follows the adventures of nerdy designer Kane Takeshi Hongo and his misfit friends in work, life, and love.

What I liked:

  • I believe this is the first Nikkei-produced work I’ve come across starring a Nikkei (I assume Kane is Japanese American, but I need to revisit Noguchi’s commentary – included at the bottom of each strip in the webcomic version – to see if he ever confirms this) character in a contemporary US setting, with a focus on the day-to-day lives of young adults. Although the timeframe is slightly different from my own – Noguchi’s characters are probably about ten years older than I am because they reference things like the 80s – the representations of working life and complicated relationships (and how these things sometimes intertwine) felt completely relatable. In short, Yellow Peril is the perfect thing to read while sitting at my desk waiting for the day to be over.
  • The non-romantic relationships in this comic are so fun to follow. Family relationships are often the ones I find most compelling when reading, and while only Kane and Lance are (apparently) related by blood, I enjoy the various techniques Noguchi uses to portray his characters’ close bonds. Some of my favorites, apart from Kane and Lance, are Julie and Kane (the high school flashbacks are so cute), and Bodie and Kane (so many comics/anime references!).
  • Noguchi comments on numerous issues without making the comic an explicit social justice work. I actually enjoy work centered on activism, but I appreciate how Noguchi leaves the level of engagement open-ended for the reader – it would be relatively easy to glaze over the social commentary if one was so inclined, but it’s definitely there if you look for it.
  • The Pit Lords! I hope we see more of them as Noguchi continues the comic. iRate and Killer Queen are hilarious – and I really want to know what Doctor No looks like. Killer Queen is one of my favorite characters, even though we haven’t seen a whole lot of her. I often gravitate toward characters who are so skilled at something not only do they kick ass, but they can literally become a fearsome enemy because of their skill, as in her case. The whole part about what it means to “owe” Killer Queen was THE BEST.
  • Yellow Peril is set in Maryland – I’ve never read a Nikkei work set in Maryland. I wonder if there’s a substantial Nikkei community there. It sounds like the location is based on Noguchi’s own life experiences. I’d like to know if there are other Nikkei creators producing autobiographical or semi-autobiographical work about being Nikkei on the east coast.
  • The Apocalypse Belles! I’ve never heard of a metal band composed exclusively of Black women in real life – does anyone know if this is a thing? I wonder what Black readers – especially Black women – thought of the Apocalypse Belles, not to mention Noguchi’s portrayal of Jezzi. I really liked seeing Jezzi as Lance’s mentor and maternal/parental figure, as well as Lance admitting he should have been there for Jezzi much sooner than he actually showed up. To me, their relationship evokes some of the historic (and ongoing) patterns of interactions between Black and Asian American social justice activists – Asian Americans owe a great deal to Black people, especially Black women, for leading and shaping our engagements with social justice, and we haven’t always been great at showing up for Black people in return. I’m probably reading way too deeply into the subplot at this point, but in line with my interpretation, I appreciate how Lance owns his failure without saying or acting as if he can “undo” what he did. (In other words, you can apologize and commit to doing better next time, but none of that actually undoes the harm you caused in the first place.)
  • Asian men who feel like real people! Ok, this is not exactly “novel” to me because I read plenty of manga depicting believable men, but in light of recent US discussions about representations of Asian masculinity, I thought I’d point this out. One of my favorite things about Kane and Lance is their unapologetic love of video games (and comics and anime). At one point, Kane mentions Julie was the only other kid in school who liked giant robot anime, which brought back memories of how being an Asian who enjoys Asian things in a predominantly white classroom often results in ridicule and exclusion*, but in general the Asians in Yellow Peril own their love of Asian things and are accepted by the non-Asians around them. In other words, even though Kane’s interests could be read as a “stereotype,” this isn’t how he is presented and it isn’t how his peers treat him. Along the same lines, even though I find it weird how race is mostly not discussed in the comic (is Noguchi a proponent of “colorblind” practices?), I’m glad none of the men (and none of the characters, as far as I saw) are fetishized for their race/appearance. I do wonder about the motives of some of Lance’s audiences (do they like him because he’s Asian?)…but so far this hasn’t been addressed.

What I learned:

  • There are a lot of comics/anime references I don’t know! Haha, I already knew this, but I don’t usually read work so laden with references that not knowing them starts to impede my understanding of the content. Not that I missed anything vital – I don’t think – but I have a feeling I skipped over a few jokes because I didn’t know the context. For example, I didn’t realize all the characters on the train were comic/anime characters until I read Noguchi’s commentary about that panel. I still don’t know who all those characters are, but I imagine the panel is a lot funnier to someone who does know. Anyway, I hope some comics- and anime-loving Nikkei reader comes across Yellow Peril – I bet they’ll love it.

Questions I had:

  • What is Lance’s ethnicity? I believe we’re told his surname is Li, which is definitely not Japanese and sounds rather Chinese to me. I’d really like to know more about the familial connections between Lance and Kane. I’ve met a few Japanese/Chinese people and my cousin’s kids are Japanese/Chinese (in other words, it’s possible for Kane to be Japanese and to have a Chinese cousin – seems self-evident, but in my experience, outsiders get really confused about this), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a “mainstream” Japanese/Chinese character. Also, if Noguchi himself isn’t Japanese/Chinese, I’d be interested in why he created a (potentially) Japanese/Chinese character.
  • Will the female characters be getting more fully developed storylines as the comic progresses? Up to this point, Ally has gotten significantly more panel space than the other women and while I do find her an entertaining character, it’d be nice to see a WOC receive the same amount of attention. (Side note: I feel ok discussing this comic in the context of US conversations on gender because Noguchi seems much more in dialogue with US social values than, say, Japanese ones.)
  • Why did Noguchi make Ally, the (initial) love interest, a white woman? I’m not sure this was a conscious choice – in the same way many POC writers start out writing white characters without really realizing they’re doing it – but if so, why? Sure, white women are marginalized relative to white men in US society, but I’ve never been a fan of “POC has white love interest” storylines because I feel too many of them cater to white audiences, much like the symbolic “biracial” MC. I’m not saying Noguchi made Ally white in order to attract white readers, but it’s definitely something I always wonder when a POC creator chooses to include a prominent white character in a mostly-POC cast. For that matter, it would have been interesting if Noguchi had made Ally, say, half-Japanese and half-white. From what I’ve heard, JAs have high rates of interracial marriage, so mixed race Nikkeijin definitely have a place in contemporary and future Nikkei narratives. I do like where Kane’s relationship with Tara seems to be headed…
  • On the flip side of my previous point, it’s true a fair number of JAs marry white people, so I suppose Noguchi might have made Ally white to reflect reality. I suspect it’s outside the scope of this work to examine how interracial marriages with white people relate to the role of assimilation in JA history, but I would love it if Noguchi addressed this later in the comic, especially if Kane and Ally actually end up together at some point.
  • What was the purpose of the cooking competition subplot? It felt like an attempt to give Julie more on-page time, but I didn’t think it added much to the overall narrative. I do like the idea of dueling with kitchenware – in fact, Noguchi seems to have many quirky ideas which he drops in at intervals and I admire his creativity.
  • What is Kane’s relationship to his heritage? I’m not sure if he’s bilingual or if he just knows a few words of Japanese, but from what I recall of Noguchi’s commentary, we really aren’t told much about Kane’s connections to Japan outside of his interest in anime. This isn’t a criticism – I have met JAs who are far removed from Japan either because of a generational gap or for other reasons – I’m just curious about how Kane came to be as a character and if there will be any in-depth discussion of his heritage in later parts of the comic.
  • On a related note, do non-Japanese people often get Kane’s name wrong? I know many fellow Nikkeijin (and Asian Americans with Asian names in general) have encountered this problem in real life, but I didn’t notice it ever being mentioned in the comic.
  • Ally’s growing relationship with Annie gets a lot of page time – unsurprising, since Ally is one of the main characters – but I couldn’t help notice Killer Queen’s having a girlfriend was very much glossed over by comparison and seemed mostly to serve as comic relief in the story of how Kane can’t successfully land a date. This is another reason I hope we see more of Killer Queen as the comic progresses – white women aren’t the only women who get to date women.

Follow-up:

  • I’ve read the webcomic in its entirety and hope Noguchi keeps updating because I’m now very invested in some of the characters. I ordered volume 1 of the physical copy for an easier reread in preparation for this post, and I plan to order the other volumes soon.
  • I was skimming Noguchi’s website while writing this post and saw a passing reference to Stan Sakai, which reminds me – Sakai has been on my TBR forever, so I should probably get reading soon! I wonder if there’s a “secret” group of Nikkei creators where they talk shit about industry problems, etc. I say “secret” because I haven’t found many Nikkei creators in online activist spaces like Twitter, but I find it hard to believe nobody is saying anything. Since most of the Nikkei creators I know of are older, I imagine they communicate via other means. I wonder if there’s a non-physical space where Nikkei creators of varying ages and backgrounds can exchange ideas.

*Thanks to Soojin (@skimlines) for frequently discussing this topic on Twitter. I hadn’t thought much about how to articulate my off-and-on relationship with certain aspects of Japanese culture growing up until I read her tweets about Asians being marginalized simply for trying to enjoy our own things on our own terms.

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