The Philosophy of Being Otaku

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With a title like Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, how can you go wrong? Professor Hiroki Azuma’s almost decade-old book by that title has just received an English translation, and it’s supposed to tell us something about what otaku are all about. From Japan Today:

Azuma’s work explores “otaku” production and consumption, and what they suggest about man’s search for meaning. He argues that today’s “otaku” no longer crave narratives and wider significance, but are instead gratified by reading for character “elements”—things like cute cat ears, maid uniforms and loose socks. The upside is that you can find the spiky-haired, ramen-slurping protagonist of your dreams with an online search engine. The downside is a “world [that] drifts about materially without giving meaning to lives” and “humanity [functioning] at the level of database.”

Mike’s Take: the interview as given by Japan Today is all over the place, and I can’t quite tell if he’s being critical of otaku culture or just trying to explain how it’s different from other kinds of fandom or subcultures. The summary given above, and in the Amazon description, suggests that the point is that otakus are not so much looking for narrative or meaning in the stories of anime/manga, but rather disconnected, digestible bits and pieces like cat-ears, moe charm points, etc. This is less human than almost a mechanistic, database-like accumulation of knowledge, and is reflective of consumerism and the post-modern condition.

That certainly sounds critical to my ears, actually–and it seems like an incomplete description, at best, of otaku psychology. Not to say that he’s hitting on something that’s not really there. Yes, it is true that in recent years especially, we’ve seen more and more pandering anime whose goal is to appeal to particular fetishes. It is also true that, as he points out in the interview, that many beloved anime plots and franchises like Gundam have roots in commercial calculation, not pure artistic inspiration. And it’s also true that the “collector” mentality of many otaku, with its obsession with catgorizing and cataloguing (see the entire Saimoe tournament, the rote checklist of “types” of girls in many harem anime and eroges, etc) might suggest almost a data-like approach to fandom. I’m even willing to agree that if this is all there is–and it may be so for many–there is something degraded and unfulfilling about it.

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But hold on here. This statement here is highly problematic:

According to your book, anime narratives and coffee mugs are afforded the same kind of social status. Could you please tell us about this?

We’re now celebrating the 30th anniversary of Gundam….From the beginning, Japan’s anime culture has been based on selling toys. For this reason, there’s hardly any purpose in poring over Japanese anime or game narratives in and of themselves—they’re being produced to sell merchandise.

So the worth of a story in itself is not determined by its own merits–its narrative, characters, plot, etc.–but by its origin as a commercial project? I reject this as a blanket principle. While commercial motives can certainly bend stories in ways that are often less artistically desirable (we see this happen in popular culture all the time; it’s called “selling out”), there is no intrinsic reason why a story that may have been created initially to sell toys can’t be simply an engaging, well-told story. In fact, as far as Gundam is concerned, Yoshiyuki Tomino’s desire was not only to help Bandai sell robots, but to also tell a classic space opera in anime. Maybe it’s true that if a story begins that way, it’s less likely to be worthy of a closer look. I get that bias; it’s one I share myself to an extent. But it’s not really fair to dismiss all commercial storytelling out of hand for that reason. There have been plenty of examples of TV shows, films, and other media that have been both commercially successful and widely regarded as artistic successes, and even cited as being very reflective of the society and culture of the time. Need I mention my first beloved show, Evangelion?

I wonder too whether what he is talking about may not apply so much to what I understand current Western anime fandom to be like, as opposed to Japanese fandom. For one, he was writing about Japanese otaku in the late 1990s, before they became more widely influential in larger culture and while they were still considered outcasts. (This was the crowd Hideaki Anno was hoping to talk to and change in his Evangelion endings.) My experience of Western fandom has been a lot more social and less atomized than the kind of fans he’s describing here. Ray has told me that Asian cons are different from American cons in that they tend to be much more insular, and oriented around buying things; perhaps this is what Azuma is talking about when he speaks of “database animals.” Somebody should write a similar book but about American anime/manga fandom, and explore the what and whys they are different from their Japanese counterparts.

This looks like an interesting book, however. I might actually pick this up and give it a proper review one of these days. However, from these summaries it already seems like a mixed bag, a rather outsiderish/academic point of view, despite Azuma’s claims to have written it not for academics but for “creative people.” Seeing that it was written in 2000, I may just buy it just to see what he says about Evangelion, which was still going strong at the time. :)

4 thoughts on “The Philosophy of Being Otaku”

  1. I don’t know if he’s trying to be critical so much as he takes a critical angle on otaku as granted.  To be fair, that’s normative in Japanese society.

    Interestingly, if one accepts that Japanese fandom is more commercialized, this also may help explain things like the fanart backlash a few months ago – American fan artists might not really expect to sell their fan art, whereas maybe Japanese fan artists see themselves as being part of an inherently commercial community.

  2. Azuma may not be an otaku, but he’s still the kind of non-otaku that would not only play bishoujo games, but come and sell doujin analyses of AIR and Clannad at a Comiket booth.
    So yeah, Doubutsuka suru postmodern does take an outsider view of the fandom, but contrary to certain other scholarly accounts on the subject, it’s not disconnected to the point of losing all relevance.

  3. I agree that a lot of recent anime panders to fetishes rather than tell creative, artistic stories. But as I’ve discussed on my blog as well, much of it has to do with the sheer amount of anime being produced in recent years because of the switch to digital animation. Because there’s so much more anime being produced now than ever before, it’s more difficult to find the good ones, but they still exist =)

  4. mori: hmm. Well I’m not sure to tell you the truth, though the Japanese cons are definitely more oriented toward selling stuff than simply hanging out as fans. That might figure after all.

    mt-i: very good to know, thanks for the info. I really shouldn’t count him out until I’ve read the book, so sure. And I did make a point of mentioning where I think he is on to something.

    Yumeka: I remember jpmeyer making a similar point, or something like that…TV anime was relatively rare until recently. And many of the ones on late night are the ones we complain about–and also write about.

    And definitely, there’s good stuff out there every season. We just have to be more discriminating these days.

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