Leap through time and space with me, if you will, all the way back to the Tokyo of 1994. The economic bubble had just burst, ushering in Japan’s so-called Lost Decade; at the same time, the city had yet to endure the Aum Shinrikyo cult’s sarin attack on its subways. A year before Neon Genesis Evangelion was to hit the airwaves the otaku world was in existential crisis mode, recently brought to national and international attention (and not in a good way) by the arrest of Tsutomu Miyazaki, “The Otaku Murderer.”
It was in this timeframe two French filmmakers, Jackie Bastide and Jean-Jacques Beineix, went to Tokyo, cameras in hand, attempting to find out just what this “otaku” thing was all about. The result is Otaku, a documentary that recently hit Netflix and serves, for us here in the future, as a fascinating time capsule into the state of otakudom – and the West’s perception thereof – in the early ’90s.
The film is made up of interviews with experts (including Akio Nakamori, who introduced the word otaku into its modern usage), psychologists and a variety of otaku of different ages whose obsessions include idol singers, erotic games, military fetishism and giant monsters. Anime and manga are almost a non-entity, a reminder that the word, used in the west to describe anime fans, has a much broader meaning in Japan.
The film’s interviewees posit several theories for the rise of the otaku, often circling back to post-war economic stability. In the immediate post-war years, Japan’s citizens had a shared mission: rebuild the country and achieve prosperity. But as with many things, the act of striving toward the goal turned out to be more fulfilling than having reached it. As one motorcycle otaku says in the film, “I grew up in a generation that already had everything.” Not needing to contribute to society, or earn a living (in other words, to grow up), the otaku instead poured their energy into their hobbies.
While it’s easy to theorize on where otaku come from, an attempt throughout the film to define exactly what an otaku is meets with more difficulty. Nakamori describes them as “a reflection of today’s information-driven society,” which sounds interesting, but doesn’t actually say much. One otaku, who dropped out of medical school to devote his time to model planes, calls his choice a “rebellion against Japanese society.” The attempts at definition make clear the term – especially after the “otaku murders” – became nebulous, taking on the weight of media punditry like a sinking ship.
It becomes clear the best way to define otaku is simply to observe them. Here, some consensus begins to emerge. Most of the subjects are male, for example, and while some are in relationships, most fantasize about women from afar, worshiping idol singers or dolls. One man explains that a model of a woman, unlike an actual woman, can never let him down. Most, too, seem to live a shut-in existence, relying on odd jobs, parents or spouses to support their hobbies. One characteristic that keeps reappearing is that the otaku are not only obsessed with their specific hobby — they’re also totally disinterested in anything else.
At a meeting of military otaku, the “database animal” effect cultural critic Hiroki Azuma described years later is on full display. A man dressed in German military garb explains he doesn’t care about Nazi ideology, but simply likes the details of the design, just as the fighter plane otaku describes the fascination with which he watched the jets on TV during the Gulf War, with no particular interest in the reasons behind the war itself.
If Otaku suffers from any major flaw it’s that, like tourists walking down a dense Tokyo alleyway, Bastide and Beineix get off-track, unable to resist telling a few tales of “Weird Japan” that don’t really fit their thesis. There’s an interview with two girls who sell their panties to old men, but aside from a cursory question about whether they’d date an otaku at the beginning of the interview (bet you can guess the answer), the whole segment is unrelated to the topic at hand.
The filmmakers made a smart choice, though, in veering slightly off-track to document the street performance group Tokyo GAGAGA. Lead by filmmaker Sion Sono, the group, who often performed without permits, danced wildly and shouted poetry with the goal of shocking keep-your-head-down Tokyo into becoming a more communal and communicative place. Though the outgoing members of GAGAGA initially appear to be the polar opposite of otaku, with their homebody habits and lack of social skills, Tokyo GAGAGA may actually be fighting for otaku — or, at least, fighting against a city that breeds them so easily. One lonely model kit otaku echoes the same sentiment as Tokyo GAGAGA as he notes, “it’s hard to meet people in a big city.”
At times, the film can’t seem to help judging its subjects. Questions are often posed harshly, and situations are set up for maximum shock factor, like when a group of males casually answer questions while hardcore pornography plays on the TV in the background. Yeah, it’s their porn, but the juxtaposition of casual conversation and shocking imagery was likely contrived for the film.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Otaku is how close the culture displayed in the film is to today’s, despite the intervening years. Surface differences aside (floppy disks and VCRs abound), otaku today seem to live a similar lifestyle, retreating even farther from society, if anything, thanks to widespread telecommunications use. Japan also faces similar problems, as the increasingly inaccurately named Lost Decade now stretches into its third. It’s so similar, in fact, that if you can look beyond its shot-on-video style and a kind of bizarre audio mix, this documentary from 1994 serves both as an interesting look back and a surprisingly relevant look at otaku today.
I gotta say, I was digging that Japanese "Last Action Hero" poster on that one building. I was expecting the nigh club was about to throw down some Quad City DJ's and Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch at any moment. The film seemed to have some random shots of Sailor Moon hentai which... was pretty good in quality. I also had a kick with them showing the lower half of Gundam and Patlabor mechs also.
I do have to say, the best guy in this whole thing was the guy who made the airsoft weapon mod from "Aliens." I so freaking want that. And as for photos, you should have thrown in the expression from the cat when it came to showing the bondage otaku girl.
Yea everyone, go watch this.
(Mark probably remembers which animator this was-- I sure don't.)
The most bizarre thing about the German military otaku illustrated in the screen cap is that they're flying a Third Reich flag, but are wearing uniforms and wielding weapons that weren't used in Germany until the 1980s.
The disconnect between the military otaku's fetish and the real-world applications and implications is, of course, famous. Sadly enough, I understand it perfectly.
Example: At a convention I once saw this kid wearing a red t-shirt with a gold hammer and sickle on it. I walked up and asked him why he would proudly display the symbol of the most nightmarish regime Earth has ever known. "Because it looks cool," he replied.
"So would it be 'cool' to wear a t-shirt with a swastika on it, too?" I inquired.
"How? Is one symbol of a mass-murdering totalitarian government better than another?"
"Fuck you, racist." He walks away.
WTF? Somehow, it's okay to go to an anime convention wearing a T-shirt bearing the insignia of communist tyranny (body count: 100+ million), but not okay to display upon one's abdomen the insignia of national socialist tyranny (body count: 20 million or so)?
Maybe it's ignorance. I guess most people of T-shirt-wearing age today have no memory of what Soviet-style communism was like. Why, then, the widespread awareness of the terrors of Hitlerism? Again, inequality. In any case, as far as I'm concerned anyone who would wear a t-shirt with the face of that low-rent commie thug Che Guevara on it might as well wear one displaying the mug of Tsutomu Miyazaki. After all, the Otaku Killer only killed four people, and he got what was coming to him for his trouble. Che wiped out hundreds and hundreds of people, and his face gets stretched across the breasts of hot art school chicks around the world. Again: WTF?
Crazy effing world. Next: hip otaky kids in badass Pol Pot warmup jackets. Better hide the hipster glasses, though -- Brother Number One ain't down with those who wear specs.
Let's also be honest as otaku: if it weren't for Communist infiltration, Communist indoctrination, Communist subversion, and the international Communist conspiracy, we would never have had all that neato-keen stuff like James Bond, the B-36 Peacemaker, the Apollo Project, or the Internet. Fighting the Red Menace wasn't a selfless noble endeavor--it was done on a cost-plus basis.
I have a trouser belt that was originally surplus equipment of the Nationale Volksarmee. The buckle features the coat of arms of the German Democratic Republic. Am I ignorant of the fact that it's the same symbol used by the Stasi and the Grenztruppe, the oft-reviled weasel-faced sentries who sniped hundreds of refugees as they tried to flee to West Germany? No, but I'm a grownup and can make the abstraction of admiring certain elements of something while having no regard for others. And--in the U.S. at least--the law when it comes to freedom of speech is on my side.
I'll admit too, when I first saw the footage of the Challenger blowing up back in like 4th grade, my first "outburst" reaction was "oh, cool." That was cut off short when the teach told me that was not cool and gave me the weight of the impact of the explosion, which I sat in my seat and felt bad for saying that. Otaku (on both sides of the planet I'd say) have that kid like mentality where stuff just looks cool, but don't know anything beyond what they see. Once you get to explain to them that what they find cool was a complete eye sore to the world, they understand the weight of what they "thought" was cool. But I got a feeling even if you explain that to some people, they wouldn't get the full extent of what they obsess over that the world wishes never existed in the first place.
I think most of us now that by now.
The evil of Nazi Germany is something the Japanese are certainly aware of, but it is a more abstract, second-hand matter to the Japanese than it is to Americans. Antipathy towards its symbols may be intellectual, but not visceral. It is also less likely to be seen as a political statement, as Japanese neo-nationalists and the radical right have their own native symbology, unlike neo-nationalists in the U.S. who often adopt Nazi or Nordic iconography.
I've mentioned this before, but there's a woman who cosplays Warrant Officer Schrodinger from HELLSING, but doesn't want to go around bearing the swastika, so she modified the armband** so it bears a pink heart instead. A very charming (and very otaku) way to handle the situation.
Have you ever noticed that HELLSING itself is an otaku's treatment of the Nazis? Even though the villain is literally an SS officer, he isn't motivated by the cause of racial ideology, the Reich, or even Germany--he just wants a to unleash a "merciless, shitlike var" for the sheer joy of battle and destruction. I like Hirano and HELLSING, but it's difficult to imagine the Nazis being used as such non-ideological villains in an American comic. And again, I think it arises not so much from deliberate insensitivity as different historical circumstances.
*Anime can be famously confused on this point--re. Yamato, Jin-Roh.
**Ummmm, exthhhhussse me, the technical term is BRASSARD, okay...?!
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