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.
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.
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.”
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.