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     Mar 7, 2009
Anime and the postmodern monster
Otaku: Japan's Database Animals by Hiroki Azuma

Reviewed by David Wilson

They were the crimes that sent shockwaves through bubble economy Japan. During 1988 and 1989, four little girls in Tokyo and nearby Saitama perished at the hands of a mystery stalker who also mutilated them.

In the same year as the last attack, the police arrested a deformed wannabe photo technician named Tsutomu Miyazaki - by chance caught in the act of molesting another girl. During the media circus that burgeoned in the wake of Miyazaki's capture, his troubled psychiatric state and fascination for anime and horror

films came to the fore. Television news and talk shows obsessively broadcast a shot of "Dracula's" room crammed with anime videotapes and comic books. 

The postmodern monster was convicted and hanged but lived on conflated with the otaku - a geeky breed of loners who emerged two decades earlier, spawning an entertainment industry that churned out anime, manga and video games. Thanks to the Miyazaki slur, otaku-bashing blossomed into a national sport to rival jujitsu.

Members of the consumer subculture were slammed as "immature social misfits but also as perverts and threats to society", writes leading Japanese cultural critic Hiroki Azuma in Otaku: Japan's Database Animals, an overdue translation of his 2001 tract on Japan's bizarre subculture.

The prejudice stuck, according to Azuma, a professor with the Center for Study of World Civilizations at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who seems just the right blend of thinker to give a nuanced take on his neglected subject. Despite or because of their notoriety, otaku began to take pride in their name.

Literally, otaku means "your home". It suggests that the otaku is deeply wedded to his apartment - his territory. He may well have a streak of agoraphobia or autism (not to mention attention deficit disorder).

When the otaku ventures outdoors, like a hermit crab he carts around heaps of books, magazines, fanzines and "scraps" stuffed into huge paper bags. Without his portable data supply, he cannot sustain mental stability, it seems.

Another crutch for the geek, who favors blurts of data over cinema's narrative sweep, is "girl games". Dreamed up by otaku this century, girl games are adult-only efforts played on everyday Windows computers. 

The thrust of the games is simple: the player tries to win over the female characters he desires through various systems. If successful, bingo: he gets to see pornographic illustrations as a prize.

Presumably, it helps if the models wear maid outfits and cat ears because those fashion anomalies are typical otaku turn-ons. Other offbeat erotica that enrapture otaku include pictures of Lolitas and female nerds ogling yaoi boy-on-boy action cartoons deliberately aimed at the opposite sex.

Such lurid multimedia distractions may mess with the otaku's neural wiring and transform enthusiasm into dependency, Azuma argues. In his view, the otaku is more surrogate sex addict than pervert. That may be true.

Regardless, staring at pictures of little girls is hardly normal and raises the specter of the Dracula murders. Otaku come over as rather more dysfunctional than Azuma, who is described in the introduction as a "bona fide otaku", cares to admit.

Not that the average otaku gets up to much.

At heart, he is "overwhelmingly passive" - the reverse of the go-getter salaryman - but inquisitive and partial to what might be described as "ethereal whodunits", which speak volumes about his yen for escapism. Look no further than Cosmic: the 1996 debut novel from virtuoso fabulist Seiryoin Ryusui.

In the cult classic, a dozen or so sleuths try to solve scores of locked-room murder cases. "That setting is already original," Azuma rightly says. So, too, are the refined magic powers that the detectives possess.

For instance, the poetically named "Rain-mist Winter-aroma", speculates and finds enlightenment in her sleep like a lucid dreamer. In case the key characters are not weirdly rarefied enough, the resolutions to the mysteries they address rank as "extremely absurd".

Tough to categorize, books in the Cosmic mould often wind up filed under mystery, science fiction or fantasy. Alternatively, they are classified with reference to the readership as young adult or "game novels". Thanks to their unique dream logic, even classifying the books as literary or entertaining is tricky.

In contrast, despite its sensational content, as might be expected of a university publication, Azuma's book squarely ranks as academic, bogged down by ruminative phrases such as "to summarize the discussion up to this point". The style of the 2000 Suntory Literary Prize winner, whose first book was a treatise on French philosopher Jacques Derrida, could be much sharper.

Thanks doubtless in part to the corrosive effect of translation, despite the introduction's claims to the contrary, some of his analysis is woolly - it needs to be reread several times before the sense becomes clear, if it does. Hence the lack of quotations in this review.

Another blip is the lack of a single interview with an otaku. In a sense, because otaku are not exactly social butterflies, this is appropriate. Even so, the text feels rather "filtered".

Worse, it seems a touch "behind the curve". Wildly influential and almost inescapable digital communication tools like Facebook and Twitter do not enter the picture. The reader may wonder how otaku react to their addictive charms. Have the hermits been influenced to be more social - chatty even?

Whatever the truth, like 20th-century no-surrender Japanese snipers, otaku are inherently captivating. Azuma succeeds in illuminating the innermost recesses of their complex minds.

In the process, he shows that the anime fanboys are eerily human. Not just a bunch of bloodsucking freaks.

During these burst-bubble-economy times especially, many readers beyond Japan may relate to their compulsive urge to escape. Indeed, we may all be more in touch with our inner otaku than we care to declare.

Otaku: Japan's Database Animals written by Hiroki Azuma, translated by Jonathan E Abel and Shion Kono, University Of Minnesota Press, 2009 (hardback). ISBN-10: 0816653526. Price: US$12, 200 pages.

David Wilson is an Anglo-Australian recovering print journalist with a special interest in Asia. His work has previously appeared everywhere from the Malaysia Star to the Times Literary Supplement and International Herald Tribune.

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