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
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.
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
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
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
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
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