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The quirky terrain of an otaku mind

by Mark Schilling

“Otaku” is one of those Japanese words that has no precise equivalent in English. “Geek” translates the knowledgeability as well as the social ineptness of the stereotypical otaku, but not quite his (and, more rarely, her) intense interest in what so-called serious adults regard as trivial pursuits: Anime, manga, games and other Japanese pop culture manifestations.

THE OTAKU ENCYCLOPEDIA by Patrick W. Galbraith. Kodansha International, 2009, 250 pp., ¥2,000 (paper) OTAKU: Japan’s Database Animals, by Hiroki Azuma. University of Minnesota Press, 2009, 143 pp., $17.95 (paper)

In any case, the word has been enthusiastically adopted by foreign fans despite its negative connotations in Japanese, which include loner, loser and homicidal maniac — as in the notorious “Otaku Murderer,” Tsutomu Miyazaki.

Books targeting these overseas otaku have become a thriving publishing niche, with the typical aim being to supply facts about the objects of obsession, while opening windows into the mysterious culture that produced them.

Patrick W. Galbraith’s “The Otaku Encyclopedia” certainly fits into this category, with hundreds of entries, long and short, about everything otaku. The book also features interviews with personalities on the otaku scene, from internationally renowned artist Takashi Murakami, who calls himself an “otaku dropout,” to celebrity “maids” in the Akihabara cafes frequented by otaku.

A Ph.D. candidate at the University of Tokyo who gives tours of Tokyo otaku sites dressed as the character Goku from the popular anime “Dragonball,” Galbraith is an enthusiastic otaku himself. He delves deep into the otaku subculture and writes in a clear, lively style. His approach, however, illustrates the limitations of the otaku mind-set, which revels in obscure data points, while offering little in the way of critical distance or analysis.

Also, when Galbraith strays from his field of expertise to expound on the larger culture, he makes basic omissions and errors. An essay on the cyberpunk phenomenon in Japan neglects to mention Shinya Tsukamoto, whose 1989 international cult sensation “Tetsuo (Tetsuo, the Iron Man)” was the very definition of Japanese cyberpunk.

More glaringly, in an essay on anime, Galbraith claims that it become popular in the late 1950s and early 1960s because it “provided a more interesting alternative to the underdeveloped live-action industry at the time.” Despite the threat posed by television, the Japanese industry in this period was releasing hundreds of films annually (547 at its peak in 1960) through six major studios (five after the demise of Shin Toho in 1961) and was the king of entertainment. To call it “underdeveloped” is absurd.

A following statement, that “the lack of Western-looking actors . . . made it next to impossible to shoot films set in Europe or America,” is both bizarre and flat-out wrong. The Nikkatsu studio made something of a specialty of sending its stars to foreign locales, from the U.S. West Coast to Mexico and Spain.

In “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals” Hiroki Azuma provides the analysis that Galbraith neglects, in abundance, as well as a personal acquaintance with otaku from the inside. First published in 2001, his book was a surprise best-seller; “surprise” since it was heavy on postmodern theory and light on the more salable fan-boy raving or media sensationalizing. Azuma, however, writes in a style more journalistic than academic (mostly well conveyed in the English edition by translators Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono), while offering an interpretation of the otaku subculture that is cogent and original.

Unlike academics who throw up clouds of jargon to disguise the thinness of their arguments, Azuma leads nonspecialist readers into unfamiliar thickets of theory in carefully explained, if densely reasoned, steps.

One focus is the work of Alexander Kojeve, a Russian-born French philosopher who contrasted what he described as the “animality” of the American way of life, which fulfilled purely “natural” needs, with the “snobbery” of the Japanese, who “delight in opposing nature.” His example: samurai who slit their stomachs from a sense of “honor and order.”

Otaku, Azuma explains, were originally “snobs” according to Kojeve’s definition, because they self-consciously focused more on decidedly unnatural “form” of manga and anime (including, I suppose, the “form” of the short-skirted heroines) than the frequently childish content. In examining how this “snobbery” developed, Azuma traces the emergency of the otaku within the context of larger cultural shifts, starting from Japan’s defeat in World War II, that created Japan’s anime and manga industry in the ashes of the traditional culture’s collapse.

Initially, this industry, led by manga and anime pioneer Osamu Tezuka, was heavily influenced by its American counterpart. But it soon took a distinctly Japanese direction, from its embrace of limited animation — which favored dialogue-heavy storytelling over Disney-style naturalistic motion — to its reliance on local folklore for inspiration.

Though Japanese animators successfully resisted American dominance — Hayao Miyazaki still regularly clobbers the Hollywood animated competition at the box office — they could not, Azuma notes, sustain a cultural “grand narrative,” as the society around them began to lose its postwar raison d’etre — i.e., the restoration of Japan’s power and prosperity — in the recessionary 1970s. Instead, the industry escaped into the sci-fi and fantasy worlds that still stimulate the otaku imagination, populated by the cute cartoon girls that prompt feelings of “moe” — an otaku slang word that translates as “budding” but means something closer to “burning.”

Azuma may take his analysis to questionable extremes — using “girl games” (a type of otaku soft porn) and other relatively minor phenomenon to illustrate wider trends within the otaku world — but his overall argument — that today’s otaku are going for the same instant gratification from the cultural smorgasbord (or as Azuma terms it, “database”) as the derided American “animals” — is persuasive.

The guys in the Akihabara maid cafes aren’t there to ponder Japan’s place in the world, are they?