Notes on “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”: Part 4 – Moe-elements

It seems like I’m on a roll tonight, so here’s another post/commentary/nice way to take breaks between writing code. Hopefully putting out two posts in a couple hours won’t overwhelm any of you who’s actually following these. If it does though, let me know and I can spread these out more.

There's obviously a 1-to-1 correspondence here between this picture and my life.

There’s obviously a 1-to-1 correspondence here between this picture and my life. Although I do have several terminals open at the moment, so maybe it isn’t completely off…

And that’s the halfway point!


These are a series of notes compiled over time concerning Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, what I think is one of the most insightful books in the absolutely enthralling subfield that is anime(-related) studies. See Part 1 for context.

Part 4. Moe-elements

Notes on the notes:
All the text formatting is on my end. The bold is meant to highlight key sentences, concepts, and explanations. The italics (oh the the irony of self-negating italics…) is meant to indicate running commentaries in response to bricksalad’s notes (which I’m drawing heavily from) except when indented where it simply is used for emphasis. Portions of his notes have also been altererd where I’ve either rearranged things or inserted some of my own thoughts. Sections that have been explicitly cut out are noted by ellipses (“…”). Any use of a non-italicized ‘I’ is from the perspective of bricksalad, while an italicized one refers to me (Josh).

Additional note: Here bricksalad goes back to using “grand narrative” instead of alternate terms. I didn’t feel the need to change them because the term is taken directly from the book (and thus when used here the connotations it implies are the same as when it is used in the book) and because at this stage it’s pretty ingrained anyways.

The Evangelion TV series and films can still be seen as a more or less exclusive entry into the database. However, following Evangelion, even this kind of entry point wasn’t needed. This is partly due to the nature of multimedia. A card game could lead to fan anthologies of which one gets adapted into a popular novel that is then adapted into an anime and manga simultaneously. In this case, the original is no longer the entry point, the entry point can be anythingConsumers are often not even aware of the distinction of which is original and which is derivative, or if they are often little importance is placed on it.

As a decisive example of this sort of postmodern work, Azuma looks at Di Gi Charat. Di Gi Charat was originally a mascot created for a corporation. Her popularity was such that she got a TV commercial, followed by anime and novels. Does it make sense to look at this and wonder what the intentions of the original author was, what the faux-grand narrative is? The narrative of the anime is only a surplus item that is added to the non-narrative database.

Di Gi Charat was originally nothing more than a design, yet she took on high levels of popularity. Her design is a result of sampling and combining popular elements from recent otaku culture (recent from the 2001 perspective). These elements could easily be listed: maid uniform, big loose socks, tail, green hair, bells, cat ears, and hair sticking up like antennae, each with its own history…

Ah, the memories of a different age.

Ah, the memories of a different age.

Commentary (6):
A better and more relevant example would be Vocaloid and Touhou. A perfect example of this would be “Kagerou Days”. Originally a Vocaloid song series, the songs all were designed to do some element of worldbuilding and led to a burgeoning fan community who would draw artwork (and possibly created doujinshi, although I haven’t looked into it) and update a wiki site all about details surrounding the characters in the songs. This lead to it becoming popular enough to get a LN adaptation, followed by a manga adaptation, and now an (upcoming) anime adaptation.

Sono me dare no me?!

Sono me dare no me?

Each of these elements has become what he calls moe-elements. The characters found in moe culture are not unique designs created by the talent of an author; instead they are the output of pre-created elements combined according to the marketing program of each work. Otaku themselves are aware of this, and have created literal databases of these elements to classify characters. Creators too are somewhat aware of this – for example, KyoAni‘s character designs seem to have gotten moe down to almost a science.

Needless to say, moe is about characters, not narratives. And, one who feels moe towards a character is bound to purchase many goods related to the character. Therefore, if the sale of these goods is a goal of the producers, then succeeding is not a matter of creating a high quality work, but rather it is a matter of how well the moe desire is evoked. As a result, it has become a common practice in the industry to create the characters first, followed by works and projects, including the story itself! It’s quite a unique way of worldbuilding, and as a result, it is common to see many characters are connected across original works through their traits, “quoting” and “referencing” one another…

However, the validity of such a model is limited. Who did the quoting? The production process of anime is complicated, and it’s difficult to determine how involved each staff member was in their role. Besides, in the late 1990′s, there were hundreds of characters bearing resemblance to Ayanami Rei – was this due to the “influence” of Evangelion? For Azuma, the wiser model to look at this with is the database model. Ayanami Rei’s popularity added new elements to the moe-database…and creators took elements from this database. Every time a popular character appears, the moe database changes to incorporate them (for good for ill).

Still waiting for the hair fetishist to become a new thing...

Still waiting for the hair fetishist to become a new thing…

Database Consumption

Consumption of the database requires a sort of double-consciousness. The otaku consume individual works and may be moved by them, yet they are aware that it is a simulacrum. They consume characters and feel moe, but they are aware that the characters are just combinations of moe-elements…

To sum up his interpretation of otaku history relating to postmodernity: in the 70′s they lost the grand narrative, in the 80′s they learned to fabricate and consume narratives, and in the 90′s they no longer needed this fabrication and thus began simply consuming the database…

At this point, Azuma discusses how the rise of moe and database consumption is beginning to exert influence on print culture too. He describes a class of books that are neither literature nor entertainment: the light novel. However, he doesn’t really define this dichotomy so I have trouble seeing how what he describes falls outside of it. My theory is that he thinks of entertainment as escaping reality and literature as reflecting reality, while these new class of novels reflect the otaku database. (I also would argue that the rise of light novels in recent years can be linked to this.)…In other words, these novels can only be accepted because they draw from the database of earlier works. Otherwise they would be simply absurd. This situation spreads beyond mystery novels of course. Otaku print culture in general is beginning to obey a different kind of logic that is oriented towards characters instead of individual works.

The Simulacra and the Database

Recall the original question that Azuma hoped to answer:

In modernity, the cause of birth of an original was the author. What is the cause of birth of the simulacra? How do they overtake the originals and copies?

His answer is that it is only the surface outer layer of otaku culture that is covered in simulacra. Beneath that, there is a database. Once we look at the database, this chaotic inundation of simulacra becomes “ordered” and “understandable”. And it provides rules (well, more guidelines) for simulacra to be successful. For simulacra to succeed, it must be properly composed of elements from the database. Otherwise it will be weeded out from the market and disappear. The important relation is no longer “original versus copy”, but rather “simulacra versus database”.

In contemporary thought, the attraction to the original is known as “the myth of authorship”. Azuma suggests that what otaku have done is dissolve the myth. Most readers and experts of anime or manga can name authors that represent the 70′s or the 80′s, but once we enter the 90′s, that is no longer the case. However, these knowledgeable readers and experts could name moe-elements that represent the 90′s. The database has replaced authors in the creation of the image of anime or manga (or any otaku-culture saturated medium).

Commentary (7): 
Now, this is a particularly thorny patch, since I don’t think this is worded explicitly. What’s going on here is that we have a group of “authors” who are defining and setting trends in anime throughout the 70’s and 80’s, like Anno Hideaki for instance. But as we get into the later seasons, we get less of the “author” phenomenon, and more often than not the biggest influence on anime tends to come from elements that pop up in shows. Now, that’s not to say it doesn’t exist any more, but that it just has been shadowed by the rise of the database. 

Let’s take some more recent big hits, for example. Has there been any big shows that have really done some trendsetting in recent years? Death Note might be pointed to for the rise of “rule based death game” shows, although Battle Royale might be a better candidate there. You might say OreImo is responsible for the rise in LN adaptations, which might also be true. Or that KyoAni is responsible for the moe boom (and maybe bust) with their character designs since K-On!. But can you definitively name all the directors/authors of those shows and talk about their influence, or is it easier to talk about what tropes and elements were spawned from said show and have since propogated outwards? It’s a shift in perspective from 2nd-order to 1st-order, from looking “behind” the anime to the “underlying” author (2nd order, looking beyond the medium), to simply looking “at” the anime on just the surface (1st order, looking simply at the medium itself).

And sometimes you shouldn't try too hard to look for something deeper, you know? :)

And sometimes you shouldn’t try too hard to look for something deeper, you know? :)

Now, Azuma tempers his point lest we misinterpret otaku culture as radical and anarchic. The first temperament of the point is that the originality of the original is itself included in the database, so it’s not like such ideas are completely discarded. Even though the originals are set in the otaku database, and thus aren’t truly “original” in the way that the myth of authorship suggests, it’s not like otaku completely disrespect authors and originality. Making derivative works from the modern perspective violates the original work. A rip-off is a rip-off, and an insult to boot. But, in the postmodern perspective, the increase of simulacra raises the value of the original works.

Finally, Azuma turns his discussion towards Murakami Takashi (see the previous section for a brief digression on this guy). This guy has started an art style known as “superflat” that emphasizes two-dimensional imagery that he identifies as a Japanese phenomenon that is both traditional and persists today in anime and manga. He also seeks to blur the line between high and low culture, arguing that in post-war Japanese society, differences in social class and popular taste have “flattened”. So he draws elements from “low” otaku culture and repackages them as art, and he works to take high-culture art and repackage it as consumer goods.

However, though his works seem well-received in the western artistic community, they are not received nearly so well by the otaku community. For instance, Asano Masahiko, a figurine artist who was a key role as an editor in presenting Murakami’s “Second Mission Project Ko” installation, has said that he does not have “the otaku gene”. Well, the reason for this probably has to do with the database. Murakami creates his works by extracting and purifying parts of otaku designs; in other words, the creation of simulacra. But his works don’t understand the database – they are just surface extractions of otaku culture. So, even though otaku designs can reach extremely radical points just like Murakami’s work does, this radicalism is not understood as actually being radical because it is merely a proper combination of elements from a database.

What do you think?

What do you think?

In this sense, Murakami’s works are very interesting precisely because he does not understand the cultural structure behind otaku designs. Their lack of resonance in the otaku world vividly illustrates an aspect of otaku culture, giving the works a level of meaning that they didn’t have before.


One response to “Notes on “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”: Part 4 – Moe-elements

  1. Pingback: Drucker vs Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals | DH101: Fall 2014·

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