Book Review: “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”

In this book review, I take a look at what I think is probably the most important book a more academically-inclined anime fan could read. While it might or might not be revolutionary in getting you to think about the way anime fandom functions today, the concepts it deals with (plus that title!) definitely merits a read.

But what exactly are the features that characterize otaku, both in terms of people and as a broader socio-cultural movement? Why use the term “database”? For that matter, what does “animals” have to do with anything? Does the book have any ulterior motives to what the title implies?

Note: This post can be read as a standalone thing, but I also wanted it to serve as a complementary thing/capstone for the recent notes I’ve posted, so feel free to check out Part 123456, and/or 6.5 for discussion on different portions/arguments of the book.

Edit: Froggykun wrote a really nice application of this type of idea on his blog, Fantastic Memes. If you’re interested in the post and the discussion that followed, be sure to check out the link to his post in the comments.

Edit 2: Pontifus also has a good series of notes.

otaku

Overview

Title:
Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

Author:
Hiroki Azuma (Center for Study of World Civilizations at the Tokyo Institute of Technology); translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono.

Synopsis:
“In Japan, obsessive adult fans and collectors of manga and anime are known as otaku. When the underground otaku subculture first emerged in the 1970s, participants were looked down on within mainstream Japanese society as strange, antisocial loners. Today otaku have had a huge impact on popular culture not only in Japan but also throughout Asia, Europe, and the United States.

Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku offers a critical, philosophical, and historical inquiry into the characteristics and consequences of this consumer subculture. For Azuma, one of Japan’s leading public intellectuals, otaku culture mirrors the transformations of postwar Japanese society and the nature of human behavior in the postmodern era. He traces otaku’s ascendancy to the distorted conditions created in Japan by the country’s phenomenal postwar modernization, its inability to come to terms with its defeat in the Second World War, and America’s subsequent cultural invasion. More broadly, Azuma argues that the consumption behavior of otaku is representative of the postmodern consumption of culture in general, which sacrifices the search for greater significance to almost animalistic instant gratification. In this context, culture becomes simply a database of plots and characters and its consumers mere “database animals.”

A vital non-Western intervention in postmodern culture and theory, Otaku is also an appealing and perceptive account of Japanese popular culture.” (Credit: Amazon.com)

Purpose/Personal Bias

I first read Azuma’s Otaku when I was just getting into the more academic side of anime (AKA last fall), and came into it looking for a more academic discussion of otaku culture and anime in general. Since I was “wet around the ears” so to speak, the book probably exerted more influence than it usually would have to a more seasoned critic and/or more questioning/self-aware anime fan. It was also really my first taste of postmodernist thought (or that type of literary thought in general, since god knows I didn’t get that type of thing in my English classes in high school), which sort of gives it even more influence than it should probably be credited for.

The second time around (AKA last spring), I had begun to be more critical of the literature surrounding anime, and went into the book looking to isolate and pick apart its core arguments and frameworks. I also had begun to develop a distaste of some of the trends I had begun to observe in more academic writing, which definitely led to much of my strong negative reaction to some of the stuff Azuma does in the book. That said, I still find the core arguments to be very attractive and highly influential on much of my thought (both concerning anime and more generally) since.

Review

These numbers will be explicitly for the academic anime fan this time, rather than a more general anime fan. If you’re considering this as a more general anime fan, bump the number up by 1 to 2.

Accessibility:
[General] 1–2–3–4–5–6–(7)–8–9–10 [Academic]
I’m conflicted about this 7, because I think the book straddles the line of being a 5 and a 9. As I (well, bricksalad) said in my notes, Azuma really does have a gift for making difficult concepts quite intelligible. His breakdown of postmodernism and the database model and how they fit together, for example, is clear and easy to understand. The problem is he anchors these easy explanations to complicated and unnecessary philosophical frameworks complete with unnecessary digressions, which are by their very nature much harder to understand. The entire “animalization” business that features so prominently throughout the book could’ve easily been done without copious discussion of the philosophy and intracacies of Zizek and Hegel and whatnot. Plus then he uses this framework to color/unnecessary complicate portions of his arguments, such as by making the otaku “snobs” and then nuancing the thing to make them “animals” and then throw all this “posthistory” and “the Other” bullshit on us. It’s just unnecessary.

Readability: 
[Easy] 1–2–3–4–5–(6)–7–8–9–10 [Difficult]
So the writing for the book (or I should say the translation) is actually very good. As in the book is not technically difficult to read and the sentences are crisp and clear (in most cases). However, the writing is dry  – there’s no way around that. Unlike The Great Wave, Azuma has not tried to make this argument into an interesting story but rather an academic tour de force. And of course the way most academic writing works is that the interest comes from the reader not from the writer (or at least, that’s what I seem to get out of it). Second is the issue above – the unnecessary complicated philosophical framework and digressions. It lengthens the book and adds an additional level of complexity that makes it easier for you to lose interest (both since you might not care about the philosophy and because when you lengthen something academic there’s more chances for you to lose interest). Finally, Azuma’s pretentiousness does show throughout the novel, which can make it more difficult to read if you don’t exactly like your author trying to show just how “suave” or “intelligent” or “high-class” he is. I wouldn’t say it’s as bad as Taleb’s The Black Swan (which is not the book the Natalie Portman movie was based on), but it can be pretty irritating. Given all that though, ultimately if you want to read this book and can keep yourself from losing interest, then you’ll have no problem getting through it.

Content:
[Widely applicable] (1)–2–3–4–5–6–7–8–9–10 [Niche]
I feel this drive towards postmodernism will be a point of all consumerist interactions going forward, and can be seen behind drives such as postnationalism and the way cultural flows are working. Anime analysis and creation is becoming postmodern (in this “database” model, which rikuo06 mentions in a similar context) focused on tropes and characters and shows overall influences and progressions and narratives. Fandom is becoming more postmodernism as we continue to focus on the medium instead of the things beyond it and consume tangentially related media.

In a nutshell, Azuma’s “database” model, or more precisely the way he constructs it, is supremely useful in understanding socio-cultural flows and interactions with almost anything. It’s not a catch-all (and some of his explanations/finer details are up for debate), but it’s definitely a great place to start. You can use it and make statements like, “Anime fandom is a great example of this database model. I bet that as the world gets more postmodern other industries/fandoms will begin to drive in similar directions.” And you’d probably be pretty much right, given what Homestuck and MLP fandom looks like today. You could even go out to BBC fandom (e.g. Doctor Who and Sherlock) and K-drama/K-pop and see some of this.

Argument:
[Effective] 1–2–(3)–4–5–6–7–8–9–10 [Ineffective]
His effectiveness is mainly hampered by his readability and his unnecessary tangents (see above) , but ultimately it falls a bit because Azuma oversells himself. He makes the point about there being no “grand narratives” and then gives you one. And then vigorously outlines and defends it no less! So that’s a pretty big flaw. The fact that his complicated framework essentially muddles his main points (beyond just teachnical readability) also doesn’t help. There’s a couple other minor things that are related to his examples or dismissing other viewpoints too early rather than trying to incorporate things, but besides these main issues the book actually makes a pretty convincing argument that I think only becomes stronger once you start to clear things up.

Overall:
[Useful] (1)–2–3–4–5–6–7–8–9–10 [Useless]
Definitely read this book. For all its flaws (and there aren’t too many), I can’t recommend it highly enough. Especially if high-brow, elitist, and pretentious anime (fandom) analysis is your thing! :D

Further Reading:

misfortunedogged on Empathizing with 2D Characters
2DT on Trying to See What Makes an Anime Fan an Anime Fan
ghostlightning on The Making of an Otaku
Digibro on The Nature of His Anime Fandom
2DT’s final post, where he asked readers: “How has anime enriched your world?”

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15 responses to “Book Review: “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”

  1. Thanks for this! I’m always on the lookout for more academically minded books/writing about anime (as that’s what much of my blog focuses on) so I’ll have to check it out. I also like how you’ve outlined your points to be concise and straightforward.

    • Thanks! I try my best to make these reviews thorough yet concise, and hopefully if you end up reading Azuma sometime you’ll consider it a worthwhile endeavor.

  2. This has been a fascinating ride, especially for me, who was completely unexposed to Azuma or postmodern theory in anime until now. Thanks for taking all the time to summarise all of his arguments in a way that the average anime fan like me can understand and for critically reviewing the book. It’s not often you see an Internet blog attempt an academic discourse like this, let alone an anime blog, so it’s got me caught up about all the potential for aniblogging and I can’t help but feel inspired by you.

    Now, criticisms. I think you could have chosen a more accessible format and method of summarising. There were parts – many parts, I feel – that you could have simplified further or removed altogether. I understand your desire to retain the integrity of Azuma’s argument, but there were aspects that felt superfluous to me from that material and it took a lot of mental filtering from my part to pick out the parts that I felt relevant to me. I think you could have framed this material less like the standard notes you’d write out from a textbook, which was what you did here, and just focused on expounding the key concepts. In other words, I didn’t feel like you needed 6-and-a-half posts that, while useful, also covered the frequent digressions and needlessly complicated framework that you yourself were critical of. Now imagine the average reader who had no exposure to the book itself. I constantly found myself rereading sentences for the sake of basic comprehension.

    Also, just a minor pickle, really, but you constantly highlighted what you thought were the main points. Sure, they were good points and all, but when you look back over your posts, roughly half of all the sentences were highlighted. This further muddles up the reader’s understanding of the main points – highlighting should be used sparingly for greatest effect. Basic note-taking skills!

    I probably shouldn’t keep harping on about this, so I’ll go on and discuss what I thought was absolutely fascinating about Azuma’s theory and once again, thanks to you and bricksalad for taking the time to transcribe his key ideas into the world of the net.

    This idea of anime fandom following a database model strikes me a lot and it gives me a whole new level of insight when I think about how otakus consume media compared to us, the Western wannabe critics and hipsters. (Heh.) My impression from this is that for otaku, narrative cohesiveness in a particular storyline is not as important as the potential and breadth of the franchise itself. If a particular story isn’t appealing, it’s not the be-all-and-end-all: there are limitless other narratives, from both the simulacra you mentioned and perhaps implied within the continuity itself, that inspire original input and thinking from otaku. Essentially, they interact with the stories themselves and become involved in such a way that they can, in their minds, bend the series to whatever narrative suits their needs best.

    I refuse to think of otaku as having shallow tastes or expectations and it seems to me that this explanation captures their reasoning without too much denunciation of it. As Western “otaku” (the word having a different flavour in our mouths) we tend to judge a series by what it directly presents us. That is, we think of series like Legend of the Galactic Heroes and Serial Experiments Lain as being well-written and engaging. But to the Japanese otaku, these series are not engaging beyond their premise. They function as complete, standalone narratives, offering no potential for further interaction with the viewer. They may have good stories but they are not good series.

    This has a strong ideological resonance with me in particular because I think that this is personally why I can explain why I do not like these more “intellectual” series as much as the popular but oft-derided franchises. I approach those series as a one-way interaction and get a lot out of them in the sense that I get a lot out of reading a book. But it is not necessarily what I get into anime for!

    So, as Western anime fans, are many of us approaching anime as a medium not in the spirit as intended? Are we too caught up in a pre-postmodern perspective? We frequently look down on otaku tastes, accusing the “pandering” of being of poor quality storytelling, but we could just be judging anime by what it is not rather than for what it is.

    As you can see, I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of Western anime fan elitism compared to Japanese anime fan elitism and your notes have done a considerable amount to push these musings forward. I’m thinking of writing a post about this and citing your posts as reference, so watch this space! This comment has gone on for too long already. :)

    • it’s got me caught up about all the potential for aniblogging and I can’t help but feel inspired by you.

      Thanks! I’m glad that there’s an audience for stuff like this, and it’s really cool that something as obscure, dry, and as long-winded as this could be inspiring :).

      Now: to respond to your criticisms. First, I’m going to say up front that everything you take issue with is correct, so there’s no argument there. Now for the commentary…

      I understand your desire to retain the integrity of Azuma’s argument, but there were aspects that felt superfluous to me from that material and it took a lot of mental filtering from my part to pick out the parts that I felt relevant to me.

      RIGHT?! This was the exact problem I had with the book. Now, bricksalad had already culled down much of the text into these posts, and I culled his thoughts down a little bit further (and attempted to add what I thought was some additional useful commentary on this slightly more focused section). But what we’re doing – as you said – is trying to summarize Azuma’s arguments in the book, rather than what I (and probably you) think are the main takeaway points here. You mention a lot of problems that I think are inherent to the way Azuma has written the text, and likewise are replicated here because we attempt a faithful summary/discussion of the entire thing.

      That said, I could’ve (and maybe should’ve) gone the route you recommend, which is to actually expound on the books key concepts rather than try and expound on the book itself. Given how much it’s influenced my thought on anime and co., that might actually have been a better idea in retrospect. So if you think a separate post on just that topic would be useful, let me know and I can try and write my opinions up (or we could attempt some co-writing thing – that could definitely work and would be pretty cool), since a more focused argument would definitely be useful.

      I constantly found myself rereading sentences for the sake of basic comprehension.

      Oh, just imagine reading this thing for the first time having never gotten any primer. I don’t know how many times I reread over paragraphs and chapters going “wtf is he trying to say here?” lol.

      Basic note-taking skills!

      Yea, the highlighting for me actually has been a problem for quite a while, and you’re not the first (although hopefully closer to the last!) to point it out. It actually used to be worse, where I’d highlight close to 2/3rds to 3/4ths of a text; culling it down to 1/3rd-1/2th has actually taken a while. Hopefully I’ll continue to improve over the next couple years!

      Essentially, they interact with the stories themselves and become involved in such a way that they can, in their minds, bend the series to whatever narrative suits their needs best.

      This is actually a great insight, and one of my critiques of Azuma (that I was just discussing with misfortunedogged) that I didn’t try and delve into as much. This “collapse of the grand narrative” he (and many other postmodernist thinkers) outline is completely dependent on what viewpoint you’re looking in from. Just because the traditional narrative structure has disappeared doesn’t mean that you can’t construct new overarching narratives that follows some new set of criteria – possibly spanning traditional definitions of media. So maybe postmodernism should be seen more as a “freeing up” of modernism rather than a collapse of the central ideas.

      It also really hits upon the personal level most media serves nowadays, even in the context of fandom and communities, which is another great thing to note!

      They may have good stories but they are not good series.

      Exactly! :D

      This has a strong ideological resonance with me in particular because I think that this is personally why I can explain why I do not like these more “intellectual” series as much as the popular but oft-derided franchises.

      UNDERSTANDING. SO MUCH UNDERSTANDING RIGHT HERE. Man it feels good to hear this type of thing from someone else. Now I really gotta try and get caught up reading most of the stuff you’ve posted about in the last few weeks…

      We frequently look down on otaku tastes, accusing the “pandering” of being of poor quality storytelling, but we could just be judging anime by what it is not rather than for what it is.

      You’re thoughts are so close to mine it’s actually a little bit terrifying. I’m personally obsessed with this idea of trying to judge a show on its own terms (mostly because you just outright enjoy shows more when you do this, and it’s not like this precludes you from engaging intellectually/seriously/critically with them), so you’ve got me completely on board here.

      the nature of Western anime fan elitism compared to Japanese anime fan elitism and your notes have done a considerable amount to push these musings forward

      This exact issue was one of my motivations for going to Japan in the first place, since I wanted to better understand this sort of disconnect.

      I’m thinking of writing a post about this and citing your posts as reference

      Oh cool – I’ll be looking forward to it!

      This comment has gone on for too long already. :)

      Right back at ya! :)

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    • I disagree with this comment, and have responded on your post. Hopefully the discussion can be contained there, and anyone interested can check it out.

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