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 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 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: Japan’s Database Animals
Hiroki Azuma (Center for Study of World Civilizations at the Tokyo Institute of Technology); translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono.
“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)
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.
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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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.
[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
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?”