What ARE Otaku Exactly? The (Non)Dual Nature of the “Otaku” in Gainax’s Otaku no Video

I’m on a roll with finishing up posts it seems! (Warning: ~4000 word post incoming.)

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As part of an independent study this semester on anime, fandom, and otaku culture, I got a chance to sit down and watch Gainax’s classic Otaku no Video (1991). While in the past few years I’ve been grappling with questions about otaku culture, postmodernism, tropes, etc., it seems these aren’t really new problems — Otaku no Video deals with almost all of them 20 years ago! Who knew.

It turned out to be a fascinating (and really entertaining) watch. After I had finished watching the film, my adviser asked me to write up some of the ways that the film tries to discuss “otaku”  and the different issues associated with otaku culture. As a lot of what I had to say fit into the type of stuff I blog about, I’ve included the essay below (moderately edited/supplemented from my original essay to read better as a blog post). [Comments on the essay are italicized in brackets.]

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Ah the 80s ~

Overview

Plot summary of animated portion

Otaku no Video is a “mockumentary” in two parts, spliced together throughout the film. One half is a romanticized and fictionalized history of Gainax, told through the eyes of a budding young otaku Ken Kubo. Beautifully animated and full of “Easter Eggs”, it follows his journey to become the “Otaking” (i.e. King of Otaku) and the obstacles he faces along the way. It seems to portray the community that “Otaku” (hereafter just “otaku”) like to envision themselves as a part of, filled with passionate, dedicated members, a fan-led economy, and a never-ending quest for knowledge in specific fields. This portion, in essence, attempts to capture the “spirit” of the otaku. Note that I will be using the term “otaku” (among others) liberally (sloppily) here as people, culture, fans, descriptors, etc. As long as the meaning is decently clear in context, I don’t think there should be any real problem. (Plus I’m arguing that “otaku” transcends the way these qualities as are usually defined anyway.)

Ken Kubo starts out a normal Japanese man who lives a happy, normal life: he goes on dates with his girlfriend Yoshiko and is an active member of his college’s tennis team. However, one day he meets one of his former friends from high school, Tanaka. After Tanaka brings him into his circle of friends (all otaku, including a female illustrator [manga otaku], an information geek [sci-fi otaku], a martial artist [fighting otaku], and a weapons collector [military otaku]), Kubo begins to change. As he becomes more and more immersed in otaku culture, Yoshiko dumps him. In his sorrow, Ken makes the wish to become the Otaking, the King of all the otaku, in an attempt to create a world where all otaku can live happy and free!

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To accomplish this, Kubo starts a business with Tanaka and their otaku friends selling garage kits, opening numerous shops and even building a factory in China. His company, Grand Prix (GP), takes the industry by storm, and Kubo’s vision seems almost a reality when a company artist Misuzu comes up with the big hit character. However, he loses it all when one of his rivals (Yoshiko’s current husband) takes control of his enterprise with Tanaka’s unwitting aid. After a period of exile, Kubo reunites with Tanaka and makes peace. The duo then team up with hard-working artist Misuzu and start up a new company, Giant-X, to take over the anime industry with the magical girl show Misty May. Their ideas are a soaring success, and their fame reaches even greater heights while the now-struggling Grand Prix goes under. Capitalizing on their success, Kubo and Tanaka create “Otakuland”, the equivalent of Disneyland for otaku.

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Years later, Kubo and Tanaka return to Otakuland in a post-apocalyptic submerged Japan. While wandering around the park, the duo find its central structure, a giant robot, is a functional spaceship piloted by their old otaku friends. As they enter the spaceship, everyone returns to their prime, and they fly off to space in search of the planet of Otaku.

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Plot summary of live-action portion

The other half of the movie consists of a series of real-life “interviews” with different otaku spanning a wide range of interests. Done with glaring censorship and harsh questioning, these segments (called “A Portrait of an Otaku”) showcase the often negative relationship many otaku have with society as well as the ways that society often treats/views them. The interviews also showcase more negative aspects of otaku-like behavior, such as an almost animalistic (in the sense that Azuma seems to argue; usage of similar terms throughout the essay are meant to implicitly invoke some of his ideas) obsession to collect objects and their seeming withdrawal away from society into 2D realms of their own creation. By contrast, this portion seems to capture the “reality” of otaku.

A controversial and humorous part of Otaku no Video is the inclusion of live-action documentary excerpts. In these segments interspersed throughout the animated narrative, a fake documentary crew would interview an anonymous otaku. Typically portrayed as ashamed at their identity, their face are censored with a mosaic and their voices digitally masked. While the anime emphasizes the camaraderie, creativity, and dreams of mainstream acceptance of otaku, the mock interviews exaggerate its negative qualities. The interviews run the gamut of otaku subculture(s), including a cosplayer who now works as a computer programmer who outright denies his cosplay days (even when presented with photographic evidence) but keeps his Char Aznable helmet in his desk drawer; an airsoft otaku who is interviewed during a full-on night airsoft battle while applying fake warpaint; a “weeaboo” anime missionary who has traveled to Japan because of his love for anime (and whose spoken words are noticeably different from the Japanese “voiceover” translation; and a shut-in who records television programs for trade but has not actually watched anything he’s recorded. The interviews also contain otaku who engage in a range of illicit or unsavory activities, such as a cel thief who unabashedly defends his theft using moralistic sentiments; a pornography fan attempting to manufacture glasses to defeat the mosaic censorship common in Japanese porno videos shown masturbating during the interview; and a computer gamer (who looks like Hideaki Anno) obsessed with a character in an eroge (Noriko from Gunbuster, who makes a cameo in Gainax’s own hentai game Cybernetic High School). These are often accompanied by short segments discussing “statistics” (presented with accompanying graphs) about different aspects of otaku culture, such as how many otaku actually like anime.

All the subjects in the segments are thought to be Gainax employees/people connected to Gainax at the time of filming. For instance, the first otaku interviewed bore a remarkable resemblance to Toshio Okada, a principal founder in Gainax, in both background and physical appearance, while the gaijin otaku, Shon Hernandez, has been confirmed to have been Craig York (who with Shon Howell and Lea Hernandez, whose names were borrowed for the character, were the main staff of General Products USA, an early western branch of Gainax’s merchandising in the early 1990s).

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Taken together, I believe that Otaku no Video pushes for a broader view of otaku, both from within the fandom (i.e. from otaku themselves) and without (i.e. society at large). By celebrating otaku culture and its creative economy, the film pushes back against outside stereotyping against a homogeneous view of “otaku” as a fundamental aspect of personality. In other words, this combats the view of otaku as an all-encompassing aspect of a person – it is not a fundamental portion of their being, and thus someone is not an “otaku”, but rather they can be an otaku (similar to how I can be a student, but am not necessarily a student at heart). On the flipside, by showcasing the often male-centric, obsessive, and escapist nature of otaku culture, Otaku no Video pushes back against over-idealistic visions of otaku. Finally, by emphasizing the incredible diversityof otaku, the film disfavors a conception of otaku as simply “fans” (i.e. while otaku are “fans”, being a “fan” is not enough to constitute being an “otaku”), instead suggesting that the nature of “otaku” can be found in common element among the communities they create – passion/obsession. These suggest a postmodern view of otaku culture centered not on the way that they act, but instead on the ways that they invest value into (i.e. interpret) the objects around them.

Self-Reflexivity and Constructing/Deconstructing Otaku Culture

One notable quality about the film is the variety of ways in which it self-reflexively deals with its own nature and its origins. It’s creators, Gainax – whose origins from a group of anime fans give the studio an aura of otaku “authenticity” – establish the nature of the film’s self-reflexive commentary; the fact that most of the mock interviews and several of the characters are (stand-ins for) Gainax employees (Tanaka even seems to be a stand-in for Okada Toshio, the “original” Otaking!) makes this connection even stronger. In addition, the film’s subject matter deals extensively with otaku practices – both through the eyes of our protagonist Kubo and the variety of staged interviews with real otaku – and is peppered full of references to other otaku “texts” (note that I’m going to use “texts” as a stand-in for pretty much anything that’s collectible, from anime knowledge to trains and sci-fi trivia), firmly establishing Otaku no Video as a film by otaku, about otaku, and ultimately for otaku. Using this framework, the film is able to build up a narrative and establish a vision of otaku culture both explicitly (through the film’s subject matter) and implicitly (through the film’s animated narrative itself).

However, the vision of the otaku community (as described above) this animated narrative creates is undermined through the interviews, which comment on the current state of otaku from an “outside” perspective. Often, these brutally showcase the ways that otaku don’t necessarily live up to their own ideals through the ways they associate with society as awkward and odd recluses. There are multiple ways to read these interviews. First, based on the often extremely absurd and staged nature of these interviews, they can be seen as ultimately satirical (although harsh) in nature, poking fun at the ways that otaku act and behave among other peers. Second, based on the interviewees’ negative behaviors (from a societally normative standpoint, such as masturbating during an interview, watching porn, playing eroge, etc.), the interviews can be seen as sharp critiques of otaku, providing a “check” on the vision that is being constructed and/or affirmed in the animated portion of the film. Finally, based on the condescending and offensive interview questions, they can be seen as condemnations of the way that society marginalize and treat otaku. Given the extreme self-reflexive nature of the film, all these possibilities are likely simultaneously true.

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What are “Otaku”?

Interpretations aside, however, one clear message that the variety of interviews (and accompanying infographics) convey is that otaku culture is heterogeneous, composed of a wide array of different individuals engaging in different sets of activities (although I somewhat doubt the true accuracy the actual statistics shown in the film). The only commonality among the people who seem to have been classified under the banner of “otaku” is that they share a passion for collecting “texts”, whether it is anime (watching or recording), model guns, model trains, etc. In addition, the interview does not attempt to describe “common” otaku practices, instead letting the interviewee describe his/her own specific practices.

Based on Otaku no Video’s disparate characterization of “otaku”, coming up with a unifying definition for the term and what it implies is difficult. Based on the narrative advocated in the animated portion alone, otaku are dedicated fans who comprise a large community that engages in a common set of practices. Based on the perceptions conveyed in the interviews, however, otaku are types of people who are obsessed with collecting aforementioned texts. These two definitions represent two different ways of characterizing the broad thing that is “culture” – one determined by behavior (a culturalist-esque point of view, externally focused) and one determined by common individual nature (a more post-structuralist view, internally focused). [Note that I’m using (and will be using) some terms here outlined by Matt Hills in this book that I have not discussed extensively on this blog yet. I hope to get a post up about it at some point in the following month.]

Ultimately, however, both definitions of “otaku” share the same crucial elements – the “animal-like”, obsessive drive to collect. Combined with the dichotomy presented in the two portions of the film, it suggests that determining why and how otaku decide to collect things in the first place is the most appropriate way to define the “otaku”. This leads us to a “textual” (i.e. interpretation-centered; looking at how otaku see, classify, and interpret “texts”) view on “otaku”.

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An “Otaku” Economy

This textualist viewpoint is at the heart of the way the otaku economy seems to work. Much of the film showcases various aspects of otaku goods, including Kubo’s work with garage kits, the sales and creation of doujinshi, and the buying/selling/trading of key frames, among others. One of the most notable things about almost all these goods is that their value is not at all based on any aspect of “utility” – they are objects that one usually collects and are invested with value by those that consume them [this is also my sort of response to Froggykun’s question about figures]. They are most similar in many cases to paintings, which are imbued with value by the consumers who invested them with meaning. In addition, many of these activities (e.g., garage kits, doujinshi) involve heavy fan participation, leading to an economy focused not only on consuming but producing goods and values (i.e. goods of value).

In addition, Otaku no Video also emphasizes the large portion of this economy that involves some form of piracy (e.g., stealing and selling key frames) or replication/reproduction (e.g., recording, doujinshi, cosplay). By showcasing these aspects of the economy, the film emphasizes three things. The first is a culture and economy centered on reproduction, which blurs the lines between piracy and fan participation. The second is how intense/driven otaku often are in order to get objects that consider (or have been “trained” to consider) valuable, showcasing their resort to piracy when no other means are available/easily accessible. The third, however, is the sets of values that are constructed around these acts of piracy, a moral code that rises to govern and justify many of their actions (and bears many similarities to fansubbing). It suggests that while fans do not respect “traditional” ideas of capitalism, they do in some ways respect and respond to creator intentions. In the end, the otaku economy is centered on ideas of collecting things above all else though.

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The Postmodern Nature of Otaku

The nature of this collecting impulse which seems to drive the otaku economy implies that we should view Otaku no Video and the culture it constructs/embodies a light of a postmodernist framework. First, the shows portrays the otaku desire to collect (e.g. videos, guns), deconstruct (e.g. key frames), and reconstruct (e.g. doujinshi) texts into/from their constituent components. This lines up with a view where objects following a postmodern view of consumption, becoming disassociated references, (re)processed and (re)produced as “pastiche” (i.e. recurring “tropes” and references). [As with Matt Hills, some of the discussion on postmodernism includes ideas taken from Fredric Jameson’s article on it. Subsequent terms defined there will be used with similar connotations in mind. I hope to also have a post on this up within a month or so!]

In the same vein, the movie itself is filled with various references and callbacks to previous works absent from any overarching attempt to parody them – a combination of free-floating elements (including events in world history) which are inserted and recombined to inspire “feelings” in the audience. These feelings, however, are more similar to free-floating “affects” (i.e. feelings disassociated/disconnected from the “Self”) that are consumed along with the pastiche elements themselves. Circling back to otaku, we can also see the otaku’s collecting impulse as being driven by a desire to consume these affects – and thus otaku economy and culture being primarily a postmodernist one. Taken together, these imply that not only is Otaku no Video portraying a profoundly postmodern culture and economy (in the 1980s!), but itself is a postmodern production targeted at this economy.

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Otaku Culture and Gender

One interesting thing to note about the economy and culture portrayed in the film, however, is its extremely male-dominated nature. None of the people interviewed during the live-action segments are women, and during the animated narrative women are portrayed mainly as antagonists (Kubo’s girlfriend) or objectified (also a main feature of two of the interviews that deal with the “porn otaku” and the “eroge otaku”). To this end, we observe that women constituted a small portion of otaku society (outside of cosplayers) in the 1980s, and were often marginalized and viewed as sexual objects.

Although the film portrays this view as the prevailing atmosphere of otaku at the time (and things are changing!), it does not seem to actively endorse such a view of women. In the animated narrative, it is not just a woman who plays the main antagonist (and thus is seen as the enemy), but also a woman who comes up with the designs that “save the day” for Kubo and friends…and becomes one of the founding members of Kubo’s subsequent Giant-X start-up.

misuzu

This one, in fact!

Based on their central, active role in the animated narrative, Otaku no Video counters typical female portrayals in fandom as sexual objects, instead advocating one where they are overlooked members of the community with clout. The film thus not only critiques manifestations/perceptions of otaku, but also central staples of the otaku community itself. It thus celebrates and chastises the existing otaku community in turn — it doesn’t shy away from one or the other.

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Conclusion

Taking all these points together, Otaku no Video seems to argue for a broader view of otaku, from both internal and external to the community. By celebrating the culture and its passionate core, it showcases to outsiders the type of society that otaku participate in and the positive “spirit” they possess. The interviews, by contrast, display the often-portrayed incarnation of “real” otaku who become consumed by their desires and alienated by society. The self-reflexive nature of the film and the culture it portrays also argues for a texualist classification of “Otaku” and a postmodern view of otaku culture centered on the ways that they consume and interpret “texts”. Finally, it showcases the overall dominance of male presence among otaku, although it seems to suggest that females in the fandom are underrepresented and undervalued. The resulting discourse is a one that celebrates otaku and otaku culture for all its idiosyncrasies, but still implies that there is still much room for improvement.

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Ending Thoughts

So there’s my spiel. Some ending thoughts (partly based upon my adviser’s critiques):

  • One thing I don’t really talk about is the formal attributes of the film. Although I mention early on that it is beautifully animated, I never go into detail in terms of the aesthetics the film employs. As I’ve just spent ~3000 words arguing that Otaku no Video uses a “textualist” definition for otaku centered around their obsessive nature, what does this say about the specific aesthetic qualities of the film itself? The Gainax bounce, for instance, is fully present here, and the painstaking attention to detail could be seen as a hallmark of this film as an “otaku” piece of work. I would consider trying to write up such a post, but I feel it’d just come out as an otaku-focused, less impressive version of this.
  • Looking back, there is an underlying argument about subjectivity (and identity) of otaku (as portrayed in the film) that runs through that runs throughout this essay but isn’t really clarified or made explicit. Luckily, I make a more explicit (although slightly different) version of such an argument in my recent post on geekdom as simulated ethnicity. On the topic of the simulated ethnicity post, I also notice that there’s a running theme of persecution and a desire to re-integrate that runs throughout much of Otaku no Video
  • One of the biggest arguments I make is that the different characterizations of otaku that the animation/documentary split suggests may be equally true, and later go on to wonder about the relationship the film’s otaku have to creator’s intentions (especially concerning portrayal of women). These claims, however, seem to respectively stand in a slightly different relation to the postmodern character I see in the film. I don’t spend enough time trying to integrate these things together (authorial intent, plurality of meaning, self-reflexivity, subjectivity, and postmodernism), so the final integrated argument isn’t quite fully fleshed out here. I think it works out for the better though, since it gives some space for people to think about how these elements fit together both in the film and in otaku/fan culture at large, and how they all relate to postmodernism’s all-encompassing drive to deconstruct anything and everything (RAWR).
  • I go to great lengths to argue that Otaku no Video is extremely self-reflexive. I don’t really justify why exactly, but can come up with two decent reasons: 1) the film is marketed specifically towards otaku, and if you want to talk about otaku in such a work and maintain some level of convincing otaku “authority” you need to be extremely self-reflexive so you can have your cake and eat it too, 2) deconstruction ends up being extraordinarily self-reflexive and meta because it continually deconstructs its own deconstruction, which means a postmodern film like Otaku no Video should be self-reflexive by nature. Ultimately, I think it ends up somewhere in-between (although the desire to be meta hasn’t disappeared by any means).
  • Given the nature of otaku and how they see themselves, I think we also might be getting somewhere as to why fujoushi (female geeks) are not heavily discriminated against in otaku culture  (as compared to geekdom). If otaku see themselves in this light, characterized by obsession and animalistic consumption of tropes and other postmodern elements, this view ultimately encompasses members of both sexes. Geeks, who I feel at large are still be in a period of transition from external practices/rituals and established culture (which are still male-dominated; there was no tradition like cosplay for geekdom which was heavily female-dominated from the beginning) to a vision where they are united based on their textualist, obsessive tendencies of consumption, thus end up falling a bit short.

Bibliography

There are a number of nice resources that helped me when I was watching the film and writing up the subsequent essay. Most prominently, AnimEigo’s extensive liner notes helped me catch all the references I missed (because I missed most of them) since the film hasn’t aged too well (although that’s pretty much been a recurring problem in the genre). In addition, the TV Tropes article was useful in teasing out some of the general tropes used. The Wikipedia page also provides some useful general information. Several reviews (here, here, and here) also proved useful, and gave some good impressions of how others (especially older fans) viewed the film. I also have drawn upon ideas from Matt Hills, Fredric Jameson, and Hiroki Azuma concerning cultural theory, postmodernism, and otaku, respectively, which are all useful and insightful reads.

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5 responses to “What ARE Otaku Exactly? The (Non)Dual Nature of the “Otaku” in Gainax’s Otaku no Video

  1. Another fantastic article that I really enjoyed reading. You write well and make some excellent points here – and I feel I also have to congratulate you for the effort alone that this post must have taken – so well done!

  2. Pingback: Prosthetic Sociality: Taking Your Virtual Girlfriend to Atami | JAPANsociology·

  3. Pingback: Virtual affective labor: Looking for love in the virtual world | JAPANsociology·

  4. Pingback: 12 Days of Anime Day 7 / Back of the Envelope: Offensive vs. Defensive Meta-ness | Chromatic Aberration Everywhere·

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