I found Hiroki Azuma’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals at the university library — seven or so months ago. And, what do you know, it’s due back. Overdue, probably. So I suppose I should annotate this thing at long last, for your benefit and mine.
It’s a short book, but I won’t be entirely exhaustive here. I’ll omit basic overviews of things many of us would find intuitive anyway, and some of the more extreme postmodern/poststructural business, in the assumption that you’ll read the book yourself if you’re looking for that sort of thing. It must be said, though, that, while Azuma got his start as a Derrida scholar, Otaku is very readable even if you aren’t so familiar with Baudrillard, Lacan, and their ilk — and, that being the case, I suppose I ought to make this post more or less readable, too.
For the sake of getting the “proper” citation out of the way (and thereby making myself feel better), it is thus:
- Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Trans. Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.
Azuma’s thesis here is “that the essence of our era (postmodernity) is extremely well disclosed in the structure of otaku culture” (6). He put this thesis forth during a talk in 2001, the essay-ified version of which he makes available for free on his website; you may want to check that out if you want a more extensive overview of Azuma’s position from the man himself.
…[O]taku, who usually display an air of anti-authoritarianism, distrust any method that is not otaku-like and do not welcome discussion on anime and video games initiated by anyone other than an otaku. … In other words, some people refuse to even recognize otaku, while others believe only a designated group possesses the right to speak about them. It has been extremely difficult to take a position that does not adhere to either of these stances. (5)
Tell me about it, Azuma! I’m not at all surprised that this phenomenon isn’t limited to our English-language sphere of anime blogs, where many of us have encountered it in one form or another. Azuma calls it a “dysfunctionality,” and claims that his work here amounts in part to an effort to circumvent (if not remedy) the factionalism of fans and non-fans (5). The degree to which the book succeeds at this will probably vary somewhat widely from reader to reader, but I didn’t feel at any time that Azuma stacked things entirely in favor of either cultural theory or fandom — he is in turns accepting and critical of both.
The history of otaku culture is one of adaptation — of how to “domesticate” American culture. This process also perfectly epitomizes the ideology of Japan during the period of high economic growth. Therefore, if at this time we perceive a Japanese aesthetic in the composition of anime and special effects, it is also necessary to recall that neither anime nor special effects existed in Japan prior to a few decades ago and that their process of becoming “Japanese” is rather convoluted. Otaku may well be heirs to Edo culture, but the two are by no means connected by a continuous line. Between the otaku and Japan lies the United States. (11)
Japanese history, etc. That otaku artifacts are, on some level, dependent on both technology originally imported from America and “the complex yearning to produce a pseudo-Japan…after the destruction of the ‘good old Japan’ through the defeat in World War II” makes me wonder about the position of the American fan relative to this complex interplay of traditions (13). That is, I don’t think American fans are so interested in the construction of a pseudo-Japan — or, if they are, I doubt it’s out of a desire to “overturn the overwhelmingly inferior status of postwar Japan with respect to the United States,” and more out of an interest in fictitious pseudo-Japan as an object of entertainment (13). It’s likely that postmodern Americans are as likely as postmodern Japanese to turn to narrative fandoms in an effort to make sense of the present world — Azuma notes at several points that his broader theories are not meant to be exclusive to Japanese otaku culture — but certainly the westerner’s relation to the east/west convolution that is anime is distinct, not least because we’re re-importing products dependent to some degree on our cultural exports.
At what point do the cultural distinctions inherent to anime break down? At what point does anime become something akin to what Timothy S. Murphy identifies as a “literature of globalization?”1 Azuma seems to suggest that the otaku arts aren’t quite there yet, but, insofar as “the impact of otaku culture now reaches far beyond Japan” — a fact of day-to-day life for me and, if you’re reading this, probably you, too — the germination of a truly global genre within anime and manga seems at least remotely possible.
We also have to wonder what will happen when American creators claim significant stake in anime projects, as in the case of Heroman and the other Marvel collaborations. If anime is to some extent and in some cases a reaction to the American cultural elements it appropriates, who is appropriating and reacting to whom in Heroman? Is this an example of the smoothing-over of cultural boundaries, or — in the most extreme case — evidence of American capitalistic imperialism?
At any rate, the notion that acts of adaptation mark the beginning of otaku culture seems significant, given the multimedia adaptation processes at work in the anime/manga industry. Azuma attributes the proliferation of adaptations and derivative works to the postmodern fall of the metanarrative and the death of definitive authority, but if the birth of anime was, in a sense, an act of adaptation to begin with, perhaps a culture of derivation was simply a likely technical and logistical outcome.
[The] prominence of derivative works is considered a postmodern characteristic because the high value otaku place on such products is extremely close to the future of the culture industry as envisioned by French sociologist Jean Baudrillard. Baudrillard predicts that in postmodern society the distinction between original products and commodities and their copies weakens, while an interim form called the simulacrum, which is neither original nor copy, becomes dominant. The discernment of value by otaku, who consume the original and the parody with equal vigor, certainly seems to move at the level of simulacra where there are no originals and no copies. (26)
In other words, Vocaloid and Touhou. Azuma’s prime example of this is Di Gi Charat, that franchise born of a store mascot when “the stories and settings that form its world were created collectively and anonymously as a response to the market, after the character design of Digiko alone gained support” (40). And I suppose it’s very revealing of my “brand” of fandom that I can’t really get into those sprawling franchises (I mistyped that “fanchises,” and maybe I shouldn’t have corrected it) without much in the way of authorial frames of reference. I’m not hostile toward or dismissive of fan work at all, nor do I dislike Touhou and Vocaloid; I suppose I have thus far simply failed to understand those fandoms, having cut my fanboy chops on western literature and film.
In otaku culture ruled by narrative consumption, products have no independent value; they are judged by the quality of the database in the background. …
…[O]taku consumers, who are extremely sensitive to the double-layer structure of postmodernity, clearly distinguish between the surface outer layer within which dwell simulacra, i.e., the works, and the deep inner layer within which dwells the database, i.e., settings. (33)
Azuma posits the “database” of story elements — character attributes, fragments of plot, and so on — as a replacement for the “deep inner layer” that presumably guided the reading of modern (i.e. pre-postmodern) literature (32). I’m not sure to what degree I buy that; part of me asks whether we haven’t simply done away with deep layers to begin with, given how poststructuralism rendered the semiotic signified inert, absent, or simply another signifier in disguise. But it is the case that fans of anime and manga concern themselves with very specific traits disconnected from any one character or story, and that creators both professional and amateur draw from an array of these traits — we can probably agree that the database exists, whether or not we grant its status as “grand nonnarrative” or replacement metanarrative (38).
Compared with the 1980s otaku, those of the 1990s generally adhered to the data and facts of the fictional worlds and were altogether unconcerned with a meaning and message that might have been communicated. Independently and without relation to an original narrative, consumers in the 1990s consumed only such fragmentary illustrations or settings; and this different type of consumption appeared when the individual consumer empathy toward these fragments strengthened. The otaku themselves called this new consumer behavior “chara-moe” — the feeling of moe toward characters and their alluring characteristics. (36)
Here, Azuma posits the birth of moe as we know it — that’s some srs bsns, isn’t it? While “moe” as a term evidently came about in the 1980s, Azuma locates the turn away from “fictitious grand narrative” such as that constructed by UC Gundam and toward stories that served as vehicles for the data that were the true foci of fandom in the mid-90s (37). And what franchise do you suppose he suggests is the crux of this shift? That’s right, it’s Evangelion — the very show that, in the U.S., convinced a generation of casual viewers of Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon (myself included) that they were actually fans of a storytelling method capable of conveying deep, meaningful, and consistent narrative experiences. And while we were trying to explain Christian symbolism in the context of Shinji’s journey, Japanese fans were dissecting Rei Ayanami into component parts to be recomposed later (by enterprising, market-conscious creators) into Ruri Hoshino and others (42, 49). Funny how that worked out.
It’s easy to see how contemporary “cute girls doing cute things cutely” shows came to be. People may accuse K-ON! of being “empty” — but, at the end of the day, emptiness is kind of the point. K-ON! represents a distillation of narrative into a pure vehicle for characters, who are themselves constructs of tried-and-true moe elements (moe-golems, if you will), which is what new-school fans sign on for in the first place, or so Azuma claims. The author of the linked Japanator article suggests that perhaps “emptiness” is an invitation to bring one’s personal experience to the viewing (which is inevitable anyway, she says, and I agree), but, if Azuma is to be believed, emptiness as such is practically irrelevant to the target Japanese demographic, whose members aren’t really interested in metaphoricity, cultural relevance, and so on, and whose primary concerns are the core components of cuteness, the manifestations of the database they know and love, which might be disassembled and reconstructed ad infinitum.
Which is not to say that a moe show is doomed to what we might identify as shallowness. Azuma is all about Saber Marionette J as an allegory for the late-90s otaku condition (20). And I can’t help wondering what he’d think of Strike Witches, whose regard for World War II history may be more than superficial. As long as moe shows encourage creativity by making their moe elements readily available to viewers, they can’t be all bad, I figure.
All that considered, can we really hold Chinka (which I guess is for real now?) against Danny Choo? Well, maybe — but if we do, we’re probably delving into the realm of broader issues with moe itself. Should we go after Choo’s studio for being manipulative, or should we take it up with those fans who want to be fed pure, unadulterated moe elements? And if we do, are we really doing nothing more than revealing our cultural bias?
The modern Japanese novel is said to reflect reality vividly (shasei); the otaku novel reflects fiction vividly. The characters and stories that [Ryuusui Seiryouin] depict are never realistic, but they are possible in the world of comics and anime already published, and therefore the reader accepts them as real. (56)
Even the novel is subject to database modes of consumption and production, evidently because otaku readers seek consistency with previous fiction (by way of the database) rather than with reality; “the moe-elements extracted from the subculture database seem far more real than the imitation of the real world for the emergent group of consumers in the 1990s” (78). To some degree I suspect that this has always been the case for all readers; however, Azuma speaks of an extreme, a situation in which “[o]taku print culture as a whole is beginning to obey a different kind of logic, one oriented toward characters rather than individual works” (57). The otaku novel is “[n]either literature nor entertainment,” to the extent to which such a thing is possible; it concerns itself, like anime, with serving as a vehicle for database elements (58). I couldn’t tell you how staunchly I’d stand by this notion, but I can tell you that, as a fiction writer influenced by the storytelling methods of otaku media, I find myself highly conscious of character traits as elements that might anchor readers based on previous fiction consumption.
Games produced by Key are designed not to give erotic satisfaction to consumers but to provide an ideal vehicle for otaku to efficiently cry and feel moe, by a thorough combination of the moe-elements popular among otaku. For example, in Air, pornographic illustrations of all sorts are concentrated in the first half, as if to reject the premise that the goal of girl games is erotic satisfaction. The latter half of the ten-plus hours of playing time does not even contain substantial choices; the player only follows the texts as a melodrama unfolds about a heroine. Even this melodrama is rather typical and abstract, created out of a combination of moe-elements such as “incurable disease,” “fate from previous lives,” and “a lonely girl without a friend.” …
…[T]his kind of game…masterfully grasps all of the fundamentals of moe, from the types of narrative to the details of design. …
Therefore, in most cases when they say “it’s deep” or they “can cry,” the otaku are merely making a judgment on the excellence in the combination of moe-elements. In this sense, the rising interest in drama that occurred in the 1990s is not essentially different from the rising interest in cat ears and maid costumes. What is sought here is not the narrative dynamism of old, but a formula, without a worldview or a message, that effectively manipulates emotion. (78-79)
What we have here is a loaded block of text, and I’d like to tackle it from the bottom up.
You’ll notice, toward the end, that Azuma reveals his priorities as a reader here — or he finishes the revelation that began with his early consideration of Nadesico and Saber Marionette J. Azuma and his otaku subjects evidently disagree on what is “deep;” to the otaku, depth means extensive engagement with the database, while to Azuma, depth seems to amount to engagement with some set of cultural or historical conditions — which makes sense, given that Azuma is a cultural critic by trade. Perhaps Azuma is claiming that, in the database-driven world, such a thing as “depth” no longer exists, but this notion relies on a particular definition of “depth,” and depth of experience is, practically speaking, something that varies from consumer to consumer, from product to product, and from individual consumptive act to consumptive act. What I’m trying to say is that I’m a little wary about how Azuma has framed this section — but, alright, I’ll grant that what he’s ultimately saying (i.e. otaku tend to read for emotion-invoking structural elements rather than metanarrative-based meaning) makes sense.
Essentially, Azuma takes very seriously the conception of Key games as “emotion porn.” And, yeah, I doubt there’s much room for debate over whether Key takes advantage of story elements proven effective at making consumers cry. Of interest here is Azuma’s identification of such elements as components of the database, and the implication that otaku use the database to achieve emotional states or to invoke emotive effects. What “is felt as most real” to the otaku consumer is neither “reality” nor “earlier fiction,” but “the database of moe-elements” — Azuma always seems to liken the movement toward otaku culture to a search for authentic feeling (58). Perhaps needless to say, the database consists of elements that make consumers feel certain ways. As such, database-derivative art focuses not on intellectualizing and explicating metanarratives, but on bringing about emotion in its consumers.
The idea that Air discounts sex as a satisfactory or worthwhile goal may even give us some insight into the tangled mess that is otaku sexuality. But we’ll get into that a bit more momentarily.
…[C]onsumers of novel games can be characterized as having two completely different inclinations toward the surface outer layer (the drama) and toward the deep inner layer (the system) of a work. In the former they look for an effective emotional satisfaction through combinations of moe-elements. In contrast, in the latter they want to dissolve the very unit of the work that gives them such satisfaction, reduce it to a database, and create new simulacra. In other words, in otaku the desire for small narratives and the desire for database coexist separately from each other.
…[P]ostmodern individuals let the two levels, small narratives and a grand nonnarrative, coexist separately without necessarily connecting them. To put it more clearly, they learn the technique of living without connecting the deeply emotional experience of a work (a small narrative) to a worldview (a grand narrative). Borrowing from psychoanalysis, I call this schism dissociative. (84)
I’m not sure I follow Azuma here. That is, I get that consumers have moved beyond the need to connect small narratives (individual works) with some underlying metanarrative. But, again, I don’t know how much I buy that the database occupies the space left empty when metanarrative went away. Wouldn’t small narratives inevitably be connected to the database? Its elements “prove” themselves in small narratives; small narratives are picked apart, and their effective elements are entered into the database. Wouldn’t enjoyment of small narratives and enjoyment of the database have everything to do with one another? Or is Azuma just reinforcing his point that “narrative” as such isn’t really important?
Specifically, Azuma’s talking about the disconnect between the enjoyment of a visual novel for the narrative experience it provides, and the enjoyment of a VN as a collection of images, sounds, and divergent, sometimes contradictory narrative bits. The former is what allows us to enjoy Fate’s three routes as discrete stories, and to compare them in those terms, while the latter is what compels us to play through all three arcs and achieve every possible ending systematically. Azuma gives the hypothetical example of the game that allows the player to choose to pursue a relationship with multiple women, but frames each possible relationship, in its turn, as destined: “although the protagonist is depicted as someone who experiences pure love at each juncture and encounters his ‘woman of destiny,’ actually each of the different encounters that results from the player’s choices is called ‘destiny’” (84-85). Perhaps “there is a vast discrepancy between the drama required by the characteristics of the system and the drama prepared in each scene,” but the discrepancy doesn’t result in a jarring, disjointed experience for the otaku player (85). In this sense I suppose I get where Azuma is going.
Psychiatrist Saitou Tamaki raises the following question in several occasions: Why are there very few actual perverts amongst otaku, even though the icons of otaku culture are filled with all sorts of sexual perversions? … (88)
Just as animal needs and human desires differ, so do genital needs and subjective “sexuality” differ. Many of the otaku today who consume adult comics and “girl games” probably separate these two; and their genitals simply and animalistically grew accustomed to being stimulated by perverted images. Since they were teenagers, they had been exposed to innumerable otaku sexual expressions: at some point, they were trained to be sexually stimulated by looking at illustrations of girls, cat ears, and maid outfits. However, anyone can grasp that kind of stimulation if they are similarly trained, since it is essentially a matter of nerves. In contrast, it takes an entirely different motive and opportunity to undertake pedophilia, homosexuality, or a fetish for particular attire as one’s own sexuality. … (89)
Thus, according to Azuma, getting off to hentai is something one learns. That may seem counter to the more intuitive Madaramean Principle at first, but it’s probably true, to some extent. We know at this point that gender is learned, that it is by no means wholly related to biological sex. And I don’t suppose a hentai picture would trigger sexual arousal in someone whose mind took longer to do with it what the otaku mind is trained to do in mere moments. Obviously I’m way out of my league here (and I get the impression that Azuma is, too) — have there been any psychological studies on this sort of thing?
And regarding Azuma’s pointing out the disconnect between enjoying hentai and being a pedophile — well, what can I say? I just wish people would pay more attention to professional cultural critics and less to fear-mongering news outlets (CNN, I am disappoint) and conservative commentators.
In postmodernity, the deep inner layer of the world is represented as the database, and the signs on the surface outer layer are all grasped as an interpretation (combination) of it. (103)
No, no, wait a minute. You can’t overthrow the Platonic cave only to replace it with the Platonic cave. Just saying.
…[I]n the world of simulacra, a parallel relationship (in which A, B, C, and D are all grasped as a “reading” from the same information) is preferred over a tree-like, hierarchical relationship (in which A defines B, B, defines C, and C defines D, etc.)
…For example, in otaku culture…the reality is that information belonging to different layers exists side by side, such as the individual units of work like an anime or a novel, and behind those the settings and characters in their background, and in turn behind them the moe-elements. All such information is consumed in parallel, as equivalents, as if to open different “windows.” So today’s Graphical User Interface…is a marvelous apparatus in which the world image of our time is encapsulated. (103-104)
Azuma calls this parallel mode of consumption “hyperflatness” (102). And it’s a concept that resonates with me personally — I delve into a franchise expecting to be entertained by blog posts, Twitter reactions, and things like TV Tropes as well as by the franchise’s individual works. A work consists of structural elements (in its text iterations) and readings (socially), and I like being privy to all that at the same time. Maybe that’s why I do this blogging thing in the first place.
Still, I have to wonder about how the parallel small narratives interact. Azuma describes a process of “slipping sideways” that occurs when a consumer, seeking final authority or agency (the “invisible”), brings potential candidates for this agency into view, thereby rendering them “visible” — and, in becoming visible, they become yet more small narratives lacking in authority (105-106). But that’s not really what I mean; what I’m curious about is how consumers organize small narratives. To use Azuma’s earlier example of Rei Ayanami and her many derivatives, do consumers create a “group” or “category” for quiet girls endowed with mysterious power? Does Rei hold relative authority in this group because she provided the database with those elements in a substantial way?
With words such as “postmodernity” or “otaku culture” many readers might imagine the play of simulacra cut off from social reality and self-contained in fiction, but this kind of engaged work [Yu-No] also exists. This book was written to create a moment in which great works such as this can be freely analyzed and critiqued, without distinctions such as high culture versus subculture, academism versus otaku, for adults versus for children, and art versus entertainment. (116)
Does the book succeed? Well, I don’t know; I’m not the best person to ask. I already analyze porn games and canonical literature on the same plane, using the techniques of both theory and fandom; in my case, Azuma is preaching to the converted. But I do consider the book a success insofar as it might prove useful to readers on each side of the binaries he mentions — and if the common experience of Otaku allows inter-faction discussion (something I’m hopeful but not unrealistic about), I suspect that’d be just as planned.
1Murphy, Timothy S. “To Have Done with Postmodernism: A Plea (or Provocation) for Globalization Studies.” Symploke 12.1-2 (2004): 20-34. Project MUSE. Web. 30 November 2009.