Otaku annotated: adventures in moe, porn, and postmodernism

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.

Leave a comment


  1. Meaty stuff.

    If I understand most of these correctly, my own aesthetic lens and method, that is to ‘remember love’ exists within the same framework to a degree.

    I suppose I can reduce my appreciation of media works — valuing it highly if it contains the following data:

    References (robot) anime.
    Builds on reference to add or modify meaning.

    Look at your own analysis of the SDF Macross emerging from the lake in Macross Plus (finale). It is a tremendous reference to not only the final rise (and fall) of the Macross at the end of the original series, but it also twists it and turns it evil and ominous as opposed to inspiring and uplifting. The same base effects are accomplished:

    1) Awe
    2) Love for the source material is remembered (assuming the viewer indeed appreciates the source work to a significant degree).

    In this case, one can supposedly contextualize me as a reference/continuity-porn otaku. I wouldn’t wear that coat myself, but I see how part of the database animal idea works.

    However, I’m uncertain that the Grand Narratives are so easily dispensed with. The meta and para texts that are born from derivative or ‘empty’ simulacra/works to me, are headed towards a grand narrative.

    I can’t substantiate this satisfactorily, but I think the idea of mashups — which I posit as a form of postmodern simulacra, are oriented (intentionally or not) towards a complete narrative. Maybe the binary complete/incomplete is not the best frame for this discussion, but well.

    For example, the mashup games of Super Robot Wars (franchise) are really pastiches of robot anime storylines and characters. The actual characters and trademarks are used by Banpresto. Thus you see the narrative of coming of age (a very masterly narrative IMO) play out this way:

    Shinji wants to run away, then Bright Noa shows up and BRIGHTSLAPS Shinji, who thereafter becomes hot-blooded and awesome.

    I’m not kidding, these things happen. It’s insanely broken to buff your robot party by listening to Fire Bomber sing Holy Lonely Light over and over, but it works — to defeat the Uchuu Kaiju one must unite all available powers and what not.

    Maybe I’m conflating big/long epic stories as master narratives unnecessarily. But I think that long sagas count, and that database animals are drawn to creating their own master narratives. Every year the SaiMoe is held, where the communities enact the rather masterly narrative of the emerging most moe character of all.

    • Pontifus

       /  14 April 2010

      I’m not sure to what degree my fandom is predicated on the database. I suspect it’s a bizarre sort of fusion, having been crafted by western and eastern sub-pop-arts virtually at the same time. That Macross bit is debatable, actually; while I’m inclined to agree with you, and to say that Macross is a very database-driven franchise to begin with in the way that each new installment engages with previous installments (i.e. in terms of tropes more than a satisfyingly consistent “history”), I wonder whether Azuma might prefer to think of it as something more like UC Gundam. Macross seems to be in a weird place, considering that the original was made before that moe revolution, and all its sequels came about during and after (though I don’t know anything at all about Macross II).

      I’ll respond to Cuchlann’s post with more about the metanarrative, as I think I can handle the whole issue in one blow. But I do think that SRW is precisely the sort of thing Azuma would expect to come out of a database-driven art scene. It never bothers anyone that the discrete narratives to which the characters belong could never really, logically coexist, because that’s beside the point. The characters are the thing.

      I don’t know how much you’re conflating things, but Azuma does distinguish between the long epic story as grand narrative and the database as grand nonnarrative. It’s probably alright to conflate them insofar as the latter (allegedly) replaces the former. Probably the main difference between the two is the mode by which elements are organized — the database is by no means predicated upon plot as a driving force, as plot, too, is picked apart into database elements.

  2. You’ve got a lot here, and maybe I’ll come back and reply even more, but I’ll just pick one thing right now: from your reactions and what you’ve quoted of Azuma here, I think I actually buy his claim that the database replaces the metanarrative. I wonder if there’s a confusion going on here with the two terms of narrative — I expect Azuma is using it in Lyotard’s sense from _The Postmodern Condition_. That is, the database sounds like it’s an explanatory vehicle allowing one to “make sense” of a vast array of different materials according to a nearly a priori set of expectations that the fictions appear to express.

    Analogy: for someone like Lyotard, the hero’s journey is a metanarrative, an a priori theory that’s sprawling enough for any text to meet its requirements, and we gain satisfaction from having a theory that “underlies” everything, when in fact it’s a metanarrative construing everything. The postmodern condition is supposed as a condition where metanarratives are closer to impossible — I actually think postmodernism makes more sense now than it did in the 60s, as globalization keeps undermining anyone’s attempt at a metanarrative (supposing, of course, one pays attention).

    So it actually sounds like the database is the first fully-fledged postmodern metanarrative, a way to piece everything together according to pre-determined conditions — and it sounds strangely structural, that there are elements scattered throughout the literature in question (I’m reminded of Frye’s definition of “symbol” as any unit capable of sustaining thought).

    Would it be offensive if I did an AiC on _Otaku_ when I pick it up?

    • Pontifus

       /  14 April 2010

      Yes, do an AiC. I don’t mean to monopolize Azuma.

      I think I went through the book assuming a definition of metanarrative more or less consistent with Lyotard, too. I suppose my problem is not that I think Azuma is wrong, per se. What I wonder is, if Azuma’s model maintains the connection between discrete, usable elements (simulacra, signifiers, whatever) and a grand something, how postmodern can it be, really?

      This is predicated upon a definition of postmodernism that construes the term not (only) as descriptive. When we call an object postmodern (or anything subjective/abstract, really), we’re acting upon that object as much as (or more than?) we’re describing it. Postmodernism is itself that sort of metanarrative, and I tend to think, now, that a metanarrative necessarily has an agenda lurking somewhere in its hideous, viscous body. So, insofar as postmodernism claims to represent a distrust of metanarrative (I guess, or at least it seems to do so in most of the postmodern theory I’ve come across), is a thing that doesn’t conform to that distrust-with-metanarrative agenda really postmodern? Of course this is problematic in all sorts of ways. In a way, postmodernism asks that we buy into its own metanarrative at the expense of all others. It’s kind of insidious.

      And then there’s the ever-present problem of distinguishing between postmodernism and postmodernity, which is as much a pain in the ass as distinguishing between modernism and modernity. The distinction seems perfectly clear until you get to thinking about it.

      Geh, I feel like I’ve dug myself into a weird hole, and have utterly failed to describe the process of digging in a coherent way. I wash my hands of the whole affair by remaining as skeptical of postmodernism as anything else, and by refusing to use terms as totalizing as modernity and postmodernity, when I can. But maybe I should just give up; if existentialism and deconstruction (and of course postmodernism) have failed to escape the reality of the metanarrative, how can I?

      • I actually taught Waiting for Godot yesterday, and I think this conversation helped me move on my feet as I told my students what postmodernism is.

        Anyway. I haven’t read it, obviously, but I honestly don’t see why the “database animal” is specifically Japanese. From your description it really sounds a lot like American fandoms as well; convention conversations often spread through series like they’re the same damn things, because they’re doing a kind of free association of characters based on their shared characteristics. Whence the “who would win in a fight between…” game.

      • Pontifus

         /  18 April 2010

        Yeah, Azuma stresses early and often that his model doesn’t have to be strictly Japanese. But I think there’d be differences between the Japanese database and the American database, given literary traditions and whatnot. I bet we’re still more willing to fetishize the author, for one thing; I can’t imagine something like Touhou happening of its own accord in an American fandom. But, who knows? It’s not like there are only two or three American Touhou fans now.

      • Hm. I agree there’d be differences, but I don’t think that changes the fact that fans function as “database animals,” only what some of the elements of the database are. It seems like the theory’s most important in the way it describes how the database works, rather than what goes in it.

        I’ve even read serious scholarly criticism that’s basically born out of the database — there’s this guy who writes on Gene Wolfe, and some of his stuff is basically just “did you see all these things that are alike? They combine to make [X].” He’s really good, but traditional scholars look at him walleyed sometimes.

      • gwern

         /  3 July 2010

        Offhand, I can’t really seem to apply Azuma’s database to Gene Wolfe scholarship – though I’m very interested in the latter. Any chance you could elaborate on that?

      • Well, I’m referring specifically to _The Long and the Short of It_, Borski’s collection of essays on Wolfe’s work. They strike me as at least a little database-oriented, spending time cataloging things of note in Wolfe’s work and suggesting meanings, but never dwelling on meaning-making to any extent (with the exception of something like the Latro essay, wherein he compiles things that match a certain database — werewolf fiction and legend).

        But I can see other ways it applies. Wolfe has said some of what he wanted to do was create an SF war story — in one interview, at least, he claimed the whole of Book of the New Sun started as a way to get Severian into the war in the north. So it has certain database elements of war fiction, especially SF war fiction — the estrangement induced by war exaggerated by unreal fighting techniques. Add to that the database-scanning required to see the science behind the fantasy (which is how I see the way that works, and I should probably write about that soon), which is how we realize some people aren’t human and some are time travelers, even though those concepts don’t exist to Severian in those forms; we slot them into SF databases without the book doing the work for us.

      • gwern

         /  13 July 2010

        Ah, I see. I’ve never read much Borski (I prefer Peter Wright), and he has something of a reputation on urth.net (which he used to participate in) for finding peculiar interpretations and taking them way too far. I can see how Borski would play into the database interpretation, and upon reflection, Wolfe’s constant use of allusions, onomastics and other symbolic games do seem fairly database-like in their own right.

      • That’s what I’m thinking, at least, that allusions work in a way similar (at least) to the database. The narrative functions entirely without them, but an intertextual layer of comparison opens up once they’re perceived. Specific allusions (Vinge in Fifth Head) probably aren’t database, as they’re too specific — you need to know an author, not a whole pattern and system of habits. Old Earth stories in New Sun, though, aren’t as specific, with lots of takes on the same thing.


    I know I talked about it before, but to me the “database-level” is simply a formalization of the tropes, memes, etc. that characterize any genre of literature or film. It doesn’t replace the “grand narrative”/meaning level, but it’s now a formalized and accepted thing to enjoy all on its own. Which brings different pleasures and problems with it. I have also seen it as we now have to read “beyond” or “up” the database to reach a self-generated meaning.

    I sort-of tried to look at Kanon in an Azuma-ish way in the MOST RECENT ISSUE OF OTAKU USA (SHAMELESS PLUG ON UNRELATED WEBSITE: ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED), although I can’t really remember whether it turned into anything particularly useful, except jokes about nonlinear monogamy. I do reject his notion that “depth” cannot co-exist with database-level interactions, but see above. And, really, as a human being, I reject the entire notion that one shouldn’t read or watch something purely for some emotional reason. Emotion and rationality are not opposites and the two can (and most definitely SHOULD) co-exist for the purposes of good decision- and meaning-making. But that’s me.

    Azuma’s discussion of the “conservative” otaku sexuality struck me as a rather interesting viewpoint. I think that bit is probably more Saito than Azuma, really, but I do agree with the notion of the otaku sexual response to anime imagery as more of a “conditioned” than a “Madaramist” response (which doesn’t really disprove Madarame, I think…wait why am I talking about that like this?!?!?). From personal experience, I can certify that things I find aesthetically attractive (sexual, non-sexual, fetishistic, whatever) in the two-dimensional world of anime characters are visually repugnant to my senses when applied to real-life people. This is probably why I don’t like cosplay that much–it just doesn’t look right to me, no matter how well done it is. Of course, there are crossovers, but for every crossover there’s several that just don’t survive the transition from 2D to 3D, for better or worse. (I am eternally sad that real cheongsams NEVER seem to look half as good as they do in anime. MYTH DESTROYED)

    You didn’t talk about the “database animal” bit that much (or else I forgot it in the hour I have spent doing eight different things while reading and commenting); I thought that was the most interesting bit as it cast the otaku (subset?) that Azuma talks about as basically pure hedonists, rather than the slightly more reserved and cultured Epicurean. You see this in anime fandom a lot, with statements like “anime is more addictive than crack” and watching people get REALLY into anime for a period of time and then taper off, leading to them either abandoning anime entirely, or refining their tastes into something that is much more personally meaningful to them.

    I see absolutely nothing wrong with that hedonistic level of immediate, visceral consumption, as it is frankly nigh-on impossible to get to the point where you are a cultured, broad-minded individual within the confines of your particular interests if you don’t spend a few years being a blithering idiot, reading/watching the junkiest crap imaginable, and loving the bejeezus out of it. For CASES IN POINT, see science fiction fans, comic fans, and so on. You’ve got to develop that deep, abiding, zealous love for something before you can take a more “sophisticated”, “mature”, “serious” interest in or concern with the material.

    @cuchlann: DOOOOOOO IIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIT (the Otaku AiC that is)

    • Pontifus

       /  15 April 2010

      I think I also found myself arriving at the conclusion that the database is a thing that comes to be somewhere between “units” of art and the grand whateverthehell. Azuma certainly does present it as something that might be consumed/enjoyed in its own right, though he confounds this, to a degree, by explaining that we can never really reach the database as such; when we consume something, we slot it into the role of simulacrum/art-object.

      Yeah, I skipped a lot of the early cultural/historical stuff, and I think the more explicit database animal discussions fell therein. My attention is just drawn to the crazy specifics of the art object. I don’t really recall database consumption being equated with hedonism, necessarily (though, granted, “database animal” seems to imply that in the first place). The way Azuma explained it, it’s not that otaku want to say to hell with the world and get their kicks from cartoons, it’s that the database arts literally offer the otaku more genuine experiences than interface with what they’re told is reality. But maybe that’s what hedonism is all about, anyway, and I don’t have the book on hand to flip back to that part.

      Err, this reply seems unduly short, but for the most part I just agreed my way through your comments :3

      • I was flipping through The Society of the Spectacle last night; the early chapters probably give some insight into that view of the “spectacle“, the societal mass-culture narrative that is treated as more “real” than reality. Which I think is somewhat similar to the “postmodern condition” that Lyotard allegedly made stuff up to prove. Except it probably uses “commodity fetishism” more often than not.

        Anyway, I think Azuma is operating from the idea that otaku 1) realize that anime is a fiction but 2) consider it more “real” than the lifeless world surrounding them, and that this describes the essential state of humanity in the modern era. As I understand it, it’s the fantasia “reality” of texts vs. the quotidian* “irreality” of everyday life, and privileging the former over the latter due to the overwhelming (perceived?) banality of the latter. Which is likely why we see a lot of fantasy/SF anime: easier to generate that “real irreality”.

        I can’t do theory calisthenics at 12:45 so I end this here!


      • Pontifus

         /  18 April 2010

        Without having encountered the book, that idea of “spectacle” sounds quite a bit like Baudrillard’s simulacra — just more negative, perhaps, as those crazy Marxists are always trying to overthrow things. But at any rate, yeah, that intermediary fictional/real nature of anime is essentially what Azuma is going for in invoking Baudrillard, I think. But whether that has to do with why there’s more fantasy/SF anime than realistic…I don’t know. That’s a fascinating idea, and I have to get over my fascination before I can discuss it :p

      • I think what I was thinking re: why anime has more fantasy/SF, is simply taking the notion that “everyday life is generally bland and dull”, which is a common description of daily life in Japan (so I hear), and then taking the notion of a “nonreality that is more real than reality” and from this we get a stronger preference for anime to use science fiction and fantasy elements.

        Most often, I notice anime (and this has generally been true throughout the history of anime and manga) tends to invoke this very strong sense that there is something more to the world than what is visible. I’m thinking of things like Fushigi Yuugi, Shakugan no Shana, Zettai Shounen, and Haruhi to name a few. Even things that are comparatively more “realistic” or that aren’t in any way set in contemporary times (say, Monster for the former and Eureka Seven for the latter) can have that sort of feel, that there is more to the world of the narrative than meets the eyes of the characters/viewers.

        Maybe I’m just over-reading things, though. There is a particular style, though (“here’s a world and its norms, and there is something more out there that isn’t dull and boring”) that I also tend to associate with the “slipstream” mode (slash mood slash genre slash abstract literary environment), which would encompass Haruki Murakami and a number of other authors, but I don’t quite think to the extent that anime/manga might provide this.

      • That’s certainly what got me into anime in the first place, though I cited the simpler “there’s more fantasy and SF in it than US tv.” I suspect it’s also a reason I enjoy shows like Hidamari Sketch but can’t stand American “literary” slice of life.

        Some western stuff evokes this too, certainly — Neil Gaiman for one is probably well-loved because he provides a sense that the world has more underneath it. Lovecraft, too, in the horror vein, implies our world sits over another. But I think there might be something to the assertion that much of Japanese pop culture, and not just certain genres/authors in it, dwells on that idea. Even superflat, to some extent, implies more available than we can see.

        Maybe it’s an outgrowth of an historically-pantheist Shintoism?

  4. Azuma seems to be doing a lot better job at explaining cultural conditioning towards moe than I imagined.

    If you think America is a mess when it comes to otaku hierarchies – most Australians don’t even know what the word otaku means. I’m not even sure whether I consider myself a true anime otaku – I’m probably closer to a book/writer otaku, so the aspects of this article that dealt with otaku print media really spoke to me. As for OGT’s remark about 2D transition into 3D – it’s really blurred when you deal with novel adaptations like Welcome to the NHK – it’s impossible not to imagine Satou-kun as an anime character because you’ve seen him in the manga or the anime – probably before you even touched the original light novel the manga and anime were based on.

    I don’t really have an otaku sexual response because for some reason (which I won’t go into) I associate 2D girl fantasy with emotionally crippling fear of delusion. I agree with OGT that everybody has to go through a phase of mindless consumption before thought and culturally broad minded individuals can develop.

    Sorry I didn’t have much to say about this, I might have to save my real comments for a much longer post.

    • Pontifus

       /  15 April 2010

      I don’t even refer to non-Japanese anime fans as “otaku;” whether we’re talking about the English-language internet fandom, or the American fandom, or the Australian fandom, or whatever, they’re all unique species. There are just too many cultural specifics at work at the root of things; Azuma has made me feel that even more acutely than before.

      Yeah, I think NHK is the kind of thing Azuma is talking about when he goes into novels. I’d be really curious to see what he has to say about light novels, though I have a feeling he may not lump them into the broad novel genre at all. Which makes me wonder what kind of literature they are, if they’re indeed a different kind; it’s not as if illustrated long prose is a new thing, but certainly engagement with the otaku database sets Tanigawa apart from Thackeray.

      • Azuma has been pushing light novels (and Tatsuhiko Takimoto is one of them) as a method of engaging database-consumers in a more meaningful way, or something? I’m terribly confused on this point, but I think things like the FAUST literary anthology (which Del Rey is putting out verrrrryyyyyy slowly) and things like NISIOISIN’s work are very much at that level of engagement with meaning at a highly database-modulated level. (I am thinking of the bits in Bakemonogatari where the characters have discussions about their character types (which they very much are) while at the same time being something of a détournement of the character type. Which is why NISIOISIN tends to bust people’s brains open: it’s designed to do that, force you to think and critically interact at the level of the database, and come to the understanding that it’s just “the database” and not “real”.

        I don’t even KNOW how much sense that makes, it makes more sense in my head than in words SCREW YOU DERRIDA AND OR WITTGENSTEIN.

      • Pontifus

         /  18 April 2010

        He just points out that Japanese novels are acquiring database characteristics in some ways. It’s not something he goes on at length about. I don’t even think he mentions light novels as such, and I wish he had; I’d be able to latch to that easier than to the Japanese mystery genre, which is where he pulls his examples, for the most part. Something like Bakemonogatari or Katanagatari (seriously he has got to cut that “-gatari” shit out) is precisely it, I think. Hell, even if it annoys me, the liberal use of “monogatari” draws attention to the “story-ness” of these stories. You’re being made aware of the artifice from the moment you see the title.

  5. OGT, Jacob: I second (third, really?) your idea about the need to consume what you love for a period of time. I certainly did the same, with SF, fantasy, anime, just about everything. And I loved it all, and still do, though there are books I will NEVER re-read and anime I will never watch again.

    • I reread almost all my books, and rewatch all my DVDs. Currently rewatching FLCL – I have a Doll-daughter of Haruko in my room because she reminds me of a female Hunter S. Thompson. I could rewatch FLCL as many times as I wanted and I would find new things in it – which can’t be said for Lucky Star. I suppose the Genshiken manga is another example of a very rereadable otaku print media which has characters so likable you can’t dislike them for being pretty. Mind you there’s plenty of ugly (to some) otaku in the series – it’s just that the main ones are mostly pretty because we’re meant to identify with the characters.

      Welcome to the NHK is a light novel I have read six times – and I am troubled about reading it again since I’ve only now realised how bleak it really is. All that went over my head the first six times.

      I’m not sure whether I enjoy reviewing anime frame by frame via screenshots – that personally detracts from my enjoyment of the anime and makes me not want to do posts – but that’s what people want isn’t it?

      • I re-read/re-watch many things; I meant there are just things I consumed when I was in the appropriate stage that I would never go back to — which is my standard of quality, whether or not it’s worth going back to. Gene Wolfe has claimed that’s how he judges books, and how he tries to write them (hence all the madness in his books — not crazy madness, structural, what’s-going-on madness)

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