Adventures in Criticism: Otaku 1

Yes, that’s right, ages after Pontifus made that post you surely remember, and my threat to do an AiC, I’m finally here. Woo?

You know the book. Otaku, by Hiroki Azuma. OGT has kindly lent me his copy, and I’ll be doing a series of posts, one for each chapter – hopefully they’ll be reasonably short that way. This is chapter one, “The Otaku’s Pseudo-Japan.”

Azuma covers some of the history, both of otaku culture and postmodernism, and highlights the connection of the two historically, through Japan’s “narcissistic 80s” in which they were the greatest. He also points out that otaku culture is American culture hybridized – in the beginning, at least.

He also also points out that his theory is just as applicable everywhere, and he’s simply focusing on otaku. Something some commentators should have read before trying their hand at claiming this theory solely for the provenance of Japan’s sacred animus.

What’s fascinating about this framing chapter is that Azuma claims that otaku build an imaginary Japan out of elements such as miko, depictions of Edo and other historically appropriate cities, and social structures. All these elements are pre-war, when Japan was Japan, and not the loser of the Great War. Now, whether or not we agree that such a rationalization was or is necessary, it happened. Otaku, then, are in a way nostalgic for a time they never lived in, and much of their entertainments focus on building the image of such a time to inhabit themselves, through decidedly postmodern interactions. We can think of a few he doesn’t speak of specifically – doujinshi, fan writing, forum discussion (one he does mention), etc. Otaku entertainments, then, create an image of a beautiful world and are consumed in such a way that the otaku get to live in this beautiful world. He brings up Urusei Yatsura as Japanese folklore in space, allowing modern views of ancient, Japanese icons such as the monsters, priests, and heroes of legend.

Azuma points out a peculiar claim of the 80s in Japan – that Japan was inherently postmodern because they had never fully incorporated modernity into their culture. That was why the belief propagated that Japan was poised to rule the postmodern world. He equates this formulation – which led to a faddish popularity outside academia for postmodernism – to the pre-war claim that Japan would “overcome modernity.” Both seem fallacious. I haven’t read all the postmodernism – fiction or theory – that I’d like to, but one of the founding stones of postmodernity is the modern phase. One can’t shift into the hyperreal world of copies with no original without first experiencing a world where copies are made with no original. The best example nowadays is the desirability of the ipod – good aesthetic, quality building and support, and they’re all exactly the same. No one has the “first” ipod. People want their iphones early not to get the “real” iphone, the “original,” but to be among the first-wave adopters. The word adopter is used, because it isn’t an obtaining of an item, but membership into a group. Whose ID card is the original, in the club? Yours or mine? No one’s.

So Japan had to experience modernity or there would have been nothing to react against. And of course they have. They have factories, don’t they? Baudrillard, in a strange retcon of postmodern history, claimed that the introduction of the industrial factory marked the beginning, not of modernity, but of postmodernity. Modernism, for him, was simply the beginning of postmodernism.

However, Azuma has pointed out that this postmodern world, with no originals (he goes so far as to describe the production process of early anime, re-using original cels with minor changes for new scenes), is directed toward building a world wherein the consumer feels original. I posited something similar in my piece on Aria, about comfort, but Azuma takes it to the next level, describing the whole of otaku culture as an attempt to build a world. Not a safe world, but a familiar world. The thrust of a postmodern movement is to escape postmodernity.

What about fansubs? Azuma doesn’t talk about them, at least not yet, but I want to. There’s no original in the fansub chain – they begin with a copy of a copy. An episode of, say, HotD, gets sent in to a broadcasting company. Already a copy, because the animation studio isn’t sending their cels or computers to the company. The company broadcasts it, copying it ad infinitum into TVs across the country. Some enterprising person copies his or her specific copy, running it into their computer and encoding it into what we call a raw. This is already a copy multiple times removed from the possibility of an original (which didn’t exist to begin with), but it’s used as an original onto which subtitles are layered. The subtitled version, usually broken into different formats and, now, qualities, is copied out again in farther proliferation.

And yet many of us build a picture of nostalgic originality around this process. Either we watched the raw – the original for the fansubbing process – or we got the subbed version when it dropped – like picking up an iphone on release date. Maybe we have a sub group we prefer, because they’re more “accurate” (in a field where accuracy must always be sacrificed for the field to exist), or we like their font better, or they do karaoke and the other one doesn’t. Out of this variegated field of copies we build a picture of genuineness, of originality, which is no less powerful for being illusory. I stay mostly out of sub group fights, but I hear about them sometimes after the fact from friends who pay attention.

Azuma also mentioned, early on, a problem he had when beginning his book: serious academics were horrified he was interested in otaku, and otaku were horrified that he hung out with serious academics. I don’t want to get into the problem of nerds hating on academics, which makes no sense, but I do want to talk about the reaction of the otaku.

Azuma said this about them: “otaku, 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” (5). Does this sound familiar at all? 8C ran into it recently. I talked about it when I wrote about Delany spanking 70s era SF geeks who reacted the same way. Subcultures of all stripes, from goth and emo kids to Fruedian and Marxist academics, tend to distrust any method not born out of their camp. What this means for anime fans is that any attempt to deal equally with anime, to talk about it in the same ways people talk about books and movies, appear to be coming from an alien outside. They’re doing it wrong, it’s often said, when someone seriously considers a theme found in an anime or the patterns of a manga.

Not every method is alien. As Azuma points out, methods seen as originating inside the subculture are OK. You can surely fill in for yourself which methods are stamped with approval within the otaku-rhombus. Mostly they’re formalist in nature, looking at the production methods and internal patterns. Attempts to deal with patterns outside the text itself have gained currency even in the few years I’ve been around and blogging. What was once “doing it wrong” is now, perhaps in the face of Azuma’s database text itself, the best new way to deal with the texts.

It does amuse me to some extent that many people are using a postmodernist theory to construct a “grand narrative,” which it is the mark of postmodernism to explode when found, and deny when asked about. But that’s an aside.

The most distrusted methods of dealing with a text are those that are obviously not from within the otaku discourse itself. What’s called “theory” always has its origin elsewhere: psychoanalytic criticism comes from Freud, not Eva; Marxist theory comes from, well, Marx, and not Aria. The irony is that “theory” means coherent method, and the formalist approach is just as marked by its own history, the theory simply doesn’t use the names of Cleanth Brooks and the other American critics who built it, or the Russian critics who built what the Americans stole and built on more. Dealing with the historicity of an anime is generally kosher, but because that theory isn’t called “Greenblattism,” it’s OK, even though it’s similarly as alien to otaku culture (less applicable? Of course not, it’s delightfully applicable. I would go so far as to say Azuma is really doing postmodernist New Historical readings, especially when he describes something like Saber Marionette J as a microcosm of the 80s).

For Japanese otaku themselves, according to Azuma, this break is between what’s truly Japanese and what isn’t. Interestingly, though, the same image can produce different responses because of the same impulse. He speaks of the miko, whom otaku love, and whom non-otaku are repulsed by when within the confines of anime or manga. The miko is an image of Japanese culture, and for the otaku the miko creates a line that runs all the way from Edo-era “merchant culture” all the way through Sailor Moon. For a non-otaku, though, the non-Japanese SF is alien to the image of the miko; the two can’t be used together, and a disruption occurs which causes the non-otaku to react violently against the miko. The otaku, having created an image of Japan that includes the SF elements as Japanese – the fake Edo of Saber Marionette is one of his examples of this co-opting process – experience no disruption and, in fact, enjoy the fiction of their Japan more. The conflation of the SF (or fantasy, equally alien to non-otaku, according to Azuma) and the miko buttresses the faith otaku have in their “pseudo-Japan.”

It’s an interesting back-and-forth process he’s setting up. I can’t wait to get to more.

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4 Comments

  1. Excellent. While I would never consider my dedication to accessibility “selling out,” or “dumbing down” my discourse, a lot of it has to do precisely with the issues presented here.

    There seems to be a strong and loud (I don’t really know how extensive the majority is) resistance to intellectually engage anime and manga as cultural units. The “anime everyman” insists that we shouldn’t take these cartoons “too seriously” and we should just “enjoy things for what they are.”

    1. The “too seriously” accusation is rooted in ignorance in that for some of us, an essay on an episode of anime that makes us remember half-forgotten lectures in university on philosophers and scholars is actually a break from consequential (academic scholarship-wise) research and writing. It’s actually analogous to remembering “what your dad said about girls,” only this case dad was Freud, and girls are French feminists.

    But nobody will accuse of an anecdote about what someone’s dad or friend said of having pretensions of any kind. It’s just recollection of relevant meta.

    2. Writing with an “intellectual” approach, and attempting criticism of anime and manga using the extent of one’s powers is a legitimate/valid way to enjoy the hobby. It’s a matter of preference and is not an imposition on others. Of course, the range of conclusions in such writing will be more extensive than “this ep is shit, this character is epic, the writers are stupid, kyaaa, fapfapfap, &c” all of which by the way are legitimate and valid reactions to cultural units (and reactions I regularly make and post on twitter, maybe not so much “the writers are stupid” because I tend to imagine them “dead” more often than not).

    This range and variance in conclusions may lay outside the current and immediate interests of the database animals relevant to their hobby. I understand how this could be annoying, threatening, or distasteful to them — but it can all be reducible — if they so wish, to just another item on the database: discussion points.

    Reply
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