Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

Review by Ed Sizemore

Otaku: Japan
Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals
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Published in Japan in 2001, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals became a bestseller. Hiroki Azuma reshaped both academic studies of otaku culture and how otaku understood themselves. The book is finally available in English, allowing American fans and scholars access to this highly influential work.

Otaku is the term used for devoted Japanese fans of anime, manga, and video games. The otaku culture in Japan is similar to the comic book fan culture in the U.S. Otaku are not simply consumers but collectors and enthusiasts. They purchase related merchandise items like figures, posters, jewelry, clothing, etc. They publish fan magazines, set up internet sites dedicated to their favorite series, and write fan fiction. In 2007, the otaku market represented approximately 1.7 billion dollars in sales (p. xv).

Let me begin with a minor translation quibble. In this book, Western and Japanese persons are mentioned. For the Japanese names, the translators have preserved the Japanese order of family name first, given name second. This makes for awkward reading, especially when Western and Japanese names appear in the same paragraph or worse, the same sentence. I can’t find any place in the book where the translators make this clear to the reader. Given this is a translated work, it would be wise to stick with Western name order for all persons to avoid any confusion.

Obviously, such a short review can’t explore or convey the complex arguments that Azuma lays out in his book. So I’ll focus on the central theme by looking at what Azuma means by database and animal. Specifically, Azuma shows how the current generation (born 1980 and after) consumer patterns embody the postmodern worldview (pp. 6,7).

Postmodern Fan Culture

The characteristic of postmodernity most important to Azuma is the loss of grand narratives (pp. 26-29). The hallmark of modernity was the belief that the deep structure of reality could be described in one coherent theory/philosophy. Examples of these grand narratives include Christianity, rationality, humanism, or nationalism. Postmodern criticism has shown either a given narrative is fundamentally flawed in itself, or it doesn’t have the explanatory power or scope that its advocates claimed. Instead, postmodernity has shown that the deep structure of reality is fragmentary and can’t be reduced to one unified theory. At best, we can form small narratives that give us a perspective on a portion of that deeper layer. Azuma prefers to call the fragmentary deep layer of reality the database of reality.

Let’s relate this back to otaku culture. Here, I’ll use examples more familiar to a U.S. audience. An example of modern fan culture would be that based around Star Wars. This was a series that took place within a universe with an elaborately developed backstory. The movies, books, and characters all participate and have a place in this grand narrative. So when we look at Luke Skywalker, we see him as part of a greater whole.

Postmodern fan culture is best seen through the original Aeon Flux series. Those who remember the original five shorts from MTV’s Liquid Television will remember each short ending with Aeon’s violent death. The next short would pick up as if Aeon had survived. The focus in this series is not some epic drama, but on the character Aeon and her current mission. We aren’t given many details about the world she lives in. There was no grand narrative to the original series, just the small narratives of each episode.

Human vs. Animal Culture

The second major concept in Azuma’s book is how this loss of grand narrative affects the nature of who we are. Under modernity, the fundamental characteristic of being human is a desire and quest for meaning. Humans can’t take reality as is; they believe there is something more to the world we live in. By contrast, animals don’t desire deeper meaning. The only thing an animal seeks is to have its needs met. The move from modernity to postmodernity means that homo sapiens are throwing off the artifice of humanness and returning to our animal roots (pg. 67).

Azuma postulates that contemporary otaku culture is thoroughly postmodern in nature. Consumers are no longer looking for grand narratives; they simply want characters that satisfy their criteria of traits. Companies no longer start with a story and then develop characters to fit the story. Instead, you now have a consumer database of desired characteristics (pp. 39-44). Companies cull from this database the appropriate number of traits to form a character, then build a story for the character and develop related merchandise. Some companies, like Pinky Street or Hot Wheels, don’t even bother with story. They simply develop character/product lines that will appeal to otaku needs.

Let’s return to our examples from above. A Star Wars fan purchases merchandise as a way to participate in the grand narrative of that universe. You can’t own the Star Wars story, but you can buy a book or figure and in that way own something representative of the epic story. Here, you are being a human consumer. It’s the Star Wars narrative that motivates your purchase and gives meaning to the products you own.

However, you can only purchase Aeon Flux products as an animal. There’s no grand narrative that motivates you; it’s the character herself. Aeon has traits that you find attractive. Perhaps you admire her beauty, the fact she’s a spy, or her proficiency with weapons. You might then go on to buy similar characters, like other female spy characters or other brunette women proficient with guns. You’re purchasing figures/products because of a desire for characters of a certain type regardless of what series they appear in or if they are even part of a series.

Japanese Consumerism

Finally, Azuma sees otaku culture as being reflective of Japanese consumerism in general. Because of the unique nature of otaku culture, it’s easier to analyze their consumption patterns and the ideology behind those trends. Once you’ve extracted the philosophical model, then you can apply it to other subcultures and general Japanese culture.

What makes Azuma’s argument so persuasive is his knowledge of otaku culture. He understands otaku history. Furthermore, he has an expansive knowledge of anime shows, manga series, video games, and popular characters. He weaves into his argument illustrations drawn from such diverse knowledge. His analyses of Saber Marionette J (pp. 22,23), Di Gi Charat (pp. 39-47), the art of Takashi Murakmi (pp. 63-66), and novel games (pp. 75-86) are amazing. It feels like Azuma’s argument is built on thoughtful observation of and participation in otaku culture and not him trying to force otaku culture into a pre-existing philosophical mold. It’s a brilliant demonstration of how even ‘low culture’ has depth and layers.

Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals is a thought-provoking book. It’s dense at parts because of the complexity of the thought and not because the use of academic jargon. Azuma’s prose is lively and meant to reflect the writing more typical of journalists than scholars. The translators have done an excellent of preserving these qualities of the original.

Application to U.S. Superhero Fans

What amazed me was how relevant Azuma’s discussion is to modern US superhero fans. In fact, you can argue that DC and Marvel pioneered postmodern consumerism. The way both companies have handled their characters over the decades have conditioned fans to follow a character through changing writers, artists, storylines, powers, origin stories, and universe crises. It’s not uncommon to hear fans discuss their love for a character but their dislike for a particular story arc or the way the current creative team is handling the character.

DC has gone even one step further in that there are multiple coexisting narratives or continuities for a character. For example, look at Batman. There are at least four continuities that a fan can choose to follow. First, there is the narrative found in the comic books. Second, there is the continuity of the animated series from the 1990s. Third, the storyline of the live action films. Finally, the narrative of the current animated series. So a fan of Batman can now choose which continuity they find the most likeable and follow that narrative to the exclusion of the others. You can’t get a more perfect example of Azuma’s database animal consumerism where the character is what matters most, not the narrative.

For those looking to understand otaku culture or Japanese scholarship of otaku culture, this is a must read. Given the similarities between otaku culture and U.S. comic book fan culture, it also offers fresh insight there, too. It’s not a easy read, but it’s worth the effort. I would like to see University of Minnesota Press follow up with more of Azuma’s works. My hope is that American comic scholars will read and react to this book in their writings. Having this book in English provides a great opportunity for cross-cultural communication among scholars to promote a deeper, more nuanced understanding of fan culture universally.

(A complimentary copy for this review was provided by the publisher.)

10 Responses to “Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals”

  1. David Oakes Says:

    I am not sure that this is so much a “post-modernist” rejection of overarching narratives as much as a segmentation an “comoditization” of those narratives, driven by an increasingly Consumerist culture. That it happens to appeal to a new – defacto different – type of fan is secondary to the fact that it is being driven more by the corporations doing the selling that the fans doing the buys.

    Before you could tie a towel around your neck, jump off the roof, and *be* Superman. (Participation in the narrative.) Now you have to have the official Naruto [tm] Ninja Headband, or you aren’t really a fan. (Ownership of – and by – the character.)

  2. Hsifeng Says:

    Ed Sizemore Says:

    “Otaku is the term used for devoted Japanese fans of anime, manga, and video games.”

    Isn’t that just the way it’s used in English? The version I heard is that “otaku” in Japanese simply means an obsessed fan (even if an obsessed fan of fencing instead of manga) and “otaku” in English got narrowed down to a fan specifically of Japanese pop culture. It’s like the way “spaghetti” in Italian simply means noodles (even if ramen instead of vermicelli) and “spaghetti” in English got narrowed down to specifically Italian styles of noodle.

  3. Ed Sizemore Says:

    David, There is a section in the book where Azuma shows how this rejection of grand narratives started with fans and then was adopted by corporations, at least in Japan. Azuma shows how fan community began focus on characters over story setting. So someone might love Luke Skywalker and collect action figures, posters, trading cards, etc. of him and him alone without any regard to the Star Wars universe. They might then write stories about Luke Skywalker as a samurai, a high school teacher, a doctor, etc. They might make original figures of him dressed up in these new occupations. Corporations began to sell their own alternate world figures and merchandise of famous characters when they saw the market the fans had created for such items. It was the fans who first saw characters as independent marketable commodities long before the corporations. But Azuma also thinks that fans couldn’t have developed this perception outside of embracing the postmodern mindset, whether consciously or not. The modernist mindset sees a character so embodied in a given narrative that it can’t make sense of the character outside that narrative. I agree with you that in the US, postmodern consumerism seems to have started with the comic companies. So it’s an odd reversal of roles on this side of the Pacific. It’s this comparing how Japan & US fan communities and companies behave that I find so fascinating about this book.

    Hsifeng, It’s true that in Japan ‘otaku’ simply means an obsessive fan. It is applied to all kinds of individuals in Japan: gun collectors, manga collectors, train collectors, etc. For the purposes of the book Azuma uses a very specific definition of otaku. I’m just giving the definition that Azuma uses so we’re clear on the scope of his discussion.

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  5. Katherine Dacey Says:

    Ed, this is a very thoughtful and sophisticated analysis of Azuma’s work; you do a terrific job of using American pop culture to explain how Azuma uses the terms modernism and postmodernism in his work. From a scientific perspective, I think Azuma’s description of modernism is compelling; one need only look at the myriad ways in which the Victorians tried to make Darwinism a universal theory of animal and cultural evolution.

    I’m less persuaded when it comes to literary narratives, however. We’ve been extracting favorite characters out of context for years, tampering with grand narratives (happy endings for Shakespeare and Don Giovanni, anyone?), and doing violence to the integrity of narratives since the Elizabethan era. Not all of these exercises had a direct commercial application, but many certainly did, even if it didn’t translate directly into action figures or plushies.

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