Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Otaku: The Gods of Consumerism

I heard a story once, about how once an otaku stood up to boast to Hideaki Anno of how much money he spent on anime. In response, Anno told the young man that he should use that money to continue his education. More people should have listened to Anno.

The otaku culture is spreading, gaining more and more converts in this day and age. There are manga and anime that celebrate it (the ever-popular Genshiken, being the most obvious example), and finally it has been recognized by the media and the Japanese public in general (and in the US as well - there's even an article in Wired about it: There's a good, economic reason for this. Otaku are the gods of consumerism, having formed a niche market so large and powerful that it dwarfs the GDP of many small nations. And this has grabbed people's (wearing business suits) attention.

Otaku has always seemed to have this synonymous relationship with the word "obsession." It's a lifestyle, really, that promotes as complete an immersive experience as possible, typically in the domains of anime/manga and video games. This is a pretty specific definition though, as otaku can be so broad as to describe anyone who spends ridiculous amounts of time on the computer. What business, and now media, has become interested in is the obsession that tends to accompany the otaku monicker.

This is worrying, because while the mainstream may be accepting otaku, they are accepting the wrong part of it. True, obsession is a typical characteristic, so typical in fact that it's what differentiates otaku from just a "fan," but that doesn't mean that it's the most important part of what it means to be an otaku.

I love anime - love it dearly. Watching characters grow, watching them overcome challenges, I love the connection that anime creates, and how that fosters a unique environment for learning. True - most anime only has merit as entertainment, but there are plenty of shows that challenge your mind and present you with the opportunity to confront real issues and real questions. Ghost in the Shell was one of the first mainstream anime in the US to display this attribute. Mamoru Oshii laced within the plot questions concerning humanity, the importance of identity, and the real issue of continual improvement. Miyazaki's films contain a common theme of maturation, of progressing from the self-centered thought processes of a child to being someone who interacts with others for the benefit of all.

It's the love for anime, a deep desire to impart the lessons learned within the jewels of medium that drive me as an otaku. I have my obsessive tendencies like anyone else. I watch more anime than can realistically be called healthy. However, what separates an otaku from a fan should be more than just the level of details that he's gleaned from a particular episode. There is nothing even remotely redeeming about being able to recite from memory the entire script of Love Hina. There is nothing remotely redeeming about having spent all of your college book money on anime. What is redeeming is taking something away, something that helps you grow as a person - that helps you reach a new level of maturity that you would not have reached without its influence.

That's what the business world, and people in general, don't see, and frankly it's what many otaku forget about as they continually strive to keep up on the new shows. When it's all said and done, what do we have left if we don't use our love for anime for something else? That's what Anno was getting at - that the otaku lifestyle as it is defined does not have intrinsic meaning. And sadly, things have worsened since he spoke those words to that young man. As it stands, otaku are a market analyst's dream: a group of people whose only purpose is to consume.

Note: I'm back. Finally. It's been over a month, and in that time I've been to three states, and two countries outside the US, which should help to explain the delay in posting. And now for this post...what the heck, right? I've just crticized both myself, and many of the people whose blogs I read avidly. That seems a bit hypocritical, if I do say so myself. However, I think it's something that should be said every once in a while. I know that it's not like everyone's just sitting on their butt doing nothing all day, but with the amount of time I've seen that people devote to anime, I don't see how they have time for much else (say, reading a book). The other thing that really frustrates me is that it's hard to talk about anything meaningful when it comes to anime - so many people seem to just want to talk about "who their favorite character is," or "what's the best show EVER?" There is very little real, meaningful discussion about what anime really touch us, why they do, and why that matters. I think the anime that really nails this issue on the head is Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, the Rurouni Kenshin OVAs. Almost everyone I know loves them, and touts them as works of art, masterpieces of the anime art form. But why do we say that? They've got great animation, a solid plot (if a bit simple), etc., but what is it that really connects us with the characters, and what is it about the loss that touches us? The themes of atonement and forgiveness resonate throughout the series.

Note 2: I've been doing some series posts, but it hasn't really been working. I've felt that I've moved away from the point of this blog, which is to touch on the deeper issues of anime that don't seem to be tackled all that often (or, in some cases, at all). This really isn't a typical anime blog, and it shouldn't read like one. I'm really trying to move away from series reviews (and as always avoid episode analysis like the plague) so that I can touch on some issues that I feel are actually important (such as, why is Gundam Seed Destiny so popular in Japan?). So expect more of this sort of thing throughout the year. Oh yeah, and I am now officially back on my "once a week" posting schedule.


At 3:48 PM, Blogger J.Valdez said...

I agree that people get carried away. It’s not totally unusual and it’s not exactly unique to the anime industry. The sci-fi niches all benefit from the same type of fanaticism. Even something as seemingly benign as Harry Potter has its “otaku.”

I think you know this already. There is a certain flavor of person who is compelled to fixate on a single subject. We use words like fanatic and otaku to describe not only them but their behavior. Words like depressed, lonely, antisocial, lost, and angry—to name a few—are used only with comedic effect.

>>”that the otaku lifestyle as it is defined does not have intrinsic meaning.”

Isn’t that what maturing is all about, finding meaning in ones existence? Much anime touches on the subject, “to prove my existence” is a common mantra of an anime protagonist. In societies that only value these people for the money they can provide…maybe they cannot see any other outlet to prove that they exist.

[That was a longer reply than I had anticipated. I’ll probably have to flesh this out into a related post.]

It’s nice to read a post that fires a few neurons. I’m going to start calling you Michael sensei from now on. ;) Nice to have you back.

At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually agree with you. Ever since I return from Japan, I've had a lot of thought about what I want to achieve in life. I realise that if I want to do this, I will have to forgo a little bit of my obsession. For example, I am starting to wonder about the point of blogging every single series that are out there. It's fun for sure but at the same time, it takes a lot of the time that I can use to do other things like learning new skills, studying a new course, going out with friends, applying for that new job that I've always wanted to do. This is why I've been thinking about cutting back on series that I cover.

At 7:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The real world has a lot to offer, but that's something a lot of fans either refuse to acknowledge or haven't yet learned to accept. Some have valid reasons, I'm sure, but I encounter just as many fans who, for all basic purposes, grouse about how worthless the real world is despite the fact they live comfortable, privileged lives that allow them to spend every last dime they make (or get from their parents) on Japanese cartoons. That's a mentality I'll never quite understand.

Then again, I'm old enough to "know better". I've had the good fortune to experience a lot of what the real world has to offer. And, even though I know things could always be "better", I also know it'll never come to be unless I work to make it happen. Give up on the real world, and the real world will just pass you by.

To be an anime fan and to live a meaningful life are not mutually exclusive aspirations. You can do both. As far as I'm concerned, there's nothing honorable in being a hikiomori or NEET, and it pains me to see Western anime fans embracing such a lifestyle under the delusion that's what it means to be "real".

At 10:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can't help but to agree with what you're saying, so I have really nothing to add except my own Christian spin on things.

However I do have a problem with your characterization of the Otaku. You're right that ultimately it is just a manifestation of materalism, and there is a, I dare say, spiritual dimension to it. However I think most "otaku" are well-rooted enough in reality to find it only a solace after a hard day of work. The pressure to become a productive member of society is only much higher in Japan than it is in the US. At least over here it isn't a super-terrible thing if you ended up on welfare and homeless.

Yes, it's escapism nonetheless, but it begs the question just what in Jeff's "real world" that isn't.

At 6:48 PM, Blogger Michael said...

Wow, glad to see so many thoughtful comments on this one.

j. valdez: Yeah, it's true that people tend to use "words like depressed, lonely, antisocial, lost, and angry" to describe our compatriots, which is what I've been frustrated about. Anime should be accepted as part of a normal life, rather than something that only people who buy into consumer culture can enjoy. And it's getting there, the only problem is that the wrong stuff is being accepted. I think that personally, in the end, I'd prefer that anime be seen in a similar vein as independent films - a bit quirky, but embedded with meaning. I know that's a bit idealistic, considering the breadth of anime shows available, but I would like that more than the current direction popular opinion is heading.

garten: Exactly - while I don't put up nearly the volume of posts that you do, I find it difficult to balance the amount of time I spend watching anime with the other things that I want to do. I'm young, but still, I look at the things that I've done that are worth mentioning, and they don't exactly fill up a notebook by any means.

Jeff: That was perfect - you summed up what I wanted to say in my post in about a quarter of the space.

omo: Being on welfare or homeless is fine...if you're doing something meaningful while you're on it. We could debate about what is "meaningful," but I'd say that we could all agree that, as it is typically defined, someone who falls into the Otaku category tends to not do anything meaningful. And that's the problem - most people who actually fall under the Otaku monicker aren't doing anything (whether productive, or not) except work to feed their habit. That's why Otaku started out with such a negative connotation in the first place. I love anime enough and watch enough of it to be considered an Otaku, but I don't think that I should be accepting the parts of the definition that are actually negative, and which are surprisingly being accepted by Otaku themselves and society.


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