Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 2009.
Man, UMN Press had a landmark year in 2009, between this and Lamarre’s book. For the purposes of this blog, the nostalgia train just keeps rolling along, as this is another book that’s been with me since undergrad (senior year, I think, in this case). Because I know you care really hard about my academic memoirs at this point.
Azuma’s MUCH-discussed book (originally titled Dobutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai and published in 2001) may have been one of the first pieces of Japanese scholarship in translation that I’d encountered, though I’m positive I must be forgetting something from my first 3 years of undergrad. Certainly, it seems to be part of an emerging trend within fan studies and media studies of bringing more Japanese scholarship to the English-speaking world, a trend that I hope continues to pick up steam. So what does Azuma have to say about the widely-remarked, oft-maligned otaku? Let’s find out.
Rereading this book after a few years away from it, it struck me anew how it really feels like two different arguments grafted together. The first is one I can get behind: production of anime, manga, games, etc, is a recombinatory process in which atomized visual elements (glasses, blue hair, cat ears) are remixed to create something new. These visual elements carry affective weight (Azuma terms them moe elements, indicating that they trigger feelings of affection or investment), and content producers attempt to manipulate that weight to their advantage.
The second is that otaku consume these elements for their own sake, consume them as elements in an “animalized” circuit that completely forecloses any question of deeper meaning-making. Azuma draws this from Alexandre Kojeve, and if I’m guessing correctly, this basically amounts to a state of being that refutes Hegelian dialectics. There is no negation of the thesis to lead to synthesis and dialectical progress, only simplistic affirmation. The animalized otaku feels an affective need, which is then immediately filled through the database of moe elements. He paints a picture of otaku as almost compulsively drawn to interact with the abstract “database” of visual fragments that compose the media products they consume so avidly.
Can you tell yet which of these arguments I like, and which I don’t? Azuma’s argument that otaku consume affective fragments (essentially a counterpoint to Otsuka Eiji’s theory of narrative consumption in which otaku are drawn to these elements precisely because they enjoy making deeper meaning out of them), or more specifically that series are constructed with these fragments in mind, feels “truthy” to me after dipping my toe into the deluge of content that is produced every year in the anime industry. Character designs start to blend together, plots overlap, and I start to feel like I’m just seeing repetitions of the same basic database elements. (Who was it that said there are only 7 basic plots in the world?) Attention to the minutiae of character designs, in essence, is an intertextual methodology that focuses our attention on the elements of character that become the touchstones of evocative-ness (because “evocation” is irrevocably tied to D&D for me) in anime. As a means of reading anime texts beyond just their narrative content, this seems like a worthwhile endeavor.
It’s when Azuma gets to the pathologizing reading of otaku themselves that he loses me. The image of otaku as somehow quarantined from society, existing in “islands in space” (to quote Figal quoting Miyadai) and living life according to radically different logics than the rest of the populace feels extremely problematic to me. And I don’t think it’s just Azuma that does this. Saito Tamaki, whose Beautiful Fighting Girl (aka Sentou bishoujo no seishin bunseki) I read in the same undergrad class as this one, and the aforementioned Otsuka Eiji are guilty of the same thing, I think. Each, in an effort to recuperate the image of otaku following all the negative press they got after the Miyazaki Tsutomu trial, swings too hard the other way and privileges otaku too much, essentially turning them into “newtypes” that are alien to us normies. Not only is this insulting to otaku themselves (I assume, at least, that most otaku would not want to think of themselves as outside society, nor as animalized beings), it hamstrings the power of Azuma’s argument. If we accept that otaku are somehow ontologically separate from most of society, then we accept that whatever radical potential is contained within otaku practice is inaccessible to most of society. Even if we say that Azuma is simply arguing that otaku are basically the harbingers of what is to become the ubiquitous conditions of postmodern life, that they represent the future of everyone, then we still accept that culture will lose the ability to function at a level beyond instant gratification. Azuma’s book is very short, yet for such a slim volume, it presents a multitude of ideas, some good, others less so.
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