Galbraith, Patrick and Androniki Christodoulou. Otaku Spaces. Seattle: Chin Music Press. 2012.
Otaku anthropologist and jealousy-inducingly prolific PhD student Patrick Galbraith teamed up with photographer Androniki Christodoulou and produced this volume that falls somewhere between photo book, anthropological field notes, and academic conversation about the relationship between otaku and space. The book is a relatively quick read, composed mostly of photos and interviews with otaku in their rooms. Will my review be similarly concise? Knowing me, probably not, but let’s find out!
It’s kind of hard to say that this book makes a sustained argument in the traditional academic sense of it, which is refreshing in a certain sense, but also presents a challenge to the researcher trying to put it in conversation with academic monographs. At the very least, we can say that this is another entry in the expanding bibliography of titles in defense of otaku, one of Galbraith’s ongoing projects. If I were to take a stab at a thesis, it would be something like, “Otaku have a special relationship to space, and especially private space.” We might even say that Galbraith’s working definition of otaku is one who creates a sense of personal identity centered largely on the material collected and curated in their private spaces, most often their bedrooms.
Galbraith never states such a definition outright, however, and “the definition” of otaku is something left up for grabs: “Are you an otaku?” is a question that comes up again and again in his interviews with 20 otaku, and he also consistently presses on the distinction his subjects see or don’t see between “otaku” and “collectors”. Otaku, in other words, is in the eye of the beholder, and this is one of the book’s strengths, in my opinion. It opens the boundaries of otaku identity beyond the (Western?) heuristic shorthand of “anime/manga nerd” to include hobbies such as sci-fi, the occult, figurines, and crafting (or what Silicon-valley trendsters might call “maker” activities). This, I think, is an important step in opening up the critical potential of otaku practice beyond anime and manga fandoms and seeing their application in other realms, even if it does venture close to making “otaku” an arbitrary label that can be applied or not to any given practice.
One way the book doesn’t really open up otaku-dom is in its gender imbalance. Despite a claim in the introduction that women have made up just as important a demographic for the otaku world (if not more so), the subjects interviewed are overwhelmingly male-identified (15 out of 20). It’s difficult to say why this is (no indication is given as to how exactly the authors came into contact with their subjects), but it does mean that the book is very male-leaning. This is only repeated in their section on “the experts,” which includes short discussions with Yoshimi Shun’ya and Morikawa Kaichiro (both men) and serve as handy summaries of the two scholars’ work related to otaku.
Visually, the photos feel just as much like they’re documenting sheer effusions of the material as they feel like portraits of individuals. In the staging of materialism (the introduction makes explicit that these photos were carefully arranged, rather than being candid), the human subjects become surfaces on which material culture is inscribed. In other words, they are positioned only in relation to their collections, and are always the only human in the frame (with the exception of the section “Otaku Places,” which reads rather like a travel guide for otaku who want to hit up all the meccas and includes photos and historical blurbs about Akihabara, Nakano Broadway, Otome Road, and others).
Otaku, then, frequently appear to be defined by material goods, with many photos looking as though the subject is drowning in a sea of manga, toys, or other goods. Personally, I don’t know that this is the best way to think otaku, since what it doesn’t really allow them to be (despite some allusions within the interview texts) are people who are also socially connected individuals with complex interiorities. Maybe the best strategy is the one implied by the book itself: give up on the otaku label and simply use a term like “fan”, “collector”, and so on that is already connected with wider practice. Or, alternatively, go back to the fact that leads off so many origin stories of otaku: the term “otaku” is inherently relational, serving as a second-person metaphor. When did that relation drop out of the critical field of view?
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