The third and final installment of Matt Alt’s interview with popular author, academic, and super-fan Patrick W. Galbraith on the key controversies in otaku culture and his new book, Otaku Spaces.
|In Part One and Part Two of our interview with Patrick W. Galbraith, author of Otaku Spaces, we talked about how the otaku fit into “Cool Japan” and 21st century society, the pitfalls of “otakology,” and the fact that lolicon is not a new aberration but has always been part of the subculture.
This time we go deeper into that final point — why is there more social anxiety about otaku obsessed with little girls than ones obsessed with robots? And while we’re at it, why do anime companies push their fans to buy so much stuff?
OTAKU SPACES © 2012 by Patrick W. Galbraith and Androniki Christodoulou. Photographs reproduced by permission of the publisher, Chin Music Press
I get that modern day otaku have the same passion as before, but this argument avoids the issue that obsessing over robots and manga fits better with general consumerism in Japan than the moe otaku’s use of money and time on a pursuit that links more directly to their sexual needs. Isn’t this the root of the discrimination?
If I am understanding correctly, you think that interest in robots and technology is more normal?
It’s less about normalcy and more about attainability. A fascination with robots and spaceships is a fascination with things that we can’t have because they don’t exist. Moe involves a fascination with the lives and happenings of girls and young women, who, last time I checked, are real.
Robots and spaceships don’t exist? I think what you mean to say is that there are robots and spaceships that only exist in manga and anime. The fiction in science fiction. OK, the same way, robot maids, magical girls, angels, cat girls, and so on exist only in manga and anime. They are no more attainable than super robots, and exist only as fiction. I’m prepared to go even further. I don’t think that girls and young women exist in the same form in reality and fiction. We cannot forget that these are fictional characters, drawn and animated. No one is confused about the fictionality of bishōjo characters. They are attracted to fiction as such. We have to date had far too many misunderstandings about otaku because we assume that what they desire in the so-called two-dimensional world is the same what they want in actual reality, or the three-dimensional world. There is not a one-to-one relation between these things, so we need to understand the complexity of engagement with images on their own terms.
Let me get back to your point about attainability. In a country like Japan, where there are government slogans such as “living together with robots” (robotto tono kyōsei), technology is extremely close to everyday life. That is why I thought you meant that desire for robots is more normal than desire for bishōjo characters, which often have no basis in reality. At the same time, with robots, there is a gap between what people dream of and what’s available. This might inspire work in engineering or robotics to make the dream a reality, or consume enthusiastically to feel closer to the dream, to feed it. I have met some people who seem to support a theory that this is productive of actual engagements in the world. Ishizaki-san, who I interviewed for Otaku Spaces, is totally into robots and ended up working as a mechanical designer. But, then again, Ishizaki-san is also an avid player of bishōjo games! It isn’t easy to separate interests and oppose them.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that bishōjo media fulfills the “sexual needs,” immediate or otherwise, of fans. Pornography does that, and we should not confuse the two. I’m not sure that we can categorize it as bishōjo or moe anime, but in any case Haruhi Suzumiya is not pornography. It is a complex, character-driven story. Yes, she is cute, but let’s not stop the analysis at the level of the surface image. I thought that was the problem with moe fans! “They aren’t deep enough.” As critics, I hope that we don’t become that which we criticize.
Anyway, Haruhi is not a porn star — not even a human being. She is a drawing, a fictional character. A desire for Haruhi is not the same as wanking to a skin magazine, in that there is no body, no “money shot,” no climax, no sex — only the continuous movement of desire. Rather than fulfilling sexual needs, bishōjo media accelerates and intensifies desire for something other, something that does not exist. Bishōjo fans are romantics, perhaps even more devoted to their ideals than fans of giant robots. Unlike someone how can try to build a robot or mobile suit in physical, material reality, bishōjo fans can’t ever realize the ideal or dream. And I suspect that most don’t want to. Remember Honda and the two-dimensional character/wife, which can act as an alternative to human relationships.
Okay, sure. But if you take it to the logical extreme, doesn’t this essentially put relationships with a fellow human being on the same level of fantasy as, say, piloting a giant robot? I think that’s what rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
I see what you’re saying, but there’s no need to take things to the extreme. Manga and anime already offer us enough such scenarios! So, for the sake of argument, let me be more specific. I think that a series like Chobits, which depicts a romantic relationship between a boy and his computer, anthropomorphized as a bishōjo, is every bit as fanciful as piloting a giant robot. You could say that Chobits is at its core just about young love (boy meets girl) or is a parody of intimacy with technology, meaning that it is about “real life,” but that is really reductive. If we equate a robot girl or a bishōjo with an actual girl we are doing both a disservice. They are not the same, and we should not treat them as such. What rubs people the wrong way is not respecting the distinction.
I agree with you that the root of some of the discrimination against so-called moe otaku is likely the fact that their pursuit of pleasure in the two-dimensional world is “unproductive,” though it fuels consumption of media and material. Perhaps it is not “productive” for Japan and its future to have moe otaku around, as they disrupt the social reproduction of the nation/family. But saying that the mainstream, majority, or politically powerful in Japan are anxious about moe otaku is not the same as explaining why other fans have a problem with them. That’s a tough one, and we all have to think long and hard on it.
I’d like to pick at the idea of normativity a little more. Who is to say that it is more appropriate to dream of super robots than fighting girls? To dream of martial artists than magical girls? It seems that we may be drawn to violence a little too much. When we talk about a director such as Oshii Mamoru, for example, why do we always end up praising Ghost in the Shell and trivializing Urusei Yatsura?
I think it’s about relevance. For whatever it’s worth, I think Beautiful Dreamer is a great film, but Ghost in the Shell just felt more relevant to our times.
Beautiful Dreamer is a great film! For me, on a meta level, it draws attention to the endless loop and inescapablity of the “school festival” or pleasure space that is anime. Haruhi also did this during the brilliant “endless eight” arc. But more than his films, I was thinking about Oshii Mamoru’s work on the Urusei Yatsura TV series, which was a big hit with otaku.
On the surface, Urusei Yatsura is a bawdy comedy, but for those who care to watch the whole series carefully, the real appeal is the complexity, conflicts, and emotional depth of Lum in her tumultuous relationship with Ataru. More than the tiger skin bikini, I suspect that it was the appeal of Lum as a character that attracted fans and held their attention over the course of months, years and decades. That Oshii was able to adapt Takahashi Rumiko’s manga and reach so many people on an emotional level with the Urusei Yatsura TV series is every bit as much of an achievement as the realism and philosophical posturing of the Ghost in the Shell films. Preferences for film over TV in critical and academic circles aside, the valuation of Ghost in the Shell over Urusei Yatsura inside and outside the otaku community is telling, and speaks to the divisions between sci-fi and bishōjo fans I mentioned earlier.
We also seem to demand conflict in our stories. Consider the fact that the world of Magical Princess Minky Momo is one without enemies or bad people. The entire story is nothing more than a girl helping people find their dreams. What’s wrong with that? Think about when the protagonist of the film version of Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind saves her world from the “god-warrior” instead of, say, piloting it to defeat the enemy. I find this incredibly satisfying, if a little ham-fisted with the religious iconography.
So why insist on putting kids in the cockpit of war machines? Minmay sings for peace, though her song is perverted and used as a weapon, so why are we supposed to be more interested in dogfights and war than love and peace? By focusing only on the machines and confrontations in space, we seem to be missing so much of the internal struggles of the characters and the melodrama — it’s a soap opera, really — of their interpersonal relationships on the ground.
I will confess to fast-forwarding through Minmay’s concerts and Hikaru’s dithering over girlfriends to get to the battle scenes.
And that’s fine. But what I’m getting it is that some fans might be more interested in the concerts and human conflicts, and that’s fine, too. For those who say that representative works of anime today have “no story,” think of Miyazaki Hayao’s My Neighbor Totoro. Acclaimed as the “best last film of the Shōwa era” by Kinema Junpō magazine — and it has no story to speak of. Or at least no “grand narrative.” The director says that he would have been satisfied to depict nothing more than the excitement of a typhoon — nothing more than a child’s emotional response to a meteorological phenomenon. Imagine what kind of a film that would have been! Instead, he ended up focusing on what Thomas LaMarre calls “girl energies.” By minimizing the boy’s role in his stories, Miyazaki imagines “a series of minor adventures without grand design or teleology.” Are small adventures involving girls exploring the world and struggling emotionally somehow less valuable than grand adventures of boys saving the world or struggling against enemies? Totoro is moving in its depictions of small things — the joy of discovery, the power of imagination, the pang of loneliness. You become attuned to the characters and their moods. In this sense it is something like moe anime. Nothing happens. In this sense it is something like “atmosphere anime” (kūki-kei anime). And that is not to diminish it.
Why do we prefer robots destroying things? As LaMarre points out, it seems that male characters experience technology as a problem to be solved, something to be mastered or optimized. This leads to fetishism of technology and ultimate destruction. Female characters experience technology as a condition to be understood. This leads to salvation. Rather than fighting with and against technology, living with technology seems much more productive to me.
One of my favorite anime is Mahoromatic, which juxtaposes the everyday life of a robot maid with scenes of horrific violence from her past as a military weapon. I don’t think I’m alone in wishing she didn’t have to fight and finding myself shedding a tear as she is brutally beaten by her enemies. I wish that those quiet days in her idealized home didn’t have to end, which is why the anime works so well.
I won’t deny having a techno-fetishistic streak myself, but I question whether a fascination with giant robots equates into a fascination with destruction per se. It’s more about strength, protection, and becoming a hero.
Right. I don’t mean to imply that all giant robots or mecha shows are necessarily about war and destruction. It just seems that all too often technology is mastered and optimized to deal with problems, which results in violent conflict. LaMarre is suggesting that Miyazaki Hayao realized this in the early 1980s, which accounts for his shift to female leads as a way to imagine some other type of narrative and resolution. Maybe bishōjo media is rife with the “girl energies” that LaMarre speaks of, which is one reason to consider seriously its alternatives.
Another criticism of otaku culture has been that the companies are now just making money by forcing fans to buy lots and lots of products instead of focusing on making high quality series.
We hear a lot about this, don’t we? Especially since the figure boom in the late 1990s. But maybe we need some historical perspective. Marc Steinberg’s new book Anime’s Media Mix: Franchising Toys and Characters in Japan is a really good place to start.
Steinberg takes us back to 1963, when Tezuka Osamu’s Astro Boy first aired on Japanese television. This was the first weekly 30-minute animated TV show in Japan. It established the super-limited animation style that we recognize as “anime,” which is distinct from Disney, Toei, and Ghibli’s full animation. (Miyazaki Hayao, by the way, hates it when people call his stuff anime, and he blames Tezuka for the degradation of the moving image in Japan.) Tezuka’s curse, as people call it, was underselling his anime to make it attractive to broadcasters — who did not think anime in this form would be profitable, if even possible — and to pre-emptively undercut his competitors. Tezuka could do this because he was already a successful manga artist.
Steinberg estimates that Tezuka sold each episode of Astro Boy in Japan for ¥750,000, even though the actual cost of production of each was ¥2,500,000. This is why, from the beginning, the anime model that Tezuka established in Japan was dependent on licensing — both to foreign markets and for merchandising. Astro Boy became a hit, and was possible to produce, because of the national craze for Astro Boy stickers given away with Meiji Seika candies.
Sponsors and merchandising are crucial in anime. As you yourself have noted, Matt, robot shows in the 1970s were dependent on toy sponsors and, dare I say, sales. Yes, Mobile Suit Gundam changed the paradigm of robot narratives, but it only succeeded in shifting toy sales from children to adults. Today, with fewer children in Japan and less money to be made from foreign licensing due to digital piracy, anime depends on merchandise targeting adults.
The Japanese government estimated in a 2005 report that the market for licensed merchandise based on fictional characters is 10 times that of anime itself. But, in reality, this too is becoming less profitable for Japanese animators. Kubo Masakazu surveyed the anime scene for the 2005 government report, and notes that there were 72 weekly anime TV series in April, with 37.5 percent being new while only three series crossed the two-year threshold, which is in some ways crucial to success. A one season (13-episode) anime makes it very difficult for companies to release merchandise, because they might find themselves overstocked with unknown and unpopular character goods. It takes time to gauge the market and produce things. The high volume and fast turnover of series also limits the appeal of DVDs and Blu-ray Discs, because series are quickly forgotten amid a torrent of new material.
Kubo calls the shortening length of anime series and fast turnover a “death spiral.” He waxes nostalgic about Sailor Moon and Dragon Ball Z, but we do see similar long-run hits like Naruto, Bleach, and One Piece. The problem is the other 70 series that are on air. Can we really blame the producers of those series for targeting Japanese who actually do purchase merchandise and physical media? Maybe this is a death spiral of a different kind, as things become more insular — otaku targeting otaku in an accelerated and intense circuit that confuses and alienates mainstream and foreign audiences.
Yet if there is no money to be made from other markets anyway then we really don’t have a leg to stand on for criticism. So maybe digital piracy is yet another death spiral — foreign fans loving anime too much to wait for a localization and too up-to-speed thanks to the Internet to care about buying old series, circling the anime studios they love faster and faster and draining the life from them.
It sounds funny, but perhaps this is the perfect time to encourage otaku consumption! Of course you can be an otaku without consuming anything, which seems to be the source of many problems for the industry today. This is also another reason why Okada Toshio is fed up with fans today, who do not seem to be invested enough in the industry and the community to take responsibility for it. If you don’t pay for anime, it disappears. How much do you want it?
Maybe the trend toward digital consumption of disposable series and characters is one reason why it was so refreshing for me to meet the people I interviewed for Otaku Spaces. They were just so into their fandoms and devoted so much time and energy to them! If there is a criticism to be made, it is that they loved certain characters, series and media too much, buying into their fantasies to a fault, but that’s not a criticism that I want to make. I think that they are awesome! Their hobbies seemed to be a huge part of their lives, colonizing their inner spaces and personal spaces, and spilling out into public spaces.
This is another point that Steinberg makes, but he draws our attention to the mono komi, or “thing communication” that occurs in the anime media mix. Manga, anime, stickers, and toys all gave Astro Boy different movements and made him an intimate part of kids’ lives. “Thing communication” refers to the ways that people communicate with and through commodities, which is to say person-thing and person-thing-person communication, but — and this is Steinberg’s point — also thing-thing communication. These things were in dialogue with one another, creating a space of Astro Boy, each image and object acting as a tiny opening into that world. The fans of Astro Boy shared that world with the character and with one another. They actively “stickered” their physical surroundings to provide openings and to expand that world. That kind of intimacy with the character, series and between people just seems like what being a fan is all about. There are multiple overlapping and resonating worlds of consumption open to otaku these days. It is in hopes of inspiring readers to explore these other worlds that I wrote Otaku Spaces.