electronic journal of contemporary japanese studies

Book Review 5 in 2009
First Published in ejcjs on 31 October 2009

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Connected by Characters

Animating the Postmodern Community


Timothy Iles

Associate Professor
Department of Pacific and Asian Studies
University of Victoria

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Azuma, Hiroki (2009) Otaku: Japan's Database Animals (Translation of Dōbutsukasuru posutomodan: otaku kara mita nihon shakai, Tokyo: KōGendai Shinsho, 2001) trans. Jonathan Abel and Shion Kono, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, xxix, 144 pages, ISBN 978-0-8166-5352-2

Otaku is a word which almost everyone interested in contemporary Japan has heard, but despite the pervasiveness of this term, academically critical studies in English seeking to explain, situate, and engage the myriad connotations behind it have been remarkably slow to emerge. Books and articles which have dealt with this term typically focus on the anime and manga series, artists, and characters for which otaku―people, predominantly young, predominantly male, who devote tremendous amounts of time, energy, and money to pursue the objects of their obsessionshave conceived an enduring passion. While there is certainly validity in examining the role of animated film or print media in Japan as a consumer product capable of attracting fervent fans, as demonstrated by, for example, the work of Sharon Kinsella or Susan Napier, these studies miss out on the underlying implications of otaku culture and its influence on, and reflection of, Japanese social conditions in general. That there is both influence and reflection is difficult to deny, while also being difficult to qualify and measure. This, of course, accounts for the relative scarcity in English of works examining otaku in any particular depthsimply conceptualising the parameters for such a study is a daunting task, given the potential for the term to spill into a seemingly boundless critique of contemporary Japan. Precisely for this reason, however, and understanding that to study otaku is to study Japan from a vibrant, evolving, and vital perspective, is the arrival of this translation of Azuma's work so welcome.

Azuma himself is well aware of the inextricable overlap between the otaku world and that of Japan proper. As he has it, 'At this juncture' any attempt to consider seriously the contemporary conditions of Japanese culture must include an investigation of otaku culture' (p. 4). This is because 'the investigation of otaku culture in Japan amounts to more than a mere account of a subculture. In fact, it involves reflection on the issues of Japan's inability to come to terms with war defeat, the American cultural invasion of Japan, and the distorted conditions brought about through modernisation and postmodernisation' (p. 24). The potential for a study of otaku to exceed its bounds becomes immediately apparent here, but so too do the rich possibilities implicit in this particular aspect of contemporary Japan. Otaku history is the history of a technologically and economically mature Japan. Azuma states boldly that he is 'interested' in viewing a cross-section of this history, pulling out the relations between transformations in otaku culture and changes experienced in the rest of society' (p. 6).

The method by which this work accomplishes its goal is appropriate and effective. It consists of a brisk discourse on the history of otaku, whom Azuma categorises historically into three distinct generations; an equally brisk examination of postmodernity in the Japanese context; and a more 'practical' third chapter offering thoughts on the function of 'multiple personalities' in 'how the postmodern world exists on the surface level and on the aesthetics that govern the works in circulation there' (p. 96). Each chapter is a self-contained exploration of its topic, but the effect of all three is cumulative. Taken together, these three chapters amount to a logical discussion of postmodernity as embodied in the habits and attitudes of a group of marginal though surprisingly representative consumers of Japanese mediathe otaku. As Azuma says, 'I wish to offer my thesis' that the essence of our era (postmodernity) is extremely well disclosed in the structure of otaku culture' (p. 6). The otaku thus emerge as exemplars, after a fashion, of the essence of the contemporary era.

Azuma offers his thesis to a general readership who may or may not be centrally concerned by the issue of otaku culture, and he does so, explicitly, 'simply as a tool for them to come to terms with the world and comprehend it from their respective positions' (p. 6). In this he establishes his observations as both mediatory and authoritative, while recognising that he stands outside of otaku culture per se.

The argument throughout this remarkably accessible text is that otaku respond, through their consumption of the media to which they are attracted, to the fundamental pattern of contemporary consumer culture, wherein such issues as authenticity or derivation matter less than the correspondence of the commodity to the 'double-layer structure of the simulacra and the database' (p. 62). Azuma uses this structure as a representation of the postmodern, and thus places postmodernity at the heart of his argument. He defines this at the outset of his discussion, to justify both his inclusion of it within otaku culture and his equation of the otaku with the conditions of the greater social sphere around him. It is within his definition of postmodernity, however, that the general nature of Azuma's study reveals itself to run the frequent risk of oversimplification. As he writes,

Thirty to forty years ago, the fundamental conditions that determined the constituents of culture changed within late-capitalist societies of Japan, Europe, and America. Consequently, this change was accompanied by transformations in many areas of cultural production. For example ... politics and literature lost their lustre; and the notion of the avant-garde disappeared. Our society is situated in the aftermath of this massive rupture; thus, the current cultural conditions cannot simply be positioned as direct offshoots from fifty or one hundred years ago. For example, the current state of popular entertainment novels, dominated by genres of mystery, fantasy, and horror, cannot be understood as direct offshoots of modern Japanese literature. Not only experts in the field, but anyone who has even half seriously come into contact with contemporary culture can grasp, I think, a sense of rupture. Within the fields of contemporary critical thought, this broadly held intuitive sense of rupture is referred to as 'postmodernity' (pp. 7-8).

Despite what at root we may accept as a workable starting point for a definition of postmodernity, Azuma's characterisation of artistic trends, which in the contemporary period are united by the specific stylistic features he claims to be 'ruptures' from previous ones, is extremely problematic for its simplicity. It is also disturbing for its historical inaccuracy, and its elision of demonstrable movements in literature and artJapanese and otherwisededicated to 'mystery, fantasy, and horror', for example, which predate the contemporary period by many tens of years.

This is unfortunate because, beyond the initial oversimplification of historical process, Azuma's conception of the 'database' behind contemporary consumer productsspecifically those which fuel otaku obsessionsis an extremely useful model with which to comprehend postmodernity. His discussions of the ways in which otaku draw from a 'database' (purely figurative, for Azuma of course does not imply that such an official structure actually exists) of elements which artists combine into their characters, thus creating objects capable of arousing the so-called kara-moe or 'character lust' that mark the 'true' otaku, is a powerfully evocative representation of the basis for the Baudrillardian simulacra which define the postmodern age. This database-model handily explains the acceptance of the simulacrum and relative unimportance of an 'original' or 'authentic', narrative-driven artifact in postmodern consumer culture. 'The originals and the derivative works are both simulacra, and there is no fundamental difference between them' (p. 63), Azuma argues, suggesting that because the importance of narrative has given way to the primacy of the 'moe-elements' ('lust-inspiring-elements') which constitute the character, the authenticating stratum of the narrative (or even the grand narrative which arches over a culture) has vanished into the database of components from which artists and fans alike draw. As Azuma points out, 'instead of narratives creating characters, it has become a general strategy to create character settings first, followed by works and projects, including the stories' (p. 48). What is 'central' now is the set of elements which designate a character as suitable for fan attractionthe narrative, grand or not, is secondary to the database. As Azuma terms this condition, we now witness the primacy of the 'grand nonnarrative' (p. 38) as the defining feature of contemporary consumption.

This is Azuma's most significant contribution to understanding postmodernity. He engages Japanese scholars of postmodernity, most notably Ōtsuka Eiji, to build upon their work and offer a persuasive encapsulation of current theoretical considerations of this oft-mishandled term. Most importantly, his argument very effectively accounts for a range of artistic practices which, if divorced from the 'database model' which he proposes, appear either incomprehensible or else disturbingly mercenary. In relation to this model, however, the patterns of consumption and artistic creation which he describes emerge as not seemingly inevitable reactions to the present age, but as practices capable of empowering the consumer to participate in the production of alternative narratives.

As an argument, Azuma's text is impressive, but we must also consider this work as a translation. In this, the efforts of Jonathan Abel and Shion Kono are admirable. The English text reads very well, with an accuracy that is both precise and natural. They have avoided a very common mistake of translators of academic works to 'over-translate' the level of their version, changing the tone of the original. This is an issue which interferes with the reader's interaction with the author's idiosyncraciesgranted, difficult in translation, but therefore something which translators in general should not aggravate by inflicting their own 'voices' onto the material for which they are conduits. The translators here present their material with an impressive humility, allowing much of Azuma's own tone to come through as directly as possible. Given that Azuma writes for an intelligent though general audience, his Japanese avoids much of the convolutions so popular amongst theoreticians. Abel and Kono have maintained the relative clarity of Azuma's prose and allowed his ideas to emerge in a refreshingly open, enjoyable style. The ease with which the texts reads is a definite advantage to the persuasiveness of the argumentand a testament to the skill and care with which the translators have worked.

This is a highly valuable work for a range of readers, scholarly and otherwise. Its topic permits the argument to move over a variety of issues, from anime and manga to consumer culture and even to international relations and modern history, while remaining focussed on the people who provide the work's central analytical core: the otaku who, as Azuma has convincingly shown, stand as intimate representatives of contemporary Japan. It is ironic in some ways that a work purporting to examine a 'peripheral' aspect of social structure reveals that aspect to be representative of the whole, but this irony is part of postmodernity's power to create a structure from fragmentsand fragments from a structure. The otaku who stand, apparently outside the mainstream, as avatars of the Japanese consumer in fact play an important role in qualifying the nature of postmodern consumption. Azuma's argument in turn plays an important role in demonstrating to non-Japanese researchers the nature of the direction enquiries into Japanese postmodernity will take to achieve a measure of understanding.

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About the Author

Timothy Iles is Associate Professor of Japanese Studies at the University of Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, where he teaches Japanese culture, cinema, and language. He has an MA from the University of British Columbia in Modern Japanese Literature, and a PhD from the University of Toronto, also in Modern Japanese Literature. He has taught courses on Japanese literature, theatre, culture, and cinema in Canada and the United States, and has published articles on those subjects. He is also author of Abe Kobo: an Exploration of his Prose, Drama, and Theatre (Fuccecio: European Press Academic Publishers, 2000), and The Crisis of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Film (Brill, 2008).

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Copyright: Timothy Iles
This page was first created on  31 October 2009.

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