Book Review – Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

Marc Steinberg.  Review of Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals.  By Azuma Hiroki.

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009.

Japanese Postmodernity Reconsidered

Marc Steinberg

Is it possible to say anything truly new about the postmodern? Is it possible to make any contributions to a discourse on postmodernity that has been so thoroughly explored, theorized, argued over and regurgitated in Anglo-American as well as Japanese public discourse?

Azuma Hiroki’s Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals replies with a resounding “yes.” Despite the term “postmodern” being rather moribund within the Japanese critical sphere at the time of its original 2001 publication, Azuma single-handedly brings the problem of postmodernity back to the fore through an engaging and inventive analysis of otaku culture. It is a great service to everyone – from academics to fans, Japanese culture aficionados to casual readers, from scholars and students of Japanese media studies, literary studies, critical theory and fan studies – that Jonathan Abel and Shion Kono have offered us their 2009 translation of Azuma’s text, published by University of Minnesota Press. This review will offer a brief critical overview of the book and its importance in the Japanese critical space of the 2000s.

As the original and translated titles imply (the Japanese title is Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai, literally, The animalizing postmodern: Japanese society as seen through otaku), Azuma makes the study of otaku his point of departure for exploring Japanese postmodernity. Otaku are those avid fans of anime, manga, computer games and their wider media circulation. The term is as current in the English language sphere as it is in the Japanese, and bears little of the stigma attached to it as recently as a decade ago. If the term otaku has undergone a massive revaluation since its nadir in the mid-1990s when it was equated with pedophilia and perversion, it is in part because of the work of writers like Azuma, who ventured to legitimate otaku as an object worthy of critical reflection. Otaku, Azuma argues, are at the forefront of Japanese postmodernity, and taking a close look at their consumption patterns, their attitudes towards narrative, and their structure of desire provides insight into the present era.[1]

The novelty of Otaku comes from the object of the study – otaku – as well as the questions the author poses about the postmodern. The two principal characteristics of the postmodern as Azuma defines it are relatively standard ones. The first comes from the classic work of Jean-François Lyotard and states that postmodernity sees the “decline of the grand narratives” of progress, enlightenment, and reason that formerly united a group of people into a unified whole. The second Azuma borrows from the other pillar of postmodern theory, Jean Baudrillard: the proliferation of derivative works, copies without originals, or “simulacra.” The significance of this book lies in taking these two rather stereotypical assessments of postmodernity and posing two new questions, which Azuma answers through an analysis of post-1995 otaku culture which “beautifully reflects the social structure of postmodernity”: (1) how do simulacra increase?; (2) “what becomes of the humanity of human beings” in a postmodern world? (29) The answer to the first comes in the concept of the database; the answer to the second lies in the thesis of animalization.

Azuma develops the concept of the database through his engagement with Ōtsuka Eiji’s analysis of “narrative consumption.”[2] In a 1989 essay, Ōtsuka had suggested that consumption of goods within the anime and manga worlds functioned through the consumption of small narratives or fragments in order to access the grand narrative or totality that lay beneath them. Accessing the grand narrative would allow consumers eventually to create their own narratives, in the form of fan production, or secondary production. In what is both one of the more important and one of the most questionable moves of the book, Azuma equates Ōtsuka’s use of the term “grand narrative” with that of Lyotard, and proceeds to argue that in otaku culture post-Evangelion, what otaku consume are not small narratives but “moe-elements” (character elements such as bunny ears or green hair, ways of speaking, even narrative tropes [42]). These moe-elements are affective nodes, elements that ignite the consumer’s desire, or need. Underneath thesemoe-elements is no longer a grand narrative, but rather the database, or “grand nonnarrative.” Otaku consumption, argues Azuma, is governed not by narratives small or grand, but by the non-narrative database that dictates what kind of moe-elements or simulacra circulate – and affect consumers – at a given moment. As with much of Azuma’s work, the double-layer structure is key here, wherein simulacra/moe-elements/characters are at the surface, and the database/grand non-narrative lies in the depths.

Azuma draws two diagrams, which appear in multiple iterations, to illustrate this state of affairs. The first diagram represents the structure of visibility, narrative and power of the modern era (32, 55, 60, 106), and bears witness to the influence of psychoanalysis on Azuma’s work. It is essentially a reworking of the diagrams on the visual field and the constitution of the viewing subject by the impersonal gaze that Jacques Lacan presents in The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis.[3] In brief, in Azuma’s diagram we see how the subject, though the consumption of small narratives, is in turn determined by the single, unitary grand narrative that lies beneath them. The shift to what Azuma calls the “postmodern world image” or the “database model” sees a proliferation of information at the deep level of the database, and the rise of an active “reading” subject who picks out the simulacra of interest (33, 55, 62, 107). The modern world image essentially corresponds both to Lyotard’s vision of modern grand narratives as unifying ideologies, and, very roughly speaking, to the formation of the modern subject as conceived by Lacan. With postmodern database consumption comes an entirely different kind of subject, however, purportedly eclipsing that given to us by psychoanalysis. Here the subject is no longer in the presence of a transcendental Other (or even, at times, by an “other” person), and is therefore no longer even constituted as a human subject. Rather, and here Azuma brings Hegelian philosopher Alexander Kojève’s thesis on animalization into play, the consumer is merely an animal-like being that seeks to fulfill its needs. Unlike desires,which can never be fully satisfied, needs can be sated, whether by pornographic images or moe-elements. This satisfaction of needs can occur without the necessity for social interaction or communication, and therefore without the social interaction that makes humans human. Indeed, Azuma claims, in one of the more entertaining passages of the book, that: “the otaku behavioral principle can be seen as close to the behavior principle of drug addicts. Not a few otaku tell a heartfelt story that, having once encountered some character designs or the voices of some voice actors, that picture or voice circulates through that otaku’s head as if the neural wiring had completely changed. This resembles a drug dependency rather than a hobby.”(88)

This is a provocative passage, no doubt, and highlights Azuma’s rather short and underdeveloped presentation of his animalization thesis (one of the weaker elements of the book). Yet this does point to an element sometimes downplayed in Azuma’s account of otaku postmodernity: there is a power structure at work here, even if it is diffuse. Exiting modernity does not mean simply leaving the confines of grand narratives to a land of freedom and (drug-induced) happiness. The database is accompanied by new forms of control, and its own model of power. In fact it is precisely this new model of power that comes to the fore in Azuma’s immediately subsequent work, his widely read “Jōhō jiyūron” (Theory of information freedom) serialization in the journal Chūō kōron. Here Azuma developedthe concept of “environmental power” that would inform the follow-up volume to Otaku, published in 2007 as Geemuteki riarizumu no tanjō: Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan 2 (The birth of gameic realism: The animalizing postmodern 2.[4]

Otaku ends with a challenge: “This book was written to create a moment in which great works such as [Yu-No] could be analyzed and critiqued, without distinctions such as high culture versus subculture, academism versus otaku, for adults versus for children, and art versus entertainment. The development from this point is left to each reader.” (116) Indeed, Azuma’s most lasting feat in the writing of this book was to create a discursive milieu in which popular culture and otaku and other subcultures could be analyzed in a serious, theoretical manner. And the author has actively fostered the development he hoped for through his work at interdisciplinary centers for study (such as GLOCOM, where he held his “ised” research group), and the creation and stewardship of magazines such as Shisō chizu (Thought map). Yet this discursive milieu is also, unsurprisingly, characterized by some of the weaknesses we find in this book: a tendency toward excessive periodization, or demarcating periods into smaller and smaller blocks of time; the tendency to ignore historical precedent and continuities in favor of the unilateral declaration of novelty (how different, for instance, are moe-elements from of literary or filmic genres?); a boys’ club mentality that privileges male otaku as the site of analysis, and downplays if not ignores gender or sexual difference; a looseness of writing and lack of rigor that comes in part from Azuma’s market-driven understanding of critical inquiry whereby high sales volumes replace theoretical precision as the model for critical thought; and a tendency towards the slotting of all of culture into dualistic categories (or “layers”) that pervade this book and most of Azuma’s work since.

That said, Azuma’s work, and this book in particular, has been key to the vibrant discursive milieu of Japan of the 2000s, and remains one of the most important critical and conceptual works on Japanese otaku. It has been the subject of critical engagement within English language scholarship, such as in Thomas Lamarre’s The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation. Yet more work remains to be done. Happily, with the translation of this book, the translations of shorter pieces undertaken in Mechademia, and with the recent release of Saitō Tamaki’s Beautiful Fighting Girl, the English language reader is now privy to some of the landmark works in Japanese criticism of the 2000s.[5] One can only hope that this work of translation will continue unabated.

A final word should be said about this translation, then. While one could occasionally quibble over the choice of terminology – “multimedia” doesn’t sit well with me as a translation of “media mix,” for instance – this is overall a very readable and well-translated work. In this sense the translators have very much followed the spirit of the work, which was intended to be general–audience, and relatively jargon–free, as Azuma points out in his “Preface,” and as the translators note in their informative, critical, and very useful “Introduction.”(viii; xix) The translators have also added an extensive series of footnotes that provide background on certain books, events or people mentioned by Azuma, and on certain terminological peculiarities in the original work. Indeed, I would hazard to guess that Azuma may wish to add some of these notes back into later editions of the original Japanese itself.

[1] Otaku are by no means a homogeneous group of people, and Azuma’s first move is to suggest that we think of three generations of otaku: those who were born around 1960, those who were born around 1970, and those born around 1980 and came of age around 1995, with the explosive appearance of the television series and franchise, Evangelion. The focus of this book is on the third generation of otaku.

[2] See Ōtsuka Eiji, “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative,” trans. Marc Steinberg, Mechademia 5 (2010): 99-116.

[3] Jacques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998), 91, 106.

[4] “Jōhō jiyūron” was republished in Azuma Hiroki, Jōhō kankyō ronshū: Azuma Hiroki korekushon S (Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2007). See also Azuma Hiroki, Geemuteki riarizumu no tanjō: Dōbutsukasuru posutomodan 2(Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2007).

[5] Saitō Tamaki, Beautiful Fighting Girl, trans. J. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).