Books: Otaku & Imagination

December 12, 2019 · 3 comments

By Jonathan Clements.

db44dec851015dcc18ef6678844c9542Patrick W. Galbraith’s Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan begins with an advert that depicts a man who is, in the words of Lawrence Eng, a “reluctant insider”, a slave of the rat-race who has an ace up his sleeve. Back in his bachelor pad, he has a virtual girlfriend who prods him awake, sends him off to work with a smile, and welcomes him home with magical words that make him feel like he belongs.

He chooses this set-up because it not only encapsulates the stereotype of the otaku, but of the mainstream media that panders to him. Is this lonely figure an “otaku”…? Or have we just wandered into a minefield by even calling him lonely, assuming he’s a man, and assuming he’s single…?

Galbraith wades into the phenomenon that was labelled as “otaku”, tracking its origins to the infamous series of schmuck-baiting columns in Manga Burikko magazine, in which the magazine’s own readers, men who liked shojo comics, were taunted for taking things too far. He deals with old saws such as the claim that otaku are not interested in “real” women – a claim that not only belittles them, but immediately implies that otaku cannot be women. There’s some great material here, not least the comment by Moto Hagio that the mainstream, nuclear family was itself “an illusion that many took to be a reality”, and that her explorations of what we would now call queer themes was an exercise in theoretical alternatives.

978-1-4780-0629-9_prInevitably, there is some cross-over in terms of resources and material with Debating Otaku in Contemporary Japan, an excellent anthology which Galbraith co-edited for Bloomsbury in 2015, and which far too few self-professed pop-culture experts have read. But it also bears fruitful comparison with another book published this year, Teri Silvio’s Puppets, Gods and Brands, which uses different material to reach similar conclusions. Both of them are, in Galbraith’s words, notes “towards an anthropology of imagination,” and are sure to provoke a whole swathe of student essays in years to come. Most crucially, Galbraith’s account is eminently approachable by newcomers to academic writing – the horrors and impenetrabilities of certain theorists are present, but deftly confined in to the footnotes where they won’t ruin a good read.

Already, Galbraith has made it abundantly clear that “otaku” (a term which he insists on putting in scare quotes, where it belongs) is a label that cannot possibly encompass the sectors to which it is already being applied. But this has been part of his point all along – that the word has been ill-defined even by people who call themselves otaku, and that hence its application in the mainstream is often a self-fulfilling prophecy of head-shaking and revulsion, and in fan publications as a badge of honour that brooks no dissent.

In the interests of simplicity and clarity, Galbraith prefers to present the fight over otaku largely as a bipolar struggle between anime/manga fans and the media, but as Otaku Marketing demonstrated, there is a third team playing on the same field – the companies that hope to make money from the otaku, that define and treat them in a different way. Galbraith comments that critics take from otaku writings a confirmation of whatever it is they want to see. Even though he describes the phenomenon with nuance and intelligibility, I foresee many a reader coming away nodding that, yes, 120 million Japanese people plainly are all perverts, or desperately isolated worker-drones who talk to imaginary girlfriends. But, he points out, gravure magazines since the 1970s have played up to the idea of virtual dates with girls who stare into the camera as if simpering at the reader. He introduces two Miyazakis – Hayao, the future director, reduced to tears by his emotional reaction to the lead character in Tale of the White Serpent (Hakujaden), and Tsutomu, the child murderer, both of them proto-otaku, after a fashion, both somewhere on a continuum.

I would argue that the continuum extends into areas wherein academia dares not tread, beyond the world of hug-pillows and dating sims into the informal economy of actual prostitution, not necessarily in terms of otaku brothels, but in the way that the visible manifestations of otaku culture echo the economics and politics of Japan’s black economy. Galbraith alludes to this himself, dragging a bunch of businessmen along to a maid café where they are aghast at the behaviour around them, but also seem to recognise it as a carnivalisation of the sort of thing that goes on at the average hostess bar, with which they are all more familiar, and of which they seemingly approve.

Not for the first time, Galbraith’s search for honest answers gets him into hot water. Toshio Okada has no trouble defining moe (“an affective response to fictional characters”) in print, but swiftly grows ratty with Galbraith when asked to expound at length about it.

“There is an expression in Japanese, macchi pompu, which means to set a fire and pretend you are a firefighter to get credit for putting it out. Moe is like that. There is no fire besides the one we started ourselves and poured oil on. It is simply the Orientalism of Europeans and Americans thinking that Japan possesses something special.”

Imagine if the Japanese had simply given a name and a label to a universal human yearning for connection, rendered into a commodity by the transformations of late twentieth-century media. Imagine a world where people online trilled excitable comments about superheroes and bought merchandise that proclaimed their loyalty to a sports team. Galbraith follows this idea down the rabbit-hole with a discourse on the evolution of the pin-up girl, that original icon of unconditional love, contrasting the real-world celebrity Agnes Lum with the bikini-clad alien who was surely intended as a satire on her popularity, Lum from Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura.

It is then only a short step from the fanboy excitement over Lum to the worship of Rei Ayanami in Neon Genesis Evangelion, at least part of the hysteria for whom Galbraith rightly ascribes to the inauguration of the Gainax online message board in 1995. Shyly, his coverage of Rei as a character avoids mentioning an important plot spoiler in Evangelion, which would have helped make his point more forcefully for him. After all, like the Lolita girls of many a Cream Lemon video in the 1980s, she is effectively re-settable.

465_dunst_2983742423Later chapters chronicle Galbraith’s personal assimilation into the fanboy shopping district of Akihabara, where for a while he famously became the go-to guide for foreign tourists and for media film crews in search of a cheap punchline. “I was part of things,” he shrugs in a special anthropology gag, “which I take to be a necessary component of participant observation.” This gives him a front-row seat on the sudden focus on otaku habits as some sort of cultural export, as government policy wonks try to muscle in on a past-time that they have previously ridiculed. There’s fascinating account here of the subsequent conflict over Akihabara, as some tried to welcome the otaku, and others tried to push them out, while a third group of faux-otaku tried to capitalise on all the through-traffic. Cool Japan, warned one commentator, risked becoming Porno Japan, while one wag observed that the police presence in harmless Akihabara was now larger than in gangster-controlled Kabukicho.

As Shinji Oyama pointed out in a controversial lecture in Edinburgh in 2012, the Cool Japan propagandists wanted to have their cake and eat it. Galbraith cites a Visit Japan brochure that includes photographs of a supposedly representative Akihabara otaku parade that, at the time it was held, was the subject of complaints from local residents. I would suggest another corollary, here, which is that a lot of this discussion avoids the fact that “imagination” is in short supply if the best you can do is a story about a schoolgirl who is transported to another world where her smartphone has magic powers and her cat can talk. Galbraith mounts a persuasive argument about otaku, but as for “imagination”, I sense a disconnection between the early chapters, which invoke awesome creators like Moto Hagio and Rumiko Takahashi, and later chapters, for which otaku behaviour exists in an anonymous, out-of-focus mosh-pit of squeaky-voiced cartoon slave-girls. But Galbraith is not assigning an objective quality to “imagination” – rather, he is using it in a particular fashion that he is transparent about from his very first page. He begins his book with a quote from Philip Boehm: “Imagination is the key to empathy, and if we’re not able to imagine people’s lives, then our empathy diminishes.”

I don’t know about you, but I think it’s all totally worth it as long as the end result is Kirsten Dunst, dressed as a schoolgirl witch, singing “Turning Japanese” (a song about wanking), while dancing down a Tokyo street. “No sex,” as she points out, “no drugs, no wine, no women, no fun, no sin, no you, no wonder it’s dark.” Galbraith has immense fun with this image, as concocted by artist-provocateur Takashi Murakami and director McG, asking us to consider who was really trolling whom by this point.

Galbraith finishes with a chapter on maid cafés, using them as a call-back to his opening scene, with an analysis of the rote greeting spoken at the door. “Is this your first time coming home?” It recalls the homespun comfort of the virtual girlfriend, and of the yearning for belonging of Evangelion – which, like the litany of farewells and greetings that begins this book, constantly returned to a performance of homecoming. For Galbraith, they are manifestations of anime/manga stereotypes made real.

Galbraith’s conclusion is not a conclusion. It introduces a number of new concepts and subjects, as if to say that this is a book that could go much longer and deeper if anyone wanted to cross his palm with silver. But that’s a pretty good way to end a discussion of an ongoing phenomenon. “While there are those that take ‘otaku’ and ‘Japan’ for granted,” he writes, “I hope that this book makes room for future studies of contingent articulations in the ongoing struggle for imagination.”

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan is published by Duke University Press.


  • Avatar for Carl


    December 27, 2019 1:29 am

    Dear Jonathan, Thank you very much for your review of Otaku and the Struggle for Imagination in Japan; I'm certainly going to get a copy. I think your remarks on the fruits of "imagination" in otaku fare are well taken. I remember being floored when I came across Ryuusuke Hikawa citing a remark by Okada about a certain anime: "This is not a work of art, but a commodity," for the anime was Gunbuster. It was his own anime, but he understood and acknowledged its nature, and that it was a choice distinct from other possibilities of expression. Otaku can be artists in the ideal sense--someone who communicates discernment and insight through their work--but for that to be possible they need to know themselves and what they are doing. Royal Space Force was a work of the otaku as artist; Gunbuster, which shared largely the same principal staff, was a work of the artist as otaku. The aspiring astronaut who gets to space through hard work and guts could, after all, be a description of the protagonist of either work. But one anime is an exercise in imagination, and the other is a triumph of wish-fulfillment; concepts that might intersect but which aim for vastly different destinations. Over the course of their long history, people have placed different markers to divide the "old" from the "new" GAINAX, and yet I feel the most dramatic switch they ever made was between their first and second professional works.

    • Avatar for Jonathan Clements

      Jonathan Clements

      December 30, 2019 10:34 am

      Oh dear, what does it say about me that I like Gunbuster a smidgen more than Honneamise!? I have been outed as a fanboy.

  • Avatar for Carl


    January 4, 2020 12:50 pm

    There's nothing wrong with that--I too am a fanboy; no, I'd go further, and say I'm that dread term of discourse, an otaku ^_^ Gunbuster is almost certainly more *likeable* than Honneamise. I'm not sure how it is in the UK, but in the United States there is a simple and quotidian aspect to otaku identity, in that you can go into any Wal-Mart, and many supermarket chains besides, and buy the latest copy of Otaku USA--a print magazine (!) now entering its 13th year of publication. As you know, Otaku USA was founded by veterans of Animerica, which was itself founded by veterans of Animag, so there is a lineage there stretching all the way back to the US fan scene circa 1987; heck, Animag covered Honneamise and Gunbuster as they came out. As someone who admires the decades of work you yourself have put into covering the culture (besides several of your books, my shelves hold issues of Manga Max, Neo, Anime UK, Anime FX, Newtype USA...) I'm just glad that if someone's going to be selling the word otaku to mainstream America, the salesforce are themselves otaku :) If a person were to read Otaku USA, they might come away with the impression that an "otaku" is not a post-structuralist ping-pong ball being swatted (or should I say swotted) about someone's dissertation, but just a person who happens to be really into such things as anime, manga, cosplay, J-pop, and tokusatsu. And that's enough of a life's burden without us also being expected to bear Lacan and Butler about on our itasha palanquins ^_^


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