Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals by Azuma Hiroki

Azuma Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Trans. Jonathan Abel and Shion Kono. Minnesota UP, 2009.

Azuma theorizes otaku as posthistorical, specifically inspired by Kojieve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel where he sees US culture as animalistic as it is classless, its members can “appropriate for themselves everything that seems good to them” (xvii), that the members no longer risk themselves for “the sake of ‘historical’ values that have social or political content” (xviii), no longer engage in struggles of humanity (wars and revolutions) but instead function as animals.  He is attempting to make an intervention in society as he sees otaku as a specific sub culture not unique to Japan, but as “one manifestation in Japan of a grand trend towards the postmodernization of culture that began in the middle of the twentieth century.” (10)  He very explicitly locates this postmodernization as a break that occurred in the late 1960s when “the fundamental conditions that determined the constituents of culture changed within late-capitalist societies…[and c]onsequently, this change was accompanied by transformations in many areas of cultural production. (7)  He sees this not simply as a change, but as an ideological rupture, with current society making sense of the aftermath.  Thus, although otaku culture is connected to the problems of Japan, he is not comfortable with drawing a straight line between Edo and otaku practices.  He inserts the U.S. into that relationship: “Between the otaku and Japan lies the United States.” (11)  Additionally along with that rupture is the awareness that after WWII “we had decisively lost any traditional identity” (16).  Instead otaku are interested in a pseudo-Japan, and splits those comfortable with otaku culture and those not into groups that (in the case of the latter are uncomfortably aware of the perversion; in the case of the former are pleased by it) either otaku excessively attracted to images or excessively repulsed by them.  But the rise of otaku culture in the post 1980s reflects the fact that many want to retain the illusion of the prosperity, peace, and world domination of that era – otaku culture allows and maintains the “illusion” that the bubble hasn’t burst. (19)

Otaku are an undifferentiated postmodern subculture who primarily consume anime and manga and are visually, not textually, oriented.  He suggests the importance of narrative and textual analysis from modernism has been replaced by an emphasis on the individual elements without historicity (including the visual) that can be constantly reemployed in new patterns.  Thus the overarching narrative at the core of modernist creation is replaced by a postmodernist database, where image is removed from referent and infinitely combined with other images free of affect. Discusses otaku culture in generational terms; those born in the 1960s consumed products (and these were sf products), 1970s had more choices of product but the texts themselves were still part of the older type of narrative.  In the 1980s he suggests there is a break; the prosperity of the 80s in Japanfrees the country and the anime from the constraints of history, and the otaku begin to take on the characteristics of the consumers in the latter generations.  Instead of narrativising, they collect objects produced through a vast array of media and product type; instead of distinguishing between copy and original otaku are concerned with production and collection of moments of emotional affect, not overarching narratives with specific world views.  Azuma identifies the end of hierarchical relationships (history, modernity, and subject) and the beginning of disassociative subjectivity where the self no longer cares about recognizing the other (thus explaining why otaku are so wrapped up in their ability to produce and reproduce and are no longer interested in social relationships).  This image of otaku is simultaneously grim and optimistic in the ability of the otaku to destabilize power relationships

Alexandre Kojéve distinguishes between two forms of post-historical existence in his neo-Hegalian philosophy: the animalization of American society that is based on consumerism and the snobbism of Japanese society that is based on nostalgia for the grand narratives and formalized values of behavioral patterns.  But, as Lyotard noted, the grand narratives of modernism are dead.  Azuma asserts that the formalized values of Japanare dead as well.  In their place Azuma proposes a there is a postmodernist two-tiered mode of consumption.  Instead of the modern world image where the subject who perceives the outer surface layer of meaning and can infer a deep inner layer of grand narrative, the postmodern subject can distinguish between the surface outer layer of Baudelarian simulacra and the deep inner layer within where the grand narrative has been replaced by the database.  The database is the repository for these products and settings that can be constantly deployed and remixed.  While it stores them, it does not put them into context of an entire transcendent world view, because the otaku has abandoned world view and has “learned to simply desire the database” (54)

That the notion of transcendence is on the decline is just one of the markers of postmodernism.  There is a rupture between the cultural products of the past and the present, and this rupture is postmodernity.  InJapanthis sense of rupture also stems from the country’s break with the past after World War II.  Even though many experts seek to define otaku culture as originating from Edo period and premodernJapan, Azuma insists that there is a disjunct with this historical past.  At the foundation of otaku culture is a complex yearning not to produce the realJapan, but to produce a pseudo-Japan “once again from American-made material” (13)

Later generations of otaku abandon Kojéve’s snobbism because they no longer need to feel as if there is a single unifying world image.  Instead there is simply the deployment of the smaller narratives that are the components of the database used in order to remix and compile nonnarratives. These nonnaratives are understood as collections of properties that were not launched as priviledged originals, but as a cluster of simulacrum at the same level of derivative works.  Instead of an entry to a world through a single original text, these nonnarratives have no primary text but multiple iterations of products that loosely link together and can be entered at any point along the spectrum.  There is no totalizing whole, no beginning, and no end, but instead products that can be broken down into a number of elements.  These elements can then be remixed and redeployed as simulacra.  A new variety of standards is applied to the new product – instead of being judged by its distance from the original, the copy is now judged by how well it deploys the elements of the database and how far away from the shared consensus of product it is.

Azuma delineates four generations of Japanese who embrace otaku culture.  The first generation, born in 1960, saw anime like Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit Gundam and consumed printed science-fiction and B-grade movies in their teen years.  The second generation, born around 1970, consumed a number of more diversified products, but both of these generations remember a time when each text was part of a grand narrative, when meaning was less about the ability to collect the entirety of a commodified property and more about the large scale philosophies of the world.  These two generations are part of Kojéve’s Japanese snobbery that arises from the prosperity of the 1980s.  For a time Japanese society forgot (at least, superficially) that it had a complex about theUnited States based on the postwar occupation and instead focused on the “advancement of Japanism inAmerica” (18).  These generations of otaku, and indeed Japanese society at large, sought to create narratives of national and international dominance, and unifying theories of Japanese success.  It is with the decline of the Japanese economy that the third and fourth generations of otaku become unmoored from these larger narratives of nationhood and prosperity, even though it is the rise of that same prosperity in Japan that begins the transformation from human to animal.

This third generation, born in the 1980s, became junior high school students watching Neon Genesis Evangelion and the fourth generation who have just passed or are in their teens are the animals who employ Azuma’s databases. Instead of narrativising, they collect. They are no longer concerned with the distinction between copy and original that was the obsession of the modern. Their experience of fan culture is conducted and mediated through the internet, and where the intersection between digital media and fan consumer is complicated by the ability to produce new works while simultaneously consuming.  They do not remember the height of Japanese prosperity and thus are not nostalgically attached to transcendental narratives.  They are more like Kojéve’s American animals than they are like previous generations of Japanese snobs.

This is in part because Kojéve maintains that to be human one must struggle against nature, while animals live in harmony with nature.  Kojéve suggests that the postwar consumer society all “needs” are met, and so there is no hunger, no strife, and just like in the animal world, there is no philosophy, or a need for it.  It is this assertion that Azuma makes for the latter generations of Japanese otaku.  Their needs are met, and they are no longer interested in formalized values, the passage of history, or totalizing theories.  Instead they are anamilistic.

This is a new model for subject formation that reflects a much larger movement than simply a subculture’s desire to collect.  Without a totalizing world view, there is still an interest in the formulas of narrative that elicit emotion.  However, these formulas are again detached from their moorings in specific narratives and deployed over different kinds of spectrum.  It is quite easy to see how this functions in computer games, as each element can be both viewed at a meta structural level and divorced from their surroundings, redeployed both within and outside of the game.  Thus the elements of setting, character, and sound are all outer surface layers of the game that the otaku desires to invade.  The elements can be extracted from the game, and recombined to create an entirely different work using the same exact material.  For Azuma this is learning the techniques of creation “without connecting the deeply emotional experience of a work (a small narrative) to a world view (a grand narrative).” (84)

In a switch from the post-Hegalian philosophies into the psychological, Azuma suggests this rupture is a new dissociative subjectivity.  In the past the subject was constantly in the process of desiring the other and hoping to be desired by the other.  The new database animal is no longer concerned with this intersubjective structure, because their needs and wants are constantly satisfied mechanically, without the intervention of the other.  Nothing produced by the database animal has a deeper meaning than the database, and the intensity of works no longer comes from message or narrative but from the combination of different elements in an interesting fashion.  Sadly this particular view does seem to indicate there is a certain hollowness to contemporary society that cannot be circumvented.  Azuma, near the end of his analysis, compares the otaku’s process of consumption and remixing to a drug dependency that must forever seek new and expanding sets of materials to be satisfied.


About kathrynpagel

Working on my PhD in Japanese literature, visual studies, and new media.
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