Book Review: Database Animals

Say the word “Postmodern” and a tide of ideas flood the imagination. Structuralism, metanarratives, semiotics, and other obscure studies come to mind. At best they sound intelligently incomprehensible. At worst they reek of fashionable nonsense. Hiroki Azuma’s book, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, reads like neither. Unlike the milieu of thinkers who dwell in the pages of academic journals, Azuma’s prose is accessibly lucid despite the citation of high-minded thinkers and philosophers like Jean Baudrillard, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and G.W.F. Hegel. He eschews a pedantic writing style in favor of a lucid journalistic one to analyze and explain the phenomena of Japan’s most notorious caste of social pariahs: the Otaku.

Japan’s homegrown niche of anime geeks may seem like a pretentiously unrelated topic for the lofty heights of philosophy and theory. That is, it would be if Azuma didn’t make such compelling claims. The core argument of the book centers on the collapse of the “Grand Narrative” concerning Otaku consumption. Look at the Grand Narrative as a sense of meaning or purpose, but while the rest of the world was in conflict during the Cold War, Japan only had industry and consumption as a guiding light. The Otaku substituted this with fictional narratives to fill the void, but even this was insufficient. Azuma noted that late into the 1990s, consumers ceased to show as much interest in the plots of anime so much as their characters. Azuma uses the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime as an example. Multiple narratives currently exist for the Eva franchise through various multimedia projects, but most have little to do with the “original”.

“[The Otaku] did not really have a concern for the entire world of Evangelion,” Azuma writes. “Instead they focused exclusively on the setting and character designs as objects for exclusive interpretation.”

In other words, the characters, not the story were its fans’ passion “One might argue that the original TV series of Evangelion [still] continued to function as an entry…into the grand narrative. However, Otaku culture of the few years since Evangelion is rapidly abandoning the need for even this entry point,” writes Azuma.

The emergence of Di Gi Charot enforces his claim. An anime gaming dealership originally created its protagonist, Digiko, as a mascot for its enterprise. No narrative existed prior to this character’s conception, yet an anime and series of novels came to fruition following Digiko’s growing popularity. Even the character Usada Hikaru’s name was determined by a fan poll. In this instance, the “database” of anonymous fans directly influenced the creation of these characters without any sign of original authorship.

With the collapse of the Grand Narrative then, what alternative framework is there for seeing the world? “It is easier to comprehend the world through a database model,” Azuma writes. “An easily understandable example of this is the Internet. The Net has no center. That is, no hidden grand narrative regulates all Web pages.” What’s left are different parts for consumers to pick and choose from the database and craft together and render the M characters that you see today through consumer feedback. Here we have a description towards how the anime industry creates its characters. Cat ears, maid frocks, sailor suits, and other informational pieces make up the Otaku wardrobe. Anime producers pick and choose from this database to stitch together the Frankenstein monstrosities in the Moé catalogue.

Grand narratives aside, one might ask what makes such a dynamic Postmodern. This is where the ghosts of theories past enter further into the picture. Philosopher Alexandre Kojeve wrote An Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. In it is a footenote that the world would be divided between a return to (American) animalism or Japanese snobbery. The former consists of those who live in harmony with their environment, but consume without any pursuit of higher meaning in their travels through life.  The latter is much different. “snobs are not in harmony with their environment,” Azuma writes. “Even if there is no chance whatsoever for denial, snobs presume to deny, to manufacture formal opposition, and to love the thrill of opposing nature.”

What does this have to do with the Otaku then? This is where it gets a bit tricky. Let’s skip past snobbery and say that animalization applies more aptly to the database consumption of the Otaku. Kojeve referred to animalization as an American form of consumerism. Japan—as we already know—already underwent an Americanization process during its Post-War years. In today’s consumer society, everything is delivered immediately like fastfood to readily satisfy our needs. Even requisite social interactions are no longer necessary for sexual needs via the adult entertainment industry. As a result, society is sufficient without the interactions of the ‘other’ which once constituted human relations. The implications of which should leave any reader frightened. While Azuma is soberly objective in his take on the otaku, it’s difficult not to take a more harshly critical stance in light of these observations.

This review has so far barely even skimmed the surface of the content for Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. That’s only natural because it takes up a meager–yet densely packed–144 pages. If there’s one flaw in its design, it’s that it was too short. Azuma could have easily been more generous with himself and expanded further on his ideas.

Which brings us to the second problem with the book: it’s dated. The inital Japanese publication date was in 2001 and took seven years to reach American shores. Twitter, Facebook, 4Chan, Weibo, and other social media are absent from the books pages along with other recent phenomenon like AKB48 and Hatsune Miku’s mainstream popularity in Japan.

Further more, recent events like the global financial crisis puts his book in a new perspective. The unemployment among recent college graduates in America has led critics to ponder why Millenials can’t just grow up. What many people miss is that Japan underwent a similiar occurence–with some cultural and sociological differences–during its post-bubble years. Otaku-esque subcultures like hypebeasts and gyaru are coalescing in the United States. America may not be turning Japanese, but it’s difficult to ignore some similar trends.

Lastly, Azuma himself observed the creative shift in anime and film following the Hanshin Earthquake and sarin gas attacks in Tokyo during 1995. It (temporarily) grew darker and concentrated heavily on the psychological disorders of modern youth rather than just raw escapism. What artistic changes occur after the 3.11 Tohoku Earthquake remains to be seen. The world is still waiting for a response.

Hiroki Azuma is a professor at Waseda University and President/Editor-in-Chief of Contectures, LLC.

[Correction: Azuma's company is called "Contectures" not "Conjectures"].