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Understanding Otaku

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Last weekend’s New York Anime Festival was an interesting experience to say the least. It was only the second anime show I’ve ever attended (I went to Otakon in Baltimore a few years ago) so the hypotheses I drew from the experience can hardly be called conclusions. I welcome corrections or deeper observations. But the one thing I can say with some certainty is that I wish there had been more people from Marvel and DC there. (There were a few people from Marvel and I spotted DC’s new SVP of sales and Marketing Steve Rotterdam taking in a few panels, but that was about it.) It was a real eye opener and no mistake.


I wish more people from the mainstream had been there because the sight of thousands of young teens cavorting in their fantasy world was a joyous one. This was a show for teenagers, a highly unfamiliar concept in the mainstream. The elements of a comics book convention were there, but magnified. Dressing up and play acting is seen as the fringe of traditional comics fandom, but it’s the lifeblood of otaku life. Everybody was singing and dancing and playing games. I saw some girls carrying yaoi paddles and asked what they were for and got a pitying and patronizing answer about some game of whacking boys. The participatory element is one I don’t feel personally for this material, but it’s something I can relate to. I guess if there were a big pirate convention going on, I’d dress up and whack someone with my sword, too. I may not get why dressing up as a beloved anime character has such specific appeal, but to deny the power of the fantasy is foolish.

The show also gave me some insight into why there hasn’t been more outcry against the often highly adult themes of many manga, and the reason was both shockingly simple and refreshing: as far as I can tell, these are good kids. They aren’t binge drinking, getting knocked up, smoking crack or making porn tapes for the internet. (Not yet anyway.) Instead, their outlet is reading and watching manga and anime. Parents may shake their heads in confusion, but as long as Cindy and Timmy are getting good grades and staying out of trouble, maybe they don’t need to dig any deeper.

That isn’t to say that the Wertham for yaoi may not still arise. But it does help this commentator, at least, understand why manga has gotten such a relatively free pass.

Maybe I’m turning my own blind eye, but there was a lot of innocence in the room. The kids are just figuring things out, and manga (and even yaoi, saints preserve us) are helping them. Take the whole Lolita thing. The look is named after a book about a middle-aged man who is sexually obsessed with a 12 year old girl — about as unsavory as you can get. But what does that have to do with curling your hair and wearing a frilly dress? Not a whole lot, it seems. When I went to Otakon, I thought the place was a pervert’s paradise, with teen-aged girls running around in short skirts and tight outfits. Of course, all young girls have a sense of their sexual power, but this wasn’t about that, at least not directly. It isn’t about looking attractive to skeevy oldtimers in their 20s. I’m not sure exactly what it is about, but that isn’t it. And the girls seem to be aware that staying away from skeevy pervs is a key to having a good time. The observer isn’t very important in this particular fantasy.

(Note, there may be some unhealthy element of willful obliviousness and childishness working here, but that is a topic for much further study,)

I was reminded much more of a science fiction con than a comic-con, to be honest. A sense of proud, or even defiant, nerditry prevailed over the proceedings, but rather than being anal retentive it was more, anal expulsive, I suppose. The fans were very passionate about the details and continuity of their favored fantasies, but it was channeled into obsessive costuming and role playing, not trivia and list-making. “Otaku” was originally a pejorative word for a deranged fanboy, but its been adopted by fans of Japanese material as a badge of honor.

The “mainstream” of comics could learn much from the hold this material has over its audience. What makes the fantasy so compelling? Themes of mastery and coming of age, ambivalence about emerging sexuality, gender confusion–these are are basic themes of all classic literature for young adults, and manga fits the bill. Many of the creators are young themselves, just emerged from the dojinshi ranks and finding their own place in the hierarchy.

I hesitate to make too many assumptions about the original Japanese culture that spawned all this stuff, but I think a lot of the things we find shocking–remember the Nymphet controversy?–may come from a sense of confusion and searching. They’re not full blown explorations of the dire consequences of knowledge in the Nabokov sense. Everyone is figuring it out.

In Japan, there doesn’t seem to be as much shame about sex as we have in America. On the other hand, there is a lot of shame about “face” and behaving properly in a larger way. The “sex ed” manga about a young married couple, Futari Ecchi, really is a sex manual not an overly prurient exercise. (It’s coming out in America from Tokyopop as “Manga Sutra”.)

I won’t go any further down this route because, again, these are hypotheses and guesses. It would take a lifetime of study and a degree in psychology to begin to decode all this. However, some things are universal — at the NYAF I observed a half dressed, attractive girl encountering an attractive half-dressed boy. There was obviously some interest there, but it was shown with a poke from a wooden sword. Facebook, anyone?

For all my my own bafflement over the details, I can actually relate to some of this Japan-o-mania. As a kid, I was obsessed with Speed Racer–my mom got me a pair of vinyl driving gloves and then had to practically cut them off me because I wore them all the time, until they began to get quite stinky. I was equally fascinated by Godzilla (Kaiju) movies, and Ultraman, the earliest Japanese imports. (Johnny Socko and his Flying Robot was another favorite, but by then the campy elements had begun to be the attraction.) By the time Robotech and Yamato came along, however, I had moved on to something else, but I suppose if there had been a club to dress up as Speed Racer when I was the right age, I would have been there on the spot.

In the end the fun everyone was having at NYAF was infectious. It’s no surprise that there was some grumbling from vendors about sales, though — the kids already had all their manga and anime. And I would have to say that if vendors don’t know who their audience is and what they want to buy, that may not be the fault of the show. This is a DIY crowd — making the costume is half the fun. I think someone selling reels of ribbon and rick rack would have done better than someone selling Death Note stickers.

Anyway, Tim Leong over at Comic Foundry summed it up pretty well:

Everyone was having so much fun. The vendors. The attendees. The media. The goth lolita brides. Everyone. The average attendee age was much lower than I was used to seeing. Out with the old curmudgeons, in with the hyperactive teens running around. Literally. You know when you were in high school and you got to go on an out-of-town field trip for Model UN or for band or some other club (what up, high school Journalism Education Association)? And there were no parents and you’re around all these other people with the same interests and you just cut loose? That is what it was like. Kids just enjoying what they love. Very refreshing to see.


Indeed.

So where will the kids go? Will they grow up and look for more mature and challenging manga material? Josei, gekiga, Umezu, Urasawa? Or will they just figure things out a little more and discover sex, drugs and rock and roll? I suspect a bit more of the latter, but that’s still only a guess. Everyone has a lot of things to figure out about this otaku generation.

[Top photo by me; Middle photo by Calvin Reid, from PW Comics Week’s NYAF photo parade.]

  1. Heidi,

    My impression as an older Otaku (I’m 40) is that anime and manga are the new Rock & Roll. Anime and manga represent new forms of expression for teens and young adults. Forms that were not available to their parents. There really aren’t any forms of self exploration left in the West that haven’t been well trod by either our generation or by our parents. So there is the excitement of unexplored territory and the Japanese society aspect of it is essential. In the same way Rock & Roll, and the culture surrounding it, represented a radical break from the WWII generation, so the Otaku culture represents a radical break from the Baby Boomer culture. The more that mainstream American culture shakes their head in confusion the more it fuels the passion of younger Otaku. The Baby Boomers are now getting to see what it is like to be on the other side of the generation gap. I think this explains, in part, the young age and energy you see among Otaku. I love your observations and hope you make to a few more anime conventions.

  2. The Otaku tribe is just another subculture of teens. Dress, vocabulary, gesture… just another way for adolescents to figure out themselves and the world around them.
    When they mature? I suspect that they’ll still read comics, but won’t be as passionate. (how many teen fixations do you still follow?) Some will enter the field, or find a way to mix comics with other media.
    And, yes, it is quite easy to hide a meth lab when you’re a dorky, white bread, underage honor student. Too bad I couldn’t use that knowledge for Westinghouse! (“A Comparison Of Everyday Household Products In The Production Of Crystal Meth”) Of course, it was legal back in the day…

  3. I may not get why dressing up as a beloved anime character has such specific appeal, but to deny the power of the fantasy is foolish.

    I think where adults have Burning Man and the SCA and Ren Faires (all of which are “fringe” activities, mind), this current crop of teens has a very mainstream-approved outlet for those urges. I think it’s really cool.

    We’ve discussed this–I’ll rarely turn down an excuse to put on a funny costume and run around. I enjoy the alternate reality it creates. I missed NYAF because I was participating in Santacon. I enjoyed running around Manhattan dressed as “Pirate Santa,” and relishing the confused and amused looks by tourists, and the bizarre joy of being part of something so huge and weird.

    It all comes from the same impulse, I think, and it’s really neat to see it being more accepted.

  4. I wouldn’t call anime and manga the new “rock and roll”. Rock and Roll has an angry edge to it. Even at their most violent or sexually explicit, anime and manga have this bizarre cute/pretty/even _polite_ filter that takes the edge right off. I can’t get offended by even the weirdest stuff. Disturbed, bemused, yes, offended, no.

  5. I had some of the same thoughts as an “outside-looking-in” kind of anime fan. I felt like a guy with 2 years of high school Italian dropped in the middle of Rome. I can kind of read the signs and get the gist of what people are talking about, but I have no idea why people look at me funny when I order a cappuccino in the afternoon, and I’m sure that there’s a system behind Italian driving but I’m damned if I can figure it out.

    My wife and I compare the Star Wars and anime cosplayers to Revolutionary War or Civil War re-enactors. Some of those guys spend a scary amount of time to be accurate, but if you spend any time with one, it’s hard not to get a little caught up in their passion. We bought a lot more manga and anime than we were expecting to. They also have a remarkably low barrier to entry (you just have to love the stuff) and a remarkably high one as well (asking who someone is dressed as is a good way to catch a know-it-all teenaged sneer more often than not). But I think you’re right — they come off as generally good kids.

    Anime and manga companies also seem a lot better geared for creating and sustaining their audience than the American animation and comics industries are.

    After looking over the show, I think there’s also at least 3 distinct generations of anime fans, and possibly 4. The first are the ones who picked up Speed Racer, Astro Boy, and Ultraman when they were aired (and when they were just “cartoons from Japan”). The next ones were people like me, who got Battle of the Planets, Star Blazers, and maybe the start of Voltron. I’m not sure if you could argue that there’s a Power Rangers and Pokemon generation. Now we’re going through the Naruto generation.

    I don’t think any of these fandoms have any really strong ties to each other. The kind of people who read and post on this blog, maybe, but for the most part, there are extremely few people who cut across all those generations, even though we’re calling it all “anime.” Peter Fernandez and Corinne Orr attracted some very hardcore fans, but the Tokyopop Stage audience seemed pretty under-populated for their panel. I don’t think the Naruto generation has any great awareness of who Osamu Tezuka is, which to me is like not knowing or caring what Walt Disney did.

    I got some confirmation of this at the Anime Industry panel when they said that there are some perennial classics, but for the most part it’s a “what have you done for me lately” driven audience, and I’m not sure how I feel about that. I don’t have any great sense of how much the American moviegoing audience will appreciate stuff on Turner Classic Movies, either, but it makes the whole thing seem like a hardcore fad for some reason.

  6. “I wish there had been more people from Marvel and DC there.”

    Huh? Isn’t it great that it’s actually possible to get *away* from the mainstream?

  7. It isn’t about looking attractive to skeevy oldtimers in their 20s. I’m not sure exactly what it is about, but that isn’t it.

    The thing about subculture fashions is that they tend to become self-perpetuating once they reach a critical mass, and at that point they’re no longer “about” anything other than themselves. Goth-loli is about goth-loli. Punk is about punk. It is what it is; it doesn’t signify anything other than “I belong to this tribe”.

  8. Maija, I would disagree that all Rock & Roll has an ‘angry’ edge. That is true of only certain subgenres.

    Edward, I agree that are multiple generations of anime fandom. I should have been clearer to say my observations are about the most current generation. I also agree that this current generation is very ahistorical in their consumption and appreciation of anime and manga. To further prove your point, Viz constantly states that they are printing Tezuka’s Phoenix at a loss. I can only hope that as this current generation matures their taste will broaden and eventually they will want to read the more histrocially significant manga.

  9. “It isn’t about looking attractive to skeevy oldtimers in their 20s. I’m not sure exactly what it is about, but that isn’t it. And the girls seem to be aware that staying away from skeevy pervs is a key to having a good time. The observer isn’t very important in this particular fantasy.”

    Skeevy oldtimers in their 20s … skeevy pervs … ???

    Huh ????

  10. Lots of good points here. I always have fun at Anime Cons because I like being around happy people and creativity on display. The kids are all about the future. It’s a distinct contrast to the “remember the good old days of comics” feeling that weighs down the average comics convention.

  11. Dare I ask why this story came across my RSS feed with the title “anal” instead of “Understanding Otaku”?

  12. We’re old in comparison to the current generation of fans that were created by Cartoon Network’s showing of Sailor Moon and by TokyoPop not flopping manga. The folks that derive our fandom Speed Racer, Robotech and Viz’s Area 88, we’re older and in numbers much smaller. As a minority in the current fandom, we get to be older guys. And we are very much guys, women didn’t enter the fandom in any real numbers until those two watermark events. So what do you think gaggles of teen girls are going to call late 20s and 30 year old guys? We should be happy getting away with being called oldtimers…

    Marvel and DC needed to be there. Because those kids are not going to comic shops and wouldn’t even know where to find one in their town. This is an energy and fandom that they have no access to. Take a look at manga sales in the icv2 white paper, then compare it to the direct market. Compare the growth rates. If it isn’t making someone at those two nervous, they should. And even if they just went to the con and observed, Marvel and DC would learn a lesson far more viscerally than mere numbers can provide.

  13. Ed, saying “rock and roll” invokes a suggestion of rebellion and willful provocation, which may have been done in play in its day, like Elvis’ hip thrust, but always with a sneer. Tell me Ike Turner wasn’t an angry man. Rock and Roll began with guitar distortion: twisting and strangling familiar sounds and making them scream. There has always been an element of violence, even if just in sound. The culture-shocking elements of anime and manga might be “rock and roll” for Japanese kids within their culture, but to those outside that culture they can still be dismissed as the unintentional misunderstandings of another culture, instead of the willful flouting of our own norms.

  14. Maija, this is the inappropriate forum to discuss the history of American music. Go back and listen to Rock Around the Clock, Peggy Sue, Johnny Be Good, I Want to Hold Your Hand, etc. I think your going to find that Rock didn’t start out with screaming and distortion. Actually, Rock was defined by its rhythm and percussion structure. Ike Turner’s psychological problems don’t have anything to do with defining a genre of music.

    My anime and manga as Rock & Roll analogy is not based on the violence or sex content of these art forms. It’s based on anime as something unpresidented in American culture. Rock & Roll was a revolution in American music. It was perceived as such a significant break with older popular music that the older generations refused to accept it as music. Manga is also perceived as such a significant break from traditional American comics that the older generation doesn’t regard them as comics. A lot of the new otaku embrace manga and anime because it is something their parents don’t get. Anime and manga allow them to assert their independence in the same way Rock & Roll allowed the Baby Boomers to break with their parents. Part of the reason that most younger otaku want thier manga unflipped is because reading books ‘backward’ is part of deeping the gap between them and their parents. It part of the basis for why so many cosplay and pepper their language with Japanese phrases. By embracing various aspects of Japanese culture they are able to create their own culture that is distinct from the culture of their parents and grandparents. They like the fact that Japanese norms and American norms clash over the issues like nudity in comics. In the same that many white youths in the 50’s embrace aspects of Africian-American culture to shock their parents and assert their independence, so many young otaku today embrace Japanese culture for the same reason. I don’t say the Rock & Roll aspect of anime and manga is the sum total of its popularity, but it does play an important factor.

  15. Great article, Heidi.

    I’m with Ed Sizemore on the rock’n’roll comparison, and would take it further. Rock’n’roll was the result of white kids embracing the music and tropes that had been around for years in US black R&B. The parallels to manga and its tropes from Japanese popular culture are obvious to me. Re “Tell me Ike Turner wasn’t an angry man”: Tell me that Buddy Holly *was* one!

    As a 46-year-old who loved both silver-age mainstream comics *and* Speed Racer and Astro Boy as a kid (as well as the indie comics explosion *and* the First Comics “Lone Wolf $ Cub” reprints in the ’80s), I’m delighted that the manga/anime thing has taken off in this country. My 7-year-old decided to wear blue this morning in order to better be Sailor Mercury when she and her friends play Sailor Moon at recess.

  16. Historical Stages: Early anime on tv… speed racer, astro boy. :science fiction interest via robotech, voltron, with importation of laserdiscs. :black and white comics explosion fed by Viz and Eclipse. :importation of Pokemon.. :OEL manga and the proliferation of american publishers.
    what’s next? the first generation of otaku to work in the industry. OEL manga being published in japanese. world manga becoming international, with little regard to origin. And with a large library, the medium will mature, and much that is shelved as graphic novels now might be shelved under genres like science fiction, mystery, and fiction.
    or it could all implode, creating another tribe of nostalgic fans who yearn for the joy and passion of their youth, ignoring and not understanding the newfangled 3-D crossword/flowchart comics pioneered by McCloud and Ware.

  17. I also grew up watching Speed, Kimba (my fav), Gigantor Ooooo and i totally loved Sven from Voltron!

    I now create graphic Novels with David Boller in a kinda Disney/Japanese animation influenced way. Finally, subjects we can write and illustrate IN DETAIL, fantasy, metaphysical, spiritual, coming of age and all without being categorized in the underground, self published independent genre. Don’t get me wrong I LOVE INDEPENDENT WORKS but I’m sure that the audience I am reaching for rarely picks up underground/independent work. Some do but when I mention names the kids, for the most ,are part clueless.

    I must admit, I am not the avid Superhero comic reader…I did love Christopher Reeves when I was a kid tho. When I ask the kids today ’bout the superheros, they all say the same thing…WOW, SIPDEY KICKS ASS! Kicking ass being the motivation for WATCHINHG the movies not reading the books. Manga and Anime touch on real life situations, dreams wants, struggles and desires that the younger gen can related to. More than

    “You killed my mother, father, lover, wife dog now I want revenge OUCH! Oh no a crazed mouse just bit me and endowed me with super cheese eating skills and the ability to crawl through walls! Now I can seek revenge!”

    Please don’t misinterpret me! I already stated that I do not read Superhero books, it kinda seemed like the same story over and over (I do watch the movies tho)…subtle change in the details of the superhero story but much simpler storytelling. Today’s Manga are sooooo complex, emotional, spiritual and really in depth character/story development omg and the conflict!!!

    The costume thing…I can speak for myself and say that personally, I wish everyday were Halloween! But I certainly can see why a kid would love to imagine themselves as a larger that life fantastic character. Most of those characters (Manga/Anime) have traits, characteristics, wants and desires, emotional struggles and need to belong…they do, be and create something so much larger than their life and its circumstances.

    I agree w/ Heidi…Lots of research to figure out (maybe not) the psychological reasons for the Gothic Lolitia dress, but throw in the psychological reasons for the need to blend in, be the same, suppress individuality in the everyday world, probably a lot more interesting findings there…but then again, imagination in youth and spirit and then having the choice between wearing cheap jeans and cruddy tops made in china herd clothing OR wearing unique, elaborate, hand crafted, fantastically beautiful costumes with flowing lace, leather, ruffles and more…Hmmm, maybe it’s just as simple as it looks pretty/cool and it’s different.

    when I was younger I used to wish that people would dye their hair yellow, green, blue, violet…my mother said oh no, people would stare, yet as a kid I thought well, they wear these colors on eyes. lips and bodies, whats the difference?

    I am young, in spirit as well as physical age and I am and will always be lifted when I see colorful, different people in “Everyday Life”.

    Then again going back to why wear Gothic Lolita thing…maybe it’s because the whole manga/anime scene is relatively new here…but i do know it’s here to stay.

  18. The crowd at Otakon skews a little older. Anime Weekend Atlanta attracts a small crowd of geezers, but MangaNext – oh, the MangaNext crowd is even younger than NYAF’s.

  19. Marvel and DC should have turned out years ago when manga graphic novels were flying off the shelves and come to conventions to observe, as opposed to trying to incorporate “manga-styled art” as their answer to that trend.

    Perhaps then they would have been ahead of the upswing that occurred in the last few years where conventions are hitting record numbers across the board and more are popping up not just in large towns but small towns as well with no end to the demand for them. Other genre conventions I have heard are hitting some what of a plateau in their demographics, anime keeps getting younger and younger (and remains a fairly affordable entertainment venue to attend.)

    As you said, anime and manga hits a demographic that they ignored, perhaps alienated or just didn’t get. I happen to be in one of those demographics. Left comic book stores for many years and only returned recently because a local one happened to stock a huge component of manga.

    To be honest, I almost think it’s too late for Marvel and DC to really get back into the game. While I think CMX (affiliated with DC) actually has picked up good pieces, I think Tokyopop and Viz have crowded them out. The big publishers like Del Rey are going to line up the other stuff as well ( and made excellent choices).

    Anyways, thanks for putting up the report. Only one question. “Mainstream” refers to who?

    For teenagers, anime is mainstream. :)

  20. Thanks for the convention report, Heidi. It’s interesting to have an “outsider” take a look at an anime convention, especially when it’s done with an open mind.

    On the other hand, I also kinda wish people would stop psycho-analysing these cosplaying teenagers. Perhaps these kids want to rebel against their parents by finding a different form of self-expression, perhaps they’re thrilled by the cultural implications of Japanese popular culture transmuting into a different form in America… or perhaps they just like the bright colours, the beautiful art and pretty clothing.

    I say so because when I was a teenager and running around with the DragonBall Z and Saint Seiya crowd, I didn’t care what my parents were doing when they were teens. They were Beatles fans, but did I even know anything about “The Bittles”? [insert vague ideas of black and white television, stupid trousers and goofy hairstyles here] As far as I was concerned, my old-fogey parents had never even been teenagers. So if I was cosplaying as SailorMoon, it certainly wasn’t because I had any understanding of the world before 1980. In fact, the world didn’t even exist before 1980.

    So I wouldn’t worry about teenagers not knowing anything about Tezuka – I didn’t know anything about Tezuka until I was in my late teens either. Retrospection seems to be something you do when you’re no longer in High School. I think this generation of teens will grow up in the next 5 years to demand deeper and more thought-provoking entertainment, while their younger siblings will fill the slot they’re filling now.

    And that is my 2 cents.

  21. Fascinating as usual, your majesty. I’ll stick to my last and write:

    – that Wertham depended upon an indolent and unorganized comics audience and a gang of publishers who didn’t much care for what they were publishing, a big difference from today.

    – that a youth culture, music or whatever, that can’t throw out the previous order just for the sake of it, isn’t really the youth culture. If the grown-ups get it, it’s useless.

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