Manga and otaku subculture in Japan
Tom Vincent

F   or some time in the UK, young
    people have been consuming media
is analogous with widespread political apathy and               real world. A similarly empty stance can be found in the
When the Tamogotchi [virtual] pets
  died on the Japanese version of
  the game, they turned into ghosts.
  American kids ...
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Manga & Otaku subculture in Japan (OCR Media Conference 2009)


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Manga & Otaku subculture in Japan (OCR Media Conference 2009)

  1. 1. Manga and otaku subculture in Japan Tom Vincent F or some time in the UK, young people have been consuming media from Japanese subcultures. A look at the comic shelves in Borders finds multiple volumes of manga series: the cute female-centred ghost school stories of Ghost Hunt, the austere, violent samurai epic of Lone Wolf and Cub, the pseudo-scientific sci-fi battles of Mobile Suit Gundam. People outside Japan seem to find manga interesting first for the unusual quality of the graphic art, second for the intriguing coherence of the culture. Across manga titles, there are unities of graphic style, of theme, of representation, that suggest that there is a self-sustaining culture at work, able to make reference to itself more than to objective reality or to other media. To the interested fan it’s clear that manga is a significant cultural force in Japan, Manga on display in the Akihabara district of Tokyo, known as ‘electric town’ and the centre of otaku culture. with numerous committed substrata that defy easy comprehension. To better society. The otaku subculture at work here understand manga and its close relative anime, it’s worth produces manga in wilful isolation from the Japanese considering the otaku subculture at work in producing its mainstream, and in eking out a separate expressive self-contained worlds. space that is sometimes ignored, sometimes celebrated. Otaku in Japan refers to a particular kind of obsessive: Graphic arts are incorporated into all of public life in one who defines themself by his or her consumption of Japan, and although antecedents to manga have been one or more particular media, perhaps manga, but also traced back to various older media, the true genesis anime (Japanese animation), tokusatsu (special effects is in the immediate post-war years of occupation. creatures), video games, aidoru (female pop performers), Manga production began to grow in the late 1940s arts figyua (scale character models) and so on. The meaning explosion, following a long period of artistic suppression, of otaku goes far deeper than the English equivalent and apparently ignored by US censorship. By 2006, ‘geek’, and implies an entire and exclusive culture, with domestic sales of manga had become worth ¥481 little mechanism to integrate properly with other societal billion, (£2.2 billion), and accounted for around 40% strands. of all books sold in Japan. The penetration of manga consumption in Japan extends to anyone born after the The otaku subculture began with the rise of mass war, with titles to accommodate a vast range of interests consumerism of the 1960s, when traditional cultural and niches. Consumption is characterised by multiple ties to locality and family were damaged. Migration distinct subgenres, including Jidaimono (historical), Meka to the cities was accompanied by at least a rhetorical (giant battling robots), Suiri (crime), Shôjo and Shônen commitment to the new corporate Japan, and was (respectively, for teenage girls and teenage boys), Mahô reinforced by the new homogenous mass media of TV. Shôjo (female-centered magic), Dojinshi (self-published The word otaku is a kind of impersonal pronoun (one fan-manga) Moe, (asexual fetishism of characters), Shôjo- ai (lesbian romance) and Hentai (outlandish pornographic of many in Japanese) that literally means ‘one’s home’, implying neither family nor even blood ties, and gained fantasy). currency in association with acquiring new consumer goods. As the US realised they needed Japan as a new Perusal of some of the narrow genres on this list suggest stable Cold War ally, planned reforms were scaled back, specific obsessions, apocalyptic battles take place in and hopes for a new post-hierarchical society were ahistorical science fiction worlds, youth is fetishised in dashed. Japan experienced both economic growth and a distinctive kawaii (cute) aesthetic, and self-indulgent entrenched political stagnation. Most otaku culture fantasies seem unconcerned with regulation by wider
  2. 2. is analogous with widespread political apathy and real world. A similarly empty stance can be found in the extremely pervasive kawaii aesthetic, wherein young girls disengagement in Japan, and an unwillingness or inability to participate in rigid mainstream society. It is a retreat in particular idealise themselves as an ahistorical ‘cute’ consumer. Within otaku culture, this becomes obsession into outsider obsessions, a self-sustaining world of furtive cultural production. Moving through various phases of with an artifical, wilfully exaggerated female image that derisive comment by mainstream media, otaku culture constantly teeters over into self-parody. Much of the ‘cute’ manga that ends up in UK bookstore, like the comedic is now large and complex, and the term carries neither farce of Love Hina, is parody of the self-acknowledged wholly positive or negative connotations. pathetic-ness of the socially inept otaku boy and his By being politically silent, isolated and self-sustaining, obsessions. otaku culture indicates some particular Japanese concerns. Military hardware is safely fetishised in hugely popular The intense flux of Japan’s 20th century goes on, and sf manga like Space Battleship Yamato and Mobile Suit otaku culture continues to churn out accomplished Gundam. Space Battleship Yamato implicitly plays out an popular art on a huge scale (in Japan, everyone can draw). alternative World War Two scenario for Japan, in which Meanwhile in recent years movements like the loose the Yamato (the name of an actual WW2 battleship) ‘superflat’ art collective have tried to subvert conventions through parody of both otaku obsessions and mainstream roams the galaxies following the irradiation of the media. Otaku culture will continue to fascinate as long as earth by aliens. The military is a great taboo in Japan, where large armed forces are maintained under the subcultures remain unassimilated in Japan, and outsiders constitution-bound euphemism of ‘self-defence forces’. find freedom in operating beyond the pale. The removal of the military to a ‘safe’ sf scenario in Space Battleship Yamato excuses it from commenting on the (Tom Vincent lived and worked in Japan for several years) Resource reviews specifications. Many colleagues appear anime were essentially ‘de-odorised’ to be worried by Unit 4 of OCR’s of Japanese culture a process most spec., which includes the possibility obvious in the Power Rangers series of looking at globalisation. Whilst the which interpolated American-shot trend toward global markets probably sequences into the Japanese action. gained momentum during the 1980s, However, as Kelts shows, fans started when Reaganite and Thatcherite discovering the originals (and here policies led to the loosening of financial the internet is the distribution/ controls, there’s no doubt that the pirating network par excellence) and arrival of broadband internet has made both original anime and manga has the global market (for the ‘haves’) a experienced exponential growth in reality. Dealing with the challenges of America. both reading the internet and getting Kelts’ book is not a media textbook a grasp of the macroeconomics of but a journalistic trawl through the globalisation are amongst the biggest history and business of manga/anime. challenges to media studies. Colleagues It is an excellent read and gives some are right to be concerned but change, fascinating insights into the cultural even when it’s revolutionary, is difference between Japan and the west; what makes studying the media so for example, he interviews the creator interesting. of Pokemon to find a corporate suit One of the more obvious ways in and not a multi-millionaire one might Japanamerica: How Japanese Pop which globalisation is occurring has expect as he didn’t benefit financially Culture Has Invaded the US, Roland been the dramatic increase in the from his creation as a salaried worker. Kelts, Palgrave Macmillan 2008, number of western fans of anime and Other cultural differences are more £9.99 256pp, ISBN-10: 140398476X manga; particularly in the United obvious: (Amazon announces this book as due States. In recent years Studio Ghibli’s for release in February 2008, but has films have made an impression Cartoons are very powerful tools an American version available at a on both arthouse audiences and because they only need minimal lower price.) children; however, anime has been changes to make them localized. The OCR email list has been full of shown on western television since the We’ve always had to do a little static generated by the new A Level 1960s: remember Marine Boy? Early work to suit international tastes.
  3. 3. When the Tamogotchi [virtual] pets died on the Japanese version of the game, they turned into ghosts. American kids got scared, so we had them turning into angels. (p. 99) Dealing with the global reach of media texts is a crucial aspect of contemporary media studies. An whilst it is relatively easy to consider Hollywood’s policy of opening blockbuster movies worldwide, dealing with how other cultures are ‘infiltrating’ (i.e. get beyond the trade barriers that are informally erected to keep foreigners out of western markets) into our culture is harder. However, you’re likely to have some manga/anime experts in your class and TV series, Pop Japan Travel – the Essential such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, are Otaku Guide, Makoto Nakajima, easy to use in the classroom (well, one Digital Manga (US) 2007, £4.95 ISBN or two example episodes). Series such 9781569709429 as Evangelion and Ghost in the Shell: If you enjoyed Tom Vincent’s article and Stand Alone Complex, are particularly you have students interested in manga, interesting in their representation of anime and otaku culture, this could be gender (nubile male-fantasy girls v. a very useful little book allowing you to morose and often pathetic males) and get up to speed on the basics. Ostensibly technology (the mecha genre). Kelts’ a guide to pop culture for a tourist in book give will the teacher a good Japan, it presents the story of a group grounding in the background from of American fans visiting Tokyo in the which to start teaching. form of a genuine manga story. Nick Lacey Poking gentle fun at the ignorant gaijin (foreigners) and their lack of understanding, it introduces many of the otaku traits that Tom describes. It neatly explains how to read a manga story (right-to-left, top to bottom) and offers a couple of pages of travel tips, but it is the story of the American fans and their pursuit of the otaku experience which makes it a snip at £6.19 on Roy Stafford These three pieces were first published in in the picture magazine, no 58, November 2007. Tom Vincent is now a Film Programmer at the National Media Museum Nick Lacey is Head of Media at Benton Park School, Leeds