Hayao Miyazaki and the “Otaku” Culture

I’m not sure how many know, but the legendary Hayao Miyazaki stirred quite a fuss recently among the anime fan base about his comments on the state of the anime industry.  Since this might be news for some, I’ve copied the direct quote below:

You see, whether you can draw like this or not, being able to think up this kind of design, it depends on whether or not you can say to yourself, ‘Oh, yeah, girls like this exist in real life.’  If you don’t spend time watching real people, you can’t do this, because you’ve never seen it.  Some people spend their lives interested only in themselves. Almost all Japanese animation is produced with hardly any basis taken from observing real people, you know. It’s produced by humans who can’t stand looking at other humans. And that’s why the industry is full of otaku! (Source)

Now, of course, this would be quite a concern to a great deal of people; many anime fans consider themselves otaku and to claim that they’re a negative is almost a personal attack.  Searches on the internet will yield almost every type of result, from those applauding his comments to an outright fury.  It’s quite an interesting read if you ever look at the comment sections on any of the articles.

My personal reaction is a bit tempered and less concerned about the exact words he used because, as I often state, these sorts of things are very much contextually oriented in nature.

Words Are Key

First, and this is probably the most important thing to know, is that “otaku” as a loan word is very different than “otaku” as a Japanese word.  As a loan word, it typically keeps the same connotative meanings as “nerd” or “geek”, but tends to direct the interests towards Japanese media, such as manga or anime.  Traditionally in Japan, it was given a neutral light.  Lawrence Eng even points out the common fallacies in current belief, that it has always been a negative word by default.  The origin, even according to Eng, is pretty sketchy at the best of times, but certainly was meant to be neutral.

But a bigger problem, of course (and now you can just tune me out if you’re the type to search around Google a whole lot) is that otaku historically got tied to really bad people.  Like Tsutomu Miyazaki.  Long story short, he was a serial killer who kept reams upon reams of anime and slasher films.  Oh, and he killed four girls.  That might have something to do with it.  At any rate, an article on him brought the informal term to a whole new negative context for Japanese culture and popularized the term.  Worse yet is that the term otaku often gets tied in mass culture to the cultures of hikikomori (effectively translating as “shut ins”) and NEETs (not in employment, education, or training), rightly or wrongly, due to some of the subject matter played.

These days, however, the term appears to have more leniency…possibly.  Its actual meaning tends to get pegged all over the board.  According to an unlisted study by Wikipedia (thereby highlighting the dangers of looking up studies through Wikipedia) claims that as the anime culture has grown more pervasive, the stigma of being part of the otaku culture has faded somewhat and many young Japanese are willing to identify themselves as such.  Modern data is hard to find, but unfortunately, I do believe the values don’t stand in the court of public opinion.  Whatever the origins, it still seems to stand that it, as a commonplace word, will have the negative connotations attached.

Think of it this way: does anybody remember when “gamer” was not cool?  No?  Damn…I’m getting old–I mean, it actually did at one point.  It meant effectively the same at one point.  The culture of being heavily into video games did have its roots in a fairly dark place and only got darker as the Columbine incident tended to create mass media beliefs on it.  Much of that has lifted and, ultimately, the term itself is neutral…but anyone associated will get connected to a wide variety of issues, including online bullying (well, mostly shouting over XBox headsets), the entire “get in the kitchen” internet mentality, and violence in the medium just about any time the topic gets brought up.  In fact, and I honestly don’t agree with the whole article but it’s a great example of the permanent damage left to fix, David Wong of Cracked.com has a great article about the stigma about being a ‘gamer” in this day and age.

But anyways, I thought it’d be a good idea to know exactly what this term comes from.

Elements of a Japanese Otaku

Now, despite all the above, there’s something critical about the Japanese Otaku that desperately needs to be known: it’s VERY self-deprecating.  As in, insanely so.  It is very well accepted that the anime industry is a fairly poorly paying job.  It’s noted time and time again in media.  As a result, the workers are almost all motivated from non-salary reasons…mostly excitement for their job.  It’s not hard to imagine that, on this front, many otaku hold key positions in the anime industry.  And this is ultimately reflected in that self-deprecating manner I talked about above.  Think of the otaku you’ve seen in shows.  I can think of few (and by that, I mean one) that isn’t portrayed poorly.  And that’s Hikaru Amano from one of my favourite shows…again Martian Successor Nadesico.  Actually, scratch that.  As a whole, the entire Nadesico crew seems to be otaku given the prevalence of anime being a plot point in it.

Though I WILL admit this is Hikaru’s default state of mind.

But think of the rest of the otaku type of characters…many of them are portrayed as lovable losers or, in the weirdest and darkest scenarios, absolutely the embodiment of a classic anti-hero.  The most popular and probably predominant example I can think of to highlight this is Tomoko Kouri from WataMote (I’m not typing that all out).  She embodies a lot of the negative traits and they’re played for laughs.  This is pretty much the default attitude towards otaku in anime it seems.

Great.  Where Is This Going?

Okay.  So I’ve established that it is often otaku who run the industry.  This kind of supports part of Miyazaki’s statement (that the industry is run by otaku).  Now, there’s more to his statement than that.

Another key aspect in Miyazaki’s claims is that otaku can’t stand the concept of looking at people.  I think it’s more important to step back from this.  We can argue the semantics about “seeing people” until the cows come home (Which in Alberta tends to be 2 AM.  Random guess), but the most important takeaway are these two points in it I think:

  • Experience with other individuals allows a great experience to design from
  • The state of anime is moving away from more realistic characters and experiences

That is ultimately what he’s getting at.  He approaches it from an art angle (because, let’s face it, it’s Miyazaki.  He loves art), but this is the primary concern and, of course, unrealistic animation styles will ultimately come from the above.  So, does THIS aspect actually stand.

Well, and I’m sure there will be people who disagree with me on this, I think the first part is pretty true.  The concept of draw from experience is very common.  It’s easier for you to draw something you know and recognize than to fabricate.  Same thing goes with realism: you can attempt to draw/imagine/create realistic characters, but if you KNOW what a realistic person does, acts, or feels like, the whole process becomes easier.  And, in all honesty, will likely end up better (though, like drawing from experience for other acts, this may come up with limitations).

This leaves the second part up for debate.  And this is something I think may be much more questionable.  It’s hard to justify this part to me as I’m not aware of this sort of situation.

However, Mr. Miyazaki’s point does raise an issue of my own.  And that’s the increasing prevalence of otaku “in jokes”.  Shows and characters which do rely on being part of the otaku culture in order to understand are becoming more and more prevalent and the expense of general viewer understanding.  While they themselves are not net negatives, their inclusion can become more hostile as a show to other viewers who are not as familiar with the culture.  This breeds secularism type of structure, where the culture protects and insulates itself from most visitors, but the visitors who come in and understand the jokes love them.  Such a thing is hard to do.  Shows with perpetual and primarily running gags that rely on inside knowledge to laugh at are extremely hard to run.  Even the, in my opinion, two best live action comedies, Arrested Development and Community, have (or did) struggle with viewers despite fans having the avid fanbase in love enough to effectively become door-to-door salesmen.

Continuing down this path of secular jokes is a huge concern to me.  I’ve always been a person who could imagine anime as being part of an artistic medium, something with strong reputability (more on that in coming weeks as I compare anime with video games and their somewhat lack of frequent representation as art).  There are some, as there are some excellent video games in art (9 Hours, 9 Persons, 9 Doors is my favourite game, dead stop.  Red Dead Redemption does a good job as well…again, more on this later), but they aren’t at great frequency, nor does most anime stretch its borders enough to really put itself as a reputable art.  With the medium becoming more closed off from the rest of the world and focusing on themselves, it seems less likely that this will happen.

But anyways, that’s enough screwing around for now.  It’d be interesting to hear what you think about Miyazaki’s comments though.

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2 responses to “Hayao Miyazaki and the “Otaku” Culture

  1. Pingback: The Anime/Video Game Connection | Lain's First Law

  2. Pingback: Hideaki Anno And The Commercial Future | Lain's First Law

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