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Idiot Savant Japan: No Country for Any Otaku

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Idiot Savant Japan: No Country for Any Otaku

Otaku is a dirty word. It is forever linked to Miyazaki Tsutomu, represents a culture that is uniquely and inherently Japanese, and will never translate to anyone else—no matter how hard Otakon or fans want to believe.

The term has evolved over time from a social stigma to its mis-translation during the mid-1990s anime boom. Being otaku was a statement in America, to wear the freak flag and let it fly—almost a nerd counter-culture where (I’m paraphrasing from a panel I sat in on at the New York Anime Festival) some are so nerdy that they go elsewhere for their fix. It originated as the polite term for “you,” but was redefined by columnist Akio Nakamori to mean much more. He’s the one responsible for tying it to Miyazaki, then, according to the primer at Néojaponisme, publishing “The Otaku Book” in the same year. Matt Alt provides a translation of Nakamori’s inaugural column, “This City is Full of Otaku,” first published in a soft-core porno mag. A sample passage describes how to spot an otaku:

“How can I put this? They’re like those kids—every class has one—who never got enough exercise, who spent recess holed up in the classroom, lurking in the shadows obsessing over a shogi board or whatever. That’s them. Rumpled long hair parted on one side, or a classic kiddie bowl-cut look. Smartly clad in shirts and slacks their mothers bought off the “all ¥980/1980” rack at Ito Yokado or Seiyu [supermarkets], their feet shod in knock-offs of the “R”-branded Regal sneakers that were popular several seasons ago, their shoulder bags bulging and sagging—you know them. The boys were all either skin and bones as if borderline malnourished, or squealing piggies with faces so chubby the arms of their silver-plated eyeglasses were in danger of disappearing into the sides of their brow; all of the girls sported bobbed hair and most were overweight, their tubby, tree-like legs stuffed into long white socks. Now these unassuming classroom corner-dwellers with their perpetually downcast expressions have come out of the woodwork and swelled their ranks into a really rather surprising TEN THOUSAND PEOPLE. And just because they’re here, they’re channeling all of their normal gloominess into freaking out.”

(i.e. anyone ever at the Tisch School of the Arts.)

Basically, Otaku was the equivalent of saying “nerd,” but with even darker intent. They weren’t just nerds. They were outcasts in a society that demanded uniformity. Nakamori states that the usual names suited for these people—“the gloomy tribe,” maniacs, fanatics—weren’t accurate. They were so degenerate in their costumes and hand-me-downs that saying “You,” as if one is speaking to a leper, is the best term. Treat them with respect or, like Miyazaki, they will lash out and strike.

Otaku were frightening for being so committed to their outcast status. Alone you could bully them around, but at 10,000? Not a chance, Ogre. Over time, fans—and media—have tried ret-conning the origin, placing equal claim over Super Dimensional Fortress and Gundam characters by using the honorific. But otaku has become a bastard offshoot—now, to be otaku is to be little more than a fan. According to Toshio Okada, co-founder of Studio GAINAX and frequently referred to as the King of Otaku, this has resulted in the watering down of the term. As reprinted in Takashi Murakami’s addition to his series, “Little Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Exploding Subculture”:

“Back then [during the 1980s and early 1990s], there were a hundred thousand, or even one million people who were pure otaku—100-proof otaku, if you will. Now we have close to ten million otaku, but they are no more than 10-or-20-proof otaku…[t]he otaku mentality and otaku tastes are so widespread and diverse today that otaku no longer form what you might call a “tribe.”“

Murakami himself admits otaku “are different from the mainstream” and describes how an executive at Kaiyodo, a model company responsible for figurines and sets, once related the 1995 Kobe earthquake to a scene from Gamera: “I know it’s insensitive to say this [after such terrible disaster], but I think Gamera got it wrong.” And Okada observes that to fully understand how to create fantasy, one must know reality, describing how the production team behind the 1984 Godzilla “sequel” covered a volcano explosion to get the effect just right. “They were true filmmakers,” he said.

Murakami next enters into a discussion of moe and how he had to escape being an otaku. Because to truly be considered one is almost as daunting as an entrance exam—so much so that Murakami wonders if there is any difference between otaku-dom and mania. (I’ve bastardized this into an idea for a Neo-Otaku concept, which my roommate claims is the basis for Neon Genesis Evangelion—how people are now painfully aware of their social stigmas and use them willingly. Maybe we’re all just orange juice, too. I don’t know. I just write these things.) Nakamori ends his column asking, “So, what kind of otaku are you?”

The zen kind: to be otaku without truly being otaku. Everyone is a “10-to-20-proof Otaku” these days, even if you can rattle off your favorite directors and debate the merits of authors. No one truly dedicates their life to a single thing anymore, which is a good thing. I think. Néojaponisme editor W. David Marx tries to sum it up:

“Well, “Cool Japan” is a label attached by the outside by people who have no understanding of internal Japanese cultural divisions. And it’s not that “otaku” are cool, but what they likeanime, manga, and gamesis cool, and they are therefore cool by default. It’s definitely complicated.”

And lo, why do we keep using it? Why is there even a magazine, as Alt notes (and contributes to), called Otaku USA?

Well, we’re idiots for one thing.

For the other, the U.S. has come to adapt to the nerd culture. Who knows the real reason why or how, but now that nerdy is ’in demand’ we assume that such a term, even if foreign, can mean the same thing. On the bright side, at least we didn’t co-opt “pikadon” to mean “winner.”

Either way, the term should be left in the dust, especially since conventions are filled with little kids screaming useless phrases and glomping each other while I sit in my wheelchair on the sidelines shaking my old man cane. But more so, we should put it to rest so I can publish The Neo-Otaku Book, cash in, and finally get David Hudson to friend me on Facebook.

John Lichman is a freelance writer who contributes to The Reeler, Primetime A&E [print only] and anyone with cash. He works odd jobs to afford his vices, sleeps on couches and can drink Vadim Rizov under a table.

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Awards

Oscars 2019: Who Will Win? Who Should Win? Our Final Predictions

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them.

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Roma
Photo: Netflix

No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits. Across the last 24 days, Ed Gonzalez and I have mulled over the academy’s existential crisis and how it’s polluted this year’s Oscar race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again. We’re spent, and while we don’t know if we have it in us to do this next year, we just might give it another go if Oscar proves us wrong on Sunday in more than just one category.

Below are our final Oscar predictions. Want more? Click on the individual articles for our justifications and more, including who we think should win in all 24 categories.

Picture: Green Book
Director: Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Actor: Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Actress: Glenn Close, The Wife
Supporting Actor: Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Supporting Actress: Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Original Screenplay: Green Book
Adapted Screenplay: BlacKkKlansman
Foreign Language: Roma
Documentary Feature: RBG
Animated Feature Film: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
Documentary Short: Period. End of Sentence
Animated Short: Weekends
Live Action Short: Skin
Film Editing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Production Design: The Favourite
Cinematography: Cold War
Costume Design: The Favourite
Makeup and Hairstyling: Vice
Score: If Beale Street Could Talk
Song: “Shallow,” A Star Is Born
Sound Editing: First Man
Sound Mixing: Bohemian Rhapsody
Visual Effects: First Man

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Picture

The industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again.

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Green Book
Photo: Universal Pictures

“I’m hyperventilating a little. If I fall over pick me up because I’ve got something to say,” deadpanned Frances McDormand upon winning her best actress Oscar last year. From her lips to Hollywood’s ears. No one is okay with the Academy Awards the way they are, and everyone seems sure that they know how to fix them. Cut out the montages, bring back honorary award presentations, give stunt performers their own category, let ranked-choice voting determine every category and not just best picture, overhaul the membership ranks, hold the event before the guilds spoil the surprise, find a host with the magic demographic-spanning mojo necessary to double the show’s recent audience pools, nominate bigger hits, nominate only hits.

But first, as McDormand herself called for during her speech, “a moment of perspective.” A crop of articles have popped up over the last two weeks looking back at the brutal showdown between Saving Private Ryan and Shakespeare In Love at the 1999 Academy Awards, when Harvey Weinstein was at the height of his nefarious powers. Every retrospective piece accepts as common wisdom that it was probably the most obnoxious awards season in history, one that indeed set the stage for every grinding assault we’ve paid witness to ever since. But did anyone two decades ago have to endure dozens of weekly Oscar podcasters and hundreds of underpaid web writers musing, “What do the Academy Awards want to be moving forward, exactly? Who should voters represent in this fractured media environment, exactly?” How much whiskey we can safely use to wash down our Lexapro, exactly?

Amid the fox-in-a-henhouse milieu of ceaseless moral outrage serving as this awards season’s backdrop, and amid the self-obsessed entertainers now wrestling with the idea that they now have to be “content providers,” all anyone seems concerned about is what an Oscar means in the future, and whether next year’s versions of Black Panther and Bryan Singer’s Bohemian Rhapsody have a seat at the table. What everyone’s forgetting is what the Oscars have always been. In other words, the industry’s existential crisis has polluted this race so thoroughly that it feels eerily similar to the 2016 election cycle all over again, and Oscar’s clearly splintered voting blocs may become ground zero for a Make the Academy Great Again watershed.

In 1956, the Oscars took a turn toward small, quotidian, neo-realish movies, awarding Marty the top prize. The correction was swift and sure the following year, with a full slate of elephantine epics underlining the movie industry’s intimidation at the new threat of television. Moonlight’s shocking triumph two years ago was similarly answered by the safe, whimsical The Shape of Water, a choice that reaffirmed the academy’s commitment to politically innocuous liberalism in artistically conservative digs. Call us cynical, but we know which of the last couple go-arounds feels like the real academy. Which is why so many are banking on the formally dazzling humanism of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma and so few on the vital, merciless fury of Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman.

And even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the academy’s new members, there’s that righteous, reactionary fervor in the air against those attempting to “cancel” Green Book. Those attacking the film from every conceivable angle have also ignored the one that matters to most people: the pleasure principle. Can anyone blame Hollywood for getting its back up on behalf of a laughably old-fashioned but seamlessly mounted road movie-cum-buddy pic that reassures people that the world they’re leaving is better than the one they found? That’s, as they say, the future that liberals and Oscar want.

Will Win: Green Book

Could Win: Roma or BlacKkKlansman

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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Awards

Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Adapted Screenplay

After walking back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing here.

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BlacKkKlansman
Photo: Focus Features

Eric and I have done a good job this year of only selectively stealing each other’s behind-the-scenes jokes. We have, though, not been polite about stepping on each other’s toes in other ways. Okay, maybe just Eric, who in his impeccable take on the original screenplay free-for-all detailed how the guilds this year have almost willfully gone out of their way to “not tip the Oscar race too clearly toward any one film.” Case in point: Can You Ever Forgive Me? winning the WGA’s adapted screenplay trophy over presumed Oscar frontrunner BlacKkKlansman. A glitch in the matrix? We think so. Eric and I are still in agreement that the race for best picture this year is pretty wide open, though maybe a little less so in the wake of what seemed like an easy win for the Spike Lee joint. Nevertheless, we all know that there’s no Oscar narrative more powerful than “it’s about goddamn time,” and it was so powerful this year that even the diversity-challenged BAFTAs got the memo, giving their adapted screenplay prize to Lee, Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. To bamboozle Lee at this point would, admittedly, be so very 2019, but given that it’s walked back almost all of its bad decisions ahead of this year’s Oscars, there’s no way AMPAS isn’t going to do the right thing.

Will Win: BlacKkKlansman

Could Win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Should Win: BlacKkKlansman

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