Tokyo Gone Gagaga: Otaku (1994)

OTAKU (1994)

To view Otaku click here.

Otaku: (in Japan) a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills. (definition from The Oxford Dictionary)

Otaku: Obsessed fan; geek; nerd. Not restricted to anime fans, otaku is a general and relatively insulting word used to describe people obsessed with some particular hobby. (definition from AnimeWorld.com)

I’ve never referred to myself as an otaku but I’m sure that others have. Throughout much of the 1990s, I held minor jobs within the manga and animation industry selling comic books, attending conventions and finally working as a convention publicist, which involved traveling to Tokyo. During this time I developed a strong affection for many aspects of Japanese pop culture including anime, manga, music and doll collecting. I also self-published zines and wrote for publications while covering a wide array of topics that ranged from Sailor Moon to visual kei (a form of Japanese glam/goth rock). My interest in these subjects wavered between curiosity, admiration and obsession but I’ve always had extremely varied hobbies and pastimes. At the same time that I was writing about Japanese pop culture, I was also writing about British poetry, French literature and classic horror movies. So am I an otaku? I suppose it depends on the time of day and who you ask.

In Japan, otaku was originally a derogatory term used to describe individuals (typically slovenly males) so fixated on their hobbies that it hampered their social skills and interfered with their jobs and family life. These personal passions can consist of just about anything under the sun including (but not limited to) anime, manga, cosplay, video games, computers, robots, history, trains and figure collecting. Since then it has evolved into a friendlier description for anyone fanatically obsessed with a particular pursuit but in the western world it’s routinely used to describe obsessive fans of anime and manga. As scholar Patrick W. Galbraith explains in his Otaku Encyclopedia (first published in 2009), “Otaku: Nerd; geek or fanboy. Originates from a polite second-person pronoun meaning ‘your home’ in Japanese. Since the 1980s it’s been used to refer to people who are really into Japanese pop-culture, such as anime, manga, and video games. A whole generation, previously marginalized with labels such as geek and nerd, are now calling themselves otaku with pride.”

OTAKU (1994)

In 1994 otaku was still a relatively new word outside of Japan, which is what makes Otaku (1994) such a riveting viewing experience. The documentary (currently streaming on FilmStruck until 8/25 as part of their Directed by Jean-Jacques Beineix theme) depicts various types of otaku behavior in Japan as seen through the eyes of French directors Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva [1981], The Moon in the Gutter [1983], Betty Blue [1986]) and Jackie Bastide (Chambre 107 [1999], Tu es mon autre [2004], L’aigle noir [2006]). To the casual observer, it might seem strange that a respected and award-winning filmmaker like Jean-Jacques Beineix would be interested in otaku culture but his first feature-length film, the stylish and highly entertaining Diva (1981), explored the existence of a fanatic music lover named Jules consumed by his obsession for a beautiful opera singer. Consequently, Jule’s life resembles the lives of the otaku captured in Beineix’s documentary.

In a 2009 interview with Alex Simon for The Hollywood Interviewer, the director discussed his initial interest in making Otaku explaining, “I’d been going to Japan for many, many years. It struck me that this phenomenon was years ahead of its time regarding video games, individuals, networks, and consumerization of action figures. It wasn’t just some ‘strange Japanese’ cultural phenomenon. It was just that these young men set the pace, so to speak, for generations of young people in other cultures, including the United States and Europe. Japan has often been ahead of the game when it comes to popular culture. In Diva, Jules is collecting recordings and pirating recordings in his collection, just like all the kids now.”

Beinex’s observations have become even more pertinent today as the popularity of previously shunned “nerd” culture has become more acceptable around the world. Some examples include our everyday use of computer technology that was once considered a “geek” hobby but is now a common means of communication. Comic books have also become mainstream along with niche genres such as science fiction and fantasy. This is mainly due to the ongoing success of films and television shows such as the Marvel and DC franchises, Star Trek, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones. Anime and manga, while still considered somewhat of a fringe market, has also expanded its audience thanks to the availability of translated materials but 23-years-ago that was not the case. When Beineix made Otaku in 1994 communicating with computers was considered somewhat of a novelty and only seasoned comic book readers knew who the X-Men were. As for Japanese pop culture, it appeared utterly foreign and bizarre to most westerners.

OTAKU (1994)

Otaku is a surprisingly straightforward documentary that lacks the director’s usual visual flair although there are moments of unexpected beauty thanks to the evolving landscape of Japan. Throughout most of its running time, the camera is pointed directly at interview subjects who go to great lengths to explain or rationalize their hobbies and passions that range from the typical (anime fanatics, j-pop idol obsessives, military reenactors, model makers) to the atypical (erotic figure collectors, radical street performers, bondage, experimental musicians). While the documentary occasionally marginalizes otaku by presenting them as exotic or strange creatures living on the fringes of Japanese society, it also humanizes the people it exposes by highlighting their diversity. To its credit, we meet men and women of various ages with different backgrounds. By refusing to simplify what an otaku is or should be, the term is allowed to organically define itself on screen through the eyes of the filmmakers.

OTAKU (1994)

The highlight for many viewers will be a provocative interview with Japanese director Sion Sono (Suicide Club [2001], Strange Circus [2005], Love Exposure [2008]) who had recently formed Tokyo Gagaga, a boisterous street performance protest group numbered in the thousands. While Tokyo Gagaga may not be typical otaku, the group is smartly included as an indirect reminder that many aspects of otaku culture sprang from Japan’s left-leaning antiwar activists. I’m an admirer of Sion Sono myself (if you search the blog you’ll find a brief write-up of his film Why Don’t You Play in Hell? which made my “Favorite Films of 2014” list) and I found his interview very insightful. Sono explains that he formed Tokyo Gagaga as an alternative way for people to communicate and express themselves and in that regard, Sion is like other otakus who are finding new ways to express themselves through unconventional means.

Whether you’re a full-fledged otaku yourself or just a curious spectator who wants to investigate an unusual aspect of Japanese culture, you should find Otaku a worthwhile viewing experience. Beineix’s documentary is an invaluable time capsule that provides viewers with a unique perspective while broadening our understanding of what an otaku is and can be.

Kimberly Lindbergs

1 Response Tokyo Gone Gagaga: Otaku (1994)
Posted By Doug : April 20, 2017 4:51 pm

This might be a simplification, but when a subset of society becomes ‘mainstream’, those of the subset must choose to either go with/become the mainstream or burrow deeper into that which identifies their culture to them-Tokyo Gagaga would be the burrowers resisting the mainstreaming of Otaku.
A while back I watched a documentary on “Daft Punk” who ‘resisted the Mainstreaming’ of electronic music.
Fascinating post, Kimberly. I don’t know a lot about foreign films, but they are becoming less foreign as I learn more about cinema.

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