Otaku is commonly translated from Japanese to mean “nerd.” Literally, it means “your home,” but it started being used in the ‘80s to describe manic fans of manga (comics) and anime (animation). Japan Society Senior Curator Hikari Hori says, “Otaku may be derogatory in the context of describing someone with no real social life outside of the object of their obsession, but may also point to a positive connotation regarding hardcore and dedicated fandom, extreme depth of knowledge on specific subjects, artistic deviancy, or meticulously superb works.”
The Japan Society recently concluded a three-month long film and video series, Otaku Cinema Slam!, that highlighted movies about, by, and for these Japanese nerds. The series was created in conjunction with artist Takashi Murakami’s Little Boy exhibition, which runs through July 24.
Murakami says that otaku is “cool indigenous Japanese culture,” hence the literal meaning of the word “your home.” In a theory he calls “Superflat,” Murakami recognizes in the obsession with the two-dimensionality of images in postwar Japan an attempt to transcend limitations by connecting anime and manga to an older Japanese sensibility.
In its derogatory meaning, otaku derives from the humiliated character of Japan after its defeat and occupation by U.S. forces in the ‘40s, and the subsequent inundation of images and commercial forms sold by Disney, Hollywood, and Coca-Cola. The basic generic reference points for many of the films screened are accessible to Western viewers—the Otaku Cinema Slam! contained heady doses of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and animation—but the cultural particulars may not be clear. To facilitate comprehension at the screenings, speakers frequently appeared to discuss the works and posted literature was offered to further explain the subgenres and cultural minutia being explored.
It’s a shame that Koi no mon (Otakus in Love), directed by Suzuki Matsuo, did not open the series. (It showed on 6 May; the series began on 4 March and ended 27 May.) This romantic comedy plays like a wacky, enormously entertaining primer on the lives of twenty-something otakus. Mon (Ryuhei Matsuda) runs into Koino (Wakana Sakai) while musing to himself about being “over 20, never been laid.” They fall in love, but have to work out their differences: he’s committed to his abstract rock manga; she likes kawaii, cosplay, and Comiket. The film uses exaggerated emotions, fantasy sequences, sped-up movement, and an out-of-nowhere musical number to apply the manga aesthetic to live action. If at times these techniques are too sprawling, the lo-fi fan fiction look and cute performances give it a welcome charm.
The majority of the screenings concerned the objects of Mon and Koino’s obsessions: manga and anime-derived works. Since clips from seminal anime series and movies like Neon Genesis Evangelion and Akira were shown as part of the Little Boy exhibit, the Otaku Cinema Slam! concentrated on less well-known titles in genres outside straight science fiction.
Japanese horror has attracted worldwide attention in recent years, in part due to Hollywood adaptations of films like The Ring. The Japan Society offered a look into the mind of one of its founders with the presentation of two films from Hideshi Hino’s Theater of Horror series, Jigoku kozo (The Boy From Hell) and Tadareta ie: Zoroku no kibyo (The Ravaged House: Zoroku’s Disease). Not for the squeamish, Hino is a manga artist whose twisted imagery and gruesome ironies are derived from his postwar childhood and have influenced directors like Takeshi Miike.
Jerky visuals and simple, ghoulish make-up also show up in Onmyoji (The Yin Yang Master). Based on a popular novel and manga, it mixes samurai, historical fiction, and fantasy, tracking a swordsman/magician who takes on a dark sorcerer in 8th century Kyoto. Its inventive use of advanced flying wire effects and older stop motion tricks (think: Jason and the Argonauts) creates a world that is both whimsical and frightening.
One of the most fascinating screenings and lectures concerned the yaoi genre. Like slash fiction, yaoi manga were first created by amateur female fans (yaoi means “no plot, no resolution, no point”), when they wrote stories creating repressed romantic relationships between previously existing fictional male characters. The genre developed with original characters and openly gay relationships. The Japan Society presented two episodes of the anime series Kizuna, based on a long-running manga by Kazuma Kodaka. I live in a country where a male cartoon character holding a purse is enough to spark a Congressional investigation. Kizuna was startling as mainstream entertainment. The two main characters, Ranmaru and Kei, passionately convey their attraction to each other and have graphic sex. The show is also great fun, mixing yakuza-related action with romance.
For the last film in the series, the Japan Society showed the finale to the Godzilla-aping Gamera franchise Gamera 3: Revenge of Iris. Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 may remember this turtle-shaped, kid-loving lug, the perennially bullied geek of the Tokyo-stomping set. Gamera progressed from menace to protector of mankind, reflecting the softening attitudes of a younger generation towards nuclear technology. In the final film of the series, a favorite of kaiju (monster movie) fans, these shifting outlooks come to a head when Gamera fends off man-eating birds raised by a bitter orphan whose parents were accidentally killed during a Gamera battle.
Despite being aware of Gamera’s relation to the Japan’s atomic anxieties, I can’t relate to or identify with such fears at all. This was the crux of my fascination and my limitations with the Otaku Cinema Slam! Nearly all of the films and videos I saw were successful as entertainment, but I found it difficult to engage with the signifiers of a foreign pop culture, to understand the otaku-ness of it. I often felt like I was watching the films through a thick glass. Yet, I liked that certain aspects of the films were difficult to comprehend. It’s refreshing to be reminded that we interpret what’s around us through a local lens, though we might adventure to see beyond, as well.