Brain Diving
Ace of Database

by Brian Ruh, Jan 11th 2011

Even though I call myself an anime fan, I haven't really been watching a whole lot of new series recently. That's not to say there isn't good stuff coming out of Japan these days – I just saw Summer Wars in the theater earlier today and it looks and sounds wonderful. (I quite enjoyed he dub, even though I almost always watch anime subbed if I can help it.) And I will wax poetic about Redline whenever the topic comes up. However, there just aren't many series that have been coming out in the last year or so that look particularly interesting.

One of the few exceptions to this is Fractale, the new winter series directed by Yutaka Yamamoto (aka Yamakan) airing in Fuji TV's Noitamina block. Both Yamakan's involvement (he also directed Haruhi and Kannagi) and the time slot (Noitamina shows are frequently high quality) are enough to pique my interest, but the real attraction for me is that the series is based on an original story by Hiroki Azuma. Now, if you don't pay attention to the more scholarly side of anime, Azuma's name will probably not be immediately familiar, but he is currently one of the big names in Japan who writes on anime, manga, games, light novels, and otaku culture in general. He has come up with some very interesting ways of thinking about anime and why people are attracted to it – he's one of the main go-to references I've been using in my PhD dissertation on anime and globalization. One of his most noteworthy books recently came out in English as Otaku: Japan's Database Animals, but Azuma has said that it's not primarily intended for academics, stating “I wrote this book for creative people. I also hope that junior high and high school students read my work. I want younger people to go through it in Japan and abroad… I want a new group of readers to engage with theory as well as the creative process.”

It's pretty rare for an academic like Azuma to make the transition from analysis to the creative side of things. It's probably rarer than it should be, actually. One of the common stereotypes of academics is that they are elitist and out of touch with the “real world.” It would help to alleviate this perception if more people who write about media actually participated in the production process. Luckily we also have people who work in creative industries who also do criticism, such as Eiji Otsuka (writer of the MPD-Psycho and Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service manga).

The Fractale manga has been running since September 2010 in Square Enix's Gangan Online magazine. (You can go there now and check out the fourth chapter. In Japanese, of course.) It tells the story of Clain, a young man living in a world that is both medieval and futuristic in that way that many anime worlds are. He is different from many of the people around him, including his parents, in that he prefers to experience the world through his natural human body rather than through robot doppelgangers. The world is controlled by a computerized system called Fractale, which takes care of the administration of the world and sees to everyone's needs in this seeming utopia. One day Clain meets a girl named Phyrne as she is being chased through the skies, which leads to allusions that there is something sinister behind the scenes of the Fractale system. Although not the most original of setups, I think the success of series will hinge on the execution. As I write this, it's still one of series coming out this season that has yet to be announced for a streaming deal, something that I hope is remedied soon.

As I mentioned above, Azuma's book Otaku: Japan's Database Animals is probably the place to start if you're interested in reading up on his interpretation of anime and otaku. But before you tackle the meal that is Azuma's book, though, this week's Read This! will direct you to a delicious intellectual appetizer. In 2005, Azuma sat down for a dialogue with Douglas McGray (the guy responsible for the whole “cool Japan” concept) to talk about what he had been working on. The conversation covers many topics, including nationalism, otaku, and cultural studies. One of the most interesting parts, as it relates to Fractale, is that Azuma refers a number of times to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. If you haven't had to read it yet for your high school English class (or have forgotten about it because you read it so many years ago), the world of Huxley's book is a dystopia in which everyone is kept happy and pacified through social engineering by the government as well as through constant use of a drug called soma. Azuma contrasts this with George Orwell's 1984, another dystopian book, in which “Big Brother is watching you, so your desires are very restricted. In Brave New World, everyone's desires are met, everyone is happy, but those desires are very sophisticatedly controlled by the government.” Azuma wonders if the 21st century will be something like Brave New World, only with information technology standing in for the government as the controlling influence. I think we can see a these concerns being expressed through the world Azuma sets up in Fractale.

In some ways, this idea of pacification of the people by giving them what they desire, rather than any actual power over governing their own lives, is a theme that speaks directly to anime fans and otaku. I for one love the allure of being completely immersed in a new series or video game. In my high school and college years, I would cherish the times when I could play through video games without being disturbed. Since I now have a full time job and family, I really don't have the time to totally throw myself into new fictional worlds anymore. However, I still often have the desire to do so, and the possible reason why people react this way to Japanese pop culture is something Azuma covers in quite a bit of depth in his book.

Otaku: Japan's Database Animals
by Hiroki Azuma

The original Japanese title is Doubutsuka suru posutomodan, which is probably best rendered into English as Animalizing Postmodernity. Of course, this title probably wouldn't fly for an American audience – the “postmodernity” part would be enough to put most people off and as for “animalizing”… well, that's just bound to be confusing. The new English title is actually more descriptive of what that book is about, although it still retains the references to animals. Azuma's main arguments are contained here in the title, so in order to try to get at what he is arguing, we must ask the following: in what way is an otaku an “animal,” and what does this have to do with a “database”?

In the first case, Azuma references a couple of philosophers who contrast the desires of humans with those of animals. In short, humans are self-aware, social creatures, so we fulfill our desires through our interactions with other people. On the other hand, animals are not self-aware, so they do not need any other creature outside of themselves to satisfy their desires. (Granted, this is an oversimplification since there are animal societies out in nature, and certain animals may indeed have degrees of self-awareness.) This human / animal metaphor is then applied to societies – it's said that contemporary society has become animalistic in this way because many interpersonal interactions are automatic and instinctual and we don't need to engage with other people to satisfy our wants and desires. Food, entertainment, sex – they're all reducible to commodities that are able to be bought and sold. This is true for otaku as well, since they interact with character images on the level of instinct. It's not like an otaku's moe feelings for a particular character are due to a long session of intellectual consideration of a particular series. Rather, the feeling otaku have towards such characters are often automatic at the gut level, so in this way otaku are “animalized.”

This emphasis on relations between otaku and anime / manga characters brings me to the second part of Azuma's argument – the database. Azuma claims that in recent years, the emphasis on narratives in otaku anime has decreased in favor of an increased emphasis on characters. That is to say, the stories being told don't matter nearly as much as the qualities that the characters in those stories possess. We can certainly see this to be the case with much of what it labeled “moe” anime – by its very nature the emphasis is on the kinds of reactions the characters are designed to draw out in the viewer rather than anything having to do with what's going on in the plot. New characters are generated through a process of drawing from certain traits that have proven to be popular in the past and then recombining those traits into different combinations. In essence, there is a common database (which is just an organized collection of information) of character designs, traits, plot points, and so on, from which to draw in order to try to create new products. I think this is probably one of the most interesting parts of Azuma's entire book. Azuma provides plenty of evidence to back up his ideas, and even for anime fans, we can see the database in action when common features cropping up again and again in many of the anime we watch. But, as the excuse goes, such database-driven products are what sell, which is why creators and producers keep going back to the same well for their ideas.

Azuma's arguments are more nuanced that I have summarized here, but I don't really have the space to go into as much detail as he does. I'm sure my synopsis doesn't do enough justice to his overall case, since in the course of discussing databases and animalization he brings up many other topics like psychoanalysis, philosophy, and Japanese history. As you might be able to tell, even through Azuma says that he didn't write the book for an academic audience, this isn't going to be light reading – although he does his best to keep it accessible (assisted by Jonathan Abel and Shion Kono's translation), all of his references to other writers and theories might have you trekking to your local library, or at least keeping Wikipedia handy. The main text of the book is pretty short (lest then 120 pages with around 20 pages of notes), so it can be rather dense at times, particularly if you're not familiar with the particular philosopher or theorist he's discussing. But I'd certainly encourage you to stick with it – even if you disagree with Azuma's take on things, I think it's important to engage with such ideas as they have gained currency with some in Japan.

My biggest complaint about the book is how long it took to make it over into English. It was originally published in Japanese in 2001, but didn't come out here until 2009. This means that some of the references and images used in the book might see out of date to a contemporary anime fan. Although discussions of a perennial fan favorite like Evangelion still work today, references to characters in a series like Di Gi Charat certainly date the book. I would love to be able to get more Japanese criticism out here in English in a timelier manner. However, I understand the economics of the situation – few publishers outside of university presses can afford to put out a book like this due to relatively low sales, and such academic publishers don't often operate with the greatest of speed.

With Azuma's ideas on anime and otaku laid out in his book, I can't wait to see what he does with the opportunity he has with Fractale. Perhaps my expectations have been set too high, but I think it will be really interesting to see how (or even if) Azuma is going to be able to put his theories into practice. However, even if Fractale ends up disappointing, you can look to many of the other shows this winter season for confirmation of some of the things Azuma is saying. Take Rio – Rainbow Gate! for instance. It's a show that was based on a slot machine game featuring a main character that had also been adopted into the Dead or Alive video game franchise. The fact that such a character can be transferred from medium to medium with little regard for story (if there ever really was one) supports much of what Azuma is saying about the database and the animality of fan reaction. I'll be on the lookout to see how Azuma deals with the characters in his own creation and how they will be directed by Yamakan (who has recently come out against moe as a symptom of anime's recent decline and says that he intends the show to be for a non-otaku crowd.) Fractale will definitely be one of the few shows this season that I'll be sure not to miss.

Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.

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