Buried Treasure
In Praise of Nerdiness

by Justin Sevakis, Nov 15th 2007
This week we lost a dear friend of mine. Steve Pearl, once as inseparable from American anime fandom as fanfiction and cosplay, departed after a painful, years-long battle with complications from diabetes.

Those who joined this fandom after 2000 or so may not have heard of him, but Steve was one of the true pioneers of the scene. As the moderator for the newsgroup rec.arts.anime (which later branched off into several sub-newsgroups), he presided over the first internet gathering place for anime fans several years before the world wide web even came into being. As a co-founder of the Atlantic Anime Alliance, he bridged the divide between New England's disparate anime fan clubs, and wrote many then-indispensable resources for newer fans, such as the Anime FAQ. As the industry became more developed, he worked closely with the various boutique video labels that started up, and established a rapport between the professionals and the fans that continues today.

But beyond all that, Steve was simply a nice guy. He exuded this sort of cheerful, ready-to-help sort of excitement that seems almost over-the-top in today's world of cynical expectation and entitlement. In many ways, he personified the feeling of nerd culture; not just in anime, but in the many disrespected subcultures that pocket protector types were drawn into, from personal computers to comic books.

In many ways, the loss of Steve seems indicative of something much larger; a subculture paradigm shift that has been underway for years now. You may have noticed it in the grumblings of old-school nerds, who may haunt conventions and forums as they did in the past, but complain that "it's just not the same anymore." Despite sounding like the curmudgeonly musings of someone past their prime, it's close enough to my reality to give me pause.

It's hard to describe, in retrospect, the sort of excitement that seemed commonplace back then. In each of the little pockets of nerd ambition that dotted convention centers across the country, every one of them seemed to be accomplishing something... something big. Computer shows were constantly pushing the envelope of graphics and communication. Comic conventions were pushing the latest new subculture that was cool, and bringing about progress in those art forms. Heck, even role playing games seemed to have this buzz of productivity about them. And as for anime, well, there was a lot of work to be done.

The differences between then and now are so vast, it's difficult to wrap one's mind around them. Needless to say, having piles and piles of anime (or a backlog in things they hadn't seen) was something that just didn't happen, even to the most well-connected fan. Fansubs, filling a much deeper need back then, required investment in special equipment to produce. Sharing them with friends required effort and expensive supplies -- a few bucks for a blank tape and postage at the least, rather than a few minutes' usage of a broadband connection. Even information about our favorite shows was in short supply; almost all information came from individuals you met online. The vast information databases of ANN and Wikipedia were just not around. Indeed, you were lucky to even get a poor quality JPEG of a new show.

To new fans I imagine that must sound like hell, but it's hard for an old school fan not to look back on those days fondly. There was the never-ending excitement of finding something cool, meeting like-minded individuals, and then helping each other get more of it. It required one-on-one contact, a cooperative atmosphere and a drive to innovate and work hard for the things that brought us joy. When resources are in short supply, no contribution is taken for granted. That communal spirit is something I rarely see in anime fandom, or really any nerd circles today. Through the immediacy of the internet or simply the expansion of anime fandom in general, the friendly small town has become a bustling city replete with big businesses, traffic jams and homeless people. It's not the same.

Us old timers bemoan the loss of that old atmosphere; that old mindset that we find impossible to recapture. For where we were once wide-eyed, easily impressed and excited for the future, the world of anime has settled into a surly and nihilistic adolescence. What was once a small cottage video industry is now made up of large international conglomerates. More established conventions seem run more out of obligation than any communal desire. It's impossible to marvel at a new show today the way we worshiped Nausicäa when we first saw it. The bar has simply been raised too high.

I'm really not one to live in the past. I was a miserable teenager, and as an adult I feel I've found more happiness than I ever had in my youth. It's true that time turns all memories sepia tone, and things that were once annoying and painful become something we look back upon fondly. I can't argue that things are really worse today than they were back in the mid 90's, because they aren't. I can't even argue that anime itself is any worse today -- if you saw everything that came out of Japan in the late 80's you'd probably want to claw your eyes out.

What the old school guys mourn isn't the loss of their community, their sense of propriety over an unappreciated art, or the thrill of hunting for strange and rare artifacts from a mysterious foreign culture. What's missing is the newness, that starry-eyed open-mouthed gape of a child at a world heretofore unimaginable, and the excitement of sharing that new experience with those around us. Today, we are not the children, we're the chaperons shouting, "slow down!" oblivious to the joy in the room.

And now, upon the occasion of Steve's passing, those that knew him pause to glance back at those early days; our otaku formative years. Remembering Steve and his devotion to anime, laserdiscs and idol stars, I'm reminded of when I recently looked at some of the old Apple II computer hobbyist magazines I had stashed away. I was shocked to discover how gentle they seemed. There was not a drop of resentment or cynicism -- just an overwhelming desire to help out a buddy who was into the same cool stuff you were.

It's easy to let the reality of aging and the bitter taste of life experience weigh us down, in this world we've made for ourselves. The annoyance of an obnoxious Narutard or a forum spammer can touch off the grouchy old man in us all. But it's important that we be able to keep an open mind; to adapt to our surroundings. Because only the old people don't have any fun.



Otaku no Video and Daicon Film III and IV

Steve was known as the Otaking, a reference to the seminal 1991 OAV Otaku no Video. Remarkably, this tongue-in-cheek autobiography of anime studio Gainax and its history has a lot in common with the enterprising spirit of the American anime movement. Perhaps that's why it was so well loved on American shores.

Otaku no Video's story starts out, more or less, like most every anime about anime fans since then. Normal guy meets otaku and gets sucked into the world of cosplay, doujinshi and video games, and life as he knew it changes forever. Said normal guy in this case is Kubo, a college freshman and member of the Tennis Club. A chance encounter with his old friend Tanaka leads him to the science fiction club, devoted to everything from sentai shows to anime to military weapons. Kubo is a quick study, and before he knows it, he's forgetting to shave and is spending nights waiting in line to get limited edition promotional toys. Years pass before he realizes he's lost his girlfriend and can't find a job. "Who needs it!" he declares, after a moment of inspiration. He's an otaku, after all. Rather than the trappings of a modern life, he'd prefer to devote his life to becoming the Otaking!

What follows is, sorta-not-really, the story of Gainax. Kubo and Tanaka make their own company dedicated to garage kits, and before long are a huge mega-million dollar corporation building a factory in China to keep up with demand. (This is all very silly, of course. Garage kits are individually-crafted hand-made soft plastic sculptures with a very limited fan base.) The two are eventually forced out of the company and, slowly, work towards building a new dream together, and further cementing their place in history as Otakings!

Sprinkled throughout the show are myriad anime and superhero references. Everything from Ultraman to Rose of Versailles gets referenced, with Castle of Cagliostro and Maison Ikkoku-related sight gags and Macross models and Cobra cosplay... These little exclusive nudge-nudge wink-wink inside jokes is where most of the show's humor comes from, and unfortunately the reason Otaku no Video hasn't aged so well. As it was made in 1991, most of the shows it references are around twenty years old (or more), and would be lost on all but the most old-school anime fans.

Where Otaku no Video is still as impactful as the day it was made is its sense of nostalgia. It's a loving look back at the days when being a fan meant rolling up your sleeves, making connections, and hunting down every possible piece of the shows you loved. The hands-on approach to making your dorky dreams come true here is the same principle on which most of the anime companies we know today were founded. The friendly companionship and the joy of building something to be proud of is a token of what it was like to be around in the early days of anime fandom.

Interspersed with the anime are live action segments called "Portrait of an Otaku," featuring interviews with these real-life freaks of modern Japan. Of course, these are all staged (the acting is particularly hammy, and each person is actually a friend or employee of Gainax), and the completely deadpan narrator doesn't even give pause to the fact that his subject matter is a guy who can't stop watching porn. The interview segments are mildly amusing, but really slow down the pace of the show. Luckily, the AnimEigo DVD allows for the viewing of these segments separately from the anime, which is something I recommend. The one otaku who insisted on videotaping every piece of anime he could find on television reminded me of some of the people I knew years ago. (And myself, perhaps.)

An early scene of Otaku no Video has Tanaka showing Kubo an example of amazing, state-of-the-art animation; the sort that makes true anime fans wet in the eyes as well as the pants. The footage is actually from the first Gainax animation project(s), the so-called Daicon Openings, created in 1981 and 1983 respectively by the Gainax crew of Hideaki Anno, Hiroyuki Yamaga and Takami Akai (then classmates at Osaka University of Art). Meant as an Opening Ceremony video for the Japan Science Fiction Convention (AKA Daicon), the films are explosive, endlessly fascinating works of kinetic pop art.

Daicon III was born of this imperative, and features a little girl paid a visit by anime aliens and sent on a mission to water a mysterious daicon radish. Along the ways she's attacked (by everything from the Yamato to Godzilla) and saves the day with her own backpack of ballistic missiles. It's quite short, but indescribably cute and amazingly well-animated. Unfortunately it was shot in 8mm, so it's very blurry and it's hard to make out the fine detail that is, no doubt, in there somewhere.

Daicon III was the group's first attempt at cel animation, and despite a few technical mistakes, the work was good enough to get the trio a job in Tokyo working on Macross. Two years later they would return and make a second stab. Despite not quite pulling off the 16-minute extravaganza they had in mind (the final product clocks in at just over 5 minutes) Daicon IV was nonetheless a wildly popular visual tour-de-force. The team was joined by animators Ichiro Itano (whose flying missile work earned him quite a name on Macross) and Mahiro Maeda. Featuring a sexy adult version of the girl (now with bunny ears), we watch with glee as she fights mecha, aliens, Godzilla, Darth Vader and about 100 other pop culture references in a high-speed blast through nerd subculture. The animation, despite still being shot in 8mm, is on a whole 'nother level. In this short five minutes, the entire essence of anime and its appeal can be found. For an otaku, it feels like you're seeing God.

The Daicon animations are exceedingly rare; aside from the manually-produced videocassette copies that were sold in Japan at the time (and no doubt look absolutely unwatchable today), there were a few hundred copies of a laserdisc produced in 1988. As the music was unlicensed and the footage featured myriad pop culture icons that would have to be cleared -- a daunting, if not impossible legal task, sale was not an option, so instead these laserdiscs were given away as "bonuses" to the fans who bought the Daicon Openings artbook. (The artbook happened to cost ¥16,000, of course...) Also included on the disc were some special effects fan films produced by (and starring) the Gainax crew. These fan films have since seen R2 DVD, but the animation footage has never been released since.

Despite the rarity of the footage, it's become a thing of legend in anime fan circles. The opening to the Densha Otoko live action drama series features an homage to the footage (even making use of the same song).

Otaku no Video is an ode to the fandom that was, the "glory days" that us old-timers will speak of for the decades we have left. It's part of our history; an indirect biography produced by people who hadn't met us, but were nonetheless kindred spirits. As all fans know, nothing bonds people like being complete obsessed freaks for the same thing.

Footnote: In 1995, Gainax co-founder Toshio Okada, the original "Otaking", officially coronated Steve as the "American Otaking." I've no doubt in my mind that it was one of the happiest days of Steve's life.
Otaku no Video
Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Daicon Openings
Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

How to get it: Otaku no Video is available now on a very nice subtitled-only DVD from AnimEigo. Digitized versions of the Daicon videos will probably never be available for legal purchase, but it's since been digitized by fans, and can be found floating around the web on occasion. I'm sure you can find it, with a little work.


Otaku no Video screenshots ©2001 by Gainax • Toshiba EMI. Daicon screenshots © GAINAX. Steve Pearl photograph courtesy and © Kevin Lillard.

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