Saturday, March 18, 2006
"What kind of place is this?" - Saki, upon entering the weird world of otaku
Last night, my wife and I watched and enjoyed the first 15-minute episode (out of six) of Maid in Akihabara (2005), a live-action Japanese comedy about a young woman, Saki, who becomes a server at a maid cafe in Akihabara, the world's most famous "geek ghetto", as the Washington Post puts it. Obviously, as a server in a maid cafe, she has to dress up as a maid, serving otaku customers looking for company and relaxation after, say, a long day of anime shopping or a night of waiting in line to score the perfect autograph to go on the perfect piece of anime/manga/game related merchandise. Needless to say, this world is completely foreign to Saki, but despite some initial discomfort, she tries to make the best of her situation.
If you're at all interested in Akihabara, otaku, and the curious phenomenon of maid/cosplay cafes, this comedy is for you. The idea of maid cafes might sound a bit distasteful to some, but if you've never been to one, what goes on inside might surprise you, which makes Maid in Akihabara worth watching. Just keep in mind that the show exaggerates many things in order to entertain the audience, but like all good comedies, those exaggerations are based on elements of truth. Another thing to keep in mind is that not all (or even most) otaku visit maid cafes. Works of fiction and news agencies alike, trying to present simple and coherent stories, often neglect to mention the diversity of otaku culture, which is actually quite complex. Also, for the sake of this review, when I refer to otaku, I'm talking primarily about male (and heterosexual) otaku, even though female otaku certainly exist.
I've never been to a maid cafe myself, but the descriptions I've heard and read of them seem to match (at least vaguely) what I saw in the comedy. Besides the typically fun portrayals of otaku interacting with each other in their natural habitat (something that I personally relate to), the show also gets into the fascinating interactions between the otaku and the maids who are serving them.
Some might find those interactions creepy, but I found them to be surprisingly sensitive. Even though the maids acted out submissive roles, they maintained strong boundaries over what was acceptable and always sought to maintain control of the situation. Except for some nervous ogling, and the very basic fact that the maids were dressed for their benefit, the otaku treated the maids with an enormous amount of respect and courteousness, as if they were celebrities. The otaku didn't boss them around, make inappropriate advances toward them, or otherwise act misogynistically. Their general vibe was one of immense gratefulness. Instead of pretending to be Casanovas--bragging about sexual conquests and the ability to seduce women--the otaku were honest about their inexperience with the opposite sex.
Maid Cafes and Otaku Sexuality
If we consider maid cafes to be sexist, it's because of the role otaku prefer for the women--clearly subservient, completely unthreatening, unswervingly adoring, unconditionally faithful, and pure of both mind and body. Undoubtedly, the maids at these cafes represent an antiquated ideal of womanhood. This phenomenon is not new. Strip clubs and bars where the waitresses have to dress up in bunny outfits both feature women who serve at the pleasure of male clientele. Some people who complain about such places will say that those establishments are reflections/manifestations of male-dominated society. Yet, while Japan certainly has its share of gender inequality, I would be very shocked to hear that otaku who frequent maid cafes are at all dominant over women in real life (except for the extreme minority who become involved in sex crimes). For most otaku, the interactions they have with women at maid cafes are a complete fantasy.
The real question, left unanswered by the show, is how the otaku patrons of maid cafes feel about real women, what their expectations are of the opposite sex outside of the maid fantasy world. Are these cafe visits brief moments of escapist fantasy, or do they represent (or at least influence) Japanese otaku's broader worldviews about women in general? The common perception is that male otaku in Japan don't (and often don't want to) interact intimately with women very much, especially if the women are not otaku themselves. (See the troubled hero of Densha Otoko for an example of an otaku who struggles to do just that.)
Is such lack and difficulty of interaction exacerbated by these maid fantasies? Does being a fan of moe hurt one's prospects of having healthy relationships with real women? I don't actively study otaku in Japan, so I won't draw any conclusions about that, but I'm going to safely guess that the answer is not black and white. Being into moe, or pornography for that matter (itself mostly fantasy), can be unhealthy if taken to certain extremes, but I don't think it has to be, and it probably isn't unhealthy most of the time for most people.
Most of the American otaku I've met (males and females, fans of moe included) are pretty well-balanced individuals who are able to interact well with each other and non-otaku. The influx of female and younger fans has resulted in a different kind of socialization, compared (for example) to American anime fandom 10 years ago, and I think the effect has been positive overall. Today, a diverse mix of people in America are proud to call themselves otaku.
'Maid in Japan' cafes treat geeks like lords One of many articles describing the maid cafe phenomenon
New Butler Cafe to Cater to Otaku Girls Female otaku looking for some pampering are not left out
Original Video / Maid in Akihabara DVD (released on 2/24/06) available at cdjapan; site includes cast information
A note on the references in the show
When the otaku are talking in the cafe, they routinely refer to real life shows. I'm not an expert on all the references, but I do recognize some of the more obvious ones, like Mobile Suit Gundam quotes. One reference I wanted to bring up, however, is the discussion the two otaku had about Ultra Seven (1967-1968) episode 12.
I definitely am not an expert on tokusatsu, but I have read about the "banned" 12th episode of Ultra Seven. To make a long story short, other than the original broadcast, the episode was never again broadcast or released in Japan, and no mention of the episode is ever made in any of the official reference books for the show. Due to a controversy over the naming of one of the monsters (it sounded too much like the name given to survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings), the studio promised to seal the episode away forever (though the English dub of the episode has been broadcast a few times outside of Japan).
Even more interesting is the fact that Tsutomu Miyazaki, the man whose heinous crimes caused Japan's mainstream media to incite widespread fear and hatred of otaku, had a copy of this banned episode (see the second link below). I've also read that he used his bootleg copy as a valuable bargaining chip to obtain other (oftentimes illicit) material. [Unfortunately, I've lost my source for that second bit of information, so if you know anything about it, please let me know.] By referencing this rare Ultra Seven episode, the writers of Maid in Akihabara are showing us that otaku know about things that normal 'civilians' do not, and maybe the writers are also indirectly evoking the memory of Miyazaki's crimes.
The Banned Ultraseven Episode Informative Usenet posting
ULTRA SEVEN: BANNED! Scroll down on that page to see the article
Posted by Lawrence Eng at 7:37 AM