Monday, May 29, 2006

My Otaku Room

For the Weekly Anime Review episode featuring an interview with yours truly, Aaron used an image of an otaku's room. Someone asked me if the picture was of my room. It isn't. While I like figures, I don't collect a whole lot of them. I mostly collect posters, artbooks, and other rare stuff I can get ahold of related to my favorite anime.

I've posted photos of my home office / anime-haven before, but it's been awhile. The following photos are the most recent, taken about a year ago (before Rowan was born). Since then, in order to put in Rowan's crib and changing table, I have moved some things around and removed the guest bed. (Rowan still gets to enjoy the posters, though.) Except for select titles that I like to have close by, I keep my modest anime and manga collection in other rooms (such as the living room where my TV and PS2 reside). Naturally, since these photos are over a year old and I don't typically throw things away, I have more stuff now.

room photo room photo

room photo room photo

Update 07/10/09: I recently started a group on Flickr to highlight people's Otaku Rooms. I hope you'll check it out and share your photos!

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Talking About Otaku with Weekly Anime Review

I'm too busy these days to write much here, and I expect it will be like that for the next two months, but if you'd like to literally hear me talk about otaku, I was recently interviewed by Aaron of Weekly Anime Review, an excellent podcast that I mentioned previously on lainspotting. The interview is the main feature of the latest episode, found here: Episode 33 - Otaku Studies With Lawrence Eng

I was on a cell phone, so my voice is definitely muffled, but if you turn up the volume, you should be able to hear what I'm saying. I'm much more comfortable writing out my thoughts than articulating them verbally, especially in an unscripted interview (as opposed to a formal presentation), but it was a nice change of pace (since I'm the one who usually does the interviewing) and I think it turned out pretty well. If you're visiting this site for the first time because you heard the interview, welcome! (There's a lot of material spread out all over the place, so feel free to explore.)

In case people were wondering, my conversation with Aaron was actually longer than what's presented, but he edited some stuff out to keep things on topic. For example, we spent some time talking about my lain website and how it came about. In general, Aaron did a great job of editing. The only weird bit I noticed was when I was talking about Kino's Journey, and then it abruptly jumped to me talking about otaku again, but other than that, the editing was smooth.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Earliest mentions of "otaku" in anime or manga?

The last couple of posts have been very text-intensive, so here's a quick question and a chance for me to post a nice image.

Does anyone reading this know the earliest usage of the term "otaku" (in the uber-fan sense) in an anime or manga? All you masters of old school anime, here's your chance to show your stuff.

The earliest usage I know of is in Volume 2 of Gainax's Aim for the Top! Gunbuster (one of my all time favorites), released on January 1st, 1989 (on VHS). Noriko is called an otaku by Kazumi in the science lessons following episode 4. You can look at the translated script here: "Top wo Nerae -- GunBuster -- Vol. 2"

Takaya Noriko from Gunbuster
Takaya Noriko from Gunbuster

If you know any earlier anime or manga mentions of "otaku" (as fans), feel free to leave a comment or send me an email. Thanks!

Sunday, May 14, 2006

A different perspective on Japan's "Otaku Boom"

On Friday, I came across the following article on the Mainichi Daily News site, in the WaiWai section (which generally features tabloid journalism): Self-professed 'real otaku' rips into 'moe' fetish fakers.

While the article, featuring harsh commentary by manga artist Mimei Sakamoto, is clearly meant to ruffle feathers and create a stir, it provides an interesting perspective on otaku identity politics in Japan. The article brings up some points that I'd like to discuss.

Non-otaku in the mainstream Japan criticizing otaku culture is nothing new. Less common are those people who are deep into otaku culture who have a problem with either a) certain subfactions of otaku, and/or b) mainstream perceptions of otaku. Previously, when otaku were still heavily discriminated against (in the years following the Miyazaki incident), we had well-known figures such as Toshio Okada and Takashi Murakami speaking up in defense of otaku culture. Now, however, as otaku have become more mainstream and accepted in Japanese society, we have otaku such as Toru Honda and Mimei Sakamoto speaking out against the current "otaku boom", but each with a very different message.

As I wrote about in an earlier blog post, Toru Honda is a hardcore otaku who speaks in favor of otaku culture, but is not pleased with the sterile and cutesy image of otaku that now dominates Japanese media. Instead, Honda prefers to emphasize the darker and more dangerous side of otaku (i.e. the extreme otaku who prefer stylized 2D female characters over real life women). Mimei Sakamoto, who also considers herself an otaku, is likewise displeased with the new glamorization of otaku culture. In direct contrast to Honda, however, Sakamoto's main criticism is that celebrating otaku who are unstylish and interested in moe has the unfortunate side effect of justifying the darker side of otaku obsessiveness (a side she definitely disapproves of).

In particular, Sakamoto rails against moe as being "pedophiliac fetish" and "nothing more than perversion", and also criticizes otaku for being "incapable of recognizing reality" and being "incapable of being in a normal loving relationship". In response to this, I feel compelled to defend moe in principle because I don't think there is anything wrong with or perverse about enjoying well-drawn characters and finding them attractive, any more than it's wrong to feel attracted to an interesting character in a novel or television show.

It is true that some anime and game characters designed to be attractive to otaku are very young looking (clearly drawn to look like minors, in other words), a fact that has certain moral implications to be worked out by the individual who chooses whether or not to like them. So far, in the United States, even when such drawings are explicitly pornographic (and most of them are not), they have been deemed legal and protected speech, in that they do not directly harm real life children (unlike actual child pornography which is widely agreed to be a form of child exploitation and abuse).

Sakamoto's argument against moe on the basis that it is "pedophiliac" suffers when one considers that a) not all moe characters look like children, b) moe characters are not always portrayed in a sexualized manner, and c) those who appreciate young characters do not necessarily view them in a sexual way (in fact, some people define moe as having nothing to do with sexual feelings).

That said, I do understand somewhat where Sakamoto is coming from. While there is plenty of innocuous moe stuff out there (a lot of it is just really cute), one cannot deny the existence of some moe that portrays young characters in less than innocent ways, and whatever you think about such images, it's not surprising that Sakamoto is upset by them. The bigger issue is whether or not such images should be banned completely. According to an Anime News Network poll conducted last year, about 39% of American anime fans do not think they should banned, 20% think they should be banned in certain situations, but not others, while only 29% think they should be banned completely (the remaining 12% were undecided). When debating the issue, many fans defend such images on the basis of free speech (and a perspective that denies the existence of thought crimes), though they also respect that not everyone has to personally like or approve of such images, and certainly noone should be forced to look at them.

Sakamoto brings up a related issue that is even more controversial--the "idolizing" of young girls in Japan (which is more than just an otaku thing). U-15 (under 15) idol stars appear to be gaining in popularity in Japan, but not without some serious concern and criticism. Like Sakamoto, I see this (the popularity of sexualized young idols) as a disturbing trend; it seems very close to being (or maybe just is) a form of child exploitation. Young models exist in the US as well, but they aren't as mainstream here, and they too are surrounded by a fair bit of controversy.

In contrast, Sakamoto's complaint about otaku liking "women wearing spectacles" seems unimportant, akin to complaining about men liking women who wear swimsuits at the beach. Being angry at those who fetishize glasses-wearing seems unnecessary at best, intolerant at worst, similar to her displeasure regarding those "guys walking around in thick glasses and checkered shirts". (I've never been a master of fashion, but my wife likes me just fine, thank you very much.)

Sakamoto is not necessarily wrong to question otaku who are "incapable of recognizing reality" and "incapable of being in a normal loving relationship", assuming that most of us agree that reality and healthy relationships are important. There are some otaku who really are like that, and maybe they could use some help. It's important to note, however, that not all (or even most) otaku are thus afflicted; hopefully, Sakamoto realizes that.

While I think Sakamoto is overly harsh and often overgeneralizes, I do appreciate the fact that she is willing to speak out against specific things she does not like about otaku culture, and the specific way it is being popularized in Japan.

To me, not all moe is as bad as she makes it out to be. Likewise, not all otaku are incapable of healthy social relations. On the other hand, I do think it's somewhat of a shame that when talking about otaku, the Japanese media focuses so heavily on moe and otaku who have trouble socializing with non-otaku. Light-hearted news segments about 'weird otaku' and business reports regarding the massive amounts of money moe generates for the Japanese economy have overshadowed any serious discussion of the deeper sociological (and moral) issues surrounding otaku culture.

From my perspective, there are so many interesting things about otaku that are almost never talked about. Sakamoto touches on one of those things in her complaint that "otaku are caught up in this money making cycle and all they're doing is spending their hard-earned yen". The way that otaku choose to consume and engage with media and other technology is a topic close to my heart. Maybe the situation is different for otaku in Japan (since Japanese otaku are the direct target audience for many anime), but I feel that otaku in America have a long history of having a certain amount of control over their media consumption, that they are able to consume on their own terms, whether by maintaining vast fansub networks that exist outside of mainstream distribution channels, or by maintaining close relations and open dialogue with American anime publishers. (My forthcoming PhD dissertation will discuss this further)

Finally, I can't quite make sense of the final paragraph about "real otaku" shutting themselves away from the world. Perhaps the translation was poor. Reading that paragraph, I wonder if Sakamoto has some significant self-esteem issues, if she feels conflicted about her otaku identity. While the mainstreaming of all things labeled "otaku" is not necessarily good for society, her solution of locking oneself up seems even more destructive (and reminiscent of Japan's hikikomori problem).

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Apple TV commercial disses geeks?

Well, not precisely, but close enough. I consider myself an Apple fan, but I'm not a huge fan of the commercial ("Network") in question.

If you haven't seen it yet, here it is.

The important part to note is the Japanese dialogue spoken by the digital camera woman. After some basic pleasantries, her last line can be translated to "he looks kinda otaku-ish".

Now, regular readers of this blog or people familar with my writings and research in general have heard me talk about otaku over and over. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, I'll point you to my most commonly-cited otaku essay: "The Politics of Otaku" (which has links to more information). To make a long story short, it's not wholly inaccurate to translate 'otaku' as 'geek'. There are some important distinctions between 'otaku' and 'geek', but they are very closely related ('anorak' might be even better, but only British readers will get that).

So why am I bringing this up? I have to say that I was somewhat surprised to see 'otaku' used in the Apple ad that way. Of course, most Americans watching the ad won't know what she said, and the main point of the ad is simply that the PC guy doesn't know how to communicate with the Japanese digital camera woman, leading to an awkward moment for him. It also appears that the Mac guy and the digital camera woman are sharing an inside joke, chuckling while the PC guy is forced to look on, feeling excluded.

Of course, with the internet, it's very easy for television viewers to find out what she said, and as it turns out, she was mentioning how the PC guy looked kind of like an otaku (or a geek, or nerd if you prefer), and then laughed about it with the Mac guy.

Why did they have her say that? Yes, it's true that otaku are not always looked upon very highly by certain segments of Japanese society, but did Apple really want the protagonist of their commercial to engage in or sympathize with outright mocking of otaku/geeks? It seems a little distasteful. After all, don't we affectionately consider Jobs and Wozniak to be geeks? Furthermore, in the last year, otaku have enjoyed a wave of positive media attention in Japan [see my article The Evolution of Otaku Concept for more discussion of that].

Another weird thing about the statement she made is that the PC guy doesn't look anything like an otaku. Now, I'm not a fan of physical stereotyping, and I know that otaku come in all shapes and sizes, and are not restricted to any particular "look", but given the PC guy's conservative and business formal attire, I can't figure out why she would say he looks like an otaku. She might be referring to his general build, haircut, and/or glasses, and if that's the case, it's even more shocking that Apple would have a commercial making fun of those things. Maybe the guy doesn't have the look and presence of an action movie star, but so what? What ever happened to the philosophy behind the Apple Switch ads featuring regular looking people as the stars?

Just like in the US, there are people in Japan (many of whom might be considered otaku) who are really into Apple Computer products. Why would the company risk alienating its otaku userbase in Japan, not to mention all the PC-using otaku? Apple is all about passionate, free-spirited, and iconoclastic users, so such an ad is an odd contradiction and possibly a foolish move.

There are the plenty of Americans (anime and manga fans, mostly) who call themselves 'otaku', as well. This ad doesn't speak very well to them, either.

To me, the most ironic thing is that this commercial might very well be the most widely broadcasted use of the word 'otaku' in American television history. Let's hope Apple (or whoever else) does it better next time.

[Thanks to Lillian for providing the translation]

Thursday, May 04, 2006

My 50 Favorite Movies

This list is mostly for my own benefit. I started it a few weeks ago, and have decided to put it online for easy access. When new movies make the list, I'll edit accordingly.

I did not include my favorite anime, documentaries, or TV shows. As you can see, my tastes are kind of geeky and/or sentimental. [More interesting than what's on the list, perhaps, is what I've left off.]

My top 50 movies are divided into three tiers. I had a top 10 (the first tier), a second tier of 10, and a third tier of 30. Within each tier, the movies are not ranked against each other (but are listed in alphabetical order, instead). The short comments are the same as my Netflix "Two Cents" reviews.

Tier 1 (10 movies):

The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
A quirky cult classic with colorful characters and a unique sense of style

Cult sci-fi. I grew up watching the extended version on TV

Faraway, So Close!
Poetic, beautiful, and moving. The source of "Raphaela"

One of the most perfect movies ever made

Some Kind of Wonderful
The perfect 80's teen movie

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Sergio Leone's direction plus Clint Eastwood's performance plus a great supporting cast = greatness

The Great Escape
Action adventure with memorable characters, brilliantly performed

The Right Stuff
An American classic

Extremely ambitious and visionary, with a great story to boot

They don't make technothrillers like this anymore

Tier 2 (10 movies):

Battle Royale
A story of youth rebellion against a society that fears, torments, and uses them as an example

Enter the Dragon
The quintessential Bruce Lee movie, filmed at the height of his physical condition and ability

Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone
"It has all the magic and wonder of the original", because it is the original! (yes, I saw the movie first)

Mr. and Mrs. Smith
A surprisingly nuanced and funny romance, enhanced by excellent action sequences and gunplay

On the Edge

Taut, well-written sci-fi on a budget

Red Dawn
You don't have to be a right-winger to be moved by this beautiful vision of near-future dystopia made in the 80's

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
My favorite Trek movie; the soundtrack by James Horner is magnificent

The Hunt for Red October
The first Jack Ryan movie is my favorite by far

What many critics miss about Tomorrowland: it's less about nostalgia for old visions of the future, and more about a revival of the spirit

Tier 3 (30 movies):

A Better Tomorrow II

A Knight's Tale

All the President's Men



Battlestar Galactica

Breaking Away

Cinema Paradiso

Conan the Barbarian



Fast Times at Ridgemont High

Gabbar is Back


Great Balls of Fire

Love Actually

Margin Call

Music and Lyrics

Ocean's Twelve

Once Upon a Time in America

Once Upon a Time in China 3



Searching for Bobby Fischer

Speed Racer

Spider-Man 2

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

The Andromeda Strain

The Rock

Until the End of the World

Honorable mentions (recently bumped out of the top 50):

Blade Runner

Cool Hand Luke

Crimson Tide


Kate & Leopold

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider



Taxi Driver

The American President

The Longest Day

The Outlaw Josey Wales

The School of Rock

The Transformers: The Movie


More otaku video clips, and some thoughts on Kevin Underwood

Video clips

In late January, I posted links to two clips by "Yamato Damacy" that featured otaku and Akihabara. In the meantime, they've posted two more videos that feature otaku culture. I enjoyed them, though the otaku interviewed at the end of Episode #18 was probably being too down on himself. Follow the links below:

Episode #16, Scenes from Akihabara

Episode #18, Otaku

I also came across a video segment called "Otaku from USA", posted in the following blog: TV in Japan: Otaku from USA.

It's a clip from a Japanese TV show that followed around and interviewed the members of a Pop Japan Travel tour. I went on one of those as well, but we didn't get the same amount of Japanese media coverage (just a newspaper article with a photo, and a little video footage during the Sapporo Snow Festival). For a full length documentary featuring a Pop Japan Travel tour, check out Seven Days in Japan by Joe Doughrity.

Kevin Underwood: An American otaku-murderer?

26-year-old Kevin Underwood was recently arrested for the murder of a little girl, whose body was found in his apartment. It has been a high profile incident, not just because of the crime's brutality, but because of Underwood's significant internet presence (he maintained various blogs, for example), allowing crime analysts (professional and amateur alike) to peer into his clearly troubled psyche. He was into a lot of things: sci-fi, movies, music...typical stuff, really, for someone his age who spends a lot of time on the internet. More telling was his apparent interest in serial killers and cannibalism. I mention him here because he was also into anime. The nature of his crime and his interest in anime have caused some on the internet to draw parallels between him and Tsutomu Miyazaki.

Miyazaki, of course, was the infamous child-murderer who, due to his vast collection of videos (anime, horror movies, and child porn, according to most reports), was publically called an otaku by the Japanese media, sparking a moral panic against otaku in general in the late 80's and early 90's. I do agree that there are interesting parallels between Miyazaki and Underwood, but I find it ironic when people label Underwood as an otaku. Miyazaki being called an otaku resulted in an unfortunate backlash against anime fans in Japan. While Underwood's crime is similar to what Miyazaki did, are we to repeat what the Japanese media did over a decade-and-a-half ago, creating a backlash against anime fans in America by focusing on Underwood's anime habit? [Anime was apparently only one facet of his wide-ranging interests; he does not appear to have blogged about anime-related subjects very much since 2004]

Luckily, linking Underwood to anime hasn't really happened yet on any large scale, and the network news coverage of the incident hasn't really touched on anime at all. Hopefully, they will focus less on the media he was into and try to understand the deeper causes of his crime. Unfortunately, we may never know the real answer. Even in the case of Tsutomu Miyazaki, after all these years, there is still debate about his motivations and what really happened. (The following article has an excellent discussion of that: Sifting through the geeks - that's all of us - to identify the perverts)

I find myself a bit puzzled as to why more people have not made a connection between Underwood's self-professed social anxiety and Japan's hikikomori problem, since the hikikomori phenomenon is often associated with social anxiety disorder. When reading some of Kevin Underwood's blog posts, I was more reminded of the disturbed hikikomori protagonist of Welcome to the N.H.K. than the easy-going otaku portrayed in Genshiken (which is not to say that I think being hikikomori or having social anxiety disorder necessarily leads to violent behavior).