Looking for ramen and vending machines but getting oden-kan and pachinko machines instead

Patrick W Galbraith, The Otaku Encyclopedia: An insider’s guide to the subculture of Cool Japan, Kodansha International Ltd, Tokyo, 2009 (ISBN 978-4-7700-3101-3)

As a sometimes avid viewer of various Japanese anime productions – Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and several Hayao Miyazaki / Studio Ghibli movies are still some of my favourite flicks to watch though as Miyazaki ages, his movies have become less inspired and more predictable – I found this little guide by US journalist and self-confessed otaku Patrick W Galbraith very fun and informative. According to the book, the label “otaku” originally meant a nerd or a geek but the term has now become more specific and means a particular species of anorak who immerses himself (or maybe herself) in post-1945 Japanese pop culture, in particular the pop culture that has been developing since the 1980s.

The book’s A5 size makes it convenient for tourists, commuters and students alike to carry around though this means a lot of photographs and illustrations look quite cramped and readers might need magnifying glasses to discern all details and draw out any hidden meanings from them as such minutiae can be all-important to the diehard otaku! The A-Z format that orders the book’s topics treats them all as more or less equally important and makes them equally and easily accessible to the intended broad audience (anyone and everyone interested in contemporary Japanese society and culture at both a casual level and a slightly more academic level), and what really matters then is the author’s decision as to which topics to include and how far or how deeply he goes.

Anyone who has rather more specialised interests in aspects of Japanese pop culture and the sometimes bizarre issues and obsessions that mainstream Japanese society would prefer to forget – especially if it’s anything to do with the often deliberate blurring of childhood and adulthood by advertisers  among others which reinforces and encourages the Lolita complex that manifests in odd behaviours like men stealing girls’ underwear or paying teenage schoolgirls to spend time with them (a practice known as enjokosai which often but not always involves sex) – is advised to refer to the guide’s bibliography of books, magazines and websites, and the various essential otaku anime productions, manga, games and tokusatsu (live-action films and TV shows relying on special effects such as special costumes, miniature sets and models and pyrotechnics as part of the drama) recommended by Galbraith. Some of the books deal with the subject of otaku subculture on a more serious academic level and may explore particular issues such as women’s position in society and how this is reflected in people’s consumption of otaku products. As for the essential otaku products recommended, I dare say a number will already be too familiar to Western readers – the Godzilla movies and Super Mario Bros games are included – and as far as I’m aware are fairly harmless though Grand Theft Auto (I wonder how that got in there! – I thought this was an American game) seems to get more detractors with each new and more violent version that comes out and the TV show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers got pulled in parts of Scandinavia for a few weeks in 1994 after a tragic incident in Trondheim, Norway, in which two boys of kindergarten age forced their female playmate to strip, then bashed her severely and left her to die in the snow in their local playground. (The boys did receive psychiatric care and counselling, and were removed from the neighbourhood and sent to a different school. Both are now in their early  twenties and one is still receiving counselling, this time for alcohol and drug  addictions that he suffered in his teenage years.)

Ranging widely through various sometimes unrelated topics and issues that relate to mainstream Japanese culture as well as the otaku subculture,  Galbraith’s survey is bound to miss a few things. Shinya Tsukamoto’s cyberpunk classic Tetsuo: Iron Man gets no mention at all and indeed, live-action films, especially manga-connected films like Takashi Miike’s Ichi the Killer and Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, notorious for a scene in which 54 schoolgirls jump off the train platform in front of an oncoming  you-know-what, are pretty much absent here. It may be that otaku have short attention spans when it comes to watching movies that are no more than tie-ins with manga and airport novels. While Galbraith reaches as far back as one thousand years ago for The Tale of Genji, the world’s earliest novel, in an entry on nozoki (sexual voyeurism), the famous Takarazuka all-female singing, dancing and cross-dressing revue, a major influence on manga for girls and young women and a huge inspiration for legendary manga / anime creator Osamu Tezuka (the father of Astro-Boy, Kimba the White Lion and Princess Knight) who grew up in the eponymous town where the revue was based and saw many performances as a child, escapes Galbraith’s inquisitive gaze. Oden-kan (hot tinned seafood-meat-and-vegetable soup) and pinball pachinko machines get entries but the indispensable vending machines that dispense oden-kan and a million other things Japanese people need don’t, and I’m sure Galbraith would agree that if extraterrestrial beings suddenly appeared and zapped all the world’s vending machines, tokusatsu-style, Japanese society would screech to a stunned halt and many otaku and non-otaku alike would starve for lack of comforting oden-kan and instant ramen soup noodles. I looked for ramen in the book but, ack, it wasn’t there. Music gets fairly sketchy treatment but to be fair to Galbraith, the entire range of post-1945 Japanese popular music needs a separate encyclopaedia to merely scratch the surface of this particular topic. I shudder at how huge the monster encyclopaedia would have to be.

And when you choose to survey Japanese pop culture, you’re choosing a protean beast that goes through fads and changes faster than any other society in the world so it’s possible that though published last year (2009), The Otaku Encyclopedia … may already be looking a little elderly and out-of-date. While I was writing this review, I was already aware of the latest bizarre Japanese fad of the soushoku danshi (grass-eating boys or herbivorous lady-men) from reading various US and UK media sites: these are guys aged 20 – 34 years who enjoy shopping for make-up, hair care products and bras and corsets designed especially for them, live with their mums and potter around at home, have female friends but shun sex and commitment, and lack ambition and competitiveness. On second thoughts, maybe these creatures aren’t so bizarre or Japanese after all but a portent of what’s to come in Western societies: men who refuse to conform to traditional social expectations of how they should behave.

Interviews with people involved full-time in otaku obsessions – as artists creating anime and manga, as collectors, as maids, as idoru and tarento (idols and talents) – are a feature of the guide as is also the mascot Moe-pon, created especially for the book by illustrator Miyu Akashiro, who demonstrates otaku jargon and mores in case the printed explanations and definitions leave you slack-jawed. It’s a little depressing that the men interviewed are mainly artists and collectors while the women interviewed tend to be maids, idoru, tarento and gamers: in other words, either playing a passive role or a role that directly subjects them to other people’s judgement. Though perhaps later on, the women may move onto something more creative that gives them more control over their image and which enables them to be less scrutinised and judged publicly. Possibly if a second edition of The Otaku Encyclopedia …. were to come out (folks, don’t hold your breath – Galbraith is currently engrossed in PhD research on otaku culture at the University of Tokyo so that might take time), there may be more interviews with men and women alike engaged in both cosplay (costume play) and actual artistic creation such as making models, illustration and design. Including a time-line that details key otaku cultural milestones might also be useful for those readers unfamiliar with otaku culture to get an idea of how big and fast otaku culture has grown and of the cross-pollination that’s gone on among manga, anime, games, toys and other media.

Anyway as it is, The Otaku Encyclopedia … is a handy little reference and introduction into the bewildering universe that is modern Japanese society – and it’s so kawaii (cute!) as well!

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