Interview: Patrick W. Galbraith

I recently interviewed the writer of the Otaku Encyclopedia, Patrick W. Galbraith. His perspective on the otaku culture is very insightful and interesting.

What was the first anime you saw and what was your initial reaction to it?

The first anime I ever saw was Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It was destiny, fate, love at first sight. With Nausicaä. Seriously, the girl ruined me for real women, and I was only in grade school. I’m from Alaska, and there isn’t much to do there except for drink liberally, engage in sporting activity or stay at home. I was too young to drink and too meek for sports, so I ended up spending a lot of time at home. My older brother was learning Japanese and was into anime, so we watched VHS tapes of whatever he could find. Being in Japanese and with often sketchy subtitles, it was way beyond my ability to comprehend. So I did what any young lad would – I looked at the pretty pictures of beautiful girls. I guess maybe I still have a tendency to do that! I was 12 when my family moved to Montana, and had trouble adjusting to the new environment and retreated into my room and my anime. My passion for it accelerated until a point when there was no stopping or going back. When I started tattooing my two-dimensional wives onto my body, I knew my life was over. I think I was still stuck on Sailor Moon and had just watched Neon Genesis Evangelion, which introduced me to Asuka, who I love dearly to this day. I was reborn as something else, as an “otaku.” This love, or perhaps lust, for anime brought me to Japan. I wanted to learn everything I could about the country, people and pop-culture that had such a huge impact on my life.

How did you permanently move to Japan?

I studied here from 2004 to 2005, and moved to Tokyo permanently in 2006. I was really very fortunate to be affiliated with a good school and receive academic scholarships, which really facilitated my getting started building a new life. I threw myself into studies and otaku hobbies, which increasingly began to overlap. I spent a lot of time in Akihabara. I felt I found myself there among the stacks of manga and toys, reflected on the screens playing sample anime and demos from dating simulator games, shoulder to shoulder with other young men who for whatever reason went down the same path as myself. I took notes on every store I went to, from every person I talked to, just trying to soak it all in. But I was soon to learn that Akihabara was a place in transition. In his book Learning From Akihabara, Morikawa Kaichiro, a professor at Meiji University, explains that it was only in the 1990s that Akihabara became the sanctuary of otaku, a place supposedly without power where subculture had a chance to emerge and blossom. The private room is opened into public space, if you will. However, otaku soon started to appear in this discourse of “cool Japan.” Politicians talked about how Japanese pop-culture was going to take over the world, spurred by otaku creativity. Large tract development appeared in Akihabara, and the area was promoted as a hotspot for tourists. The media came out in force, seeking out extreme otaku for prime-time TV programs. This caused something of a backlash however, with some Japanese objecting to the public display of subcultures that clashed with traditional values and sensibilities. The chaos and friction was incredible, with the image of otaku bifurcated into a schizophrenic good/bad construct – the tension was palpable on the streets of Akihabara. And even as all eyes turned to Akihabara, I became aware that this was just one area for and face of otaku, and our image of otaku was becoming skewed, or manipulated in many ways. Sure, maybe I am a moe otaku who hangs out in Akihabara maid cafes and plays bishojo games, but that doesn’t mean most people are. Together with Adrian Lozano, I founded the first regular, English-language tour of Akihabara in 2007 as a way to introduce people to the changing Akihabara cityscape, and give them some perspective on how the otaku culture was changing. I wanted to place Akihabara and the new otaku boom into social, political and economic context, and explore how they fit into the wider otaku scene historically and contemporarily.

So what is it like living in Japan?

I absolutely love it! I add to that a small caveat, because I really don’t live in Japan. I have always lived in Tokyo, which is a totally different place. It reminds me a bit of Rahxephon, you know, where Tokyo is this planet unto itself. In this little bubble where I live, I can watch late-night anime in real time, go to theatrical openings and idol concerts, hang out in maid cafes, attend events and meet new and interesting people everyday. It is so easy to meet people into the same things, get access to events and information, talk with journalists and scholars working on topics similar to own. My hobbies, research and work all converge in the otaku hobbies, and I can be close to them in Tokyo. I intend to continue writing and perhaps take up teaching, though the number of academic posts is down even as the candidates are up the world over. I guess I will take my chances and see how it goes. The city provides me with unique opportunities that I want to follow through on to the full extent of my abilities. It is also a place where I can learn and grow, to expand on that potential. I was born in Alaska and grew up in the mountains of Montana. I never had a credit card, used a train or taxi or stayed out all night before coming to Tokyo. The absolute reversal of everything I knew has made this a place that even now never ceases to amaze me. I have fallen for Tokyo, the same way I fell for Nausicaä – that one love that ruins you for life. I honestly don’t think I could ever go back to where I was before. There isn’t anything waiting back there, so I chose to continue this journey of discovery.

What was your inspiration to make The Otaku Encyclopedia and how long did it take you to write the entire book?

It took about five years to put the book together, or about four years of data collection and one to edit it. The whole thing was occurring in tandem to my ethnographic fieldwork among otaku, which began in 2004. When I got to Japan, every single time I talked to someone I’d encounter all these words and concepts that I was only vaguely familiar with, so I asked them to explain. I collected hundreds of pages of interviews and notes that were edited down and organized into the current book. There is so much more that could have gone in, but the publisher, Kodansha International, wanted to keep it a small size and affordable price. In a way I am happy about this, because it makes the information accessible to a wider audience with perhaps only casual exposure to the culture. On the other hand, I would love to collaborate with a group of otaku writers inside and outside Japan and publish an expanded addition, or perhaps a series with volumes focusing deeply on certain topics. Anyway, the process of putting the book together was a long one because there was so much information out there to synthesize, and so many stereotypes to confront and work through. Coming at this as a fan and student of Japanese popular culture from outside Japan, I was very concerned with how the media portrays otaku and their activities, both in the sense of media images generated in Japan and those conventional understandings disseminated among fans outside Japan. The media image is especially important in the case of otaku, because the mass media played, and still plays the most important role in setting the parameters for discussion. And the mass media tends to construct easily recognizable stereotypes. Often the definitions are presumed in advance and never questioned openly, as if we all implicitly understood. This tends to make definitions appear self-evident, while reinforcing received stereotypes. My job was to interrogate constructed images. I hope to bridge generational and geographic gaps – otaku inside and outside Japan, of different groups and generations, male and female – in the ongoing discussion of otaku.

What is you honest opinion on the word “otaku”?

It is what you make it. Honestly, it means nothing. Absolutely nothing. Otaku-like behavior is being super deep and narrow in your interest, which is intense and long in duration. You can be that way about anything and still not identify as an otaku. Conversely, you can identify as an otaku even if you are only casually interested in anime and manga. The word is arbitrary. In fact, it was created and applied by others as a pejorative for people they didn’t like. Nakamori Akio famously slammed “otaku” in his 1983 article, but actually he just personally found dojinshi fans to be gross, right? He used the word “otaku” to mean “those weirdoes,” the implication being “those weirdoes who are different from me.” Indeed, Nakamori saw himself as a representative of the “new breed,” or shinjinrui, and insisted that this generation of creative, individualistic youth was different from otaku. Only in his mind, I say. Likewise, as information-consumer society reached new heights of excess in the 1980s, there was a general anxiety about the direction of Japan’s young people. And then, in 1989, a young sociopath named Miyazaki Tsutomu murder and cannibalized four little girls. The media, just like Nakamori, used the word “otaku” to describe people that they didn’t like, but this time the entire generation of young people deeply involved in new media and technology. Sharon Kinsella suggests that otaku became scapegoats for all that was wrong with Japan, and a lot of wrong during the recessionary 1990s. Again, the word otaku and its application are arbitrary. Miyazaki was certainly a member of the VCR generation, and seemed to have an intimate relationship with media and technology. He even visited Comiket. So he seems to have been an example of otaku. But he himself didn’t even know this word. Further, even if he was an otaku, does that mean that all otaku are socially inept, sexually suspect and potentially dangerous? I think not. Those crimes committed by “otaku,” or those identified by the media as “otaku,” are numerically small. And who is to say that these so-called otaku are representative of anyone else? If a doctor commits a crime, then are all doctors by virtue of being “doctors” evil? Is there some essentially bad about doctors? This is an irrational line of inquiry, even more so if we did not know who exactly we were talking about when using “doctor” in the broadest possible sense. Such is the case with media criticism of otaku. The same is true for the positive otaku image emerging in the 2000s. Is the protagonist of the TV drama Densha Otoko representative of all otaku? He hangs in a maid café in Akihabara, so the answer is no. He says the word “moe” out loud in response to exciting things, which was not common until this show. Moe was online slang, funny because it is a written pun, surely used by the guys on 2channel in the 1990s, but not spoken aloud. So, we see that Densha is in fact another constructed image. The bifurcation of the image into Miyazaki-Densha, demonstrates just how bipolar and schizophrenic the “otaku” image is. This is because it does not have, and never has had any basis in reality. There is so much tension in the word otaku. You can see this when you write it. Otaku can refer to a subculture in the 1980s (おたく), fans of Japanese popular culture overseas (OTAKU), an international, popular or cool fan culture (オタク) or people interested in newer anime, manga and games, usually with cute girls (ヲタク). You can be “otaku style” (otaku-kei), or identify with a particular place (Akiba-kei), or a specific hobby group (Gun-ota, Mo-ota, ani-ota). Even as “otaku” becomes a more popular category in Japan, some people in the States are abandoning the word in favor of “anime fan.” I personal choose to identify broadly as a wotaku, and specifically I am Akiba-kei and moe-kei. But, most normal people don’t care about the internal politics of the word, and they call me otaku, or I say it to them because it is the most expedient way to explain that I am really into anime. I think we need to be aware of who is using the word, in what context and how, and then react accordingly.

What is your current opinion on “the moe bubble trend” and when will the bubble burst?

Moe is being unfairly blamed for everything that is going wrong in the anime industry today. Let’s face it – the anime industry on the whole is suffering, perhaps even dying a painful, prolonged death. This is completely structural in nature. Consider the production committee system, which benefits sponsors instead of production houses. They invest money into a work, and receive a portion of the profits. This is often called “Tezuka’s Curse” because that great creator sold his works for so much less than they were worth, a precedent that keeps animators in a constant state economic crisis. A fourth of animators now work below the poverty line. In Tezuka’s defense, he did manage to position anime as a major force in mass media, and many great animators followed him. However, as the economy gets worse, it is increasingly less appealing for young people to become animators. They can’t expect much money, and the sponsors and broadcasters have them in a corner, only supporting those works that have a mass-market appeal and commercial potential. We all know that anime films got so huge and excessive in the 1980s with Aklira, Totoro and Honneamise that the industry collapsed. Something similar happened with OVAs. Then, the TV anime bubble occurred after Evangelion. I submit to you that the reason why another Evangelion does not appear is not because it is no longer possible due to lack of creativity, but because the market structure resists it. First, after the bubble burst, anime production was farmed out to South Korea and China because this is where cheap labor could be found. As a result, young creators are appearing there instead of Japan. Further, anime series started to be blue chip properties run in prime time or niche shows run after midnight for otaku. In the former case, creativity is limited due to the broadcast laws and sponsors, and the latter due to limited funding and the need to pander to viewers. So, young creators in Japan are moving towards dojinshi and bishojo games because the barriers for entry are lower and they have more creative control. Second, after Evangelion, the digital distribution of series gradually became easier, which cut into already minimal profits for studios. They tried to supplement with media mix and merchandise tie-ins. Hey, Evangelion did the same thing. Its characters are cash cows. Before that, Super Dimensional Fortress Macross did it. But with more studios doing it and fans increasingly able to get it for free or even make their own stuff, the market is killer. They have to pander to smaller audiences with more niche and appealing characters that can appear in multiple media outlets. This tends to limit their mass market and export potential, and encourage the inclusion of certain popular characters and scenarios. That said, Urusei Yatsura did the same thing, right? Let’s not delude ourselves and say sex came into anime with moe. Fans didn’t suddenly become interested in cute girls in anime, just as girls didn’t suddenly become interested in homosexual relationships. This is the culmination of something that has been running deep in this media fantasy for a long time. Okada Toshio says that otaku are dead, or that they only look at beautiful girls. He says that his generation dissected anime and paid careful attention to all the details, creating a system of knowledge production around anime. This is the “advanced visual sense” that defines otaku, a new way of viewing and interacting with media. OK, aren’t fans today dissecting images of cute girls and paying all sorts of attention to the details of their production? If older otaku view anime as an exploded image, then younger ones view characters as an exploded image. Just because their focus has changed does not necessarily mean that they are less intense about their hobbies for a shorter duration of time. They are still very narrow and deep in their interest. If there is trend towards shallow consumption going on, it has to do with the massive amount of media and material young otaku have to consume, which makes it harder to go deep on every single element of “otaku culture,” as Okada seems to imply an otaku must do. And let’s not overlook the fact that behind those stock moe characters, many young anime creators today are coming out with some great stuff. If they can sell it with the characters, if they can establish that economic crutch, then they have a great deal of room to experiment with elements of story and style. I mean, seriously, is there anything more epic than “the endless eight” in Haruhi? They are playing with viewer perception. When the second season came on, and it’s all out of chronological order, you keep thinking to yourself, “Haven’t I seen this before?” You have, both in this series itself an in elements of other series. It is interrogating the mechanism of anime production today, and of time itself. When the endless eight begins and the same scenes are repeated week after week, the viewer demands to skip this and see more of the good parts. But no, it is repeated over and over, giving a true feeling of helplessness. Like it or not, this was an innovative move that got a response from viewers, got them up out of their seats talking about, and promoting, the show. Are we going to argue that Creamy Mami or Mazinger Z are somehow better stories than Clannad and Higurashi? They are older, yes, but no more redeemable than the anime made today. They had a more captive, less savvy TV audience to support them. We are blinded by nostalgia. Moe is a response fans can have for an extremely wide range of characters, so when we talk about “moe anime” we are talking about a huge body of collected work, some of it bad, but not all of it. We shouldn’t condemn all of it because of a few bad series. How about Gundam, this seminal real robot franchise – is Mobile Fighter G Gundam the pinnacle of storytelling and character development? So should we toss out Gundam because it tried to mix Dragon Ball with mobile suits? And about this supposed lack of new creative talents – not everyone can be Miyazaki Hayao or Oshii Mamoru, and criticizing them for that while worshipping a handful of aging auteurs isn’t going to improve the situation. There is a criticism of “nothing new” in moe anime. OK, so was Evangelion “new?” It had its own critics back in the 1990s for remixing elements of other stories into it. That does not make it any less of a show. So, my position on the moe bubble is this – we need to stop blaming moe for a general downward trend, start looking past the character designs to find redeemable qualities and support creators who are in fact trying to do good work despite bad conditions. Moe does not constitute this radial rupture in anime, where suddenly we have sexy characters, remixed stories and lots of character merchandise. I don’t see the point of adopting this elitist stance to anime of the past and tearing down what we have today. Is the solution to character-driven anime to wish the entire industry dead? It’s well on its way, guys. Support the anime industry as it is, or help change it for the better by supporting compromise series like Zetsubo Sensei, Higurashi and Haruhi, but don’t just make irresponsible criticisms.

What do you see will be the next big trend in anime?

I think the next step is super-limited animation. As Thomas LaMarre suggests, there will be fewer action-images and more time-images. This means anime will become more about thoughts and emotions. Viewers will look at these still images draw out suggested meanings, empathizing with the image and having an affective response to it. There will be more interest paid to style and presentation of visual data, as we see in Bakemonogatari and Moryo no Hako. There will also be more anime that attempt to convey a feeling or mood rather than a narrative of change and progress. Lucky Star and K-On! are good examples of this, giving a feeling of peace, comfort and nostalgia to the viewer. Nothing happens, yes, but you feel something when you watch. This also means that consumers do not have to see it all to sense the appeal and support it, a very good trait to encourage casual viewing in a media-saturated society. Along with this, character designs will become more important. The suggested depth a character will draw in fans. This is a likely development because if the focus is on characters, then media mix and merchandising is possible, and fans can get drawn in at various points in the unfolding series of the character. That is, they won’t have to consume the character in an assumed chronological order or canonical series. Consider Hatsune Miku, Toho and Hetaria, which are character based, open to fan-participation and spread virally. People can get into this even if they have never used the synthesizer program, played the games or read the web comic. Things will get easier to access and participate in, even to the point of active rearticulation, like “open-source” anime. The character draws them in, and how deep they go from there depends on their level of interest, expertise and time and monetary constraints. In a way, all these possible developments in anime are telegraphed by bishojo games.

What else would you like to promote?

I hope you check out The Otaku Encyclopedia and I have also just released an audio tour, Tokyo Realtime: Akihabara. In summer 2010, I will be teaching a course on Manga Culture at Temple University, Japan Campus. Roland Kelts will be teaching the anime course. Application is open to anyone. Maybe we can get a real “otaku university” thing going here!

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Danny Choo

Sankaku Complex

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