One of the most common complaints critics have about anime is that they pander to the otaku. Because fanservice and stock anime characters do nothing to further the plot or the themes of the narrative, this is generally perceived as an example of poor storytelling.
My intention with this post is to challenge this assumption.
I’m not going to discuss differences in Japanese and Western culture here. That’s been done many, many times before. Moreover, I don’t believe that cultural differences can fully describe the anomaly that is otaku pandering and neither can it explain why it gets taken to the degree that it does. (Note how the Japanese themselves marginalise otaku culture – it’s not just a Japanese thing!) What I propose is an alternate theory: otaku writing is postmodern and thus the okatu’s standard of “good writing” is somewhat skewed compared to our worldview!
This isn’t my own theory. It’s largely adapted and (grossly) simplified from Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals by Hiroki Azuma. You can read joshspeagle’s summary and commentary on the book’s main arguments in his series of posts. Since I haven’t read the book myself, you don’t need to read it either to understand this post. I’m only borrowing a few key words and ideas here and there, so I recommend you check out joshspeagle’s blog for a more thorough review and analysis if this kind of argument interests you further.
One of the buzzwords that gets bandied around a lot these days is “postmodern”. It’s a scary, pretentious-sounding word, isn’t it? What does it even mean and how would anime fall into that category? Honestly, it differs depending on the source you ask. I’m defining it here as the breakdown of standard interpretation of media. It challenges what we have come to assume by taking the things we’ve grown up with and turning them inside out. In this case, anime is postmodern because to get the greatest understanding of what it’s about, you can’t just read it as a straightforward story with a beginning and end. A lot of the story we get from it is actually given to us outside the television/OVA series. Supplementary material, spinoffs, adaptations and so on force us to reinterpret the story in every single iteration.
Neon Genesis Evangelion was the first true example of a postmodern anime series. The End of Evangelion film was a reinterpretation of the entire ending of the story itself, and the Rebuild films also attempt this from the ground up. The Girlfriend of Steel video games are based off an alternate universe shown briefly in the last episode of the TV series. Since the setting of Eva was so vague and open-ended, it encouraged a lot of original input from the fans themselves. The TV anime was in itself a flawed work: it fails to connect its ideas together cohesively and suffers from poor production values. And yet it is one of the most important and influential anime series of all time because it’s not a static work of art – it constantly changes and evolves, offering further engagement every time something new comes out. Eva isn’t just the story it told in the original TV series: if you just watched that TV anime and didn’t interact with the franchise as a whole, you would be missing out on a lot of what makes Eva, well, Eva!
I’m going to take this idea further. If you judge an anime series critically from how well it conveys a succinct and well-structured narrative on its own terms, most anime are literary failures.
However, if you read them as postmodern narratives, then these assumptions get turned upside down. The point isn’t how well the story succeeds in conveying an idea but in how successful it is at inspiring viewer input, which may or may not even be related to the thematic point of the narrative. Seen in that regard, series like Ore no Imouto ga Konna ni Kawaii wake ga nai and To Love-Ru are high art.
Otaku anime succeed on a postmodern level because:
a) the setting of the anime is easily transferrable (i.e. every arc in Sword Art Online is set in a different MMORPG); and
b) the characters of the anime are easily objectified and taken out of the setting.
Let’s focus our attention on b) here. The reason why there are so many stock anime characters is because many of them are drawn from a database of easily fetishised archetypes. When a series becomes particularly influential, it is the character type it uses that becomes endlessly copied above any other element. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya popularised pushy girls and snarky guys; Bakemonogatari popularised the forthright, intelligent girl.
Why does this happen? Because if a character is identifiable, it’s just as easy to take the character out of the setting and imagine your own story with them. This is something you can observe in doujinshi and fanfiction, which are very often created out of the fan’s attachment to a particular character and fail to address world-building at all.
And lest we forget the female otaku side of the equation, consider series like Prince of Tennis and Kuroko no Basuke, where in the fan and supplementary material, the characters are seen doing everything except playing sport. Fanfic readers know this as the Alternate Universe (AU), where the characters are written into a different setting altogether but with their personalities and traits still intact.
A successful postmodern narrative is written in such a way that is incredibly easy to imagine the characters doing something unrelated to the plot or living their own lives outside of it. This also somewhat explains the prevalence of slice of life anime. Actual story is becoming less and less important – they make us question whether it’s even relevant at all, as long as the viewer can create their own.
This explains why anime like Legend of the Galactic Heroes and the more recent Shinsekai Yori, both incredibly intelligent series which have a dedicated English-speaking fanbase, do not sell well to the otaku audience. It’s probably not because they think the story is bad or uninteresting. They are good stories in their own right, but they are self-contained and the characters are only fully relatable when approached within their own setting. These series offer no potential beyond what they have already shown and thus, there is no point in investing further in the series.
It’s a question of loyalty to a franchise too. Otaku know just as well as we do that series that sell well will get more merchandise, and when you think a story is complete as it is, there’s arguably less incentive driving you to see more of it. And since fan interaction is arguably one of the most enjoyable parts of having a hobby, it’s just less, well, fun to get into a series when there is not much buzz and fandom around it, except from critics who are generally unwilling to come down to the otaku’s level and express their affections in those terms. (You know, how uguuuuuu~ and kawaii~ it is and all that.)
This brings up a good question, though. Can a series succeed in both a postmodern and a pre-postmodern framework? Of course it can. Puella Magi Madoka Magica and Steins;Gate are hugely successful series that also have strong literary merit. Despite building their stories around their setting, it’s just as easy for otaku to identify with the characters. (Note how they largely fall into common otaku archetypes, particularly the females!) Also, if you read the stories carefully enough, you’ll notice they leave plenty of room for speculations, along with a nod towards alternate universes and possible stories within stories. I can’t go into more detail about this without spoiling both series, but hopefully you understand what I mean.
In the end, there is an endless possibility for stories, both postmodern and elsewhere. There’s no need to get confined within a specific framework to judge anime, nor in creating it. Dismissing the otaku audience as having poor taste or being mindless consumers because the pandering works on them is rather narrow-minded, especially if the only thing you know about their taste in anime is the sales figure of Bluray volumes.
Otaku Can Be Elitists Too
Without even speaking to a single otaku, I know that in general they are extremely aware of the nature of otaku pandering and that some of them even take an elitist approach to it. That is, they try to see it from the outside looking in, rather than considering themselves one of the mindless masses.
How do I know this? I know this because of light novels.
It’s interesting how Western anime critics tend to look down on light novel adaptations, describing them as “smug”, “self-conscious” and “pretentious”. Bakemonogatari copped the most flak for this but anything with an amusingly long title like My Little Sister Can’t Be This Cute! falls into this as well. Western elitists perceive light novels as unintelligent, but in truth, light novels are written by intelligent otaku.
There is a reason why light novels (e.g. Yahari Ore no Seishun Love Come wa Machigatteiru and Ore no Kanojo to Osananajimi ga Shuraba Sugiru) are often so obsessed with being meta and how many of them make commentaries on anime tropes and what it means to be an otaku in general. They are written by otaku who understand and have come to the point where they seek to critically examine their own culture.
From a literary perspective, they are quite interesting. Because the Japanese language is rather fluid when it comes to tenses, there’s a stylistic convention that light novels often use that is almost impossible to appreciate in English. They’re often written in past tense, from a first person narrator. At some points, though, the narration slips into present continuous tense, indicating that the writer is making a commentary on the past event. The narrator, despite being a character in the story, regularly positions himself outside of the narrative and sees himself as separate from it. (Haruhi Suzumiya is famous for this, but it’s common for most otaku-geared literature.) Both linguistically and through the plot, light novels are written entirely to convey a sense of disconnect between reality and fantasy.
This is highly indicative of the state of mind of self-aware otaku. They know that what they expose themselves to is a fantasy construct. But they are so immersed in it that it is all that they know. Thus, the fantasy world is their reality in a sense, and no matter how much they strive to examine and deconstruct tropes, they ultimately embrace them for what they are. Note that this is what Sword Art Online did – and this is the precise problem many critics had with it!
It’s a curious dichotomy. It’s also difficult to think of a Western equivalent that can explain how and why light novels are written in this way. The best I can think of is this: Imagine a TV Tropes user who has had minimal life experience but is, in his own right, an intelligent person. He understands tropes because tropes are all that he has been exposed to. Light novel authors write like someone whose only exposure to storytelling is through other stories and TV Tropes. They’re often intelligently written and creative but also lacking in human perspective. The stories exist in a vacuum. It’s conflicting with our own idea of good storytelling, because we tend to think of stories as having a personal component: they’re informed by reality, they don’t become it. Light novels challenge this assumption and because of that, they can be difficult to take unless you fully embrace the otaku outlook.
I’m not saying all light novels are like this. It’s an extremely broad and diverse medium. I’m only referring to the specific subset of otaku-centric literature. But for whatever reason, they’re difficult to understand. It’s more than just paperback fiction. It’s not even anything like the teen lit we have in English bookstores. Perhaps it’s something that is easier to appreciate when read in their own language. While there are professional light novel translations out there, none of them are literary translations. The easiest way to understand light novels and the people who write them is to understand the art form in which they take.
But at least know this: they’re not stupid.
So, is otaku pandering good or bad storytelling? Are otaku necessarily bad writers for having a skewed perception of reality itself?
I’ve left this question unanswered throughout this post because I ultimately think that there is no easy answer. I think when taken on its own terms, pandering has real, honest artistic merit. But I also think that truly powerful storytelling has universality – its appeal can cross cultures. As it is, unless you consider yourself an “otaku” in the truest sense of the word, the pandering is something you can only understand as a theory. It is something you can only tolerate and not actively embrace.
At the same time, if we want to appreciate otaku anime in the spirit that it’s made, it’s an interesting intellectual exercise to think about the different standards in storytelling otaku have from us. Because as long as there exist those among us who reject anime on the basis of what it is not trying to do rather than what it is trying to do, there will be people who insist that anime is getting worse, that it sucks now because otaku have “shit” tastes.
You shouldn’t do that, though. You shouldn’t accuse anyone of shit taste – because in doing so, what you’re really doing is rejecting their upbringing, their social background, their entire worldview that makes up what it is that they like. We don’t have to become otaku to like anime, but that doesn’t give us an excuse to look down on them. They get enough of that already from non-otaku Japanese. They really don’t need more of that from someone who even shares their hobby, you know?
We’re all anime fans here, so let’s enjoy anime as best we can.