TOKYO GONE GAGAGA: OTAKU (1994)

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Otaku: In Japan a young person who is obsessed with computers or particular aspects of popular culture to the detriment of their social skills. (definition from The Oxford Dictionary)

Otaku: Obsessed fan; geek; nerd. Not restricted to anime fans, otaku is a general and relatively insulting word used to describe people obsessed with some particular hobby. (definition from AnimeWorld.com)

I’ve never referred to myself as an otaku but others may have. Throughout much of the 1990s I held minor jobs within the manga and animation industry selling comic books, attending conventions and finally working as an anime and manga convention publicist, which involved traveling to Tokyo. During this time I developed a strong affection for many aspects of Japanese pop culture including anime, manga, music and toy collecting. I also self-published zines about manga and wrote for publications while covering a wide array of topics that ranged from Sailor Moon to visual kei and j-rock (a form of Japanese glam & goth rock). My interest in these subjects wavered between curiosity, admiration and obsession but I’ve always had extremely varied hobbies and pastimes. At the same time that I was writing about Japanese pop culture I was also writing about British poetry, French literature and classic horror movies. So am I an otaku? I suppose it depends on the time of day and who you ask.

In Japan, otaku was originally a derogatory term used to describe individuals (typically males) so fixated on their hobbies that it hampered their social skills and interfered with their jobs and family life. These personal passions can consist of just about anything under the sun including (but not limited to) anime, manga, cosplay, video games, computers, robots, history, trains and figure collecting. Since then it has evolved into a friendlier description for anyone fanatically obsessed with a particular pursuit but in the western world it’s routinely used to describe obsessive fans of anime and manga.

“Otaku: Nerd; geek or fanboy. Originates from a polite second-person pronoun meaning ‘your home’ in Japanese. Since the 1980s it’s been used to refer to people who are really into Japanese pop-culture, such as anime, manga, and video games. A whole generation, previously marginalized with labels such as geek and nerd, are now calling themselves otaku with pride.”
– Patrick W. Galbraith, Otaku Encyclopedia published in 2009

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In 1994 otaku was still a relatively new word outside of Japan, which is what makes Otaku (1994) such a riveting viewing experience. The documentary depicts various types of otaku behavior in Japan as seen through the eyes of French directors Jean-Jacques Beineix (Diva [1981], The Moon in the Gutter [1983], Betty Blue[1986]) and Jackie Bastide (Chambre 107 [1999], Tu es mon autre [2004], L’aigle noir [2006]). To the casual observer it might seem strange that a highly respected and award-winning filmmaker like Jean-Jacques Beineix would be interested in otaku culture but his first feature-length film, the stylish and highly entertaining Diva, explored the existence of a fanatic music lover named Jules consumed by his obsession for a beautiful opera singer. Consequently, Jule’s life resembles the lives of the otaku captured in Beineix’s documentary.

In a 2009 interview with Alex Simon for The Hollywood Interviewer the director discussed his initial interest in making Otaku while explaining how Japanese pop cultural was impacting the world at large.

“I’d been going to Japan for many, many years. It struck me that this phenomenon was years ahead of its time regarding video games, individuals, networks, and consumerization of action figures. It wasn’t just some ‘strange Japanese’ cultural phenomenon. It was just that these young men set the pace, so to speak, for generations of young people in other cultures, including the United States and Europe. Japan has often been ahead of the game when it comes to popular culture. In Diva, Jules is collecting recordings and pirating recordings in his collection, just like all the kids now.”
– Jean-Jacques Beineix

Beinex’s observations have become even more pertinent today as the popularity of previously shunned “nerd” culture has become more acceptable around the world. Some examples include our everyday use of computer technology that was once considered a “geek” hobby but is now a common means of communication. Comic books have also become mainstream along with niche genres such as science fiction and fantasy.

This is mainly due to marketing and the ongoing success of films and television shows such as the Marvel and DC franchises, Star TrekStar Wars,Lord of the RingsThe Hunger Games, ;Game of Thrones. Anime and manga, while still considered somewhat of a fringe market, has also expanded its audience thanks to the availability of translated materials and popular video games but 23-years-ago that was not the case. When Beineix made Otaku in 1994 communicating with computers was considered somewhat of a novelty and only seasoned comic book readers knew who the X-Men were. As for Japanese pop culture, it appeared utterly foreign and bizarre to most westerners.

Otaku is a surprisingly straightforward documentary that lacks the director’s usual visual flair although there are moments of unexpected beauty thanks to the ever-evolving landscape of Japan. Throughout most of its running time, the camera is pointed directly at interview subjects who go to great lengths to explain or rationalize their hobbies and passions that range from the typical (anime fanatics, j-pop idol obsessives, military reenactors, model makers) to the atypical (erotic figure collectors, radical street performers, experimental musicians).

The film occasionally marginalizes otaku by presenting them as exotic or strange creatures living on the fringes of Japanese society but it also humanizes the people it exposes by highlighting their diversity. To its credit, we meet men and women of various ages with wildly different backgrounds. By refusing to simplify what an otaku is or should be, the term is allowed to organically define itself on screen through the eyes of the filmmakers.

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The highlight for many viewers will be a provocative interview with Japanese director Sion Sono (Suicide Club [2001], Strange Circus [2005], Love Exposure [2008]) who had recently formed Tokyo Gagaga, a boisterous street performance protest group numbered in the thousands. While Tokyo Gagaga may not be typical otaku, the group is smartly included as an indirect reminder that many aspects of otaku culture sprang from Japan’s left-leaning antiwar activists. I’m an admirer of Sion Sono myself and I found his interview very insightful. Sono explains that he formed Tokyo Gagaga as an alternative way for people to communicate and in that regard, Sion is like other otakus who are finding new ways to express themselves through unconventional means.

Whether you’re a full-fledged otaku yourself or just a curious spectator who wants to investigate an unusual aspect of Japanese culture, you should find Otaku a worthwhile viewing experience. Beineix’s documentary is an invaluable time capsule that provides a unique perspective while broadening our understanding of what an otaku is and can be.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written in 2017 and published on FilmStruck.com