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Review of Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

By Tania Darlington

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Trans. Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2009. Print.

Students of Japanese popular culture and otaku studies are already aware of what a debt they owe Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono for producing an English-language translation of Azuma Hiroki’s seminal 2001 work Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (released in Japan as Animalizing Postmodernity). However, it would be a disservice to the scope and accessibility of this slim volume to suggest that its study of postmodern Japanese culture is useful only to scholars in these fields. Though written with a general audience in mind, Azuma’s insightful marriage of philosophy and popular culture has something to offer scholars of postmodernism, psychology, sociology, media theory and fandom studies. The single misfortune of this volume is that the English-language translation was published so long after the original text; thus its insights into this rapidly-expanding field of study have occasionally been superseded by its successors.

Though Otaku is brief – a mere 144 pages – it brings together a wealth of theoretical influences. Azuma’s main premise, that the post-1995 otaku views the world as a database structure consisting of a grand non-narrative that is consistently revised by a never-ending succession of derivative simulacra, draws on the works of Baudrillard, Lacan and Žižek, as well as earlier Japanese otaku theorists Ōsawa Masachi, Okada Toshio, Ōtsuka Eiji and Miyadai Shinji, fusing them into an accessible, thought-provoking argument. Additionally, Azuma expands on the footnote from Alexandre Kojève’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel to suggest that the postmodern, post-Aum Shinrikyo otaku has become “animalized,” driven by singular, easily-fulfillable needs rather than intersubjective desires. Unacknowledged, but looming over the entire proceeding is the phantom of Derrida. His notion of the archive clearly informs Azuma’s conception of the interrelatedness of the database and the derivative simulacra. Considering Derrida was the focus of Azuma’s first book, Ontological, Postal, such an influence is, perhaps, unsurprising.

Readers looking for a work on anime and manga may be somewhat disappointed by the almost purely theoretical nature of Otaku. Azuma forgoes detailed discussion of these media, instead using visual novels (or “novel games”)1 to illustrate his theory. This focus may initially be off-putting to those readers unfamiliar with or wholly unaware of novel games. However, Azuma’s introduction to the genre is easy to follow and his use of novel games most succinctly illustrates his theoretical connection between the database (grand non-narrative) and its multifarious simulacra (small narratives).

Azuma devotes the last chapter of Otaku to real-world examples of his animalistic database premise. Unfortunately, while his discussion of visual novels (particularly Kano Hioyuki’s Yu-No, the final example in the chapter) may illustrate his conclusions in thought-provoking ways, his other examples are less effective. His consideration of the “double-layer” structure and hypervisuality of the internet is interesting, but obvious (perhaps a weakness of aiming the work at a more general audience). On the other hand, his likening of the otaku’s ability to move readily between the database and numerous small narratives to multiple personality disorder seems labored and only moderately substantiated by his application of the comparison to the double-layer structure of Yu-No.

In the introduction to the English translation, Azuma expresses well founded concern with regards to a potential information gap for readers who are not familiar with the cultural and critical climate in Japan at the time of Otaku‘s original publication. This gap is largely filled by thorough and excellent translators’ notes. Furthermore, despite being nearly a decade in the making, Otaku‘s usefulness far outweighs its datedness, and this translation has provided an invaluable resource to English-language scholarship.


[1] A form of computer simulation/interactive fiction that is akin to a heavily graphical “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.
Posted in Volume 5, Issue 2: Anime and Utopia