The year is 1982, college student and tennis team hotshot Ken Kubo has trendy, well off friends with rarely larger thoughts than those of jackets and cars, a beautiful girlfriend, and an entire life of cool to look forward to. This idyllic existence is swiftly interrupted when he stumbles upon former high school classmate Tanaka, an erstwhile super nerd with a mission, who has cultivated a small, yet formidable cadre of fellow obsessives with a single infection binding them all: anime. The road to ruin is paved with fanzines, cosplay, figures, military fetishism, and mecha..or is it? And thus begins then-anime upstarts, Studio Gainax’s confounding & anti-commercial video project, Otaku No Video. A singular, funny, and ultimately moving look at the world of Japanese media-addicts, and the life of many whom the Japanese slang term for “home”, or “those people” has mutated into something of a globally misunderstood moniker over the last few decades. A one of a kind two-part series that in no way could be produced in today’s panicked media climate.
To best perhaps begin to comprehend Otaku’s unprecedented place in the Japanese animation world, one need only understand the near-freak “success” story that has defined Studio Gainax, particularly in their early fledgling days. The last of the second generation anime creators was a talent pool of the likes Japan had never seen. Many claim this reached an apex when a group of college-aged artists stunned the industry with what came to be known as the Daicon reels, convention shorts that eventually led to the formation of Gainax, a studio formed for the sole reason of producing what was to be the medium’s most ambitious art house production: Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise (1987), a film whose far-reaching vision and lack of simple categorization made it become known as one of the most expensive financial failures in anime history. In the years following the film, a time when the Original Video Animation (OVA) market had begun to show promise as a new, profit-generating format, Gainax continued beyond their initial purpose to create the more fan-centric robot parody, Top Wo Nerae! Gunbuster (1988 – 1989). A six episode opus, the series cemented the young studio’s reputation as something of a ragtag bunch with high reverence for fans, as well as a deep seated conscience. As NHK tapped them for what became something of an unexpectedly popular foray into television with Fushigi No Umi No Nadia (Nadia Of The Mysterious Seas, 1990 – 1991), Gainax was suddenly at something of a self-reflective crossroads. How does one contend with a fan-pleasing reputation, all the while being at odds with the masses at large, who had only recently begun to view fanatics of animation and manga as an “undesirable element”? It is this conflict between romanticism and slacker ennui that hangs over Otaku No Video like a shroud.
As mentioned, Kubo’s life suddenly takes a hard left as he begins to allow Tanaka and his newfound friends to influence him with their collective love of watercolor fantasy. Soon, his personal life begins to spiral downward, effectively ending his relationship to a girl who clearly had more domestic things in mind for him. The simple life of a bread-winning salaryman hath no place for the newfound dream the likes Kubo and friends seem to be floundering toward. Now a slave to waiting in line for anime feature film premieres such as Nausicaa, sneaking early designs for movies in production, to even counting the days until Animage’s latest issue reaches stores, Kubo’s set life has now become the ticket to heaven or hell, depending on who’s talking. Inevitably, his studious image is shattered (Kubo begins to dress more apathetically, begins gaining weight, etc.), plans are hatched, and the path to becoming “Otaking” seems the only reasonable option; in an era on the cusp of economic prosperity, the very idea of feeling like yet another cog in a faceless machine seems like an idea well worth abandoning.
Flashing forward, Kubo & Tanaka’s circle of friends have now become part of the establishment as business owners with their stakes high in markets such as model kits, and character figures. The dream has definitely given way to bittersweet victories, but success’ seductiveness continues to reveal long festering rivalries, petty motivations, and ultimately betrayals that threaten to destroy the dream. But, how easily paths such as these bring focus back to those seeking clarity. Which is what leads to the second installment set in 1985, when the great and terrible phoenix threatens to rise again, perhaps this time with not only Japan in mind, but the world entire! BUUURNING!
“Do you ever admire the blue sky?”
And yet all of what has just been shared comes with a truly unique sucker punch emblematic of a studio long believed to have been a bunch of wayward subculture wanks with zero business sense. Kubo’s animated story of rise-to-ruin-to-another-rise comes segmented with live-action sections in between. The infamous “Portrait Of An Otaku” segments take brief, often scathing looks at the lives of “real life” otaku, each with their own central fetish, and at-times skewed justifications for such proclivities. Complete with mosaic graphics and voice alterations to “protect identities”, these sequences range from hysterical, to just outright painfully honest. Examples include a man who, while recalling days creating fanzines with friends, eventually reveals his drop out status. Another is a classic closet cosplayer acting desperately to maintain a discussion regarding stereo speakers and gear. There is even a hopeless VHS tape addict, and anime cel thief thrown in the mix. When the questions come from the always unseen/unheard interviewer, they almost always come with an air of unease, as if said interviewer is ready to pounce on any socially awkward pause at a second’s notice (a widely held notion is that those we see on camera, playing these subjects are actual members of Gainax at the time, as well as friends, making this piece all the more brutal in its introspection). But the connecting tissue in these segments is the unerring spirit of DIY that in many ways defined “otakuism” of the pre-internet era, which is what makes this a fascinating document. The seductive reach of cartoons also appears to have some unexpected influence when one segment features an American living in Japan merely for the love of watercolor characters. In a scene that bends the walls of reality further, his English is clearly still audible while a Japanese voice-over completely rewrites nearly every word he is saying. And the less we speak of the guy playing Cybernetic High School (a hentai/quiz video game developed by Gainax themselves) as well as the one who engineered glasses for the sake of undoing the pesky mosaic work on AV, the better.
As all of this transpires, we are given harsh white on black teletype marking very real events happening in the world around our fellow dreamers.
So as the video series comes to a close, the short-lived fan-based business has resurrected itself from near ruin, and is now on the precipice of legend, but of what manner of legend? And what of the world that lay beyond the scattered horizon? The meanings and pressure points of Otaku No Video continue to fluctuate as anime has had such a bizarre ride in the global consciousness since its production. This fluctuation is not only in regards to the medium itself, but also Gainax, a studio that was on the verge of utter collapse at this point, completely unaware of the kind of history it would make a mere few years later with the monumental Neon Genesis Evangelion. It is still mindbending to believe that much of Gainax’s own history is summarized/parodied here with such energy and candor. The sentiment is almost as if head masterminds Hiroyuki Yamaga, Toshio Okada, as well as stalwarts such as director Takeshi Mori, along with legendary character designer Kenichi Sonoda knew full well what was on the horizon. What many a fan the world over has deemed at times to be the “Otaku Bible” can also be seen as a letter written to future selves about passions, and how easily they can be forgotten in the grand scheme of consumer culture. One can even argue that Otaku No Video is something of a “one day, we’ll all look back at this and laugh” piece. Much like the apex of grunge rock, a general feeling of both untapped potential and deep shrugs about the future can be felt throughout, and it does so in ways that few anime (or possibly no anime) have ever accomplished. Kubo and Tanaka are great and terrible, this cannot be denied.
One of Otaku No Video‘s most stinging, prophetic ironies is its rare, unfiltered breed of self-reflection disguised as a classic “go get ‘em” inspirational narrative, something that has goes from delivering a vulcan cannon volley of self-deprecation to a smoky, tattered portrait of yet another subculture destined for the assimilation process.
Mike Olivarez hails from Southern California, and fancies himself a walking, growing pain. A remnant of the analog era’s last generation, and a former gofer for the anime man, he continues to struggle to make sense of the media absurd. Mike is the blogmaster of both The Wandering Kaijyu & Cel Count Media, as well as contributor to Anime Diet.