Watch groups of men who fulfill every stereotype you’ve ever heard about Japan.
Dir. Jackie Bastide & Jean-Jacques Beineix, 1994, 77 min, Viewed via MUBI
Otaku are the reason that I’m reluctant to admit to ever liking animated stuff that has come out of Japan. In a world where obsession is the name of the game when it comes to fandom, these people take it to the deepest, darkest extremes. The word “otaku” comes from the Japanese word for house, and refers to a very specific type of enthusiast, the shut-in who devotes his (it’s usually a “he”) time completely to the object of his devotion. While here in America the term is used only in reference to anime, in Japan you can be an otaku of basically anything. There are anime otaku, yes, but there are also military otaku, pop idol otaku, video otaku, porn otaku, model-building otaku, comic book otaku, and so on and so forth. Otaku is an exploration of this strange, strange world.
Otaku are weird. They have no jobs or friends outside of their hobby, and live in single-minded service to the accumulation of more collectibles. There’s nothing wrong with liking stuff like this (Except the cartoon porn, tiny sculptures of real-life models, the panty collections, the… okay, there’s plenty wrong with liking a lot of what we see here) or even liking stuff a lot, but there is nothing healthy about what any of these guys are doing. Their vacant social lives and general sense of miserableness stand as a testament to that.
The movie takes the remote, cold approach of an anthropological study, which is probably the only way to encounter this material without veering into mocking the subjects or overly creeping out the audience. There are times when a journalistic model is the way to go, and this was definitely one of those times. The doc is unnerving enough without any added editing tricks or overbearing musical score. It moves by topic, exploring the many facets of otakudom that exist in Japan, while also bringing in experts to shed light on the phenomenon.
So what are the reasons for this? There are multiple aspects, and all tie into Japanese society and culture, and how both had changed over the latter half of the 20th century. Japan has a dense population crowded into small spaces, and yet many Japanese feel an overwhelming sense of alienation. They are conditioned to orient themselves wholly around their work, and the pressure to do well is immense. Overpopulation has led to a decreasing birth rate, which has lead to a decreasing sex drive among the populace, which has led to increased sexual dysfunction. When you look at all these factors, it kind of makes sense that some men would want to simply drop out of it all and indulge their off fantasies.
And they can afford to do it. In an affluent society, the idle entertainments take more of a center stage. Feeding otakudom has become big business in Japan, with everyone from figurine sculptors to model gun makers getting in on the action. It’s a monstrosity of sloth that feeds upon itself in a sort of massive, disgusting human centipede / ouroboros kaiju of capitalism gone mad.
Otaku ends on a rather disquieting note, with the filmmakers taking a tranquil visit to a Mt. Fuji that has been obscured by mist. They wonder whether the mountain has itself become an isolated otaku, or if it has hidden out of shame for what is going on in its country. Eighteen years have passed since this movie was originally released, and the otakus only continue to grow in power. Is this the future that not just Japan but we have to look forward to? Or will the economic downturn refocus our priorities? Who knows what comes next.