Friday, 29 August 2008

Looking Inward / Looking Outward: Part 1

I've mentioned before about the inward-looking nature of the modern otaku mindset. Original "OtaKing" Okada Toshio recently criticised this tendency in his book Otaku wa Sude ni Shindeiru, enraging hordes of angry nerds in the process, and in that point at least I think he's right. Okada's criticism dovetails with Azuma Hiroki's idea of the "database culture" where designs are "based on the large accumulation of anonymous types and elements". At one extreme it's ironic self parody, as with this scene from Lucky Star, where Konata breaks the fourth wall by remarking on the unwitting fan service that Miyuki has provided. The gag itself (Miyuki wins the race on a photo finish because her breasts were bigger) is cliched and unfunny, and it is Konata's acknowledgment of the trope that is the real joke in the scene. This kind of postmodern humour has itself become a cliche in much media now, but it is nevertheless popular with otaku because it parallels the kinds of discussions and analyses of tropes that they have themselves. Lucky Star's success was in large part because of the way it reflected the otaku's own lifestyle back at him, as in the scene when Konata finishes watching an episode of Haruhi Suzumiya no Yuutsu (produced by the same team as Lucky Star), makes her own snide judgement of it and immediately turns to the ensuing online flame fest.

This scene from Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei takes what Lucky Star is doing a step further. Here the trope being parodied is the cliche of the onsen resort episode which always involves one tedious example of someone going into the wrong bath and getting embarrassed. Here the situation is turned on its head as only the male teacher is embarrassed whereas his female students are uniformly unbothered. It ends with him feeling that his masculinity has been debased by the unflinching response of his students (foreshadowed cleverly by the distinctly feminine way he is shown getting into the bath to begin with). They top it off with Kafuka actually parodying Lucky Star itself and by parodying something that is in itself a parody, Studio Shaft stake their claim to being teh no.1 133t p05tm0d3rn15tz, until someone can parody them.

Of course, the critical rejoinder to this is that regardless of the irony and self-parody, knowing that your gag is cheap and lazy doesn't make it any less cheap and lazy. The creators also can't stop fans from consuming their work unironically if they choose to. A friend of mine who I usually trust to give me the heads up on any new trends or memes in otaku culture alerted me recently to what he called "the most dangerous anime ever" (NSFW) and suggested that he felt that the show in question, Strike Witches, represents the birth pains of a fourth generation of otaku. Whether this is true or not is hard to say, but at least it represents the extreme development of much of what third generation moe culture represents. The characters themselves are designs constructed directly from the moe database complete with cat ears and tails. None of them wear trousers or skirts ever, for reasons spuriously rationalised as having something to do with the mechanical propellors that they attach to their legs in order to turn them into anthropomorphised representations of World War 2 fighter aircraft.

In Gainax's Otaku no Video from 1991, based in part on Gainax co-founder Okada's own life, an early scene showing the main character, Ken, undergoing his otaku training specifies Star Trek, Doctor Who and John Wyndham's Day of the Triffids as required knowledge. On the other hand, in Strike Witches every aspect of the show is designed to reflect some recycled aspect of Japanese anime culture. The story is entirely subservient to the database and the database is something that has been compiled purely by refining fetish elements from previous anime. Inevitably, as fans turn inwards, the creators of the shows follow them and in all creative aspects Strike Witches shows precisely the kind of inward looking tendency that Okada seems to be criticising in his book.

The otaku's rejoinder to that would be that Okada is criticising them for failing to do something that they never intended in the first place and that he is merely confirming that he is out of touch with what is really happening in fan culture. Putting aside the disturbingly extravagant panty fetishism for a moment, the whole girls=aircraft aspect is a radical and interesting reassembly of two standard base elements. Otaku aren't confusing these girls with real live females and would think you were weird if you implied otherwise. These girls aren't even meant to represent human females: they are a nominally female creation from an entirely different evolutionary model -- children of the database, if you will. In the modern otaku's view, Okada is like Tem Ray, the scientist who created the Gundam Mobile Suit and witnessed its birth, but who ends up a madman, crawling around a junkyard and making useless suggestions to improve a machine he no longer understands.

Part 2 is now up.


Anonymous said...

I really can't divine authorial intent or creative process so I'm skeptical about your take on how the shows you mentioned speak about how lazy or unoriginal the creators are.

That said, it is an interesting theory, how one can just slap together a bunch of popular memes and tropes, wink at the audience and profit.

What I think is that these shows will hit some kind of peak - at the moment I can think of Kannagi as the wink wink, nudge nudge otaku panderer du jour. But the jokes will get old, as most jokes do.

What are the unironic, non-self parodying shows that are truly humorous in your opinion (that contain the minimal amount of reference to other anime or otaku culture)?

dotdash said...

I think laziness isn't so much a matter of authorial intent, it's more a matter of authorial talent. The example I link to from Lucky Star is a bad joke, albeit a useful one for illustrating my point about how that particular kind of humour works (although I chose it because it was the only one I could find, not because I liked or disliked it).

Thinking critically (although remember this article wasn't initially intended as a critical piece), a lazy writer makes a joke that repeats a predictable trope in a funny voice and the audience says, "Oh, I recognise that! It's like XXX anime! That's funny!" and the show's creators think, "Ahh, job well done". A less lazy writer is a bit more devious.

Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei is sometimes pretty devious and I like it for that, but the jokes fly so thick and fast that inevitably a lot of them fell flat with me. The one I link to here is sadly another example of one that I think is pretty lame.

I think both Lucky Star and SayZetSen do that sort of self-referential humour quite well sometimes (the latter more often than the former) and they both also spend a lot of time just pandering, which is especially sad in SayZetSen's case, since it initially seemed to set itself up as an antidote to that sort of thing.

Kannagi is a show I've so far avoided seeing, but if I feel strong enough some time in the future, I might give it a go.

"What are the unironic, non-self parodying shows that are truly humorous in your opinion"

Tough one. Honestly, I have a pretty low opinion of Japanese comedy to begin with, so I might be a bad person to be talking about this.

However, I think Niea_7 is brilliant; it definitely plays with otaku references (the character Chiaki exists largely for such purpose) but it manages to balance social comment, character-based humour and an all-pervading sense of pathos and alienation very well without resorting to cheap otaku gags for the most part.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm, laziness as an occurrence resulting from lack of talent rather than hard work and guts. I'm not sure I agree, but I'll go with you to a degree.

Somehow, I feel that Lucky Star has a lot to say. I either be overestimating my own intelligence and/or reading waaaay too much into the text, but it's one of the few shows I can watch randomly every day (and I'm not alone in this).

None of what it says changes my life or belief system in any significant way, but I do credit it for cleverness. I didn't feel that the jokes were particularly cheap.

I'm thinking now that this is a case of the trope called 'first girl wins.' If I see subsequent shows using the same humor, I feel that I wouldn't be as accommodating.

dotdash said...

Lucky Star does have a lot to say, yeah. It's a near perfect example of the way anime has changed from a modernist to a postmodernist art form. In the example from Lucky Star that I link to above, the interesting thing is not the gag itself, which is the sort of typical anime joke everyone's seen a thousand times, but the fact that Konata recognises the fan service and points it out. Kyoto Animation know that the joke about Miyuki's tits is a transparent excuse for some fan service, and they deliberately put it in precisely so they could poke fun at the cliche. My problem with Lucky Star is just that it doesn't go far enough. Too often it just seems to point out a common trope or cliche and leave it at that. It makes an interesting comparison with a show like Spaced, which plays similar games with pop culture parodies but which immerses itself in the jokes much more.

That said, I agree that Lucky Star is an easy show to just pick up an start watching at any given moment. A friend of mine calls this type of show "healing anime", which I think is a good phrase.