This is not the time to go Azuma-hunting in the world of 2000s anime, but the appearance of Fractale, based on a story and concept by Azuma (although only the novel, which follows a different story, was directly written by him, it is probably fair to say that the universe Fractale inhabits was developed under Azuma's strong influence), is very interesting, seeing the critic's position rotate through 180 degrees, to the other side of the screen.
The director tasked with bringing Azuma's idea to life is Yamamoto Yutaka, whose previous includes work on shows like Kannagi and Shakugan no Shana, as well as working for moé titans Kyoto Animation on Air, Kanon and Haruhi. As a result, Fractale is a work that turns on the influence of two creators with important connections to otaku and moé culture. One its arch analyst, dissector of its habits and behaviours, the other one of its most experienced practitioners, with a hand in some of the most iconic moé works of the decade.
The story begins in somewhere that might be a future Ireland or might be some kind of Celtic Neverland, with a boy called Clain encountering a mysterious, faintly alien seeming girl called Phryne, who is being pursued by a gang of assorted ne'er-do-wells. So far, so familiar. The environment and the animation are largely realistically drawn, with few of the usual visual signifiers one would expect of a moé anime. However, some of the characters' behaviour and certain cliches they act out, indicate that Azuma or Yamamoto (or both) nevertheless intends to run with some of moé's key tropes.
Flushed, sweating, eyes wide with fear: is he being sacrificed to the Great Cthulu? No, he just saw a girl's tits.
Within seconds of first encountering Phryne, Clain as been put in a situation where he must (in order to help the poor girl, natch) gingerly lift part of her dress covering her leg. He frets and faffs over this tedious piece of voyeurism that the production staff have contrived for him, which is par for the course among anime heroes of course, because it allows the audience to experience the thrill of precariously concealed underage female flesh, with hero-avatar's reaction providing the reassurance and validation that their intentions are actually the opposite. They are being forced to look up the unconscious teenage girl's skirt: they don't want to, but they have to in order to help her, and they feel really bad about it because, you know, they're not usually that kind of guy (yes, these are sarcastic italics).
Later when she appears topless in his room asking for help with the minor wounds she sustained, we're treated to the same paroxysms of crippling social inertia from Clain, but this time she is conscious and openly displaying herself to him, although the magic moé sex-away wand is at work here too. In order for the show to provide its audience with the titilation they require without ever making the girl seem like, you know, a scrubber, she behaves in a way that shows her to be entirely innocent of Clain's sexual discomfort. Thus the production team preserve her purity and innocence while at the same time preserving her role in appeasing the audience's sexual demands.
Yes, I'm making a big deal out of something that is hardly the main point of the story. Nevertheless, compare and contrast with almost the exact same scenario in Miyazaki's Laputa. Pazu lives a self-sufficient life alone, working for the shaft engineer at the mine. When the girl Sheeta falls from the sky into his arms at the beginning of the film, there is also obvious interest in the beautiful, angelic young female presence that has appeared in his life, but there are important differences in the way he responds to her. His attitude is more brash, he wants to show off to her, be it his athletic abilities, the view of his home town, or his collection of flight memorabilia. In an instant, we know what is important to him, what kind of person he wants to be, and what his dreams are. We also find out that he can be clumsy in his pursuit of those goals, as when he falls through the roof of the house into a pile of rubble. But then we learn that he can bounce back from these setbacks through the sheer power of his enthusiasm and never-say-die attitude.
With Fractale's setting based on Ireland rather than Laputa's imaginary Welsh valley (although one picturesque Celtic location is surely as good as another, right?) Clain's interest in Phryne is displayed through sweat-drenched, cripplingly self-conscious voyeurism. Apart from a desultory interest in music, and the requisite otaku tendencies, his goals are vague; he demonstrates little interest in the world he inhabits, meanwhile his parents are distant, interacting with him only through a pair of inhuman looking automatons.
Elsewhere, the villains chasing Phryne are clearly modelled on the Grandis Gang from Anno Hideaki's Nadia, although with a shrieking underage girl in a nurse's uniform replacing the sexy and mature Grandis Granva as their presumed leader. One imagines (hopes?) that someone as clever as Azuma would have clever ideas for subverting these standard tropes in later episodes, although if he is really all that clever, then there is also the chance he'll know where his bread's buttered and just pander away for all he's worth.
This episode, however, does give hope that the former case may be true, for while Azuma may have immersed himself to a stupendous degree in otaku culture, he's not really an otaku: Azuma is a philosopher and to a limited degree a sociologist, and he has a more old-fashioned way of thinking. He may wish to dress up his work in some of the trappings of hyper-post-modern, "superflat" otaku culture, and he plays those cards well -- well enough in fact that some of the early interactions between Clain and Phryne (combined with Clain's infuriating habit of dropping his voice to a whisper for the final syllable of every fucking sentence that vomits forth from his face -- it just pushes my hate button, OK? Just wait till I start writing about Banner of the Stars) had me in spasms of spitting rage and hate -- but at the heart of Fractale, there is the sense that for Azuma, everything must mean something.
Clain's sense of dislocation and alienation, his vaguely geekish tendencies: these things are not the "boo-hoo, no one understands us" mutually masturbatory victimhood yowls of self-obsessed otaku. They are cultural observations from a person both intimately involved in and a keen observer of society. Like Miyazaki, and like any socially-concerned science fiction writer, Azuma is looking at the world, observing the interaction of technology and society, and projecting what this does to us.
When Clain explains that the reason he keeps the old videos of himself and his now (physically at least) absent parents is because they're in a rare, outdated video format, the moment is freighted with meaning because it forms part of an interlocking sequence of small events and incidents that have set up the theme. We don't really believe that Clain doesn't care for his parents, what this scene shows rather poignantly is the way that Clain is so disconnected from his feelings that his sentiment for outdated machinery is the only outlet he is emotionally capable of using to express the loss he feels at his parents' absence.
Phryne sheds tears in place of Clain, who sits uncomprehending, surrounded by screens, speakers and the silent eye of the webcam.
There must be some debate as to what aspects of it are down to Azuma and which down to Yamamoto, and indeed to what extent the two are singing from the same hymn sheet, but yes, at least from this first episode, it is clear that Fractale has absorbed, and is casually regurgitating, many of the themes and cliches that underlie modern moé-influenced anime; and yet, it also seems intent on putting them in a wider social context. Yes, it is littered with transparent references to older anime works, but the characters thus far have remained innocent of them, free from self-referential comic asides.
Where it's obvious that someone like Hayao Miyazaki passionately wishes that the modern otaku had never been born and, thanks to his more mainstream popularity in Japan and overseas, is able to continue living his life in blissful denial of their existence, Azuma and Yamamoto have been getting their fingers dirty, peeling through the onion skins of moé culture for the past ten years and more, and are among the best placed people out there to engage with this most divisive aspect of Japanese pop culture in an interesting and valuable way (before presumably ruining it with a feeble final episode, like we all secretly know they will).