Every year Otaku no Video is used to kick off Otakon. It has had that spot on the programming schedule ever year since 1994 because it was one of the first and most well know anime that looks into the heart of otaku culture. It encapsulates the spirit of any anime convention and the otaku lifestyle. It simultaneously sings the praises of the otaku while hanging its head in shame at the same time. Otaku no Video does this dichotomy in storytelling with two different narratives taking place. One story is told with animation and one story is told through a live action mockumentary. Each path takes its own look at anime fandom and pushes past is logical extreme for comedic effect. In between these two extremes is where Gainax and maybe even anime fandom’s true opinion of itself lies.
Otaku no Video is a show that I remember from my early fandom. I don’t know how it is exactly, probably just the internet, but it seems as soon as you start watching anime, as soon as you enter fandom, you find out about the word “otaku.” It is like magically you just know this word and whether you use it right or wrong, and who says what the right and wrong is, becomes a part of your fandom. Nowadays you can find any number of shows featuring otaku, but when Otaku no Video hit the streets it wasn’t often otaku were main characters. But despite the prevalence of such things now, Otaku no Video is still a unique work without equal.
The first part of Otaku no Video is the Gundam Sousei version of the founding of Studio Gainax. It is an overly dramatic and comedic look at how a group of otaku took their diverse passions and turned it into a company by otaku for otaku. We see how normal guy Ken Kubo is sucked into after a chance encounter with his old high school friend Tanaka. The two eventually decide to throw off the shackles of a convention a life an become otakings. They must overcome great deal hardship on both the financial front and personal front to form an otaku empire called Giant X. Along the way we get various insights into the inner workings of anime, manga, figure, military, idol, and science fiction nerds along side pretty much every other type of nerd of the 1980s and 90s. We see people lining up to see Unico while ogling over design sketches from Macross: Do You Remember Love?. We see tape trading going on while a circle is working in shifts on doujinshi. We cosplayer trading anime quotes while waiting in line all night for a promotional event. Every popular anime of the time is name dropped, cosplayed, quoted, and referenced throughout the OAVs. It is a celebration of the passion and drive that otaku can have in chasing their dreams.
The animated narrative is filled with positive energy. Despite the fact that Kubo, a non-otaku at the beginning, loses the path he was on, he gains something that gives him far greater pleasure. He has a passion, friends, and sense of justice that dictates the greater plot of the show: to create an otaku empire! But beyond that, there is a sense of belonging through both the hobbies the friends share and the ostracization they feel from the outside world. Though I always felt these outcast moments were more for realization than trying to press any lesson or prove a point. Kubo endures these moments, comes to a breaking point, and then vows to make his hobby into his purpose. Very much like nerd revenge on all those that looked down upon them. I also have a soft spot for stories where an underdog succeeds and hires all his friends, it is very uplifting. So while it is a very fictionalized account, the most important part still rings loud and clear: Boldly go after your dreams!
Cutting in between this fictionalized history of Gainax there are live action segments called Portrait of an Otaku. In these clips random otaku are interviewed about their hobbies. Everyone involved has their faces blurred out and their voices changed to protect their identities. They are asked a number of probing questions about their lives and lack thereof. Then the usually flash some statics and the end of the interview. It is obvious that these segments are staged but they still hold tremendous insight into the shameful feelings of the otaku. We start with a business man who obviously goes out of his way to hide his otaku nature, we then move on to lonely porn fans and visual novel fans who won’t stop what they are doing for the interview, crazy survivalist guns nuts, and even an animation cell thief. To prove their willingness to mock everyone there is even a total Japanophile American who is interviewed. These segments are played for laughs the message is clear. These people are sad individuals who exemplify all that is dark and base about the otaku.
It is a little hard to know how seriously to take the interspersed interviews with real-life otaku. Some moments are easily staged, like one of my favorites, when they are interviewing a guy about cosplay and then he happens to pull a Char helmet out of nowhere! However, even if it is joking around it certainly sets a contrast to the animated portions through the faked names, mosaiced faces, and voice changes. These people talk passionately about their hobbies, even looking nostalgically back of their youth clubs, but they come off as hiding their true selves. The narrator seems to reflect this fact, and by the way he seems to get more cynically between the first and second episode. Though I have to say, these real otaku from the early 90’s aren’t too different from the ones of today. I have to say, I kind of wonder if through the sheer fact that they are real-life people it takes on a different tone.
The real question is how do these two contradicting ideas exist side by side with each other. On one had we have a glorious celebration of why being an otaku is so grand and how you should be loud and proud about being a fan in the animated segments. At the same time we have a complete feeling of shame and a view that otaku are all pathetic losers who should hide away from society considering how horrible they are. I think that it is not only that the truth lies in the middle on this matter but that many otaku hold both concepts in their heads simultaneously. We often celebrate the positive and try to hide away or make fun of the negative and believe both about ourselves and our fellow fans. I am sure that the staff at studio Gainax being who they are have seen the heights of both sides. Instead of mixing these feelings into one message like Genshiken did they decided to split these two feelings into their own paths.
What does one take away from Otaku no Video? An amusing time and a look at some history of otaku, albeit fictionalized and exaggerated. Whether you decide to take away some deeper meaning about the state of otakudom then or now is up to serious interpretation. It is a work that will always be remembered and has inadvertently now become a classic.
Want a DVD of Otaku no Video? All you have to do is leave a comment telling us about the moment you knew you were an otaku.
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