Taking a step back in time today to take a look at what is arguably the grandfather of all otaku metaculture. Join us for the grandiose and yet ultimately very personal tale of otaku in the 1980s and beyond.
Presented as a traditionally animated narrative that is broken up by faux-documentary live action segments, Otaku no Video takes a humorous look at otaku culture as it stood in 1991. The animated portions tell the story of a young college student named Kubo, who is living a normal ippanjin life, playing tennis and dating a glamorous young woman named Yoshiko Ueno, when he happens to run into a friend from his high school days one night and stumbles into a hardcore otaku underworld that nothing could have prepared him for. These segments initially play like an after school special on addiction, to humorous effect. We see a perfectly normal young lad with a bright future ahead of him who has a couple of “experiences” shortly after he starts attending college, only to find that the things which used to occupy his time and interest now seem incredibly dull, and that the people he used to associate with no longer seem to have anything in common with him, and as a result it seems they are slowly drifting away. His physical condition deteriorates and something that was previously only a passing interest quickly escalates into a full-blown obsession.
Sound familiar to anyone?
- Anime – 2 Episodes (OVA)
Ok, so maybe it’s a bit more dramatic than it really needs to be, but the larger-than-life sensibility is all part of its charm. This story is broken up (almost annoyingly so, at times) with “interview” sections featuring questions posed to “real life” otaku about their lives and interests. Filmed in live action, with the subject’s face and voice distorted to hide their identity, the interviw portions have a funny kind of Spinal Tap vibe to them. Legend has it that most of the interview subjects were actual Gainax employees, and the conversations demonstrate a very convincing level of knowledge about the subjects discussed. A few times the interviews descend into being openly ridiculous, but for the most part they are played relatively straight, and they represent a range of completely plausible (if a bit simplified) lifestyles. High points include a conversation with a man who appears to live surrounded by thousands upon thousands of VHS tapes (which he explains that he never actually watches), and a somewhat infamous interview with the token “gaijin otaku”, who was in reality Gainax employee Craig York. Although they are played for comedy, they manage to never really come across as mocking the subjects. Well, maybe once. The interviews are themselves bookended by quick factoids pointing out notable dates in otaku history and narration discussing statistical information about otaku lifestyles, although given the context the data presented are probably a bit questionable themselves.
At the end of volume one our hero Kubo, in despair over the state his life is in and furious at the way that society has treated him, makes a resolution to abandon all pretense of being “normal” and devote himself 100% to being the best otaku he can be. This leads into volume two, which ascends beyond the day-to-day otakudom of the previous installment and takes the same characters through a fictionalized chronicle of the early days of Gainax, mixed in with some melodramatic fantasy involving the creation of an otaku theme park. By the time the ending rolls around, reality has been left far behind and the story has morphed into something almost unrecognizable. Although still entertaining, for obvious reasons this volume is a bit tough to relate to when compared with its predecessor.
The animation holds up as well as can be expected given that it’s more than 15 years old now (yikes!) and, for me at least, there’s something about seeing actual cel animation at OVA-level quality which always warms the heart. Kenichi Sonoda’s designs feel right at home with this subject matter, and although it’s not exactly the most dynamic or visually exciting production ever to come out of Gainax, afficionados of the studio will find a lot of little touches which make it easily recognizable as a Gainax production.
Unfortunately, the subject matter itself feels quite a bit more dated. Although the true spirit of otakudom is unchanged from the (depicted) Showa era, enough of the details have changed to make the fandom shown seem very quaint, if not outright primitive.
This is before the onset of the moe era, and it shows. Whether this adds or detracts is left up to the viewer. As a result, there are no meido, in any form. Similarly, this is also before Akihabara became recognizable as Akihabara. Reference is made to comiket, but this is in the days before the Tokyo Big Sight, and before it had hit the kind of scale we now take for granted. Because of this, one gets the impression that the event is not really being given the weight that it now deserves. Many of the characters and shows discussed have not been heard from in some time, but to be honest if you can’t recognize most of them anyway then shame on you. Perhaps most importantly, this also takes place in the dark times before the Internet. Bishoujo games are featured (at least in the interview section) but more as an oddity than anything else. Also, one of the interview segments concerns a man who is a self-identified “cel thief”, and discusses the moral implications of stealing things from animation studios for sale to underground collectors. Despite my own best efforts this is really no longer a serious issue, simply becase there are no longer any studios that actually use cels. Alas.
And yet, despite all of the wrinkles Otaku no Video shows, I feel it’s important to resist the temptation to recommend it for purely “historical” value. I won’t claim the story and jokes are “universal” or “timeless” but if you don’t think that on the whole it’s damned interesting then I suspect you’re at the wrong web site.
As funny/sad as it may sound, to be perfectly honest this OVA changed my life. Don’t laugh, it’s true. Or do laugh because it’s true, I suppose that’s your prerogative. As a young man growing up in a small town in New England, I was a bit starved for information in the pre-Internet days, and so it was a revalation for me when I found a used VHS copy of Otaku no Video in a blockbuster bargain bin. It may sound hard to believe now, but before I saw this video I had been an anime fan for years and had never even heard the word “otaku” before. Even though it’s presented as a farce, seeing the kind of organized and passionate fandom that is seen here really lit a fire in me. I’m pretty sure I would have ended up in a similar place eventually had I not stumbled across it, but as it was it managed to hit me at just the right time in my life and looking back on it now it’s hard not to feel like it’s become become an itegral part of my character, something that I will always carry with me.
So, maybe it’s a different kind of after school special.
- Accessibility – 4/10
- Otaku Index – 9/10
- Overall Quality – 8/10