Interview with author Patrick W. Galbraith

Today I have the honour of speaking with Mr. Patrick W. Galbraith, Ph.D. candidate in the Graduate School of Interdisciplinary Information Studies at The University of Tokyo and author of "The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insiders Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan" a cracking read which is a proud member of my bookshelf! This is a must have for anyone who considers themselves to be an anime or manga geek.

The GEEK: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us. When you're not guiding tours dressed up as Super Saiyan Goku, writing pop culture encyclopaedias or working towards your Ph.D what do you get up to?

PATRICK: I watch anime. A lot of it. All the time. Seriously, I have no life outside my tiny little study. I stay up all night watching anime, and only leave the house during the day to work and make money, and to use that money to buy anime DVDs and character merchandise. Case in point: Halloween. Most people, even in Tokyo, were out enjoying the evening with good friends, costumes and beer. Where was I? At home watching A Certain Magical Index and gazing at my Misaka figures. For some reason, this never gets old for me. I also read books and sometimes write, when there is a break in the anime!
What started your journey on becoming such a massive anime (Japanese Animation) fan, or, "otaku"?

Love. The kind of love that ruins a man. Though this happened before I was a man or knew the meaning of love. I was maybe five or six. A little background here. I’m from Alaska, which can be a cold, lonely place, especially for those not into the outdoors, sports or drinking. I spent a lot of time at home. My brother, a real classic geek who was into Star Wars, Star Trek, comic books, D&D and so on, was learning Japanese in high school. There was a pretty big Japanese community, actually, because the Anchorage airport used to be a stop over on the way to Europe. Anyway, he got these VHS tapes of raw anime, maybe to study or because they were cool or who knows. You know how it is with older brothers. What they do is cool. The first anime I remember watching was Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. It was in a language I couldn’t understand, and so different from the cartoons and Disney animated films I knew and loved, but something captivated me. Or rather I should say someone, Nausicaa, the heroine. Her voice, her eyes, her Christ-like death and rebirth. So I had developed a thing for bishōjo, or beautiful girl characters, and this got worse the more anime I watched. My brother was into stuff like Bubblegum Crisis. Right before that most awkward transitional time, middle school, my family moved to a ranch in Montana. My brother stayed in Alaska. Isolated and depressed, I basically shut myself off from people. That was when I encountered Sailor Moon. The girls were cuter, and I fell harder. I started working part time, earning money to buy videotapes to record broadcasts of the show. I saved up and got Serena, or Usagi, tattooed on me so I wouldn’t be alone. I was about 14 at the time. Not interested in school, team sports, prom… Yeah, about that time I realized I had failed at life, and I stopped caring. Best decision of my life! Been happily watching anime ever since.

How differently is the term "otaku" viewed in Japan and abroad?

This is a can of worms, brother. With the transnational success of manga, anime and Japanese videogames, “otaku” has become common across a variety of discourses, as a sort of identity designating the consumers or users of these products. I suppose it is most efficient to trace it historically and linguistically. In Chinese characters, or kanji, otaku (お宅) is a slightly archaic way to say “you.” It literally means “your home.” This was used in Western Japan, and among some housewives, as a polite second-person pronoun meaning “you.” Some say otaku comes from here because animation studio Gainax or sci-fi author Arai Motoko used the phrase and were emulated. The word otaku appeared in anime with Studio Nue’s seminal Super Dimensional Fortress Macross in 1982, likely the vernacular of the creators slipped through and entered into the lines of the characters, and the word quickly disseminated among fans of the show. As Otsuka Eiji sees it, fans of anime and manga needed a second-person pronoun when meeting new people at conventions, one that allowed them to communicate without being too close. “Omae” was too masculine, “kimi” too direct and “anata” was used by couples. They perhaps settled on “otaku” because, according to Kotani Mari, they spent a lot of time at home with their mothers, and so emulated their speech patterns. Others might have called them otaku as an insult, punning on “home body” or someone who does not get out of the house much. In hiragana, otaku (おたく) means a subculture that appeared around anime and manga in the late 1970s and blossomed in the 1980s. This is often associated with Miyazaki Tsutomu, who murdered four girls between the ages of four and seven and was arrested in 1989. When investigators discovered almost 6,000 videotapes in his room, he became a symbol of the “otaku generation” and the center of a moral panic. Sharon Kinsella has written a lot about this. However, Osawa Masachi points out that Miyazaki did not know the meaning of the word otaku, and Otsuka Eiji questions the authenticity of the famous “otaku room” photograph widely disseminated in the media. Nevertheless, Miyazaki became the dominant otaku image in the early 1990s. It was banned by NHK and Asahi Shimbun as a pejorative term. Written in Roman letters, otaku (OTAKU) means fans of Japanese popular culture outside Japan. They appeared at science fiction and anime conventions in the United States from the late 1980s into the early 1990s, and used the word otaku openly. It appeared untranslated on the cover of the premiere issue of Wired magazine in 1993. In katakana, otaku (オタク) loses its associations with Miyazaki Tsutomu. This iteration was popularized by Okada Toshio, a founding member of anime production house Gainax. Between 1992 and 1997, he gave a series of lectures at the University of Tokyo, culminating in his Introduction to Otakuology, published in 1996. He speaks from his experience in otaku, reclaiming the term (despite admitting that he and other sci-fi fans abandoned the word otaku as early as 1982) and laying out a theory for understanding otaku as a new relation to media and technology. This was picked up by the media during the “otaku boom” (think Densha Otoko) and government (“Cool Japan” campaigns). On linguistic note, katakana is a script of Japanese used for foreign loanwords, thus otaku appears as somehow transnational. Anime and manga fans who do not want to be associated with the domestic image of otaku in Japan or the cool, international image call themselves “wotaku” (ヲタク), with a silent “w.” In the United States, some people prefer the term “anime fan” to otaku. This is an interesting reversal. Even as the word was negative in Japan in the 1990s, it was positive in the United States, and in the 2000s it is becoming somewhat positive in Japan and somewhat negative in the United States. Basically, the word is really up for grabs right now. It means only as much as we mean it to.

In many western countries Japanese animation is often considered perverse or ultra violent. This seems to stem from titles such as Urotsukidoji and Wicked City. How is the medium viewed in its homeland?

Yeah, the image of anime, in the United States at least, is certainly biased towards dark, gritty sci-fi series. Stuff like Akira, Ghost in the Shell and, yes, Legend of the Overfiend. I personally think this is an aberration. What I mean is that because it was sci-fi fans who first “discovered” anime in the United States, or course they would gravitate towards sci-fi titles. After, it spread in university circles, or among a mature viewing audience. Because of the lingering image of “cartoons” as for kids, the sexual and violent imagery in some anime was perceived as uniquely geared towards adults. The complex stories also were no doubt attractive for this reason. Anyway, animated films and OVA were preferred over TV anime, and more extreme images spread quickly by word of mouth. This is not only sci-fi. Consider the fandom surrounding Ninja Scroll. Sex and violence plus Japan works without robots. However, this seems to be in stark contrast to say France or Italy, which from early on aired a large number of animated Japanese TV series. People of all ages were exposed to it, so the fan base wasn’t as exclusive, subcultural or mature. Places outside the United States also don’t seem as fascinated or shocked by stuff like Wicked City. This could also be because the discourse about cartoons and comics being only “for kids” isn’t as strong, or something fans feel they need to fight against. They do not have to justify their interest in anime by pointing out that it is for adults. I get the impression that this is closer to the situation in Japan. Anime is something every kid watches. Living here, you are exposed to it on a regular basis. It is a mundane presence, not something one needs to justify, at least not until the duration and intensity of interest exceeds “normal” expectations. There is a huge variety in the market, but most people who hear “anime” probably think of popular films and TV series for families and general audiences. What I mean to say is most people know and love Miyazaki Hayao in Japan, but maybe not Oshii Mamoru or Otomo Katsuhiro. I seriously doubt most people know who Maeda Toshio is, or have even heard of Legend of the Overfiend. Many people wouldn’t even know what “tentacle sex” means, I think. The fact that this is such a big part of the image outside Japan is an interesting function of cultural appropriation, and demonstrates the “work” that anime did for non-Japanese fan communities.

Do you think anime and manga (Japanese comics) are intrinsically linked?

Yes. First comes manga, then anime. This is because a smaller number of people can produce a work relatively quickly and distribute it widely. From the very beginning this was the case. Frederik L. Schodt, the eminent manga historian, points out that barriers to creative participation were lower than novels or films, so new, young artists flocked the manga after WWII. The visual nature of manga also makes it easier to access. This is why manga works for people from a variety of backgrounds, for non-Japanese, for kids. It is also easy to distribute in dense urban centers like Tokyo, where people often spend a long time commuting. Manga is cheap, abundant and portable. It is also something that one can do alone without bothering others. Japan is a reading culture, with literacy rates as high as 40 for men and 10 percent for women in the Edo Period. Print capitalism spread quickly. A publisher’s list from 1696 contains 7,800 titles. Even before WWII, there were 19 million newspapers circulated a day in Japan, more than one per household. Japan was one of the most print-saturated nations in the world by 1980, when 4.3 billion books and magazines were produced. A significant portion of that published material, somewhere between 30 and 40 percent, is manga. If a manga develops an adequate fan base, then comes the more costly and time-consuming process of animating it. There are exceptions, of course, like original animation series or those based on light novels or bishōjo / ero games, but this is the way it usually works. Manga is the engine, the beating heart of the Japanese contents industry. Without it, the machine would cease to operate.

What series, movie or OAV would you recommend for the uninitiated?

I usually go with something by Miyazaki Hayao, for example Castle of Cagliostro or Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, because these are just superb works that no one can object to. That said, I do think we need to get beyond the paradigm of Miyazaki worship. Maybe the late Kon Satoshi’s Millennial Actress, Hosoda Mamoru’s The Girl Who Leapt Through Time or Shinkai Makoto’s 5 Centimeters per Second. Movies tend to work best, because they are short, self-contained and tend to have good stories and animation. You want the first experience to have an impact. If they are up for it, series such as Kon’s Paranoia Agent or Watanabe Shinichiro’s Cowboy Bebop really demonstrate the potential of animation. From there you can gauge their interests and try to hook them with more specific titles. You might not want to start off with a mind trip such as Neon Genesis Evangelion or Revolutionary Girl Utena, or something too specific or obscure such as Key the Metal Idol or Video Girl Ai. Not too many insider jokes and otaku references like Excel Saga, Lucky Star or Zetsubō Sensei. That seems to turn people off. If you want to introduce them to what otaku animation is all about, I’d say cut to the quick and go with Aim for the Top! Gunbuster. Robots, girls and Gainax. Nuff said.

What upcoming titles are you most looking forward to?

Mardock Scramble, which comes out in theaters in Japan this Saturday, November 6. It features the vocal talents of my longtime love, Hayashibara Megumi. Seriously, this lady is a siren, calling otaku to the dark path of obsession and finally self-destruction.

What on earth is "moe"?

It is a response to fictional characters or representations of them. Because the character does not represent a fully formed human body, the response is also not fully formed. Simply, the response is affect, in Brian Massumi’s sense of a moment of unformed and unstructured potential. The experience, what Massumi calls an “intensity,” is outside of logical language and conscious control. Moe provides a word to express affect, or to identify a form that can trigger an intensity. The definition of moe I like best is Thomas Lamarre’s, which is something like a response “prior to the formation of a distinct subject or viewing position.”

What three terms should all self-confessed and self-respecting otaku be aware of?

Aside from the word otaku itself? OK, I will go with three sets rather than three terms! First, and most basically, the equivalent of ACG (animation, comics and games), which would be something like MAT (manga, anime and TV games). Second, dōjinshi, bishōjo / ero games and idols (singing, gravure, seiyuu, etc). Finally, and most specifically, yaoi / boys love, lolicon and moe. In my experience, these are necessary to survival!

I'm sure that there are plenty of geeks, nerds and otaku out there who would look at you and think "This guy loves anime, writes about it, leads tours to find it and lives in the homeland, JAPAN! It's a dream come true!" What advice can you give to us envious geeks (myself included)?

Do what you love and love what you do. Do it all the time and never stop doing it. Honestly, that is all we can do. The world is a confusing place, but if we do what feels right, no matter what others may think about it, things tend to work out. Of course you need to work hard, but if it is meaningful to you, work becomes fun. Others will help and support the work. That is my theory, anyway. To phrase this more practically, I’d say find a niche. There are plenty of needs to be filled. If you develop special skills, for example technical or language skills, or knowledge, for example on a specific area or topic, and place yourself where the action is, there is no end to the opportunities. That, and don’t second guess yourself. If an opportunity presents itself, grab it, run and don’t look back. I’d say 90 percent of the drive is momentum, and hesitation kills it. In short, don’t think, just do! Maybe this totally reckless advice is more for the dreamer than the planner. To borrow a line from “Cha-La Head-Cha-La,” the themesong to Dragon Ball Z, “The emptier your head is, the more you can fill it with dreams.” Hold onto those dreams, make them your source of power, your personal reality. 

Thanks so much to Mr. Galbraith for his time and inspirational words.

You can get The Otaku Encyclopedia: An Insiders Guide to the Subculture of Cool Japan from most major bookstores or Amazon


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