Earth in My Window

Essay by Pop Art artist Takashi Murakami on Japanese society and on WWII infantilizing Japanese culture as revealed by media, anime, and otaku.
anime, NGE, criticism, sociology, Little-Boy, SF
by: Takashi Murakami 2012-03-042019-04-18 finished certainty: log importance: 2

“Earth In My Win­dow” is a long essay by pop artist med­i­tat­ing on post-WWII con­sumerist Japan­ese soci­ety and on WWII infan­tiliz­ing Japan­ese pop cul­ture as revealed by its influ­ences on media, ani­me, and the otaku sub­cul­ture.

This tran­script has been pre­pared from a PDF scan of pg 98–149 of Lit­tle Boy: The Arts of Japan’s Explod­ing Sub­cul­ture, ed. Murakami, pub­lished 2005-05-15, ISBN 0300102852. (See also the tran­script of a dis­cus­sion mod­er­ated by Murakami, .)

Earth in My Window


trans­lated by Linda Hoaglund

Little Boy


The scent of summer is a kamikaze [divine wind]
A vanished future dreams of tomorrow
Gleaming wings, a terrified profile
Feigning blissful ignorance when we all know

An historic first, a midsummer memory
Don't ever forget, proudly beaming
Strutting like a star, can you soar through the big summer sky?

That you may never have a second chance
We really hope, we're all praying

Don't ever forget, by the way, we're
Japanese, too, for better or worse
Swing it from your hands, proudly under the big summer sky

Farewell to arms, under the midsummer sky
Let's smile in a corner of the room
Who's that staring, who's that hiding there?
With the face of a newborn
Who are you? What are you? Who are you?

(kicell, "Enola Gay", 2004; lyrics and music by Takefumi Tsujimura)
cap­tion right top: Fig­ure 1a.1 Howl and Sophie, from 2004 Ani­mated film; direc­tor: Hayao Miyazaki
cap­tion right bot­tom: Fig­ure 1a.2;


Cap­tion left top: Fig­ure 1a.3 George Orwell 1984 (cov­er) 1949 Book (pub­lish­er: Signet Clas­sic, 1990)

On August 6, 1945, for the first time in actual war­fare, an atomic bomb, nick­named “”, exploded over the city of Hiroshima (pl. 6). Three days lat­er, on August 9, a sec­ond atomic bomb, nick­named “”, hit Nagasa­ki. Togeth­er, the two bombs killed more than 210 thou­sand peo­ple; when sur­vivors afflicted by the after-effects of the bombs are includ­ed, the fig­ure rises to some 370 thou­sand. After the tragic explo­sive-de­struc­tive-White­out! of the bombs, only burned-out rub­ble remained: waste­land upon waste­land, utterly vacant land. After the blind­ing white light, a con­fla­gra­tion of orange… and then, instan­ta­neous­ly, a tor­rent of pitch-black rub­ble and man­gled body parts actu­ally rained on the peo­ple on the ground.

Shortly there­after, Japan sur­ren­dered uncon­di­tion­al­ly, bring­ing the fifteen-year Pacific War to an end.

2005. Sixty years after the war. Con­tem­po­rary Japan is at peace.

But every­one who lives in Japan knows—­some­thing is wrong. Still, it’s not worth a sec­ond thought. Young girls butchered; piles of cash dona­tions, scat­tered reck­lessly on for­eign soil; the quest for cathar­sis through vol­un­teerism; a brazen media pre­pared to swal­low press restric­tions in sup­port of eco­nomic growth. The door­ways of pass­ably com­fort­able one-room apart­ments, adorned mean­ing­lessly with amulet stick­ers from , a pri­vate secu­rity com­pa­ny. Safe and sound, hys­te­ria.

Japan may be the future of the world. And now, Japan is .

From social mores to art and cul­ture, every­thing is super two-di­men­sion­al.

Kawaii (cute) cul­ture has become a liv­ing entity that per­vades every­thing. With a pop­u­la­tion heed­less of the cost of embrac­ing imma­tu­ri­ty, the nation is in the throes of a dilem­ma: a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with anti-ag­ing may con­quer not only the human heart, but also the body.

It is a utopian soci­ety as fully reg­u­lated as the sci­ence-fic­tion world George Orwell envi­sioned in 1984: com­fort­able, hap­py, fash­ion­able—a world nearly devoid of dis­crim­i­na­tory impuls­es. A place for peo­ple unable to com­pre­hend the moral coor­di­nates of right and wrong as any­thing other than a for “I feel good.”


Cap­tion right top: Fig­ure 1a.4 1954 Film; direc­tor:

These monot­o­nous ruins of a nation-s­tate, which arrived on the heels of an Amer­i­can pup­pet gov­ern­ment, have been per­fectly real­ized in the name of cap­i­tal­ism. Those who inhabit this vacant cru­cible spin in end­less, inar­tic­u­late cir­cles. In order to solve the puz­zle of Japan­ese cul­ture today, let us view it through indi­vid­ual win­dows, whether images, songs, or some expres­sion or behav­ior, as though screen­ing them on a com­put­er. Guided by the frag­ment of a soul vis­i­ble at the instant those win­dows coa­lesce as one, we will draw the future a lit­tle clos­er.

When kawaii, het­are (loser), and yurui (loose or lethar­gic) char­ac­ters smile wanly or stare vacant­ly, peo­ple around the world should rec­og­nize a grad­u­ally fus­ing, happy heart. It should be pos­si­ble to find the ker­nels of our future by exam­in­ing how indige­nous Japan­ese imagery and aes­thet­ics changed and accel­er­ated after the war, solid­i­fy­ing into their cur­rent forms.

We Japan­ese still embody “Lit­tle Boy”, nick­named, like the atomic bomb itself, after a nasty child­hood taunt.

Japanese Film in the 60 Years After the War

Akira Kuro­sawa’s undis­puted mas­ter­piece, The Seven Samu­rai (1954), a lengthy enter­tain­ment run­ning three hours and twen­ty-seven min­utes, was released nine years after the war, and became a record-break­ing hit in Japan. Upon its release, long lines snaked out­side the­aters in Japan, and the film rapidly achieved inter­na­tional pop­u­lar­i­ty; it won the Sil­ver Lion in the same year. Remade abroad, it has gained count­less Japan­ese and inter­na­tional fans.


Cap­tion left top: Howl and Sophie fly­ing, from Howl’s Mov­ing Cas­tle 2004 Ani­mated film; direc­tor: Hayao Miyazaki

With its relent­less pur­suit of real­ism, the film broke new ground among samu­rai films, deal­ing with such themes as human resilience, pover­ty, hunger, pride, loy­al­ty, the futil­ity of Japan’s feu­dal hier­ar­chy (warriors/peasants/artisans/merchants), and the folly of strife. The world may be a com­plex place where hap­pi­ness eludes many, yet humans sur­vive. The Seven Samu­rai was a hymn to the tri­umphant right of the peas­ant or the com­mon man to live.

Although the Japan­ese had achieved a mirac­u­lous post­war revival and no longer scram­bled for food, hunger was still an indeli­ble mem­o­ry, tinged with nos­tal­gia. As they searched for self­-re­spect while acknowl­edg­ing defeat, The Seven Samu­rai was no mere cos­tume dra­ma: it was their own strug­gle. The film defined the Japan­ese peo­ple.

With the chang­ing for­tunes of the years, the coor­di­nates of enter­tain­ment also shift­ed.

Now it’s 2005. What film defines the Japan­ese today? With­out ques­tion, it is Howl’s Mov­ing Cas­tle, released in Japan in late 2004.

Hayao Miyaza­ki, a nation­ally beloved direc­tor whose new works are eagerly antic­i­pat­ed, achieved an unprece­dented feat with his pre­vi­ous film, , the high­est-gross­ing film in Japan­ese screen his­to­ry.


Cap­tion right top:
Fig­ure 1a.6
Howl mon­ster­ized, from Howl’s Mov­ing Cas­tle
Ani­mated film; direc­tor: Hayao Miyazaki
Cap­tion right mid­dle:
Fig­ure 1a.7
Sophie trav­el­ing back in time to Howl’s child­hood, from Howl’s Mov­ing Cas­tle
Ani­mated film; direc­tor: Hayao Miyazaki

His lat­est film, Howl’s Mov­ing Cas­tle (in cur­rent release), is over­whelm­ingly pop­u­lar. This film should pro­vide a snap­shot of what Japan­ese peo­ple want today. Let us ana­lyze sev­eral of its key com­po­nents.

The young pro­tag­o­nist, Sophie, is eigh­teen years old. It is the dawn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, an era of unsur­passed nation­al­ism, some­where in a faintly Alsa­t­ian cor­ner of the world. Sol­diers of the realm head out to bat­tle. One day, Sophie encoun­ters a beau­ti­ful young wiz­ard, Howl. Flee­ing from an unknown pur­suer, the young man flies up into the sky car­ry­ing Sophie, who promptly falls in love with him.

That night, the Witch of the Waste casts a spell on Sophie, trans­form­ing her into a nine­ty-year-old woman. Home­less, Sophie wan­ders into Howl’s dreaded mov­ing castle, where she takes up res­i­dence as an aged house­keep­er, dis­guis­ing her true iden­ti­ty. As Sophie embraces her strange new life in the cas­tle with Howl, his appren­tice Markl, and Cal­cifer (a fire demon who keeps the cas­tle in motion), she opens her heart to them, acknowl­edg­ing their mutual bonds, and real­izes that she is hap­py. Mean­while, Howl, who has always pur­sued a soli­tary exis­tence, evad­ing his wiz­ardly oblig­a­tions to engage in war, also changes. Even as he grows hag­gard from nightly expo­sure to the fires of war, he has found some­one he must pro­tect. By falling in love with Sophie, Howl dis­cov­ers one cause for which it is worth sac­ri­fic­ing him­self to the rav­ages of war. But the fires of war mer­ci­lessly con­sume even Howl’s hum­ble resolve, and he is quickly reduced to an evil fight­ing machine.

Sur­mis­ing that Howl’s con­di­tion stems from a youth­ful obses­sion with sor­cery, Sophie leaps across space and time back to Howl’s child­hood, where she must win his heart. She ful­fills her goal, the war ends, and Sophie and Howl live hap­pily in the cas­tle.

In the sto­ry, Sophie bounces back and forth between eigh­teen and nine­ty, aging when she is inde­ci­sive and regain­ing her youth­ful appear­ance when­ever she makes a choice; she con­stantly meta­mor­phoses, heed­less of the demands of any lin­ear nar­ra­tive. In the happy final sce­nes, Sophie is a girl again, yet she retains a shock of white hair.

The film is based on a by . Although the film remains true to the basic out­line of the book, the orig­i­nal plot has been relent­lessly altered. Miyaza­k­i’s adap­ta­tion is rooted in the [104] pro­tag­o­nist’s quest for the mean­ing of life, which mir­rors the same quest of con­tem­po­rary Japan­ese. It also incor­po­rates Miyaza­k­i’s cor­ro­sive yet gen­uine strug­gle through per­sonal trau­mas dur­ing the Pacific War. Grad­u­al­ly, Miyazaki has trans­formed Wynne Jones’s story into a self­-dep­re­cat­ing por­trait of him­self, con­clud­ing that if he must live in a land of com­plete defeat, which has cho­sen apo­lit­i­cal involve­ment in war, he has no choice but to keep mak­ing movies.

A Hol­ly­wood pro­ducer read­ing the screen­play in advance might well have had mis­giv­ings about financ­ing Howl’s mam­moth pro­duc­tion costs. But Miyazaki has cre­ated the ulti­mate enter­tain­ment for pre­sen­t-day Japan, with a pow­er­fully cumu­la­tive struc­ture, sequences of intense pas­sion, vivid ren­der­ings of a con­tem­po­rary Japan­ese ethos, and a vora­cious appetite for relent­less vol­leys of “mes­sages”. Miyazaki knows bet­ter than any­one that the Japan­ese audi­ence hungers for a nar­ra­tive struc­ture alien to the logic of Amer­i­can films.

The film has three major themes. First, war is unten­able, and no mat­ter how right­eous its cause, breaks down the human spir­it; the fact that war begins and ends at the capri­cious whim of a hand­ful of peo­ple is cause for despair. In other words, war is ulti­mately mean­ing­less. Sec­ond, no one can live alone. The film stresses our essen­tial need for com­mu­ni­ty, even if it is only a pseudo-fam­i­ly. Third, real­ity lies some­where between “aging” and “anti-ag­ing”. The film offers a pre­scrip­tion for the human heart by acknowl­edg­ing the process of mat­u­ra­tion and aging inher­ent to the span of human life.

All of the prob­lems con­fronted by the Japan­ese today are present in Howl’s Mov­ing Cas­tle. Take war, which by all rights should con­cern us. Even the most obtuse Japan­ese rec­og­nize that we sup­port the war in Iraq. Yet the aver­age per­son can­not afford to get involved. We feel help­less to change the sit­u­a­tion and guilty for liv­ing in safe­ty, yet no one takes any action. Then there are the string of recent nat­ural dis­as­ters, the mur­ders of young girls and other out­ra­geous crimes, the nor­mal­iza­tion of young “”, and the mean­ing­less con­ti­nu­ity of fam­i­ly; final­ly, our head­long rush toward an aging soci­ety, filled with anx­i­ety.

This para­dox of an old woman and young girl who occupy one body, this por­trayal of the con­comi­tant [105] coor­di­nates of age, is about to unfold in the real world. The super­im­po­si­tion of Miyazaki him­self, now a white-maned media star, onto this image allows the audi­ence imme­di­ate access to hard­ship, open­ing them up to sym­pa­thy.

Cap­tion right top:
Fig­ure 1a.8
Akira Toriyama
Dragon Ball, vol. 1 (cov­er)
Book (pub­lish­er: Shūeisha)
Cap­tion right bot­tom:
Fig­ure 1a.9
Akira Toriyama
Gokū (right) fight­ing an oppo­nent, from Dragon Ball (com­plete edi­tion), vol. 32 (page 58)
Book (pub­lish­er: Shūeisha)

In the fires of war, Howl loses sight of him­self and becomes a mon­ster. He can only escape by return­ing to the past to find him­self again. He knows how grim his chances are. Howl’s dilemma is based on Miyaza­k­i’s own child­hood expe­ri­ences of escap­ing Tokyo and the rav­ages of war for the coun­try­side dur­ing World War II. Miyazaki has can­didly dis­cussed the guilt and trauma that he felt over his fam­i­ly’s refusal, as they escaped Tokyo by truck, to help other fam­i­lies beg­ging rides along the way for their chil­dren. In addi­tion, he is haunted by the shat­tered dreams of his youth, when he acted on his belief that ide­ol­ogy could change the world. The heroic sight of Howl, trans­formed into a kamikaze-like fly­ing fighter amidst a land­scape rem­i­nis­cent of fire­bombed Tokyo, is ren­dered real by the fact that Howl indeed has no goal. The grad­ual trans­for­ma­tion of a gen­tle, charm­ing man into a demon as he is dragged into bat­tle may be con­strued as a pow­er­ful protest against the mean­ing­less of war, cloaked in the guise of a chil­dren’s fairy­tale. The Seven Samu­rai brought rel­e­vance through real­ism to post­war Japan­ese; Miyazaki achieves empa­thy with con­tem­po­rary audi­ences not by approach­ing real­ism (there are no scenes of human death in the film), but by spin­ning a chil­dren’s fan­ta­sy. Howl’s Mov­ing Cas­tle responds to the fears of death that beset Japan­ese, both young and old. The fan­tas­tic, nearly reli­gious scene in which Sophie tra­verses time and space to enter Howl’s child­hood fore­tells our invi­ta­tion to the nether­world beyond death; it half sug­gests karmic rein­car­na­tion.

Sixty years after the war, the ves­ti­gial phan­toms that Miyazaki failed to con­quer in his youth still trap this film­mak­er, goad­ing him to por­tray the folly of war. And audi­ences are moved by Miyaza­k­i’s per­sonal dilem­ma, with which they empathize and find res­o­nance. This is the movie Japan wants now.

Death and Narrative Merge

The cathar­sis in , the quin­tes­sen­tial main­stream man­ga, is a cli­max that never ends. Dragon Ball was the engine that drove , a weekly teen manga mag­a­zine with a cir­cu­la­tion [106] of 6.5 mil­lion.

Cap­tion left top:
Fig­ure 1a.10
Asao Takamori and Tet­suya Chiba
Last scene of
1973 (orig­i­nal manga pub­li­ca­tion)
Man­ga; repro­duced from Ashita no Jō, vol. 12, pub­lished by Kodan­sha Manga Bunko (2000)

To put this in per­spec­tive, , Japan’s largest dai­ly, has a cir­cu­la­tion of 10 mil­lion. Dragon Ball ran to some 520 install­ments over twelve years from 1984 to 1995. The might­i­est pop­u­lar manga of its day, it had sold over 126 mil­lion manga paper­backs by 2000. It goes with­out say­ing that Dragon Ball spin-offs abound, includ­ing an ani­mate TV series, movies, and games. Vast quan­ti­ties of Dragon Ball char­ac­ters and mer­chan­dise have been pro­duced.

Dragon Ball began with a heart­warm­ing story before shift­ing into an action series built around the war­rior tour­na­ments of the Peer­less Mar­tial Arts Asso­ci­a­tion (Tenka Ichi Budōkai). The pro­tag­o­nists fight, win, lose, and learn lessons, then return to fight again in an end­less cycle. The tenets of the Shō­nen Jump phi­los­o­phy, “friend­ship, strug­gle, and vic­tory”, inten­sify the moment bat­tling war­riors become friends. Dragon Ball then evolved into a bat­tle against aliens intent on world dom­i­na­tion, expand­ing its nar­ra­tive scale, which increas­ingly inflates the top war­riors and their chal­lengers. The colos­sal pop­u­lar­ity of the series so extended its life that acro­batic devices were con­tin­u­ally employed to keep the nar­ra­tive alive, evad­ing the pit­falls of rou­tine char­ac­ters and plots. The series even­tu­ally went so far as to have pro­tag­o­nist Gokū and the other war­riors attain life after death halfway through their sto­ries by means of a mirac­u­lous device. Gokū, for exam­ple, con­tin­ues his ani­mate exis­tence by wear­ing an angel’s halo. Dragon Ball is premised on the pre­pos­ter­ous notion that a dead, halo-s­port­ing hero can reduce each of his per­sis­tent chal­lenger­s—from neme­sis and super-neme­sis to hyper­-neme­sis—to a pulp. The nev­er-end­ing cycli­cal nar­ra­tive moves for­ward plau­si­bly, seam­less­ly, and with great finesse.

In the 1990s, the man­ga-lov­ing pub­lic grew dis­sat­is­fied with the essen­tial manga cathar­sis at the heart of Tomor­row’s Joe or , in which the final death of the pro­tag­o­nist pro­vides sen­ti­men­tal inspi­ra­tion. That pub­lic demanded a riskier, high­-wire nar­ra­tive to sus­tain its addic­tion to weekly manga mag­a­zines.

In fact, as leg­end has it, the cre­ator of Dragon Ball and his read­ers ended up play­ing out a game of one-up­man­ship as extreme—and even as haz­ardous—as the rig­or­ous thou­sand-day ascetic prac­tice that an Eso­teric Bud­dhist monk would undergo on the sacred [107] , nearly sac­ri­fic­ing his own life to attain the revered rank of (Sk: âcârya). The result was the ulti­mate enter­tain­ment of a nev­er-end­ing loop that defies even death itself.

Cap­tion top:
Fig­ure 1a.11
Osamu Tezuka
From New Trea­sure Island
1947 (orig­i­nal manga pub­li­ca­tion)
Man­ga; repro­duced from Shin takara­ji­ma: Tezuka Osamu manga zen­shū 281 (Com­plete works of Osamu Tezuka, vol. 281), pub­lished by Kodan­sha (1984), pages 8–9
Cap­tion right bot­tom:
Fig­ure 1a.12
Kamui Fuji­wara
Choco­late Panic, vol. 2 (cov­er)
Book (pub­lish­er: Futabasha)

Another work emblem­atic of man­ga’s hey­day, ’s (pl. 18), reflects an alter­nate approach to com­bin­ing ele­ments of tra­di­tional manga nar­ra­tive. Ōtomo emerged in the mid-1970s as a pio­neer of real­is­tic depic­tion, and exerted major influ­ence through the over­whelm­ing power of his images.

, the first manga mas­ter, laid out the essen­tial nar­ra­tive con­ven­tions of post­war man­ga. Though influ­enced by Dis­ney’s ani­ma­tion tech­niques, Tezuka devised his own manga gram­mar, employ­ing a pro­gres­sion of film-like shot break­downs and char­ac­ter [108] pos­es. His approach drew many fol­low­ers, cre­at­ing the foun­da­tion for post­war man­ga.

Cap­tion left:
Fig­ure 1a.13

Oil on panel
114 × 155 cm
Kun­sthis­torisches Muse­um, Vienna
GG Inv. No. 1026

Ōto­mo’s inno­va­tion, in turn, lay in the frozen still­ness of his visual com­po­si­tions, which offer stark con­trast to Tezuka’s dynamic images. Ōto­mo’s manga frames are styl­ized an exag­ger­at­ed, and his mechan­i­cally clipped images cre­ate a weight­less atmos­phere. His nar­ra­tives echo this qual­i­ty: there’s never a final pay­off. They’re anec­do­tal feints, always side­step­ping any denoue­ment. Other manga artists, such as , the Ōtomo devo­tee behind Choco­late Panic, began to premise their work on an exag­ger­ated fail­ure to deliver a finale. In the world of four-frame man­ga, the trend toward a non-nar­ra­tive struc­ture—­found in the work of , Sen­sha Yoshi­da, Sekai­ichi Asaku­ra, and —may be con­strued as a response to an extreme real­ism. Ōto­mo, one of the pio­neers of this tech­nique, aban­doned it after sev­eral [109] seri­al­iza­tions, even­tu­ally adopt­ing a filmic idiom. He incor­po­rated cin­e­matic con­ven­tions of sus­pense in A Child’s Dream (1982), and in the short ani­mated film The Order to Stop Con­struc­tion, he took the “frozen-still” com­po­si­tions he had mas­tered through manga to the next lev­el. As if to reverse Tezuka’s move­ment towards Dis­ney-style ani­ma­tion, Ōtomo devel­oped a vaguely mechan­i­cal yet sup­ple ani­ma­tion tech­nique. With these delib­er­ate strate­gies his career evolved, head­ing towards the epic film that would define an era.

Cap­tion left bot­tom:
Kat­suhiro Ōtomo
Kaneda and his biker gang rac­ing through Neo Tokyo, from Akira, vol. 6
Book (pub­lish­er: Kodan­sha)

This film was Akira.

Akira set Ōto­mo’s career as a manga cre­ator and an ani­ma­tor in stone. Dur­ing the nine-year period over which he seri­al­ized the man­ga, he also adapted it as an . In an era per­me­ated by the loom­ing end of the cen­tu­ry, Ōto­mo, entranced by the notion of the death of nar­ra­tive, set out to res­ur­rect epic sto­ry­telling. Push­ing the lim­its of his visual [110] genius, Ōtomo ren­dered an explod­ing city in infi­nite detail. He cap­tured the very apoc­a­lypse of post­war Japan with a force akin to that of Pieter Bruegel’s The Tower of Babel. Choos­ing “post-apoc­a­lyp­tic human awak­en­ing” as his the­me, Ōtomo employed every exper­i­ment and inno­va­tion in the ser­vice of bring­ing his film to the zenith of Japan­ese ani­ma­tion. Inevitably, given this the­me, he wound up with a final scene rem­i­nis­cent of Arthur C. Clarke and Stan­ley Kubrick’s .

Cap­tion left top:
Kat­suhiro Ōtomo
Kaneda scream­ing, “Akira lives on in our minds!”
from Akira, vol. 6 (page 422)
Book (pub­lish­er: Kodan­sha)
Cap­tion left mid­dle:
Kat­suhiro Ōtomo
“Greater Tokyo Empire Akira” ban­ner, from Akira, vol. 6 (page 415)
Book (pub­lish­er: Kodan­sha)

Once the ani­ma­tion pro­duc­tion was wind­ing down and Ōtomo began writ­ing the final manga chap­ter, his theme shift­ed. It was this shift that made Akira, the ser­ial man­ga, so rev­o­lu­tion­ary.

Accord­ing to pre­vail­ing wis­dom, Tezuka’s manga is semi­ot­i­cally struc­tured, with char­ac­ters act­ing as sig­ni­fiers to guide nar­ra­tive. Ōto­mo’s work, in which each frame is an indi­vid­ual image, rejected that approach. Ōtomo defined a method in which it is the char­ac­ters that cement the con­struc­tion of their world, even as they guide the nar­ra­tive. And he added another ele­ment using manga to cri­tique man­ga. Instead of defin­ing a closed nar­ra­tive cir­cle, he strove [111] to devise a “meta-manga”.

Let us con­sider the end­ing of Akira, vol­ume 6. First, Ōtomo closes the nar­ra­tive cycle.

United Nations forces have arrived amid the evi­dent destruc­tion of Neo Tokyo soon after Aki­ra’s explo­sion, prompt­ing Kaneda to scream,

“Take your guns and get the hell out of our coun­try!”

“We’ll keep all the damned aid you’ve brought. But any­thing beyond that, and you’re inter­fer­ing with sov­er­eign affairs.”

“Akira lives on in our minds!”

A cry for free­dom from a defeated Japan, its own con­sti­tu­tion leg­is­lated by another nation after the war.

Don’t touch me, let me be inde­pen­dent. We don’t need your U.N. or any other help. The image of Kaneda and the oth­ers wav­ing a “Greater Tokyo Empire Akira” flag, with none of the con­vic­tion that accom­pa­nied bran­dish­ments of the for­mer impe­r­ial flag of Japan, seems to mock our cur­rent “Japan­ese Nation of Chil­dren”. But this is where the story ends, giv­ing way to lay­outs that con­ceal new pos­si­bil­i­ties for man­ga.

A few pages before the end, Kaneda and the other pro­tag­o­nists race around ruined sky­scrap­ers on motor­bikes, even as the sky­scrap­ers rebuild them­selves before our eyes. The city, destroyed by Akira and Tet­suo, noise­lessly returns to its for­mer state, ren­dered in painstak­ing with Ōto­mo’s char­ac­ter­is­tic real­ism. The recon­struc­tion of Neo Toky­o’s sky­scrap­ers embod­ies a move­ment from dystopia to utopia. The link to Tezuka, who, inspired by , penned an epony­mous manga and cre­ated around a sim­i­lar the­me, appears unex­pect­edly in these last pages.

Ōtomo paid pri­vate homage to Tezuka, plac­ing a per­sonal mes­sage to the mas­ter next to rub­ble spray-painted with Aki­ra’s emblem.

By the end of the sto­ry, the pro­tag­o­nists’ bid for free­dom has become the cen­tral the­me, and the self­-res­ur­rect­ing build­ings form a direct ref­er­ence to Tezuka’s post­war manga gram­mar.

Back in the 1950s, as the Japan­ese con­tin­ued to pon­der the nation’s defeat, they nonethe­less placed their faith in the ulti­mate cut­ting-edge energy source: nuclear pow­er. It is no won­der, then, that in Tezuka’s mag­num opus, Astro Boy—whose Japan­ese title, [112] Tet­suwan Atomu, lit­er­ally means “Mighty Atom”—a robot named Atom might have seemed appro­pri­ate as a defender of jus­tice who embod­ied the bright future. To con­sider that this name is iden­ti­cal to the force of the atomic bomb, and that the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was nick­named “Lit­tle Boy”, is to under­stand the tor­tu­ously twisted road that led from war to recov­ery. Ōtomo ref­er­ences this jour­ney, cri­tiquing the Shō­nen Jump-style pop­u­lar manga cul­ture of the 1980s in a com­plete affir­ma­tion of his own real­is­tic manga style. Mirac­u­lous­ly, he’s pulled it all off simul­ta­ne­ously in a sin­gle work, Akira.

Manga occu­pies a cen­tral place in the his­tory of post­war Japan­ese cul­ture. I am sure Ōtomo believed this. Use manga to cri­tique man­ga. Final­ly, Akira, the meta-man­ga, was fin­ished.

In a sense, this coin­cided with the emer­gence of Sim­u­la­tion­ism in the con­tem­po­rary art of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and Ōto­mo’s motives cor­re­sponded to the aspi­ra­tions of Sher­rie Levine and Jeff Koons.

It was a com­pli­cated era, when the only way to cre­ate real­ity was to merge nar­ra­tive and con­tin­u­ally gen­er­ate sto­ries within sto­ries.

We Japan­ese man­aged to cre­ate a con­text in which even a corpse, alive in death like Dragon Ball’s halo-adorned Gokū, can meet all chal­lengers. But in this con­text, the majesty of the liv­ing, who accept death as self­-ev­i­dence, has been dis­card­ed.

The decrepit chil­dren who appear in Akira accept the futil­ity of life and encounter their own deaths as chil­dren, despite their cho­sen sta­tus and super­nat­ural pow­ers; they are exactly like the Japan­ese today.


(pl. 2) was first shown at the open­ing cer­e­mony of the 22nd Japan SF Con­ven­tion held in Osaka in 1983. The group that orga­nized the event and cre­ated the film con­sisted pri­mar­ily of stu­dent ama­teurs. The five-minute 8mm film was a sequel to the group’s debut work, DAICON III Open­ing Ani­ma­tion, which pre­miered at the 1981 con­fer­ence (also in Osaka). DAICON stands for “Osaka Con­ven­tion”, using an alter­nate pro­nun­ci­a­tion (dai) for the first char­ac­ter in “Osaka”.

The annual SF (science fic­tion) con­ven­tion, inau­gu­rated in 1962, remains an event by otaku for otaku, pre­dat­ing the term otaku itself, which did not enter [113] pub­lic dis­course until the late 1980s. Sci­ence fic­tion is inti­mately linked to otaku cul­ture. The cre­ators of such otaku-fa­vored gen­res as “robot anime” and (spe­cial effects) films drew heav­ily on sci­ence fic­tion; the anime clas­sic , for exam­ple, was inspired by 1959 nov­el, . (In par­tic­u­lar, the cover illus­tra­tion of the “pow­ered suit” cre­ated by for the Japan­ese edi­tion of the book may be con­sid­ered the direct ances­tor of Gun­dam’s robot design.) Before the full emer­gence of otaku cul­ture, fans of tokusatsu and anime TV series cre­ated for chil­dren could fur­ther sat­isfy their appetites only by turn­ing to sci­ence fic­tion.

Cap­tion left:
Fig­ure 1a.17
Stu­dio Nue
Fron­tispiece for Robert Hein­lein, Star­ship Troop­ers (pub­lish­er: Hayakawa Shobō)
Orig­i­nal draw­ing
(de­signed by Kazu­taka Miy­atake)

DAICON was their event.

The leg­endary DAICON ani­ma­tions were cre­ated by , , , , and (among oth­er­s), who were then col­lege stu­dents in the Osaka area.1 After con­clud­ing their activ­i­ties as ama­teurs, the group later formed the anime stu­dio Gainax, which made its name with , the bible for con­tem­po­rary otaku, in 1995, twelve years after DAICON IV.

The DAICON ani­ma­tions reveal two char­ac­ter­is­tics that appeal to otaku. First, they con­tain abun­dant ref­er­ences to ele­ments of the sub­cul­ture that would later be called otaku cul­ture, includ­ing and Space Bat­tle­ship Yam­ato. Sec­ond, even though these hand-drawn, 8mm anime films are extremely short at five min­utes each, they demon­strate an extra­or­di­nary artis­tic and tech­ni­cal level that exceeds expec­ta­tions for inde­pen­dent films: not only is the qual­ity of the ani­ma­tion high, but the DAICON ani­ma­tors were able to inte­grate the pic­ture and the music seam­lessly and deploy such sophis­ti­cated tech­niques as mul­ti­ple expo­sures far more skill­fully than “pro­fes­sion­als”. Indeed, the DAICON ani­ma­tors’ relent­less pur­suit of qual­ity and sophis­ti­cated prompted the evo­lu­tion of sci­ence-fic­tion-based sub­cul­ture into ful­l-fledged otaku cul­ture.

So, what exactly was DAICON IV Open­ing Ani­ma­tion?

It’s worth explain­ing the flow of the film in detail, because the work embod­ies every otaku par­a­digm.

Cap­tion left top:
Fig­ure 1a.18
Sci­ence-fic­tion author Fred­er­ick Pohl con­vers­ing with con­ven­tion­eers, from Offi­cial After Report of 22nd Japan SF Con­ven­tion DAICON IV (page 4)
Cap­tion left mid­dle:
Fig­ure 1a.19
Offi­cial After Report of 22nd Japan SF Con­ven­tion DAICON IV (cov­er)
August 1, 1984
Book (pub­lish­er: DAICON IV Com­mit­tee)

DAICON IV begins with an intro­duc­tion derived from DAICON III, its fore­run­ner. The sound­track, per­formed by Kitarō, who helped define the New Age sound, is very much of its time. The Jet VTOL ship from Ultra­man’s Sci­ence Patrol slowly descends out of the [114] blue sky toward earth, as an ele­men­tary-school girl, car­ry­ing her ran­doseru (school back­pack), observes the scene from behind a tree. Two patrol mem­bers emerge from the ship. They offer the girl a cup of water and ask her to deliver it to DAICON. Bow­ing, the girl races away, but Punk Dragon blocks her path. He chal­lenges a “pow­ered suit” from Star­ship Troop­ers and the bat­tle abruptly begins. The girl tosses the pow­ered suit aside, where­upon Gomora rises from the earth. Using a booster con­cealed in her back­pack, the girl flies up into the sky, with the pow­ered suit in hot pur­suit. They con­tinue their bat­tle in midair. A blow from the pow­ered suit sends the girl plum­met­ing to earth, imper­il­ing her pre­cious cup of water. At the last moment, she has a vision of the Sci­ence Patrol and regains con­scious­ness. She snatches the cup just before it crashes to the ground, sav­ing the water. Resum­ing her bat­tle with the pow­ered suit, she catches one of its mis­siles and hurls it right back at him; a huge explo­sion ensues. Just then, Godzilla appears. With King Ghi­do­rah and Gam­era chas­ing her, the girl flies through the air with her jet-pro­pelled back­pack. The Star Destroyer and an Impe­r­ial Scout from Star Wars cross the back­ground. Reach­ing into her back­pack the girl whips out a bam­boo ruler, which mag­i­cally becomes a lightsaber. After slic­ing Bal­tan Sei­jin in half, the girl launches a mas­sive num­ber of micromis­siles from her back­pack. Hit by a micromis­sile, a Maser Tank from the Godzilla movies goes up in flames. The Atragon breaks in two as the Yam­ato, the Enter­prise, an X-Wing, and Daima­jin explode in total chaos. The girl pours her cup of water on a shriv­eled up daikon (Japan­ese radish), buried in the ground. As the daikon revives, it turns into the space­ship DAICON. Bathed in light, and now wear­ing a com­man­der’s uni­form, the girl boards the ship, where the film’s pro­duc­ers, Toshio Okada and Yasuhiro Takeda, sit at the con­trols. As the land­ing gear retracts, DAICON departs for the far reaches of the uni­verse. DAICON III, the intro­duc­tion, comes to a close.


Cap­tion left top:
Draw­ings for DAICON IV Open­ing Ani­ma­tion
Pen­cil on paper
24.2 × 26.8 cm each
Col­lec­tion of DAICON Film

Ani­ma­tion direc­tors:
Takami Akai (left) and
Hideaki Anno (right)

The girl with the back­pack from the intro­duc­tion has now grown up into a Bunny Girl. Every last science-fiction/fantasy TV and movie char­ac­ter makes an appear­ance: Astron, Jami­ra, Zarab Sei­jin, King Joe [116] Seabozu, Twin Tail, Gesura, Dada, and Sat­urn. The Bunny Girl jumps into a throng of Metron Sei­jin. She races past Gyan­go, Red King, Bal­tan Sei­jin, Takkong, Pole Sei­jin, Z-Ton, Mephilus Sei­jin, and Seago­ras, toss­ing them all side. With­out warn­ing, she’s in a light-s­aber duel with Darth Vader, while Storm Troop­ers sit in the back­ground, their legs folded under them. The Death Star is enshrined in one cor­ner. Atop a cliff, aliens who have seized the Dis­cov­ery from 2001: A Space Odyssey kick up a fuss. The Dyna­man robot crushes the girl. When a sword flies at her out of nowhere, Bunny Girl hops on it like a surfer. Just then, Jedi-tei Yū Ida launches into a Japan­ese com­edy rou­tine with C-3PO and Chew­bacca in the audi­ence. There’s Nazoh from Gekkō Kamen (Moon­light Mask) and a Pira Sei­jin with a nametag read­ing “Tarō the Blaster” (Bakuhatsu Tarō) on his chest. Bunny Girl is still surfing on her sword when she runs into a for­ma­tion of Ultra­hawk 1’s. Then the Yam­ato and the Arca­dia appear, along with an explod­ing Valkyrie VF from Macross. An awe­some midair bat­tle unfolds in an otaku coffee shop (no doubt the film­mak­ers’ favorite hang­out).2 Bunny Girl now trav­els into an extra-di­men­sional world. We see Cap­tain Amer­i­ca, Robin, Bat­man, Spi­der-Man, Won­der Wom­an…the list goes on. Fly­ing into space are the Thun­der­bird, a TIE-Fighter, and the Mil­len­nium Fal­con. Rid­er, Jum­borg A, the Shoot­ing Star, nurs­es, the giant Ohmu from Nau­si­caä, Nau­si­caä her­self, Lynne Min­may, Mazinger Z, Kool Sei­jin, Cutie Hon­ey, and oth­ers are there. Hav­ing made it through otaku-land, Bunny Girl relin­quishes her sword. It splits into seven parts, which fly through the sky spew­ing flames in seven col­ors. At the foot of Mt. Fuji are Mogera, the Yam­ato, Moth­ra, the Atragon, White Base, and Thun­der­bird 5. All of a sud­den, an atom­ic-bom­b-grade explo­sion hits an unpop­u­lated city. After the blast, there’s a flurry of cher­ry-blos­som petals. Suc­ces­sive upheavals of the earth give birth to new worlds. As the beam launched by the DAICON tra­verses the sky, lush green­ery sprouts and grows. Robby the Robot, ObaQ, Dorae­mon, the Five Rangers, and other char­ac­ter­s—­too many to coun­t—­con­verge: Hakaider, Atman, Maria from Metrop­o­lis, Met­aluna Mutant, the Robot Gun­slinger from West­world, Cap­tain Dice, Robo­con, Derek Wild­star (Susumu Kodai), the Crea­ture, Ming the Mer­ci­less, X-Sei­jin, Lum, Kane­gon, Char Azn­able, Cobra, Gekkō Kamen, Inspec­tor Zeni­gata, Mr. Spock, Kemur Sei­jin, Anne, Ban­del Sei­jin, Super­man, [117] Soran the Space Boy, Cor­nelius, Invis­i­ble Man, Hell Ambas­sador, Doruge, Fight­ers, Boss Borot, the Robot San­to­hei, Speed Racer (Go Mifu­ne), Big X, Space Ace, Tri­ton, 009, Tet­su­jin 28, Elec­tric Man, Met­al­i­nom, Hack, Bart, Giant Robot, Gaban, V3, Lupin III, Apollo Geist, Bat, Barom One, King Joe. The sun ris­es, the cam­era zooms out to the solar sys­tem, and The End.

Cap­tion left top:
Fig­ure 1a.21
Por­trait of Hideaki Anno on the cover of Quick Japan, vol. 10 (Ohta Pub­lish­ing Co., 1996)

With every last pos­si­ble sci­ence-fic­tion (otaku-style) char­ac­ter from around the world—and through­out time—p­re­sent and accounted for3, the film is obvi­ously a mam­moth labor of love. By stuffing their film with all of the beloved crea­tures that inspired them, the cre­ators dis­played a level of pas­sion incom­men­su­rate with a work cre­ated as the open­ing event of an ama­teur com­pe­ti­tion. There is the thrill of nav­i­gat­ing the bor­der between par­ody and art. More than twenty years after the orig­i­nal screen­ing, this film deserves renewed respect for the energy involved in fash­ion­ing a work of such astound­ing per­fec­tion. And yet, as if this achieve­ment were not suffi­cient in itself, in the last scene of DAICON IV Open­ing Ani­ma­tion, the fun­da­men­tal metaphor for any Japan­ese cre­ator, the atomic bom­b—our sym­bol of “destruc­tion and rebirth”—ex­plodes in an unex­pected way.

After the sequence in which Bunny Girl flies around tire­less­ly, every­thing is destroyed by (what can only be con­strued as) an atomic bomb. In the ensu­ing whirl­wind, petals from Japan’s national flow­er, the cherry blos­som, engulf every­thing in a blast of pink; the streets become scorched earth, moun­tains are burnt bare, and the whole world becomes a waste­land. Amidst this dev­as­ta­tion, Space­ship DAICON, sym­bol­iz­ing otaku, floats in midair emit­ting a pow­er­ful beam—the beam of sci­ence-fic­tion fans. The world revives, giant trees rise in a flash, and Mother Earth is once again bedecked in green. Char­ac­ters from the world of sci­ence fic­tion gather on the restored planet to cel­e­brate.

In accor­dance with the rubrics of otaku taste, all of the char­ac­ters are hap­py, their chests puffed up proudly at the light of hope. Char­ac­ters who have never occu­pied the same screen grad­u­ally inter­act with each other and assem­ble in the final mob scene—a per­fect encap­su­la­tion of the sci­ence-fic­tion con­fer­ence’s mes­sage.

In this film, the ani­ma­tors dis­cov­ered an affir­ma­tion behind total anni­hi­la­tion that had noth­ing to do with [118] the pol­i­tics or ide­ol­ogy of the atomic bomb. This is why they were able to por­tray the end of the world, with­out hes­i­ta­tion, as a kind of rev­o­lu­tion, and fol­low it with a “bliz­zard” of cher­ry-blos­som petals. Hideaki Anno, who later directed Neon Gen­e­sis Evan­ge­lion, cre­ated the explo­sion scene, and it is almost painful to watch his patho­log­i­cal obses­sion with it, as an atomic whirl­wind destroys the city.

Cap­tion left top:
Fig­ure 1a.22
Haruo Minami
“Hello from the Coun­tries of the World: Expo ’70 Theme Song”
7-inch sin­gle; SN-464 (cov­er)

At first glance, this sce­nario for Japan’s recov­ery from an atomic bomb seems offhand, but the cre­ators’ com­pelling mes­sage is deeply felt in the urgency of the pro­duc­tion val­ues. In a way, otaku sen­si­bil­i­ties have much in com­mon with those of Amer­i­can hip­pies in the 1970s. A lifestyle that seems to turn its back on the world is founded on a nearly ground­less obses­sion with peace and hap­pi­ness, tremen­dous curios­ity for the inter­nal world of the self, extreme sen­ti­men­tal­i­ty, and keen sen­si­tiv­i­ty, all of which con­tribute to futur­is­tic cre­ation.

The fact that Japan’s IT indus­try is built on otaku is also sig­nifi­cant, as it sug­gests a par­al­lel between the hip­pie move­ment and otaku cul­ture. One indi­ca­tion of the film­mak­ers’ obses­sion with qual­ity and con­cept was their use of a then-rare per­sonal com­put­er, which enabled them to cal­cu­late plan­e­tary orbits and thus design the solar sys­tem that appears in the last scene. The com­plex­ity of this design process offers fur­ther evi­dence of the film­mak­ers’ obses­sion with real­ism.

Sur­pris­ing­ly, it turns out that the ulti­mate dream of otaku aes­thet­ics, scrupu­lous yet fanat­i­cally obsessed with real­i­ty, is a happy par­ty, a peace­ful fes­ti­val.

The Adult Empire Strikes Back

Hello, hello, from the Western countries
Hello, hello, from the Eastern countries
Hello, hello, people from all over the world
Hello, hello, in the land of cherry blossoms
Say hello in 1970
Hello, hello, let's shake hands

Hello, hello, to the realm of the moon [1]
Hello, hello, we fly away from earth
Hello, hello, the dreams of the world
Hello, hello, on a green hill
Say hello in 1970
Hello, hello, let's shake hands

[1] Orig­i­nal lyrics: “to the moon, into space”


Cap­tion left top:
Fig­ure 1a.23
Tarō Okam­a­to’s Tower of the Sun recre­ated at 20th Cen­tury Expo, from Crayon Shin­chan Stor­m-Brew­ing Mōret­su! Adult Empire Strikes Back
Anime film
Cap­tion left bot­tom:
Fig­ure 1a.24
Shin­no­suke from Crayon Shin­chan Stor­m-Brew­ing Mōret­su! Adult Empire Strikes Back
Anime film
Hello, hello, everyone's smiling
Hello, hello, from the bottom of their hearts
Hello, hello, the world will be one
Hello, hello, in the country of Japan
Say hello in 1970
Hello, hello, let's shake hands
Hello, hello, let's shake hands

(Haruo Minami, "Hello from the Countries of the World: _Expo '70_ Theme Song", 1967;
lyrics by Yōko Shimada, music by Hachidai Nakamura)

The in Osaka was a national sym­bol beloved by first-gen­er­a­tion otaku (born from the late 1950s to late 1960s). “Progress and Har­mony of Mankind” was its theme. Expo ’70 inspired Japan­ese chil­dren to dream of a future free of national bor­ders in which the notion of “progress for the future” could con­quer even human strife. This con­ver­gence of arti­facts, sug­gest­ing a tran­quil and peace­ful world with human progress rep­re­sented by tech­nol­ogy and space devel­op­ment, made it pos­si­ble to believe in the future. For the Japan­ese, their hearts newly healed from post-war trau­ma, this was the per­fect sce­nario for the future. For the chil­dren, the sce­nario was “real”. Yet that future has never arrived—their dreams were shat­tered. And they grew into adults, unable to relin­quish those dreams.

The film stole the hearts of this first otaku gen­er­a­tion. The work recre­ated the atmos­phere of Expo ’70 while iron­i­cally ren­der­ing future-less, [120] con­tem­po­rary Japan in a nut­shell.

Let me explain the sto­ry.

The fran­chise orig­i­nated in the long-lived “shtick” manga series by Yoshito Usui, which ran in Weekly Manga Action (a mag­a­zine for young adults) from 1990, mov­ing to Monthly Manga Town in 2000. Its pro­tag­o­nist, Shin­no­suke Nohara, a kinder­gart­ner who loves action masks and choco­late snacks, lives in Kasuk­abe, a sub­urb in Saitama Pre­fec­ture. Shin­no­suke’s father, Hiroshi, is a salary­man; his moth­er, Mis­ae, a house­wife; and with the addi­tion of his lit­tle sis­ter, Sun­flow­er, the Noha­ras make up a typ­i­cal Japan­ese fam­i­ly. Shin­no­suke is a vul­gar, rebel­lious char­ac­ter, dis­tin­guished by his pre­co­cious taste for attrac­tive women. Although Crayon Shin­chan topped the “PTA List of TV Pro­grams Lit­tle Chil­dren Should­n’t See”, it became a huge suc­cess. Every year brought a new fea­ture film in the series. Adult Empire Strikes Back was directed by Kei­ichi Hara, who also con­ceived the orig­i­nal story for the film.

In these films, adults revert to child­hood and go to play at 20th Cen­tury Expo, a theme park with a strik­ing resem­blance to Expo ’70, which has sprouted mys­te­ri­ously in Kasuk­abe. The theme park stages famous scenes from clas­sic TV shows, in which any­one can be the hero or hero­ine while rev­el­ing in nos­tal­gia. With the recre­ation of Expo ’70, Shin­no­suke’s par­ents, Hiroshi and Mis­ae, become cap­tives of their own nos­tal­gia and com­pletely aban­don their chil­dren. Even­tu­al­ly, the par­ents give up every­thing else to stay at 20th Cen­tury Expo, and an orga­ni­za­tion called Yes­ter­day Once More (an obvi­ous nod to ) kid­naps the chil­dren. The orga­ni­za­tion is a secret soci­ety ded­i­cated to aban­don­ing real, twen­ty-first-cen­tury despair and return­ing to the “good old twen­ti­eth cen­tury”. They plan to hoard the nos­tal­gia of the Kasuk­abe adults until they have enough to push the Nos­tal­gia Meter to its high­est lev­els ever, and then spread Nos­tal­gia Extract through­out Japan to force it back into the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. When Shin­no­suke charges into 20th Cen­tury Expo, the scene is a replica of a Shōwa 30s-era (1955–64) street, on the eve of Expo ’70; the scene drips with nos­tal­gia as the adults revel in their for­got­ten dreams and hopes. They have escaped real­ity to cling to a hol­low past, and relin­quished any hope of cre­at­ing a future. Endur­ing sev­eral falls and a nose­bleed, Shin­no­suke races up the tower hous­ing the but­ton that con­trols the release of [121] Nos­tal­gia Extract. His tri­als run live on tele­vi­sion, and the sight of Shin­no­suke des­per­ately liv­ing a real life shocks the adults back to their sens­es. The level on the Nos­tal­gia Meter plum­mets, thwart­ing Yes­ter­day Once More’s plot.

Cap­tion right top:
Fig­ure 1a.25
, includ­ing
1973 (orig­i­nal LP release)
CD (cov­er)

Otaku under­stand Yes­ter­day Once More, and they find Shin­no­suke’s par­ents com­pelling. At this point in time, otaku cul­ture spans three gen­er­a­tions, includ­ing the grand­chil­dren of the first otaku. Whether or not otaku have grand­kids, they remain just as ded­i­cated to gath­er­ing otaku infor­ma­tion and col­lect­ing otaku mer­chan­dise. But it is also true that the aims of a secret soci­ety like Yes­ter­day Once More are empa­thetic to, if not overtly syn­chro­nized with, the ter­ror­ist activ­i­ties of , the rec­og­nized otaku cult that accom­plished the on the Tokyo sub­way. Otaku have always held exces­sive belief in their dreams, and have con­tin­ued to trust that their fan­tasies would come true. This has only height­ened their bit­ter­ness upon the betrayal of their dreams. But what is the object of their bit­ter­ness? Plain truth dic­tates that they should direct that bit­ter­ness at them­selves, a fact that they prob­a­bly com­pre­hend. Although they won’t plan their own rev­o­lu­tion, they won’t give up on the idea of a utopian future. If only—they des­per­ately dream—they were allowed to express their hon­est feel­ings in the world of ani­me. When they indeed find such expres­sion, they heartily applaud it yet sigh in deep res­ig­na­tion, for they know it’s just an empty fan­ta­sy. Pecu­liar­ly, the sto­ries-with­in-s­to­ries struc­ture of Adult Empire Strikes Back also allows them to see through them­selves as rev­el­ers in their impos­si­ble predica­ment. In this, we glimpse the real­ity fraught with despair that awaited otaku after DAICON IV.

Memories of the Atomic Bomb

Cap­tion left top:
Fig­ure 1a.26
Kat­suhiro Ōtomo
Akira, vol. 1 (cov­er)
Book (pub­lish­er: Kodan­sha)
Behold, a gaze that admits no ray of light
overcome by treachery's grief
Behold, above our skeptical laughter
a word of rage poised to strike.

Every living creature yearns to gnaw our bones,
eyes glint in vengeance, urging us to suicide
God's creation rebuffs our assimilation
The atmosphere refuses to enfold us [122]

The gentler our nature the deeper its rages
When that rage has erased
every last kindness, all is for nought
Come, let us sing now, the Ode to Joy

Oh, clouds drift­ing in a clear blue sky

Bird calls in for­est and field

My heart delight­ed, brim­ming with joy

Our bright smil­ing faces exchang­ing looks

(Kenji Endō, “Ode to Joy”, 1972; lyrics by Kenji Endō [last verse by Tōichirō Iwasa], music by Lud­wig van Beethoven)

The boom in Japan­ese science-fiction/fantasy anime was engen­dered by two works: Space Bat­tle­ship Yam­ato and Mobile Suit Gun­dam (pls. 27, 30). Both works share a nar­ra­tive gen­e­sis in a post-atomic world. And both are fun­da­men­tal to the birth of otaku cul­ture.

In Space Bat­tle­ship Yam­ato, enemy aliens from the Gamilon empire attack the earth. The Gamilons launch a plan­e­tary bomb from a great dis­tance, a bomb designed to accel­er­ate radi­a­tion con­t­a­m­i­na­tion and expe­dite their col­o­niza­tion of the plan­et. The land is defor­ested and the oceans run dry.

Mobile Suit Gun­dam opens with a plan to drop a space colony on the earth. In order to alle­vi­ate over­pop­u­la­tion, space colonies have been cre­ated at the Lagrange Points, places where the grav­i­ta­tional fields of the earth and the moon are neu­tral­ized. One of the colonies, which calls itself the Prin­ci­pal­ity of Zeon, declares its inde­pen­dence from the Earth Fed­er­a­tion and declares war. Launch­ing a sneak attack, they take a space colony out of its orbit and drop it onto the earth. Bil­lions die in the attack, both on the space colony and at the ter­res­trial point of impact, and the earth’s col­li­sion with the mas­sive pro­jec­tile pre­cip­i­tates cli­mate change. Earth, once the mother plan­et, enters a nuclear win­ter and becomes all but unin­hab­it­able.

Plan­e­tary bombs, or space colonies falling to earth and explod­ing in blind­ing white light fol­lowed by bril­liant red, were all com­mon story ele­ments in the manga and anime of the time. So many of these nar­ra­tives begin in the cat­a­strophic after­math of an atomic explo­sion.

There is a long­ing for some fun­da­men­tal human power to awaken when human­ity is backed into a cor­ner. Hayao Miyaza­k­i’s orig­i­nal manga and ani­mated [123] film, , also begins in a world that has suffered a man-made apoc­a­lypse. This is true of Ōto­mo’s Akira as well.

Cap­tion right top:
Fig­ure 1a.27
…Some­thing in the Air, includ­ing “Slow Days”
CD (cov­er)

We feel an abid­ing sense of right­eous indig­na­tion at the use of atomic bombs to bring the Pacific War to a close. We level cheap shots at the Japan­ese gov­ern­ment, which placed Japan in that final sce­nario and then con­cealed the truth about the bombs’ effects. We feel com­plex emo­tions towards the Amer­i­cans who thrust the ter­ror of nuclear anni­hi­la­tion upon Japan. Added to this is our own cow­ardly rage for accept­ing media con­trol as a nec­es­sary evil. All of this sim­mered in the Japan­ese con­scious­ness as dogma with­out direc­tion. When these con­texts emerged, the mes­sage reached its audi­ence in the guise of chil­dren’s pro­gram­ming; because real­ity was por­trayed through ani­me, Japan finally dis­cov­ered gen­uine respect for its cre­ators.

In Japan­ese ele­men­tary schools, we do not learn that our coun­try has been man­aged in an incom­plete, ten­ta­tive fash­ion ever since the loss of the war. Nor do we seri­ously grap­ple with the issue as adults. But every­one rec­og­nizes the dis­com­fort gen­er­ated by this unnat­ural state of affairs. Japan is well estab­lished as a nation unable to address its bad blood. But at least the truth sur­vives, alive and well, in sto­ries told to chil­dren. Per­haps it’s fair to say that the unique sym­pa­thies we label as otaku were born the moment Japan com­pre­hended the sin­cer­ity of these sto­ry­tellers.

An Endless Summer Vacation

Oh summer sunset past the view in the slow days
Orange days, orange sky in the slow days

The long, long summer vacation never seems to end
I dream of becoming someone else, with the face of my childhood

Oh yeah, one faint memory upon another
Oh yeah, they determine who we are

Oh summer sunset, orange circle in the sunset sky
That too-smooth color, packed with drama, story told too often


Cap­tion bot­tom left:
Fig­ure 1a.28
Mush­room cloud of the hydro­gen bomb “Bravo”, det­o­nated at Bikini Atoll on March 1, 1954
Oh yeah, I can't get to feeling naive
Oh yeah, life's not that big a deal

In the everyday with nothing lost, we feel fine
From beyond the horizon, the same sound as always

Spending these days like I'm bored
Gotta give these days a hard time, too

(Fishmans, "Slow Days", 1996; lyrics and music by Shinji Satō)

The first atomic bomb hit on August 6, at the height of sum­mer. The war was over. Sum­mer is the sea­son when the story ends and hell begins. Peace was imme­di­ately trans­formed by a unique sense of time. The blind­ing white light of the sun and the light of the atomic bomb coa­lesced, delin­eat­ing the begin­ning and end of the nar­ra­tive.

Post­war Japan­ese nar­ra­tive themes jum­ble sum­mer vaca­tions together with leukemia; many tell sto­ries of doomed love. This still holds true today, as proved by the enor­mous suc­cess of the 2004 movie , based on by that sold an incred­i­ble [125] three mil­lion copies upon pub­li­ca­tion. Indeed, the story begins with a hero­ine who has leukemia.

Cap­tion right top:
Fig­ure 1a.29
The ship Daigo Fukuryū Maru at Daigo Fukuryū Maru Exhi­bi­tion Hall, Tokyo

The pro­tag­o­nist, Saku­tarō (named after the poet Saku­tarō Hagi­wara), is a high­-school junior in a regional city. The story opens with the death of his girl­friend, Aki. Saku and Aki’s friend­ship goes back to mid­dle school, but they first become roman­ti­cally involved as sopho­mores. In the sec­ond semes­ter of his junior year, Saku learns that Aki has leukemia. Her par­ents ask Saku to take their daugh­ter to Aus­tralia when she recov­ers. Saku buys tick­ets and sneaks Aki out of the hos­pi­tal on her birth­day; they cel­e­brate with a cake on the train to the air­port. Aki col­lapses at the air­port, and Saku cries out for help. Aki is rushed back to the hos­pi­tal, only to die. Sev­eral years lat­er, the adult Saku returns to his home­town with his new lover. The high­-school cam­pus is rife with mem­o­ries of Aki. Amid a flurry of cherry blos­soms, Saku qui­etly scat­ters Aki’s ashes from a glass bot­tle, which he has kept since her death.

Art critic Noi Sawaragi has stud­ied the fre­quent appear­ance of leukemia as a motif in tragic love sto­ries, not­ing, “It derives from the radioac­tive fall­out in the after­math of Hiroshi­ma, Nagasaki, and the Mar­shall Islands hydro­gen bomb tests.”

Sawaragi and I were both born in 1962. We were born into the period of Japan’s rapid eco­nomic growth, not a time of remark­able social tumult. Our gen­er­a­tion coin­cides with the first otaku gen­er­a­tion. (For the record, Sawaragi is not an otaku.) Deeply influ­enced by TV media at the dawn of the TV age, we have been dubbed “The TV gen­er­a­tion”. The tran­si­tion from black and white to col­or, JFK’s assas­si­na­tion, the Viet­nam War, the moon land­ing, and archival footage of World War II: we’ve been del­uged by these images. And we’ve won­dered, why does Japan have a mil­i­tary if we’ve aban­doned war? The rea­son remained in lim­bo. Because any child, see­ing that archival war footage, must have asked his par­ents, “Why did we lose the war?” “What are the Self Defense Forces?” Our par­ents would have cited the atomic bombs and dis­par­i­ties in eco­nomic pow­er. A mil­i­tary based on equiv­o­ca­tion, par­ents stuck try­ing to explain the con­tra­dic­tions between the Peace Con­sti­tu­tion and the Self Defense Forces: every­thing in Japan is ambigu­ous. Our gen­er­a­tion swal­lowed its pro­found frus­tra­tion at the rift between real­ity and the infor­ma­tion avail­able in the media, and it fes­tered inside [126] us. This cre­ated our patho­log­i­cal obses­sion with real­ity and real­ism, as we attempted to iden­tify the source of our frus­tra­tion.

Cap­tion right top:
Fig­ure 1a.30
Noi Sawaragi
World War and World Fairs (cov­er)

The leukemia angle and its ori­gins: atomic bombs and hydro­gen bomb tests.

I quote the iconic encounter of the fish­ing boat Daigo Fukuryū Maru with a hydro­gen bomb test, so famil­iar to the Japan­ese, from Noi Sawarag­i’s lat­est book, World War and World Fairs (Bi­jutsu Shup­pan-sha, 2005). It illus­trates the ori­gins of the nev­er-end­ing atomic bomb sce­nario.

On March 1, 1954, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru was exposed to radi­a­tion from a hydro­gen bomb test…

Hop­ing to com­pen­sate for poor fish­ing off the shores of Mid­way, the Daigo Fukuryū Maru sped towards the Mar­shall Islands. On March 1, as the ship pulled in its catch, a ball of fire some­thing like the sun rose in the dis­tance, fol­lowed by con­cus­sive waves. Rain mixed with par­ti­cles like white sand fell over the crewmem­bers as they hur­ried back to port. These were the “ashes of death”. They invaded the fish­er­men’s bod­ies with­out mercy through the mucous mem­branes of the yes and nose, con­t­a­m­i­nat­ing them with radi­a­tion from the inside out; on Sep­tem­ber 23 of that year, the first of the crew mem­bers, Aikichi Kuboya­ma, died. The health of the remain­ing twen­ty-three crew mem­bers (whose aver­age age was twen­ty-five at the time) con­tin­ued to suffer from long-term radi­a­tion side effects, and many have already passed away due to liver can­cer and other afflic­tions…

The many hydro­gen bombs tested in the Mar­shall Islands dur­ing this era were born of the accel­er­a­tion of the U.S.-So­viet nuclear test race. In order to gen­er­ate explo­sions sig­nifi­cantly more pow­er­ful than those of the atomic bombs, the United States was already employ­ing “3F Bombs”. These bombs exploded in a three­-phase process of fis­sion-fu­sion-fis­sion, and bomb cas­ings were fre­quently coated with depleted ura­ni­um. “Bravo” (an unfor­giv­able name), a hydro­gen bomb that shocked even its cre­ators with its demonic destruc­tive force, was a nat­ural exten­sion of 3F strate­gies.

Its fifteen-mega­ton power remains beyond imag­i­na­tion. By some cal­cu­la­tions, the total TNT ton­nage deployed by both sides over the four-year Japan-U.S. [127] War amounted to three mega­tons. Imag­ine an explo­sion five times that pow­er­ful unleashed in an instant upon a coral reef pro­tected only by beau­ti­ful, emer­ald green waters. But the ter­ror of Bravo lay not only in its destruc­tive force. The mush­room cloud it gen­er­ated rose into the stratos­phere, scat­ter­ing its mas­sive radioac­tive mate­r­ial into the jet stream, where it cir­cu­lated over the world…

In fact, Japan’s Pacific coast­line expe­ri­enced heav­ily radioac­tive rains in Bravo’s wake. In May 1954, Japan reported a Geiger count rate of 86 thou­sand counts per minute per liter of rain­wa­ter. (pp. 332–36)

Cap­tion right top:
Fig­ure 1a.31
The Wings of Hon­neamise
Video of anime film (cover of first edi­tion, released in May 1987)

The Japan­ese were exposed to radi­a­tion from the atomic bomb blasts and then again through hydro­gen bomb tests. A blast of pure white light, a sum­mer eter­nally seared. That orange-col­ored cir­cle, leukemia, and sum­mer vaca­tion. My own con­so­la­tion, a still end­less sum­mer vaca­tion. The unend­ing pain, the fes­ter­ing, seeks to break out of this dilem­ma.

The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World

The cre­ators of DAICON IV Open­ing Ani­ma­tion would come to occupy a cen­tral place in the cur­rent anime world. The key mem­bers of the DAICON group opened the sci­ence-fic­tion store Gen­eral Prod­ucts, which was pro­fes­sion­ally incor­po­rated as Gainax in 1984 upon pro­duc­tion of the fea­ture-length anime (re­leased in 1987). Neon Gen­e­sis Evan­ge­lion (pl. 33), writ­ten and directed by Hideaki Anno and pro­duced by Gainax, is the land­mark otaku anime film, which marked the most bril­liant moment of otaku sub­cul­ture.

Evan­ge­lion became an explo­sive hit imme­di­ately after the twen­ty-six orig­i­nal episodes were first broad­cast on tele­vi­sion in 1995–96. Caught up in the cult-like fer­vor sur­round­ing the work, fans will­ingly accepted the con­tro­ver­sial and irreg­u­lar release of the : unable to com­plete it on time, Gainax released to the­aters in March 1997 and released the final ver­sion a few months later as a differ­ent film. This phe­nom­e­non points to the com­plicit rela­tion­ship by then formed in the world of ani­ma­tion between the cre­ators and the audi­ence, which rec­og­nized Evan­ge­lion as an instant enter­tain­ment [128] clas­sic. The orig­i­nal TV series and the sub­se­quent fea­ture films attracted not only anime fans but also young cul­ture-lovers and anime vet­er­ans who had out­grown otaku obses­sions. Evan­ge­lion is an unsur­passed mile­stone in the his­tory of otaku cul­ture.

Cap­tion left top:
Fig­ure 1a.32

Book (pub­lish­er: Avon; paper­back edi­tion: New Amer­i­can Library, 1974)

The story is set in 2015, fifteen years after the Sec­ond Impact, a deadly cat­a­clysm of global mag­ni­tude that orig­i­nated in Antarc­ti­ca. The new city of Tokyo 3 is sud­denly attacked by “Angels”, uniden­ti­fied ene­mies that take var­i­ous forms includ­ing gigan­tic crea­tures and a com­puter virus. NERV, a spe­cial U.N. agency charged with fight­ing the invaders, deploys Evan­ge­lions, all-pur­pose humanoid weapons piloted by three spe­cially cho­sen four­teen-year-old kids (Sh­in­ji, Rei, and Asuka).

A com­plex amal­gam of sci­ence fic­tion and human drama in the form of robot ani­me, Evan­ge­lion show­cased Gainax’s skill­ful ani­ma­tion, along with Anno’s bold use of white-on-black sub­ti­tle graphs and speedy, almost sub­lim­i­nal con­struc­tion of action sequences. In many ways, Evan­ge­lion is a meta-otaku film, through which Anno, him­self an otaku, strove to tran­scend the otaku tra­di­tion.

While duti­fully pay­ing homage to the pop- and otaku-cul­ture land­marks that pre­ceded it, Evan­ge­lion pushed its depic­tion of the psy­cho­log­i­cal and emo­tional strug­gles of the young moth­er­less pilots to the extreme. The final scenes were pre­sented in a few differ­ent forms and media, includ­ing the orig­i­nal TV ver­sion, the fea­ture-film ver­sion, and finally the DVD ver­sion, which com­bined the pre­ced­ing two. Each was unfail­ingly con­tro­ver­sial. Espe­cially shock­ing were the final two episodes of the TV series, which uncon­ven­tion­ally mix anime scenes with draw­ings and video footage. These episodes focus on Shin­ji, the cen­tral char­ac­ter among the pilots, and his painful search for what his life means both as a per­son and as an Evan­ge­lion pilot. With the pur­pose­less Shin­ji’s inte­rior drama tak­ing cen­ter stage, Evan­ge­lion is the end­point of the post­war lin­eage of otaku favorites—from Godzilla to the series to Yam­ato to Gun­dam—in which hero-fig­ures increas­ingly ques­tion and ago­nize over their right­eous mis­sions to defend the earth and human­i­ty.

The final sequence of the the­ater ver­sion, which incor­po­rated scenes from the TV ver­sion in a some­what con­fus­ing man­ner, con­sti­tuted the apogee of otaku ani­me.


Cap­tion right top:
Film poster

The title of the final episode of the TV ver­sion is “The Beast that Shouted Ai at the Heart of the World”. (The use of katakana, a Japan­ese syl­labic script, for the word ai allows the term to carry the dou­ble mean­ing of homonyms “love” and “I”.) Both the title and con­cept are bor­rowed from Har­lan Ellison’s epony­mous sci­ence-fic­tion nov­el. In a con­test pit­ting the audi­ence (read­er­s), who are nor­mally on the receiv­ing end of enter­tain­ment, against the author’s vision, who can fly high­er? How far can the audi­ence both com­pel and fol­low the direc­tor’s vision? With Evan­ge­lion, the direc­tor Anno raised a chal­lenge to works that refused to allow audi­ences any escape from the real­ity of their own self­-con­scious­ness.

The sub­ti­tle to the film ver­sion’s final sequence also alludes to sci­ence fic­tion, ref­er­enc­ing the film (based on ), which was released in Japan as Magokoro o kimi ni (My heart to you). Evan­ge­lion also incor­po­rated ref­er­ences and ele­ments, such as the “Spear of Long­i­nus” and “AT (Ab­solute Ter­ror) Field”, that were freely adapted from Judeo-Chris­t­ian reli­gious mys­ti­cism, psy­chol­o­gy, biol­o­gy, and a wide range of sources. Their jux­ta­po­si­tion with robots and anime pro­voked wide­spread spec­u­la­tion and much deeper read­ings. This sim­u­la­tion-based approach stood Japan­ese ani­me’s fun­da­men­tal dis­re­gard for dra­matic themes on its head. But ulti­mate­ly, by arous­ing sym­pa­thy in its audi­ence, it laid bare a true otaku heart.

It is the final scene of the film ver­sion. When Shinji comes to he has been asleep, naked. Rei, also naked, strad­dles him, her hand poised to melt and fuse with Shin­ji’s tor­so. The Human­ity Com­ple­men­ta­tion Pro­gram will ensure that all humans liq­ue­fy, fuse, and become one. The giant cru­ci­fied on the cross deep beneath the spe­cial agency NERV is rec­og­nized as Lilith, and all humans are des­tined to merge with her, ulti­mately fus­ing into one. Lilith was the bib­li­cal Adam’s first wife, but the chil­dren born of their union, Lil­in, were regarded as demons; they rep­re­sent human­ity in the film.

Shin­ji: “Am I dead?”

Rei: “No, every­thing’s just becom­ing one. This is exactly the world you dreamed of.”

Shin­ji: “But this is differ­ent. This isn’t it.”

Rei: “If you wish for oth­ers to exist, once again, [129] the walls of your heart will pull you away from every­one else. A new ter­ror of oth­ers will begin.”

Shin­ji: “That’s fine.”

Cap­tion left top:
Fig­ure 1a.32
Shinji and Rei merg­ing, from The End of Evan­ge­lion
Anime film

Shinji removes his hand from Rei’s torso and shakes her hand. Shinji chooses a world in which a bar­rier sep­a­rates him from oth­ers. He notices the oth­ers again. Those who have already fused begin to reap­pear in indi­vid­ual sil­hou­ettes as each per­son regains his indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. On the beach, Shinji is stran­gling Asu­ka. Asuka caresses his cheek with her injured right hand. As he releases his grip, Shinji weeps and a tear lands on Asuka’s cheek. Asuka blurts out, “That’s dis­gust­ing.” “The End” appears in a cor­ner of the frame, and abrupt­ly, the film is over.

Shinji longs for the self that has split away from him to acknowl­edge his remain­ing self. He would like for his neigh­bors to acknowl­edge him as well. And so he rejects total fusion with Rei; but he’s wary of the pain that accom­pa­nies inter­ac­tion with oth­ers. Should he let him­self become the object of anoth­er’s love? Alone with Asuka, the only per­son left who may under­stand him, Shinji tries to kill her. But as he stran­gles her, Asuka extends her hand to him. She strokes his cheek. Skin touches skin. Prim­i­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion, ambi­tions derailed. Even though he attempts to kill her, Shinji wants Asuka to under­stand his real inten­tion: that what he really seeks is sim­ply him­self. But he also knows that this is impos­si­ble. See­ing this pathetic side of [131] Shin­ji, Asuka mir­rors the response of soci­ety. She asserts that she finds Shin­ji, who is only capa­ble of self­-in­volved com­mu­ni­ca­tion, “dis­gust­ing”.

Cap­tion bot­tom right:
Fig­ure 1a.35

room, 1989

In the last scene of Kataya­ma’s novel Cry­ing Out Love from the Cen­ter of the World, the pro­tag­o­nist, Saku, has grown up. With a new lover in tow, he returns to a high­school cam­pus drenched in mem­o­ries of his dead lover. He is not in the least con­cerned that his new lover nei­ther knows he lost Aki to leukemia nor appre­ci­ates his mem­o­ries of the dead girl. In fact, his dri­ving pur­pose is to reaffirm an endur­ing sen­ti­men­tal­ity that he has reserved entirely for him­self, and it is this that trig­gers sym­pa­thy in the read­er.

In Evan­ge­lion, Shinji would ful­fill his desire to com­plete a soli­tary jour­ney of the heart by mur­der­ing Asuka, his only coun­ter­part.

The drama of this mur­der attempt exists on the level of a child who dis­cov­ers the mean­ing of life by killing a frog. Such paral­y­sis sig­ni­fies both the otaku’s apex and his gen­e­sis.

In a sense, the search for a place in the world, which so tor­ments Anno’s alter-ego Shin­ji, is the insur­mount­able [132] chal­lenge fac­ing Japan. Our relief at finally putting the trauma of the war behind us was brief, for we imme­di­ately were con­fronted by our inabil­ity to devise an inde­pen­dent future. Japan is now enmeshed in the search for what it means to have a self.

On the other hand, in his “jour­ney to self­-a­ban­don­ment”, Miura Jun, the man who coined the term , asks whether or not there is a self worth search­ing for; the more such para­doxes emerge, the more a mean­ing­less “jour­ney of self­-dis­cov­ery”, which offers no appar­ent or ulti­mate inde­pen­dence, becomes the theme of Japan.


It is impos­si­ble to avoid otaku in any dis­cus­sion of con­tem­po­rary Japan­ese cul­ture. Although some otaku prize them­selves as “genetic” otaku, all are ulti­mately defined by their relent­less ref­er­ences to a humil­i­ated self. Though obsessed with per­sonal taste and indi­vid­u­al­ism, otaku can cul­ti­vate friend­ships based on shared inter­ests. They excel at rad­i­cal­iz­ing insu­lar infor­ma­tion. They thor­oughly reject those who stray out­side the bound­aries of shared inter­ests.

Japan­ese soci­ety has con­sis­tently ridiculed otaku as a neg­a­tive ele­ment, dri­ving such per­son­al­i­ties into the far cor­ners of the social fab­ric.

There is a slight but absolute gulf between “sub­cul­ture” [zoku?] and otaku. If we define sub­cul­ture as “cool cul­ture from abroad”, otaku is “uncool indige­nous Japan­ese cul­ture”; as otaku insist, “at least it’s home­-grown”. Otaku are mer­cu­ri­al, and embrace the inter­nal con­tra­dic­tion of con­sid­er­ing such defi­n­i­tions “un-otaku”.

Nev­er­the­less, the inci­dent that spurred the impulse to purge otaku from the world exposes the stark real­ity of otaku anthro­pol­ogy for all to see. After the arrest of Tsu­tomu Miyaza­ki, a kid­nap­per and mur­derer of chil­dren, media images revealed his otaku-esque exis­tence in a win­dow­less room lined with wal­l-to-wall stacks of videos4; the otaku lifestyle was thus demo­nized as a sym­bol of evil.

The otaku aspect of the cult group Aum Shin­rikyo trig­gered a media bonan­za, dis­sem­i­nat­ing an impres­sion of otaku as evil incar­nate. From the ama­teur­ish tech­nol­ogy of its self­-pro­duced pro­pa­ganda videos and elec­tric-e­quipped hel­mets for fol­low­ers, to the launch of its Mahāpōsha store sell­ing cheap home­made com­put­ers in Aki­habara (Toky­o’s elec­tron­ics dis­trict) [133] to raise cult funds, Aum Shin­rikyo could be char­ac­ter­ized by its wide-rang­ing otaku-esque behav­ior. The clincher was the sec­t’s cre­ation of a detox­i­fi­ca­tion sys­tem dubbed “Cosmo Cleaner”, a direct appro­pri­a­tion of the iden­ti­cally named radi­a­tion-dis­posal device promi­nently fea­tured in Space Bat­tle­ship Yam­ato. Aum Shin­riky­o’s otaku dimen­sion had become so extreme that the group was per­ceived through­out Japan both as a laugh­ing­stock and as an incom­pre­hen­si­ble species.

Cap­tion right top:
Fig­ure 1a.36
Space­ship, inau­gural issue (cov­er)
Mag­a­zine (pub­lish­er: Asahi Sono­ra­ma)

Yet otaku con­tinue to pro­lif­er­ate, heed­less of the crit­i­cism cen­tered in soci­ety’s reser­va­tions about such inci­dents, prob­a­bly because otaku exis­tence fits so effort­lessly into Japan­ese lifestyles.

Otaku emerged in the late 1970s. Their fore­run­ners were obsessed with accu­mu­lat­ing infor­ma­tion, and rad­i­cal­ized the crit­i­cal assess­ment of TV ani­ma­tion, sci­ence fic­tion, and other sub­cul­tures then per­ceived as noth­ing more than chil­dren’s enter­tain­ment. They com­prised the grow­ing fan base for Space Bat­tle­ship Yam­ato; the intensely cliquish found­ing mem­bers of the spe­cial-effects sci­ence-fic­tion mag­a­zine Uchūsen (Space­ship), cre­ated in 1980 by ; and the DAICON group. The defin­i­tive otaku ani­ma­tion works, Space Bat­tle­ship Yam­ato and Mobile Suit Gun­dam, are piv­otal in the way that Mar­cel Ducham­p’s uri­nal is piv­otal as a twen­ti­eth-cen­tury work of art; sub­se­quent works are derived from inter­pre­ta­tions and rein­ter­pre­ta­tions of these par­a­digms. Prod­ucts aimed at this obses­sive fan base still pro­lif­er­ate, and the otaku mar­ket con­tin­ues to expand grad­u­al­ly, though it has already reached its peak.

The lat­est gen­er­a­tion of otaku emerg­ing in the post-T­su­tomu Miyazaki era no longer exists in her­metic iso­la­tion. They have also ceased to attract social dis­dain. This is because otaku have pro­lif­er­ated so widely that they no longer form a minor­i­ty. They are inte­grated so thor­oughly into the main­stream that first-gen­er­a­tion otaku have become diffi­cult to dis­tin­guish from every­one else.

Otaku will never be out­moded and will con­tinue to pro­lif­er­ate because they con­stantly trans­form them­selves.

In every domain—from the world of games, to the Inter­net, to a world of pop-i­dols - otaku swiftly dis­cover the loci of exchange between intense Eros and con­scious­ness, never tir­ing in their efforts to fuse with such realms. Every otaku cat­e­gory sub­li­mates into [134] fan­ta­sy, fueled by gar­gan­tuan infor­ma­tion stores, inte­grated research, and the otaku quest for Eros. As a result, although their world has begun to over­lap with real­ity and otaku have grad­u­ally begun to merge with the main­stream, they remain unable to shed the air of the grotesque.

Cap­tion bot­tom left:
Fig­ure 1a.37
Store model for Sev­en-Eleven Japan


Just one more, one more call from you and we can
start over
But if we keep this up, my memories of you will be
I'll do my best
I want to grow the teeny-tiny guts of a defeated athlete

These days, I play 'til around 8 or 9 p.m.
I go to the convenience store, I go to the disco and watch
rental videos with girls I don't know
I don't know if this is as good as it gets,
but none of it
compares to you

In those days, I got drunk on Kahlua-milk
These days I can drink bourbon-sodas with the guys,
but I don't really like them

Let's get off the phone and meet in Roppongi,
come meet me, now
I want to make up with you, one more time,
over Kahlua-milk

Girls are so fragile, which is why they need to be
protected, as much as possible
But I've never been able to be that kind of man, I'm sorry
I'll do my best
I want to grow the teeny-tiny guts of a defeated athlete


Cap­tion right top:
Fig­ure 1a.38
Bank Band
Soshi soai (Like-minded musi­cians get together and jam; lim­ited edi­tion)
CD (cov­er)
The CD Soshi soai con­sists of Bank Band’s cover ver­sions of songs by var­i­ous artists, includ­ing “Kahlu­a-Milk” and “Ode to Joy” (quoted in the tex­t). Bank Band was formed by Takeshi Kobayashi and Kazu­toshi Saku­rai to aid their non-profit orga­ni­za­tion, “ap bank”, which makes loans to envi­ron­men­tal pro­jects. They seek mean­ing in his­tory by archiv­ing, respect­ing, and renew­ing it. Their goal is to travel along the ver­ti­cal tem­po­ral axis of Japan­ese cul­ture with­out ref­er­ence to exter­nal fac­tors.
We're both stuck in our stupid little pride
You treated me to Kahlua-milk on my birthday
When I had one the other day, it made me want to cry

Let's get off the phone and meet in Roppongi,
come meet me, now
I want to make up with you, one more time, over
(Yasuyuki Okamura, "Kahlua-Milk", 1990; lyrics and music by Yasuyuki Okamura)

At the height of the bub­ble econ­o­my, from the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, Japan spent mon­ey. This eco­nomic fren­zy, sim­i­lar to the cli­mate sur­round­ing the rise of Pop Art in Amer­i­ca, vis­ited a Japan­ese cul­ture grown obese from cul­ti­va­tion in a green­house. The vicis­si­tudes of real­ity grew more com­pelling than fic­tion. With a manic feel­ing of hav­ing con­quered the future, with­out any heed for the future, and trust­ing only the upward momen­tum of the bub­ble econ­o­my, we observed a mirage that bore us straight into the future. And when that mirage van­ished, we felt relief, as if to say, “That’s right, this is what real­ity looks like.”

We real­ized that life was per­fectly fine with just a mod­icum of joy. No need to par­ty-hearty every day of your life. No one was starv­ing, no one was that bored. If you were hun­gry, you’d go to . And soon, the basis of every­day life depended on con­ve­nience stores and dis­count shops. The local con­ve­nience store is now a sig­nifi­cant fac­tor in apart­men­t-hunt­ing.

cur­rently dom­i­nates the con­ve­nience-s­tore mar­ket. The chain opened its first store in 1974 as a Japan­ese incar­na­tion of Amer­i­can South­land Cor­po­ra­tion’s 7-Eleven. Employ­ing dis­tinctly Japan­ese dis­tri­b­u­tion strate­gies—in­clud­ing com­pletely com­put­er­ized inven­tory con­trols, metic­u­lous replen­ish­ment of per­ish­able goods via nine deliv­er­ies per day, and the elim­i­na­tion of ware­hous­es—­Sev­en-Eleven cur­rently con­trols 10,303 of Japan’s 37,691 con­ve­nience stores, boast­ing the high­est gross sales in the coun­try, an annual total of more than 23 bil­lion yen (nearly 222 mil­lion dol­lars).

The next rev­o­lu­tion­ary retail out­let to set­tle into the urban land­scape was Don Qui­jote. It offers a unique “con­densed array” retail space that sug­gests you’ve wan­dered into an Asian bazaar. Brand-name goods, [136] elec­tron­ics, and apparel are dis­played in an envi­ron­ment rem­i­nis­cent of a trop­i­cal jun­gle, which cus­tomers can “explore” as they shop. It is the thrill of wan­der­ing into a maze. Don Qui­jote’s forty thou­sand prod­ucts vary con­stant­ly, and it is the only place in the world where Louis Vuit­ton bags can be seen next to toi­let paper.

Cap­tion left top:
Fig­ure 1a.39
Miura Jun
Miura Jun’s Yuru Chara Show
DVD (cov­er)

The stores are open day and night, but the quin­tes­sen­tial Don Qui­jote expe­ri­ence unfolds late at night: peak sales hours fall between 10 p.m. and mid­night. Unlike the late-night mar­kets of con­ve­nience stores, where cus­tomers make pur­chases to sat­isfy imme­di­ate needs, young peo­ple flock to Don Qui­jote nightly in order to “kill time” in a new kind of urban amuse­ment, like moths to a flash­light.

The cap­i­tal­ist econ­omy has become the world’s phi­los­o­phy. It pro­lif­er­ates because it offers the image of a soci­ety where life is easy and no one starves. Plea­sure moti­vates every­thing. Peo­ple cre­ate envi­ron­ments spurred by their own desires. In Japan today, we’ve nearly per­fected a liv­ing envi­ron­ment based on con­sumer supremacy that’s very com­fort­able, easy, and nearly stress-free.

If you have a con­ve­nience store, you’ll be fine. For a lit­tle enter­tain­ment, check out Don Qui­jote. Your sce­nario for a happy soci­ety free of star­va­tion is now com­plete.

Yuru Chara

Japan is a trea­sure trove of kawaii char­ac­ters: Hello Kit­ty, Poke­mon, , (“Droop­ing Panda”), and (“Bean-Paste Bread Man”)—the list goes on and on. By now, kawaii has even entered the global vocab­u­lary.

These char­ac­ters, which first won pop­u­lar­ity with chil­dren, either were spun off from manga and anime or were cor­po­rate icons; all were regarded as pro­mo­tional prod­ucts. At this point, count­less char­ac­ter are gen­er­ate exclu­sively for mer­chan­diz­ing, sup­ported by a flood of spe­cialty mag­a­zines fea­tur­ing such prod­ucts. Kawaii char­ac­ters, upheld by a global mar­ket, are now in riotous pro­lif­er­a­tion.

Today, with the char­ac­ter boom at its height, one branch of these crea­tures has already fallen by the way­side. Miura Jun, the mul­ti­tal­ented pop­u­lar illus­tra­tor and cre­ator of up-to-the-minute slang—a ver­i­ta­ble sub­cul­ture king with links to the otaku world—has delved into this hope­less, stranded pop­u­la­tion, infus­ing [137] it with new­found sig­nifi­cance and rein­vent­ing its mem­bers as yuru chara (pl. 32).

Cap­tion right mid­dle:
Fig­ure 1a.40
Char­ac­ter cre­ated by Takashi Yanase
Cap­tion right bot­tom:
Fig­ure 1a.41
Char­ac­ter cre­ated by Hikaru Sue­masa

The Japan­ese term yurui sug­gests a sense of loose­ness and lethar­gy. Com­bine the abbre­vi­a­tion yuru, from yurui, with chara, from “char­ac­ters”, to form yuru chara. Miura first coined the term to describe the char­ac­ters cre­ated inde­pen­dently by regional munic­i­pal­i­ties and tourist boards. He jus­ti­fies their exis­tence from an ani­mistic point of view, employ­ing his own rhetoric, but it is pos­si­ble to eval­u­ate them from another per­spec­tive: art crit­i­cism and appre­ci­a­tion.

Like , syn­onyms for Japan­ese aes­thetic sen­si­bil­i­ties, yurui evades ready trans­la­tion. The best way to com­pre­hend the term is to place it along the extended lin­eage of words such as (sen­si­tiv­ity or sub­jec­tive emo­tion) and okashi (emo­tional attrac­tion), which appeal to human emo­tion.

A prime can­di­date for a his­tor­i­cal prece­dent is In the Cool of the Evening, by , an ink artist of the Edo period (1615–1868). Accord­ing to the art critic Nobuo Tsu­ji, author of The Lin­eage of the Extra­or­di­nary (1970),

Many [na­ture sce­nes] are pas­sive and drenched in an admir­ing, empathic tone, as though infused with a sense of aware. We must not, how­ev­er, over­look the fact that, among Japan­ese depic­tions of nature, although all stem from the same roots of emo­tional empa­thy towards nature, there are those who stand apart by pro­ject­ing active feel­ing towards the live­li­ness and energy of nature. This dis­tin­guishes the spirit of aware from the spirit of okashi, as observed by Yoshie Okaza­ki, delin­eat­ing works infused with the cheer­ful­ness of a heart open to its sub­ject. (The His­tory of Japan­ese Art 7: How to Look at Japan­ese Art, Iwanami Shoten, 1992, p. 21)

We may thus dis­cover the inevitabil­ity of yurui within the tra­jec­tory of Japan­ese his­to­ry.

In addi­tion, the tran­si­tion from kawaii to yurui reflects a sig­nifi­cant degree of sex­ual inca­pac­i­ty, or a sense of impo­tence. There are no dra­matic sto­ries linked to these char­ac­ters, which con­vey only a sense of lethargy to their audi­ence. Embody­ing only oppor­tunism by default, lives are bestowed on these crea­tures in the ser­vice of effer­ves­cent pub­lic events. Each sports expres­sions “spaced-out with peace”. Yuru chara stand [138] in for the Japan­ese them­selves: once every­thing had been blown away in a flash, an infan­tile and impo­tent cul­ture gained strength under the rubric of an unfound­ed, pup­pet national infra­struc­ture. What emerged was a cul­ture frozen in its infan­cy, ear­lier than ado­les­cence of even child­hood.

Cap­tion left bot­tom:
Fig­ure 1a.42
Kusumi Morik­age
In the Cool of the Evening
17th cen­tury
Two-panel screen; light col­ors on paper
149.1 × 165 cm
Tokyo National Museum
National Trea­sure

Kawaii and yurui char­ac­ters sprout from this soil. Once you have thor­oughly digested kawaii, the yurui sen­si­bil­ity is a log­i­cal next step. The day is com­ing when the world will sneer at its own incon­stan­cy, its vacu­ity, with deri­sion.

Phantoms in the Brain


The nar­ra­tor of a TV doc­u­men­tary based on (writ­ten with San­dra Blakeslee; William Mor­row, 1998) notes, “Our bod­ies move accord­ing to sig­nals sent out from the brain, and the brain can be fooled.”

Ramachan­dran’s book intro­duces the cen­tral case study of the doc­u­men­tary, an Amer­i­can man who lost his entire arm in a motor­cy­cle acci­dent. He describes feel­ing his lost hand and miss­ing fin­ger­tips pulse with pain; these are symp­toms of a “”. The patient is in a ter­ri­ble predica­ment and reports fre­quent, sear­ing pain in his fin­ger­tips since the acci­dent. He endures extended peri­ods of pain akin to burn­ing in flames. The author encour­ages his patient to try an exper­i­ment. , the use of which is first described with a female patient:

To enable patients like Irene to per­ceive real move­ments in their non-ex­is­tent arms, we con­structed a vir­tual real­ity box. The box is made by plac­ing a ver­ti­cal mir­ror inside a card­board box with its lid removed. The front of the box has two holes in it, through which the patient inserts her “good hand” (say, the right one) and her phan­tom hand (the left one).

Since the mir­ror is in the mid­dle of the box, the right hand is now on the right side of the mir­ror and the phan­tom is on the left side.

The patient is then asked to view the reflec­tion of the nor­mal hand in the mir­ror and to move it around slightly until the reflec­tion appears to be super imposed onto the felt posi­tion of her phan­tom hand. She has thus cre­ated the illu­sion of observ­ing two hands, when in fact she is only see­ing the mir­ror reflec­tion of her intact hand. If she now sends motor com­mands to both arms to make mir­ror sym­met­ric move­ments, as if she were con­duct­ing an orches­tra or clap­ping, she of course “sees” her phan­tom mov­ing as well. Her brain receives con­firm­ing visual feed­back that the phan­tom hand is mov­ing cor­rectly in response to her com­mand.

Will this help restore vol­un­tary con­trol over her par­a­lyzed phan­tom? (Pas­sages as sub­mit­ted from p. 46 from Phan­toms in the Brain by V.S. Ramachan­dran, M.D., Ph.D. and San­dra Blakeslee)

In the doc­u­men­tary, the male patient puts his hand in the box. After the exper­i­ment, he says that this phan­tom [140] limb is cured, that the pain has gone. He also says that if he repeats the ther­apy process by putting his hand in the vir­tual real­ity box, his pain will again recede. The claims that fic­ti­tious infor­ma­tion gained from an illu­sion elim­i­nates the trauma of the acci­dent.

Cap­tion left top:
Fig­ure 1a.43
V.S. Ramachan­dran and San­dra Blakeslee
Phan­toms in the Brain (cov­er)
1998/999 (pa­per­back)
Book (pub­lish­er: William Mor­row)

Con­tin­u­ing with Dr. Ramachan­dran’s case study,

Three more weeks passed until one day Philip called me, very excited and agi­tat­ed.

“Doc­tor”, he exclaimed, “it’s gone!”

“What’s gone?” (I thought maybe he had lost the mir­ror box.)

“My phan­tom is gone.”

“You know, my phan­tom arm, which I had for ten years. It does­n’t exist any­more. All I have is my phan­tom fin­gers and palm dan­gling from my shoul­der!”…

The exper­i­ment sug­gests that when Philip’s right pari­etal lobe was pre­sented with con­flict­ing sig­nal­s—vi­sual feed­back telling him that his arm is mov­ing again while his mus­cles are telling him the arm is not there—his mind resorted to a form of denial. The only way his belea­guered brain could deal with this bizarre sen­sory con­flict was to say, “To hell with it, there is no arm!” (pp. 49–50)

We Japan­ese exist in a state exceed­ingly sim­i­lar to Philip’s phys­i­cal con­di­tion. In other words, we don’t have both arms, yet we imag­ine that we feel the pres­ence of two nor­mal limbs. None of us rec­og­nize that one is a phan­tom. We feel pain in an arm that does­n’t actu­ally exist. The fin­gers of that nonex­is­tent arm throb with pain. It’s impos­si­ble to get rid of it, because no one under­stands why or how. At the height of the bub­ble econ­o­my, hop­ing to elim­i­nate our lost arm, we held drunken orgies, the equiv­a­lent of ortho­pe­dic surgery. But our pain per­sist­ed. Its source was our forced reme­di­a­tion to West­ern­iza­tion and our predica­ment as a nation sit­u­ated in the ambigu­ous envi­ron­ment that fol­lowed defeat in the Pacific War. In other words, our coun­try was not func­tion­ing nor­mal­ly. Like Dr. Ramachan­dran’s patient, Philip, Japan has con­tin­ued to oper­ate with a phan­tom arm through­out the post­war era.

Until now, Japan has rejected otaku pro­found­ly.


Why? Because Japan did­n’t want to acknowl­edge its miss­ing arm. Because we did­n’t want to accept that our bod­ies were inad­e­quate.

Otaku are char­ac­ter­ized by indi­vid­u­al­ism, a patho­log­i­cal obses­sion with real­ism, and a ground­less, opti­mistic atti­tude toward the future. There is no deceit or duplic­ity in the pathetic yuru chara’s pro­foundly lethar­gic smile. Otaku and the throng of yuru chara func­tion as Japan’s vir­tual real­ity box. Japan puts both arms in the mir­ror, we Japan­ese rec­og­nize that one arm is a phan­tom. When the infor­ma­tion gained from the vir­tual real­ity box reaches the brain, the phan­tom limb should van­ish. This cre­ates an alto­gether differ­ent real­i­ty. How can we Japan­ese com­pre­hend and inter­pret our miss­ing limb?

Regard­less of win­ning or los­ing the war, the bot­tom line is that for the past sixty years, Japan has been a test­ing ground for an Amer­i­can-style cap­i­tal­ist econ­o­my, pro­tected in a green­house, nur­tured and bloated to the point of explo­sion. The results are so bizarre, they’re per­fect. What­ever true inten­tions under­lie “Lit­tle Boy”, the nick­name for Hiroshi­ma’s atomic bomb, we Japan­ese are tru­ly, deeply, pam­pered chil­dren. And as pam­pered chil­dren, we throw con­stant tantrums while enthralled by our own cute­ness. It’s the denoue­ment of a cul­ture, nour­ished by trau­ma, snugly raised in the incu­ba­tor of a soci­ety gone slack. We feed at Sev­en-Eleven, acquire cul­tural arti­facts at Don Qui­jote, and sat­isfy our intel­lec­tual curios­ity with cell phones and com­put­ers. We hold the illu­sion that any­thing can be con­cen­trated within our reach, that every kind of infor­ma­tion can be cen­tral­ized on our desk­tops. If the world finds a way to main­tain a con­ve­nient envi­ron­ment free of star­va­tion indefi­nite­ly, there’s no doubt its future will look like our pre­sent.

Uncon­di­tional love for things that are kawaii and het­are. An otaku lifestyle. A guile­less heart that mis­takes its affec­tion for mis­ery, self­-deri­sion, and masochism for a con­science.

Now the world lies at our desk­top fin­ger­tips.

Our expe­ri­ences, this pre­scrip­tion for self­-med­icated denizens of a cas­trated nation-s­tate, may well be appro­pri­ated in the future world as an exem­plary model of reha­bil­i­ta­tion.



The Japan­ese are unusu­ally dri­ven to cre­ate robots. And not just in manga and ani­me—they are also infat­u­ated with actu­ally mak­ing them. This fas­ci­na­tion stems from Astro Boy and Mobile Suit Gun­dam, and the myr­iad works of robot anime that fol­lowed.

Karl Capek first coined the word “robot” to describe an arti­fi­cial human in his 1920 play, RUR Rossum’s Uni­ver­sal Robots. In 1926, Metrop­o­lis fea­tured a female robot, and in 1950, Isaac Asi­mov estab­lished the “three laws of robots” in the sci­ence-fic­tion novel I, Robot. The fol­low­ing year, manga mae­stro Osamu Tezuka first began to seri­al­ize Astro Boy in the mag­a­zine Shō­nen (Boys), under the title Atom Ambas­sador. Tezuka, ever alert to cut­ting-edge for­eign cul­ture, clearly had a flash of inspi­ra­tion about how to trans­plant the over­seas move­ment to impov­er­ished post­war Japan.

The gen­e­sis of the title , another mag­num opus of post­war manga/anime, vividly evokes the scars of war. In an inter­view in Fig­ure-ō (Fig­ure king) mag­a­zine, , Tet­su­jin 28’s cre­ator, explained that he had come up with the name from mem­o­ries of watch­ing B-29s dur­ing the war. “In the fire­bomb­ing of Tokyo, huge pieces of steel flew through the sky. I could never get that image out of my head, and it became the basis for my ‘iron-man’ [tet­su­jin] idea.” In other words, Tet­su­jin 28 was inspired by a bomber. There are innu­mer­able pop­u­lar manga based on robots; one quick lin­eage would include and (1963), (1972), Dorae­mon (anime begun in 1973), (1976), Mobile Suit Gun­dam (1979) and (1980), Stu­dio Nue’s (1982), (1989), and Hideaki Anno’s Neon Gen­e­sis Evan­ge­lion (1995).

Honda is cur­rently at the van­guard in devel­op­ing human-style robots. Estab­lished as a motor­bike man­u­fac­tur­er, the com­pany launched its robot project when it decided to ensure a sus­tain­able future by low­er­ing harm­ful emis­sions and achiev­ing a level of safety suit­able for vehi­cles used for human trans­porta­tion. The com­pleted robot stunned the pub­lic. Its alarm­ingly sup­ple motion, and the spec­ta­cle of a robot walk­ing upright—as if it had stepped straight [143] from a man­ga- or ani­me-in­spired dream—­took our breath away.

Cap­tion right top:
Fig­ure 1a.44
Osamu Tezuka
Episode 6: “Denkō Nin­gen” (Flash­light man), from Astro Boy
TV anime series
Cap­tion right bot­tom:
(Ad­vanced Step in Inno­v­a­tive Mobil­i­ty)
Humanoid robot cre­ated by Honda Motors
H. 120 cm

The gen­eral pub­lic’s inter­est in robots is also remark­able; more than fifty robot con­tests are now held in Japan over the course of a year. The most famous of them, known as Robo­Con, has evolved into an annual event broad­cast on (Japan’s pub­lic broad­cast net­work). This event, which inspired a fea­ture film, now com­prises an early step onto the career paths of tech­nol­o­gy-minded high­-school stu­dents.

Robo­Con began in 1988 with a dozen tech­ni­cal high schools. Since then, the com­pe­ti­tion has been enhanced through restruc­tur­ing and sub­di­vi­sion into a range of com­pet­i­tive cat­e­gories, from Kōsen Robo­Con (for stu­dents of kōtō sen­mon gakkō, or tech­ni­cal high school­s), Daigaku Robo­Con (for daigaku [uni­ver­si­ty] stu­dents in Japan), (Asi­a-Pa­cific Robot Con­test, for university/college/polytechnical stu­dents in the Asi­a-Pa­cific region), and IDC Robo­Con (In­ter­na­tional Design Con­test, for uni­ver­sity stu­dents from seven coun­tries). This year marks the eigh­teenth and four­teenth anniver­saries of Kōsen Robo­Con and Daigaku Robo­Con, respec­tive­ly. In Kōsen Robo­Con, 126 tech-school teams will com­pete in pre­lim­i­nary con­tests, with 25 mak­ing it to the finals; whereas in Daigaku Robo­Con, 73 uni­ver­sity teams will sub­mit ideas on paper, and 20 will be selected to pro­ceed to the finals. The final com­pe­ti­tions will be broad­cast on prime­time tele­vi­sion.

In addi­tion to Robo­Con, two thou­sand of Japan’s 12,500 junior high schools hold robots con­tests as part of their tech­ni­cal cur­ric­u­la.

Seen in this con­text, it is no sur­prise that Hon­da’s robot project pro­voked such a com­mo­tion. With Hon­da’s announce­ment, a robot­-pro­duc­tion craze hit Japan­ese cor­po­ra­tions. No doubt each firm will develop pro­grams in tune with its indi­vid­ual cor­po­rate phi­los­o­phy, but it is diffi­cult to imag­ine this mania in any other coun­try.

The founders of these cor­po­ra­tions, who dreamed of Astro Boy, fund these ini­tia­tives, and the Gun­dam gen­er­a­tion imple­ments them.

Astro Boy and Tet­su­jin 28 were born directly of the raw expe­ri­ence of war to become the impe­tus for Japan­ese dreams. Mobile Suit Gun­dam por­trayed robots as ever-more-real weapons. Its pro­tag­o­nist pon­ders the mean­ing of war, the mean­ing of life.

The brain spe­cial­ist Dr. Takeshi Yōrō believes that [144] human ambi­tion has shifted towards the cre­ation of “humans”.

Cap­tion left top:
Scene from Idea Com­pe­ti­tion: National Robot Con­test for Tech­ni­cal High School­ers 2004, finals in Tokyo

The flow of bio­log­i­cal sci­ence from past to future runs not in a straight line, but rather in a spi­ral. In the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, exper­i­men­tal embry­ol­ogy focused on newt­s—am­phib­ians. The twen­ti­eth cen­tury saw a shift to chick­ens and now mice. This tra­jec­tory ulti­mately points to humans. Although biol­o­gists still insist that they aren’t work­ing towards humans, but instead in a differ­ent direc­tion, any objec­tive review of his­tory reveals that the path has turned, and is aimed in a human direc­tion. Yes, what humans will ulti­mately cre­ate are humans. (from Kōkoku hihyō [Ad­ver­tis­ing crit­i­cis­m], Jan­u­ary 2000, p. 101)

Humans regard robots as exten­sions of them­selves and alter-e­gos. For the Japan­ese, in par­tic­u­lar, robots as the avan­t-garde of self­-por­trai­ture, poised to become real­i­ty.

New Type

Mobile Suit Gun­dam (pl. 30) defined the cur­rent tra­jec­tory of Japan­ese robot ani­me. The detailed his­to­ries, mechan­i­cal images, real­is­tic por­tray­als of [145] humans, and ref­er­ences to abortive com­mu­ni­ca­tion found in sub­se­quent works in the genre all take Gun­dam as their stan­dard. “New Type” sig­ni­fies a con­cep­tual struc­ture first forged by Gun­dam, a frame­work so pow­er­ful that it con­tin­ues to stim­u­late new works and drive the anime world twen­ty-five years after Gun­dam’s ini­tial broad­cast.

Cap­tion right top:
Fig­ure 1a.47
Yoshiyuki Tomino
Dakara boku wa… (And so I did…), Ani­m­age pocket edi­tion (cov­er)
Book (pub­lish­er: Tokuma Shoten Co., Ltd.)

Of course, Gun­dam also rewrote the book on robot ani­me. Its reeval­u­a­tion of the axiomatic mean­ing or pur­pose of fight­ing an ene­my, and pro­vi­sion of a con­text that gave the enemy a right­eous cause, star­tled Gun­dam’s orig­i­nal audi­ence. Prior to Gun­dam, robot anime had served up moral­is­tic sto­ries fea­tur­ing a “mecha” (me­chan­i­cal) pro­tag­o­nist and his neme­sis, who were engaged in pro-wrestling-style bat­tles with tac­tics intended to attract chil­dren. Orig­i­nal­ly, robot anime was sim­ply a pro­mo­tional tool devised by toy com­pa­nies to sell their robots, and all sto­ry­lines were linked to mar­ket­ing strate­gies. Then Gun­dam’s direc­tor, Yoshiyuki Tomi­no, decided to chal­lenge this sta­tus quo.

Tomino started out as an ani­ma­tor at Tezuka’s pro­duc­tion com­pa­ny, , which expanded oper­a­tions after Astro Boy’s huge suc­cess. The com­pany is known for nur­tur­ing the ani­ma­tors who went on to lead the anime world. In addi­tion to Tomi­no, Mushi Pro fos­tered a ver­i­ta­ble who’s-who of the giants of con­tem­po­rary ani­me: , , , and . After leav­ing Mushi Pro, Tomino made his way in the anime world. In his auto­bi­og­ra­phy, he describes his efforts to val­i­date his exis­tence as an ani­ma­tor by draw­ing sto­ry­boards for TV ani­me, includ­ing such high­-end pro­grams as Hei­di, Girl of the Alps and , pro­duced by , who laid the foun­da­tions for real­ism in Japan­ese anime (along with Hayao Miyaza­k­i). All the while, Tomino was search­ing for his own form of anime real­ism.

Oppor­tu­nity came in the form of an offer to direct sev­eral robot anime films, cul­mi­nat­ing with Gun­dam and its long-awaited New Type con­cep­tion. The ency­clo­pe­dic hand­book Gun­dam Offi­cials (Kō­dan­sha, 2001) describes the defin­ing ele­ments of this con­cept:

The core of Zeon­ism, the great­est phi­los­o­phy of this cen­tury [“Uni­ver­sal Cen­tury”, the peri­odiza­tion employed in Gun­dam], is the New Type the­o­ry. The human race has a sub­lim­i­nal adapt­abil­ity to new envi­ron­ments, and when civ­i­liza­tion advances to the [146] point of col­o­niz­ing space envi­ron­ments, our race will devise a new, spe­cially adapted human form. [This form] will pos­sess clair­voy­ance and the req­ui­site envi­ron­men­tal cog­nizance for sur­vival in the vast region we know as the cos­mos. Its pow­ers will also enable smoother human com­mu­ni­ca­tion, allow­ing [these humans] to per­ceive the total­ity of things with­out any mis­un­der­stand­ing. His­tor­i­cal imper­a­tive dic­tates this.

Zeon Daikun chris­tened this race “New Type”. Because New Types under­stand things in total­i­ty, they com­mu­ni­cate in modes that far sur­pass the restricted chan­nels of lan­guage. This results in an expan­sion of cog­ni­tion not lim­ited to New Types, but extend­ing to all human­i­ty. Thus, New Type soci­ety will func­tion by human con­sen­sus, and will cor­rect any indi­vid­ual errors imme­di­ate­ly, elim­i­nat­ing the impro­pri­eties of mutual mis­un­der­stand­ings. The com­pos­ite, com­mon con­scious­ness born of this expanded com­mu­ni­ca­tion and its atten­dant intel­lec­tual capac­ity is the essence of New Type. (pp. 533–34)

Cap­tion left top:
Fig­ure 1a.48
Amuro Ray from Mobile Suit Gun­dam (episode 1)
TV anime series

Thus described is an evo­lu­tion­ary process in which a new human race—a race adapted to life in space, a race that devises a new form of com­mu­ni­ca­tion that facil­i­tates under­stand­ing with­out lan­guage—e­merges as a by-prod­uct of our expan­sion into space and the future.

The notion that aborted com­mu­ni­ca­tion causes inter­tribal war­fare and prej­u­dice is an endur­ing the­me; it appears in the bib­li­cal account of the Tower of Babel, in which God gar­bles human lan­guage to bring the tow­er’s con­struc­tion to a halt. Our depen­dence on a lan­guage that is inad­e­quate for com­mu­ni­cat­ing our inten­tions and needs, and the result­ing strife, prej­u­dice, and mis­un­der­stand­ings, pose obsta­cles that human­ity strives to over­come.

Lat­er, in Neon Gen­e­sis Evan­ge­lion, Hideaki Anno out­lined his Human Com­ple­men­ta­tion Pro­gram, offer­ing a tragic denoue­ment for the New Type mod­el. In a sense, this was Anno’s reply to Gun­dam’s vision of expanded com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

V.S. Ramachan­dran’s descrip­tion of Savant Syn­drome in Phan­toms in the Brain is sug­ges­tive of the New Type. The term is com­monly used to describe peo­ple with men­tal dis­abil­i­ties who nonethe­less [147] pos­sess astound­ing mem­o­ries; they are capa­ble of accu­rately repro­duc­ing music or land­scapes to which they have been exposed.

Con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity that savants suffer early brain dam­age before or shortly after birth…Is it pos­si­ble that their brains undergo some form of remap­ping as seen in phan­tom limb patients? Does the pre­na­tal or neona­tal injury lead to unusual rewiring? In savants, one part of the brain may for some obscure rea­son receive a greater than aver­age input or some other equiv­a­lent impe­tus to become denser and larg­er—a huge angu­lar gyrus, for exam­ple…An angu­lar gyrus dou­bled in size could lead not to a mere dou­bling of math­e­mat­i­cal abil­ity but to a log­a­rith­mic or hun­dred-fold increase. You can imag­ine an explo­sion of tal­ent result­ing from this sim­ple but “anom­alous” increase in brain vol­ume. The same argu­ment might hold for draw­ing, music, lan­guage, indeed any human trait. (p. 196)

Cap­tion right top:
Fig­ure 1a.49
Shō­tarō from Tet­su­jin 28 (episode 70)
TV anime series
Cap­tion right bot­tom:
Fig­ure 1a.50
Kat­suhiro Ōtomo
Army test sub­ject no. 28, from Akira, vol. 2 (page 298)
Book (pub­lish­er: Kodan­sha)

Amuro Ray, Tomi­no’s pro­tag­o­nist, is a shy, anti­so­cial New Type who awak­ens to war. It is inevitable that humans who are born and dwell in low-grav­ity space, with radi­a­tion lev­els that far sur­pass those on earth, will be fun­da­men­tally differ­ent from humans born and raised on this plan­et. For the Japan­ese, the hope that a New Type will emerge in this envi­ron­ment is an inevitabil­i­ty, born of the con­flu­ence of real­ity and post­war trau­ma.


We have always searched for a set­ting to believe in. Cer­tainly our home, the coun­try in which we were born and raised, should qual­ify as some­thing we can count on. But for us, such trust has always been con­di­tion­al.

We prob­a­bly owe this to our expe­ri­ence of native soil as some­thing that can be reduced to noth­ing in a flash; this has dulled our instinct for build­ing foun­da­tions. Besides, it is clear that our soci­ety is hardly founded on absolute jus­tice.

Astro Boy is a child-type robot invented as a com­pan­ion for the human race with the hope of cre­at­ing a peace­ful future. A lit­tle boy named Shō­tarō pilots Tet­su­jin 28, an amal­gam of robots sym­bol­iz­ing weapons and the B-29, which evokes the ter­ror for fire­bombed Tokyo. Akira is a child whose exper­i­men­tal sub­ject code [148] num­ber, 28, is derived from Tet­su­jin 28. Amuro Ray finds him­self on the bat­tle­field as a young boy, even though he belongs to a super-race, the New Types. Shin­ji, from Neon Gen­e­sis Evan­ge­lion, is a young­ster capa­ble of syn­chro­niz­ing him­self with a robot, but he is hope­less when it comes to ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion. Nobita, the pro­tag­o­nist of Dorae­mon, is a young los­er. All are chil­dren who want to stay chil­dren against the will of soci­ety. How are they to main­tain their worlds? Post­war manga and anime are defined by this dilem­ma.

Cap­tion left top:
Fig­ure 1a.51
Earth in My Win­dow, includ­ing “Enola Gay” and “Earth in My Win­dow”
CD (cov­er)

Robots are refined to a level at which they com­pen­sate for the inad­e­quacy of human com­mu­ni­ca­tion, expand human capa­bil­i­ties, and even pos­sess self­-con­scious­ness. With the aid of such robots, humans can evolve into super­hu­man New Types. Peo­ple them­selves become a black hole: life in death, trans­for­ma­tion, repeated muta­tion. Thought stops and the child never grows up. Sucked in by kawaii, you lose ini­tia­tive, or laugh at your own lethargy and take a robot for a real-world part­ner. And yet, amidst it all, peo­ple awaken and evolve toward a new human­i­ty.

A flash, all is gone. We have been pro­tect­ed, borne sick­ness, become rich, and lost every­thing. Our hearts have been bro­ken, com­fort­ed, and cap­ti­vat­ed. And now, we wait for death.

We have no choice but to pre­pare for death as chil­dren.

This is the bizarre real­ity we have inhab­ited since the atomic bombs fell and we tasted defeat.

The com­ing future, the near future. The pur­suit of aggres­sive eco­nomic growth inevitably requires that we pio­neer new fron­tiers. And so the human race must even­tu­ally emi­grate to space. How will the human body and heart sur­vive an envi­ron­ment in which high lev­els of radi­a­tion pierce our bod­ies?

Then, we Japan­ese will have devel­oped the robots to pro­tect us, the philoso­phies to guide us, and the char­ac­ters to com­fort us. In that flash, we found a way to glimpse a future in which the con­cepts of time and space have warped.

Earth in My Window

There's Columbia, and good old Mongolia
Africa, singing in the rain [149]

Smoking Arabia, stalwart Poland
And Japan, always dreaming

Where did you come from
Leaving that centipede scar

Reflected in the window, your familiar face
I await the day you come to Earth

Phoenicia in the sea, far-eyed Rome
China, who has finished its letter

Sleeping America, starry-skied India
Spain, who reminds me of you

Someday green shoots in the rubble
At dawn, where shall we set out for?

On the beach at dusk, let us meet our dreams
Kissing under a tree, I await the day

When the large bird takes flight and murmurs on a stone
The overflowing mysteries drift like clouds
Reflected in the window, your familiar face
I await the day you come to earth

(kicell, "Earth in My Window", 2004; lyrics and music by Takefumi Tsujimura)

In “Earth in My Win­dow”, it’s night in Amer­i­ca. Japan is always dream­ing.

While Amer­ica sleeps, Japan has been day­dream­ing.

Greet­ings, you are alive. I, too, am alive.

Inscribe the tra­jec­to­ry, the arc of our lives, and warp the coor­di­nates of time and space. Final­ly, take your place in the future, sig­nify equiv­a­lent mean­ings. The world is utterly homo­ge­neous. It will always ignore dimen­sions and con­tort itself, but some­day it will quicken with life. And some­day it will inte­grate and present itself to us.

Evo­lu­tion and progress are not our only dreams. After inter­minable muta­tion, a deformed abom­i­na­tion, a face hideous with scars, there is still mean­ing in life. Our cul­ture may be repul­sive, but I want the future to know the mean­ing of our lives.

Further reading

  • “Murakami’s ‘lit­tle boy’ syn­drome: vic­tim or aggres­sor in con­tem­po­rary Japan­ese and Amer­i­can arts?”, Dong-Yeon Koh:

    This paper exam­ines the ambigu­ous nature of Murakami’s crit­i­cism toward the post­war Japan­ese con­di­tion—as the artist most effec­tively cap­tured in his phrase ‘A Lit­tle Boy,’ which was also the title of his curated exhi­bi­tion at the Japan Soci­ety of New York in 2005. As Murakami wrote in his intro­duc­tion to the cat­a­logue, demil­i­ta­rized Japan after the Sec­ond World War under­went a col­lec­tive sense of help­less­ness, and the metaphor of a lit­tle boy is intended to describe Japan’s sup­pos­edly unavoid­able reliance on its big broth­er, Amer­i­ca. The name ‘Lit­tle Boy,’ in fact, orig­i­nates from the code name used by the Amer­i­can mil­i­tary for the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. The pro­lif­er­a­tion of ‘cute­ness’ in Japan­ese con­tem­po­rary art, which draws upon youth cul­ture, espe­cially otaku cul­ture, evinces a com­mon urge among the post­war gen­er­a­tion in Japan to escape from their hor­ri­ble mem­o­ries and sense of pow­er­less­ness. Murakami’s rhetor­i­cal analy­sis of Japan’s self­-im­age seems, how­ev­er, con­tra­dic­to­ry, given his extremely aggres­sive busi­ness tac­tics, which can find no coun­ter­part in the West­ern art world—not even in the efforts of Murakami’s pre­de­ces­sor, . Like My Lone­some Cow­boy (1998), whose hyper sex­u­al­ity defies its pubes­cent and imma­ture appear­ance, his art, the­o­ry, and art mar­ket­ing indi­cate the para­dox­i­cal nature of his the­ory of impo­tence. By focus­ing on his man­i­festo and writ­ings pub­lished on the occa­sion of his 2005 exhi­bi­tion and his style of man­ag­ing Kaikai Kiki Ltd., this paper delves into the dual nature of Murakami’s inter­pre­ta­tion of post­war Japan­ese art and cul­ture, par­tic­u­larly in rela­tion to those of Amer­i­ca.

  • , Yasuhiro Takeda (2002)

  • , (TATE 2002)

  • “The Cult Japan­ese Retailer Mak­ing Bil­lions Break­ing All the Rules: The first tar­get is Asia for Don Qui­jote, which sells every­thing from humid­i­fiers to sex toys”

  1. For more on DAICON & the for­ma­tion of Gainax, see Takeda’s . –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  2. Pos­si­bly the Solaris cafe in Kyoto; see The Notenki Mem­oirs. –Ed­i­tor.↩︎

  3. Except for, to their eter­nal cha­grin, char­ac­ters from the manga of con­ven­tion star guest Osamu Tezu­ka. –Ed­i­tor↩︎

  4. Although such stuffed rooms are quite com­mon in Tokyo; eg , Kyoichi Tsuzuki 1993/1997. –Ed­i­tor↩︎