I, Otaku: Inside The New American Geekdom
“You’re just a manga artist, discharging evil into society! How dare you live in a place with a roof?!”
– Excel, Excel Saga
‘·Introduction: Social Studies of a Different Sort<
‘·Otaku: Who Are They, and Why Are They Dangerous?
‘·Types of Otaku: A By-No-Means-Definitive Field Guide
‘·Q&A: Common Misconceptions About Otaku, Manga, and Fandom in General
‘·Serving Otaku: What Can You, As a Librarian, Do?
‘·Otaku-Dom: Is There Anything Really Wrong With It?
– Appendix A: Anime Every Library Needs (Seriously)
– Appendix B: Wait, Where’s This Go?
Introduction: Social Studies of a Different Sort
So I heard this great joke today: two girls walk into a library. One points at the manga section and says “That’s all pornography.”
… Yeah. I don’t get it either.
Apparently I’m supposed to find this funny. And I do, in a sort of sarcastic way. I mean, the plight of the average American otaku is rather humorous, struggling to be understood in a world that would rather have us impressionable American teens obsessing over the Jonas Brothers or the latest Hilary Duff flick. It’s more socially acceptable, after all, to indulge in these entirely mainstream things, is it not?
Maybe, but as the unofficial poet laureate of misunderstood 90’s children everywhere, Jonothan Larson, stated in the lyrics of RENT, “Is anyone in the mainstream?”
And nothing is more misunderstood than today’s anime and manga fangirl (or fanboy, as the case may be.) If I could, I’d travel around the world and educate today’s more… “normal” teenagers on the role of the fan-person (and how’s that for gender neutrality?) in today’s young adult culture.
But maybe I’ll just write a paper on the subject.
Otaku: Who Are They, and Why Are They Dangerous?
Otaku’ is a Japanese term that technically means a person obsessed with something; I suppose if you wished, you could call your immature cousin (you know, the one with the Zac Efron posters that you hate?) a Disney Channel otaku, or your father a football otaku. But over time, the word’s taken on a new meaning. It’s now mostly used to refer to anime and manga fans. However, there are two types of people it refers to.
Otaku Type #1: The meaning that an American might normally apply. A person who likes manga and anime, possibly cosplays, and probably writes quite a deal of fanfiction.
Otaku Type #2: The scary type of otaku. This generally refers to the, you know, twenty-year-old man with the twenty-five thousand half-clothed anime figures in his bedroom and the, er, questionable anime-styled computer games on his hard drive. (Not to say that this type is entirely terrible. Read Kio Shimoku’s Genshiken manga for a whole host of loveable Type #2’s.)
I, of course, consider myself, and most of the people I know, Type #1’s, but that doesn’t cover every kind of otaku known to man. And woman. And possibly their cats too (not really.)
Types of Otaku: A By-No-Means-Definitive Field Guide
The Casual Otaku (Female): Usually teenaged, these girls are entranced by the pretty boys of shojo (manga for girls) and proceed to fangirl over them like nobody’s business. They’re all Fruits Basket and Hana Yori Dango all the time, so don’t ask them who Osamu Tezuka is (even if they can thank him for revolutionizing the genre with Princess Knight way back when.)
The Casual Otaku (Male): Has picked up a few volumes of popular series like Naruto and Inuyasha, but don’t expect him to like any good manga or anything.
The Narutard: Run away. Run away now. (This is not meant to offend any Naruto fans out there. It does have its redeeming qualities: Kakashi’s Icha Icha Paradise (translate it for LULZ) reading in lessons is quite funny, and Inner Sakura is my hero.) A quick way to spot Narutards: their blue-and-silver Hidden Leaf headbands, displayed with (admittedly admirable) pride.
The Eva-Scholar: Watched Neon Genesis Evangelion for all the subtext and now thinks he knows everything. Newsflash: he doesn’t.
The Fujoshi: The word “fujoshi” literally means “rotten women,” but it’s used to describe a fangirl of… well… yaoi (gay love) manga. Actually, most of these girls are pretty nice, and not all yaoi/Boy’s Love is terrible- the Gravitation anime is pretty good. But when they start squeeing about some fifteen-year-age-difference couple (cough cough) you kinda just wanna kick them. Or barf.
Q&A: Common Misconceptions About Otaku, Manga, and Fandom in General
Q: Are all otaku horny teenaged boys?
A: Actually, in America, most otaku are female. This may be due to those with Double-X chromosomes having something in their genes causing them to “ship,” or pair up, any two male anime characters with a hint of romantic tension.
Q: Otaks don’t bathe!
A: Excuse me? I shower every other day. But I can’t speak for the others like me. I do admit, though, that by day three of an anime convention, some of the patrons, well… stink. And I’m not talking about the quality of their L cosplay, either.
Q: I hate big robots and ninjas and the like, so what manga is best for me?
A: Since you don’t seem to enjoy shonen (aimed at boys) manga, you could try shojo (aimed at girls) manga on for size. Azumanga Daioh is the sweet, very comedic tale of a group of average friends throughout their four years of high school. xxxHolic is a kinda creepy, edge-of-your-seat manga about a teenager who can see spirits and his job working for a mysterious, extremely hung-over shop owner. And Sand Chronicles is a realistic often heart-rending tale of a teenaged girl just trying to make it through life. You might not enjoy my reccomendations, but at least give them a try.
Q: I don’t get what’s going on when I read manga online. Am I not Japanese enough?
A: Online translations suck, and they’re 110% illegal to boot. (Although there is something hilarious about reading a badly-translated chapter of Fullmetal Alchemist and seeing Ed exclaim, “WTF?!”)
Serving Otaku: What Can You, As A Librarian Do?
‘·Start an anime club. There’s actually a program that will send libraries free DVDs for these, so money shouldn’t be a problem. Pocky is, of course, essential.
‘·I’ve never actually seen one of these in my hometown, but while you’re at it, a manga discussion group would rock a lot of fans’ worlds. Instead of sitting and watching like in anime clubs, these could center around discussing different genres/demographics in manga and comparing different series. It would give us more literal-minded fans somewhere to rant. Even better, once a month the club could hold a fanfiction beta-ing session – that’d help a lot of people out!
‘·If you haven’t already, subscribe to manga anthology magazines such as Shonen Jump, Shojo Beat, and Yen+. Not only will your teen patrons thank you, they’ll devour these. (Yen+ has the best variety in titles, from shojo (Pig Bride, Sasarah, and Nightschool especially) to shonen (Soul Eater and Higurashi: When They Cry are the standouts of the genre offered here.) There’s something for everyone.)
‘·Get a good variety of manga. A selection that’s only romantic comedy will turn away action fans, too much Shonen Jump manga will drive drama fans to mutiny, and the titles that fall outside those two set genres are often some of the best (Azumanga Daioh anyone?) Order a bit of everything and everyone will find something.
‘·If your resident otaku is running out of manga to read, find American graphic novels that overlap in themes or styles. For instance, a girl who’s exhausted her supply of Ouran High School Host Club will probably enjoy Chynna Clugston’s high-school comedy Blue Monday, which shares the same crazy sense of humor and adds in a healthy dose of teen-movie storytelling. And if someone just can’t wait for the next volume of Honey and Clover, Bryan Lee O’Malley’s one-shot Lost at Sea is another brilliant coming-of-age story, where the destination is never as important as just getting there.
Otaku-dom: Is There Anything Really Wrong With It?
But even though anime and manga are becoming more and more common in the US, otaku are still regarded as the nerdiest of nerds, sub-zero on the social echelon. We’re seen as losers beyond repair, total freaks, with no redeeming qualities other than fodder for lame “fatass no jutsu” jokes.
What, I ask you, is really so terrible about a fondness for anime and manga? Think about it- adults would prefer it if we loved High School Musical, with its “We’re All in This Together” message and not-so-subtle preaching of the “assertiveness is for bitchy girls” philosophy, but wouldn’t a series like Tokyo Babylon, set in a universe where, much like our own, life isn’t always fair and the good guys don’t always make it out unscathed (or with both their eyes, since it’s done by CLAMP), better prepare today’s teenagers for life? What’s a better representation of friendship, Gossip Girl’s overblown, attention-seeking teenagers, who network among others of their status just for popularity and family ties, or, say, Aria’s Akari and Aika, who, while they do have the occasional tiff, have a relationship based around mutual respect and shared interests? I’m sorry to be so preachy, but the teen life presented in the American media leaves much to be desired, at least from me.
But then, I am just a teenaged otaku, so why should you listen to me?
Well, I hate to stereotype, but the average otaku really is more intelligent than the usual Clique-reading lipgloss conniseur. Sure, you get some idiots in there (quite often, Shonen Jump fanboys are in the lower range of IQ’s) but most otaku I’ve met are smart, well-educated people. I’m not saying that everyone needs to read anime and manga; I just want my “people” to be accepted as who we are.
Geeks, but not necessarily bad people.
Not overly perverted or closed to othe forms of storytelling. Not idiotic or stuck-up.
We’re human, just like you are.
All I ask is for the world to treat us like such.
Appendix A: Anime Every Library Needs (Seriously)
Cowboy Bebop: Don’t laugh at the name – this show’s a classic. It packs in everything you’d want in your sci-fi adventure anime, and more. And the music by supercomposer Yoko Kanno (Macross Frontier, Aquarion) and her band The Seatbelts is beyond divine. Like extasy for your ears, I swear…
Excel Saga: Twenty-six episodes of pure insanity. It should tell you something that the main character dies at least eight times in the first episode alone. Or that she kills her manga creator more than once. Or that she keeps a puppy around for emergencies- food emergencies.. Oh yeah, and Yoda has a cameo appearance in episode four. It’s pretty awesome.
FLCL: Just a normal boy-gets-hit-over-the-head-with-a-bass-guitar-by-a-girl-on-a-Vespa story, right? Well, until robots start popping out of people’s heads.
Fullmetal Alchemist: It starts as a simple shonen story of two brothers searching for a mystical stone, then slowly begins its transformation into the epic, dramatic, sometimes even heartbreaking tale that’s become one of America’s most popular anime. (Also, Riza Hawkeye can kick your ass.)
Genshiken: As mentioned back up in the section about Type 2 otaku, this series is about a group of crazy, obsessive fanboys (and a cosplayer, and a fujoshi, and that one girl who gets dragged along by her boyfriend) and their day-to-day lives. If you want to know more about Japan’s geek culture, this is the perfect show to get your education started.
Neon Genesis Evangelion: Thank god director Hideaki Anno didn’t get medication during the creation of this show, or we wouldn’t have one of anime’s most popular and entertaining stories. Teenaged Shinji Ikari is drafted, by his estranged father, to pilot one of the mysterious “Eva”s, biomechanical robots (call ’em mecha) created by a mysterious institution known only as “NERV.” Intrigued yet?
Read or Die (OVA): Yomiko Readman is a substitute teacher with a secret: she works for the British Library as a special agent known as the “Paper.” Her special power is that she can bend paper to her will, using it to do anything from blocking bullets to making a huge paper airplane. The OVA’s only an hour and thirty minutes long, so it’s perfect for movie night! Keep in mind, however, that it’s meant to be parody…
Samurai Champloo: By turns hysterically funny and emotional, this show has something for everyone, even if samurai and swordfighting aren’t your thing. It’s not only dangerous one-on-one battles Mugen, Fuu, and Jin must face on their quest to find the mysterious ‘sunflower samurai’… sometimes it’s an eating contest. Or a game of baseball (albeit a fatal one against European invaders.) And it’s always awesome.
Trigun: Vash the Stampede is a man with a six-million double dollar price on his head. If only the bounty hunters chasing him knew that he was really a dorky, donut-loving pacifist with a weakness for pretty girls. Normally I’m not one for English dubs, and especially not one for Johnny Yong Bosch, but his performance here is excellent.
Appendix B: Wait, Where’s This Go?!
Sometimes, the line between “adult” and “teen” manga begins to blur, and librarians may not be sure where to place certain titles. As an actual teenager myself, my friend Zoe (read her blog over at http://www.bookchild.wordpress.com) and I convened on where a few of more, um, mature series should go. (Note: we get about 25% of our manga from the adult section at the moment, so please don’t tell us to stop reading innapropriate books! We hear it too much already!)
Chobits: Even though its fanbase is mostly older teens (and it’s rated Teen+), we’d place this firmly in the adult section. For one thing, it’s about ROBOTIC GIRLS, and they’re not even cyborgs. They’re goth-Lolitas. With ears. And they have a tendency to forget to wear clothes. No matter how sweet Chii and Hideki’s love story is, some twelve-year-old could pick this up, entranced by CLAMP’s adorable cover art, and end up totally freaked out. (Don’t worry. It gets better after chapter one.)
Nana: Sure, Ai Yazawa’s tale of sex, love, and rock’n’roll has a few scenes that might be considered objectionable, and the characters are a bit older than the usual shojo heroines (about twenty or so,) the subject matter is what teenage girls go through: unrequited love, making the wrong choices, and, of course, finding that one best friend who you never want to lose. Keep it in the teen section until about volume 8, but put latter volumes in the adult section.
Genshiken: Teen section, all the way. That’s where the otaku hang out, and what’s the target audience for this but otaku? Plus, there’s nothing that objectionable, except some jokes about doujinshi (fan comics that can sometimes get a little… er… “iffy”) and semi-nudity that’s played totally for laughs, it’s still a 16+ title that should stay right where it is.
Aria and Aqua: Okay, here’s the weird part. Aqua (and its sequel Aria) contain almost nothing that’s inappropriate for teens. So why’s it in the adult section of my local library (next to freakin’ Akira, of all things)?! This is one you could bring home to your grandma, for crying out loud. And it’s impossibly adorable. Move it to where it belongs, or a whole load of potential fans are going to miss out on something completely loveable.
ThankYouThankYouThankYou!!! This post was incredibly helpful to me. I’m a teen librarian in a new town and I’m trying to further develop an existing anime and manga collection. The teens in the library’s Anime Club have been a great resource, but I’d like to find some new series for them to explore. Thanks again!
You rock, Katie!
@Tricia: You’re so very welcome! This post actually came from my own experiences with a few libraries where I live that have NO. MANGA. AT ALL. Except, like, one volume of Naruto. Sometimes. I figured that spreading the word about anime and manga would help ^___^
@Zoe: Shameless plug for your blog? Don’t make me set the palm tree on you. (I assume he’s still in your closet…)
I love, love, love this! I’m doing a presentation on anime/manga for non fans later this week, and you nailed several of the titles I’m featuring (FMA, FLCL, Samurai Champloo). I’m also throwing out stuff like Death Note as the type of show that can bring non-anime people into the fold. I’m not delving into the world of Yaoi as I just don’t think non-fans are ready for that whole world. I’m a young adult librarian, and I definitely feel like being an otaku helps me with my job. In fact, my favorite thing about my career is the fact that I get to read manga and watch anime!
@OtakuLibrarian: Oh my god, thank you! (By the way, are you by any chance in Pittsburgh? Because I would LOVE to go to your presentation… even if I am an otaku. Heh.) I’m glad you liked my post.
Unfortunately I am a central jersey chick (though I frequent Pittsburgh for personal reasons!). My presentation rocked though, and despite the best laid out plans we got all over the map. The kids knew more than their librarian thought, so they helped me explain yaoi, fanfic, the lack of good shoujo, and more. We ended up all over the place!