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Otaku Culture: Nuancing Plural Communications

Émilia Hoarfrost
11 min readJun 15, 2023

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Anime and otaku cultures are shaped by speeches emanating from diverse sources: this much we have already established in a few previous pieces. Though they might differ in the ears they reach, those voices can come from specialist publications (think Sakuga Blog, Full Frontal, and in French we have AnimeLand, KeyFrame…), the global press, individual blogs (like Animétudes or mine), videos by influencers, communication from studios (in the case of Oshi no Ko as a production, the coverage has been extensive!). And that’s without mentioning panel discussions of industry insiders at Annecy and some of the best conventions out there. This occasion for a more direct and unmediated communication between anime creatives or executives and the fan and layman alike also has a precious place, that goes beyond the content discussed! Indeed, a shared and enthusiastic spacetime with anime workers, mangaka authors or assistants… will contribute to lower the effects of the press’ impulse to get sensationalistic, adding nuance and confirming that, yes, they are indeed humans.

If we are to take elements from the political field, anime and otaku cultures are through globalization becoming evermore democratized. And a pillar of democracy is the freedom of press, as well as that of speech, leading to a plurality of voices. The differences in opinions may come from more fundamental differences in worldviews, or from various degrees of institutionalization. That’s perhaps why the global press will focus on whatever gets popular attention, through an economical selection, or why Anime Feminist or more rarely Unseen Japan will try to add depth to the existing speech around anime and otaku cultures (though they may look to cater to a different, partisan audience?). This added depth is much needed in the making of expertise, since it helps to the perpetual reawakening to anime and otaku cultures’ perceptions and political preconceptions. And with enough experience, one may even notice the evolutions of speech and thought patterns over time, something that can be compared to the evolution of the concerned artforms — anime, manga, visual novels, light novels… More context will balance the tendency to simplify interpretations.

However, a plurality of voices is far from being guaranteed. In the context of a global sub-culture, anime (as the medium spearheads the others as a flagship of sorts) will try to cater to multiple audiences, thereby leading to a cultural standardization of its norms. Which might spark debates on culture war. And the institutionalization of the speech around anime and otaku culture, necessities for its perennity, will have to make editorial choices, that can eventually verge on being downright political. Including that of a business model, like asking for donations from readers, or according coverage to franchises and products for remuneration in the case of influencers. Same goes for studios when they make anime adaptations of games that are to sell in, or expand to, China’s large gaming market.

In a video shared by the Anime Dormitory, a source that is biased but that acquires legitimacy on the issues it covers because stakeholders are involved, anime producer Toshio Okada is directly quoted. He is translated into English, speaking in Japanese about the production committee as a business entity with individual capitalistic actors, staking funds like poker tokens. And he says some producers — being one himself, he must know — cap the budget to possess a majority of the anime production, so as to master where the production is headed. To tie back to China, he mentioned the case of a Chinese toy business. And the fact of the matter is, in the case of China as a very particular business partner for Japan, I would actually defend the impulse to cap the budget for the production not to have censorship, seeing how Chinese lesbian productions encounter censorship. This would lead to a cultural uniformization of norms that would be heteronormative, but I strongly suspect other conservative stances would come to dominate were other nations to invest too largely in Japanese animation, like Netflix for instance. Including transmisogyny? So in a way, capitalism breeds conservatism, and so fighting the paradigm of the production committee and its revenue repartition (through a system of royalties for animators and maybe even other staff members?) might be more sustainable for a plurality of representations in the anime artform’s narratives in the long term?

(Yuri on Ice!!!)

For a plurality of representation has accompanied otaku culture for the longest time. The mangaka Yoshihiro Tatsumi coined the gekiga manga genre back in 1957, a genre that sought the depiction of adulthood in opposition to Osamu Tezuka’s influence in making manga that catered to kids, influenced himself by Disney. Gekiga, by focusing on more complex issues in a grittier realism, also brought with it a certain political dimension. One can also think of how works like the Ashita no Joe manga (1968) shaped the then partisan student readership, even being an icon for the Japanese Red Army’s plane hijack to North Korea on March 31, 1970. Or how pornography and parody came along in the birthing doujinshi culture, crystalized at the Comiket — indeed, pornography is eminently political and in the hentai genre a plurality of voices exists, for example with yaoi or yuri when it seeks not to comply with heteronormative, male-gazed sexuality.

We have talked about narratives and contents, but the specialized press might focus more on the technicalities of what is going on onscreen. Which can also trickle back to representation and its preconceptions… For instance, the choreographies of idols, sometimes performed and then reproduced thanks to rotoscope, form a gendered self-expression, whose totality in the connection of frames also exudes feminity in every single instant. Technicalities, yes, but crediting is also eminently political and not necessarily equal in the context of anime production. For instance, the director or the animation director may receive much more praise and professional recognition than, say, the in-betweener or the coloring staff. They are, indeed, the people in charge of calling the shots. It’s that much easier to equate a studio to a few big names than to proceed to look into credits, which may or may not even be there to begin with. This tends to lead to a sort of authorialism, but the production of such a speech might also have its political necessity. Indeed, perhaps this recognition of the individual cog — that often had to rise through the various stages of anime production in their career, like in-between, key frames, episode direction, animation supervision, to end up a director — has its structural importance to motivate some of the creatives: think about it, what type of ambitious artist is motivated by a career that doesn’t have room for improvement?

Ryuutarou Nakamura went through perhaps every step of the anime industry ladder: in-betweener, key animator, episode director, director, script, storyboard, character design… Such a wealth of experience justifies the polarization of speech on anime staff toward him.

This authorialism has been subtly deconstructed in Studio Ghibli: An Industrial History (2023), by researcher Rayna Denison. She went on to analyze the policies of the studio, its thoughtful communication, the gender repartition of the workforce being compared to that of Disney studio in the production of feature-length movies. What is really interesting with her work is also that she specifically mentioned the coloring staff as including women. The depth and quality of her analyses are equal to her involvement, since she even went to Japan to study sources first-hand. Having Japanese sources might help in reducing the risk of orientalism, a bias induced by the mediation of Western or foreign interpreters of the cultural sources. You can think about it in relation to this very article: I, a French, quoted a British researcher, but also a Japanese anime producer, and the Animatory Dormitory also includes Japanese anime stakeholders. This diversity of sources might lead to orientalism, or might not, it is also up to the reader to maintain skepticism, for faith is truth’s archenemy.

The gender division of labor in anime, something Rayna Denison hit spot-on in her book, perhaps an echo of her sensitivity as a woman herself, is also something that one might touch on when thinking about the most famous creatives in anime popular speech. Hayao Miyazaki is a name people recognize, as well as Makoto Shinkai, and Mamoru Hosoda might be known by some. But of those names no woman is represented, so there might be more riches or fairness in giving more female directors a place in the spotlight, something that has been done before. MAPPA’s new movie being directed by Mari Okada is encouraging in that regard.

The last two months, I have been conducing a communications experiment of sorts. Focusing in my spare time on the production of short anime videos, meant to be seen on mobile applications like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, I tried to produce some educational content inspired by my increasing cultural awareness — though it was also an attempt at knowing more about anime staff members. It also raised the question: what type of communication would be ideal (as in: intuitive, clear, concise, comprehensive or other criteria) to help the anime community gain a more critical gaze on the medium, its industry, its production models, and its techniques? The exercise also had a nice side-effect of desacralizing anime frames, cuts and scenes as I had to manipulate files of footage, and trained me to notice more about the subtle video editing in anime. In the pursuit of optimizing both the growth of the following, and the streamlined process of crafting better videos, I also developed a few habits and thoughts.

Why videos? They produce much more engagement than articles, seem to indicate this blog’s analytics. The fact that Medium’s automatic text reading feature is now behind a paywall also meant that it lost appeal as far as communicating goes. Indeed, it seems communication is much more efficient in a multisensorial way, due to the mappings of neuron connections themselves. A video can both be a stream of vocal speech, sound effects (that can themselves be audio cues to interpretations), music that provides some narrative rhythm and increases stimulation, and is a golden opportunity to show pictures, footage, production materials in new and engaging ways. In the speech surrounding those videos, like captions or titles or Twitter threads, I included emoji icons, and in the same spirit the sound effects in the video editing, but afterward. Emoji and sound effects share the same reasoning: text and speech is for lexical intelligence, but auditory and visual cues seem to be processed at a much less abstract level by the brain, and thus provide more clarity to the content, and clarity leads to trust, a manipulatory fact one has to be cautious of. But to attract the trust of a viewer, or reader, is the way for specialized press to gain recognition through a more polished presentation.

I proceeded in four stages: writing a script for each video, shooting the reading of the text (my English accent and articulation might need more work, but when my voice and my video editing go together with my communication, it produces a more human feeling of coherency, and to humanize the sources of speech is much more important for online-based communication), the video editing (though footage collection might start its selection before even typing out the script) and the releases of the videos, as well as sharing them to people that might be interested. Now, I’d like to write more about the selection process of the footage, since it directly conditions the video editing.

Yoshiyuki Tomino, director of Mobile Suit Gundam, Space Runaway Ideon and other culturally impactful shows. Pictures in videos are useful to communicate more intuitively on the working environment of the industry, and to show an artist at a desktop has a symbolic quality that enforces core cultural values like hard work, self-expression or creativity.

I liked finding pictures of people online, since not every anime worker shows their face to the world, but directors mostly do. A face is a way to humanize the industry, something perhaps more necessary as animanga opts for stylized character designs. Also, production materials like genga cuts, character designs, model sheets, corrections, comparisons… Sakugabooru provides an excellent source, as well as its ordering-by-score feature. As well as Settei Dreams when they actually possess storyboards or things on franchises or workers I’m working on. Production materials are the other side of anime, the making process. I already talked about their superior place in anime and otaku speeches before. A community is based on shared values, and for specialized press outlets to communicate around source materials is the showcasing of such a value. I also tried to organize the footage in terms of hooking the viewer in the first few seconds with great, spectacular (read: character acting or battle scenes or visual effects) footage, and then quickly humanizing with a face. Panning and zooming in or out also brings rhythm through the form of motion to the video. Tweets, news articles or interviews are also sources I like to use, especially accompanying them with mouse click sounds to include a sensory mnemonics hijack. Camera shutter sounds are more for when the script evokes visual analysis.

The choice of subjects to make videos about was not neutral. I knew from the start that I wanted to value a few things. The first video was on Ashita no Joe’s inheritance in the forms of Megalo Box and Ring ni Kakero, thereby valuing the importance of history to understand the medium, covering 5 decades this way. I also mentioned Osamu Dezaki, a director I’ll eventually make a video about, that I first discovered earlier as a child with Golgo 13. I since did a lot of videos about anime workers, focusing more on directors than animators or scenarists. This ties back to this authoritarism, valuing a single voice in a collective endeavor. When I think about directors to make videos about, I also consider their gender because I feel like women are perhaps less valorized by the power structures in place in Japan’s institutionalized speech in the anime industry.

Since then I have tried to collaborate and contact other anime video creators with the same interest in anime production. This was in this context that I was motivated to produce my last video, on Yoshiyuki Tomino, Gundam’s director, a legendary name in the mecha genre and key to understand Sunrise’s place today, as well as the career of the character designer Tsukasa Kotobuki. Ideon is a name I’d heard before around mecha fans, and when watching the first movie I was struck by the overwhelming presence of great visual effects. Compositing is also something I’ve tried to cover a bit, as well as the careers of some photography directors. This awareness about compositing or photography direction is something that I feel wasn’t quite as present in the anime and more niche sakuga communities a few years ago, so I feel more convinced in my expressed opinion that the enlightenment about speech around anime will boost positively the collective intelligence of the medium.

Staying true to my interest in the techniques behind anime, I have produced videos on morphing, the delightful complexity of fabrics in Skip and Loafer, rotoscope use in On-Gaku, compositing, 3DCG in the production of Chainsaw Man by animator Benjamin Faure… Though I’d like to eventually address: more on 3DCG, particularly shaders; the Yutapon Cubes; probably the Itano Circus; and stop-motion in Bocchi the Rock. However, I’d also like to start addressing more the business side of anime production to learn more about how it conditions the end result: for example, the production committee; the need for a pilot to figure out production costs and perceived demand; how Blu-ray releases can change an anime over time… So while a bit has been accomplished in a few videos, I’d like to cover a few other subjects. Diversity and staying focused in one’s niche are to be balanced for a specialized press outlet, or content creation for that regard. I will try to log my progress in video creation in a few months, to try to compare and see if other things varied.

But since this project is also, and perhaps necessarily first and foremost, about educating myself before others, one might think this doesn’t grant legitimacy to express educated opinions to crowds. And that there may be in it some of the hubris of generalist reporters, growing overconfident with a bit of research. However, to lower the entry bar for the expression of opinions is needed to keep a plurality of voices, and attacking the dangers of gatekeeping discourses on a community. If expertise is required, it should also spawn doubt, including in the reader.

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Émilia Hoarfrost

2D/3D Animator learning Character Animation. Also an otaku blogging about her passions.