Otaku No Video

The world of otaku is a strange one indeed, and one that needs defining. Otaku is a term used in Japan for people who are obsessive/compulsive about a hobby in which they participate, and can refer equally to a gun fanatic, a huge game show fan, or an utterly impulsive purchaser of pornography. However, when used on its own, especially in the United States, it refers to an anime devotee.

The show Otaku No Video, which was created in two parts released in 1991, goes beyond simple description. It is all too easy to describe it as a two-part animated feature with pseudo-documentary bits thrown into the mix. The little parts are easy to describe in and of themselves. However, as a sum of its parts, Otaku No Video is both the exaltation and the damnation of anime fandom. It brilliantly captures the way that the hobby can lure in the unsuspecting, draining away countless hours from their lives until it's all they think about. Sometimes, the dreams that come from this obsession can create great joy--other times, those involved descend into a nightmarish existence. Otaku No Video literally translates as "Your Video." Otaku No Video is fandom; Otaku No Video is us.

There are really two stories here, one animated and one told through "mockumentary" shorts called "Portrait of an Otaku." The anime story is the tale of Kubo, a young tennis player who's just starting college. He is a little depressed, unable to find his niche in school. One night, traveling home late, he bumps into an old friend, Tanaka, who's hanging around with a really bizarre bunch of friends. It turns out they are all part of a science fiction "circle" that specializes in knowing all there is to know about anime and its components (such as model kits, weaponry realism, design sheets, etc.) Kubo is slowly but surely sucked in to this lifestyle and eventually becomes its de-facto leader. Disillusioned with finding "real jobs" in a world that doesn't understand them, Kubo and company start their own corporation to create the kind of model kits they'd like themselves. As Kubo determines to eventually become the king of all otaku, his dreams might get him to the stars...or get him KO'd as the major manufacturers threaten all that these true otaku hold dear. Although the anime section ends on a whimsically cheesy note, it's extremely fun to watch.

Meanwhile, interspersed between the anime is the second story, told through interviews with a bunch of otaku. As far as anyone knows, these interviews were faked, but by the way these folks act, it's hard to tell. If you've been in fandom long enough to meet some real freaks...er, fans, you've met some of these folks or their spiritual brethren in person. One's a closeted costume player, or cosplayer, who likes to dress up as his favorite characters. Another guy doesn't have time to watch any of the shows he records because he's dubbing stuff all the time to build his videotape collection; a third is a pervert who is so into his hentai (adult) video games that he can't pull himself away from his monitor for the documentarians. Whereas Kubo and his friends in the anime have a strong bond that gets them through dark times, these interviews survey the dark side of fandom, where people completely lose their sense of reality and often lose contact with family and friends in pursuit of their mania. Some of these are incredibly funny; others are darkly disturbing. Each one depicts someone you likely know.

From a technical standpoint, Otaku No Video has no real problems. Anyone wanting to find fault with the animation here will be hard pressed. This was created by Gainax, the infamous studio amazingly enough started by a bunch of otaku, and back when this was done, they had plenty of money. The visuals are crisp and strikingly ahead of their time--it's not quite today's animation, but it's close. There's not a lot of action or difficult animation work, to be certain, but it looks great. The real-world footage isn't bad, recreating a documentary atmosphere that, if fake, is more than thoroughly believable.

So what should the viewer make of this? And, rather importantly in this case, whom will it appeal to? I believe that anyone who is seriously interested in anime needs to see this show, not only for a good laugh but also, potentially, for a wake-up call. This shows the limits of how far any hobby should go, and perhaps it can scare a few people out of their anime-induced comas. (Though I suppose this could backfire and make certain folks feel justified in their actions.)

Meanwhile, those who aren't fans of anime who want to better understand their loved ones who are otaku also should consider taking a look. From reading about the show on the Internet, many a girlfriend and wife has seen this and started to understand the hobby. Although there are an immense number of anime in-jokes in the show, especially for old-school fans of shows like Macross, Space Cruiser Yamato, and Gundam, it's set up in a way that it shouldn't be intimidating to the novice. If nothing else, it shows that otaku on both sides of the world are often misunderstood and sadly under-appreciated.

What I liked about seeing the film recently is that it's amazing how much of it now applies to American anime fandom. Back when it was released, the Western scene for anime was limited; though all of the things shown here were around in some very small form, the industry had barely even arrived across the Pacific. Now, so much of this can be seen at anime conventions across the country. In 1985, cosplayers were seen as complete oddities--now, huge numbers of anime fans cosplay at events. The intensity level may have dropped slightly, since it's much easier to get into fandom now, but on all levels it rings authentic. American fans can appreciate Otaku No Video now possibly even better than when it was released.

AnimEigo has done a bang up job overall with their new DVD release. With extensive liner notes that dutifully detail a great number of the subtle jokes and a much-appreciated option to watch just the anime and leave out the mock interviews, it's a must-see disk. Frankly, without the option of skipping the somewhat troubling documentary footage, I don't know if I'd pop this into the player often, and my only ding in my rating is for that. With the options that AnimEigo has given us, we can now stick with the anime, which is very fun and certainly worth watching multiple times to catch everything.

Have you been called an otaku? If so, take a look and see where you really stand.

Otaku no Video -- brief nudity, some disturbing lifestyle choices (both in documentary footage only) -- A-