Wednesday, January 28, 2015

[BoRT Jan. 2015] Vincent Libre: A Catherine Drinking Game

"The original is unfaithful to the translation" / "O original não é fiel à tradução"
- Jorge Luis Borges

My friend “Rick" (name changed to protect the guilty) and I are both fans of the 2011 Atlus game Catherine. Well, I say that we are both fans of Catherine, but I played it in Japanese and he played it in English. That’s one the biggest questions in the field of translation, whether a translated text is ever truly the same as the original. To rephrase, is a translation the same work in a new language or a new work unto itself?

This is a big long question with a big long history, so I’m not even going to attempt to answer it. Besides, it’s a question that comes from the translation of textual works, where the reader only has written words to guide their impressions.

When the original text is a video game, the player does not have to rely solely on written text for information and meaning. Meaning also comes from the graphic assets, the music, a voice actor’s tone of voice, or even, dare we suggest, from gameplay. After all, Mario jumps the same in every language. So perhaps a translated video game can be closer to the original than a translated book.

Catherine and Kyasarin 「キャサリン」 have the same music, graphical elements, gameplay mechanics, characters, moral choice system, and the same overall plot, but one is the original and one is a translation. The text is the same, but the context is different. Rick and I have played the same ludii, but have we played the same video game?

So here’s the game-within-a-game: 1). Rick will play Kyasarin in, using his less-than-fluent Japanese. 2). We both must take a drink whenever he needs a translation. 3). We will limit ourselves to Rum, Whiskey, Beer, and Sake – the drinks served at Stray Sheep, the in-game bar.

Rick gets a Great Escape
(note the balling Odie glass)
The Subject:

“Rick,” a single white male about the same age as Vincent who shares his love for Rum and Cokes (nee Cuba Libres). A serendipitous coincidence indeed.

Rick spent some years working in Japan and has a decent grasp of the spoken language. However, he refuses to learn how to read kanji, the non-phonetic semi-pictorial characters that are the bane of many a would-be Japanese student.

Part of Kyasarin’s gameplay involves choosing responses from lists of dialogue choices. Rick will be able to get the general gist of what the characters are saying when they speak, but has no idea what most of his responses mean since they are written instead of spoken. This will make things doubly dangerous for us.

While his previous exposure to the game may contaminate the game-within-a-game, his new responses to a decontextualized situation will help me determine the extent to which Catherine is the same game in translation. As they say, In Vino Veritas.

Voice Acting:

As expected, Rick had little trouble with Kyasarin’s gameplay. The block-shoving and climbing were the same in the original and the English translation. What did change was his relation to the other characters: how he felt about their personalities and motivations and how he responded to them.

After watching Katherine’s first appearance, Rick commented that she was “less annoying in this version” (incidentally, the voice of the Japanese Katherine is Korono Mitsuishi, the voice of Sailor Moon). When he played the English version, he immediately disliked her voice actor and this
influenced his decisions throughout the game. But he continued to warm to her Japanese version throughout the game – in another scene she puts two lumps of sugar in Vincent’s tea, a gesture that was charming in a Japanese context, but controlling and domineering in an English context.

Rick also started to turn against Vincent. He claimed that Vincent's anti-marriage stance makes sense in English, but sounds whiny in Japanese. This does not seem to have anything to do with Vincent’s Japanese voice actor – the argument just sounds more convincing in English.

This difference in impressions extended to minor characters as well. Rick felt more drawn to Paul (the tie-wearing sheep) in Japanese. Paul’s Japanese voice actor uses very masculine terms (ore and omae / I and you, but rude) and has a more confident, commanding tone. In Rick’s words, he is “more worthy of attention” and so Rick pays careful attention to his dialogue.

Conversely, Justin (the reporter) sounds “more timid and less interesting” than his English counterpart. He feels less drawn to help the reporter or even to interact with him at all. Unlike Paul, who uses dominating, masculine language and becomes an object of attention, Justin’s weak language becomes background noise.

Many of the characters strike Rick the same in Japanese as in English; Toby, Erica, Johnny, and even Catherine evoke the same responses in both languages. Although Rick no longer finds Katherine annoying, he is still more drawn to the energetic, carefree Catherine.

Most interesting for me was Rick’s response to Orlando, Vincent’s closest friend: sheer confusion. Maybe it’s his long, rambling sentences, maybe it’s his use of colloquial words like motteki (period of attractiveness), but Rick can hardly understand a word out of the guy’s mouth. Every time Orlando appears on screen we instinctively reach for our glasses.

"What do the squiggly marks mean?"

In Catherine, Vincent receives text messages from various characters. The player can choose from various responses, cycling through lists of preprogrammed phrases. We knew from the start that these sections would be brutal, but Rick gamely tried to figure them out.

His responses to the texts either move him closer to “Law” (as represented by Katherine) or “Chaos” (as represented by Catherine). He was invested in the experience and wanted to give an “honest” response that would reflect his actual intentions.

Even from the first text, Rick and Vincent both grunted with frustration as the selections were entered and deleted. There was always just something slightly off about the available responses, something which fails to express what Rick “really wants to say.” Eventually, he asked for my help in confirming what the responses meant. Drinking ensued, but having the meaning of the responses clarified only increased Rick’s frustration. “Learn to text, Vincent,” he griped, finishing off a Cuba Libre.

Finally, Rick settled on a text message and hits send. His response moves him closer to Law, even though he prefers Catherine. He explained that composing a text in Japanese (even with a translator) was more difficult than in English. “These responses could mean too many things in Japanese. In English, they have more concrete meanings.”

Once again, these pre-set phrases have the same mechanical weight in the translation. Each possible selection moves the player’s alignment towards Law or Chaos by the same amount in both languages. But changing the linguistic context completely changed how Rick felt about what his responses meant. Just as remembering two lumps of sugar seemed controlling in English and endearing in Japanese, the cultural context surrounding the text messages changed how Rick felt about them, thus ensuring I would finish the whiskey much sooner than expected.

Conversations and Morality:

Conversation choices and confessional answers also function like the text messages: certain responses move you closer to Law (and Katherine) and others move you towards Chaos (and
Chose carefully.
This was perhaps the most frustrating game mechanic for Rick. When he encouraged his fellow climbers, it moved him closer towards Law and away from Catherine. Rick was visibly frustrated whenever this happened. “I just said that I don’t think murder is a good idea! Why does that mean I want frumpy Katherine?”

On the next level, Rick came into conflict with another sheep trying to climb the same wall. Rick yelled at the sheep and smacked it mercilessly out of the way. Apparently, his desire to help others did not extend to those who get in the way.

Still, Rick responded to the game’s moral questions honestly even when it moved him further away from his goal. He did seem to take special pleasure when his response to a question in Japanese was the same as his response in the English version. “It's nice to know that regardless of language, my morality remains the same.”

Unlike the text messaging system, with its many different possible combinations of phrases, the conversation choices are binary. The choices tend to avoid “murder orphans/give orphans candy” Manichean dichotomy, but it is still fairly easy to tell which one is Law and which one is Chaos. Even with his limited Japanese reading abilities, Rick was able to successfully navigate most of the choices by himself, thus sparing our livers untold amounts of abuse.


Mixing rum, whiskey, beer, and sake is not a great idea.

Rick was initially of the position that Catherine and Kyasarin were different games – that the original and translation were two distinct works. This was borne out in his feelings about the various characters. Although this was partially because he found some of the Japanese actors more or less appealing than their English counterparts (Paul and Justin), it was also partially because of the differences in Japanese cultural context and English cultural context (the two lumps of sugar).

But there was one thing that did not change between the two versions: Rick’s ultimate response to the moral/personal issues raised by the game. Even though he felt Japanese Katherine was more convincing and Japanese Vincent was a whiner, he still ultimately preferred Catherine. Moreover, he still opted to sabotage this goal by attempting to help his fellow climbers. Even while his impressions changed, his “morality remains the same.”

What conclusions can we take away from this? I dunno. The perennial question of translation remains unanswered, but here are my points of interest:

1). The mechanical elements of gameplay are not effected by translation (although they may be changed by localization).

2), Rick's differing reactions to the two versions of the game had less to do with the quality of the translation (the English version is fairly accurate) and more with the linguistic context in which the story takes place.

3). In addition, Rick's perceptions of the characters were also greatly influenced by the performances of the voice actors, something which the translators presumably had no control over. 

4). Even if translation changes a video game, the player can still chose how they respond to it. Rick chose to roleplay as himself in both versions of Catherine, even while consciously taking into account how the same basic phrase had different connotations in each language.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

[DC003] Azuma Vs. Hegel: Defining History

Previous: [DC002] What is DatabaseConsumption (and Where Does it Come From)?

            Azuma Hiroki's Database Consumption Model is based in large part on Hegel's three-stage model of historical development, but there are some serious discrepancies between Hegel’s view of history and Azuma’s. While some of these discrepancies are caused by Azuma’s reliance on Alexandre Kojève’s description of Hegel (snobbism, animalism), the most glaring issue for me is Azuma’s definition of Modernity.
            Hegel's historical model describes the Pre-Enlightenment, Modern, and Post-Modern stages, but Azuma looks only at the decline of Modernity and the gradual rise of Postmodernity. This is fine in itself, but many of the characteristics of Azuma’s Modern period bear a stronger resemblance to Hegel’s Pre-Enlightenment period. 
            For Hegel, the Modern is a period of Alienation, in which all Grand Narratives (although Hegel does not use the exact term “Grand Narrative”) are considered arbitrary and subjective. So the basis of Azuma’s Modern period, Grand Narratives, are by definition part of Hegel’s Pre-modern period.
            Azuma’s primary examples of Age of Reason Grand Narratives are Communism and Pre-War Japanese Society. He claims that these Grand Narratives attempt to explain all phenomena according to a single perspective, a single ‘grand unified theory of everything.’ Consumers in Azuma's supposedly Modern “Era of Reason” are members of a sittlichkeit community, which recognizes social laws as part of the underlying architecture of the universe - a Grand Narrative.  Human individuals recognize each other by these laws, and do not suffer alienation.

            Now, this sittlichkeit worldview does not apply perfectly to more recent Grand Narratives, such as Stalinism.  Azuma himself points this out on his section on cynicism by citing Slavoj Žižek:

            “To exemplify this connection (the relationship between Hegelian philosophy and Lacanian philosophy) let us refer to Stalinism - more specifically, to its obsessive insistence that whatever the cost we must maintain the appearance: we know that behind the scenes there are wild factional struggles going on; nevertheless we must keep at any price the appearance of Party unity; nobody really believes in the ruling ideology, every individual preserves a cynical distance from it and everybody knows that nobody believes in it; but still, the appearance is to be maintained at any price that people are enthusiastically building socialism, supporting the party, and so on...” (quoted in Azuma 70).

            This excerpt, written in 1989, shows the hybrid nature of Communism towards the end of the Soviet Union.  It is a (Hegelian) Modern, alienated worldview masquerading as a (Hegelian) sittlichkeit Grand Narrative. The ideology of the Party claims to be a unified theory of everything, and yet the Party itself does not believe its ideology.

            This complicates Azuma's usage of the 1970 Red Army incident as a guidepost to the end of pure Modernism in Japan.  Were the members of the Red Army alienated or un-alienated?  Did they truly believe in Communism as an all-encompassing worldview or were they alienated and cynical?  If they truly believed in it as an all-encompassing worldview, then they would be better categorized according to Hegel's Pre-Enlightenment Era.  If they were alienated and cynical, then they would be better categorized according to Hegel's Modern Era and their Stalinism as a fictional hybrid Grand Narrative.

            That’s just one example, but no matter which “Modern” Grand Narrative we look at, we are in essence left with two options:

            1). Azuma’s Age of Reason is indeed Modern in the Hegelian sense, but its Grand Narratives were not truly sittlichkeit worldviews. They were held cynically as Stalinism was for Žižek. World War II certainly had a destabilizing effect on Japanese society, although the Reconstruction seems to have replaced Nationalism with Mass Middle Class corporate ideology. While the Mass Middle Class was eventually wiped out with the collapse of the Bubble economy, it still provided Japan with a few decades of social normativity.

            2). Azuma’s Age of Reason is not Modern in the Hegelian sense because alienation has not yet occurred. For whatever reason, the spread of Western sciences grounded in the Enlightenment did not cause the same trend toward alienation. Once again, the Mass Middle Class ideology did provide Japanese society with a level of mass normativity up until the 1990s.

            I suppose we might also envision a third path.
Hegel describes the scene in Antigone as the “bubbling” of Modernity in Sophocles’ mind. By posing the question of what happens when two eternal laws conflict (in this case, the law of the polis and the law of the family), Sophocles calls the concept of the eternal law into question. Modern cynicism is bubbling up, presaging the alienation which is to come.

            It is possible that Azuma’s Age of Reason is subject to a similar form of “bubbling.” Alienation does not hit all segments of society simultaneously. It takes time for Enlightenment ideals to filter down to the masses. We might posit that a gradual Democratization of Alienation occurred in Japan as improved education and communication technology gradually uprooted old worldviews and broke down
communities.[i] The upper classes were Modern and Alienated, while the lower classes were Pre-Modern and Un-Alienated.

            Now, this may seem like needless nit-picking – and it kind of is. Azuma is not writing for Hegelian specialists, so the use of the
term “Modern” more in accordance with its popular usage of “Industrial” could be justified. Japan was indisputably Industrial in the Age of Reason, and Industrialism is a sort of all-encompassing worldview of its own.

But it troubles me when an author who explicitly claims to be using Hegel ignores the role of sittlichkeit
in the historical process. The whole point of Hegel’s Pre-Enlightenment period is that Alienation has not yet occurred. The whole point of Hegel’s Modern period is that Alienation has occurred because of the Enlightenment. And the whole point of the Post-Modern period is that Science has been rationally reconciled to sittlichkeit. This is literally the whole point of Hegel’s historical process; its engine and its ends.

            Why is the Moral Valet wrong? Why is the mechanism of forgiveness so important? Why can concepts drop in and out of the Bacchanalian Revel without rendering the whole dance pointless? How can we resolve the tension between the Hero’s handlug and tat – between our intended actions and their actual results? Hegel’s End of History is a society in which Faith and Reason are reconciled, where humans can create truly legitimate, mutually recognized meaning without the old master/slave dynamic. History does not simply end, it is fulfilled. It is overcome and improved.

            Maybe Azuma gets all of this and simply didn’t feel it fit the scope and theme of his topic. Or maybe I’m misreading Hegel. But Azuma’s Kojevian reading of what is at stake in the Post-Modern period leads to the conclusion that post-modern consumers are animalized ciphers with no inner life beyond 'the feels.' The whole point of the Database Consumption model should be that consumers and producers are building a non-alienated network of human meaning, not the fear that they are mere “cicadas in concert.”

            I do think it is a bit hasty to call otaku “unalienated” or fully Post-Modern in the Hegelian sense. The database of moe elements provides an un-alienated network of mutual recognition for otaku, but otaku still feel alienation towards society as a whole. The Grand Non-Narrative provided by moe elements is sub-cultural, not universal. It may provide a glimpse at what a Post-Modern system of meaning-making looks like, but it is not fully Post-Modern yet.

            The Database Model is an important step towards Hegelian Postmodernism, but it is still just a bubbling situated in an overall era of Modern Alienation. It shows that it is possible to move beyond alienated narratives, not that we have arrived at a new
sittlichkeit normativity. The feeling of moe, the power of emotional affect in otaku culture indicates to me that these narratives are consumed without alienation, without emotional distance.
            This is ultimately an argument between two Hegels: Kojève’s Hegel and my Hegel, with Azuma’s Kojève-Hegel lying somewhere in the middle. Kojève’s Hegel posits an End of History that is also an end to meaningful human activity. We will all be animals in concert or snobs clinging to meaningless norms from history. My Hegel posits a Fruition of History, a historical process that ends because its purpose has been achieved.

            I’m not going to argue that my Hegel is the “real” Hegel. But I do think that Azuma’s Kojève-Hegel is an amnesiac: a Hegel that has forgotten the bulk of The Phenomenology of Spirit, a Hegel with new definitions of Pre-Modern, Modern, and Post-Modern.

            In Part Two, we will look at how Azuma’s model stacks up against contemporary critics of otaku culture and contemporary Japan.

[i] Of course, that would conflict with Japan’s high literacy rate and mandatory education laws in the pre-WWII period. Someone better qualified than me should weigh in on this.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

[DC002] What is Database Consumption (and Where Did It Come From)?

            Azuma uses the term “Database Consumption” to refer to his model of how consumers relate to the narratives found in media. He describes it as the third phase in a three-phase transition from Modern Rationalism to Post-Modern Animalism. So before we start talking about Database Consumption, let’s look at how Azuma got there.
            The Database Consumption Model is based in large part on Hegel's three-stage model of historical development. While Hegel's model describes the Pre-Enlightenment, Modern, and Post-Modern stages, Azuma looks only at the decline of Modernity and the gradual rise of Postmodernity, with the 1970s as the focal point of a hybrid modern/postmodern consumption (Azuma 72). 
            Although Azuma’s puts the “beginning of the end” of Modernity at around 1914, he pays particular attention to three periods or “Eras” which most clearly illustrate the demise of the Modern Grand Narrative and the rise of Postmodern consumption. The three Eras have a considerable amount of overlap and the year divisions should be considered as embodying a general trend, not complete breaks.
            The first era is the Era of Reason, lasting from 1945-1970.  Technically, this era can be considered as extending back to the start of the twentieth century, but Azuma’s focus is on this era's decline, not its beginning.  Azuma places its decline at the end of World War II and its end with the 1970 Red Army airplane high jacking incident.  In this periodization, the Red Army incident is seen as symbolic of the discrediting of historical Grand Narratives such as Communism in general.
            In the Era of Reason, Modern Grand Narrative consumption is an interaction between the consumer and “smaller narratives” (individual books, television shows, and so on) which reflect the worldviews of a Grand Narrative.  In this model, consumers find meaning in the interaction of these smaller narratives with the grand narratives of society.
Meaning-Making in the Era of Reason (Azuma)
            Examples of these Grand Narratives would include Communism, traditional religions, or pre-war Japanese society. The common feature is that they attempt to explain all phenomena according to a single perspective, a sort of “grand unified theory of everything.” Individual works are reflections of this Grand Narrative, its characters resembling real humans living under these social conditions. Consumers find meaning in these narratives in the interplay between the individual work and the larger pictures of reality they reflect.

            Azuma positions the decline of the Grand Narrative at the end of World War II because of the destructive effect the war had on Japanese society. The war undermined the foundations of Japanese social normativity and opened the door to pluralistic interpretations of humanity’s place in the world. There was no longer a single Grand Narrative, but rather many competing Grand Narratives such as Communism and Capitalism.

            Because these pluralistic Grand Narratives no longer had the same normative force as a single common Grand Narrative, society began to fracture. Moreover, the Tokyo Red Army airplane high jacking incident in 1970 showed that the pluralistic Grand Narratives were losing normative force even for those that held them. The center could no longer hold and “real” Grand Narratives became a thing of the past.
            The second era is the Era of Fiction, lasting from 1970 to 1989.  This era is marked by the emergence of what Azuma calls “Fictional Grand Narratives.” While “real” Grand Narratives had been largely discredited in Japan, consumers who had grown up in a world defined by Grand Narratives still felt a need for them. While Grand Narratives could no longer be considered “real,” fictional Grand Narratives could fill their absence.  Azuma gives two years for the end of this era; worldwide, he points to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but for Japan the year 1995 is given due to the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attacks.

In this intermediary stage, the social Grand Narrative is lost, but consumers have a lingering desire for the comfortable familiarity of these lost Grand Narratives. They were accustomed to narratives that fit a certain mold, where the pieces added up to a larger picture, where there was a driving ideological force behind the action. Fictional Grand Narratives were necessary for consumers to find meaning and enjoyment in smaller narratives, even though the fictional Grand Narrative is tacitly understood to be confined to the realm of fiction and not as applicable to society as a whole.
Substitute Meaning in the Era of Fiction (My own butchered version)

            Azuma's examples of this hybrid Grand Narrative include Mobile Suit Gundam (1979), which has a fictional historical timeline detonated by the initials “U.C.” (Universal Century).   All of the episodes of Gundam, including those of its derivative works and sequels (at least, until the 1990s), take place in this shared universe.  It roughly corresponds with our own historical timeline, with the year UC 001 taking place around AD 2053.
            These fictional Grand Narratives are pluralistic in the sense that consumers do not perceive conflict between the fictional timeline of Mobile Suit Gundam and Super Dimensional Fortress Macross. They are viewed as two discreet Grand Narratives describing two different “worlds” which can exist comfortably side by side. Unlike Communism and Capitalism, there is no inherent conflict between Gundamism and Macrossianity.

            But the need for a fictional Grand Narrative goes well beyond a consistent timeline.  While the Gundam universe makes use of fanciful Science Fiction technology such as the “Minovsky Particle,” a selling point of the series is its technological consistency.  While the Minovsky Particle may not exist in the real world, it always functions according to fictional “rules” - a fictional law of physics.  The Mobile Suits (giant robots) of Gundam were also subjected to technical scrutiny.  Magazines and manuals of each Mobile Suit's blueprints and exact technical specifications became immensely popular, and added another layer of “realism” to the show.

            Other authors have commented on this aspect of 1970s-1980s otaku culture.  In Otakugaku Nyūmon[i] (1996), Okada Toshio gives the example of the extreme measures taken by legendary animator Itano Ichiro to ensure the ultra-realism of spaceship battles.  Wanting to animate the firing of missiles as realistically as possible, Itano strapped fireworks to his moped and fired them while driving at high speed (35).  Wanting to get a better sense of how humanoid robots would fire missiles at each other, he rounded up a group of friends, strapped fireworks to their arms, and then ran around a field with them, firing these “missiles” at each other (36).  The concern for realism was an all-encompassing goal, which drove animators to develop new and innovative techniques.

            The third and current era is the Era of Animalization, beginning in 1989, or 1995 in Japan.  This third and supposedly final era is characterized by the breakdown of fictional Grand Narratives (in addition to the previous social/historical Grand Narratives) and the rise of Database Consumption.  This era is given the term “animalization” in accordance with the terminology of Kojève (a prominent Hegelian philosopher). 

            For Kojève, the post-modern period is the end of history. With the end of the historic struggle between slaves and masters, humanity reverts back to an “animal-like” state.  In this world, there is no longer any need for what Azuma would term social/historical Grand Narratives.
            Though there will still be history in the sense that years will pass, new buildings will be built, and new music created, with the end of the historical process there will be no essential difference between this human activity and birds building nests and cicadas singing in concert.  The reason 1995 is put forth as the most significant year for Japan is the terrorist attacks by Aum Shinrikyo and the end of television anime Neon Genesis Evangelion.

            This comparison between a major terrorist attack and the end of a television show may seem like a strange contrast at first, but it is important to remember that Azuma is specifically developing a periodization of the otaku subculture. Naturally, events that are of minor importance to society as a whole can be of great importance to a subculture.  Far from trivializing tragic events such as the Aum Shinrikyo terrorist attacks, this should be understood as an example of the interactions between a culture and a subculture, just as Azuma is examining otaku subculture in order to understand Japanese culture as a whole.
A young man undergoing "Eva Shock" (I Care Because You Do, Nishijima Daisuke)
            But while Azuma points to the Aum Shinrikyo attacks and the end of Evangelion as his main guideposts to the beginning of the Era of Animalization, it is worth remembering that there was another important event in 1990s Japan that marks the end of a Grand Narrative: the end of the Bubble Economy. The loss of the mass middle class and the guarantee of lifetime employment also exercised an important role in breaking down Grand Narratives in Japan. Japanese society no longer provided a clear path for humans “from cradle to grave.” The ideal of a homogenized middle class society was lost and no clear ideology arose to replace it.
            In the final stage of Azuma's periodization, Grand Narratives (including the fictional Grand Narratives) are no longer necessary or desirable to consumers.  Smaller narratives no longer must be based on a Grand Narrative in order to create meaning; instead, they draw from a “Database” of affective moe elements.  Enjoyment for consumers comes from the creation of emotional attachments to these familiar affective elements, not from the now-discarded sense of realism, authorship, authenticity, or originality.
Database Consumption in the Era of Animalization (Azuma)

            Smaller narratives are no longer considered original, stand-alone works which reflect a Grand Narrative, but a simulacra composed of elements pulled from the Database - the grand non-narrative.  Consumption still takes place on the level of the smaller narrative, but also from direct enjoyment of the moe elements themselves, divorced from any narrative at all.

            What constitutes a moe element?  On the most visible level, moe elements are elements of character design - physical attributes such as eye color, clothing, height, age, and so on.  Azuma gives the example of Dejiko, a character designed as a mascot by secondary-goods company Broccoli to appeal to as many moe elements as possible (43).  Dejiko’s physical moe elements include such things as cat ears, green hair, “hair like antenna” and big feet.  These elements have all been pulled from the database of character designs popular in the late 1990s among otaku.
Dejiko as a simulacra of Database Elements (Azuma)
            Moe elements, however, are not limited to physical characteristics.  They can be personality traits, such as the “cool, reserved, robot-like” personality type made popular by Evangelion's Rei Ayanami.  They can also be narrative clichés, such as the “destined lover,” or the “young girl with a terminal illness” popular in visual novels.  As with the physical traits, enjoyment of these non-visual moe elements is not based on realism or originality but rather on their emotional resonance with consumers.  In fact the most frequently cited source of enjoyment for consumers of visual novels is not artistic merit or creativity, but rather the ability to make the consumer cry.  What consumers seek “is not the narrative dynamism of old,” or the illusion of Grand Narratives and realism, “but a formula, without a worldview or a message, that effectively manipulates emotion” (Azuma 79).

            In the old fictional Grand Narrative consumption pattern a single media property such as Gundam was assumed to take place in a single fictional universe. With the advent of Database Consumption, this was no longer the case. It no longer mattered if the fictional details of a character’s life were consistent from the manga to the anime to the video game adaption. Because the moe elements were the only thing that mattered, the same character (or rather, aggregate of elements) could be put into any number of fictional universes without evoking a feeling of dissonance.
            This new consumption pattern fed back into established series such as Gundam. Whereas before the 1990s all Gundam media took place in a single universe, the 1990s saw the development of “Alternate Universes” which no longer followed the Universal Century timeline. Gundam retained the same basic conceits (giant robots, pilots, the nature of war), the constituent elements could now be rearranged freely. Some characters from the original Gundam have counterparts in almost every Alternate Universe (Char comes to mind) that have similar moe elements (the color red, the mask, the status of rival to the protagonist), but completely conflicting personal histories.

[i] “Introduction to Otakuology”

Thursday, January 8, 2015

[DC001] Who is Azuma Hiroki (and Why Should I Care)?

First in an ongoing series about Database Consumption.

            Let’s talk about otaku.
            In 2004, the anime and video game industries surpassed the size of the steel industry in Japan for the first time, both in terms of the domestic market and exports (Leonard 3).  In 2007, the size of the domestic marketplace for all otaku products (including video games, anime, manga and so on) was estimated at around $2 billion (Azuma xv). Moreover, this figure only includes the domestic market - the market for these products is growing most rapidly in markets of vital importance for other Japanese products, such as China, East Asia, and Russia.  For Japan's economic future, plastic and silicon weigh more than steel.

            In recognition of the need to switch from an industrial-based economy to an intellectual property-based economy, in 2004 Japan's Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry (METI) set up the “Japan Brand” Program to exploit the popularity of Japanese entertainment overseas in advance the economic and diplomatic goals of the nation.  While not all of the Japanese entertainment considered by the Japan Brand Program would be considered part of the otaku marketplace, the program puts the otaku industry in a central position.
            Although the peak of the global otaku industry occurred around 2008, the 1990s and early 2000s saw a rapid growth in global demand for Japanese anime, manga, video games, and related consumer goods. This growth opened up markets for Japanese entertainment goods in a way that few experts, whether Japanese or international had expected (McKevitt, 2010). This surprising development caused a reevaluation of the otaku industry by Japanese intellectuals, business leaders, and politicians who had to that point viewed the industry as insignificant at best and a social problem at worst.
            In the post-bubble recession, any industry with the growth and global reach of the otaku industry became important to policy makers. When the Strategic Council on Intellectual Property was created in 2002 to transition Japan from an industrial-based economy to an intellectual property-based economy, one of its major goals was to capitalize on this rapidly growing domestic industry (Arai, 2005).
            The goals of the Japan Brand can be summarized in two points. First, it aims to use the popularity of otaku entertainment products and Japan's “gross national cool” to expand the market for other Japanese products. This stands in stark contrast to the post-war policy of creating products divested of 'cultural odor' in order to be accepted more readily by as many international markets as possible (Lu, 2008). The Japan Brand attempts to provide a shared sense of “Japaneseness” to diverse products such as electronics, apparel, food, and automobiles.
            Second, the Japan Brand aims to leverage Japan's “soft power” to support its diplomatic interest abroad. It attempts to shape international perception of Japan by presenting a unified cultural narrative which appeals to popular media narratives already being eagerly sought out by foreign consumers. Examples of this include setting up a “Nobel Prize of Manga” and appointing Doraemon as “manga ambassador.”
            But it is one thing to appoint a cartoon cat as ambassador and quite another to navigate the intricacies of the otaku marketplace. Who are otaku? What motivates their consumer behavior? Is the consumer behavior of Japanese otaku the same as that of, say, American consumers of otaku products? As a somewhat marginalized segment of Japanese society, otaku occupy an in-between, uncertain state; admired for their economic power, yet subjected to stereotyping and surface-level pronouncements of “otaku are like this...”
             The modern history of the word “otaku” began as a polite second-person pronoun used at the prestigious Keio Gijuku Yochisa Primary School. Animators at Studio Nue, many of whom graduated from this school, used it in their seminal anime Super Dimensional Fortress Macross and it quickly became a popular term in the Japanese Science Fiction convention circuit (Okada 3).
            Science Fiction and anime fan's frequent use of the word otaku led to it becoming a label for the culture and self-description for its fans. The infamous serial murders of Tsutomu Miyazaki, and their subsequent media coverage as “otaku crimes” led to the negative connotations of the term - associations with social and sexual deviancy (ibid 6). It is a complex term, implying the consumption of products such as anime and video games but also a separation from mainstream Japanese culture that can sometimes take a sinister tone.
            In its current usage, the term otaku primarily refers to a strong emotional relation to certain forms of media – primarily anime, manga, and video games. While non-otaku also consume these forms of media, otaku have a stronger affective bond with them, viewing them as central to their lives. 
            Otaku” is sometimes still used as a pejorative term, but it is above all a self-description. Though it started as a second-person pronoun, it is now a first-person identity. For otaku, anime, video games, and so on are not simply works of art that exist outside of the self, but part of their central self-definition. As Azuma points out, one of the primary criteria for otaku in judging media is whether or not “it made me cry,” or to rephrase, “whether or not I felt an emotional connection with it.”
            Which brings us to Azuma Hiroki. One of the first serious attempts to get beyond surface-level stereotypes of otaku was Azuma's Dōbutsuka suru posutonmodan: otaku kara mita nihon shakai, or roughly translated, “Animalizing Postmoderns: Japanese Society as Seen by Otaku.” Instead parroting social stereotypes of otaku, it attempted an academic understanding of what the otaku subculture means for post-modern Japan.
            The book was an instant best seller, with over 16 re-printings in Japan and translations in French, Korean, and English. Released in 2001, three years before the establishment of the Japan Brand program, the book struck a nerve with a society that was struggling with understanding this complex, divisive, and economically significant subculture. It remains the only Japanese academic book on the otaku subculture to receive an English translation.[i]

            In it, Azuma lays out what he calls the “Database Consumption Model,” which has formed the basis of most subsequent writings on the otaku subculture, Japanese and Western. Azuma argues that the otaku subculture and Database Consumption have arisen in response to changes in Japanese society, changes in how people relate to themselves and to the world around them. These changes are not limited to the otaku subculture but rather impact Japanese society as a whole. 

            This is why I care about Hiroki Azuma: because by understanding the otaku subculture, we can come to a greater understanding of what it means to live in a post-modern society.

            Over the course of this series, we will be taking a look at the Database Consumption Model, the philosophy behind it, alternate models of otaku-ness, alternate models of post-modern consumption, and how Azuma’s theories relate to specific products and subcultures.

Next: [DC 002] What is Database Consumption and Why Should I Care?

[i] As Otaku: Japan's Database Animals. If you know of another Japanese academic book on otaku to get an English translation, please let me know!

[Database Consumption] Series Hub

            Today, I'm starting a series on Azuma Hiroki and Database Consumption. This is not a ground-shaking announcement, since pretty much every series I've started on here has referenced Azuma at least once. But that's why I'm doing this - I talk about Azuma a lot, so I want to do the legwork of an in-depth examination.

             Parts of this series have
been adapted from my graduate thesis, but this material has been greatly revised and expanded. I consider my thesis obsolete at this point. Depressing, since it's less than a year old, but whatever.

            I basically have three goals for this series: 1). Explain Azuma's work, 2). Compare it with other critics, 3). Compare it to a company in the
otaku market (in this case, Kaiyodo
). Azuma's work is very consumer-centric (not that this is a bad thing), but changes in consumption require responses in production. By looking at how companies respond to Azuma's animalization, we get a better picture of the role of capital and technology in the otaku industry.

            If there is a critic or company you'd like me to address, leave a comment! I can't promise to respond quickly, but I will definitely take your input into consideration as the series moves on.

            Here's my tentative outline:

Part One: Azuma and Database Consumption
[001] Who is Azuma Hiroki (and Why Should I Care?)
[002] What is Database Consumption (and Where Did it Come From?)
[003] Azuma vs. Hegel: Defining History
[004] Azuma vs. Okada: Defining Otaku
[005] Azuma vs. Allison: Polymorphous Perversity
[006] Azuma vs. Lukács: Affective Elements in Trendy Dramas
[007] Database Consumption Summary

Part Two: Kaiyodo Case Study
[008] A History of Kaiyodo
[009] Azuma vs. Kaiyodo: Technology, Capital, and Toys
[010] Pixar's Woody: Normativity in Toy Story
[011] Sci-Fi Revoltech Series No. 010 Woody: Plastic Databases
[012] Creepy Woody: Polymorphous Perversity
[013] Conclusion

In an effort to be a more conscious critic, I'm going to actual provide a bibliography:

Allison, Anne. Millennial Monsters: Japanese Toys and the Global Imagination. Berkeley: University of California, 2006. Print.

Arai, H. (2005) Intellectual Property Strategy in Japan. International Journal of Intellectual
.Vol. 5, No. 12.

Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan's Database Animals. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 2009. Print.

Daliot-Bul, M. (2009) Japan Brand Strategy: The Taming of 'Cool Japan' and the Challenges of
Cultural Planning in a Postmodern Age
. Social Science Japan Journal Vol. 12, No. 2.           Oxford University Press.

Eko No Tanteidan (2013). Kūru Japan Kasegeru No? Nihon Keizai Shinbun 03/23/2013.

FGI Report. (2010)
Asia Trend Map.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, Arnold V. Miller, and J. N. Findlay. Phenomenology of Spirit.        Oxford: Clarendon, 1977. Print.

Ishiguro, N. (2004) Lecture given on Japanese Animation: Still Pictures, Moving Minds course,
MIT, 10 May.

Leonard, Sean. Progress against the Law: Anime and Fandom, with the Key to the Globalization   of Culture. International Journal of Cultural Studies 8.3 (2005): 281-305. Print.

Lu, A. (2008) The Many Face of Internationalization in Japanese Anime. Animation: An
Interdisciplinary Journal
Vol. 2, No, 2.SAGE Publications, London, Thousand Oaks, CA.

Lukács, Gabriella. Scripted Affects, Branded Selves: Television, Subjectivity, and Capitalism in       1990s Japan. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010. Print.

McKevitt, A. (2010) “You Are Not Alone!”: Anime and the Globalizing of America. Diplomatic
Vol. 34, No.5. Wiley Periodicals, Malden, MA.

Miyawaki, Osamu. Tsukurumono wa yozora ni kirameku hoshi no sū hodo mugen ni aru -            Kaiyodo monogatari. Tokyo: Kōdansha, 2003. Print.

Miyawaki, Shūichi. Sōkeishūdan: Kaiyodō no hassō. Tokyo: Kōbunsha, 2002. Print.

Okada, Toshio. Otakugaku nyūmon. Tokyo: Shinchosha, 1996. Print.

Okada, Toshio. Otaku wa sude ni shindeiru. Tokyo: Shinchosha, 2008. Print.

Ōtsuka, Eiji. Teihon Monogatari Shōhiron. N.p.: Kadokawa, 2001. Print.

Tēkoku Databank. Kabushiki kaisha Kaiyodo. Nikkē Telecom 21. Tēkoku Databank Kigyō   Jōhō, n.d. Web. 16 Apr. 2014.