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.