Friday, June 26, 2015

[DC013] Conclusion

Previous: [DC012] Creepy Woody: Polymorphous Perversity

                There are still many aspects of otaku culture and the otaku industry that have yet to receive proper critical analysis. In this series, I have looked at only one company which only produces one type of product.  But the otaku marketplace is a vast and diverse field, with a bewildering array of products and services. In looking at Kaiyodo, I hope to have established a first step in using the Database Consumption Model to understand the otaku marketplace in its entirety, not just conventionally narrative goods like video games and anime.

                And the Database Consumption Model does seem to have great utility in understanding the history and products of Kaiyodo. From the social Grand Narrative concerns of founder Miyawaki Osamu to the fictional Grand Narrative concerns of Miyawaki Shūichi, from Art Plastic to databasified Revoltech figures, Azuma's model has great predictive and explanatory power for toy companies as well as narrative goods.

                There are discrepancies between Azuma's periodization and Kaiyodo's company history, mostly caused by limitations on Kaiyodo's part in capital and technology. The cost of metal forms provided a high barrier to production for Kaiyodo in its early years, an obstacle that was not overcome until the development of the Vacuum Mold process. Falling costs of materials and labor (in addition to the investment capital raised by the production of garage kits) allowed Kaiyodo to overcome these limitations and produce metal forms of their own.

                While concerns for social history and artistic integrity remained central to Kaiyodo's corporate philosophy, the company followed the model of the anime industry in outsourcing mass production to China, taking advantage of cheap materials and labor. The significance of technology and capital for the otaku industry is something left undeveloped by Azuma. Further examination of the role of technology and capital may reveal important implications for the industry as a whole, not just toys.

                Although Azuma looks at post-modern consumption in very different terms from critics such as Okada, Allison, and Lukács, some intriguing similarities emerge. As much as Okada may lament the “death of otaku,” his doom-saying reveals an essential agreement that something essential has changed in the subculture. While Okada portrays it as a death resulting from the weaknesses and inadequacies of moe fans, Azuma understands it as a shift in how consumers relate to products and to society.
                And these are by no means contradictory arguments. Okada and Azuma are both pointing out the death of a Grand Narrative, of the idea of normativity in the otaku subculture. Azuma, having no particular attachment to this subcultural Grand Narrative, is simply more able to note its passing without mourning than the self-styled “Otaking.”

                One question that still needs to be better explored is how the Database Model applies outside of the otaku subculture. After all, Azuma's goal was understanding Japanese society by looking at otaku. I have advanced Gabriella Lukács' work on trendy dramas and tarento as one possible example of Database Consumption outside of the world of otaku, but trendy drama are still another primarily (though non-traditional) narrative good.
                How does the Database Model apply to non-narrative goods like clothing, food, and so on? If, as Azuma claims, there is no difference between narratives and coffee mugs, what about narratives and staple goods such as coffee and rice? Certainly, narratives of health, safety, and self-sufficiency play an important role in the domestic Japanese agricultural industry and in international food trends. The key words of “organic,” “local,” “all-natural,” and so on can be considered a form of narrative that transcends the food items themselves.

                Moreover, how does the Database Model apply outside of Japan? There are tantalizing hints of this in the internationalization of Revoltech Woody, or the philosophies of play in Toy Story and The Lego Movie, but these are mere glimpses, not the whole picture. Is it appropriate to look at the “English-speaking internet” and the “Japanese-speaking internet,” as if all English-speaking cultures were the same?  Where does Japan end?
                While we have discussed some aspects of how Database Consumption may operate outside of Japan, we are still far from having settled the question. Allison takes a more international view that Azuma, looking at the reception of Japanese goods both inside and outside of Japan. However, her “polymorphous perversity” has considerable overlap with Azuma's Database Consumption. Both describe the death of cultural narratives, of the single, unified self, of the bold line between the consumer and the product. While there still may be crucial distinctions between the Japanese and international markets, the runaway success of Japanese cultural goods described by Allison indicates that these differences may not be as big as we thought.
                In my opinion, the most surprising thing about the Database Model was its predictive power in explaining the transformation of Pixar's Woody into the consumer-created Creepy Woody.  The manipulation of plastic Database elements, the desire on the part of consumers for modularity, the creation of a new character simulacra from the component parts of old characters - this is a clear example of Database Consumption, that apparently works just as well outside Japan as within.

                It may be strange to fill the Conclusions section with so many unanswered questions, but I believe that this is the best conclusion that can be come to: despite the promising information gleaned from looking at Kaiyodo and the Revoltech brand, there are still many aspects of Database Consumption that have not been fully developed. The conclusion is that there are still many, many questions.

                But this is a strength of the Database Model, not a shortcoming. It was developed to answer what was considered a very strange question at the time: just what are these otaku? Any model that can answer so many questions while opening doors to newer, stranger ones is one worthy of serious consideration. As the otaku become less of a subculture and more of a part of mainstream society, these questions will only become more pertinent. Okada may rightfully claim that “you otaku are dead,” but this is largely because so much of post-modern culture has become otaku-like. While Grand Narratives are dying, databasified small narratives are becoming increasingly important to daily life, whether in the form of the Japan Brand's redefining of Japan or a child's personal interactions with a Pokémon.
                While some may fear the effects of animalization and the radical reorientation of self and society, as Hegel pointed out, the end of the Modern Era does not mean the end of meaning, but rather a new form of meaning. The Hegelian hope is for a society that combines rationality and sittlichkeit, a new normativity based not on an assumption of how the world eternally is, but on rational decisions about how it can be. Database Consumption is part of this meaning-making, and a better understanding of it means a better understanding of this process and what it means for our future.

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