Anime and its consumer-base is a funny thing, isn’t it? I mean, look at us Western fans who relentlessly pursue a narrow range of culture-specific fiction, often obtainable only through fansubbing groups, an eclectic combination of piracy and thankless public service. What is perhaps most striking about this genre and the people surrounding it is the depth of obsession associated with them.
Drama CDs, Seiyuu stalking, fanfiction. Sure there are fans with equivalent dedication in any medium, but for anime fans it seems to be closer to the rule than the exception. While this is obviously great in many ways – the power of passion is not to be underestimated – I would contend that is we trace the cause for this we hit some problematic roots.
Azuma Hiroki, author of Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, argues that otaku, with their consumption patterns and attitudes to narrative are at the forefront of Japanese post-modernity. In line with Lyotard‘s analysis of post-modernism as a decline of the grand narratives, Azuma suggests that otaku consumerism is based not in small narratives, but in moe-elements, which reveal a nonnarrative database. These moe-elements can be character elements, voice actors, narrative tropes etc. These elements do not build to a grand narrative, but individually cater to different desires. The otaku is an animalistic consumer, picking the simulacra which meets their needs. Most hilariously exemplified by the following quotation:
“The otaku behavioral principle can be seen as close to the behavior principle of drug addicts. Not a few otaku tell a heartfelt story that, having once encountered some character designs or the voices of some voice actors, that picture or voice circulates through that otaku’s head as if the neural wiring had completely changed. This resembles a drug dependency rather than a hobby.”
Murakami Takashi, a contemporary of Azuma Hiroki, and the pioneer of the “Superflat” post-modern art movement, emphasises the “flattening” of the high-art, low-art dichotomy. This “flattening” is crucial to the formation of Azuma’s “database”.
So where am I going with all this? Well, the destruction of the high-art, low-art dichotomy is a great thing, but the resulting database nature of consumption presents a number of problems for myself, a fan of the grand narrative. Central to this model of fiction is simulacra and the quantification of the elements of a narrative, and nowhere is this more glaring than repetition of character archetypes. Can you name another medium wherein character types are so readily classified? Tsundere, Kuudere, and all the sub-classifications of moe. What is perhaps more shocking is the irregularity with which characters break the expectations associated with these archetypes.
Even in my most beloved games, the Tales franchise, characters are built around standard archetypes, and though they sometimes subvert or transcend the archetype, this is not always the case, and it doesn’t change that they were built around set, common character traits to begin with. The pervy old man, the fiery hero who wants to protect his friends, the princess, the bookworm, etc. etc. Things often get wearily predictable. Even simple things that get repeated verbatim from game to game. One character will be a disastrously bad cook, and you can usually guess which straight off the bat.
In consideration of all this, it’s hard to convey just how refreshing it was for me watching The Tatami Galaxy; a show not only home to a bevy of unusual, vivacious, complex characters, but a piece of fiction with the complex, unpredictable nature of people as one of its fundamental tenets.
As our protagonist lives through multiple different iterations of his University life, he comes to see many different sides to the people around him, often behaviour that contradicts not only the perception he’d formed of them, but the philosophy or motivations shown by previous actions in different areas of their life. The Tatami Galaxy is a story with many themes: the claustrophobic, isolating efficiency of the 4.5 tatami mat apartment and the modern life it represents, the importance of both grasping the opportunities given to us and appreciating the things we have, the wonderful stories and experiences just waiting for us to explore.
These are all great ideas, absolutely worth telling, but none were so welcome to me as the message that people are more than the parts they play. Weird, often contradictory creatures, but complex and beautiful and a huge part of what makes life worth living. Thank you Morimi Tomihiko. Thank you Yuasa Masaaki.