- The Animalization of Otaku Culture
Azuma Hiroki is a philosopher and cultural critic who has in recent years become a major intellectual figure in Japan, writing on issues as diverse as representation, art history, otaku subculture, narrative structure, and, lately, freedom in the post-9/11 world. His work is notable for the strong theoretical background that it brings to the analysis of subculture, especially otaku subculture. Azuma initially worked on the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, and in his first book, Sonzaiteki, yūbinteki: Jacques Derrida ni tsuite (1998, Ontological, postal: On Jacques Derrida), he traces Derrida's usage of the logic of the postal to lay the grounds for a new theory of communication. Already in his second book, Yūbinteki fuantachi (1999, Postal anxieties), a collection of diverse essays and reflections, Azuma pushed his Derridean-inspired theory of communication further in the direction of an analysis of subculture, particularly in his discussion of The End of Evangelion. Yet it is in a collection of interviews and exchanges, Fukashina mono no sekai (2000, On the overvisualized [End Page 175] world) that Azuma truly comes to the fore as one of the most important commentators on contemporary Japanese popular culture and subcultures, especially on anime and otaku.
English readers will find links on his Web site to translated essays on such topics as "Two Deconstructions" and "Superflat Japanese Postmodernism." One of the other important statements of Azuma's neodeconstructive approach to the analysis of anime visuality appears in English and Japanese in the catalog to an exhibition put together by the artist Murakami Takashi, Superflat (2000). In this essay, looking at transformations in perspective and depth, Azuma argues for a shift in anime-inflected art from privileging the gaze to privileging the ghost, from the modern to the postmodern: "We have only a growing proliferation of eerie signs for the 'eye,' and we are unsure whether they are living or dead, watching or being watched."1
Azuma's background in deconstruction initially made him an especially acute observer of the autodeconstructive tendencies of anime and otaku subculture. As his work progressed, however, he began to see such tendencies in terms of the emergence of a new structure of communication and control. It is in Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai (2001, Animalizing postmodern: Otaku and postmodern Japanese society) that Azuma persuasively argues that otaku are not merely a site where one might deconstruct Japanese culture; rather, otaku subculture presents the emergence of a new "database structure," which he links to a new mode of cultural reception dubbed "animalization."
To introduce Azuma's work on database, otaku, and animalization to English-language readers, Mechademia has chosen an essay in which he introduces the basic ideas from Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan. The essay first appeared in a volume edited by Azuma titled Mōjō genron F-kai (2003, Net-State Discourse F). It derives from a conference presentation given by Azuma just prior to the publication of Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan. In it, Azuma first speaks in some detail about events leading up to the conference. In the interest of presenting readers with a direct statement of his theory, we decided, with his permission, to provide an explanatory overview of his preliminary remarks and to begin the translation where he launches into his discussion of anime and postmodern Japan.
The "net-state" project that provided the occasion for his talk began as a discussion hosted on Azuma's Web site to which various contributors would present their opinions of a recent book. Gradually, as contributions increased, the "net-state book review" expanded into "net-state discourse."2 Discussion of a recent book by Saitō Tamaki, Sento bishojo no seishin bunseki [End Page 176] (2000, A Psychoanalysis of Fighting Beautiful Girls), provided the occasion for the volume Mōjō genron F-kai. A lively debate began online, and Azuma wished to continue the debate. When the opportunity arose to collaborate with Shimoda Masahiro, the administrator of the Tinami Web site (a manga and anime search engine), the result was a symposium that...