- Fandom Unbound: Otaku Culture in a Connected World Edited by Mizuko Ito, Daisuke Okabe, and Izumi Tsuji
Fandom Unbound is a wonderful and welcome addition to the increasing body of work on Japanese popular culture and mass media. While some of the volume’s chapters are a few years out of date and the occasional need for a native English speaker to have proofread the text becomes apparent, these are minor quibbles to note about a volume that provides English-language readers with a predominantly Japanese perspective on an important aspect of its own society. The otaku (“your house,” in this case a Japanese man who spends his time at home on the computer and/or is obsessed with anime and manga) subculture, as Mizuko Ito notes in her introduction, “has evolved as a complex set of resistances and accommodations to modernity, mainstream culture, and other subcultures” (p. xxi). Not only has otaku culture evolved, but it has merged in other societies, particularly in the United [End Page 469] States, with local concepts such as that of the “nerd” to produce an international culture “grounded precisely in its ability to resist totalizing global narratives such as nationalism” (ibid., p. xviii).
For social scientists, it is this international aspect of the new media technologies that is important: how do the growth in computer technologies, fan conventions, and individual appropriations lead to new creativities, relationships, hierarchies of knowledge, and connections around the world? While there does exist a literature exploring these issues from a Western perspective, led by the pioneering work of the sociologist Henry Jenkins on fandom,1 the work by Japanese social scientists is largely missing from this canon. Given that one of the very first publications on the Japanese mass media, The Handbook of Japanese Popular Culture,2 was coedited by the eminent Japanese sociologist Hidetoshi Kato, the omission of the Japanese perspective from the booming literature on Japan’s mass media is rather glaring. As Fandom Unbound illustrates, it is well worth becoming familiar with the work of Japanese specialists.
The volume consists of an introduction by Ito and three sections: “Culture and Discourse,” “Infrastructure and Place,” and “Community and Identity,” each comprising four chapters. The topics covered by the first section include Izumi Tsuji’s study of “train” otaku as setting the scene for a discursive approach to a social history of the imagination; an excerpt from Hiroki Azuma’s book on otaku as “Database Animals”; Akihiro Kitada’s chapter on “Japan’s Cynical Nationalism”; and Lawrence Eng’s overview of the U.S. otaku scene, “Strategies of Engagement.”
These chapters are fascinating for different reasons. Azuma’s database animals, for example, remind me of recent anthropological theories on the posthuman in postmodernity, while Tsuji’s study of how contemporary otaku culture owes something to early rail fanatics (or trainspotters) had me making various global connections. The fascination with trains is not solely Japanese—the Lumière brothers made L’Arrivèe d’un Train en Gare de la Ciotat (1895) as one of their first short films. This marvelous sequence of a steam train pulling into Ciotat station astounded audiences around the world in the late nineteenth century and was probably included in the selections of their work shown in Japan as early as 1898. The first narrative film, The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter in 1903, is another [End Page 470] example of how film as a mass medium immediately engaged with modern technologies and of how creative cross-fertilizations among these technologies are not confined to the postmodern era. In fact, Kitada’s chapter on cynical nationalism depicts the process of cross-fertilization in exemplary detail. This chapter looks at Densha otaku (Train man): a novel, manga, television series, and finally a film that began as Internet postings on the anarchic 2channel. The various narratives of how an otaku sought online advice in order to woo a beautiful young woman he met...