Notes on Azuma’s Otaku Database Animals (3. Theory of Narrative Consumption)

Part Two

We left off last time with 2 questions, the first of which we will address now: In modernity, the cause of birth of an original was the author. What is the cause of birth of the simulacra? How do they overtake the originals and copies?

To answer this question, Azuma first will draw our attention to Otsuka Eiji’s Theory of Narrative Consumption. In essence, the theory states that comics or toys aren’t consumed in and of themselves, but rather their consumption is tied to a larger narrative. (He calls this a “grand narrative”, probably because in the situation he wrote this, the 1980’s, it seemed like the embrace of fictional realities was a coping mechanism for the loss of the grand narrative, i.e. the traditional Japanese identity lost in WWII. However, I avoid this terminology for obvious reasons.) So, for example, when one purchases a Gundam figure, he is consuming a single fragment of the Gundam universe. The more Gundam figures he buys, the larger of a section he has obtained. This activity, of consuming more and more of the larger narrative (in this case referring to the Gundam universe), is called “narrative consumption”.

So let’s say that a consumer consumes all of the pieces of a larger narrative. He can still participate in this narrative consumption if he chooses by adding to this narrative. Rather than make a knockoff Gundam figure and get sued, he invents a new Gundam. Is it fake or real? This distinction is not applicable.

The Database Model

Now, Azuma goes off on a tangent about the modern and the postmodern models of the world. The modern model is one where the consciousness sees an outer layer of the world, and there is a deep inner layer that regulates the surface outer layer. This deep inner layer is a grand narrative; for example, if an outer layer is the behavior of man then the inner layer is then the laws that regulate the behavior of man. Since postmodernism is skeptical towards grand narratives, it needs a new model replace this.

One way to replace the modern model is by eliminating the inner layer altogether. However, Azuma would like to propose a “database model” as a better alternative to understand the postmodern world. An analogy to help understand this model can be drawn to the Internet. The Internet has no center, no grand unifying narrative. But at the same time, it isn’t just a bunch of outer webpages with nothing beneath. There is an accumulation of encoded information beneath different webpages. Individual webpages are made in accordance with users “reading them up”.

Now, I’m not sure exactly what Azuma means by “reading them up” here, but one way to look at this model is that the deep inner layer is still there, but rather than a grand narrative, it is a database. And this inner database is no longer isolated by the outer surface layer, but it can be changed by interaction with the surface layer.

This applies itself quite conveniently to Otsuka’s Theory of Narrative Consumption; the larger narratives such as the Gundam universe are actually a database, to which information can be added or subtracted. The outer surface layer consists of the products produced from this database. Originals, simulacra, and even fakes, they all are tied to this database. The otaku culture, with its propagation of simulacra, is extremely sensitive to this double-layer structure. Moreso than other consumers, they separate the works from the settings, the outer layer from the database.

Different Generations of Otaku: Different Attitudes towards Narratives

The first generation of otaku came from a time when the grand narrative had been lost but the model was still ingrained through educational institutions and written works. People who came to maturity in the 1960’s and 1970’s now had to cope with this paradox by forging new narratives. Hence Otsuka’s idea that the consumption of products was the consumption of a “grand narrative”. This applies to the first generation of Otaku, but it fades out beginning in the 1980’s and is gone by the 1990’s. Once again, a great example of this is the Gundam universe, where at first everything was produced in the same timeline and was a fully constructed alternate reality to our own.

The third generation had grown up with the database model, and as such needed not a substitute for the lost grand narrative (it seems like Azuma is coupling the first and second generations together here). They did not need a perspective on the whole world like the earlier otaku. A shift of interest occurred towards the facts and data of the fictional world rather than the meaning or message that may have been communicated. Thus the rise of “chara-moe”; feelings of moe towards characters which were just fragments of the fictional world in which they resided.

If the original fanbase of Gundam represented the first and second generations of otaku, then it was the original fanbase of Evangelion that represented the third generation, the thoroughly postmodern generation, of otaku. The Gundam fanbase was famous for its knowledge and completionist desire towards the “space century”. Evangelion fans, on the other hand, were not really all that interested in the universe. With all the Angels, secret government plots, and prophecies, what really interested consumers were the characters and localized setting. Perhaps a great attention to detail was shown when building robot figures or drawing erotic depictions of the main heroine, but other than that there was no immersion into the world of the works.

This can be seen in the development of each respective franchise. The Gundam franchise originally developed by setting many sequels and side-stories in the same main universe. The alternative universes that modern fans might be familiar with (G Gundam, Wing, Seed, etc) only began in 1994, a year before Evangelion. Evangelion, on the other hand, expanded through the derivative works market with all sorts of strange things like mahjong games, erotic telephone card designs, and simulation games in which players nurture the heroine Ayanami Rei.

An interesting tidbit here is that the director of Evangelion, Anno Hideaki, interacted with this market from the beginning. One example is a scene from a parallel world that is inserted into the final episode. This scene was actually a parody of an image that had been widely circulated as a derivative work at the time of the original broadcast. Such a move playfully allows simulacra into the database rather than privileging itself as a main narrative.

Part Four

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