Notes on Azuma’s Otaku Database Animals (4. Moe-elements)

Part Three

The Evangelion TV series and films can still be seen as a more or less exclusive entry into the database. However, following Evangelion, even this kind of entry point wasn’t needed. This is partly due to the nature of multimedia. A card game could lead to fan anthologies of which one gets adapted into a popular novel that is then adapted into an anime and manga simultaneously. In this case, the original is no longer the entry point, the entry point can be anything. Consumers are often not even aware of the distinction of which is original and which is derivative, or if they are often little importance is placed on it.

As a decisive example of this sort of postmodern work, Azuma looks at Di Gi Charat. Di Gi Charat was originally a mascot created for a corporation. Her popularity was such that she got a TV commercial, followed by anime and novels. Does it make sense to look at this and wonder what the intentions of the original author was, what the faux-grand narrative is? The narrative of the anime is only a surplus item that is added to the non-narrative database.

Di Gi Charat was originally nothing more than a design, yet she took on high levels of popularity. Her design is a result of sampling and combining popular elements from recent otaku culture (recent from the 2001 perspective). These elements could easily be listed: maid uniform, big loose socks, tail, green hail, bells, cat ears, and hair sticking up like antennae. Each element has its own history. The maid costume element was added by Cream Lemon: Black Cat Mansion, an X-rated anime series, and it gained popularity through visual novels during the 90’s. The antennae hair was popularized in the visual novel The Scar.

Each of these elements have become what he calls moe-elements. The characters found in moe culture are not unique designs created by the talent of an author; instead they are the output of precreated elements combined according to the marketing program of each work. Otaku themselves are aware of this, and have created literal databases of these elements to classify characters. One can hop on the TINAMI search engine and search individual characteristics like “cat ears” and find characters with them.

Needless to say, moe is about characters, not narratives. And, one who feels moe towards a character is bound to purchase many goods related to the character. Therefore, if the sale of these goods is a goal of the producers, then succeeding is not a matter of creating a high quality work, but rather it is a matter of how well the moe desire is evoked. As a result, it has become a common practice in the industry to create the characters first, followed by works and projects, including the story itself!

As a result, it is common to see many characters are connected across original works through their traits. Such connections are often called “quotations” or “influences”, but using such notions presupposes a single author or work. Indeed, genealogies can be traced in such a way; Ayanami Rei from Evangelion influenced Tsukishime Ruriko from Droplet, Hoshino Ruri from Martain Successor Nadesico was created as quotations of both, and Otorii Tsubame from Cyber Team in Akibahara was created as a parody of Ruri.

But the validity of such a model is limited. Who did the quoting? The production process of Martain Successor Nadesico is complicated, it’s difficult to determine how involved each staff member was in their role. Besides, in the late 1990’s, there were hundreds of characters bearing resemblance to Ayanami Rei, was this due to the “influence” of Evangelion? For Azuma, the wiser model to look at this with is the database model. Ayanami Rei’s popularity added new elements to the moe-database (quiet personality, blue hair, white skin, mysterious power), and creators took elements from this database. Every time a popular character appears, the moe database changes.

Database Consumption

Consumption of the database requires a sort of double-consciousness. The otaku consume individual works and may be moved by them, yet they are aware that it is a simulacrum. They consume characters and feel moe, but they are aware that the characters are just combinations of moe-elements. To consume Di Gi Charat isn’t to consume a work, a worldview, or even a character or setting, it is to consume moe-elements from the database, which is the database of moe culture (he calls it otaku culture, but I feel that such a term ropes in many who don’t belong). This behavior is what he calls “database consumption”.

To sum up his interpretation of otaku history relating to postmodernity: in the 70’s they lost the grand narrative, in the 80’s they learned to fabricate and consume narratives, and in the 90’s they no longer needed this fabrication and thus began simply consuming the database. His differentiation between the 70’s and the 80’s is vague.

At this point, Azuma discusses how the rise of moe and database consumption is beginning to exert influence on print culture too. He describes a class of books that are neither literature nor entertainment. However, he doesn’t define this dichotomy so I have trouble seeing how what he describes falls outside it. My theory is that he thinks of entertainment as escaping reality and literature as reflecting reality, while these new class of novels reflect the otaku database.

Let me discuss his example: the works of Seiryouin Ryousui. His debut is a mystery novel with many detectives solving many locked room cases. Each detective is given an impressive name and some sort of characteristic. So there’s “The Blade Wizard” who reasons with a dialectic method called “Syn-llogism”, there’s “Ninety-nine Nineteen” who uses intuition called “Divine wisdom and cosmology”, etc. The resolutions of the mysteries are as absurd as the characters. The author has since published many novels with these same characters making up a grand world. So, is this just absurdism? No, because although no things in the novels are realistic, they are possible in the world of comics and anime already published.

In other words, these novels can only be accepted because they draw from the database of earlier works. Otherwise they would be simply absurd. This situation spreads beyond mystery novels of course. Otaku print culture in general is beginning to obey a different kind of logic that is oriented towards characters instead of individual works.

The Simulacra and the Database

Recall the original question that Azuma hoped to answer:

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?

His answer is that it is only the surface outer layer of otaku culture that is covered in simulacra. Beneath that, there is a database. Once we look at the database, this chaotic inundation of simulacra becomes ordered and understandable. And it provides rules for simulacra to be successful. For a simulacra to succeed, it must be properly composed of elements from the database. Otherwise it will be weeded out from the market and disappear. The important relation is no longer “original versus copy”, it is “simulacra versus database”.

In contemporary thought, the attraction to the original is known as “the myth of authorship”. Azuma suggests that what otaku have done is dissolve the myth. Most readers and experts of anime or manga can name authors that represent the 70’s or the 80’s, but once we enter the 90’s, that is no longer the case. However, these knowledgable readers and experts could name moe-elements that represent the 90’s. The database has replaced authors in the creation of the image of anime or manga (or any otaku-culture saturated medium).

Now, Azuma tempers his point lest we misinterpret otaku culture as radical and anarchic. The first temperment of the point is that the originality of the original is itself included in the database, so it’s not like such ideas are completely discarded. Even though the originals are set in the otaku database, and thus aren’t truly “original” in the way that the myth of authorship suggests, it’s not like otaku completely disrespect authors and originality. Making derivative works from the modern perspective violates the original work. A ripoff is a ripoff, and an insult to boot. But, in the postmodern perspective, the increase of simulacra raises the value of the original works.

Finally, Azuma turns his discussion towards Murakami Takashi. This guy has started an artstyle known as “superflat” that emphasizes two-dimensional imagery that he identifies as a Japanese phenomenon that is both traditional and persists today in anime and manga. He also seeks to blur the line between high and low culture, arguing that in post-war Japanese society, differences in social class and popular taste have “flattened”. So he draws elements from “low” otaku culture and repackages them as art, and he works to take high-culture art and repackage it as consumer goods.

However, though his works seem well-received in the western artistic community, they are not received nearly so well by the otaku community. For instance, Asano Masahiko, a figurine artist who was a key role as an editor in presenting Murakami’s “Second Mission Project Ko” installation, has said that he does not have “the otaku gene”. Well, the reason for this probably has to do with the database. Murakami creates his works by extracting and purifying parts of otaku designs; in other words, the creation of simulacra. But his works don’t understand the database, they are just surface extractions of otaku culture. So, even though otaku designs can reach extremely radical points just like Murakami’s work does, this radicality is not understood to be radical because it is merely a proper combination of elements from a database.

In this sense, Murakami’s works are very interesting precisely *because* he does not understand the cultural structure behind otaku designs. Their lack of resonance in the otaku world vividly illustrates an aspect of otaku culture, giving the works a level of meaning that they didn’t have before.

Part Five

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5 Responses to Notes on Azuma’s Otaku Database Animals (4. Moe-elements)

  1. gwern says:

    > In this sense, Murakami’s works are very interesting precisely *because* he does not understand the cultural structure behind otaku designs. Their lack of resonance in the otaku world vividly illustrates an aspect of otaku culture, giving the works a level of meaning that they didn’t have before.

    I don’t understand this conclusion. I’ve seen a few of Murakami’s works in person at MoMa, I’ve read _Little Boy_ and transcribed a large fraction of it by hand, and so on, but still, Murakami looks like nothing to me except a copy of some random images with superficial exaggerations (any of the creatures – one imagines Murakami thinking ‘anime has big eyes, so mine will have *even bigger* eyes’) or attempts to shock (the masturbating ‘Lonesome Cowboy’ eg.)

    • bricksalad says:

      I guess the point of the conclusion is that his works are a perfect example of what happens when you create a simulacra without the database. It’s not really flattering Murakami or anything, it’s basically saying “here’s the best example of how to do it wrong”. His work becomes unintentionally interesting because it illuminates the importance of the database.

      • gwern says:

        I guess I don’t understand what it means to create without a database, here. His works seem to reassemble all the usual image or stylistic fragments, sometimes explicitly based on a particular anime or work (A-Ko, Time Bokan). How is that not drawing from the database?

        Incidentally, I notice the sidebar link; but it might be more useful for readers to link to http://www.gwern.net/tags/anime instead of the homepage.

        • bricksalad says:

          Okay, I can change that easily enough.

          It’s not that he doesn’t use a database. Everyone uses a database of some sort. It’s more that he creates his database by looking at the surface imagery without understanding the system that creates said imagery. A savvy creator of moe imagery will understand that eyes of this size pair well with this type of face and eyes of that size pair well with that type of face, while someone who doesn’t understand will simply go “anime has big eyes, so mine will have *even bigger* eyes”. The moe creator’s database is filled with elements, combos, rules for combining elements, etc. while the unsavvy observer’s database is filled with the images generated by this other database.

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