A recent Ask John article on AnimeNation brought up a very interesting idea of what some people believe defines a so-called “true” otaku. The thought is that such a person is one who revels in great anime series that have narrative depth, notably good writing, and are all in all good shows with a good story and cast of characters. While that sounds like a perfectly reasonable definition, the article brings up the possibility that this is in fact not the fundamental meaning of what an otaku is…
The question posed in the article is whether fans of Pokemon should be called true otaku. The person who posed the question argues that a series like Pokemon, that has a rather senseless premise and is lacking in what they call a “grand narrative,” shouldn’t be place on the same level of “otakudom” as fans of anime series with genuine depth and strong themes, like Gundam titles for example. Why are there so many adults who like Pokemon but they don’t like more adult-themed anime? Why do they prefer studying up on various cutesy battling monsters over watching an anime with mature and complex plots and characters?
The clincher in John’s response to this question and the one that most piqued my interest is the following:
“The epitome of ‘otaku’ culture isn’t narrative or literary appreciation; it’s not appreciating intriguing epic stories with powerful themes. The epitome of otaku culture is being able to study, evaluate, classify, and quantify something down to its most fundamental components. In that regard, someone that learns all of the life cycles of all of the pokemon is arguably more of a true otaku than someone who passionately respects Mobile Suit Gundam for its nuanced, thematic story.”
Being an otaku doesn’t mean appreciating a well written fictional story. While otaku certainly can and do love anime for their deep stories and characters, that’s not the main attribute of one. I’ve always heard the word otaku synonymous with “being obsessed with something.” There are all kinds of otaku; Pokemon otaku, mecha/Gundam otaku, magical girl otaku, seiyuu otaku, figure otaku…the list goes on. Not just otaku related to anime and manga either. Japan recognizes all kinds of otaku, like train otaku (obsessed with the Japanese train lines) and idol otaku (obsessed with pop idol singers). And while we don’t use the word here, there are plenty of otaku to be found in Western fandoms such as Star Wars otaku, Marvel Comics otaku, Harry Potter otaku, and many others. Some of the fandoms have their own names for it, such as “trekkies” (Star Trek) and “bronies” (My Little Pony), but the idea is all the same: as John put it, it’s about relishing in “categorizing, memorizing details, and analyzing minute differences.” The measure of how true an otaku is has nothing to do with the genre they prefer or whether it matches their age group or challenges their mental caliber. Rather, the measure is the level with which they engross themselves in every detail, large and subtle, about that media work, immersing themselves in its trivia, categorizing all its facets, and becoming knowledgeable about all its official details, fan-made details, and all other aspects of it. As for why otaku like the things they do – why an adult would rather watch and play Pokemon over watching all the Gundam titles, that’s something every individual has their own reasons for, and sometimes the reasons can’t be explained any better than why one likes the taste of apples but hates the taste of oranges.
With that said, it’s interesting to think about whether we’re an otaku for specific anime or franchises, or are simply casual fans of them. For example, imagine two people who say they like Pokemon. They both play all the new games that come out and watch the anime. One of the two, we’ll call them Person A, watches the anime dubbed on TV from time to time, buys some nice Pokemon merchandise every now and then, and plays the games through soon after they come out, but then doesn’t do much else with them after completing the main storyline and perhaps a few side-quests. Other than that, they might look up some Pokemon info online once in a while to help them with the games, but that’s it. Person B however, watches every single episode of the Pokemon anime as soon as they come out raw in Japanese, and not only plays through all the games, but spends hours putting the best pokemon teams together, studying all the battling strategies, and putting their knowledge to the test against many other players. In addition, they’re always on top of all the latest Pokemon news and amass various trivia such as all the differences between the English and Japanese versions of the show and every little glitch that can be found in each game. To get to the point, both Person A and Person B love Pokemon, but only Person B would be a Pokemon otaku. I’m sure we all have tons of anime that we love and think are great, but there’s typically only a select one, or a few, that we could be an otaku of. Currently, the only titles I would say I’m an otaku for are Pokemon and Haruhi, as well as a general anime otaku. While I like and appreciate many other anime, Fullmetal Alchemist for instance, I don’t like it enough to “study” it beyond just watching the show and maybe finding some nice fan art. An FMA otaku however, certainly would, and much more so.
To summarize, the measure of an otaku has nothing to do with what it is someone is an otaku of, nor whether that work invokes appreciation for good writing and storytelling or not. There are all kinds of otaku, so not being an otaku for one type of anime doesn’t mean someone isn’t an otaku at all. It’s about the level of passionate obsession one feels for that work and how much time, money, and emotion they spend being involved with it. As John put it:
“…the sort of obsessive mentality that draws people to like both hardcore otaku anime and Pokemon is not different at all…even mainstream viewers can appreciate a complex, literate story that’s told well, but only an otaku will care about specific details like particular robots’ weight to mass ratio or how many turns a specific pocket monster can perform a particular attack.”