is databased culture debased?

reviewed: "otaku: japan's database animals"

I’ve been aware of a certain work of postmodern philosophy entitled “otaku: japan’s database animals” for quite a while now, but i never got around to reading it because it was unfortunately referenced in close proximity to a bunch of incoherent larping pseudo-pomo rubbish that i had partially ingested and for the most part rejected. the title also did not inspire much hope in me at the time, and i thought to myself “databases? what could DATABASES possibly have to do with otaku? typical out-of-touch philosopher bs”. but for whatever reason, of late i have felt somewhat haunted by the presence of databases, unexpectedly uncovering them in many shadowy corners and also in quite a few very well-lit plazas, like the conspiracy theorist who plots the disparate connections and finds that they all lead back to a single sinister organization. every time i stumbled upon another database, the title of that particular book echoed in my head, and so one night i finally sat down with a glass of wine and “otaku: japan’s database animals”.

to begin with, what even is “otaku culture”? it’s one of those slippery categories everyone can recognize but few can describe. most of it seems based on the consumption of certain media, so the question to ask is: what is different about the media otaku consume and the way they consume it? azuma identifies the otaku mode of consumption as being distinguished by its dedication to the creation and consumption of derivative (or “fan”) works, to the point where it even rivals enthusiasm for consumption or creation of the “original” works. it’s a satisfying, almost obvious answer, because after all the center of the otaku universe has for many years been the semi-annual comiket event, an enormous market for derivative works organized by and for fans, where big media companies like publishers also appear but take the sidelines. this dynamic is also visible in overseas otaku events like anime conventions in america, where the size of the “artist alleys” frequently rivals the space dedicated to official vendors and exhibitors (especially at smaller events).

historically, when a media work particularly resonated with some individual, the reaction was not to go out and engage in an extensive fan community, creating and consuming fanart, fanfiction, etc. although doing so seems completely natural nowadays, it is a relatively new phenomenon. the otaku mode of consumption represents an unprecedented, novel shift in media consumption behavior. not only that, it’s spreading rapidly: it seems like the otaku mode of consumption is increasingly dominant in all forms of pop culture, which is why understanding this shift is more relevant than ever. the fundamental question is: what changed? why have original works lost their privileged status, now standing only as first among equals within a sea of derivative works?

the reason otaku do not distinguish between original works and derivative works, azuma writes, is because the distinction has effectively become obsolete. all works, both “original” and “derivative”, are now of the same form that’s somewhere between copy and original: the simulacrum. the theory of simulacra was developed by baudrillard, and as azuma explains it, “Baudrillard predicts that in postmodern society the distinction between original products and commodities and their copies weakens, while an interim form called the simulacrum, which is neither original nor copy, becomes dominant.” so everything is a copy, including so-called "original" works, but there is no true original that they're copying. instead, both original and derivative works originate as combinations of narrative elements (or "tropes") froma shared underlying database, a catalog of accepted "canonical" elements assembled through anonymous unspoken consensus of the community (consisting of both creators and consumers). thus, for otaku, "...the only valid distinction ... is between the settings created anonymously (a database at a deep inner layer) and the individual works that each artist has concretized from the information (a simulacrum on the surface outer layer).”

consider, for example, the dubious otaku “genre” known as “isekai”. i always felt that most isekai settings were painfully generic, as if they were all set in the same lame shared fantasy universe mostly cribbed from JRPGS. in azuma’s database framework, this is exactly what’s going on: “isekai” just refers to a particular collection (or database) of tropes that defines a kind of JRPG-type settinginterestingly, the direct forerunners of the modern isekai boom were works like sword art online or log horizon in which characters were literally in video game fantasy worlds, but now the fake video game setting has been sufficiently established as part of isekai such that those justification are no longer necessary, and so otaku are happy to unquestioningly consume isekai works in which characters are reborn in parallel worlds that inexplicably happen to run on video game mechanics. that any creator wanting to create an "isekai" work can default to. what this means is that each guy who sits down to pen a new isekai light novel is essentially creating original fanfiction based on that collectively-determined setting, which is how you end up in a situation where there are no true original works, only copies with no true original. as azuma puts it:

...even original works create worlds through citation and imitation of previous works. Without reference to the real world, the original is produced as a simulacrum of preceding works from the start, and in turn the simulacrum of that simulacrum is propagated by fan activities and consumed voraciously. In other words, irrespective of their having been created by an author (in the modern sense), the products of otaku culture are born into a chain of infinite imitations and piracy.

isekai works all clearly imitate each other, but you can trace the chain even further: isekai works are based on role-playing games, which were themselves based on TTRPGs like dungeons & dragons, which was itself based off of popular fantasy books (the most influential of which was lord of the rings). to some extent, even the deepest layer there already consists primarily of simulacra, so by the time you get to isekai, each work is only the latest descendant of a vast lineage of imitation, disconnected long ago from anything that can truly be considered original.

azuma, however, was writing in the late nineties/early noughties, so the most instructive example for him is naturally evangelion. evangelion was the first truly mainstream otakusome dark history: for much of the nineties people avoided association with the term "otaku" because it was inexorably associated with a serial killer who was identified by the press as an otaku. the popularity of evangelion helped a lot in rehabilitating the image of otaku. phenomenom, part of the first generation of big-budget works created both by and for otaku. it is interesting to note that some of the first animation works anno and much of the team that would later form gainax worked on were the Daicon III/IV Opening Animations, which may be considered one of the ur-fan works. the show itself is cobbled together from anno’s beloved giant robot shows and references to other things anno thought was cool, like kabbalah (a fandom which has kept jewish nerds occupied for centuries and continues to do so to this very day).

anno has spoken with azuma and is himself aware of some of these dynamics, which he has talked about in several interviews. in a 2001 interview: "We[, my generation,] and those after are already a “copy culture”, so there’s nothing else we can do. As copy piles upon copy, they quickly become distorted and diluted." in a 2003 interview: "I think, since the 1960s, there has been nothing but counterculture. Something was there, and you react against it; in the end you react again, against the [initial] reaction. It was just this cycle of repetition. Now, there is nothing left to react against, so creative activity has been reduced to nothing but recycled, “copy-collage” type works. The works created today are only made by “copying and pasting.” I think there is no choice left but to do this. Today, when the potential of each individual has been lowered to this extent, and only the amount of information has increased, there is more or less nothing but copying and pasting."what evangelion demonstrates to azuma is that "...the distinctions between original and copy have already vanished even for the producer." most of this is revealed through anno/gainax’s treatment of evangelion after it initially aired, but to some extent it also makes it into the show itself: the “alternate universe” scene in the final episode where the main characters are normal high schoolers is quite similar to the sort of scenario you might see in a parody or in fanfiction, making the show a derivative work of itself. then, gainax got ahead of the fans again through aggressive merchandising right after the show became a smash hit, becoming one of the chief producers of derivative works. azuma gives the examples of “mahjong games, erotic telephone card designs using the Evangelion characters, and even simulation games in which players nurture the heroine Ayanami Rei”, and in the decades since then the official merchandise and licensing has only proliferated.

what’s proliferated as well is all of the different “official” versions of evangelion, which anno/gainax have created through constant recutting, reworking, reinterpreting, and remaking. almost immediately after the original show finished airing, anno was already recutting it into a recap film featuring several new scenes (Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death), and then there came the mostly-original movie The End of Evangelion, an alternate ending replacing the controversial final two episodes. then, of course, years later (and also well after the original publication of otaku), anno revisited evangelion again with the rebuild series of movies. at this point you can’t even really say that there’s a single “original” evangelion anymore, it’s as if even anno is merely creating derivative works based on the evangelion “universe”, defined in some database to which his access has no more exclusivity than that of fans creating derivative works, he just happens to have a way bigger budget and more popularity. azuma’s conclusion is that “All of these characteristics indicate that, from the outset, the anime Evangelion was launched not as a privileged original but as a simulacrum at the same level as derivative works.”

development and form of the database

the major trend in the composition of otaku works that azuma identifies is a precipitous decline in the importance of narrative, to the point where the latest generations of otaku are almost completely disinterested in it. note that in this context, “narrative” refers not to story or plot, but to an underlying message or meaning in a work. one popular definition of the postmodern condition is that it’s a result of a societal “incredulity to metanarratives” and “decline of the Grand Narrative”, so of course the postmodern consumer, the otaku, would be indifferent if not hostile to the presence of narrative in works. for creators, on the other hand, the decline of narrative was particularly troubling, since they had always based their works upon narrative. now not only did consumers no longer care about it, but the creators themselves started to feel the same distrust for narrative and thus could no longer draw upon it for the creation of works.

creators needed something new to base works upon, and what gradually developed to replace narrative was the database, the collection of accepted tropes and settings for works arrived at through anonymous consensus. the database is always evolving, trends dictating which elements end up becoming popular and dominating new works, whereas others fade from popular consciousness and no longer appear in new works, effectively dropped from the database. every new work crystallized from the database is immediately deconstructed into its constituent database elements and assimilated into the catalog of works, indexed by the elements it contains. occasionally, a work will appear that also introduces a popular new element, which is immediately absorbed into the database and made available for use in future works.

although by its nature it is impossible to capture the database in a concrete form (as a kind of collective hallucination, it is constantly shifting and fuzzy around the edges), there now exists something that i believe represents one of the closest possible approximations (and that did not exist while azuma was writing): the website tvtropes. tvtropes is a wiki where contributors try to identify and catalog examples in media of plot devices and conventions, the titular “tropes”. sound familiar? the tropes are the database elements, and the catalog of them that the users of tvtropes have collaborated to assemble is of course the database itself. i have previously criticized the “tvtropes school of criticism” (where the extent of the analysis is merely breaking a work down into a list of the tropes it contains) as being shallow and trivial, but it makes perfect sense within the database paradigm. after all, as has been established, in otaku works there is no deeper message or meaning to reveal, only the specific combination of database entries (tropes) used to construct the work. to some extent the tvtropes users really are uncovering a “deeper layer” of those works through their efforts, which is the shared database.

it almost seems like a noble (though ultimately doomed) quest, the attempt by tvtropes to reify the elusive, expansive database that exists within the collective unconscious. one wonders what it is exactly that motivates this obsessive deconstruction and cataloguing. is it part of some vestigial urge to try and reveal deeper meanings, misdirected in the absence of said deeper meanings into exhaustive listing and cataloguing, rather than interpretation and criticism? or is it merely to facilitate the creation of new works by collecting all of the database elements in one place? if the tvtropes database were to somehow be completed, would it be the end of culture, or the beginning?

next: cult of the character