The hardest part of talking about GAINAX's Otaku no Video might be what exactly to call it. It's a four-way cross of sorts: an extended in-joke for both its creators and fans in the know; a time capsule of 80s anime fandom in Japan (and maybe elsewhere, too); a tongue-in-cheek ribbing of fandom in all its lunatic excess; and a mockumentary that mocks a little harder than it really needs to. It stands up first and foremost as an irreproducible artifact, something so singular that any quibbles about its intentions or its quality almost seem beside the point. Almost.
If it seems odd for me to speak with reservations about something I helped fund with my own money, it's only because I think Otaku no Video mattered enough as anime history to be preserved for others to study. The problems I have with it are things that I think mean it deserves greater scrutiny, not less. I can only imagine what sorts of reactions it'll garnish in another twenty years. Right now, I can say it drew from me a mixture of fascination and unease, and sometimes a lot more of the latter than the former.
Geeks just wanna have fun
It's been said that Otaku no Video — at least, the first half of it — provided the blueprint for most every anime or manga about fandom that has followed since, from Genshiken to Oreimo: A straightlaced non-fan is drawn into the world of fandom by way of a charismatic or seductive insider, finds fandom more to his/her taste than the straight world, and dives headlong into it. Here, the straight-arrow is college kid Ken Kubo, whose squareness is aggressively front-loaded: he's got an appropriately reticent girlfriend, and he plays on the school's tennis team. Then comes a chance meeting with an old friend, Tanaka, who is now the nucleus of a loose affiliation of geeks with varying fandoms. In Japan, those who obsess over anime are merely a sub-niche of people who obsess over specific things, and so Tanaka's anime fandom is complemented by another character's mania for military gear, or another's fandom for martial arts, etc.
Not much happens that can't be seen coming a mile away. Kubo finds himself spending that much more time with Tanaka and his fellow geeks, and that much less time with his ladyfriend, who is baffled by the way Kubo has suddenly become that much more slovenly and irregular. Ultimately, she dumps him, and Kubo decides to plunge headlong into otakudom, to become the otaku to end all otaku — the Ota-King, as he puts it in a frenzied speech to Tanaka (who is predictably delighted). The end.
Part two is a little less predictable, and a lot more genuinely fun, as it satirizes the industries that cater to fandom more directly than it does fandom per se. Here, Kubo and Tanaka launch their own "garage kit" company, and rocket to success with such dizzying speed that by the end of the year they're building a massive factory in China to handle the demand. But then an internal coup send Kubo and Tanaka out the door, and they're forced to rebuild their empire entirely from scratch — this time by creating their own shot-on-8mm production that also proves to be a sellout. The money rolls in, and they're even able to finance the "otaku theme park" of their dreams ... but the next step of their quest is to bring their fandom out to the stars, long after all their existing dreams have turned to dust.
Out of the closet
What really bristled fans' fur wasn't the mocking storyline, with all of its jabs at fandom's excesses. It was a series of interstitial mockumentary interviews with self-described fans, each labeled "Portrait Of An Otaku", and each designed to be both realistic and unflattering. Some are anime fans; some are military enthusiasts; some involved in oddball pursuits like inventing decensoring gear to defeat the mosaic censorship in Japanese porn. After one interviewee talks fondly about his time in an anime club, the interviewer asks, "Did you have any real friends?" Silence, then "What right do you have to ask me something like that?" and while he admits he enjoyed himself, he hastily adds "...but these days, I have a life.")
It's this part of the project that leaves a sour taste in the mouth for a couple of reasons. One is that in the time since Otaku no Video hit shelves, fandom has become that much less willing to be dismissed as overgrown kids squatting in their parents' basements, so ashamed of their status as bottom-feeders that their faces have to be obscured and their voices altered. Fans are more involved, more creative, and more assertive about their fandoms being socially positive things than they have ever been. Even if it was all meant as a joke at the time, the joke is now that much less funny by default.
Otaku no Video wants to nod in the direction of fans being creative agencies — after all, look at those guys going from shooting an anime in their garage to the sold-out big time! — but it spends a disproportionate amount of its time dwelling on geeks as being obsessive, weird, creepy, with fan-as-maker taking a backseat to fan-as-obsessed-weirdo. Criminal, too, as when the documentarians track down a fan who steals and resells cels and character design sheets on the gray market. (Honor among thieves: he is careful to only take the stuff that has already been filmed so it doesn't stuff up the production pipeline.) I know the point isn't to be serious about this material, but that's the problem: a good documentary could have been made about such things, and seeing the subject brought up only to be made made into lead-footed satire feels wrong.
The other big reason this stuff lands with a thud now is is that GAINAX & Cie. are themselves ascended geeks, and so the whole thing is tinged with an unpleasantly revanchist flavor. The 8mm "garage anime" story in the second half is a nod to when a gang of amateur animators got together and produced a short subject for the opening ceremonies of the 1981 Daicon III and 1983 Daicon IV conventions. Said short became a cult item — now undistributable because of its questionable legal status — and helped kick-start the career of a certain animation studio. Said studio was GAINAX, and so what was once ostensibly a nod to the group's own origins now comes off as a distancing act: We, the ones who actually make things instead of just consuming them, are putting you, the mere consumers, in your rightful places.
With fans like this, who needs enemies?
For all the things Otaku no Video does wrong or awkwardly, it gets one thing right almost without trying. Its snapshot of fandom at the time shows it being overwhelmingly male, both populated by men and geared towards men, and I suspect that was simply the case at the time. Most of the female characters in the story are throwaways — e.g., Kubo's girlfriend, who's there mostly to push him into fandom's welcoming arms. The few women who have any tangible pivotal presence are essentially the project's version of bridge bunnies, like Misuzu, the quiet secretary-type who provides the group with a killer character design. It's been said her character was flipped from male to female to provide that many more female characters, but it amounted to a mere cosmetic decision; it doesn't make her presence in what amounts to a man's, man's, man's, man's world any less marginal. The real giveaway is the interview segments: there isn't a single woman among them. If something like this had been created today, it would have likely included a fujoshi, the sort of female fan satirized in WataMote — but more because it was trying to be unflattering, not because it was trying to be balanced or completist.
Otaku no Video works best when it zings the industry as a whole rather than its fanbase. The second half, minus the interview segments, is the best part. It uncorks more than a few big laughs at the way fandoms come in boom and bust cycles, and even works a few of those zingers into the context of Japan's economic rivalry with other countries. I laughed at those gags, although I suspect anyone who wasn't reading the financial headlines in the 1990s will have them zip clean over their heads. The same might go for many of the more general in-jokes that dot both the background and the foreground; there's scarcely a shot where you're not playing Guess The Cultural Reference. Pay close attention to some of the interstitial title cards with dates; a few of them are easy to miss — assuming, that is, you get any of them at all, as they are aimed at an audience from a generation and change back.
I wrote near the top of this article how Otaku no Video provided the blueprint for most every otaku-themed anime that followed it. What the best of its successors have been able to provide is two things: a sense of proportion (how to kid the worst of the excess without either being pandering or insulting), and having that much more to say about fandom's complex and contradictory inner workings. Genshiken still stands up as one of the best attempts at getting both of those things right: it chided fandom, but at heart loved it dearly, and found ways to allow those sentiments to support each other instead of get in each others' ways.
Rock critic David McGee once wrote about Spike Jones and Stan Freberg, two men who took radically different approaches to parodying popular music. "Unlike Freberg, whose parodies of rock & roll were born of hatred and misunderstanding," McGee wrote, "Jones loved the music he sent up — his aim was to take an honest poke at its pomposities." Fandom still has no end of pomposity to poke at, but Otaku no Video feels less like a knowing elbow in the side than a snide knife between the ribs. It works best as an encapsulation both of its moment in time and the sensibilities that produced it, and of those two I think the former is far more worthy of attention than the latter.