My Journey into Otaku

For the past few years, I’ve been immersing myself in Japanese anime, trying to understand the shifts in geek culture — what use to be just sci-fi/comic books and sci-fi tv shows/movies, has exploded to incorporate video games, Japanese manga/anime, and cos-play.  Even at a local level, the explosion includes droid/robotic builders and those of us who create worlds with LEGO… but I digress.

I’ve been watching two different slice-of-life anime shows — Genshiken and Welcome to the NHK — both exploring elements of the otaku culture.  They’re like two sides of a coin; and it was by accident that I’ve watched them within a few weeks apart.

Genshiken is centered around the members of a college club called The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture.  They meet, talk about anime/manga, go to summer & winter comic shows, dress up in cos-play, build mech models, play video games, etc.  Over the course of 3 seasons, members prepare for graduation, look for jobs, form romantic relationships, have their preconceived notions of what it means to be otaku challenged, grow up, grow apart, etc. but still maintain strong bonds of friendships, even after graduations.  Each season replaces some character with new faces, showing the progress of time; which is a refreshing change.  The stories becomes more and more complex over time as characters find their way in the world.

In Welcome to the NHK, it focuses on the main character who is a college drop-out and hikikomori, or recluse.  Over time, the main character builds a few friendships that involves one person that wants to rescue him from his condition, and his next door neighbor, a high school friend.  At first, the main character lies, claiming that he is a video game script writer (working with his next door neighbor), in order to justify his apparent lack of job, and reclusive behaviour.  But what started out as a lie, eventually leads the main character into exploring otaku culture, and attempting to write a script and produce a video game with his high school friend.  Eventually, the main character comes to grips with his condition — sometimes slipping deeper into reclusive behaviour — and copes with his existential life, even though life seems to throw one road block after another, but occasionally helping out others (with similar conditions) along the way.

Genshiken is filled with characters that somewhat lack life direction, they are at least motivated to complete college and find work.  NHK is more of the darker side of the 20-something life, with dropping out of college, living off a allowance, using otaku culture as an escape (or a better life dream fulfilment fantasy), with deeply psychological overtones.  In NHK, there is some light use of alcohol, and cigarette dependency, but I’m really surprised there’s no stronger recreational drug use, considering the depths of despair the main character slips into. Genshiken felt life-affirming, whereas NHK felt like whatever you did in life, made no difference.

In the back of my head, I’m wondering if there was a cultural shift or a short time period between the two shows; either when they were conceived, or in the creators of the manga themselves, or a very small generation gap, or an economic shift, maybe.  The technology in both animes seems similar, but in NHK, character design for the video game was being done on the computer; the manga the Genshiken group produced, even though most of the post production work was done off screen, it seemed like it was done with technology a few years prior to NHK… Which also may play into the difference in the general attitude of the characters… maybe years of living in economic downturn give creators a very different world view.

I’ve binge watched both shows, couldn’t stop watching either one.  You quickly become wrapped up in the lives of the characters of both shows.  I’d recommend them both.