Log Horizon: The Beginning of Another World

Log Horizon Volume 1 Cover

Title: Log Horizon: The Beginning of Another World
Japanese Title: ログ・ホライズン: 異世界のはじまり (Rogu Horaizun: Isekai no hajimari)
Author: Tōno Mamare (橙乃 ままれ)
Illustrator: Hara Kazuhiro (ハラ カズヒロ)
Translator: Taylor Engel
Publication Year: 2015 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Yen On
Pages: 215

This guest review is written by Jeremy Anderson (@GameNightJeremy on Twitter).

Log Horizon: The Beginning of Another World is a light novel about people who become trapped in a fantasy video game world and must figure out what to make of themselves in this new environment as they navigate its dangers.

The plot is as follows: A young, intelligent, and socially awkward man named Shiroe finds himself physically inside a world roughly identical in form to the world of an online game he’s been playing for years, and he doesn’t know how to escape. He locates his friends, rambunctious but solid Naotsugu and quiet but reliable Akatsuki, and together they begin to explore the reality in which they’ve become trapped.

Log Horizon distinguishes itself from other entries in the “video game world” trope by changing the stakes. Other such stories, such as the light novel series Sword Art Online, tend to include comatose people who need to be woken up, a situation often nested with some hidden or overt moral about the importance of rejoining the real world. While Log Horizon‘s protagonist Shiroe ponders the possibility that everyone is comatose, he dismisses it as unlikely and doesn’t consider actively seeking an exit to be a productive use of time. Instead, the story is about taking life on its own terms and living life right now, where you are.

Log Horizon starts a little slow but builds on what it’s laid down early on to do more interesting things as it rolls along. I can tell you why I found it to start a little slow: I’m a gamer, and I’m already familiar with gaming terminology. Log Horizon devotes its first chapter to bringing readers up to date on this terminology. If you know what a guild is, how chat and friending functions work, what XP and HP mean, what a level cap is, what an MMORPG is, and so on and so forth, you may find yourself rolling your eyes and saying, “Yeah I get it.”

To me, this slow start is forgivable for two reasons. First, because I understand that not everyone is a gamer, and it’s better that I spend two seconds rolling my eyes than that another reader give up on the story because the writer never explained important terms. Second, because even within the first chapter the revelations about the way this MMO reality and the human-world reality interact are fascinating. That clash of worlds – the logical-but-unintuitive way new rules form from the known systems – is one of the main attractions of setting the story in a video game world. Log Horizon provides a number of clever details regarding world-building, and the protagonist spends a lot of time thinking about those details and responding to them.

In essence, the “video game world” trope provides an excuse to follow a set of strictures that will be easy for some to understand intuitively, and that will be easy to explain to the rest. The other value of setting the story in a video game world (instead of, say, Narnia) is that it allows our hero Shiroe to start off as intimately familiar with how the new world works. After all, he’s been playing the game for years, and he can approach the situation of becoming trapped within it with the calm and rational mind that distinguishes him as a player.

Whereas Sword Art Online explains the mystery behind how its characters have entered the game world almost immediately, Log Horizon doesn’t explain how this happened, might never explain how this happened, and tells the story in a way that makes this lack of information surprisingly acceptable. The story is about what the characters make of their situation, not how they got there.

The conflict in Log Horizon is a struggle for the soul – both the individual souls of the adventurers (Shiroe in particular), and the soul of the community. One of the most illuminating moments in the story is when Shiroe notes that the true threat to players in the game world is social. Thirty thousand people have been uprooted from their lives and transplanted into a new world, which does not have any government or laws. By the end of the novel, the reader sees how ugly this scenario becomes, with a major in-game city resembling a town run by a villain in a spaghetti western. In addition, Shiroe expresses concerns about sexism, such as the legitimate worry that female players, who form a distinct minority, will be harassed more than male players.

As fun as the fight scenes can be in Log Horizon, the novel’s most impressive moments aren’t when a dude is being cut in half or a building explodes; they’re when a man decides to stand up for someone he’s never met, because he knows he and his friends are best suited to get the job done. When his friends, new and old, push him to live more fully. When three people realize they’re the first ever to see the sunrise from a certain previously-unexplored hill. The fundamental question in Log Horizon is not, “How do we escape this false reality so we can get back to living our lives?” It’s a much simpler, broader, and deeper, “How do we live well?”

Log Horizon‘s story isn’t revolutionary in its interpretations of the “video game world” trope or the broader “team fantasy adventure” genre, but it does tell a story that is unique enough to keep the reader interested from cover to cover as it continues to chip away at the limitless edge of narrative possibility.

The story is also available in manga and anime formats.

. . .

Jeremy Anderson is a writer and game designer best known for the Shadowrift card game, and a consumer of far more comics and anime than anyone should have access to. He is currently on the design staff of Rise of the Eagle Princess, a JRPG set in a fantasy world based on the Mongolian empire.

Log Horizon Volume 1 Page 153

Manga through the Eyes of an Architect

Manga through the Eyes of an Architect

Title: Manga through the Eyes of an Architect: The Economics of Yotsuba&!, Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure, Evangelion, and Persona 4
Japanese Title: 建築家が見たマンガの世界:よつばと!、ジョジョの奇妙な冒険、ヱヴァンゲリヲン新劇場版、ペルソナ4の経済編 (Kenchikuka ga mita manga no sekai: Yotsubato, Jojo no kimyō na bōken, Evangerion shingekijōban, Perusona 4 no keizaihen)
Author: Sakurada Ikka (櫻田 一家)
Publisher: Gloria Earth Technology
Publication Year: 2015
Pages: 199

In his preface, architect Sakurada Ikka explains that the idea for this book came about through a conversation with a group of friends at a bar. A young editor, referring to the adage that “a good novel will make its protagonist’s economic circumstances clear,” wondered if the same could be said for manga. Sakurada, knowing full well that someone’s home reflects their socioeconomic status, posited that any story with solid worldbuilding would give the reader a clear picture of the living space of its characters. Once he set about investigating this issue, however, he realized that there were a great many gaps lurking in the shadows of even the most solidly constructed manga (and anime, and video games). Manga through the Eyes of an Architect thus functions as a set of close readings that attempt to fill in these gaps.

Sakurada opens his book with a precise examination of Yotsuba&! in an attempt to hammer out the details of its setting. For instance, when does it begin? (Probably July 18.) Where in Japan is Ajisai City, the fictional town where Yotsuba and her adoptive father Koiwai Yōsuke live? (Probably in Chiba Prefecture in the general vicinity of Narita airport.) What direction does Yotsuba’s house face? (Probably south.)

Sakurada uses evidence not only from passages in the manga but also from his own real-world research and observation. For example, in trying to figure out where Koiwai’s parents live, Sakurada argues that, since Koiwai borrowed a light cargo truck (a 2001 Mazda 660KU series, to be exact) from his friend Jumbo to move from his parents’ house to Ajisai City at the beginning of the first volume of the manga, he probably wasn’t traveling for more than a few hours. The “New Pione” label on a package Koiwai’s mom sends him (in Chapter 27 of Volume 5) would seem to indicate Okayama Prefecture, but that’s too far away, so it’s probably coming from nearby Yamanashi Prefecture, a somewhat lesser-known source of the brand’s grapes.

When I wrote “a precise examination” earlier, that’s the level of precision I mean. Sakurada does walkthroughs of his reasoning like Sherlock Holmes, and it’s fascinating to read through his evidence and conjectures.

The next section of the book investigates the floorplan of Kishibe Rohan’s house from Part 4 (the “Diamond Is Unbreakable” arc) of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. Despite Araki Hirohiko’s comment that his manga isn’t popular in America because Americans have no sense of style, all of the homes of the major characters exhibit classically American architecture. Sakurada teases out the layout of Rohan’s house room by room while discussing the history of the architecture and the furniture. As an American, I enjoyed seeing things I take for granted, such as Queen Anne houses and Mansard roofs, being treated as fascinating – and expensive! – foreign oddities. Sakurada tries to puzzle out how successful Rohan is as a manga artist by referring to the information presented in the manga Bakuman (about two manga industry hopefuls). For example, how many manga would Rohan need to sell in order to afford his Porsche 928 GTS? How do Rohan’s sales compare to the sales of Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure? Was this sort of wealth achievable for a manga artist in the late 1990s?

Sakurada continues with an analysis of the Rebuild of Evangelion movies (released in 2007, 2009, and 2012). In order to figure out how much Ikari Shinji’s guardian Katsuragi Misato is paying for her apartment, he argues that we must first understand how the catastrophic “Second Impact” event affected the earth. Since the viewer is told this disaster melted the polar ice caps, Sakurada employs math and maps to demonstrate what parts of Japan would have been submerged. He also speculates on how various Japanese industries would suffer from the resulting climate change, as well as how this would affect local economies and regional infrastructures within Japan.

Sakurada’s main concern in this section, however, is Misato’s annual salary. Her apartment accommodates herself, her pet penguin, two teenagers who get their own bedrooms (Shinji and Asuka), plus tons of extra space for her garbage, including a nice kitchen and living room. Given the state of Japan’s postapocalyptic economy, Misato must be doing well for herself in order to afford such a large place. (I guess NERV has to pay people the big bucks to put up with Shinji’s asshole father.) In addition, Sakurada gives a detailed analysis of each character’s room, providing an interesting set of insights. For instance, Shinji’s haplessness is emphasized by the fact that the room he’s given in Misato’s huge apartment is tiny and has no windows. Sakurada concludes with an estimate of Shinji’s dad’s salary, arguing that the women in Shinji’s life should really consider being nicer to him.

The final section of the book, which is by far its shortest, is about “The Mysteries of the Dōjima House.” The Dōjima house is the residence of the protagonist of the 2008 PlayStation 2 game Persona 4. Although a wealth of material related to the game and its 2011-2012 animated adaptation (not to mention several spin-off titles) has been released, Sakurada has been able to find numerous inconsistencies in the official floorplans of the quaint Shōwa-era structure that serves as the player’s (or viewer’s) home base. Where is the staircase, exactly? What’s filling all the space that’s unaccounted for on the second floor? Where’s the bathroom?

Although it helps to be familiar with the source texts under discussion, this is not necessary in order for the reader to enjoy his speculation and analysis. No prior knowledge of architecture is required, and Sakurada’s clear explanations and frequent illustrations render his arguments accessible to even a casual reader.

Granted, both the information presented and Sakurada’s readings are highly specific. In fandom terms, what Sakurada is performing would be referred to as “textual meta,” meaning that his analysis is so minute and self-referential that it might not make sense to people outside the fandom. As I wrote above, I don’t think this is true – I know very little about Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure but still enjoyed reading Sakurada’s essays on its architecture and economics.

Still, it brings up an interesting point concerning how manga and other pop culture texts should be discussed in an academic context. Is it absolutely necessary to reference larger social, historical, and intellectual currents, or are we allowed to dig our heels into the text itself in order to make it more meaningful? In my opinion, Manga through the Eyes of an Architect is close reading done right, and I can only hope that more formal English-language discussions of manga in this mode of inquiry appear as the related fields of Comics Studies and Anime and Manga Studies continue establish themselves.

Linkle, the Female Gaze, and the Sailor Moon Paradox

Or, is Linkle’s character design sexist garbage?

My answer: NOT NECESSARILY.

Linkle is a female version of Link, the green-clad hero of The Legend of Zelda video game franchise. The character Linkle was formulated for possible inclusion in the 2014 Wii U title Hyrule Warriors, an action game in the Dynasty Warriors vein developed by Koei Tecmo in collaboration with Nintendo. In the Nintendo Direct video message broadcast on November 12, it was announced that Linkle would be a playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends, a port of the game for the Nintendo 3DS.

The internet exploded, with some fans going wild with glee and other fans becoming consumed with righteous feminist anger.

Before anything, let’s look at the design itself.

HW Legends Linkle in Famitsu

The design element that stands out the most is the exposed flesh between Linkle’s boots and her black shorts. In anime-speak, this design element is known as zettai ryōiki, or “absolute territory.” I don’t want to get into the history and context of this expression here, but basically, the bit of naked skin between the top of a female character’s leggings and the bottom of her skirt is the area where all the moé feels are.

If you’re a queer lady or a straight dude, you’ll probably understand this already, but I want to make the sexualized appeal of this design element absolutely clear. The zettai ryōiki suggests the coveted thigh gap (the desire for which transcends culture) even if the character is wearing a skirt or tunic. The insides of a woman’s upper thighs are soft and smooth and heavenly; and, although this area of the body is generally hidden, the zettai ryōiki exposes it to the viewer, who can run their eyes (and imagined hands) up the curves of the character’s legs and into the promised land between them.

So, is Linkle’s design sexualized?

OH MY GOODNESS YES.

In addition, feminist critics have decried how Linkle seems subordinate to the male Link and merely tacked onto a spinoff of a spinoff game in order to reinforce the idea that the star of the really important games will always be male. These are the sort of comments that have been going around:

“Are we really this satisfied with crumbs, people? Is the bar that low?”
I Love Linkle. But Linkle Is Not Enough.
(by Maddy Meyers, via The Mary Sue)

“The message was clear: Shut the fuck up and be happy with what little you get.”
The Legend of F. Scott: A Response to the Response to the Response to Linkle
(by Carolyn Petit, via Tumblr)

Regardless, a number of female artists and Zelda fans have been celebrating Linkle’s inclusion as a playable character in Hyrule Warriors Legends with enthusiastic joy. What’s going on here?

I’m going to argue that this is the female gaze at work.

The dreaded “male gaze” as classically formulated casts men as subjects. This means male characters have agency and interiority, and female characters are just there to serve the needs of the male characters and male viewers. In contrast, the female gaze treats female characters as subjects, even in media intentionally (or unintentionally) designed to cater to a male audience.

Part of the female gaze lies in objectifying male characters, which is not unproblematic but perfectly natural – and one might even say that it’s borderline radical in its resistance against mainstream configurations of gender. Many female-identified gamers have crushes on Link, who embodies an attractive “soft” masculinity and respects and cares for the women in his many lives. In addition, many gamers of all genders have not-so-secret crushes on the villainous Ganondorf, whose design in Ocarina of Time features its own zettai ryōiki.

That being said, the main function of the female gaze is to perceive female characters as self-defined subjects and not merely as sexualized objects of male desire. This brings me to something I call “the Sailor Moon paradox.”

When Sailor Moon first aired in the 1990s, feminist media critics hated it, saying that its appeal revolved entirely around the oversexualized bodies of teenage girls. This is not wrong, as Sailor Moon had and still has legions of older straight male fans who create and consume porn based on the characters.

Nevertheless, girls from elementary school to college loved both the anime and manga versions of Sailor Moon, which became a foundational geek girl text all over the world, from Japan to Indonesia to Russia to France to Brazil to the United States. Why?

The 1980s and early 1990s were a period of transition out of the conservative cultural backlash against sexual liberalism. “Good girls” didn’t show skin, and influential feminists encouraged women to deny their sexuality in the name of fighting the patriarchy. If you were female and didn’t want to be a social miscreant, you had two choices: be pretty but hide yourself from the male gaze, or put on a suit and become a de facto man yourself.

Sailor Moon rode the cusp of third wave feminism, which held that young women didn’t have to choose between being feminine and being respected; this is where the slogan “girl power” comes from. What Sailor Moon exemplified was the idea that you could present as girly and still be treated seriously. In other words, young women (and plenty of young gay men) read Sailor Moon with a subjectifying female gaze, seeing the Sailor Scouts as powerful role models of female agency and homosocial friendship even despite the fact that they all wore tiny little skirts into battle.

I obviously can’t speak for everyone, but I still feel comfortable making the generalization that, when girls and young women saw those skirts, they weren’t thinking about phallocentric economies of desire in which the exposed flesh of youthful females is privileged in the fantasies of straight men. Instead, they saw the freedom and vivacious energy represented by unapologetic girliness that refused to acknowledge that the male gaze was even a thing they needed to be worried about.

This paradox, in which a character can seem to cater to the male gaze and still be an empowering icon to non-male people, applies to Linkle as well.

Although the international gaming industry is ever so slowly becoming more inclusive, lady gamers have been wandering in a desert largely devoid of positive female representation for a long time. In order to keep ourselves spiritually hydrated, we apply our female gaze to everything we encounter, thus allowing ourselves to find pleasure even in video game titles and franchises with overt elements of misogyny.

But let’s be honest – female-friendly undertones are no match for female-friendly overtones.

Even though Linkle’s design inarguably contains traces of male-gaze moé bait, the fact remains that she is a playable character who isn’t sidelined but is being given the attention she deserves. We asked for a female version of Link, and we got her!

Sure, Linkle isn’t perfect, but I think it’s important to acknowledge that Nintendo is allowing the Zelda franchise to take baby steps, as in Tri Force Heroes, in which Link is allowed to dress and present his gender however he wants. Tsunderin of the feminist media blog Lady Geek Girl explains the progressive nature of this gameplay element as follows:

When crafting these outfits, Link changes into them immediately and one of the customers in the boutique comments on them. Every time, she has something nice to say about Link’s chosen outfit; she always mentions how cute he looks and that he’s very stylish. While this is a simple thing that can be taken as a throw-away, I do think it’s important. How often do people, especially kids, get to see in media someone being complimented for wearing something that may not be stereotypically for their gender? Without it being a joke?

In my own essay The Legends of Zelda, I argue that Zelda fans have been applying a female gaze to the franchise for years, and that the engagement of these fans is finally starting to be acknowledged by the gaming industry:

I could give endless examples of how media production companies in North America, Europe, and Japan have responded to fan demands for more female representation in video games, but I’d like to emphasize that the active and creative fans who thrive in social mediascapes do have voices that are heard not just by their peers but also by the senior producers whose positions they will one day inherit.

If you find Linkle’s character design to be kind of gross, I hear you, and I understand. I can get totally behind the frustration and anger surrounding Nintendo’s apparent refusal to be more overtly inclusive, but I still think it’s okay for feminist gamers to celebrate small victories.

I’d like to think Linkle is another step in the right direction. Her female subjectivity will hopefully inspire a female gaze in younger players who are just starting to acquire the tools that will help them undermine the dominant male gaze. More female representation is always welcome, especially in the world of video games.

Just as Sailor Moon once exploded into an important period of cultural transition, so too is Linkle, who is boldly carving out room for girliness in a high-profile gaming franchise on a ridiculously successful handheld console known for its popularity with girls and young women.

I have been waiting for a female Link my entire life, and now that she’s here I adore her.

Linkle by Aatmaja Pandya

The above illustration is by Aatmaja Pandya on Tumblr.

Manga-Inspired Comics at Toronto Comic Arts Festival 2015

Last month I posted an essay titled The Cultural Cross-Pollination of Shōjo Manga in which I argued that the work of young comics creators in North America has increasingly come to demonstrate narrative and visual allusions to shōjo manga.

Such influences are readily on display in the Artist Alleys at anime conventions, which I illustrated in an earlier post on fan comics at the Los Angeles Anime Expo. Transformative works based on anime and manga are obviously drawn to reflect the artistic conventions employed in these media, as are the majority of the original comics distributed at anime conventions.

What about comics conventions that aren’t directly connected to anime and manga?

This past May, I had the opportunity to travel to Canada to attend the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF), one of the largest and most prominent gatherings of small comics presses and independent comics creators in North America (others include the MoCCA Arts Festival in New York and the Small Press Expo just outside of Washington DC). On the day I attended, the venue was absolutely packed with fans and creators, and there were tons of references and homages to manga to be seen.

The most high-profile celebrations of manga culture at the TCAF came in the form of two special guests from Japan, the contemporary alternative manga posterchild Taiyo Matsumoto and the god of bara (male/male) manga Gengoroh Tagame, both of whom were enthusiastically welcomed. Established and well respected comics publishers such as Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly also actively promoted their releases of translated manga.

In addition, the TCAF was bursting with self-published comics of all shapes and sizes, and I’d like to share my scans of the covers of some of the manga-influenced work I had the great fortune to get my hands on while I was there.

Destroy Rape Culture

Destroy Rape Culture, by Starchild Stela
In which the Sailor Senshi encourage you to smash the patriarchy.

Magical Beatdown

Magical Beatdown, by Jenn Woodall
In which a magical girl beats the everloving crap out of street harassment.
(This comic is brilliant and should win the next Nobel Prize for Literature. Sorry Murakami.)

How to Make a Magic Wand

How to Make a Magic Wand, written by Chris Eng and illustrated by Jenn Woodall
A field guide to utterly decimating the sexist assholes in your life like a badass mahō shōjo.

Lacrimancer

Lacrimancer, by Jade F. Lee
I’m digging that Revolutionary Girl Utena realness.

Louisa Roy Queen of Hearts

Queen of Hearts, by Louisa Roy
Such gorgeous art, such lovely writing, such interesting research, so Rose of Versailles.

This Tastes Funny

This Tastes Funny, an anthology by the Suddenly Sentai collective
Stories about food with shōnen manga stylings.

No Scope

No Scope, by Sara Goetter
And let us not forget that video games are part of the manga media mix too.
(Sara Goetter’s RPG-inspired original comics are amazeballs, by the way.)

The Enemies of Twenty Something Mega Man

The Enemies of Twenty-Something Mega Man, published by The Devastator (NSFW)
They also have a book about otaku, but it’s too close to home and it hurts.

This is the standard disclaimer that the work posted above is not universally representative and is subject to my own taste and resources. If I have misrepresented an artist, or if you are an artist who wants any links or images removed, please let me know.

Fan Comics at Anime Expo 2015

Nicolle Lamerichs, in a 2013 essay titled The Cultural Dynamic of Doujinshi and Cosplay: Local Anime Fandom in Japan, USA and Europe, writes:

I argue that anime fandom is not easily understood as a global phenomenon but rather is composed of different, heterogeneous values and communities. The local iterations of cosplay and doujinshi, which may seem homogeneous activities, are read as manifestations that are firmly anchored in particular traditions. (156)

Essentially, the fan practices and productions on display in anime conventions are different in different countries. Lamerichs readily points out that this has less to do with any sort of “national character” and more to do with the fact that “these fan cultures are individual events with their own ecologies” (158). Nevertheless, Lamerichs argues that, in comparison with Japan, Germany, and the Netherlands, American anime conventions exhibit “a very different tendency towards prints and hand-made drawings rather than full-fledged comics” (161).

Lamerichs is absolutely not wrong, but I would like to respond by positing that online communities primarily used for fannish artistic production and consumption, such as Tumblr, DeviantART, and Pixiv (along with many mirrors, offshoots, webcomic serialization platforms, and independently run artistic collectives), have put not just individuals but fannish cultural norms into closer contact with one another during the past several years. Among other things, this trend has led to an explosion of anime-inspired comics and fan comics at anime conventions in the United States.

I picked up a suitcase full of these comics at the Los Angeles Anime Expo this past 4th of July weekend, and I’d like to share some of them here in order to document this change. Independent artists had tables in the main Exhibition Hall and in the smaller Artist Alley section, but both areas are huge, and I’m not entirely certain I was able to cover the entire floor. Also, as much as I would have liked to buy everything I saw, my financial resources were limited. What I am posting here should therefore not be considered a representative sample. Furthermore, while I am focusing on fan comics based on well-known existing media properties, the reader should keep in mind that there was a great deal of original work available as well.

Without further ado, here are the scans I made of self-printed fan comics from Anime Expo 2015. Click on any of the thumbnails to see a larger image.

Ending to Naruto

The 100% True and #Confirmed Ending to Naruto by Kelly (on Tumblr)
based on the shōnen franchise Naruto

And Steven

…And☆Steven! by Mike Luckas (on Tumblr)
based on the Cartoon Network animated series Steven Universe

Tomoyo's Secret Diary

Tomoyo’s Secret Diary, edited by Yuj Lee (on Tumblr)
based on the shōjo manga and anime Cardcaptor Sakura

Pokémon Cross Breeds

Pokémon Cross Breeds, by Nathan Nguyen (on Tumblr)
based on the Pokémon series of video games

Artisan Ordinance

Artisan Ordinance, edited by MERODii (on DeviantART)
based on the video game Animal Crossing: New Leaf

Bubbline

Bubbline, edited by Schnekk (on Tumblr)
based on the Cartoon Network animated series Adventure Time

Shimotsuma Zine

Shimotsuma Zine, edited by FANGRRLZ (on Tumblr)
based on the novel and film Kamikaze Girls

I Will Always Be Here

I Will Always Be Here, by Karen and Britney (on Tumblr)
based on the animated Disney film Big Hero 6

In addition, there were several cool fan comics and comic anthologies based on the Marvel cinematic universe drawn or edited by Krusca (on Tumblr), and I also came across a cool book based on the manga of CLAMP put together by Lärienne (on DeviantART), GYRHS (on DeviantART), and Samantha Gorel (on DeviantART).

All of these books are *amazing.*

If I have misidentified an artist or editor, or if you are an artist or editor and would like me to remove or update any links or images, please let me know! I have nothing but admiration and respect for people who self-publish their art and comics, and I don’t want to misrepresent or appropriate anyone’s work. Stay awesome!

Hyrule Historia

Hyrule Historia

Title: The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia
Japanese Title: ハイラル・ヒストリア: ゼルダの伝説 大全
(Hairaru hisutoria: Zeruda no densetsu taizen)
Japanese Editors: Aonuma Eiji (青沼 英二), Shioya Masahiko (塩谷 雅彦)
English Editors: Mike Richardson, Patrick Thorpe, et al.
Translators: Michael Gombos, et al.
Publication Year: 2013 (America); 2011 (Japan)
Publisher: Dark Horse
Pages: 280

Hyrule Historia is divided into four parts. The first part, titled “The Legend Begins: The World of Skyward Sword,” is a collection of artwork and design sketches from the 2011 Wii game Skyward Sword. The second part, “The History of Hyrule: A Chronology,” runs through the plot of every game in the Legend of Zelda series and demonstrates how they are all connected. The third part, “Creative Footprints: Documenting 25 Years of Artwork,” is a collection of art and design sketches from the entire series with a strong emphasis on Twilight Princess. The fourth part is a 34-page manga (of which ten pages are in gorgeous color) about the mythology of Skyward Sword by Akira Himekawa, a two-person team that has drawn the official manga adaptations of many games in the Legend of Zelda series.

The “History of Hyrule” section, which is about seventy pages long, gives the book its name. When the series timeline from this section was released and translated into English, there was a bit of a kerfluffle in certain circles of video game fandom that had gradually been building their own theories and didn’t appreciate the retroactive continuity implied by the official version. That being said, the timeline laid out by Hyrule Historia makes sense (inasmuch as anything involving time travel makes sense) and should be interesting to a fan of the series. The main bulk of the section, however, consists of condensed versions of the plot of each Legend of Zelda game. These plots are more or less what appears in the game manuals with very little extra or “never before revealed” information thrown in for flavor. Unfortunately, the basic “Link must collect items in order to earn the right to wield a special sword so that he can save Zelda after she is imprisoned by an evil entity” story begins to grow stale as it’s continually repeated across two dozen three-to-four-page increments.

The main draw of Hyrule Historia is its artwork. In the first part of the book, which is filled with artistic development materials for Skyward Sword, the reader can witness the incredible attention to detail and world building that went into the game. These images are accompanied by myriad creator notes, which are often surprisingly humorous. Thankfully, unlike the Japanese original, in which many of these notes were handwritten in tiny characters, the typeface used to convey the creator notes in translation is large enough to read easily.

Hyrule Historia Skyward Sword Townscapes

The artwork on display for the other games in the Legend of Zelda series in the “Creative Footprints” section is also quite interesting. There are all sorts of designs for the main characters, secondary characters, enemies, weapons, and items. There are also rough drafts of dungeon maps, enemy treasure drop charts, and other developmental materials, such as different drafts of promotional concept art. Some of this artwork shows exactly how enemy wings, tails, and teeth work, with suggestions for how different designs accommodate different movements. There are fewer written notes in this section than in the first section on Skyward Sword, but there is still enough text to draw the reader into the image details. I particularly enjoyed the architecture and island sketches from The Wind Waker, as well as the full designs of the stained glass patterns that appear in the game’s building interiors. I also enjoyed getting a sense of the evolution of the Link character in each Legend of Zelda game, as different designs show him as younger or older, or more or less serious, or wearing entirely different sets of clothing and equipment.

Hyrule Historia Spirit Tracks Link Designs

You can’t really see this in the scans I made, but the image quality in Hyrule Historia is impeccable; the book is something that you need to hold in your hands in order to fully appreciate. The emphasis of Hyrule Historia is obviously on Skyward Sword, but all of the Legend of Zelda games get multiple pages of attention. A great deal of the book’s text feels like it’s selling the series, especially in the “History of Hyrule” section, and it can sometimes be a chore to read. Still, artists and art appreciators will love the incredible array of sharp and colorful images, and the physical book itself is sturdy enough to handle all manner of wear and tear that may occur over the course of reference use. Dark Horse did an excellent job with this gorgeous book. If you’ve been on the fence about buying a copy, Hyrule Historia is absolutely worth your time and money.

The Art of Video Games

The Art of Video Games

Title: The Art of Video Games from Pac-Man to Mass Effect
Authors: Chris Melissinos and Patrick O’Rourke
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Welcome Books
Pages: 215

I am going to be critical of this book.

I actually really like The Art of Video Games; and, even though I wasn’t able to attend the exhibition, I think the curators who organized it are superheroes. There need to be more books and more exhibitions like this. Plenty of people have written about how fantastic the book is, and I especially enjoyed Becky Chambers’s review on The Mary Sue. Since she did such a great job of explaining what the book is and why it is great, I’m going to focus on the structure and organization of the book and why I think these elements are flawed.

In short, I don’t think the video games featured in this book should be collectively considered as canonical or representative of the entirety of the beauty and artistry of video games.

It is my personal opinion (and I am willing to be corrected if I am wrong) that there is a huge gap between the video-game-related knowledge of people who play video games and the video-game-related knowledge of people who don’t play video games. People who play video games will generally have spent hundreds (if not thousands) of hours engaging with video games, reading about video games, and discussing video games with other gamers in person and online. They will generally be fairly well informed about their areas of video game expertise and have strong opinions about the games they have played. Even gamers who don’t have the skill set to play certain games are assisted by online walkthroughs and “Let’s Play” videos on Youtube, and most gamers generally read or watch reviews of more games than they have actually played. This applies not only to “hardcore” gamers, but also to “casual” gamers who spend an hour or two every week fooling around with games on their tablets or smartphones. To gamers, people like Katie Couric and Lauren Simonetti, who make broad generalizations about video games without ever having played them, are being highly intellectually irresponsible – it’s like saying Shakespeare is all about killing and violence without having read more than the top paragraph of the Wikipedia page on Macbeth.

To non-gamers who want to know more about video games, a book like The Art of Video Games may seem like a great source of information and a reliable guide. Make no mistake, this beautifully published book, which features dozens of titles and developer interviews, is a great place to start, and the institutional weight of the Smithsonian lends an undeniable air of credibility to the endeavor. Nevertheless, this catalog is far from complete, and it reflects the biases of the exhibition’s curators.

What I would like to argue is that, although the selection of titles featured in The Art of Video Games is obviously not random, the video games featured in the book don’t collectively form any sort of artistic canon and should not be treated as such.

To begin with, the organization and selection criteria of the games considered for inclusion have resulted in several peculiar idiosyncrasies. The book is organized in two ways: first, by gaming generation and console; and second, by four arbitrarily demarcated genres of video games (target, adventure, action, and tactics). What this means is that video game consoles with relatively limited libraries (such as the Sega Dreamcast) are given equal representation with video game consoles with enormous libraries (such as the Sony PlayStation). Also, even though the four genres are so nebulous as to be almost completely meaningless, the curators did their best to ensure equal representation between genres. What this means is that successful and popular games will be excluded in order to include niche games that fit neatly into one of the four genres.

In order to get an idea of how this organization limits the games that appear in The Art of Video Games, consider the book’s section on the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis. The Super Nintendo sold 49 million units, while the Sega Genesis sold 29 million units across its eight different releases. Although the two systems had comparable libraries in terms of number of available titles, the Super Nintendo had far more bestsellers in terms of millions of units worldwide than the Genesis. (I am not making these numbers up, by the way.) Still, in The Art of Video Games, both the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis are represented by four games each.

The single most iconic game of the Sega Genesis is Sonic the Hedgehog, which almost single-handedly rescued the Genesis from complete obscurity. Because there can only be one “action” game included, however, Sonic the Hedgehog is missing from the catalog, as it has been supplanted in the action category by Gunstar Heroes, which is just as excellent a game as Sonic (and Sonic II) but far less well known or influential. The strict genre categories thus limit effective representation of the strengths of the system and the unique characteristics of its game library.

Meanwhile, on the Super Nintendo side of the 16-bit section, the games featured are Super Mario World, A Link to the Past, Star Fox, and… SimCity? In their introduction to the section, the curators directly refer to all of the glorious role-playing games that sprang up like mushrooms in the console’s library, but the game they selected to represent the glory of the golden age of the RPG is a port of a simulation game that was released for personal computers. The organization schemata simply do not allow for the type of flexibility that would allow for both A Link to the Past and one of the role-playing games for which the system is so well known.

In 2011, the curators launched a website with 240 preselected games, which were divided into the aforementioned four genre categories. The website placed an open call to the online public to vote on which games would be included in the exhibit. According to Chris Melissinos, the chief curator of the exhibit, more than four million votes were tallied, and thus the eighty games featured in the exhibition and the catalog were selected.

Although this information may make it seem as if the games were selected by popular vote, what people were allowed to vote on was in fact severely limited by the curator’s decisions. According to the criteria established by the curators, voters had to choose only one game from each genre, and there was no option to switch a certain game between genres or to suggest a game that wasn’t listed on the form. Such voting mechanics effectively established a rigid quota system, which shut out evergreen gaming mainstays such as the Final Fantasy franchise.

Another major limitation of the selection of games in The Art of Video Games is that it does not include games from handheld consoles. There is thus no Pokémon, which is the second most profitable video game franchise in the world (after Mario). None of the amazing work that Nintendo did with the phenomenally successful Nintendo DS system (as exhibited in games such as Phantom Hourglass and Bowser’s Inside Story) is mentioned, nor are the bestselling social games popular on the PlayStation Portable, such as the many titles of the Monster Hunter franchise. Smartphone and tablet games such as the groundbreaking Angry Birds series are also notably absent.

Another obvious limitation on the exhibition is took place in early 2012, which is already more than a year ago. Thus, the catalog includes BioShock but not BioShock Infinite, and Flower but not Journey.

Furthermore, there are no sports games, no fighting games, no lifestyle or party games (like Wii Fit or Guitar Hero), and no MMORPGs. It’s almost as if these sorts of games don’t fall into the category of “art” that the curators are trying to promote. On the other side of the spectrum, the catalog also excludes the more experimental and artsy games released for direct download on platforms like the Xbox Live Arcade, such as Limbo and Fez and Braid. Steam and its vast library of indie games are also not mentioned.

Finally, fan favorite games that never officially made it to the United States, such as Mother 3 and Terranigma, are completely ignored. Shūkan Famitsū magazine (probably the most respected video game periodical in Japan) ran a survey in 2006 polling Japanese gamers on their favorite games; and, to no one’s surprise, the list is dominated by Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest. No Dragon Quest titles appear in The Art of Video Games, however; and Final Fantasy X, which is at the top of the Famitsū list and extremely well received worldwide, is absent as well. The “visual novel” games that are popular in Japan (and popular abroad when they are imported and localized, such as in the case of 999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors) are also ignored.

In fact, the entire project feels very centered on the United States. Of the fifteen creator interviews included in The Art of Video Games, none are with anyone working primarily in Japan or with a Japanese company. It’s almost as if Japanese people had nothing to do with video games at all. Of course the institution hosting the exhibition is the Smithsonian American Art Museum, but many (if not most) of the video games featured in the catalog are Japanese in origin, and Japanese industry professionals such as Kojima Hideo were invited to participate in the events surrounding the exhibition. The Art of Video Games therefore does a great job of demonstrating that Japanese video games are very popular with American gamers, but it doesn’t explain how or why this is.

As I wrote earlier, I admire and appreciate The Art of Video Games. It’s beautifully published, the gorgeous layout and page design make flipping through the book feel like an adventure, and the text is informative and concise.

Still, I hope I’ve given a convincing argument for why I think the collection of games featured in The Art of Video Games should not be considered canonical or representative of the relative merits of any single title included or not included. Moreover, the games represented are not necessarily the most innovative and influential video games to have ever been released. I believe that the inflexible organization and arbitrary genre-based selection criteria play an important role in what games made the cut for this exhibition and its catalog. As with any sort of “anthology” of this type, the selection of titles included has a great deal to do with the personal experiences and life histories of its compilers. I have to hand it to the curators: they did a fantastic job. My criticism of the book they’ve put together is not a result of any failure on their part, but rather indicative of the extraordinary development of video games as a medium of artistic expression.

Yurei Attack!

Yurei Attack!

Title: Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide
Authors: Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
Illustrations: Shinkichi (Satoko Tanaka)
Page Design: Andrew Lee
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Tuttle

This is the best book ever, and I love it.

Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, the authors of Yokai Attack!, have come out with another fantastic field guide to the supernatural phenomena of Japan. Everything about this book, from the selection of topics to the authors’ sense of humor to the colorful and creepy style of the illustrations, is wonderful, and the physical book itself is a work of art.

Like Yokai Attack!, Yurei Attack! is divided into four-page entries on famous ghosts, ghost stories, and haunted places. Each of these entries contains not just the legends associated with the ghost in question but also its real-world historical background, its method of attack, and a short section on “how to survive” (which is always appreciated). The second page of each entry is a full-page illustration, and photographs and woodblock prints are scattered across the rest of the pages. The entire book is printed in high-contrast full color, so the images and page layout are just as entertaining as the text.

The ghosts indexed include fictional characters from literature and kabuki plays, real historical figures, and legends that have arisen from historical events. Lady Rokujō from The Tale of Genji is catalogued (that’s her on the cover), as is Oiwa from the Yotsuya Kaidan. The outcast Heian noble Sugawara no Michizane, the crucified peasant Sakura Sōgorō, and the fallen soldiers of Saigō Takamori’s counter-revolutionary group make an appearance. You’ll visit haunted hotel rooms, weeping rocks, castle ruins, tunnels and waterfalls with terrible histories, and the “suicide forest” of Aokigahara. The range of material on offer in Yurei Attack!, which includes famous ghosts and hauntings as well as lesser known spirits and folklore, is incredible, and the authors treat all of their subjects with equal thoroughness and attention. It was immensely gratifying to me personally to learn the full stories behind the vague urban legends I had heard regarding places such as the Sunshine 60 building in Ikebukuro and the tiny shrine dedicated to Taira no Masakado in Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward.

I especially enjoyed “Chapter Five: Dangerous Games,” which deals with matters such as how to curse someone and how to summon ghosts. In this chapter, the reader can learn about Kokkuri-san (which sort of like an Ouija board), all the ways in which ghosts can manifest themselves in photographs, and how real estate agents deal with “houses with histories” (wake ari bukken or jiko bukken). Speaking of haunted houses, apparently agents are legally required to inform prospective buyers if something terrible has happened on the property. If, however, the house has been occupied – for however short a time – since the incident, they don’t have to say anything. Luckily there’s a website that can be consulted to make sure that the reduced price you’re being quoted for a property isn’t due to a ghost: Oshimaland. Good to know!

The opening of the book is really cool, as is its back matter. The five-page introduction is a well-organized discussion on yūrei that highlights trends without forcing any interpretation on the reader, and it’s followed by a seven-step guide to ascertaining if the strange ghostly presence in your life is indeed a yūrei. In the back of the book is a glossary of Japanese terms, a cool (and I mean really cool) photo collage of Japanese toys based on yūrei, a short section on the ofuda charms believed to be able to drive ghosts away, and a bibliography that is actually worth reading in its entirety. There’s also a short guide to the Japanese Buddhist hells, which are all lovingly illustrated.

I can’t exaggerate the awesomeness of the illustrations in Yurei Attack!. According to her short profile, the illustrator is an “active creator” of dōjinshi, or self-published comics. Shinkichi’s pictures do indeed have a sketchy, digitally colored feel, but this is not a bad thing by any means, and her slender-framed, angular chinned human (and not so human) figures are wonderfully expressive. What Shinkichi especially excels at is portraying all of the myriad calamities that can befall the human body. Blood, rotting flesh, missing teeth, emaciation, severed limbs, bloated skin, burn wounds, disfigurations, dangling umbilical cords, scalping, biting, rage, and extreme fear – Shinkichi does it all. The illustrations are generally more fun and dynamic than they are Stephen Gammell-style nightmare fuel, but they can occasionally be genuinely creepy. Shinkichi’s depiction of the frostbitten soldiers who died in a training exercise on Mount Hakkoda in Aomori prefecture in 1902 is particularly disturbing.

I can imagine small children being really upset by Shinkichi’s illustrations, but older children (such as myself) should find them morbidly delightful. I think kids would probably go nuts this book in general. The combination of colorful and imaginative imagery is perfect for a young reader, and the book eschews any serious discussion of adult topics such as sexuality and religion. The bound volume is fairly sturdy and can withstand hard usage (it is a field guide after all), so no worries on that end.

What I especially appreciated about Yurei Attack! is that asinine overgeneralizations about Japan and Japanese people are completely absent. Nowhere in the book will the reader have to suffer through idiotic statements about how “the Japanese have always revered nature” or how “funeral practices are very important in Japan” or how “there is no differentiation between good and evil in Japan.” It’s kind of nice. If nothing else, Yurei Attack! proves that it is entirely possible to write a fun cultural study of Japan for a broad audience without relying on meaningless stereotypes.

Isora from Ugetsu Monogatari

Isora from Tales of Moonlight and Rain

Dreamland Japan

Title: Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga
Author: Frederik L. Schodt
Publication Year: 1996
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
Pages: 360

In his write-up of this summer’s Otakon convention, Ed Sizemore briefly mentions a panel held by the Anime and Manga Research Circle, in which Frederik L. Schodt’s classic work on manga was discussed. “I was glad to see Fred Schodt’s Manga, Manga! The World of Japanese Comics mentioned,” Sizemore says. “For a while, it seemed like there was a concerted effort in academia to pretend Schodt’s book didn’t exist even though it’s foundational to the study of manga in America.”

I’ve never been able to get my hands on Manga! Manga!, but I love its updated successor, Dreamland Japan. In fact, I love it so much that I read it for the third time earlier this summer. I think Sizemore’s statement about the “concerted effort in academia to pretend Schodt’s book didn’t exist” perhaps betrays a difference in understanding concerning the academic value of Schodt’s work, and so I would like to offer my own assessment of Dreamland Japan.

Even though Dreamland Japan is full of interesting and useful information, it’s not an academic study. The book reads like journalism; and in fact, as Schodt explains in his introduction, he has drawn much of the material published in this volume from material published earlier in newspapers and magazines. As journalism, the writing in Dreamland Japan is marked by certain features that do not often appear in academic writing, such as personal anecdotes. For example, information about how Schodt once witnessed a certain manga artist enter a porn shop in San Francisco may add color to his description of the artist, but it doesn’t really serve as evidence to support Schodt’s argument that the work of the often overlooked artist contains substantial artistic merit. Some of Schodt’s statements also come off as contradictory over the course of the book, such as when he mentions towards the beginning of the book that most manga artists employ a studio system, yet argues later that a certain artist is unique because she employs a studio system.

Dreamland Japan is written in a very personal style, and the reader ends up learning all sorts of information about the author over the course of the book. Some of this information is completely random. For example, in his blurb about Okano Reiko’s manga Fancy Dance, Schodt reveals that one of his friends from high school has lived in a Zen monastery for almost twenty years. Um, okay. Some of this information is unintentionally hilarious. For example, in his chapter on Osamu Tezuka, Schodt brags that he is one of the only people to have seen Tezuka without his trademark beret – before mentioning a page or two later that Tezuka only takes off his beret in bed. Wow, okay. Some of this information is perhaps a little too much information, such as Schodt’s description of his physical reaction to all of the pretty ladies surrounding him at a major dōjinshi convention at the beginning of his second chapter, or how he feels like he knows the manga artist Uchida Shungicu intimately even though he has never met her. Uhh… okay.

To return to the point, Schodt’s writing is not academic. He’ll describe a certain artist as incredibly influential without giving any examples of who or what the artist influenced, he’ll refer to a certain art style as uniquely Japanese without explaining what such a thing might mean, and he takes the things people say in interviews as absolute fact without any further corroboration. He engages in hero worship. He does not consider alternate arguments or non-obvious interpretations of certain works. He’ll summarize complicated issues or topics in one sentence. There aren’t footnotes or references explaining where he got his data. None of this makes Schodt’s work any less interesting or informative, but it’s not “academic.”

This is not a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean that Schodt’s work isn’t worthwhile reading both for manga fans and for people with a more than casual interest in Japanese popular culture. Not only is Dreamland Japan an invaluable resource, but it’s also an absolute pleasure to read.

The book has an interesting layout. Five short chapters sandwich the bulk of the volume’s two longest chapters, a 54-page catalog of manga periodicals and a 96-page catalog manga artists.

The shorter chapters, which gather together bite-size essays on subjects such as “Modern Manga at the End of the Millennium” and “Manga in the English-Speaking World,” serve as informative editorials and snapshots of manga fandom as it existed in the early nineties. In his opening and closing chapters, Schodt covers topics such as censorship and self-regulation in the manga industry, the amateur comics scene in Japan, how manga can be used as propaganda, the panel layout and cinematism of manga, and the first generation of anime and manga fan conventions in the United States. Reading these shorter chapters is like listening to someone who is deeply knowledgeable give an informal lecture on a topic very near to his heart. Not only is Schodt remarkably well read and well informed about the manga industry and fandom on both sides of the Pacific at the time he was writing, but his opinions have also aged well. Schodt’s tone is urbane and polished; and, as I mentioned earlier, his essays are given flavor and texture by his personal anecdotes, many of which are quite fascinating. You have to respect a man who sought out the official store of Aum Shinrikyō after the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in order to investigate the manga the organization was creating to educate potential members, after all.

The essays contained in Schodt’s shorter chapters are fun and informative, and they don’t feel dated in the slightest. What about the two longer chapters, then?

As Schodt states in his introduction, “fans of manga should not expect to see many of their favorite works here. There are no extended commentaries on Ranma 1/2, Akira, or Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon.” Indeed, most of the manga creators Schodt profiles in his “Artists and Their Work” chapter would probably be unknown to Japanese manga fans. These artists create what might be called “independent comics” or “small press comics” in the West, and they are just as fascinating as they are obscure. There is at least one high definition example of each artist’s work accompanying his or her profile, with translations provided by Schodt. Even if it’s nigh impossible to get one’s hands on the work of these specific artists outside of Japan, Schodt’s discussions of them deal with broader topics, such as the more specialized genres of manga in Japan (like manga about Japanese law and business strategy).

The “Manga Magazine Scene” chapter, which provides information about ten specific manga periodicals and two subgenres of manga periodicals, was probably the most interesting to me, as Schodt’s treatment of each topic functions as a small case study of how the manga industry finds and grooms talent, targets a specific demographic, and then sends its content out into the world in the form of different types of media. Many of the manga magazines Schodt covers, such as Weekly Shōnen Jump, Nakayoshi, and Morning, are still industry leaders; so, even if the circulation data given for each publication is no longer current, the demographic and historical information is still pertinent to someone interested in contemporary manga.

In conclusion, while Dreamland Japan feels a bit dated and obscure at times, and while it’s not exactly a scholarly study, it’s a useful resource to anyone interested in manga in any capacity, and it doubles as entertaining reading material for anyone interested in popular culture in general.

Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals

Title: Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals
Japanese Title: 動物化するポストモダン:オタクから見た日本社会
(Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai)
Author: Azuma Hiroki (東 浩紀)
Translators: Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono
Publication Year: 2009 (America); 2001 (Japan)
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Pages: 200

Even though I have read Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals twice in translation (as well as once in the original Japanese) over the past two years, I will readily admit that I’ve had a difficult time trying to understand what its author is trying to say. It turns out that the key to my understanding of Otaku was Marc Steinburg’s translation of an essay called “World and Variation: The Reproduction and Consumption of Narrative” by a Japanese pop culture ethnographer named Ōtsuka Eiji. Reading this essay was something of an extended eureka moment for me, as Azuma has clearly created his model of narrative consumption as a response to Ōtsuka’s own model.

Ōtsuka’s “World and Variation,” originally published in 1989, is ostensibly about Bikkuriman Chocolates, or, more specifically, about the trading cards packaged with the chocolates. It was because of the trading cards that the chocolates were such a phenomenal hit with children around the time that Ōtsuka was writing, even though the character “Bikkuriman” had no television or manga tie-in products. The secret to Bikkuriman’s success was that, on the back of each trading card, there was a short paragraph of information about the character depicted on the front. If a child collected enough cards, he would gradually be able to piece together a larger story and gain a broader perspective on the Bikkuriman universe.

Out of many small narratives, then, children were able to create a grand narrative. The point of Ōtsuka’s discussion of Bikkuriman Chocolates is that “child consumers were attracted by this grand narrative, and tried to gain further access to it through the continued purchase of chocolates.” In other words, “what is consumed first and foremost, and that which first gives these individual commodities their very value, is the grand narrative or order that they hold in partial form and as their background.” The kids who bought the Bikkuriman Chocolates didn’t care about so much about each individual card as they did about the larger story, the mythology, and the worldview – what Ōtsuka calls the “grand narrative.” Ōtsuka argues that the consumption of anime functions in much the same way. Each episode in the anime series Mobile Suit Gundam, for example, is a small narrative. The story of each individual protagonist (such as Char or Amuro) that plays out across the episodes is a small narrative as well. The diagrams and mechanical specs included in many of the toy models of the robots may also be considered small narratives. As these small narratives are accumulated, however, they begin to form the contours of an entire world. Ōtsuka argues that it is this grand narrative that makes long-running series such as Gundam (and, I would add, series such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter) so popular – and marketable.

According to Ōtsuka’s model of narrative consumption, then, small narratives, while pleasing in and of themselves, also form pieces of a larger narrative. Ōtsuka argues that, while “the general viewing audience” will only follow one strand of small narratives, what characterizes otaku is their interest in the grand narrative. Otaku are characterized by their interest in gathering bits of information “hidden in the background,” putting these bits of information together, and creating their own small narratives based on their understanding of the grand narrative. Such a model of narrative consumption goes a long way towards explaining fan-made narrative products such as fan fiction and dōjinshi, since “if, at the end of the accumulated consumption of small narratives, consumers get their hands on the grand narrative […] they will then be able to freely produce their own small narratives with their own hands.” Therefore, otaku are otaku because they are invested in narrative consumption and reproduction at the level of the grand narrative.

In Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Azuma Hiroki proposes a different model of narrative consumption. The Japanese title of Azuma’s cultural study, Dōbutsuka suru posutomodan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai, is revealing. The first word of this title refers to the concept of “animalization” proposed by Alexandre Kojève in The Roots of Postmodern Politics. This animalization involves the degradation of humans (independent subjects capable of reasoning, directed action, and compassion) into animals (mindless consumers who act on impulses such as hunger and the drive for greater comfort). It is Azuma’s thesis that otaku and, by extension, the society that has spawned them are becoming increasingly animalized. Azuma describes the narrative and cultural consciousness characteristic of otaku through what he calls the database model of narrative consumption.

This database model stands in direct contrast to the model proposed by Ōtuska (which he refers to as the “tree model” in his monograph Monogatari shōhiron). To give another example of how Ōtsuka’s model interprets otaku narrative consumption, the character Ayanami Rei of Neon Genesis Evangelion, whose individual story is merely a part of the larger story, is adored by otaku because, for them, she represents the tragedy, epic scale, and political allusiveness of the entire television/film series. Ayanami Rei is not just a girl in a battle uniform, then; she is Neon Genesis Evangelion itself. To “consume” her is to emotionally insert oneself into the apocalyptic, man-versus-god atmosphere of the larger narrative.

Azuma tweaks this model for understanding symbols and narrative in his database model. While Ōtsuka argues that the grand narratives of shows like Evangelion are given weight by their relevance to real-world grand narratives (such as nation and history), Azuma believes otaku narratives are almost completely removed from those of the real world. In the opening chapter of Otaku, he states, “In otaku culture ruled by narrative consumption, products have no independent value; they are judged by the quality of the database in the background.” Thus, although an otaku might be familiar with Ayanami Rei’s age and bust size, be able to quote her dialog, and expound on the quality of various plastic models made in her likeness, he is not invested any larger worldview or grand narratives that may be encompassed by Neon Genesis Evangelion. Instead, the otaku mines the series for information to plug into a mental database that also contains information on similar shows. Because of the absence of the emotional pull of grand narratives, the otaku can substitute one element of his database for another. The light blue hair of a young female character such as Hoshino Ruri from Martian Successor Nadesico or Tsukishima Ruriko from Droplet effectively is the light blue hair of Ayanami Rei. For otaku, grand narratives are nothing compared to the “animalistic” appeal of a character’s cute face or slender waist. Tropes can therefore be transferred from one story and character to another, as can an otaku’s emotional investment.

Azuma claims that, “Compared with the 1980s otaku [on whom Ōtsuka bases his model], those of the 1990s generally adhered to the data and facts of the fictional worlds and were altogether unconcerned with a meaning and message that might have been communicated.” The otaku of the 1990s thus only consumed fragments, or small narratives. These fragments, which could comfortably fit within the small square boxes of a database, could then be easily cross-referenced with other fragments. Because of the ease of referencing these fragments, distinctions between an original and its copies (either through officially licensed spin-off works or fan works) disintegrated. According to Azuma, there was no longer any need to refer these fragments back to the grand narratives of either the original work or the real world. An otaku could float unanchored through the database he created through his consumption of undifferentiated narratives. And this, argues Azuma, is how the cultural phenomenon of moe was born. For otaku, stories don’t matter – it’s all about the cute girls.

In the first section of Otaku, Azuma explains his model. In the second section, he provides examples of how it works. During these two sections, Azuma’s writing is clear and easy to understand. The third and final section of the book, however, is a bit of a mess. In this section, Azuma gets really excited about the internet in a manner that now seems somewhat naïve; but, in Azuma’s defense, he was writing more than ten years ago. Despite the dated feel of this last section, however, Azuma’s ideas are accessible and make a great deal of sense, even to a reader with no prior experience in postmodern philosophy.