You too will be otaku!
I just finished watching the first episode of Tetsuko no Tabi “Motor Man” – although my friend Chikako noted that “tetsuko” is usually a girl’s name, but with a different Chinese character. In this case, it’s the characters for “iron” and “child” and becomes a play on words because “tetsu-dou” means “iron road” or railroad and “tabi” means travel. Yes, there’s a reason we’re friends.
Anyways, Tetsuko is a fun and silly story about a freelance mangaka who’s so desperate for a job she takes on a travel assignment without knowing any details. Turns out she’s going to spend the next few weeks traveling up and down the Japanese railroad lines with a train station otaku hellbent on visiting over 5000 stops. It’s wonderfully po-mo because the anime – and the manga on which it is based – is non-fiction: it is the result of the author really going on this trip.
I certainly felt a connection to this show, and not only because I love love love miniature representations of Japanese train stations and other buildings – it appealed to my inner otaku, even if the obsession is not toys, cigars or soccer.
But it also got me thinking about the recent rash of “otaku” anime, manga and movies that have crossed my desk, including Genshiken, I, Otaku, Welcome to the N.H.K., and Densha Otoko. They don’t all treat the subject of otaku the same way. Welcome and Densha, while compassionate, see otaku-ness as an unhealthy, debilitating, and socially unacceptable disease that must be overcome.
Genshiken and Tetsuko, while presenting otaku as odd and eccentric, suggest another option: don’t try to rid otaku of their otaku ways, become otaku yourself! Both shows include an outsider as a main character – a representative of the average Japanese person? – who is at first put off by the otaku and their interests. But over time, they start to understand the love otaku have for their obsessions and even feel a little of it themselves.
However, I don’t think the world becoming otaku is the solution to a lifestyle that in some cases degenerates into hikikomori. Some of these shows may mean Japanese society is starting to accept otaku tendencies, but I think the winners might be otaku themselves, because chances are, they are the audience. The lesson I’d hope they can gain is that the joy you take in your obsession is understandable, even appreciated by others, so you don’t need to hide it or feel ashamed. That confidence could potentially bring some otaku out of their shells.
Or they might just get more obsessive about the things they obsess over. Me? A little from column A, a little from column B.