Date of Birth: 2007
By Elizabeth Harball
During the past half-century, a curious creature known as the otaku has evolved, migrating from the electric whirl of Tokyo’s akihabara district to the corners of american comic book shops, forming a worldwide subculture, becoming the lifeblood of a multibillion-dollar industry and forever changing Japan’s international image. And, since 2007, it has had its own english-language magazine called Otaku USA, available in the United States and Canada.
Before saying more about Otaku USA, we need to pause for an explanation of what an otaku is. The Japanese word “otaku,” translated as “geek” or “nerd,” refers to a person infatuated with manga, Japanese comics, and their animated counterpart, anime.
Manga and anime are known for their distinctive visual style; characters often have massive, gleaming eyes, psychedelic hair colors and, if female, gravity-defying, triple-D breasts. These cartoons aren’t just for kids. Take a ride on the tokyo subway (as I did often when I was living in Japan for a year) and you will see schoolboys and businessmen alike flipping through the pages of their favorite manga magazines. Several manga and anime genres are marketed exclusively to adults, due to their violent or sexual content. Some anime are academy-award-winning creative masterpieces, such as Hayao Miyazaki’s 2001 film Spirited Away. Others have received negative press: one particular episode of Pokémon caused seizures in more than 600 Japanese children.
In Japan, manga are big business. In 2011, Japan’s manga sales totaled 271.71 billion yen— more than three-and-a-half billion dollars. The Japan External Trade Organization reports that twenty percent of the country’s total magazine sales comprises manga. Considering the popularity of manga and anime in Japan, it was inevitable that they would garner a following overseas.
The North american manga fad has undergone a boom and bust not unlike the late 1980s Japanese economy. According to the pop culture trade information website iCv2, manga sales in the United states and Canada went from seventy-five million dollars in 2001 to $210 million in 2007. By 2010, however, sales dropped to $120 million. Still, many loyal american otaku remain. in 2011, a record 47,000 people attended anime expo, a manga and anime convention held annually in Los angeles.
Otaku USA, published bimonthly in the Washington, D.C., suburb of McLean, Va., caters to this audience, covering the latest trends in Japanese manga and anime. With a readership of 192,000, it contains articles, interviews and reviews about anime, manga, gaming and a fascinating phenomenon known as “cosplay,” in which adults assemble and wear costumes to resemble their favorite anime characters. (Don’t judge too quickly; some of these getups are impressive.)
Curiously, otaku has a more negative connotation in Japan than one would expect; Japanese anime and manga fans blanch when associated with the term. This may have something to do with the high-profile case of “the Otaku Murderer,” Tsuto- mu Miyazaki, who was hanged in 2008 after being convicted of the gruesome murders of four young girls. Police found thousands of graphic anime films in Miyazaki’s apartment.
As the title of Otaku USA reflects, American anime lovers are oblivious to the bad rap otaku have received in Japan. They embrace the term otaku, proudly assuming the title while communicating in an almost incomprehensible lexicon. “The closest thing to a saving grace for this show,” reads one Otaku USA review, “is the individual IS designs. They come off as a cross between Busou Shinki and the wildest entries from the sketchbook of Hajime Katoki (mech designer, Gundam W, Virtual On) and are actually kind of slick when in action. Sure they’re cel-shaded but the sequences are a welcome break from the harem antics.” For the non-anime obsessed reader, much of the writing in Otaku USA might as well be in Japanese. for the magazine’s target audience, however, this probably adds to its appeal; by understanding the obscure references, they become part of an exclusive community.
Seen on these terms, Otaku USA delivers a fine product to its readers. It strikes an enthusiastic tone with its generous use of exclamation points and informal language. Within its colorful, glossy pages, fans find thorough reviews of the latest manga and anime. While it avoids the most sexually explicit products, Otaku USA represents a wide array of genres, from shonen anime, targeting schoolboys with action and adventure stories, to yaoi manga, entertaining women who like passionate tales of male homosexual romance (who knew?).
Much of the writing in Otaku USA appeals to its older readers. The articles are long, printed in small type that would frustrate an eleven-year-old boy trying to read about his favorite ninja, Naruto. Younger readers, however, can appreciate the pull-out posters and the traditional newsprint manga section in the magazine’s center—you have to turn the magazine upside-down to read it, as Japanese reads from left to right and it’s too much bother for translators to flip the pictures.
My one concern is that Otaku USA’s american readers may think this subculture defines Japan. Anime and manga have about as much to do with Japanese culture as hollywood movies have to do with american culture. While it’s not Otaku USA’s job to tell readers that, in general, Japanese women are not scantily clad, ultra-cute bimbos, the magazine doesn’t do much to combat this stereotype.
Otherwise, Otaku USA is exactly the magazine it should be for the english-speaking otaku. For the anime and manga aficionado, flipping through its pages stimulates friendly banter with like-minded buddies. Will the latest series of Hunter x Hunter live up to the hype? Don’t you love the voice actor for Squid Girl? Those unfamiliar with the anime and manga phenomenon may find its pages mystifying, but then, otaku fans wouldn’t expect them to understand. Only the initiated are worthy of comprehending Otaku USA.