During the second half of the twentieth century in Japan, manga and anime developed into mass media ubiquitous enough to be compared to “air” (Gravett 2004, 17). The sheer amount of print and broadcast media consumed in the country is staggering (Japan Book Publishing Association 2014, 7–8; Yoshimi 2014, 126–27), and by the 1990s, some forty percent of all publications were manga and around ninety anime series aired a week (Schodt 1996, 19; Condry 2013, 86, 106). It is arguably because of the influence of manga and anime that Japan has become “the Empire of Characters” (Steinberg 2012, 41). As critic and novelist Honda Tōru sees it, “Now in Japan, manga and anime are a part of growing up for kids of all backgrounds. You get used to seeing cute characters everywhere [. . .] Nowhere are there cuter characters in greater numbers than in Japan” (quoted in Galbraith 2014, 123–24). In such an environment, it is not uncommon to become attached to, and affectionate toward, characters. Indeed, some manga/anime fans have developed what psychiatrist Saitō Tamaki calls “an orientation of desire” toward “fiction itself” (2011, 16, 30). This is not a matter of confusing fiction and reality but rather of responding to the reality of manga and anime.
Owing to regular and ongoing exposure to and interaction with manga/anime characters and worlds, fans have developed literacy in, and a language of, desire for fiction. Highlighting an aesthetic of flatness (Murakami 2000), fans speak of “the two-dimensional” (nijigen), which is associated with manga and anime and opposed to “the three-dimensional” (sanjigen), or the world of humans. This distinction appears as early as 1983, when critics charged that some manga/anime fans were taking fictional characters as real objects of desire (Galbraith 2015, 26–30). From this point on, there is a common thread in discussions of the perceived excesses of manga/anime fans and their “two-dimensional complex” (nijigen konpurekkusu), “two-dimensional fetish” (nijikon fechi), or “two-dimensional syndrome” (nijikon shōkōgun) (Tsuchimoto 1989, 102; Schodt 1996, 48; Yamanaka 2010, 17). In one of the first articles on the subject published in an academic journal, Akagi Akira, a manga editor and critic, draws attention to “people who seek two-dimensional images (manga, anime) rather than realistic things” (1993, 230). Legal scholar Aleardo Zanghellini concurs that, “In deliberately rejecting three-dimensionality [. . .] [manga and anime] signifies a break from reality” (2009, 173). Indeed, it has been observed that manga/anime fans at times seem to “militate against any realistic interpretations” (McLelland 2005, 69), which is to say, against appeals to a reality beyond that of manga and anime. In celebratory accounts, shared two-dimensional orientation allows for the emergence of alternatives to the “real world” (Ishii 1989, 3; see also Condry 2013). For better or worse, the manga/anime fan with his fictional girlfriend has become a stock image in writing on Japan (Katayama 2009; Lah 2009; Rani 2013).
While maintaining that it is separate and distinct from the three-dimensional, a notable phenomenon in contemporary manga/anime fandom is seeking reality in the two-dimensional and the two-dimensional in reality. Even as some fans say they would “rather live in a two-dimensional world” (Condry 2013, 186, 193–94), manga/anime creators increasingly use actual places as settings, which means that worlds overlap. Responding to this, fans make “pilgrimages” (sei’chi junrei) to places associated with manga/anime, which allows them to imaginatively share space with characters. Attracted to “fictional contexts” (kyokō no kontekusuto) (Saitō 2011, 16), manga/anime fans work through layers of fiction in reality and reality in fiction. A highway bridge might just be a bridge, but once a character is imagined to have stood there, with that fictional context layered on, one sees and interacts with the bridge differently. Fan pilgrimages are by no means unique to Japan (Hills 2002, 110–21), but what is significant here is the concept of the two-dimensional and its impact on how fans see and interact with the world.
A striking example of this comes in the form of “maid cafés” (meido kissa), where customers order food and drink from costumed waitresses who interact with them in stylized ways (for a general introduction, see Galbraith 2013). What distinguishes maid cafés from other forms of themed or entertainment dining in contemporary Japan is the presence of maids who are “characters” (kyarakutā); most obviously, this means the characters waitresses play in maid cafés. In order to ensure privacy and safety, waitresses do not reveal personal information when working. Instead, they take on maid names and details about their characters, which they do not break from when interacting with customers. No one thinks the names and details are true, but they nevertheless enjoy interactions with waitresses, which reflects an appreciation of fictional characters generally and maids specifically. In books introducing maid cafés, one sees images of fictional characters beside images of costumed waitresses, even as one shifts between maids in cafés and maids in manga/anime.
Such introductions focus on the character of the “meido,” a phonetic sounding out of the English word for maid. Just as this character is distinct from the reality of paid housekeeping and child rearing, the borrowed English word is distinct from Japanese terms such as kaseifu, jochū, or jochū bōkō, which capture those aspects of what a maid really does. Instead, the meido is associated with manga, anime, and games and novels featuring manga/anime-style characters. In Japan today, there are numerous manga/anime franchises featuring maid characters, which have become a trope (Azuma 2009, 42–47). Characters such as Multi from To Heart (Tu hāto; 1997–) and Mahoro from Mahoromatic (Mahoromatikku; 1998–2004) were some of the most popular among manga/anime fans in the late 1990s and early 2000s (Honda 2005a, 140–41, 147–49; 2005b, 289, 307–11; Azuma 2009, 75–77), even though both are also robots, which highlights the maid as a fictional construct. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, one of the most recognizable manga/anime characters was Dejiko, who is distinguished by her maid costume and cat ears (Azuma 2009, 39–43). A mashup of elements that appealed to manga/anime fans in Japan at the time, the design of Dejiko makes little sense outside the context of its production and consumption, and this is also true of the maid character.
Dejiko first appeared as the mascot of Gamers, a store headquartered in the Akihabara neighborhood of Tokyo, which suggests the deeper history of the maid character. Cultural critic Azuma Hiroki suggests that the first appearance of the maid in manga/anime was Black Cat Mansion (Kuronekokan; 1986), part of the pornographic Cream Lemon series popular in Japan in the 1980s (Azuma 2009, 42), but it was adult computer games such as Forbidden Blood Relatives (Kindan no ketsuzoku; 1993, 1996, 1999), Bird in the Cage (Kara no naka no kotori; 1996), and Song of the Chick (Hinadori no saezuri; 1997) that established the character in the 1990s. In Japan, adult computer games feature manga/anime-style characters, which players engage in interactions ranging from casual conversation to explicit sex. Given the dense concentration of stores selling adult computer games in Akihabara, one could easily find images of manga/anime maids there (Morikawa 2003, 1–2, 4–5, 95).
The direct inspiration for maid cafés comes from an adult computer game called Welcome to Pia Carrot!! 2 (Pia kyarotto e yōkoso 2; 1997). In this game, the player negotiates relationships with costumed waitresses—not identified as “maids,” although the costumes worn by characters resemble those seen in maid cafés today, and indeed, many of the highly stylized costumes in maid cafés do not resemble actual or even European fantasy images of maids—in hopes of finding love. In August 1998, a temporary café with costumed waitresses appeared at an event called Tokyo Character Collection as a promotion for Welcome to Pia Carrot!! 2. Young women were paid to wear costumes from the game and serve customers. In July 1999, Gamers in Akihabara began hosting a Pia Carrot Restaurant, which continued sporadically until 2000. A destination to buy adult computer games, Gamers was attempting to translate the two-dimensional into the three-dimensional, or to create a space where players could interact with characters from the two-dimensional world of the game in the three-dimensional world of the café. Along these same lines, the founder of Cure Maid Café—the first permanent maid café in Japan, which opened in Akihabara in 2001—was a fan of the adult computer games Bird in the Cage and Song of the Chick and took from them the Victorian-style maid costumes and mansion setting of his establishment.
Historically, maid cafés emerged out of a desire to interact with the fictional characters appearing in manga, anime, and games. Put somewhat differently, the characters that one encounters in maid cafés refer back to manga/anime worlds, not the “real” world. An example of this is the “little sister” (imōto), a character type that appears so commonly in manga, anime, and games as to become a trope. Associated with intimacy and devotion, the little sister character does not reflect, and is not meant to reflect, the “reality” of siblings, which Saitō explains and relates to maid cafés:
There is a truism in otaku culture that those who feel moe for little sister characters in manga and anime don’t have little sisters. If these men actually had sisters, then the reality of that would ruin the fantasy. If the object exists in reality, then it is not moe. So, you can feel moe for maid characters in manga and anime, but that has nothing to do with actual women who are paid to work as housekeepers. These men don’t have maids, and if they did, the fantasy would be ruined. You see, the maid character in manga and anime is nothing at all like a real maid, so therefore desire for her is asymmetrical. (Saitō quoted in Galbraith 2014, 180)
Many of the characters that appear in manga and anime, from the seemingly obvious “robot maid” and “cat girl” to the more difficult to grasp “little sister” and “maid,” do not exist, or do not exist in the same way, in the “real” world, which is why desire for them is “asymmetrical.” If manga and anime have their own reality, a “manga/anime-like realism” (manga/anime-teki riarizumu) (Ōtsuka 2003, 24) that is distinct from “naturalism-like realism,” then this reality refers to the two-dimensional as distinct from the three-dimensional.
If it is possible for a popular Japanese game designer to suggest that, “A maid is a mythical being that all of us have heard about, but have never seen,” then maid cafés make embodied interactions with such a being possible. Maid café aficionados stress the importance of these interactions, for example Hayakawa Kiyoshi, who writes: “The true charm of maid cafés is enjoying interactions with maids, which essentially exist only as ‘moe characters’ in manga, anime, and games, in a real space. In the maid café, an ambiguous space between reality and fiction, one can role-play the relationship between ‘master and maid.’ Many otaku greeted the arrival of this role-play with shock and wildly enthusiastic joy” (Hayakawa et al. 2008, 26). Note the insistence on the maid as a fictional character. Manga/anime fan and researcher Higashimura Hikaru clarifies that to respond to a maid as “moe” is to respond to the character, not the person in the costume (quoted in Galbraith 2014, 140). If, as Hayakawa suggests, these interactions are part of a relationship, then moe guru Honda Tōru agrees that, “This is not a relationship between three-dimensional men and women, but a relationship between a maid and master” (quoted in Inforest Mook 2005, 93), which is to say between characters.
In insisting on interactions and relationships with characters (= two-dimensional), Honda explicitly rejects anything more “real” between men and women (= three-dimensional). A maid café regular in the early 2000s, and something of an evangelist by the mid-2000s, Honda is hardly as radical in his thinking as he may sound. Especially considering how hitomi (character name Romanized with a lowercase “h”), one of the most popular maids in Akihabara in the mid-2000s, says, “Our masters don’t look at us as [girl]friends, but rather as maids. And we don’t look at them as men, either. They are always masters in our eyes” (quoted in Galbraith 2009, 134). The interlocking expectations of regulars such as Honda and maids such as hitomi—expectations of an orientation toward the two-dimensional in the three-dimensional, the fictional character in the woman—make what happens in cafés something other than interactions and a relationship between men and women.
Allowing customers to interact with maids, which is to say three-dimensional people to interact with two-dimensional characters, maid cafés are a unique space. By Hayakawa’s estimation, maid cafés are “an ambiguous space between reality and fiction” (2008, 26). Expanding on this, Honda explains why he is attracted to maid cafés:
In a maid café, there are maids (waitresses costumed as maids), but the maid café space is not three-dimensional (a space generally called “reality”). It is also not two-dimensional. It’s a special space that should be called “2.5-dimensional.” Let’s call it a world positioned on the threshold of the two-dimensional and three-dimensional. The delicate atmosphere of the 2.5-dimensional is the source of many ideas. A vague 2.5-dimensional space such as a maid café is where the two-dimensional concepts and delusions hidden in my mind can easily be brought into the three-dimensional world. It is not the case that I frequently visit maid cafés simply because I want to see maid costumes. (Honda 2005a, 18–19)
The “delusions” (mōsō) of which Honda speaks are those of manga, anime, and games. In a maid café, a “2.5-dimensional space” (nitengo jigen kūkan), two-dimensional characters are brought into the three-dimensional; or, as Honda puts it elsewhere, “The delusions of otaku are realized” (quoted in Inforest 2005, 93). In the café, “a three-dimensional human puts on a two-dimensional character costume and becomes a character type that only exists in the two-dimensional such as ‘the maid’” (Honda 2005a, 174). Positioned between the two- and three-dimensional in the café, the maid might be called a “2.5-dimensional being.”
The “shock and wildly enthusiastic joy” (Hayakawa et al. 2008, 26) of the maid café comes from embodied interactions with characters, which trigger affective responses. To return to the example of the little sister, a maid café in Akihabara specializes in interactions with this character type. In addition, many of the waitresses also play a character type called tsundere (icy-hot). Widely recognized in manga, anime, and games, tsundere indicates a character that is typically cold, distant, or aloof, but at certain moments reveals her soft, sweet, and caring side. There is often an added expectation of deep affection hidden behind the mean exterior. At the café, the little sister character is suggested by the waitresses speaking in plain or casual Japanese, which is reserved for members of one’s in-group (and is not widely used in the service industry in Japan), as well as the rule that all male customers are called “big brother” (onī-chan). Tsundere is suggested by the waitresses bossing, belittling, and berating the customers, up to the point of literally calling them “gross” (kimoi), only to be flustered and upset to see them go because they just wanted to spend some time with them. For anyone unfamiliar with manga/anime, being called big brother and gross by someone you only just met might be confusing, if not offensive, but regulars seeking tsundere sister characters in manga, anime, and games come to this café to experience embodied interactions with them.
Maids are not only aware of character types from manga, anime, and games but in fact rely on them when producing and performing characters. Mei, for example, is an only child with a generally laid-back attitude, but she plays a tsundere sister when working at the café. When asked about her inspirations, Mei answers that she is a fan of manga/anime, where she picked up her “basic knowledge.” This knowledge is shared by regulars, who seek tsundere in the café and read it in the looks and miens of costumed waitresses. A manga/anime fan that responds affectively to the fictional character type of tsundere sees it in Mei, whose physical body is a medium to express the character. If a maid café succeeds by approaching manga/anime—for example, regulars at one subculture hotspot in Akihabara praise it by saying, “This is not a maid café. It’s a work of three-dimensional animation”—then a regular might praise Mei by saying, “She is not a costumed waitress. She is a three-dimensional tsundere character.” If calling a performance “cartoony” used to imply criticism, then one can see here a shift in value toward animation (Silvio 2010, 430).
Even as maid cafés have become tourist destinations appealing to casual visitors, the concept of the 2.5-dimensional has moved beyond the borders of Akihabara. Indeed, with the mainstreaming of manga/anime fandom in Japan and its global spread, concepts once associated with “otaku” excesses and perversions have gained cultural currency. For example, responding to the growth of stage productions based on manga/anime properties, businessman Matsuda Makoto founded the Japan 2.5-Dimensional Musical Association and opened the AiiA 2.5 Theater Tokyo in 2015. Located in the trendy Shibuya neighborhood and drawing fans from around the world, who can choose between four languages and watch actors and actresses embody their favorite characters, Matsuda’s enterprise suggests the growing appeal of the two-dimensional today.
By Honda’s estimate, in contemporary Japan, it is as likely that one’s first love will be a manga/anime character as it will be a musician or actor or a classmate at school: “People don’t imagine a relationship with an anime character because they couldn’t find a girlfriend, but rather they fell in love with a character in the first place. Any relationship with a human woman after that is compensatory. We have grown up in a media environment where it is possible to fall in love with manga and anime characters. Some people never stop feeling love for them” (quoted in Galbraith 2014, 125). ↑
Other ways of describing this supposed manga/anime pathology include “Lolita complex” (rorikon), “cute girl syndrome” (bishōjoshōkōgun), and simply “sickness” (byōki in katakana). ↑
This information comes from a personal conversation (August 14, 2010) with Nakamura Jin, who knows the founder of Cure Maid Café. ↑
As communications scholar Forrest Greenwood puts it, contemporary manga/anime culture explores “ever more inventive ways of moving characters out from the diegetic world behind the screen and into the world of sense perception inhabited by the player/viewer” (2014, 243). ↑
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