In The Animalizing Postmodern: Japanese Society Seen From Otaku (Dōbutsu-ka suru posuto modan: Otaku kara mita Nihon shakai; 2001), translated into English as Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (2009), cultural critic Azuma Hiroki develops a philosophical and historical analysis of contemporary media consumption in Japan. This comes in response to the work of manga editor, writer, and critic Ōtsuka Eiji, who proposes a theory of “narrative consumption,” whereby one consumes fragments of narrative in order to gain insight into the underlying order of the work, world, or “grand narrative” (Ōtsuka 1989). His primary example is Bikkuriman stickers, which included brief snippets of information on characters that children consumed to “gain hold of the system of this grand narrative” (Ōtsuka 2010, 106).
In contrast, Azuma proposes a mode of consumption to gain access to the “database” of elements that make up the work. Particularly among fans of manga, anime, and games, as well as novels featuring manga/anime characters, Azuma highlights a practice of breaking works down in terms of elements, which trigger moe, or an affective response. The elements are often aspects of character design, but they can also be patterned voices and stories. In general, rather than narrative, Azuma argues that what is important today is the database of elements, which can be mixed and remixed to create new works and trigger moe.
To explain his theory of database consumption, Azuma (2009, 30–33) proposes a view of the work or world in layers. One can imagine these layers like a computer program: The graphical user interface of a computer program can be imagined as the outer, visible layer; underneath is a collection of code, which can be imagined as the inner, invisible layer that creates the graphical user interface on the screen. In Ōtsuka’s model, the grand narrative is the deep layer regulating the surface layer. In Azuma’s model, the database is the deep layer and the surface layer is where mixes and remixes of elements appear. While in Ōtsuka’s model the grand narrative is the deep layer that acts on the surface, in Azuma’s model the surface layer reveals the different expressions of the underlining database. The regulatory relation is also different, because the database is not created or controlled by any one person, group, or company that orders it. Behind what is consumed is a database of elements, which consumers “read up” from the surface (ibid., 32).
In the 1990s, Azuma argues, manga/anime fans became aware of the database, which changed their mode of consumption. Manga/anime fans became database consumers, focusing not on grand narratives behind works but rather on elements that triggered an affective response. To explain, Azuma (2009, 36–38) uses the example of Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shin seiki Evangerion; 1995–96), a televised anime series about a teenage boy who pilots a giant robot to fight monstrous beings. Manga/anime fans of the 1980s, who Ōtsuka writes about, were narrative consumers interested in the underlying order of the work or world that was hinted at in fragments. Certainly, there were consumers who responded similarly to Evangelion, which is notoriously oblique and rich in lore. However, especially among younger fans of the series, there was a growing focus on characters and their designs—even elements of design. This was not altogether unexpected, because there were numerous media and merchandise releases featuring the characters before the series had even ended (ibid., 37). Both official and fan-produced works focusing on the characters, which were often far removed from the original series, where consumed. Important here is not the fact that these works were always and necessarily distant from the grand narrative of Evangelion but rather that they featured elements intended to trigger moe. In this way, fans consumed a database of elements rather than a hyperdiegesis (ibid., 37–38). There is no need for a grand narrative in this database consumption, or in the consumption of the database of affective elements. The database is, in many ways, a “grand non-narrative” (ibid., 38).
In his discussion of database consumption, Azuma draws attention to character designs. Manga/anime fans read up characters, break them down into elements and categorize and register these elements in the database. Database consumers are attracted to characters as a combination of elements that trigger an affective response. These elements are not limited to visuals, as Azuma shows in the example of Ayanami Rei from Evangelion, who consists of elements such as “quiet personality, blue hair, white skin, mysterious power” (2009, 52). Established in Evangelion, these elements of Ayanami appear in numerous manga/anime works—professional and fan-produced, which increasingly converge—after the fact (ibid., 49–52). Database consumers can also experience moe in response to elements of a story, for example the tragedy of a doomed romance or the tricks used to solve a mystery in a detective novel. What is crucial to remember here is that all of these elements provide access to the database, which in Azuma’s theory is primary to the mode of consumption.
The subject of one of Azuma’s most memorable discussions of database consumption is Dejiko from the Di Gi Charat (De ji kyaratto; 1998–) franchise. Created as part of an advertisement campaign for a store in Akihabara, Dejiko is in many ways exemplary of database consumption (ibid., 39–43). To begin, the character design—which appears almost slapdash, but proved extremely popular among manga/anime fans—is an accumulation of elements that were attractive in the late 1990s: hair sticking up like an antenna, bells, cat ears, green hair, mittens, a tail, loose socks, and a maid uniform. These elements, seemingly unrelated to one another, are brought together in one image (ibid., 42–43). Importantly, for Azuma, all these elements provide access to the database, and they existed in other manga/anime works before Di Gi Charat—for example, the maid outfit appeared in the Cream Lemon franchise in the 1980s and hair sticking up like an antenna was popularized by Scar (Kizuato; 1996). Finally, and most crucially, Dejiko was originally not attached to any narrative; the character existed as an image, a collection of affective elements, but was not attached to any particular manga, anime, or novel/game series and so was associated with no grand narrative. In contrast to Ayanami Rei, who exists in a narrative and was taken out as a character and broken into elements, Dejiko was first elements and then a character, and only after triggering affective responses in manga/anime fans did she appear in narratives. This reversal of order, Azuma argues, reveals the mode of database consumption, which does not depend on a narrative, let alone a grand narrative.
Not without critics (for example, Lamarre 2009; Condry 2013), Azuma’s theory raises a number of questions, not least of which concerns the existence of a database. Put simply, Azuma (2009, 33) needs to argue a preexisting database, otherwise it would not be possible for mana/anime fans to understand and respond to the same elements. This seems to reify the database as something that exists “out there” (Martin 2002, 31; Wenger 1998, 58). While Azuma can point to fan websites, such as Tinami, that organize elements into databases (2009, 44–47), there is in fact no database “out there.” There are also problems of how such a database came to exist, what is included in it, and how and why the content changes. To address these questions, we need to approach the database as a social construction. Individuals read up on manga/anime works, break them down into elements, and update their own mental model of the database. This is social to the extent that the elements must be communicated and socially negotiated for meaning to emerge. As I have argued elsewhere, “A database can only be supra-individual when elements and the database to which they belong are negotiated in a society from which a meaningful pattern evolves. Only then can a structure appear” (Perdijk 2011, 44). What is missing from Azuma’s account is social interaction.
Anthropologist Ian Condry also seeks to put the database into a social context, arguing that the shared affective response to Dejiko gave her meaning in a particular time and place (2013, 200). Those outside of the context of manga/anime consumption in Japan in the late 1990s would likely not understand the character design or its capacity to produce affect. As Condry sees it, analyzing moe as a purely internalized response leads to a theoretical dead end, and the way out is to return the response to its social context: “Moe is not just a feeling: it is also a way to talk about one’s feelings and, without having to give much explanation, share the glow of affection with others who might have similar feelings” (ibid.). Condry discusses affection for manga/anime characters—and the same can be said for elements—not as something individually experienced, but rather something that is collectively practiced with a shared language. Similarly, discussing taste, sociologist Silvia Gherardi (2009) notes that relations to the collective are key to matters of taste. We learn to use the body as a primary source of interaction with the world, use language as a means to interpret sensible knowledge, and use the body as a tool in accordance with collective norms and to refine taste in our epistemic community (Gherardi 2009). If scholars accept that the database is socially constructed, then studying social interactions between manga/anime fans seems the most appropriate way to explore the meaning-making processes of database consumption.
A useful perspective here is the concept of social learning. This perspective takes into account the processes of participation and interaction (Elkjaer 2003). Anthropologists Scott Cook and Dvora Yanow define social learning as “the acquiring, sustaining, or changing of intersubjective meaning through the artifactual vehicles of their expression and transmission and the collective actions of the group” (1993, 384). The sustaining and changing of the database can thus be understood through the collective actions and artifacts of the group that produces the meaning. Manga/anime images that trigger moe are widely available in Japan, and fans can consume huge amounts of it with relative ease. By consuming many works, in interaction with others, manga/anime fans work out what elements trigger moe. Some consumers go further and start creating their own images. They become producers of manga/anime images that trigger moe in themselves and others.
An ideal example of this comes in the form of dōjinshi, which are printed works created and circulated outside of official publication and distribution channels. They are most often thin books of manga/anime-style drawings by fans, who take established characters from commercially published and broadcast works and place them in different stories, settings, relationships, and interactions, but they can also be original characters. For the purposes of this entry, dōjinshi are significant as an example of the social learning involved in database consumption. That is, dōjinshi allow us to see how manga/anime fans socially learn moe elements that trigger an affective response and produce works featuring them. A combination of elements from the database is put into an artifact—in this case dōjinshi—which is read by other manga/anime fans. The right combination of elements can trigger moe, and manga/anime fans learn this through experience and trial and error. Manga/anime fans share their knowledge of the database by creating dōjinshi and distributing them in markets, where peers judge them.
This dynamic of social learning is on display at Mimiketto 22. Held in Tokyo’s Ota Ward in April 2010, Mimiketto 22 is a dōjinshi market catering to database consumers of the specific element of “ears” (mimi). It is an example of what is called an “only event,” or an event that focuses on only one thing—character, series, creator, magazine, genre, style or, in this case, element. The catalogue for Mimiketto 22 indicates the focus on ears, which in manga/anime fandom typically—if not immediately—means animal ears. The cover features a blonde girl in a shrine maiden outfit with fox ears. Around this character are three other smaller characters with rabbit, cat, and fox ears. Vendors at Mimiketto 22 sell dōjinshi featuring manga/anime-style characters with “ears.” Short stories, books of illustrations, picture books, novels, posters, and more are for sale; there are original works, as well as derivative works featuring characters from existing works, such as the Touhou Project and the Monogatari franchise. As long as it features ears, any and all work is welcome.
Mimiketto 22 catalogue cover from 2010. Source: Courtesy of Mimiketto Junbikai.
From the perspective of database consumption, one can observe that, rather than a narrative (grand or otherwise), what is being consumed is an element. Each work features ears and provides access to the database. The point of the event is to create works featuring ears, which consumers respond to as moe. Mimiketto 22 serves manga/anime fans, who are database consumers of the element “ears,” with works by artists who want to share their creations featuring ears. Put somewhat differently, Mimiketto 22 serves an epistemic community with a specific taste for ears, which participants provide, consume, and refine.
The Mimiketto 22 catalogue is a treasure trove for anthropologists. Besides giving formal information on the event, its main purpose is to introduce the different “circles,” or creators, selling dōjinshi and indicate where to find them. Almost all circles are introduced with small drawings, which give a sense of their styles. As a book of these small drawings, the Mimiketto 22 catalogue shows not only what is available at the event but also various interpretations of the primary element of “ears” in relation to other elements. Each circle provides a small drawing, which conveys what the creator(s) respond to as moe. This is, of course, personal, but the image does not remain within the consumer responding. It is shared, and in that sharing artists are conveying what they consider to be the right combination of elements—drawn from the database—to trigger moe. Those who purchase the dōjinshi support it, and those who ignore it do not. Mimiketto 22 is a shared space where the element of ears is discussed via the different interpretations of the attending circles.
The catalogue features a wide range of interpretations of ears from the common manga/anime character design of “a girl with cat ears” (nekomimi musume) to full animals and everything in between. Some appear like animals with human characteristics, and others like humans with animal characteristics, but all have “ears.” While the primary element is “ears”—feline and canine, but also bovine and more—all kinds of other elements are introduced to produce an image that triggers moe. Given that she has cat ears, one of the characters discussed by Azuma, Dejiko, could be included at Mimiketto 22, and, like Dejiko, other elements are included in the character design: bells, ribbons, maid outfits (Azuma 2009, 43). Some add other animal parts, such as tails and paws, while others add elements such as uniforms and glasses. Some images play with setting and animal traits, for example the faithful dog or cunning fox. Stories of various lengths expand on characters, settings, and interactions. At Mimiketto 22, manga/anime fans buy dōjinshi, which introduces them to different interpretations of ears and perhaps trigger moe. In this way, circles and consumers both draw on the database and learn, through social interaction, what works.
While narratives do exist at Mimiketto 22, be it in the established manga/anime works that characters are drawn from or stories told about original characters, one is not consuming dōjinshi to gain access to the grand narrative or underlying order but rather to trigger an affective response to “ears,” which is an element from the database. Mimiketto 22 sustains and reproduces “ears” as an affective element by providing a space for an epistemic community that expresses this idea. Through the practice of using dōjinshi in that space as an artifactual vehicle for intersubjective meaning, participants convey the idea that “ears” are moe. In circles—consumers and staff at the event—one finds a community of practice around database consumption; different actors play different roles, but all contribute to the (re)production of the database. As Azuma (2009, 32) states, the surface reveals the different expressions of the underlining database. Combining elements, circles draw on and contribute to the database. On the one hand, recreating well-known elements sustains the intersubjective meaning of the database. On the other hand, combining these with lesser-known or even unknown elements changes the intersubjective meaning of the database.
For the database to exist, social interaction must (re)produce it. This is an ongoing social practice where fans acquire, sustain, add, modify, rearrange, and expand the elements of the database that trigger moe by creating artifacts that convey meaning. The catalogue of Mimiketto 22 is a testimony to the different interpretations of a single element, ears, which is part of the database (Azuma 2009, 43). While at times it may seem like genius artists are the ones creating the database—for example, the designers of Ayanami Rei from Neon Genesis Evangelion, which impacted subsequent manga/anime works (ibid., 49–52)—Mimiketto 22 suggests that consumers also participate in the (re)production of elements. Dōjinshi that do not find support in the market disappear, which is the same for manga/anime more generally. The collectiveness serves as an epistemic community where taste is debated and contested. At Mimiketto 22, creators sell dōjinshi that feature the element of ears, which they interpret and combine with other elements, working and reworking it. This demonstrates the ongoing social practice that (re)produces the database.
While this entry has focused on Mimiketto 22 and dōjinshi, the concept of database consumption suggests that all works rely on social practices involving the acquiring, sustaining, and changing of intersubjective meaning to establish a shared sense of the database. Innovative works are produced, creators are supported, and new ideas find their way to the market, which changes the database. Owing to its vibrant institutions and infrastructure of manga/anime fan activity, in Japan, dōjinshi circles can share their interpretations of the database to an unprecedented extent. In this unique ecosystem, which includes numerous dōjinshi events such as Mimiketto 22, manga/anime fans seek out works that trigger moe and engage in database consumption and (re)production.
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