By Justin Graham / December 5th, 2012
The animation studio Gainax is no stranger to oddity. Whether it’s the nature of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s ending(s) or whole series like FLCL and Panty & Stocking with Garterbelt, their productions tend to carve out their own niche with the way that they stand out. But back in 1991, years before the first episode of Evangelion had even begun production, they put together quite possibly their most disarming, esoteric anime of all; Otaku no Video.
A two-episode OVA series, Otaku no Video is a twisted ribbing of the Japanese otaku culture divided into two segments. The first is an animated narrative following the trials and tribulations of Ken Kubo, who is introduced as a college freshman back in 1982 as responsible, fit, and dedicated to the tennis club. He also has a girlfriend that cares about him and an all around “normal” life. But after some chance encounters with his old high school friend, the anime otaku Tanaka, Kubo allows himself to be pulled into Tanaka’s club, where he becomes immersed in all things otaku, from the minute details of cosplay to analyzing the finest aspects of the VF-1 Valkyrie’s transformation in Macross. He spends more time at Comiket and in midnight lines for movies like Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind than he does tending to what were once his daily life activities.
Over the course of college, Kubo quits tennis and his girlfriend dumps him, but as he graduates and prepares to enter the workforce, he decides that enough is enough. Unable to fathom why otaku can’t be regarded as part of normal society, he resolves to become the king of otaku, the Otaking! And with the help of the club, he embarks on a quest that becomes part parody of Gainax’s early years and part science-fiction/fantasy. He builds up a business empire selling “garage kit” figure models, only to have it stolen out from under him by the unlikeliest of perpetrators. When his life has seemingly bottomed out, he perseveres and starts fresh; with the help of his remaining allies and some low-tech ingenuity, Kubo creates an anime of his own that lands him back on top. And beyond.
Interspersed between chapters of Kubo’s life and his undying quest are live-action segments entitled “Portrait of an Otaku.” These “portraits” are brief mockumentary-style interviews with otaku across the various spectra, and range from an otherwise seemingly well-adjusted computer programmer struggling to hide his cosplay fascination from the documentary team (before finally caving and donning his Char Aznable helmet, conveniently stored in his desk) to a social outcast that can’t fathom interacting with any woman that isn’t in one of the H-games he plays obsessively (and creepily).
To heighten the feel of these interviews, each of the subjects has their faces disguised, either by sunglasses, camera angle, or digital mosaic. Their voices are altered, and each is referred to by pseudonym. Each segment is also capped by the appearance of a chart or graph that displays some outlandish statistic to further demonstrate just where the priorities of the average otaku fall in a comically skewed manner. The absurdity of the subjects escalates as time goes on, until the final live-action sequence features the documentary team actively stalking an otaku on the street in their van before chasing him down on foot and engaging in a physical struggle in order to learn what sorts of purchases were in his shopping bag.
Back when I was in college as a member (and officer) of the campus’s anime club, we had a saying about Otaku no Video. “You’ll laugh because it isn’t you. You’ll cry because it is.” And it is true, to an extent. The characters present in the anime and in the live action sequences are exaggerations, with the live-action portions in particular focusing on the most socially inept caricatures associated with the subculture. But there’s at least a grain of truth in every last one of them, whether it be a man recalling his days in the campus SF club being the greatest of his life (before he dropped out) or the obsessive-compulsive collector with shelves lined with VHS tapes of series he and his circle work together to record in order to amass the fabled perfect collection. I can laugh, because it is funny. But at the same time, I can see myself and people I’ve known somewhere in there, too.
Otaku no Video was released on DVD in North America by AnimEigo. It is not rated, but is recommended by the publisher for ages 13 and up for brief nudity and adult situations. The DVD is subtitled only and does not feature an English dub.
anime of the pastAnimEigoGainaxOtaku no Video