History of GAINAX: Otaku No Video

So far on History of GAINAX, we’ve seen their explosion onto the scene with DAICON IV, and Hideaki Anno wreak havoc across the galaxy with Gunbuster. Whilst the latter panders to the by now burgeoning otaku demographic, today’s work, once again, casts its lens over what it means to be otaku in the aftermath of an infamous event that shook the demographic. It is, of course, the one and only Otaku No Video. Part semi-fictionalized, potted history of Gainax, part hymn to the otaku lifestyle, part documentary on what it meant to be otaku in the early 1990s, it’s Gainax at their most…Gainax-y, complete with pop-culture references, fanservice, and a healthy dollop of otaku culture. So, join me on my journey back to the 1980s and Ken Kubo’s odyssey to become Otaking!

Between the release of Gunbuster’s final episode in July 1989 and Otaku No Video’s first half (September 1991), the term “otaku” had come to the public’s attention in a horrific way, with the publicized trial of serial killer Miyazaki Tsutomo, which, in turn, caused a moral panic against the otaku lifestyle. With the term now firmly connected in the public’s imagination with the acts of Miyazaki, the attempts to reclaim the term began. Otaku no Video at once plays with the paranoia of the public, with its live-action interviews painting the otaku as a mixed bunch of the respectable to the perverted, but also giving, as any good documentary does, a balanced view of its subject, whilst its animated section seems to mock the media’s view that the otaku culture is corrupting the youth with its tongue in cheek tale of Ken’s “descent” into otakudom. In short, it acts as tribute to, critique of, and mirror of the otaku subculture in the aftermath of the Miyazaki murders. "Are we what the media says we are?" it asks. Are we bad because we’re passionate about what we like? If nothing else, Otaku no Video answers this with a resounding, heartfelt “No!”

Our tale begins in that halcyon period for anime, the 1990s, introducing us to (former) Grand Prix owner, and protagonist Ken Kubo, and …he hates otaku. Oh. From this surprising opening, we’re thrown directly into the typical early 1990s shonen  opening, complete with typical awesome as heck song, lots of (beautifully animated) fire, and our cast. Including bunny girls, cosplayers, military geeks, team mascot …and the other guys. We jump back 9 years, to 1982, where tennis star Ken is a go-getting tennis ace, popular with his friends, and hitting bars. However, a chance encounter with old friend Tanaka, and his gang of otaku (sorry, Manga Research Group), and things are about to change...

But, first, the first of several interviews occurs with Tamatani Junichi (not his real name-in fact, every interviewee’s face and voice is disguised, and each is given a pseudonym, although several members of Gainax, including Hideaki Anno, are either recognizable, or have stated they appeared in the film). Junichi is essentially your common/garden otaku’, participating in the sci-fi club, publishing fanzines; whilst he’s largely unsuccessful, he’s still reminiscing happily about his time in the sci-fi club and its surprisingly organized activities, although some of its activities (Sailor Fuku and Lolita complex research) are less than savory. Despite this, he’s painted as a slightly lonely figure, becoming unhappy when he’s asked if he has friends, yet he’s nostalgic about his time in university, which it’s revealed he dropped out of.

Back to the animated section; whilst it’s broken up by these interviews, I honestly believe that both sections gain something from this back-and-forth transitioning, with the pathos of the interviews juxtaposed nicely against the madcap fun of the animated section. Ken has started university, and meets up with his girlfriend to invite her to the May festival, which proves to be rather boring. Bemoaning their location, he goes for a wander, and bumps into Tanaka (cosplaying as Char Aznable), and his gang, who are selling their fanzine, and Sato (cosplaying as Lum Invader). We’re briefly given an explanation of cosplay, to an embarrassed Ken, who’s suddenly surrounded by otaku, (which plays like a who’s who of then contemporary anime, from Lupin III, to Harlock, Doremon and Ultraman.) Another interview then plays, this time with Ikuta Yuudai, a computer programmer, and former audio-otaku, who, unlike Juuichi, seems to have escaped the lifestyle, and is “normal”, stating that he’s into anime a little, and becomes embarrassed when his past as an otaku is revealed, though he happily has a Char helmet under his desk. The film notes that cosplayers aren’t that common in the lifestyle, but those who cosplay a lot are common within this group.

Anime again, and Ken drops the bombshell that he’s thinking of quitting the tennis club, and that he’s lost his interest in it, to his girlfriend. At Tanaka’s house, we see his mammoth anime and manga collection, with Ken wishing he could return to his high school festival times. Tanaka introduces him to the rest of his otaku friends, including military geeks, doujishi-kas, model and tokusatu fanboys, idol obsessives, games and pretty boys! Heaven! Tanaka reveals his dreams to take Japan by storm, and introduces Ken to the rest of his group. Another interview, with video-otaku, Harold Shioda, and his huge collection of videos…which he never watches, together with his large network of fellow collectors. His encyclopedic knowledge of Japanese TV and what would air when is suddenly cut short by a friend calling to tell him something is airing now, and there’s an oddly verité stumble to put a video in; of the interviews so far, Shioda is by far the most pathetic, appearing in a t-shirt-he’s entirely consumed by his passion, and there’s a deliberate sense of Gainax trying to provoke comparison between this character and Miyazaki.

The anime section returns, with…DAICON IV, followed by a sequence from Gunbuster, and their effects. Oh, Gainax, how humble! Ken finds himself slowly sinking into otakudom, starting with a childhood favorite show. There’s something…amusingly dark about the otaku joking that he’ll never leave, and his girlfriend begins to wonder what he’s doing with Tanaka. An otaku crash course begins, with guns, sci-fi, martial arts, cosplay, manga drawing, and so forth. The quick-fire style of this section is particularly well-executed, and you can’t help but like the enthusiasm of the various passions each otaku has. From anime military geek, to a real life one, in the form of Mamiya Kenji, and his souped up bb-guns. Here, again, the film plays with the specter of Miyazaki, with Kenji admitting his guns could kill pigeons, and that they might be dangerous, but that he’s never thought about killing someone; his real interest is the function of the gun, and its appearance, but he’s not a violent person. Here, the narrator of the documentary is quite sympathetic, referring to Kenji and his kind as connoisseurs, and somewhat of a rare breed, sharing little in common with anime fans.

It’s convention time, and just like every convention, it’s busy, full of cosplayers and stalls; Gainax clearly relished this sequence, with Darth Vader, Kamen Rider, and other classic sci-fi, anime and tokusatsu characters putting in an appearance. However, back in the real world, reality starts to bite, with his appearance getting scruffy, putting on weight, and his obsession with anime starting to worry his girlfriend. Gainax then introduce us to Mr. A, who not only spends most of his interview watching idol videos and jerking off, but also claims to have created glasses that decensor Japan’s censoring mosaics. Unsurprisingly he’s a virgin, and prefers 2D girls, with the narrator noting that many otaku don’t have sex until marriage, and are surprisingly more traditional in this respect.

Meanwhile, our heroes are camping in line for Nausicaa, and are annoyed they’re so far back in line, because they had to go job hunting, and a slightly drunk guys asks them exactly what they’re doing with their life. Their associate promptly gets his hand on the Macross-Do You Remember Love designs, and much analysis is made of this, with Ken deciding to cosplay protagonist Hikaru, Sato cosplaying Misa, and Mimay cosplayed by Ken’s girlfriend Ueno. Ah, love-triangles! We get a brief flash of Ken’s increasingly otakuised apartment, and…Ueno has dumped him. Cue, “Why do people think we’re weird?” rant from Ken, who decides to become a “total otaku”, and the Otaking, a dream which Tanaka agrees to follow him into, ending part one of this OVA.

Part two begins in 1985, with Tanaka and Ken making garage kits, animated in painstaking detail-here, Otaku no Video becomes more biographical, echoing Gainax’s early (pre-anime studio) years. We get a reprise of our awesome OP from part one, and then it’s back to garage kit, where it’s revealed...they’ve been making Gainax’s red-haired little girl from DAICON III. Thus, their business empire begins, with Ken demanding that they do things above board, in order to become the otaking. Cue…modelling montage, and before too long they have a shop, with an employee, (Fukuhara), are on TV, open a much larger store and end up filling a stadium with their own convention. The documentary half introduces us to a garage kit enthusiast, Sato Hiroshi, who explains the concept, and the hobby to us, as well as it expressing a fan’s love of a character in its construction. Again, there’s a sense of the documentary showing otaku as incredibly creative people, and Sato’s section is particularly positive about this section of the otaku hobby; hardly surprising considering Gainax’s background, but there’s a suggestion that it’s relatively niche.

Forward less than a year, and GP has a skyscraper head office, and Kubo is within grasp of the title of otaking, but decides to aim higher, creating a themepark for otaku-Otakuland-and to turn all of humanity to otaku…to spite Ueno. From here, it’s to the boardroom, and the major competitors are in danger of overshadowing them. The solution…make an anime, and move production to China, where labour is cheaper. Egad! With the factory under construction, storm clouds gather in Japan, with the garage kit market seeing a sudden slump…but bright rays of sunlight emerge in the form of a bunny girl magician (Marchen Girl Maki) designed by Fukuhara, and a movement into soft vinyl, and selling paints to paint the figures, thus cornering the market. However, Tanaka has a visitor…

Another otaku portrait, and the only one to feature a westerner, who speaks of his culture shock, and eulogizes about anime and manga, and its difference to western works; amusingly he’s a Lum fanboy, and notes the use of modernised traditional tales in anime. In short, with his comments on wishing he was born in Japanese, he’s a stereotypical take on the hardcore western anime fan.Whilst Ken celebrates the creation of Maki, others seek to undermine him, and he’s promptly fired from his own company by his board of directors, including Tanaka. Ueno, of all people, promptly becomes president, and is married to the very man who fired him. Betrayed, he’s demoted to being head of a lowly branch of GP. Oh no!

Another interview, this time with Akabori Osamu, (played by (a barely disguised) Hideaki Anno) who has fallen deeply in love with a 2D girl, Hiroki in an adult video game, doesn’t like going outside, and seems to be a porn game enthusiast; again, there’s a sense that otaku are intensely lonely people. Speaking of lonely people, we get a replay of the opening scene, with a tired, down on his luck Ken, sleeping in his office. Meanwhile, GP goes from strength to strength, otaku grow more numerous, and Tanaka also appears to have been kicked out of his own company, on embezzlement charges, (hilarious in hindsight, considering the later charges against several key Gainax members of embezzlement immediately after the completion of Neon Genesis Evangelion). However, Ken forgives him. From here, we’re introduced to cel thief Akira, who seems unrepentant about his profession, as well as stealing designs, and there’s something very parasytic about this person in particular, although he claims he goes by a code of honor never to steal cels not already used. There’s a clear sense again from the narrator that not all otaku are good people.

Ken and Tanaka start again from scratch, making films, “garage videos”, echoing the move of Gainax into animation. Joining them is Fukuhara, and a new magical girl character (Equal parts Cardcaptor Sakura and Cutey Honey) designed by her, together with her mascots. So GX is born, and we’re given an animation montage, (and a Gainax bounce), with several sequences lifted wholesale from DAICON IV. From here, they enter the world of tokutasu and anime, pack out Tokyo Dome, and they’re back to the top in 1997, buying out GP, and in 1999…Otakuland is opened, and every part of Ken’s dreams seem to have been fulfilled. Oh, and then a nuclear waste-dump on the far side of the moon explode. You remember that, don’t you?

Our final interview is with Uesaki Hidehiko, who the film labels a true otaku, and promptly follows, a la wildlife documentary, chasing him via shaky cam, down the streets, and attempts to interview him, physically accosting him, before he makes his escape indoors. Back to the anime, and another time-skip...The year is 2035! And Japan…is not a great place to be, with everything underwater and looking not unlike the beginning of Neon Genesis Evangelion’s first episode. Armed with scuba gear, a now elderly Tanaka and Ken come across the submerged Otakuland, which proceeds to suddenly light up. Entering a lift, they reach the head of the large mecha that forms the center piece of Otakuland…to find it crewed by their old friends. Removing their helmets, they’re suddenly young again, and launch the Otakumech from the sea into space, into the stars. Where to? Why, the planet of the otaku, in their drill-armed space rocket!

…Where does one even begin to talk about this film? First, the technical aspects; the live action sections are well shot, and there’s a real documentary feel to it; the final night-time interview is a particular highlight, but all of the interviews feel the part. The animated sections are equally well-produced, with Sadamoto’s characters a well-designed group-each of the otaku look the part, and are distinctive, whilst the animation, at points, has an almost manic energy; even casting figures and drawing manga are exciting and cool. The rocket sequence at the end, as well as some of the anime GX and GP produce, is beautifully shot. The voice acting, music and production are all very professional, the live action sections well acted, with Anno's character in particular at once pathetic and worthy of sympathy. The story, and the intention of the film are similarly well-executed, with a surprisingly nuanced take on the otaku culture.

As a documentary, however, it’s a little bit of a mess; at once, Otaku no Video attacks and defends the otaku culture, showing them as both perverted loners, and gentle, interesting people who care passionately about their hobbies. Equally, the animated section of the film isn’t sure whether to condemn its protagonist for chasing a (honestly rather crazy) dream into his old age, or congratulate him. Things are a little clearer by the ending of both the mockumentary and the film, which seems to come down against the media’s panic about the otaku subculture. After all, it seems to say, otaku are just people who have a passion for something. Is it wrong to demonize them for the actions of one man? Look how high their aspirations can soar. Look at us, we people at Gainax. We’re proof that otaku can and do dream big, and these dreams come true. If nothing else, Otaku No Video is yet another love letter from Gainax to the otaku of Japan. “You’re just like us. You are not alone.”

But the film is also quick to note otaku are not perfect; cel stealer Akira, waifu obsessive Osamu, porn watching Mr A, and video collector Shioda may be caricatures of some of the people you might find at an anime convention, but they’re caricatures that hit surprisingly close to the bone, at points uncomfortably so. Otaku are imperfect; obsession on one thing to the detriment of appearance and the other aspects of your life isn’t healthy. Otaku no Video, nearly twenty-five years after its release thus stands as a still-salient document, not only because of its autobiographical content, not only because it reflects the otaku culture of the early 1990s, but because, to an extent, otaku culture still hasn’t moved beyond this. You still have men marrying fictional characters. You still have otaku that queue for days for a videogame console, or anime, or film. If one message has to be taken from Otaku no Video, it’s this: being an otaku isn’t a bad thing, but don’t let it define you; and few anime or manga works say that message quite as well as Otaku No Video.

9.5/10. A must see classic for otaku and “normal” anime fans alike.


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