Monday, January 21, 2008
Review: I, Otaku
by Jiro Suzuki
$9.99 US/$11.00 Can
I was irresistibly drawn to this book by its title, which manages to combine a certain melodramatic self-importance with extremely nerdy subject matter. It's a measure of the breadth of the manga market and the development of North American otaku culture that this book even exists at all. The fact that I even stumbled across it at all speaks volumes.
This is the first volume of a series about Enatsu Sota, a highschool student secretly obsessed with anime character Papico, a treacly-cute, pink-clad girl with huge puppy-dog ears. Outwardly well-adjusted, Sota feels compelled to hide his vast collection of dvds, posters, fan magazines, doujinshi, and vinyl figurines from his sports-playing buddies and from his girlfriend Eri. Sota is in constant fear of having his otaku secret discovered and goes to great lengths to avoid detection of his habit. Of course, in predictable teen manga style, the peace of his perfectly segregated universe is shattered and world's collide when Sota's desperate search for the "ultra limited edition Wonder Digital Dokidoki Doggy Papico figure" makes Eri suspicious enough to follow him into the bowels of the collector's underworld and engage in a battle for his collector's soul.
I, Otaku is subtitled "Struggle in Akihabara" --a reference to the section of Tokyo renowned for its massive selection of of businesses catering to the otaku crowd-- and the story's main action revolves around am Akihabara shop called Otakudu Headquarters (or "Otaku Shrine"). Otaku Headquarters is run by the eccentric Mano Takuro, the self-appointed "President of the Closet Otaku Extermination Committee." It is Mano's goal to "out" all hidden fans like Sota, forcing them to publicly embrace their geekdom and give up any pretense of a normal life and social respectability. In many ways, the mysterious and slightly Mephistophelean Mano embodies the stereotype of the comic shop owner, an uber-nerd who forces his opinions on the shy, paranoid misfits who are his customers, tempting them with treasures that he may withhold for some minor violation of the otaku code. Mano resents Eri and constantly intervenes between her and Sota. For Mano, human relationships must conform to otaku stereotypes: All girls must be interested in yaoi, or boy-boy love, and all boys must only fetishize two-dimensional fantasy women.
Mano also functions as something of a father-figure for Sota, advising him not only on the true way of otakudom, but also on more important life matters such as friendship and honesty. The friction between the two spheres of Sota's life, real world love and otaku obsession, makes for rich comic material with ample opportunity to satirize trends and pop culture. The book has several funny set-pieces and farcical moments, all handled with a light-hearted tone and manic cartooning style full of abrupt shifts in perspective, overlapping internal dialogue, and slapstick --all of which is only mildly confusing. The drawing style is quite broad, ranging from simplified cartoony to wild exaggeration to ironic approximation of the tropes and tics of moody love manga and teen melodrama.
The highlight of the volume is the beginning of an epic battle between the denizens of Otaku Headquarters and the owner of neighbouring rival, Manga Cave. This conflict is the subject of I, Otaku's final chapters and the source of some of its funniest lines. The conflict takes the form of a model-building contest for store supremacy and is a parody of scenes from sports and fight manga (and is also a little reminiscent of Evan Dorkin's Eltingville stories). The sequence includes some supremely arch dialogue, such as "You fools ... don't you know that the concept of having more people working on a project to hasten its completion does not apply to plastic model building? To create a plastic model ... is to have a conversation with your own soul!"
With situations that may feel familiar to long-time comic fans, and lots of relevance for a Japan-fixated culture, I, Otaku is a cute humour comic, recommended for charming and highly-skewed insights into the world of Japanese pop, especially the dilemma of the closet otaku; a picture of adolescent angst that doesn't take itself too seriously.
I, Otaku at Chapters-Indigo
revolutionary content: very little