On Otaku, Kantai Collection and the Gaze of the Hermetic Consumer
By Devon Fisher
[note: The following is an edited version of the original article, with the images and edits done by myself. Also please be aware that this article was originally written in April 2014, prior to the release of the Kancoll anime series]
Japan’s so-called “lost decades” have continued unabated since the collapse of the 1980s bubble economy left the nation in a state of recession; the post-war dream of guaranteed lifetime employment has not been a feasible reality for the majority of Japanese men for multiple generations now. No longer able to believe that making their way through the notoriously harsh system of exams one has to take to get into a Japanese college or university will guarantee a comfortable future as it once did, the young men of Japan in the post-bubble years have opted to withdraw from the system in alarming numbers.
Some choose to become “freeters”, working part-time jobs to sustain themselves as they pursue their passions free of the responsibilities and attachments that a career brings with it. Others, particularly the so-called “NEETs” (persons Not in Employment, Education or Training), withdraw from society entirely, opting instead to lead hermetic existences with far less engagement with society than even the most detached freeter. The term for these predominantly urban, male hermits is “Hikikomori”, and in the past decade Hikikomori have provided a very lucrative market for entertainment in Japan; by catering to the desires of these disenfranchised consumers, feeling robbed of the lifestyle their ancestors were promised, new genres of consumer media have arose out of Japan.
Coinciding with the rise of the Hikikomori has been the similar increase in numbers of Otaku, once a barely-noticeable niche group that has become a serious force amongst Japanese consumers, as their often-fetishistic tastes and obsessive approach to media consumption guarantee that, once an Otaku is hooked, usually by strict adherence to the fetish culture that particular Otaku subscribes to, they will continue to make the company money long into the future.
While the contemporary Otaku is not necessarily a Hikikomori, nor is the Hikikomori guaranteed to be an Otaku, the intersection of these two groups’ interests has been a very lucrative sector for profit-minded publishers such as Kadokawa Shoten. While Kadokawa had long been a company that had dealt more generally with properties that had “across the board” appeal, even attempting (without any success) to break into the North American film industry during the early 1990s, in recent years their approach has been strongly focused on this Otaku/Hikikomori overlap -The Hikikomori desires the life they were not given by the society they reject, whilst the Otaku desires the perfection that only works of fantasy can provide – and the patterns of consumption favoured by this joint audience can be referred to as a kind of “hermetic consumerism”.
Kadokawa’s most successful attempt at cashing in on this lucrative audience to date has been the browser-based trading card battle game “Kantai Collection”, referred to with the short-form “KanColle” in casual use, wherein the user plays as admiral of a fantasy fleet of “Kanmusu”, idealized anime-style representations of Japanese battleships from the World War II era. The concept is nothing new to Otaku media, with artist Fumikane Shimada’s “mecha musume” having laid the groundwork for a previous anime property by the name of “Strike Witches” – wherein attractive young girls were outfitted with mechanical parts and weapons inspired by World War II fighter planes – half a decade prior to the launch of KanColle. Where KanColle differs from its predecessors, however, is in its hyperactive pandering to Otaku sensibilities in all their permutations; while a point can be made for many forms of Otaku-focused media having some (albeit quite limited) mainstream appeal outside of their subcultural audience, the same can most definitely not be said for KanColle – It is, as they say, something of a “fans-only” affair, and unashamedly so.
In his landmark study on Otaku, released in English as “Japan’s Database Animals”, postmodern sociologist Hiroki Azuma defines Otaku as not “narrative consumers”, as fans of a long-running anime or manga series may be, but rather “database consumers.” He writes: “there is no longer a narrative in the deep inner layer, beneath the works and products such as comics, anime, games, novels, illustrations, trading cards, figurines, and so on. In the multimedia environment of the 1990s, it is only characters that unite various works and products”, With the characters he speaks of comprising a “database” that the Otaku consumes. Although he was writing in a past decade, Otaku tastes have only conformed more and more to Azuma’s model in the years since his work was first published, and KanColle is a testament to this very fact. Of the “works and products” described in the Azuma quote, it is only anime that has yet to see a KanColle-themed permutation, but as of the writing of this paper a KanColle anime has been confirmed to be in the works for broadcast later this year.
Kadokawa’s approach to marketing KanColle can be seen as perhaps the purest example of a company catering to hermetic consumers and their patterns of database consumption one is likely to find, and the game that started it has become so popular that new accounts have to be assigned via a lottery system to ease the server load on the game’s website. This is all, as Azuma’s model would predict, possible in a property almost completely void of narrative; the browser game’s mission progression roughly follows the Imperial Japanese Navy’s Pacific campaign of 1941-45, with the Allied forces represented by the monstrous Abyss Fleet (“dark Kanmusu” that appear far more science-fiction than their Axis counterparts, likely more to avoid angering Japanese/American military relations than to actually make any kind of statement about the Allies in World War II), but one could hardly be faulted for not realizing that one was supposed to be witnessing even an abstract representation of military history when reading any of the series’ numerous spinoff manga. A typical story in one such manga shows a Kanmusu shying away from her admiral’s attempts at patting her on the head (a very common action in KanColle media, meant to serve as a visual representation of the player clicking the Kanmusu in the browser game), then cozying up to him after she sees how much the other girls enjoy it – a Japanese answer to They Were Expendable, this is most definitely not.
The lack of anything approaching a definitive storyline canon means that KanColle functions as a naked database, characters and scenarios designed with the explicit purpose of application to any given fantasy the Otaku may possess. Now, if the franchise functions as a naked database largely devoid of structure or pre-established story, solely made up of the characters that populate it, what is it that makes the characters of KanColle so appealing to otaku, then? Azuma’s database model, in its unrefined form as quoted above, explains Otaku as voracious devourers of information, with the large cast of Kanmusu providing a great deal of information for the Otaku to consume, but a deeper analysis is needed to explore both the franchise’s popularity and the Otaku psyche.
Azuma’s contemporary and fellow scholar Saitō Tamaki sought to explain the appeal of female soldiers and warriors in “Beautiful Fighting Girl”, released in English as a companion piece to “Japan’s Database Animals”, where he takes a deep and nuanced look at the myriad ways in which Otaku culture idealizes and fetishizes the female combatant. As with “Database Animals”, Tamaki’s work predates KanColle by a good margin, but seems almost precognitive in its analysis of contemporary Otaku sexuality and objectification. While it is true that there are female consumers of Otaku media, as well as products undeniably identifiable as Otaku-focused and aimed at female audiences, both of these represent minorities amongst the much-larger male-focused Otaku culture that KanColle is a part of. Media such as KanColle is explicitly gendered, with the product identifiably female – the Kanmusu and their countless representations on anything from T-shirts to posters in any of the Kadokawa publishing group’s numerous magazines – and the player/consumer’s avatar a male admiral in control of this all-female fleet. Manga representations hide the Admiral’s face entirely, a move held over from eroge meant to ease the reader into assuming his role in the story.
Even when moving outside the realm of the game itself, KanColle has no room for competing visions of masculinity; there is only the reader’s substitute in the Admiral, and the rest are all female. This puts full focus on the beautiful fighting girls (to use Tamaki’s term), the lovely armada of idealized femininity at the consumer’s disposal. Tamaki describes the fundamental appeal of the beautiful fighting girl in the most basic of terms in Beautiful Fighting Girl when he says “Let us . . . remember that popular fiction, be it film, television, or manga and anime, is sustained by relatively simple principles of desire. Namely, sex and violence,” identifying fighting girls such as the Kanmusu of Kadokawa’s franchise as the most basic representations of what makes for popular entertainment.
The violence in KanColle may be rendered somewhat trivial and ridiculous by virtue of its patently absurd setting, but it remains at the heart of the scenario regardless. The life of the hermetic consumer is one almost completely devoid of both sexuality and direct violence (disregarding self-inflicted manifestations of both), and so these idealized versions of beautiful fighters provide him with these two missing ingredients in spades. With fighting as a given, the girls of KanColle serve to cater to every possible fetish and taste preference the consumer may have, with Kadokawa’s marketing teams more than happy to do the heavy lifting in that respect.
Of course, this is a hermetic work first and foremost, so the obvious catch is that it caters to every possible fetish and taste within the framework of the Otaku’s hermetic consumerist mindset. This is a vital consideration when evaluating works such as Kantai Collection, as, while the essential truths of Tamaki’s beautiful fighting girls are transferable to works completely outside of Japanese pop culture (see the protagonist of the “Tomb Raider” video games, for example), the more nuanced sexuality of the hermetic Otaku is decidedly not.To understand the sexuality of the hermetic consumer, one has to first make peace with the seemingly-paradoxical nature of said sexuality; in its portrayal, the sexuality of the Otaku’s beautiful fighting girls is at once both overt and covert, shoved in one’s face just as it is left unacknowledged.
An illustrated extra packed in with the February 2014 issue of Kadokawa-published pinup magazine “Nyantype” exemplifies this dynamic; depicting the ostensible KanColle mascot Shimakaze,[see image above] an incredibly young-looking Kanmusu with platinum blonde hair and dark grey eyes (typical of anime art styles, no discernible ethnic traits are to be found amongst the Kanmusu), in a state of undress depicted as entirely accidental – an implausible scenario involving her robotic companions the Rensōhō attempting to climb up her for whatever reason, colliding and in the process snapping the side off her scandalously low-cut thong underwear as well as lifting up her shirt to expose the majority of her pert breasts. While Shimakaze’s costume bears all the earmarks of blatant sexuality, with its thigh-high stockings, ludicrously short micro-skirt and excessively impractical high heels, official art never depicts her intentionally showing off her figure in any deliberately provocative manner; rather, the viewer is supposed to believe that she is unaware of her own sex appeal. The depictions of the Rensōhō robots inadvertently exposing her body are likewise cases of plausible deniability; their innocence provides a part of Shimakaze’s appeal as they allow her to be shown in blatantly sexualized situations without the presence of any hostile male sexuality that might interfere with the Otaku’s identification of himself as her admiral and only true lover. In comparison though the Western counterparts to these idealized anime lovers and wives of the hermetic Otaku consumer are often depicted with much morevoracious sexual appetites and a keen awareness of their own sexuality and appeal – Spider-Man’s supermodel girlfriend Mary-Jane Watson famously introduces herself to her future boyfriend (and later husband) by saying “face it, tiger, you just hit the jackpot”, as one of the tamer examples from Western pop culture – the Japanese equivalents are sexually naive to an extreme.
Manga author and sometime cultural critic Ken Akamatsu in an interview [“Opinions on Moe: A Response to Akamatsu Ken”] relates this to a “maternal” impulse in the Otaku consumer, saying “’Moe is a ‘maternal affection’ . . . it is a pure love which does not include any sexual action and is an exceedingly peaceful desire.” – Note though that he specifies sexual “action”; this is far from an accident of word choice: as the illustration of Shimakaze shows, there is nothing that says the object of desire cannot be sexualized, only that she cannot be a willing participant in a consensual act of deliberate eroticization.
The fetishistic costumes and provocative posing that characterizes many depictions of the Kanmusu are easily explained away as either accidental or otherwise unintended, and their desires for their admirals are portrayed as childishly innocent to a ridiculous extreme; the manga versions of the Kanmusu do their very best to please their admirals in the hopes that he might let them sit on his lap, pat them on the head, or – most scandalously of all – do both at the same time.
While Akamatsu’s declaration of “pure love” may hold true for the way the Kanmusu are portrayed in official media, his assumption of “pure love which does not include any sexual action” however certainly does NOT apply to the multitude of fan works that have been spun off from KanColle. In a phenomenon unique to Japanese media, copyright holders for anime, manga and video game franchises knowingly turn a blind eye to copyright infringement on a massive scale. Tokyo’s “electric city” of Akihabara, revered as Japan’s greatest tourist attraction for traveling otaku, is home to countless stores selling “dōjin goods” that place characters from a multitude of diverse settings in any number of scenarios – many of them highly sexual – free from the ire of copyright holders who know fully well that the minimal financial gain from prosecuting such infringements would be more than counterbalanced by the hit their credibility would take with their key Otaku demographic.
It is when one looks at the wealth of KanColle dōjin goods available that one can see just how the idea of “pure love” is, functionally, nothing more than a smokescreen: the teasing, reluctant sexuality of the official goods fuels a demand for more explicit content, the covert feeding desire for the overt. Sexually explicit dōjinshi, such as Yuki Ameto’s Kanmusu Collection, show an admiral having sex with multiple Kanmusu, willing and ready to receive far more than a pat on the head (which, as Kanmusu Kongō can attest, “feels amazing”) – a stark contrast to the chaste official manga, but one that KanColle’s publishers are more than aware of.
Part of the appeal of this model for Otaku is how it provides a sense of community for the socially isolated and fundamentally hermetic consumer – if other lovers of the same media property they obsess over are creating dōjin goods, it leads to a feeling of kinship with the authors of these works. The Otaku may be fundamentally hermetic, perhaps never leaving the comfort of his own room (it is entirely possible to order KanColle goods, official and otherwise, online – I acquired the entirety of the Japanese-language research materials for this paper from Japanese hobby website AmiAmi, myself), but Kadokawa’s allowance for the production of dōjin goods lets that Otaku feel as if their actions allow them to participate in a greater community. Just as the Kanmusu serve as surrogate lovers for the disenfranchised and socially disconnected, the producers of dōjin works afford them access to a similarly ersatz community.
An interesting permutation of this phenomenon has been the rise in popularity of excessively risqué cosplay featuring the Kanmusu, with some cosplayers even going as far as to include full nudity in their photo shoots – flesh and blood women turning their own bodies into dōjin works. Cosplay shoots differ from other dōjin products only in the fact that the women being put on display are photographed instead of drawn; the prevailing message is still the female as packaged product, the consumer’s eye assumed to be one with a heavy male gaze. While the appeal of the beautiful fighting girl, as seen by Tamaki, was inextricable from the violence of her situation, the dōjin world of KanColle is a peaceful one. The cosplay versions of Kanmusu are ones stripped of all but their sexuality, existing only to provide answers to questions like “what would the kanmusu look like in the flesh?” – and to provide costume fetishists with a variety of interpretations on the outlandish designs from the original game.
On the surface, it seems incredibly unlikely that Akamatsu’s “pure love” ideals could even be proposed as a possible explanation for the popularity of suggestive cosplay, particularly as the plausible deniability afforded to the purely fictional Kanmusu and their obliviousness to their own eroticism cannot possibly be applied to a living, breathing cosplay model. When Cosplayer Remika Tachibana poses dressed in the majority of Shimakaze’s uniform– minus both skirt and underwear, bare crotch only just covered by some careful use of camera angles – no argument could conceivably be made that she is somehow ignorant of the provocative nature of such a display. Yet, Otaku follow her on Twitter, read her blog, and eagerly anticipate new erotic cosplay photo sets; which would seem to serve as the final nail in the coffin for Ken Akamatsu’s idea of the maternal otaku, but things are not necessarily what they seem in this case.
In her collusion with the otaku gaze and desire to give them erotic interpretations of their beloved characters, Tachibana functions as the dōjinshi artist does; that she herself represents the product is nothing more than a side effect of the chosen media. The cosplayer is not the character, the character is one in the same with the costume she wears.
Just as the conflict between pure love and eroticism – with the final result being the woman as product either way – is one of the central tenets of Otaku identity, so is the tension between the internal world of the hermetic Otaku and the near-mythical holy land of Akihabara. Often held as the definitive Hikikomori narrative, the protagonist of Tatsuhiko Takimoto’s darkly comedic novel “Welcome to the N.H.K.” describes something of a half-truth in an imagined conspiracy involving Japanese broadcaster N.H.K.: “by broadcasting such interesting anime, N.H.K. mass-produced anime Otaku, thereby essentially creating Hikikomori on a large scale.”
However, with this idea of Otaku as Hikikomori comes the difficulty of dealing with events such as the twice-annual Comic Market (Comiket in colloquial usage) and the year-round popularity of Tokyo’s “electric city” as a tourist attraction for Otaku. Takimoto’s protagonist barely leaves the confines of his apartment complex (although the later manga and anime versions would go on to feature scenes where he and his neighbour Yamazaki visit both Akihabara and Comiket, for the purpose of this essay these episodes shall be considered apocryphal) – the Hikikomori of Welcome to the N.H.K. is, by design, a far purer representation of the hermetic consumer than one is likely to see in more popular media.
The reality of the situation is that these tourist attractions serve a dual purpose for Otaku that counterbalances any social reclusion they may otherwise prefer. First, in these places one can find a very real sense of Otaku history; for example, the so-called “electric city” was a hub for early Otaku hobbyists to pick up transistor radios and other such hard-to-find electronics in the post-war years, thus lending the area a sense of historical gravity. Second, it is only in these situations that an Otaku is likely to be able to enjoy the sight of girls in cosplay, inviting them (on at least a superficial level) to indulge in fantasy on a somewhat more personal level than that afforded by their video games and anime.
It is argued However by the writer of “Akihabara: Conditioning a Public ‘Otaku’ Image” Patrick W. Galbraith, who could be referred to as the foremost expert on Akihabara in the English language, that the Otaku appeal of Akihabara and, by extension, Comiket and its sea of cosplay idols, is actually false. “Akihabara became a place to be seen, and so the real Otaku left and were replaced by youth performing ‘Otaku-ness’ for the cameras”, he writes, making the argument that, as a part of the Japanese government’s “Japan cool” arts stimulus initiative, Akihabara was to be taken from a safe haven for the “weird”, socially withdrawn Otaku and turned into a tourist attraction where people could see something fun and different without having to deal with “unpleasant” Otaku. This transformation in image is shown by the aforementioned Welcome to the N.H.K., where the darker original novel lacks any pandering to the supposed appeal of maid cafes and crowded manga shops, but the mass-marketed anime devotes whole episodes to both Akihabara and Comiket.
While comparatively mainstream media, fuelled partially by Japan’s intentions of pushing Akihabara as an international tourist attraction, is quick to short-sell the essentially hermetic nature of the true Otaku, it is with analysis of works such as KanColle that one is easily able to see these tactics as a mere smokescreen – indeed KanColle itself is not the only Japanese media property of its kind, not by any means. Its creators built upon patterns set by Otaku-focused works decades earlier, and the open pandering to hermetic attitudes is similarly nothing new. What makes it special is just how pure of an example it is; every single Kanmusu designed for maximum appeal, the lack of any male presence save for that of the viewer’s stand-in, the girls’ all-consuming desire for their master’s attention coupled with a naïve unawareness of their own respective sexualities.
The Otaku gaze is as the male gaze, amplified to the highest power, and hermetic consumerism is here to stay so long as there are those who reject society in favor of the “2-dimensional world” of Otaku media.
Devon Fisher is a British Columbia native who, as well as working as a freelance writer for the Japan times, also writes about Japanese music and Shibuya-kei on his blog Memories of Shibuya.