I Discovered the Word

Written by: Carl Horn
Source: Originally published in the September 2001 edition of "Misato's Fan Service Center," the letters column for the English version of the Neon Genesis Evangelion manga, published by Viz Communications
Dated: September 2001

I discovered the word "otaku" in 1992 through Gainax's Otaku No Video; that is to say, right in the thick of what I might call Gen-X consciousness; grads, raves, grunge, zines. Douglas Coupland, who popularized the term "Generation X" in his novel of the same name, is Hideaki Anno's age; Gen-X and Gainax became somewhat wedded notions in my mind; loser art for a loser generation.

In the studio's first creative period (1987-1991), their work was neatly bounded between the idealistic bewilderment of 1987's Royal Space Force; at being born into an era of sunshine above ground that somehow never thaws; the bright frozen history of Nakasone's bubble Japan or Reagan's Challenger America. In 1991 came Otaku no Video, the satire of the success they knew damned well they hadn't achieved: the nervous, manic "meaning of the nonsense of the meaning" as artist Takashi Murakami (among whose muses is Gainax founder Toshio Okada) phrases otakuism today.

And then, finally, they returned four years later with a show called Evangelion. Taking the big crunching '70s sound of Nagai and Tomino, distorting and discording, turning lyrics that were once shouted and transparent into opaque whispers and shrieks. The shotgun-blast finale of the movies. Ah, now they're paying attention. It was only like suicide, not suicide itself; Gainax, like more than a few among Gen-X in America, came through 1997 still alive and with that higher living standard this generation was never supposed to have, distilled forth inexplicably from the vapor of dot-coms and even from two-dimensional cels.

It all sounds rather unbelievable, doesn't it? What happened? What exactly was that all about? "Teenage angst has paid off well/Now I'm bored and old" was the first song line of Nirvana's last studio album. The question of what worked and what didn't therefore doesn't seem a pertinent one to me; to me the show is about dysfunctionality: of the artist, of his creation, and of his artistic attempts to phrase and portray that creation. If Evangelion "worked" it would be Gasaraki or Brain Powerd. Less flippantly, it might be Gundam or Getta Robo G. But what would have been the point of making them again?

I have no trouble personally in seeing that diehard anime fans, as you mention, might hate Eva, or that Japanese people you know might be dismissive of it, but I would be interested to hear their reasons for feeling that way. I would suggest that the reason Evangelion was such a phenomenon as you say is because for whatever reason it did in fact manage to capture and connect with what Grand Royal called "that dreaded word, Zeitgeist, spirit of the times". Truman Capote, bewildered at the similar appeal of Kerouac's On The Road, complained that it was poorly structured as a novel, saying "It isn't writing at all, its typing." I suspect it was in fact the very broken surface and shambled interior of Eva that led many to climb and explore.

It's interesting you bring up Cowboy Bebop, which I am not the only one to compare to the early, 1971 TV episodes of Lupin The Third. Those episodes captured the outlaw spirit of the times but failed to connect with a mass audience. Cowboy Bebop is a delightful show, but it neither connected with a mass audience as Eva did, nor, in my opinion, did it capture the spirit of its times. That is not necessarily something it ever sought to do, and that is saying nothing against its internal qualities as a show, which were stylish and vivacious. One might say that Cowboy Bebop conjured a ghost rather than a spirit, but what a seance.

By pointing out that Eva's characters are cute and its mecha cool, I meant to remind that the show in Japan (and Eva was only meant for a Japanese audience, so talking about it in terms of American music is as equally invalid as any other American fan perspective) was on broadcast TV, as David Letterman would say, "free, the way God intended television to be". In other words, on the level of diversion alone it seemed good value.

I have heard a number of fans say, "But it could have been so much more", which seems strange to me because it was so much more than your ordinary anime show, judging by how it connected with the Japanese public. But I don't think that was the kind of greatness they had in mind. I don't know. It is possible that the trick with shows of this nature is to keep going on and on like X-Files, keep revealing secrets behind secrets behind secrets. I think it is possible that Eva irritated some fans by saying the so-called secret was in the mirror. Patrick Macias recommends Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow on this subject; I've suggested Eco's Foucault's Pendulum.

The strange thing is that from the very beginning (before I even saw so much as one episode) I have in fact regarded Evangelion as a "failure" and "flawed" and was cued to do so for precisely the reason you cite: Hideaki Anno's own criticism of it. In 1995, the year after the end of Nirvana, a friend sent me a translation of Hideaki Anno's "What Were We Trying To Make Here?", the letter he wrote introducing Eva that appears at the end of Vol. 1 of both the Japanese original manga (and in our version). I was struck by the resonance between the sentiments expressed in Anno's in utero condemnation of his own work to be, and what Kurt Cobain said about his own music in the note he left behind.

What I mean personally by being an otaku is a little hard to explain, but it lies more in the realm of intoxication (in the instance of anime, meaning primarily through its images and sounds) and a subsequent engagement or performance under the influence. Along the way one might acquire quite a large stack of merchandise and mental drawers stuffed with trivia, but I am dissatisfied with "otaku" being a status one reaches upon owning a certain amount of JPGs and idol cards, dubious of the prospect of there being an achievement in achieving a sufficient physicality of fantasy, a real big pile of the unreal.

We've seen instances, from Anno in interviews, to the pseudo-exposes of Otaku no Video, to comments by people we know, that they eventually got tired of the grinding unreality of anime, which became quite as oppressive as the grinding reality they thought to escape by becoming an otaku. The problem with that explanation for me is that I don't believe one ever escapes from reality, the challenges of existence, the issues of having been born into this world: of being a human being.

Rejecting the otaku and his works isn't going to teach you how to see, any more than the rigorous motions of otaku culture will make you go blind. Upon embarking upon his post-Eva project KareKano, Anno remarked as an epigram for the show that "reality has no mercy". He based his approach to the series in large part by talking to students in contemporary Japanese high schools: trying to restore the conversation he had cut off when he was their age.

Some might believe that by escaping into anime they make their lives more emotionally tolerable. Some might believe that by escaping into postmodernism they make their anime more intellectually tolerable. But anime is made by people and watched by people; the problems, as always, are with people: the credit, the blame. Gendo came from a father, Shinji from a son. Rei and Asuka and Misato and Ritsuko are unreal in a fashion not dissimilar to the visages men draw of the women in their own lives: infatuation, idealization.

I don't know; it was my circumstance to discover anime along the silk and opium routes, watching Speed Racer in Tehran. Poppy chaff, over hard-baked high-desert plains. By the time I came back to America for good in the 1980s, I was hardly a Drew Barrymore sophisticate, but at least I wasn't afraid of a television set. It's only one box among many, after all.

Ultimately, any attempt to criticize Evangelion as fiction is going to seem a bit pallid besides an attempt to explain how it became the most talked-about pop phenomenon in Japan in 1997. Put another way, the criticism must be applied to the people before the show. Literally millions of them, mostly in Japan, but some around the world as well, saw that the show was correct and true as fiction because it was talking about them in reality. Were they merely weak people, cowardly people, people deluded by the cultural logic of late capitalism? Some think so. But I worry strongly that theories become the postgraduate version of what in high school you call cliques. If so, you are back to substituting self-satisfying labels for understanding, communication, and empathy.

Even Anno seems to have often thought so, regarding with bewilderment the many non-otaku he captivated; and with his contempt for those otaku who asked how DARE he end it that way.

The complaint may certainly have some validity within Gainax itself. Anno himself foresaw this in "What Were We Trying To Make Here?", when he said, "I know my behavior was thoughtless, troublesome and arrogant. But I tried. I don't know what the result will be, because I don't know where life is taking the staff of the production. I feel that I am being irresponsible. But it's only natural that we should synchronize ourselves with the world within the production." The synch rate wasn't always 100%. Masayuki, Kazuya Tsurumaki, and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto had their own ideas; Ikuto Yamashita, the man most responsible for the distinctive mechanical designs of Evangelion, had his detailed scenario for how the story should end (it would have involved the "emergence" of the Eva units).

But if it's just arguing from the couch and the remote, Gainax has an annoying ace to lay down for me or anyone. They started with three students and an 8mm camera. If you don't like their unreality, go out and make some of your own.