Toshio Okada on the Otaku and Anime

29 September 2003
Article by Eri Izawa

In the interest of writing a coherent article, I have taken the liberty of rearranging what Mr. Okada said into thematic sections, rather than keeping it strictly chronological. I have also taken the liberty of slightly expanding on some of what he said in ways that may not be quite verbatim to the original Japanese statements. Also, I have pluralized "otaku" with an added "s" - which may be confusing since oftentimes "otaku" is properly written as its own plural. My apologies. As always, this document may contain errors, most of which are probably my own errors of note-taking, understanding, or judgment.

The Otaking

Mr. Toshio Okada, screenwriter for "Otaku no Video" and one of the founders of GAINAX studio, spoke at MIT tonight on the topic of the role of otakus in the history of anime. (He is also commonly known as "Otaking" to the anime fandom community.)

Before we go into the actual talk, let me briefly describe Mr. Okada. He appeared slightly on the heavy side, with fairly short black hair, and a black T-shirt that fit in quite well with the relaxed MIT atmosphere. He wore an always-interested, expressive look, and radiated a genuine love and enthusiasm for this topic. He excelled as an apologist for the often-maligned "otaku" of the anime world. (Indeed, he has served as a lecturer of Otakuology (fan studies) at Tokyo University, and has written extensively about otakus.)

(For more on the history of anime, please see my writeup of his subsequent luncheon talk of 1 October 2003.)

Anime Industry History

The Forces that Shaped the Early Anime Industry

According to Mr. Okada, the anime industry in the 1960-1970 era was a traditional animation industry with the old philosophy that animation is "for kids" and that the old formula of "good vs. evil and good always wins" was the way to go.

However, between the 60s and the 70s, a political upheaval shook Japan. Politically outspoken people rallied toward various positions, siding with the U.S. or with the Soviets (a bit like the U.S. in the 1950s era, Mr. Okada suggested). In the aftermath of this uproar, many politically outspoken young people found themselves shut out of key jobs. In particular, would-be filmmakers who had made too much noise found they could not get jobs in the film industry.

So they went to the anime industry instead.

The "Dropout" Generation of Anime Makers

These "Dropout" "young creators" wanted to make films for young people, but not for kids. This repressed desire began to manifest itself in anime in small and large ways, creating "strange" (Mr. Okada's word) results that even attracted adult viewers.

Among the most notable of the "Dropouts" are names such as Tomino, Miyazaki, and Oshii. An example of the changes these people brought to the animation industry is "Umino Toriton" - a 70s series that started off stereotypically with the good, peaceful society of Toritons (Tritons?) fighting the "evil" Poseidons. The last episode of the series, however, was anything but kiddie stuff: our 10 year old hero destroys all of the evil Poseidons in a single powerful flash of light. Practically the last scene of the series is of this child asking "What have I done?" (Of course, this kind of deep-thinking anime would see a historic pinnacle in the original "Gundam" series that aired around 1980.)

The Otaku Generation

Watching anime in this time frame was the Otaku generation. Mr. Okada had a very specific range in mind for Japanese Otaku: they were born between 1955 and 1975 and grew up thinking this sort of anime was the norm. These were fans who were so passionate and enthusiastic about anime that they became vocal and informed critics. Some became so deeply involved with anime that they would neglect personal hygiene or housekeeping.

Eventually, the Otaku generation would produce its own animation houses that in some cases have surpassed their predecessors. Names such as GAINAX, Gonzo, and Kitakubo are all from the Otaku generation. And while the "Dropout" generation, Mr. Okada asserted, still always retained a bit of dissonance or ambivalence about working in the "children's medium" of animation, the Otaku generation has no such qualms and is eager to take advantage of anime as an art form. So, it comes as no surprise that the Otaku generation went on to create controversial series such as "Evangelion," in which (at the end) almost everyone everywhere dies.

Dropout vs. Otaku Today

There are differences between the Dropout generation and the Otaku generation in terms of production as well.

The Dropout generation (Tomino, Miyazaki, Oshii, etc.) are still going strong as of 2003. Unlike in traditional media, where these creators would have long ago become producers and stepped down from directors' positions, these men are still making anime: the more anime they make, the more anime they make! Moreover, they are not passing along the baton to a new generation of apprentice directors.

The Otaku generation (GAINAX, etc.), meanwhile, seems satisfied with producing one film every two years or so. They are always striving for opportunities to make the films they want to make. (Perhaps an analogy is they are more like picky artisans?) They are also the ones experimenting in CG anime, although they cannot yet break into the TV market with it.

Otaku, Anime, and Passion

The Word "Otaku"

Mr. Okada said the word "otaku" came about from SF conventions. An otaku at a con would encounter other otakus representing various otaku organizations. (Mr. Okada used the example of someone coming from the MIT Anime Club meeting a representative of a Harvard anime club.) Out of respect for the organizations the other fans represent, these people would begin using the honorable form of address "otaku" (which essentially means "you"; to my own Japanese ears it is a word housewives use to respectfully discuss each others' household matters).

Outsiders began to notice the unusual predisposition among these young people of using a somewhat stodgy courtesy word like "otaku." Hence, the word "otaku" became associated with anime fans.

The Image of Otakus in Japan and Elsewhere

Mr. Okada discussed the image of otaku - the absoption to the exclusion of anything else including hygiene, personal appearances, housekeeping, and so on. However, he likens this passion to that of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci for their art. There were eras in which artists and artisans could whole-heartedly devote themselves to their craft for days and weeks and months on end, but in modern day society, this sort of devotion is looked up strangely.

Because Japan is so conformist, many Japanese otakus do try to maintain the appearance of normality. Unfortunately, the more they try to dress and appear just like everyone else, the more many of them seem to simply come out looking even stranger in the eyes of their peers. There is a stigma associated with being an otaku in Japan.

Mr. Okada noted that modern-day American otakus are well-off in comparison, since America values some individuality. American otakus can say they are otakus without hiding in shame.

But he also noted that France seems to have a mandate for individuality; one has to be "different" in France, and hence the modern otakus in France is three times more vibrant and self-assured, and can come right out declare his or her otaku-ness with pride.

The Power of Otakus

Mr. Okada had a very powerful point to make about otakus.

For every 1000 otakus, 50 become actual anime creators.

And the 950 who do not directly create anime still serve a vital purpose: they are vocal critics and connoisseurs who demand the very best of the 50 who do create.

Mr. Okada drew a parallel with the ukiyoe art of the Japanese Edo period. The artists who made such art, and those who made netsukes and other carvings, lived in "fear" of the rabid collectors. The pressure from the collectors kept them from slipping and encouraged them to strive to make superb articles of craftsmanship that would surprise and delight the critics.

Similarly, anime otakus demand high standards and complain if levels of quality drop, forcing anime producers to take their work "seriously" and hone their skills. Mr. Okada suggested that this is like democracy at its finest.

The Rigors of Making Animation

Anyone embarking on making animation requires passion.

First off, in Japan, animation doesn't pay well. Mr. Okada, toward the end of the evening, remarked that not a single Japanese animator has yet gotten a house with an attached pool. Apparently, the director of "Gundam" had long ago insisted that someone in the industry needed to get a house with a pool, but even now, years later, no one has gotten enough money to afford this luxury.

Secondly, the job demands dedication. Mr. Leiji Matsumoto, creator of "Captain Harlock" and "Galaxy Express 999," apparently was talking with Mr. Okada and Mr. Hideaki Anno at one point, and remarked: "Any man that takes more than four baths in a year cannot do anything truly great!" The idea: a person who truly devotes himself heart and soul to a project won't have the time or inclination to bathe for months on end. But the truly shocking part of the story was that Mr. Anno, standing next to Mr. Okada, was nodding and making noises of agreement!

What About the Next Generation?

But what about the next generation? Where is the newest generation of Japanese anime makers?

Unfortunately, Mr. Okada suggests, the latest generation of anime viewers in Japan are not true Otaku. They may be anime fans, but they lack the deep, passionate connection to the medium, and many of them seem to have taken up anime fandom because it's cool or "fashionable." Rather than being active critics of anime, they are content to be customers, or consumers. Mr. Okada believes that in a society where no one is truly passionate about a medium, the medium will become lukewarm and stagnant. "Why not [be lazy] and just have the good guy win?" "Why not just have Scooby Doo?"

On to the DaiCons and GAINAX....

Mr. Okada did not have time to talk much about the founding of GAINAX, since the audience was unexpectedly treated to showings of both "Daicon III" and "Daicon IV": the fan-made anime clips that heralded the era of Otaku-made anime.

Daicon III

"Daicon III": This three minute, 2000 cel film was made by devoted fans over the course of several months. The film was made for the 1981 20th Annual Japan National SF Convention otherwise known as DaiCon III.

The year 1981 marked the end of the original, revolutionary "Gundam" on TV - and its absence meant TV was lacking in truly interesting anime (editor's note: I saw the end of the series on Japanese TV, and while there were a few other interesting shows, most were not of "Gundam" caliber). A group of anime fans wondered what was wrong with the anime industry and decided to make a three minute opening animation themselves.

The theme of "Daicon III" (Mr. Okada explained the creators were into themes) is that of taking opporunity and running with it and seeing how far one can get. The film portrays a school girl receiving a container of water (representing Opportunity) from some people dressed suspiciously like the characters from the original "Ultraman" live action TV show. From there she must not only battle traditional bad guys (e.g., the giant lobster-like bad guy from "Ultraman") who would wrest away opportunity, but also even good guy giant robots. Finally she defeats all her foes, waters a little daikon white radish with the water of opportunity, and blasts off in the resulting daikon-shaped space ship. And indeed, the group of animators did face opposition to their efforts from many others who could have helped them instead.

Daicon IV

Mr. Okada noted (in response to a question from the audience) that the one key thing that occurred between "Daicon III" and "Daicon IV" was that the creators of the anime gained confidence. Some of the creators had continued their studies of animation, but Mr. Okada credits the newfound confidence with the vast improvements between "Daicon III" and its sequel.

"Daicon IV" was deliberately made to be the same length and cel count as "Diacon III" - however, its particular theme was slightly darker, along the lines of destroy the old to create the new. It also played with the fun of half-losing one's sanity - the semi-insanity necessary to devote oneself to anime.

In this film, the school girl returns as a woman in a bunny suit who defies all the old anime characters (including glimpses of Western cartoon characters) as she surfs (on a flying sword) her way to victory.

But this film also generated waves.

For example, an audience member happened to ask about the "GAINAX bounce," a characteristic jiggling of the female cartoon character's breasts. This was apparently introduced in "Daicon IV" by Mr. Toshiyuki Sadamoto, who added in the margin of the animation instructions: "Make this scene a little erotic (H)." The animation industry reacted with shock to this animation ("Is it OK to do this kind of thing?") and of course the technique was promptly adopted by other animation houses, including Cream Lemon's porn features.

Overall, however, the fact that a bunch of amateur anime fans could make a quality animation piece apparently came as quite a surprise to traditional animation firms.


A number of the animators would go on to found GAINAX, the animation house known for its first films, the 1987 "Wings of Honneamise," and perhaps most famous for "Evangelion." Unfortunately, Mr. Okada did not have much opportunity to speak on this subject.

On Evangelion: An audience member asked about the connection between manga (comic books) and anime. Mr. Okada said there is often not as much connection as one might think.

With "Nausicaa," he said that Mr. Miyazaki lacked confidence for the Nausicaa story, so the editor of Tokuma Shoten suggested it be first run as a manga.

With "Evangelion," Mr. Okada said the animators were not quite confident about it, so they ran a manga 4 months before, both to garner some popularity as well as increase the odds of funding.

The Future?

Mr. Okada made the comment that he was excited to attend the convention in Atlanta (which he had just gone to before his MIT engagement) because America has what Japan no longer has: a huge number of true otakus.

His advice for young people in the US who are interested in making anime: just make your own anime, in English, by yourself. (When asked about women in the animation field, he said that in Japan, there simply aren't women who want to become things like anime directors - but he was certainly encouraging women to go and make their own anime if that is what they want to do.)

Perhaps, given the many thousands of otakus in the US and the rest of the world, we will start seeing the same 50/1000 embarking on the exciting and demanding path of animation creation, and hopefully the 950/1000 will be right behind them, supporting them and keeping the standards of anime high.

Mr. Okada's 1 Oct. 2003 Luncheon Talk

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