French director Jean-Jacques Beineix seems to have been fascinated in 1992 by the Japanese phenomenon known as Otakism, whose practitioners are called Otaku. He interviews the writer who coined the term, which has roots in the words “home” and the polite form of “you.”
Otaku are reclusive males (usually) who would rather live their obsessions than interact in society and culture. There are otaku who follow teen pop stars, porn Otaku, model-airplane Otaku, and urban-planning Otaku, who try to reclaim the streets from automobile traffic by marching in parades.
Beineix tries to put his finger on Otakism, but there are so many different groups with so many different obsessions that it’s a stretch to label them all “otaku” instead of just “obsessives” or “hobbyists.” At first it appears that a crucial ingredient is to shun society, but ironically, the obsessives form their own cultures, so they haven’t really escaped human interaction at all.
Some Otaku seem truly foreign — at least to this westerner. There are collectors of scantily clad dolls based on “regular” women (as opposed to supermodels). There are followers of corporate-manufactured “idols” — women of course — who sing in shopping malls to embarrassingly small crowds of all-male audiences armed with telephoto lenses and who mosh-dance to the mediocre bubble-gum pop tunes.
Others just seem like your average enthusiasts — motorcycle riders, model airplane builders, and comic book collectors all have their counterparts in this country too. Plus we have Trekkies, comic-con attendees, people who collect 8-track tapes, and lovers of Schwinn Stingray bicycles. So the phenomenon may have a name in Japan, but the concept is not as surprising or new as Beineix tries to make it.
When the documentary peeks at truly foreign-seeming stuff — the enthusiastic reaction of the “idol” worshippers is almost incomprehensible to me — Otaku is pretty interesting. But when Beineix spends less than a minute mentioning motorcycle hobbyists, the documentary feels like it’s finding something strange that is not so strange after all.