Friday, July 17, 2009
Shot in the period between his final two feature films, IP5 (1992) and Mortal Transfer (2001), 1994’s Otaku is a penetrating documentary from Jean-Jacques Beineix that is simultaneously fascinating, informative and memorable. Co-directed by Jackie Bastide, Otaku is a penetrating look at the many different youth subcultures in Japan that have proven so increasingly dominant in the past few decades, and even though it is just 75 minutes long it manages to cover a lot of ground.
A difficult term to accurately translate, Otaku can at its most simplistic be described as a hobby that becomes an addiction. Often associated mostly with gaming, comics and models, the Otaku culture can really be anything a person uses to separate themselves from their daily lives and, as Beineix’s film shows, it is not exclusive to Japan’s youth although typically it is considered a youth oriented sub-culture.
The best thing about Otaku is the skill of Beiniex’s reporting, with the word ‘report’ being the key one that hovers over the entire film. It would have been easy for the work to take on a judgmental tone, especially in the sections of the film that highlight the sometimes-overwhelming degradation of Japan’s young women, but Beineix and Bastide don’t use the film to cast any moral shadow and, because of this, the film is a much more resonate and powerful work.
An episodic production that would benefit from a longer running time Otaku will, despite a few editorial flaws, prove of great interest to anyone interested in modern Japanese culture. Manga fans will find the convention and behind the scenes coverage extremely entertaining, while historians fascinated with how Japan’s youth culture has changed in the past fifty years will find Beineix’s work invaluable.
Alternating between the innocent pleasures of a teenager reading his favorite comic, to a riveting portrait of a middle age man who has abandoned nearly everything in his life for his love constructing model airplanes, Otaku is at its most powerful when Beineix and Bastide look at the cultural divisions between Japanese men and women. From the national obsession with models based on teenage Japanese girls that many middle age Japanese men buy by the millions, to the section of the film where young women are interviewed in regards to prostituting themselves, Otaku is a much more serious study than it could have been.
The film is also a powerful study of the way technology in daily life is proving more and more controlling. The fact that the film is already dated at just over ten years old shows the frightening pace technology is hitting modern culture, and the films final images of a young boy's drawing of Japan's past over its modern landscape is one of the most powerful shots in Beineix's canon. Otaku is also an eerie reminder that often the pleasures we find in society are in fact financially supporting the very thing we are trying to escape from...to sum it up succinctly, Otaku gives you a lot to think about.
Otaku is presented as a bonus film on Cinema Libre’s first disco in their Jean-Jacques Beineix collection, Locked in Syndrome. Taken from a French VHS copy with English narration instead of subtitles, it isn’t the ideal way to view the film but currently it is the best version of Otaku available.