In Japanese, otaku simply means “you,” but in America, it’s used to describe a fan of Japanese pop culture: anime, manga, video games, J-pop and/or cosplay. American otaku range from casual enthusiasts to hard-core fanatics; the latter are the subject of the eight-part reality series/documentary “America’s Greatest Otaku,” which premiered on Hulu on Feb. 24.
Stu Levy, the founder of TokyoPop, a major publisher of manga in the U.S., serves as host, assisted by six college students who are self-proclaimed otaku. Over eight weeks, they visit 20 U.S. cities, observing various aspects of Japanese fandom and interviewing candidates for the title of America’s Greatest Otaku.
It’s an uneven series, veering from interesting to just plain silly and superficial. In one of the better sequences, the apprentice reporters visit the Texas headquarters of Funimation, the largest U.S. distributor of anime. After interviewing professional voice actors who dub various series, one of the reporters shows just how tricky it is to deliver a line and create a performance while trying to match the “mouth flaps” of the animated characters. The group attends Anime Expo, the largest fan convention in America, held annually over 4th of July weekend at the Los Angeles Convention Center. They talk to students of various ages, from elementary school to high school, at the Kansas City Art Institute as they proudly show their attempts to create Japanese-style graphic novels. By the end of the second episode, it’s clear New Yorker Stephan Cho offers the most professional reporting.
But “America’s Greatest Otaku” loses its way at times: The popularity of sushi bars and Japanese martial arts predates the fan culture they’re supposed to be covering. Weekly challenges, including an eating contest, are simply irrelevant. More significantly, the participants sometimes confuse “otaku” with “hikikomori,” a term used to describe young people who shut themselves in their rooms for months or even years, with the Internet providing their only link to humanity. The syndrome was first observed in Japan but has begun to spread to the U.S.
The otaku subculture in America was initially dominated by Asian and white males, but in recent years, its fan base has grown more diverse. The contestants for the title of Greatest Otaku young men and women of varying backgrounds. They’re all rabid collectors of toys, books, DVDs, autographs and other paraphernalia. Many are cosplay participants who create elaborate outfits based on anime characters; they’re also avid gamers. But it’s not clear what makes one fan greater or more dedicated than another.
Otaku fandom has grown increasingly widespread in America in recent years, but it’s a phenomenon that’s largely been created by kids for kids, under the radar of their parents (and the mainstream media). “America’s Greatest Otaku” seems destined to find its audience among younger viewers who are already fans, rather than adults who might learn something from the series.
– Charles Solomon
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