Otaku is the New Cool: How the Image of the Japanese Nerd Transcended Through the Ages

Along its mission to engage the many great talents from its global network, One Block Down is proud to announce its latest partnership with magazine Sabukaru. Documenting the figures, movements and products that have shaped contemporary stylistic discourse, the collaboration looks to shine new light on some of culture’s most untold stories.

Though the details of its origins can be found in the specificities of postwar Japanese experiences and imaginations, the global circulation of ‘otaku culture’ has grown from a trickle down to a tidal wave in recent years, transforming a niche, stigmatized, cult-community into an international pop culture phenomenon. With a growing number of aficionados, both in and out of Japan, not only embracing but revering it, it’s no wonder otaku culture has and continues to influence many of the most prolific musicians, designers, artists and creatives of our time. From Murakami to maid cosplay, niches feel endless. And their collective volume demonstrates the cool, complex and heterogeneous nature of the Japanese cultural landscape in the twenty-first century.

It was in the early 1980s that the word ‘otaku’ first emerged, describing the tight-knit, marginal groups of Japanese alternative visual subcultures. Historically, the semi-loaded term was generally used to refer to those, usually males, who over-invested in their hobbies of choice, obsessively consuming or collecting content of Japan’s popular visual and digital culture such as manga, anime, video games or idol groups. Though the common comparisons to ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’ encapsulate much of its essence, they lack the much of the societal baggage the term ‘otaku’ bears, as early connotations, such as laziness or social-ineptness, were negative and often misconceived.

While those of us in the West tend to associate the term ‘otaku’ solely with anime and manga, the correct, Japanese usage of the term stretches across interests, encompassing subcultures from music or fashion to bullet trains. What car otaku, vinyl otaku, even bird-watching otaku, have in common is a passion & vigor for their hobbies that surpasses most of their peers.

The word ‘otaku’ is multi-faceted, and in many ways, ‘otaku culture’ defies simple definition. So it should come as no surprise that since its inception, the term “otaku” has been hotly contested by those in and outside the subculture. For some, it still evokes images of that weird kid in class that wore a cape everyday and read manga through lunch or some late-night snacking, obsessive shut-in. But for others, and rather increasingly, it's a postmodern, distinctive style of geek-chic expressed through the immersion in and intimate knowledge of Japanese pop and cyberculture. And, perhaps as further evidence of the swift ascendance of geek culture, your favourite artists, creatives and industry titans are letting their otaku-flags fly.

 

Within Japan..

It would be impossible to discuss the ever-evolving nuance of otaku culture without mentioning Japanese artist Takashi Murakami. Famous for large-scale, high-production-value sculptures and paintings that explore themes of postwar Japanese culture, the once-underground artist exploded into pop culture with a legion of high-profile followers accumulating over a decade, perhaps most notably being Kanye West, who as an early celebrity devotee had Murakami design the cover artwork for his Grammy Award-winning 2007 album ‘Graduation’ .

Setting out to create something ‘uniquely Japanese’, rooted in his own culture and history while still fresh and valid internationally, Murakami, fixated on otaku culture, coined the term ‘superflat’ to describe his new, influential art aesthetic in 2000. Developed from Poku, pop + otaku, Murakami’s Superflat style is characterized by flat planes of color and graphic images involving a character style derived from anime and manga. Superflat is an artistic style that comments on otaku lifestyle and subculture, as well as consumerism and sexual fetishism. Similarly to Andy Warhol, Murakami takes elements of Japan’s ‘low’ culture, repackages it, and sells it to the highest bidder in the “high-art” market. In 2008, Takashi Murakami made Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People list, and was the only visual artist to do so.

One of Murakami's most famous pieces, 'Hiropon', brings to light his love for otaku culture. Created in 2001 is said to show the "otaku culture and its strange, shocking sexuality in full force"

In addition to his eccentric painting or sculptural work, his resume includes mainstream or international collaborations with titans like Louis Vuitton, Supreme, Pharrell, COMME des GARÇONS, and visvim.There are countless sonic, visual and social examples of otaku influence in global popular culture.

 

Internationally...

 

There are countless sonic, visual and social examples of otaku influence in global popular culture.

Artist and ‘The Boondocks’ Creator Aaron McGruder has long been vocal about his love for manga and anime, and how both inspired The Boondocks comic strip and later-animated adult series. The Adult Swim satire follows the Freemans, a charming and dysfunctional African-American family adjusting to new life in an affluent white suburb, and is full of anime references, featuring anime-inspired artwork, animation and soundtrack. In a particularly delightful blend of “When East Meets West'' visual aesthetics, ‘The Boondocks’ depicts so many of the nuances of the Black American experience with hilarious skill. In a 2012 Comics Alliance interview, McGruder described The Boondocks as “[their] attempt at anime, but it’s very, very Black.”

While Brian Donnelly, AKA, KAWS may be beloved in his home country of the US, the New Jersey born artist and his creative, collectible, companion figures have always been closely associated with Japan and its toy and figure collecting subcultures. In fact, KAWS held his first-ever exhibition, titled KAWS TOKYO FIRST, in Japan, at Shibuya Parco.

Jeron Braxton, a self taught 3D animator exploring the Black American experience via surreal, psychedelic Playstation 2 aesthetics, is another artist of the digital age influenced by otaku culture, with surreal visual allusions reminiscent of SEGA’s Jet Set Radio Future. Braxton also cites creator of legendary film Akira Katsuhiro Otomo as inspiration.

Despite having been released over 30 years ago, Katshurio Otomo’s heavily-referenced 1988 anime film Akira is still one of the most influential films of all time, having gone on to inspire countless official and unofficial collaborations with artists, musicians and brands alike, such as Supreme or CDG. Even the video for Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson's 1995 hit "Scream" contains a subtle reference to the film.

Music producers and artists demonstrate both their influences and appreciation through sonic representations, often through the usage of samples. Since its emergence in 1970s New York, hip-hop has been about synthesizing a variety of experiences and ideas, blending and remixing an assortment of sounds, songs, and cultural references. African-American artists have long been influenced by Japanese culture in a number of ways, most commonly blending tropes within anime with aspects of Black experiences in America. Though sounds from anime, manga, film, video games and popular music from Japan are most commonly incorporated, in addition to sampling Japanese media of otaku cultures, hip-hop artists also illustrate that influence through lyricism.

Wu-Tang Clan member RZA frequently sampled Japanese martial arts films on albums like Enter the Wu (1993) and Liquid Swords (1995), later drawing comparisons to the “journey of the Black man in America” and the popular anime series Dragon Ball Z. When Ghostface Killah created the music video for his 1996 song “Daytona 500,” he paired it with clips from the popular anime Speed Racer, which originally premiered in Japan in 1967. Produced by RZA, this was one of the first AMVs (anime music video) created and one of the first to be aired on television. Both Tech N9ne and Lil Yachty and Offset sampled from the 1998 Cowboy Bebop Original Soundtrack. On “Pink Matter,” Frank Ocean presents sensual, vivid imagery through referencing Dragon Ball Z character Majin Buu. Video games are also a type of frequently sampled media. For example, “Dead Man’s Tetris” by Flying Lotus, Captain Murphy, and Snoop Dogg, samples sound effects from the 1991 Street Fighter II video game, and Wiz Khalifa samples the iconic “Green Hill Zone Theme” music from the SEGA1991 Sonic the Hedgehog by Masato Nakamura in his song “Ms. Rightfernow.” 

In addition to sampling dialogue from martial arts movies and background music from popular anime, hip hop artists and producers also sample songs from popular Japanese musicians. In 2014, hip-hop producer and rapper Pharrell Williams collaborated with Hatsune Miku on the song “Last Night, Good Night (Re:Dialed)” and a few years later, Big Boi, Killer Mike, and Jeezy sampled the song “DATA 2.0” featuring popular Japanese Vocaloid Hatsune Miku on “Kill Jill”. That said, real Japanese artists influence hip-hop as much as virtual ones. In 2019, Tyler the Creator samples and heavily borrows from Japanese city pop artist Tatsuro Yamashita’s 1998 song “Fragile” on his song “GONE GONE / THANK YOU”.

In addition to the artists listed above, artists like Lupe Fiasco, Childish Gambino, Lil Uzi Vert and Nicki Minaj have also incorporated similar sonic, visual, and collaborative elements of Japanese pop and otaku culture into their work.

Exploring the rich variety of otaku culture from multiple perspectives provides an interesting look into not only the present, but the future of popular culture, cultural production and distribution across the globe in the digital age.

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