Otaku no Video Review
Where to begin? I guess a disclaimer is the most sensible way to start: I know a bit about animé, but don't really qualify for the exalted status of 'otaku' [hardcore enthusiast]. Which means that I'm sure there are plenty of rabid fans out there who would be able to spot dozens more in-jokes and passing references to other animé shows in Otaku no Video than I can. I hope you guys don't feel the need to lay into me just because I only mention a handful in this review.
That out of the way, what exactly is this show about? Well, it's several things. First off, it's a meta-animé – it's a show done in animated style about the animé (and manga, and model kit, etc.) industry. More importantly, it's a mockumentary of the first water, as it follows the rise and turbulent fortunes of a 'fictional' company in the field whilst also purporting to conduct 'genuine' research on the fanbase. Confused yet? In the immortal words of Yoda, 'You should be.'
Perhaps an explanation of the format will help. Otaku no Video alternates between professional animé segments (which chronicle the exploits of the hero as he climbs the ladder of fandom in search of the title 'Otaking') and unrelated documentary-style 'live' interviews with 'real' fans. (Didn't help, did it?)
OK, let's take another step back and address the basics: 1, this show is dangerously funny; 2, it's about fans, by fans, for fans; 3, it can be enjoyed and appreciated even by people who aren't 'otaku' themselves (although die-hard animé fans will naturally get more out of it); 4, despite all of its humour and strangeness, there are many points where it is actually quite touching and/or sad; and 5, I recommend it.
The fact is, this DVD release contains two separate shows - 1982 Otaku no Video and 1985 Zoku [More] Otaku no Video. Together they total about 100 minutes of running time; it's a good thing AnimEigo released them together, because the story arc only reaches its most satisfying conclusion at the end of the second show, so you'll want to watch these two back-to-back.
Speaking of the story... set in 1982, it tells the tale of Kubo – your average first-year student at college, fairly sporty and with a girlfriend – who has a chance encounter with a old friend from his high school days (Tanaka) that nudges his life down an entirely different path... 'The Lost Way of Otaku' (to quote the theme song). Tanaka – and his retinue of geeky mates, each an anorak in a particular field of fandom – indoctrinate the newbie Kubo in the wonders of everything from cosplay [costume play; that is, making outfits like those worn by your fave fictional characters and then going out in them] to cel painting and fanzine design.
Pretty soon the lad is hooked, and as he becomes more deeply involved in all things otaku, he begins to let other aspects of his life slide – like tennis (which he used to take very seriously) and his girlfriend (who can't understand his fanatical devotion to these new-found hobbies). But things really come to a head when he and his friends are insulted by some passers-by at the opening night of Nausicäa of the Valley of the Wind, and the recognition dawns on him that he is looked upon as something of a pariah.
At this point he decides to make a clean break with 'normal' society, stop looking for 'respectable' jobs, and instead take pride in being an otaku. In fact, he resolves to become the most otaku of all otakus: the 'Otaking'. He strikes out in business for himself, and with the aid of his mate Tanaka they begin to legitimatise the garage kit industry.
Anyway, I don't want to give away the whole story, so let's just say their little company (and moreover, Kubo himself) experiences all sorts of ups and downs, but his passion for the industry never falters. Over the course of both shows, Otaku no Video goes from evoking a fairly-accurate depiction of the early 80s fan environment in Japan to extrapolating an amusing 'alternate future' for the lead characters in the year 2035 which is wonderfully silly.
This animé portion of the shows is absolutely rife with references not only to popular animé and manga of the time, but also nods and winks to market developments that have happened since. The in-jokes and homages are everywhere – in what characters are wearing, how they address one another (the original derivation of the phrase 'otaku' being a stilted and over-formal way of saying 'you'), little sketches in the form of throwaway dialogue, the names of Kubo's company and its competitors, telltale technology (like a Betamax with wired remote), and strange objects cluttering the background in various scenes.
The fact is (as the back of the DVD case explains), part of the reason this 'fictional' account rings so true is because it is based – however loosely – on the history of the real company Gainax (one of Japan's best-loved animation studios, and the outfit responsible for producing these two shows). However, I myself only learned this basic historical background by reading the liner notes – after I had already watched the shows through once – so I would say it's not at all critical to your enjoyment of ONV.
As if this weren't enough to take in, you must remember that the animé is only half of what these shows are all about. The other part are the brilliant pseudo-documentary interview sequences, entitled 'Portrait of an Otaku'. Wheeling out all of the standard protect-the-informant's-identity schtick – you know: 'X (pseudonym)', 'voice altered at the interviewee's request', and the pixelating out of the facial area – these segments range from the highly amusing to the frankly worrying.
A quick cross-section of the stranger 'interviews' includes: a[n animation] cel thief who makes rounds of the big studios posing as a courier; a military simulation fanatic who stresses with some fervour how important it is for replica weapons to look and feel just like their genuine counterparts; a guy who has designed a pair of goggles to help cancel out the censoring mosaic effect introduced over the naughty bits of adult films; a sad fellow who seems to do nothing but play hentai [porno animé] computer games; and a former cosplayer who denies ever having done the dress-up thing until confronted with an old photograph.
All in all, these live action bits (sometimes accompanied, no less, by pie charts, graphs, or tables showing the results of 'surveys' undertaken by the interviewers!) permit the viewer an unprecedented glimpse into a spectrum of otaku pursuits. Naturally, with only 10 such segments to work with there is a limit to what they can cover, but all of the staged encounters really come across well, and have a certain gritty verisimilitude to them.
OK, since there are in fact two different kinds of video here – animated and live-action – each has to be scored separately... because, let's face it, their quality isn't even remotely the same.
First, the animé... it's frankly astounding how good it looks after all these years. I've just been working on a whole spate of animé reviews – they all should be up now on DVD Times by the time you read this – and I've seen some contemporary shows that pale by comparison. Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised at how crisp the lines are or how vibrant the colours are... these were Gainax productions, after all (the same people responsible for Neon Genesis Evangelion, etc.).
Anyway, during 1982 Otaku no Video I didn't notice any pixelation at all, the screen blacks were really black, and I think I only saw a couple instances of cross-colouration. However, the start of 1985 Zoku [More] Otaku no Video seemed slightly blotchier by comparison, with a few obvious examples of macroblocking visible in the intro sequence. Still, that's the only place there was a problem, so overall a very nice transfer.
As for the live-action segments, well, they're about home video quality and look like they were done by one of the producer's mates who happened to own a camcorder. Now, you'd probably take that as a negative assessment, but considering the whole mockumentary feel to these shows, my guess is that this gritty 'realistic' look is just what Gainax was shooting for all along. If so, it works. Despite there being obvious 'stagey' points that give the game away, with a little suspension of disbelief you can easily imagine these are bona fide interviews instead of an illustrative exercise. So I'm not going to lower the video score on this basis.
Again, I think the sound on these two shows is very good. It's just your basic Dolby 2.0 stereo mix, but it fills up the front soundstage really nicely (even though I didn't notice much in the way of left-right directionality). As the key aspect of programmes like these is the clarity of dialogue, that's what I was mostly paying attention to. Everything came across loud and clear... no distortions, even when sound effects kicked in.
Of course, that really refers only to the animé segments. As mentioned above in the Picture section, I think Gainax was trying to achieve a more unpolished feel for the pseudo-documentary live-action sections, and so the audio quality definitely suffers there. The interviewees' responses are occasionally murky (kind of like you'd expect from a cheap camcorder mic) and there's a lot of ambient white noise in the background (ditto).
Which reminds me of another thing. As the AnimEigo liner notes enclosed with the DVD reveal, one of the interview segments is with a character named 'Shon Hernandez' (an amalgam of the names of Shon Howell and Lea Hernandez, two of the original core employees of GP USA, a Gainax subsidiary). This is the only interview with an English-speaking person, so if you listen closely you can just make out his actual responses to the interviewer's questions beneath the Japanese voiceover... and they are for the most part nothing like what the Japanese 'translator' is saying. Seriously, if you get this disc you simply must do a comparison of the English subtitles of what 'Shon' is supposed to be saying with what he really is saying. It's a laugh and a half.
This Sound section could hardly be complete without at least a mention of the generally high quality of the opening and closing theme songs for these shows. Each one imitates a different style. The opening song ('Fight! Otaking') adopts the flavour of the theme songs from many mecha and space-opera animé shows of the 80s... which isn't really surprising considering the obvious love the writers had for this sub-genre from the many (and I mean many) allusions to these shows in Otaku no Video.
However, it's really the closing song ('The Lost Way of Otaku') that's the true gem here. Done in the mode of an enka-pop duet, its lines and stanzas alternate between the man (an otaku) and the woman (his girlfriend/wife), and it is outrageously funny. The first half (which plays at the end of 1982 Otaku no Video) has the man pleading his case with his lover, and her refusing to accept the change that's come over him since he went otaku. However, in the second half – which concludes the second show – she miraculously comes around to his way of thinking! (I think my fave line has got to be: 'You, with your dazzling smile, your Char costume-play is wonderful too. Hold me tight, just like Lalah.' It's simply giggle-inducing.)
I'm afraid this is where things begin to fall down for this otherwise excellent disc. To put it bluntly, the menus are ugly and slightly buggy. For example, after the disc plays all of the obligatory pre-menu copyright splash screens, the main menu shows up, but (on my DVD player, at least) seems frozen until you actually press the MENU or RETURN buttons on your remote control. Then it runs normally.
Similarly, throughout the entire disc, whenever you leave a selection or attempt to break out and return to the main menu, as often as not you'll be treated to a 3-second clip from 1982 Otaku no Video where Kubo's tennis partner gives him the 'baka' [idiot] gesture and storms off the court. Although funny the first time it happens, after a dozen times or so of having the DVD tell you that you're an idiot for wanting to return to the main menu, it gets really old. (Once or twice the clip even went into perpetual loop mode, which is bloody annoying.)
So that covers the 'buggy' bit... what's this about ugly menus, though? Well, they just are. For the main menu they've ignored many spectacularly good layout possibilities and instead chosen a bland, washed-out, sketch-work image of a crowd scene with Kubo pointing, as if to lead the way for otakus everywhere. (Yeah, it sounds a lot better than it looks.) Over this they've dumped the few menu options in variously-sized type and an unattractive font across an ragged arc at screen left. All of this was apparently done just so the lad in the menu design department could make Kubo's arm point at different menu options when you highlight each of them... but these different menu stills apparently weren't placed adjacent to one another on the DVD, because there's a huge access delay while the disc spins, finds, and displays each new image. Which is to say, the main menu is not merely ugly, but worse: sluggish.
Nor is the menu very intuitive to use. For instance, your selections are limited to '1982 Otaku no Video', '1985 More Otaku no Video', 'Playback Options', 'Play All', 'Images', and 'Movie Trailer'. OK, now guess which you should choose if you want to select a scene from the first OVA. Perhaps you'd think that – there being no 'Scene Selections' option in evidence – you would be given one if you selected the show itself from the main menu. If so, you'd be wrong.
On the other hand, maybe you had a zen-like moment and chose 'Playback Options' instead. OK, so now you're faced with another unattractive static menu, but still no sign of scene selections. This one throws the DVD interface Blue Book out the window straightaway by making it impossible for the end user to go right back to the main menu. Yes, that's correct... all those nice buttons on your remote like RETURN and BACK and PREV won't avail you unless you first make two unrelated selections from this sub-menu, even if you don't want to.
What's that all about? Well, it's very weird. The 'Playback Options' menu has two trios of tickboxes at the top and centre of the screen, followed by a trio of the more usual text selections at the very bottom. To leave this screen, you must first choose one of the first three tickboxes and then choose one of the second three tickboxes. Only then will you be permitted to access the three text links ('Main Menu', 'Interview Scenes', 'Animé Scenes'). This is known in the industry as Vexing the Consumer™.
Mind you, there's nothing wrong with the options on any of these trios of selections. It's certainly useful to be able to choose whether you want: 1, subtitles and captions; 2, captions but no subtitles; or 3, neither. It's also very handy to be able to choose to play: 1, the entire show as it was originally intended; 2, just the animé segments; or 3, just the interview segments. But on any other DVD menu I've ever seen, you would still be allowed to scroll through all nine selections from the get-go, rather than being stranded in each compartmentalised section until you've been forced to pick one of the three options in it.
OK, rant mode off. We still haven't found the scene selections sub-menu. That's because it's really a sub-sub-menu lurking under those two text links at the bottom of the screen. If you choose either of them, you'll be brought to an index page – that looks good for a change – either containing all 10 interview segments (5 for each OVA) or all 12 animé segments (6 for each OVA). Here the menu guy did an OK job, using cool trapezoid windows for the former and skewed ovals for the latter, all of which are loop-animated to show a little bit from each chapter.
Alas, these two are the only good menus on the disc...
...so, just as I try to add a few points to a DVD's 'Extras' score when the menus rock, I'm going to have to subtract a few this time around because the ones on this disc are generally so mediocre. Unfortunately that's going to prove hard to do considering how few Extras are included on the disc to begin with.
First, there's the trailer, which is only the one for the sequel, not the original 1982 Otaku no Video. Well, no foul, I guess... this may be all that AnimEigo had to work with from Gainax. However, the trailer itself is very short and fairly bland... which is to say that it wouldn't have made me rush out to see the sequel.
Next, the image gallery. This is rather more substantial, with around 100 images to view... many of them merely production stills, but a few are really nice pieces of previously unseen artwork. But I'm afraid they couldn't leave well enough alone, and the menu guys fell prey to the most common pitfall of image galleries... framing them. This is such a basic authoring mistake that one wonders how anyone can still be doing this with DVD slideshows after all these years. In this instance, it seems they thought it would be cool to have the images come up on a 'cinema screen' and fill the foreground MST3K style with an animé audience. When will these people understand that DVD viewers don't go to the image gallery to look at the pretty frames... we go to look at the images. All that framing accomplishes is to make those images smaller, their details harder to make out, and us feel inadequate for not owning a wall-size TV.
Right, enough of that. As usual with AnimEigo releases, there's another special feature that doesn't generally make the online vendors' lists: the 'liner notes' that they put out with each of their DVDs. These take the form of cute little 'recipe cards', generally jammed full of production notes, historical background regarding the show, song lyrics, cultural and linguistic references, and so on. As you might have guessed for a show like Otaku no Video, this has got to be the chunkiest stack of such cards I've ever read through. (We're talking six full pages, front and back, printed in 6-point – or smaller! – type.) There's a lot of good material there, including the full lyrics to both the opening and ending songs (yes, even the 'phantom verses' from the latter) and every possible in-joke the AnimEigo lads could spot. (A lot more than I did, let me tell you.)
So what's my final assessment? Well, if you're a fan of animé (not necessarily an otaku, mind) or a fanatical enthusiast of anything, you're certain to find this DVD a laugh, and will almost certainly enjoy it. Naturally Otaku no Video is primarily geared towards geeks, so I may be a little biased in favour of it... but even if you've never really been interested in animé but do have friends who are devoted to it, this is also a great disc to watch because it paints a human face on fandom (even if the industry has moved on a bit and certain parts feel a little dated).
Finally, this DVD is just plain interesting from a creative achievement point of view, these shows having set the standard early on for mockumentaries (another high-water mark, of course, being This Is Spinal Tap) and popularised a format where animation is interleaved with live action. (Yes, I'm aware that Twilight of the Cockroaches came out a couple of years earlier, but it's a very different type of show.)
Anyway, the show's excellent, the video is solid, and the audio is good. So what if the extras are lightweight and the menus are a bit iffy? Otaku no Video is definitely worth a watch if you get the chance.