1991's Otaku no Video is a satirical documentary lovingly detailing the anime otaku scene of the eighties while at the same time offering some frightening truths.
Otaku no Video balances itself between the real and the ideal by offering the fantasy world in anime form while showing the gritty reality in 'real' interviews.
The animated segments of Otaku no Video tells the story of Kubo, a university student who meets some old acquaintances from high school. While he is initially frightened by their obsessive nature, he realises that they possess the passion that his fellow students do not and comes to see the world through the eyes of an otaku. Kubo comes to understand that being otaku is more than reliving a misspent youth - that anime is genuine artistry! After being dumped by his girlfriend, Kubo vows that if society will treat him in such a way, he will not just be otaku, he will be the otaking!
Throughout the fanciful anime, ostensibly based upon GAiNAX's meteoric rise to fame, are live interviews titled Portrait of an otaku. While they are entirely scripted, each of them rings eerily true. To enhance the idea of the stigma attached to otakudom, each interview subject has his face pixellated and voice digitally altered.
Their names are pseudonymous and at the beginning of each interview a fact sheet that lists "years as an otaku", rather like a documentary's exposé of an alcoholic or drug runner.
The difference between the anime and the "reality" is that Kubo wears his badge with pride, but the "genuine" otaku are ashamed of their position.
As a narrative anime, Otaku no Video develops well. The first OVA is fairly credible, and effectively shows Kubo's progression from tennis player to the uncleansed otaku. The second episode, however, is considerably more fantastic. Kubo takes on Japanese industry and finds contentment. The industry is, of course, little more than a pipe dream to most.
The two segments are edited effectively, with the anime cutting off at appropriate junctures and Portrait of an Otaku weighing down the sometimes overly buoyant anime preventing it from simply floating away.
The juxtaposition is interesting. The sad, pathetic otaku are those in denial. Kubo, however, is completely honest about his otakuhood, and never lets society dictate his behaviour. The anime is shameless, but the 'genuine' otaku is overcome with shame. The anime therefore is about the true otaku; true to himself, true to his way of life. The interviews show the bondage that so many otaku are forced to live under.
The interviews themselves are a mixed collection. Some of them are hilarious, some of them are frightening, and others are simply too steeped in Japanese cultural and social mores to mean much to any other audience. The mosaic goggle segment in particular is ill explained, which is odd as so many of the others offer large amounts of exposition.
While it would be wrong to watch Otaku no Video without the Portrait of an Otaku segments, they don't evoke the same joy afforded by the anime. It's a precarious balancing act that forces the viewer to understand that the anime can't be real.
Production wise, Otaku no Video is standard GAiNAX fare: that is, whimsical and frequently beautiful. The characters of popular 1980s designer Sonoda Kenichi are attractive and showcase a wide array of otaku types, including the cute girl with glasses, the tall guy who speaks archaic Japanese, the old night owl (who allows the group to operate 24 hours a day), the short guy with an outdated crewcut and, of course, the fat guy with glasses. Not coincidentally, Kubo's girlfriend bears a resemblance to Macross' Lynn Minmay, the Chinese singer who earned the love of the entire universe but drifted irrevocably from her love interest.
There are many visual homages to other classics. Cosplay comes up on more than one occasion, with striking results. All of the otaku apartments are full of models and posters, accurate and instantly recognisable. Of course, GAiNAX would never pass up a chance for self promotion, and their characters from Nadia: Secret of Blue Water appear several times throughout; one of them even making the cover.
The whole project culminates in Kubo's vision of Otakuland, which is the pinnacle of both reference and reverence.
The music for the anime segments is good, with an upbeat theme that plays throughout without ever becoming too repetitive. The OP, Fight! Otaking is a marvellous analysis of the noble spirit of the otaku that hearkens back to the golden days of anime songs. 'Burning passion is the only thing I believe in!' It features a powerful male vocal unwavering in its enthusiasm.
The ED, Lost Way of the Otaku, is a duet in the most traditional sense of call and response.
'You tacky, unsightly person, I can't love you.' says She.
'Cosplay is my reason for living!' comes His reply.
Both songs are stylish and hilarious, but their true strength lies in the fact that they're delivered completely seriously and with total conviction.
By comparison, Portrait of an Otaku has very basic production values, at the end cutting to graphs with "summary" music and a soothing voice over explaining otaku mentality. It's essentially approached as a "hard hitting exposé of what is wrong with today's society" and boasts similarly cheap values to those of tabloid TV.
Otaku no Video is at times hilarious, at times disturbing and at times obscure. Admittedly, the audience that would get the most from this OVA are Japanese anime fans of the time of production, but to someone who knows more than a little about anime, Otaku no Video provides a nice indication of the culture that surrounds it. As a direct love letter to anime and its fans, they don't come much better than this.