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Anime Reviews: "Otaku no Video"

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I've got an English degree and am really into anime, video games, movies, music, and D&D.

Kubo learns the hard way that being an otaku is not a simple matter.

Kubo learns the hard way that being an otaku is not a simple matter.

Some Basic Info About This Classic OVA Series

Title: Otaku no Video
Genre: Comedy
Production: Gainax
Series Length: 2 OVA (96 min.)
Release Date: 9/27/1991 and 12/20/1991
Age Rating: 13+ (mild language, general fanservice including brief partial nudity)

Summary: The year is 1982. Kubo, an athletic college student, is the only one in his tennis club who takes the sport seriously, to the consternation of his drinking buddies. One night, when he ducks out early because of an impending match, he reunites with a buddy from high school, Tanaka, who has been chumming about with fellow "otaku" (mega-fans of any kind, though typically associated with anime) and pumping out fan magazines with the help of Tanaka's crew of misfits. Growing bored with his daily life, Kubo meets with Tanaka and his circle of friends at "a place where it's like a school festival every day," only to find himself being drawn into the bizarre realm of otaku-dom himself. Can Kubo reclaim the normalcy of his college career, or will he embrace this strange new way of life and become a world-class otaku himself?

The Good: Charming, funny, and quintessentially Gainax; provides fascinating insight into the early anime fan scene
The Bad: Animation quality hasn't aged well; the live-action interview segments miss the mark
The Ugly: Fandom...fandom never changes...

How Did This Little Title Find Itself Wandering Into My Path?

I've been an anime fan since the late 90s, when Toonami started showing Dragonball Z during the after-school hours. The Pokémon TV series, coming out not long after, was also a major introductory series, though at this time I had not been fully sucked into the anime fandom--just merely gotten a taste of it. And then Toonami started adding more and more anime, increasing my craving for this strange new medium, and then once I had discovered Slayers, my first anime found outside of what was shown on TV in the states, I knew for certain I was going down the rabbit hole, never to return. I never quite reached any absurd levels of rabid fandom, but I was brushing elbows with maniacs nonetheless. This story's relevance might seem questionable at best for this review, but I'd argue that it's the most relevant thing I can discuss here and now. Otaku no Video is not just a wacky little anime about a guy falling down the very same rabbit hole--rather, it's a celebration of otaku culture and an invitation for anime fans of all stripes to share their histories with each other, as any community should!

As for how I ended up watching this quaint little OVA, that's a simpler story: I've mentioned my escapades at GenCon 2011 before in earlier reviews, including my triumphant tie for first place at the "Anime Name-That-Tune" contest. My prize was a DVD copy of Otaku no Video. And so I watched it. But I've forgotten to review it all this time. So I watched it again. And now I shall tell you about my thoughts on it!

Before his transformation, Kubo's life was dull and void of passion.

Before his transformation, Kubo's life was dull and void of passion.

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What Makes This OVA a Classic Among Old-School Anime Fans?

First of all, it wouldn't be an early Gainax anime if it didn't have its trademark long, angular, and lanky character designs, so that's always a good thing, in my book--I just can't get enough of this particular art style, so it pleases me to no end to see it in action. It worked wonders in Nadia and Evangelion, and it works wonders here, too. There is also a lot of attention to small details in the backgrounds, as well, with legendary anime like Ashita no Joe and The Rose of Versailles getting shout-outs on bootleg VHS tapes, Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro and Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind having their theatrical posters on view for all to see, the endless homages to Gainax's very first animations for Daicon III and IV, and an endless slew of other shout-outs and references that go beyond what even I can recognize. And that's not even including the shelves of model-making equipment and dozens of model-gun models that were also strewn about Tanaka's apartment! Agonizing work went into making the otaku dens feel like real otaku dens, and the OVA is all the better for it.

As far as Otaku no Video's narrative goes, it's nothing revolutionary at all, but there's certainly a lot to love in Kubo's journey into the rabbit hole of otaku culture. There are plenty of jokes and references, and the over-the-top nature of the story as it expands into ludicrous business-world espionage and revenge plots adds a surreal hilarity to the proceedings without making things complicated. Our main characters are fairly basic and won't blow your mind, but here's the thing: The story and characters don't need to be unique, they need to be relatable and--above all else--fun. Kubo isn't an especially deep character, but his drive to become the otaku among otaku--the Otaking!--makes him fun and memorable. Tanaka is every anime nerd ever, but he feels real, and he's genuinely passionate and fun to be around. The characters aren't so much complex constructs as much as they are symbols meant for us to rally behind--symbols that humanized otaku, which was incredibly important in the early 1990s.

Don't forget about that little factoid: This came out in 1991. Anime was still a weird thing back then. Otaku was basically treated like subhuman garbage among the general population, in Japan and just about everywhere else. Building model robots was for weirdos, collecting model rifles was for lunatics, knowing technical details about sci-fi movies was for basement-dwelling virgins--these were mainstream opinions back in those days. The vast majority of anime fans who have seen Otaku no Video likely saw it shortly after it was released and could relate to the characters' struggle to seek validation from a world that thinks them dubious at best, and even if you've only seen it recently (or haven't yet), you can probably remember what it was like to be made fun of or dismissed purely due to your interests and passions--Otaku no Video is ultimately about striving towards your dreams, even if there are only a few people who understand and support you. And that's really what this OVA hammers home: Pursuing your passion is where you'll find true contentment, the general public be damned--and in fact, with any luck, you may very well sway public opinion to your side, and then you'll have truly become the Otaking!

At his college's school festival, Kubo is shocked to see Tanaka along with one of his associates, Sato, in full costume.

At his college's school festival, Kubo is shocked to see Tanaka along with one of his associates, Sato, in full costume.

Surely There Are Problems That Need Addressing, as Well?

Indeed there are. First and less importantly, the animation quality is far from the best. Being a relic from the olden days of low-budget titles made with hand-painted cels, I would suggest you not go looking for smooth cuts of animation or frame stability here. Even with the modest handful of successes at this point in their career, Gainax was still not that big of a studio, after all. You're here for the fun, campy storyline and the cultural relevance, not those sweet, sweet sakuga clips.

But the real problem--the elephant in the room, if you will--is Otaku no Video's infamous live-action interview segments. The problem is that they suck. Hard. Not just because the production is of questionable quality, but the interviews themselves are staged and absolutely fake. The interviewees, supposedly random otaku, are actually Gainax staff with fake names and props masquerading as troubled otaku. For whatever unfathomable reason, these interview segments grossly exaggerate the negative stereotypes of otaku culture, completely undermining the entire point the OVA is making in the first place! Oh, and don't even get me started on the segment with the otaku from America--suffice it to say that he speaks English, so he needs subtitles and a voice-over for the Japanese audience, and they have 100% completely lied about what the guy is saying.

The interview segments are trash. Scripted, deceptive, harmful trash. Who even thought they were a good idea in the first place? Luckily, the DVD (and, presumably, the Blu-Ray) comes with the option of skipping these interviews outright. Expect to make good use of that feature.

Kubo, Tanaka, and Sato camp out for the premiere of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

Kubo, Tanaka, and Sato camp out for the premiere of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

With All That Said, What’s the Verdict?

Otaku no Video has problems. Big, smelly live-action problems. But if you are a fan of old-school anime and this OVA has somehow slipped past your radar, I urge you to give it a shot, same for all of you folks out there who are just genuinely curious about the state of the anime fandom from the 80s and early 90s. Old-school Gainax knew their stuff about what it meant to be an otaku back in those days--in fact, many have speculated that the series closely parallels the real-life founding of Gainax itself--so if that kind of thing sounds interesting to you, then this is outright mandatory viewing. Get out there and get your hands on it! As for everyone else out there, this may not be the most revolutionary title around, but surely there's nothing to be lost in an hour and a half of good old-fashioned fun, right? Who knows, you just might find yourself striving to become an Otaking or Otaqueen yourself!

Final Score: 7.5 out of 10. Otaku no Video provides a fun-filled and over-the-top portrait of what it was like to be an otaku in the early days of the anime craze, and thus is an invaluable title for those interested in that part of our pop-culture history, but the scripted and fake live-action interviews are an aberration that will no doubt tarnish the experience for many.

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