I had an interesting experience recently.
First, I read this post over on the Slice of Alfredo Blog. It’s partially a tribute to the work of a seiyuu (an anime voice actor) and idol (musical artist, singing and dancing on stage) named Aya Hirano, but then it uses her experiences as an example to examine a larger issue. Specifically, the demands that otaku (Japanese version of fans, reputedly much more obsessive than their Western counterparts) place on their idols. A rather perplexing and disturbing example is how they demand that these idols, who are full-grown, legal, adult women, remain utterly “pure.” They must not have sex, they must not even have any relationships, they must not be seen in public with a man, heck, they can’t even have some threadbare resemblance to a completely fictional animated character in a hentai (anime pornography) which they had nothing to do with, without facing severe backlash, including threats and potentially ending their career.
From a Western, American perspective, that is a most confusing behavior. Personally, I tend not to care at all about the personal lives of our celebrities, but those few times I have, it has been to appreciate when these people have lasting, happy marriages and build families. In an environment that is ridden with terrible, short-lived relationships and unending drama and heartbreak, it is something sadly rare and to be praised, and that, much more than any fame or fortune, has seemed to me like rising to the top of the world. These people entertain us for a living, but they are still people, and I am happy when I see happiness.
As for the more common, sordid affairs our celebrities engage in, they’ve not really interested me. Oh, look, Taylor Swift is in another feud and has another revenge song. Oh, look, some person is dating some other person. Oh, look, someone else is caught cheating. What else is new?
And yes, we have scandals aplenty in the USA, and we may, if we actually care enough about it, rag on a celebrity, their person, their reputation, their career, etc. but that’s about it.
So, to see a number of people who profess to be fans, even as obsessively as otaku are rumored to be, become so absolutely outraged just because some girl they idolize is dating someone, it baffles me. Not to say Aya Hirano’s behavior, in particular, is something I endorse, but it’s not really my business. It’s her life to do whatever she wants with, with or without my approval.
I readily admit, as I was learning about this, I quickly became judgmental towards “the angry otaku.” Disgusted by their behavior, I quickly crafted, in my head, a possible explanation that probably hits below the belt. I thought perhaps they might want their idols to remain “untouched” so they could fantasize about being the ones to touch them while simultaneously excusing their inability to do so. When someone else touches them instead, the fantasy crumbles, and so does the excuse. All they’re left with, then, is the reality that this is an actual person, but one they never had any chance with. Faced with that, who wouldn’t be upset when their idols prove to be only human?
I know, it was very unkind of me, and I doubtless owe an apology to many an otaku in Japan. While I still suspect some of the hostility may be for exactly that reason, it is unwarranted for me to suggest this is true of the majority of angry otaku.
Still, I had some difficulty grasping why else they would be so angry just because some woman, fully legal, dares to be human, dares to have emotions, dares to have a relationship, dares to be in the company of a man, or happens to have some minute resemblance to an animated pornographic character they had no business in creating.
Then, as this kept turning over in my head, it occurred to me: I’ve already seen this before. In fact, I’ve seen it in anime! How many times have we seen it? You know, the trope of some character being a refined upperclassman, excelling in all subjects and possessing outstanding looks, standing above everyone else as if on a pedestal… and they have a fan-club they don’t or can’t control, devoted to them, and to their “purity,” which becomes rabid when any perceived threat to said purity appears? They use it all the time! It’s commonplace!
This was one of those moments where I went, “Whoa, that’s actually real? I had no idea!” Mind, blown.
In the anime To Love-Ru, for instance, we have a fan club popping up around the character of Momo. From the moment it forms, Momo’s fan club works to keep her separate from others, always following her around, keeping anyone from getting close to her without their permission, and preventing her from getting close to anyone else. Sound familiar?
And when they lose sight of her, their leader immediately has his own perverted imaginings of what another boy might be doing to her. Which sounds rather reminiscent of my own theory, which is given further weight by how this is a club of high school losers who banded together only to avoid fighting each other while getting closer to Momo. In the end, Momo was only able to resume her normal life after she told her fan club off for their aggressive, isolating behavior.
Of course I discounted the possibility of everything about this extended sequence the first time I saw it, but if everything else is apparently real, why not that last as well? Still, if I am to draw on anime to help explain something real, then I need look at other examples as well.
For instance, learning about the reaction otaku have when their idol might become no longer “pure” explained, in anime that follow a idols, why it’s such a huge deal when they find a romantic interest. I never understood why that would be a career-killer, but now it makes sense. …well, ok, it’s still illogical and absurd, but now I understand how it works like that.
I recall a scene from one anime (one I absolutely hate, but I’m drawing on the scene anyway) where a young girl, an idol, thanked her fans for their adoration, but then openly confessed her feelings, then and there, to a young man at the back of the audience. It made no sense to me why she was talking like this was a farewell. Everyone glared at the boy in question, who refused her. She sighed and accepted the refusal and kept singing.
So, she actually felt strongly enough about this boy that she was willing to choose him over her career. She did it openly, in front of her fans, which also makes more sense more sense now. I had thought it was rather terrible of her to do that, put him on the spot in front of an audience, but now I see, it was so she could avoid their anger in response to senseless rumors. And when the boy rejected her, they resumed cheering on their idol, who remained pure.
That scene felt ridiculous to me before, and it’s a little unsettling now to think that it could have actually been fairly realistic.
For another example, this one perhaps more domestic, I point to Fruits Basket. One especially handsome character, Yuki, has a fan club. This fan club, like all the rest, puts the object of their fanatical devotion onto a pedestal. And when Tohru, protagonist of the show and potential love interest, enters the scene, they go ballistic. They call her her names, the bully her, they scheme about getting her away from their beloved idol because she’s supposedly taking him away from them, and they’re willing to go to extremes in response, all while considering it nothing more than “their job, to protect him.” He is their celebrity, and they are the creepy obsessive stalkers. Or perhaps that is too tame a comparison: he is their deity, and they are his (heretical) zealots.
And that, right there, is when I began to understand another potential explanation for hostile otaku behavior. They don’t just idolize, they practically worship, and what people worship, they often elevate beyond humanity. How unbelievable is it, then, for one to become violently hostile when their chosen deity suddenly seems more human, and therefore somehow “less” than it was before, and thus supposedly “taken away” from them?
Not to get either religious or blasphemous here, but I am reminded of The DaVinci Code, which is based on this idea that entire secret wars have been fought over the question of whether or not Jesus of Nazareth ever got married and had a child. People want their deity to be inhuman, and one side of this war uses that to maintain a grasp on power, while the other accepts the humanity of the Savior and protects his lineage with their very lives. The protagonist of the story, Robert Langdon, doesn’t see why it has to be either one or the other, why Jesus couldn’t be the Son of God and have a family at the same time, but there are others who are willing to kill to maintain the idea of his inhumanity, and thus his distance from humanity.
Now, that is a rather extreme case, and a sensitive one, and whatever side you’d take in that conflict, my point is: there would be conflict. Even more pointedly, it wouldn’t be because of any perverse, physical desires, it would simply be because some people believe devotion can only be given to those who are of a substantially higher existence. The emperors of China and Japan, the Pope and monarchs of Medieval Europe, the tyrannical regimes of modern day communism, all of these are examples where the ruler is elevated above the common man, ruling by the mandate of some higher power, and all of them commanded absolute devotion from their followers. That was a double-edged sword, though, as supposedly losing such a mandate could easily prove their ruin.
Perhaps, lacking an emperor now, Japanese otaku have simply filled the void with normal people, their idols. Then again, maybe it’s something even deeper than that.
Certainly the Japanese aren’t the only ones to do that, to elevate normal people to greater-than-human heights. We do it all the time, building our personal heroes up in such a manner. We put them on pedestals, rigidly defined by our flawed definition of perfection. And when they step off it, when they dare be only human and make mistakes, then we, too, can be merciless in our judgment of them. Where we once deified them, now we demonize them. It’s happened over and over and over again.
Even if we don’t worship them, we can easily put our own peers above us in our own minds. Like in Gamers, a more recent anime which I gave up watching it after a handful of episodes, partially because I wanted to throttle the main character. You see, there was a gorgeous girl who was clearly into him, but he built her up in his own mind, while also debasing himself. He kept saying he was nothing, and could only be nothing, or even less than nothing, to her. Her every gaze and everything she did with him, he was sure, was out of pity. Why else would a goddess like her pay any attention to someone so low as him?
He was wrong, of course. The girl was just a girl. She didn’t see herself as higher, or him as lower. She really wanted to get closer to him. She really did like him, and he almost missed out entirely.
As humans, I think we have a need to be devoted to something, or someone, to give us purpose in our lives. But it can’t just be anything. It can’t be “normal,” because how is something normal worth such devotion? It needs to be greater than human, above human, even inhuman. It has to be “perfect,” and we mistakenly, I think, define perfection as something beyond humanity. Thus, when it’s a person we are devoting ourselves to, we can easily fall into the trap of making inhuman demands, and reacting very badly when those expectations are not met.
Just think of a parent making demands of their child, or the other way around, each one wanting the other to be “perfect” according to their definition of such. All such demands do is breed pain and resentment for the demands, and perhaps guilt and grief for failing to live up to them. That is a small, everyday example of devotion gone wrong.
All of which ignores and belittles the value of “the normal.” The joy of laughter is normal, after all. That is something human, something within reach, and something that great men and women have devoted their lives to.
There is nothing wrong with our idols and our heroes being normal people, who do normal things, and make normal mistakes, and have normal relationships. Yet most people have difficulty with this concept. Not only does that result in our placing undue pressure on our heroes, but it limits what we aspire to as well, because we’re somehow not as great as we see them to be.
I do not mean to excuse the atrocious behavior of angry otaku – indeed, such behavior is inexcusable and they really need to get a handle on themselves – but I think I might understand them a little better now, and feel a little less hostile towards them. They’re simply dedicated to them, a bit too strongly.
And when it comes down to it, Japan, the land of harakiri (samurai ritual suicide), is not exactly known for half-ass dedication!
I suppose the lesson here is that we need to remember how we’re all human. In my case, I was hasty to judge the motives of angry otaku, in the worst, most despicable way I could think of. In their case, they really need to take a chill pill and let their idols be people.
I think it appropriate to wrap this up with a quote from Fruits Basket. Spoken to the fan club I mentioned earlier, as they’re trying to justify their actions, saying Yuki “belongs” to all of them, not just one girl, these words are hard for them to hear, but very true and very relevant:
“If he truly belonged to you, would you be here fighting to hold onto him? You say that you love him, but if you did, would you really want to take his friends away from him? Would you try to force your will upon him to make yourselves happy? Without any regard for his feelings? You don’t understand that there are times when true love will be a source of pain, and one that you must accept. Because to truly love someone is to always put their feelings before your own. No matter what. Keep putting yourself first, and you will only succeed in pushing him away.”
That last is not entirely unlike how Aya Hirano responded to angry otaku, with anger of her own.
Food for thought.