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Into the Otakingdom: Days and Nights with Toshio Okada

By: Lawrence Eng (10/19/03) (first published in the MIT Anime Club newsletter)

From September 29th to October 1st, Toshio Okada visited MIT and during that time, he presented two formal lectures to the MIT community. My experience with Mr. Okada began a bit earlier, starting on September 26th, where he was a guest of honor at Anime Weekend Atlanta.

I should begin by starting with who I am and introducing Mr. Okada to those of you who haven't heard of him. I am a graduate student studying otaku culture at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. As an undergrad at Cornell University, I was heavily involved with CJAS, the Cornell Japanese Animation Society. I'm honored that Sean Leonard, who I first met at a panel we did together at Anime Expo 2001, invited me to contribute to your newsletter. Being that otaku culture is my passionate object of study, it only makes sense that Mr. Okada's visit to America was something I knew I had to be part of.

Jean and Nadia

Toshio Okada was one of the principal founders of Gainax, the animation studio that produced Wings of Honneamise (1987), Gunbuster (1988), Nadia (1990, pictured right), Otaku no Video (1991), Evangelion (1995), and a whole slew of other (more recent) titles. Gainax has also produced a number of computer games and other software titles-the Princess Maker series being the most famous. Before Gainax, Okada had been the founder of Daicon Film, which produced the amateur fan classics known as the Daicon III and Daicon IV opening animations which debuted in 1981 and 1983 respectively. Daicon Film also produced a number of live action science fiction parody movies, including The Return of Ultraman (1983) which featured Evangelion director Hideaki Anno (without a mask) as Ultraman.

In Otaku no Video, the semi-fictionalized "mockumentary" of the history of Gainax, the main character Kubo proclaims himself to be the otaku of otaku, the Otaking! Since then, fans have called Okada the Otaking, although his likeness is represented by Tanaka, Kubo's comrade. Even though Okada's history is heavily linked to Gainax, he left the company in 1992 to pursue other goals. He has become an expert on Otakuology , lecturing on the subject at the University of Tokyo, Japan's most prestigious school. He has also written a number of books on otaku culture.

Anime Weekend Atlanta 9 was my first time at AWA. When my friend Eric Bresler, director of the brand new fan documentary Otaku Unite! , informed me that Okada would be a guest at that con I immediately knew I had to attend even though it was well out of my way, and I even convinced my friend Lillian (a freelance translator for Viz) to tag along as my interpreter. I hadn't seen Okada in person, but I had read a lot about him, and Eric offered to help me get an interview with him at the con.

AWA was a modestly-sized convention in terms of attendance, reminiscent of FanimeCon a few years back or Otakon back in 1997. I hit the dealers' room, of course, which was made easier by the fact that I was registered as a dealer with Otaku Unite!, watched some anime, and participated on the "Anime in Academia" panel, but my main goal at the convention was to see Okada.

Otaku no Video

Over 5 days, from Saturday at AWA through Wednesday at MIT, I saw Okada speak a total of five times. On Saturday, he and Hiroyuki Kitakubo (Blood: The Last Vampire, Golden Boy), gave a one hour panel discussing their work, the anime industry in general, and anime fandom. At this panel, Okada radiated cheerfulness, confidence, and an infectious sense of humor. He seemed comfortable as an elder statesman of both the anime industry and anime fandom, and he also spoke English (quite well) at times. Kitakubo, in contrast, was apparently falling asleep onstage, having stayed up late the night before working on his contribution to the AWA art auction. He was insightful and funny in his own way, despite Okada's playful taunting. They only had time to discuss a handful of topics, such as whether or not increased computer usage within the animation process was good or bad for the anime industry, why cels are no longer used in anime, and the difference between American and Japanese fans. On the subject of American versus Japanese fans, Kitakubo mentioned that American fans are mentally (or emotionally?) closer to the anime creators than Japanese fans are. Okada then said that American anime fans are cuter! Just a little while earlier, he was showing off the new t-shirt he bought in the dealers' room that said something (in Japanese) like 'I want a Japanese schoolgirl to be my girlfriend'. He explained that the shirt would make a big splash at parties held by his friend Takashi Murakami (who is currently one of Japan's hottest pop artists, who is also getting quite famous in the United States.) But when talking about American women fans, he said that they tended to be more attractive than Japanese women, and that we as Americans have only been exposed to the uncommonly attractive Japanese women seen in magazines, TV shows, and movies. Whether he's right or not, Okada's response certainly amused the audience. Another item of interest from the panel discussion is that Okada is currently working on and promoting a line of toys depicting space exploration. He showed these off at his autograph session (where I got my Otaku no Video, pictured left, and Wings of Honneamise posters signed).

Later that day, I had the chance to interview Okada one-on-one for about half an hour. I asked him a number of questions, many of which had to do with his views on otaku, but I asked him some anime related questions as well. From the discussion panel, it was clear that Okada has been keeping tabs on the anime industry (and anime fandom) even though he left Gainax over 10 years ago. This trip to the United States, I surmise, was part of his ongoing research on fandom, and he seems to be focusing more and more of his attention on American fans. When I asked him why he was attending AWA after all these years (Okada's last American con appearance was at Anime America 1996, if my memory serves me right), he simply said that now seemed like a good time to visit the US again (to get a sense of fandom 7 years later) and because he had never been to Atlanta before. And here I was hypothesizing that his visit was inspired by the 20th anniversary of Daicon IV or something equally grandiose. ^_^

When I asked Okada whether or not he kept in contact with his former Gainax colleagues, he replied that he hadn't spoken to any of them in three years. When I asked him his opinion of the recent Gainax releases, he said they were boring, and that (Hideaki) Anno should direct anime again (as opposed to Hiroyuki Yamaga, I presume). I am currently in the process of transcribing my interview with Okada, and will make it available online when it's ready.

Toshio Okada at MIT

During the interview, I discovered that Okada would be at MIT on Monday, and when I got back to Troy, NY, my wife and I decided that it would be worth it to drive to MIT to see his lecture. I am glad to report that it was quite excellent. Okada, partly due to fatigue perhaps, was a bit more subdued than he was at the convention just a few days earlier, and he was definitely in academic lecturing mode. On Monday night, he discussed the history of anime and the history of Gainax. This lecture also included an impromptu screening of the Daicon III and IV videos, which Okada then talked about. On Tuesday night, he gave a less formal talk in Ian Condry's "Topics in Culture and Globalization" course on many of the same themes, but he focused more on otaku and the conditions in Japan that led people to become otaku. This talk was preceded by a short clip from Otaku no Video to introduce the class to the concept of otaku. I will also put my notes from this talk online.

Finally, on Wednesday, he gave a luncheon lecture at Ashdown House entitled "Anime and Fandom: What 'Otakuology' tells us about Japan and the Culture of 'Otaku'". While certain elements were repeated from the earlier talks I had heard him give, I was pleasantly surprised to hear new material and different angles on the topics he had previously expounded upon. I won't go into detail regarding the content of the talk, since I will be putting notes online, and Eri Izawa has already put up fairly extensive notes of her own from Monday and Wednesday's talks. See http://www.mit.edu:8001/people/rei/manga-okada.html and http://www.mit.edu:8001/people/rei/manga-okadaluncheon.html

After hearing Okada speak so many times over a five day period, I was a bit Okada-ed out by the end of it, but it was really enjoyable overall. I'd like to thank Sean Leonard and the MIT Anime Club for hosting Mr. Okada and putting on such a successful and unique series of events. Although it was not part of the official program, the most memorable experience with Okada at MIT was when I tagged along with him and his hosts to visit the MIT Science Fiction Society Library. It was absolutely great to see him giddy and overjoyed at finding the old and rare (especially in Japan) science fiction pulp magazines he loved so much. It was a wonderful reminder that even the most veteran otaku can experience the childlike joy of discovering that which has been long sought after.

Last updated on November 4th, 2003
Lawrence Eng