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Andrew Osmond gets nerdy about two nerd protagonists

Twenty years ago, Frederik L. Schodt, author of Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, was startled to see the word “otaku” written in Japanese on the first issue of Wired magazine. Within was an article headed “The Incredibly Strange Mutant Creatures Who Rule the Universe of Alienated Japanese Zombie Computer Nerds.” Such articles introduced Western readers to the Japanese notion of the obsessed fan, plainly similar to Western ideas of the geek or nerd, but with its own context and connotations.

We assume you all know about “otaku” (for example, that you should think very carefully before calling yourself one, especially to a Japanese person). If you want further reading, check out the original Wired piece, or the recent Soul of Anime book by Ian Condry (which argues that the otaku spirit is integral to anime’s ‘soul’), or this more detached business analysis from a Japanese perspective. Anime, being anime, tends to be less scientific about otaku, and go for big broad caricatures. Luckily, they’re imaginative, and don’t all involve anoraks or fatties in their parents’ basements…

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The otaku in Chaos;Head is holed up in a house-sized metal container on a rooftop. He’s a high-schooler called Takumi, commonly nicknamed “Taku” because it sounds like… Oh, work it out. He shares this roof hideout with his games, figurines and his imaginary “wife,” who’s a purple-haired anime heroine called Seira whom Takumi conjures up at will. Seira’s role is comparable to that of Maromi, the horrible floppy toy dog in Satoshi Kon’s Paranoia Agent.

Chaos;Head is set in Tokyo’s surreal central district of Shibuya, famed for its video screens and terrifyingly massive crowds. It’s the stage for a paranoia-psycho-metaphysical thriller, with shades of Kon and Serial Experiments Lain. Like all good psycho-thrillers, there’s a serial killer on the loose, dubbed “New Generation,” who leaves corpses in grotesque states round the city centre.

As Takumi’s relationship with Seira suggests, our otaku hero is an unreliable witness, so we can’t necessarily believe his eyes when he seemingly encounters the killer in a dark alley – a bloodstained, red-haired girl who addresses him by name. Then he sees her in his class, where she claims they’ve been friends for years, and that she doesn’t know a thing about the killings. Other girls pop up fast, from Takumi’s irritated kid sister, to a friendly-seeming schoolmate who seems to like otaku losers. But who is sending Takumi gory online pictures, and why is he sure he’s being watched?

As a psycho-portrait of otaku, Chaos; Head has shades of Evangelion (which wasn’t a story with otaku characters, but was very obviously made by otaku, primarily Hideaki Anno). Like Evangelion’s wussy Shinji, Takumi is the epitome of pathetic; he even calls himself disgusting, and seemingly won’t lift a finger to improve his state of life. It becomes clear, though, that he wants to be saved, and hopes one of the pretty girls around him might be his redemption. This adds pathos to the black comedy when the plot starts twisting and Takumi finds he can trust no-one, least of all himself.

This is Takumi’s show, but the females are above-par. You can count the artificial anime types if you’re inclined, but there’s some witty upending of clichés; more important, some of the character interactions feel real (or at least you want them to be real, which is the show’s favourite trap). Relatively little of Chaos;Head takes place in the classroom. Instead, there are many scenes in Takumi’s scuzzy metal “home” (which he really doesn’t want a girl seeing); an idyllic park where the lad gets a terrible shock; and a zebra-coloured subway where things turn very Alice in Wonderland. And that’s about all we’ll give away.

Did-you-know factoid; as you might suspect from their similarly weird punctuation, Chaos;Head has an indirect relationship to the time-travel series Steins;Gate. Both anime are adapted from computer games in the visual novel style; they were made by the same companies (5pb. and Nitroplus), though the anime versions were made by different staff and studios. Steins;Gate, of course, features a rather more likeable obvious ‘otaku’ – the graceless yet somehow endearing hacker Daru – though you could make a case that mad scientist hero Okabe also qualifies for the ‘otaku’ label. The game series continued with Robotics;Notes, itself adapted as an anime by Production I.G.

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The hero of The World God Only Knows – and as with Takumi in Choas;Head, we’re using “hero” in its least accurate sense – is a charisma black hole teenager called Keima. After 17 years on the planet, he hasn’t touched a girl. The only females for him are the 2D cuties in console dating games, which he plays incessantly when he’s in class, eating, bathing, and probably in other situations we’re mercifully not shown.

In the first episode, Keima – who boasts he can “conquer” any girl’s heart – answers an anonymous email challenge, which turns out to be from Hell. In a variant on Bleach, “runaway spirits” have escaped the underworld and lodged in the hearts of mortal girls. The best way to dislodge them is to have the girls fall in love. To encourage Keima in his unwanted task, he’s given a Battle Royale-style collar that’ll behead him if he fails. He’s also given an assistant, the flying girl Elsie, who wears a huge pink boa that’s a fair sign of her personality.

Ahead lie Keima’s conquests: in the first series alone, he must take on a troubled athlete, a poor little rich girl, an insecure pop singer and a stammering librarian (a sweet highlight of the series). Each girl loses her memory of Keima when she falls for him, so there are no cat-fights over the self-effacing hero. It recalls the old live-action SF show Quantum Leap, where the hero had to woo an endless succession of lovely women, always disguised behind someone else’s face.

There’s almost no fanservice – even the games Keima plays don’t seem to have naughty bits! – though the show seems plainly aimed at older viewers, with gags about Ghost in the Shell, Tezuka’s Black Jack, and retro-games from the 1980s. The first season finale puts us into the demented mind of Keima himself, burning through “a hundred hours a day” of gaming – it’s a frantic, horrific-exultant picture of otaku-dom.

Let’s round off with the thoughts of two people who know a little about otaku. One is Satoshi Kon, whose work contains extremely contrasting specimens, from the terrifying, barely-human, idol-stalking Me-Mania in Perfect Blue, to the heroic cinema obsessive, endlessly dreaming of saving the girl in Millennium Actress. Speaking in 2008, Kon said, “If you were to define an otaku as a person who pursues something that they love very much, that’s really a positive thing. People have said, ‘Kon is very critical of otaku,’ but I think the only problem is that the otaku lifestyle tends to produce people who can’t achieve a balance in their life, and don’t have a proper relationship with society at large.”

One person who would agree with Kon is John Hinckley, Jr. – that’s the man who shot and wounded President Reagan as a love offering to the subject of his obsession, the young Jodie Foster. After his arrest, Hinckley told Newsweek magazine, “The line dividing life and art can be invisible. After seeing enough hypnotizing movies and reading enough magical books, a fantasy life develops which can either be harmless or quite dangerous.” Amen to that.

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