Previously on OTAKU COMING HOME...
- How FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST Saved Anime (For Me) *** SAILOR MOON is for Boys (Too)!
- KINGDOM HEARTS Rescued an Anime Fan *** The Art of the Remake Part 1 * Part 2 * Part 3
- The Do's & Dont's of Conventions *** For Under-Rated "Japanimation" *** Capcom vs. Alex!
- America in Anime *** Why the EVANGELION Rebuilds are Trivial
Before I left for Japan, I made a list of topics I planned to write about when I came back. Some of them felt like fluff at the time, but I figured I’d find the material to support them while I was away.
I thought about leading my post-Japan articles with a travelogue, or some discussion of all the cool specialty stores and my nerdy observations throughout the trip. I wanted to return with glad tidings from the motherland, pictures to excite, and the promise of a better nerdy world. We’ll chat about that stuff next week for sure, but I think this takes precedence.
One of those fluff pieces was going to be about the excitement in Akihabara’s “Electric Town” - - an otaku haven littered with towering shops full of anime, manga, video games, soundtracks and toys. And I mean literally towering. A lot of them were between six and eight floors tall, each stop dedicated to one type of merch or another.
Sound like your idea of heaven? Not so much, I’m afraid.
Last time I was in Japan, I only got to make one, horribly jet-lagged stop in Akihabara and I didn’t come away with much of anything. I blamed it on being exhausted at the time and, this trip, made a concerted effort to get back there more than once after acclimating to the time difference. We had two weeks in Tokyo and were just a few subway stops away - - getting back two or three times wasn’t out of the question, especially when we had a slow night planned.
So it was there that I discovered, much to my chagrin, that the globalization of otaku culture has stripped down the joy of being a nerd in Japan.
Let me backtrack and explain a bit...
As I mentioned in my first OTAKU COMING HOME article, I’m a bit long-in-the-tooth as far as my otaku nerd cred is concerned. I spent my more formative years buying fansubbed VHS tapes, scouring the greater Southern New York area for import games, books, toys, models, statues, soundtracks, and yes, the aforementioned bootlegs. There was a thrill in that hunt, an excitement in discovering something new that you didn’t know existed. An element of camaraderie between fans in our niche world.
That part of me is what I channeled when I hit the insane streets of Akihabara, walking up Chuo-Dori, the main drag lined with flashing signs, video game ads, costume shops and all those towers of geek heaven waiting to be conquered. And so my wife, my friends and I charged inside each of them, armed with disposable cash in hand and extra suitcases in our rooms.
My mission was clear: buy all the things.
The thing is, as we enthusiastically climbed all those stairs (and there were a lot of stairs) we saw the same things over and again. Not the same products (though there was some of that), but something much more disappointing.
All this stuff was readily available online. The toys, the vintage video games - - everything!
And a lot of it for the same price, if not cheaper (even if you did factor in exchange rates and shipping). I know because I checked when we got back to our hotel room and I was empty handed. Most every “new and exciting” anime or manga I found was immediately followed by the realization I’d already heard of it. FUNimation was streaming it already or Viz was translating it.
There was little to discover for our once-cozy niche of geekdom. It may have originated in Japan but it’s since exploded all over the world, leaving little thrill in the hunt.
By our last visit to Akihabara, we weren’t climbing all those stairs to expend our electric energy anymore. Instead we were casually, almost dismissively, taking the elevator. There was a certain novelty to seeing displays overwhelmed with merch, but even that began to fade almost as quickly as it appeared. Fourteen-year-old Nick, who’d been bursting with the prospect of being unchained in the motherland, wept, withered and nearly died while I was away.
Now, that’s not to say that I didn’t buy anything in Akihabara. By the second and third trip my wife and I had managed to pick up a few art books, but most of our haul came from bookstores and CD shops that weren’t in Akihabara. Chains like Book-Off and Tsutaya yielded better finds by far than most anything lining Chuo-Dori.
Luckily, being otaku was not our only reason for going to Japan.
All four of us grew up with a socially crippling obsession with anime, manga and video games, but it also instilled a love in us for Japan’s rich history and culture. While our afternoon trips to Akihabara might have been disappointing, we more than made up for it with visits to Nikko, Mt. Fuji and Hie-Jinja. We ate sushi in Tsukiji caught that morning, Kobe beef in Akasaka, and cheese ramen in Ebisu. We met penpals for the first time and made new friends.
So maybe the fourteen year-old Nick was unhappy. He didn’t get to blow his bankroll the way he’d hoped, after all. Instead, grown-up Nick was almost overwhelmed with excitement by everything else he found in Japan - - including some other geeky hangouts, actually. Come back next week and one of those Nicks will tell you about that wonderful stuff.
Nick Tapalansky is an author of comics and other things, some of them nominated for awards and stuff. Read some comics for free at http://www.NickTapalansky.com/blog and find him on Twitter as @NickTapalansky.