Otaku are Japan’s obsessive fans, people who focus in on an area of interest (usually related to popular culture) and pursue it with unusual passion and single-minded determination. There are manga and anime otaku, train otaku, otaku who follow pop idols, otaku fascinated by military hardware. In Japan, otaku has come to take on a rather pejorative meaning (no good mother would really want her son to become such a fanatic), but in America the fans of Japanese pop culture have embraced the term. Every weekend, somewhere in the United States, rabid otaku dress up like their favorite characters from comics, cartoons, or video games, they gather at conventions on college campuses or in airport hotels, and they create elaborate networks of fandom in both real and virtual spaces.
I am a little loath to consider myself an otaku, though honestly I guess I really am one. My object of obsession is, of course, Japanese monster movies and that most celebrated of giant radioactive reptiles, Godzilla. I will not explain my passion for Godzilla here, nor will I elaborate at any length on why the Godzilla films are such a revealing cinematic window on Japanese culture and history. As I say to many folks who ask about such things, “Buy the book!” My 2004 volume Godzilla on My Mind – part memoir, part scholarly study, part hymn of praise to Japanese creature features – will tell you more about Godzilla (and my almost-lifelong affection for the monster) than you ever wanted to know.
Over the past couple days, the otaku moments have come thick and fast for me. In Osaka, we visited a local history museum that looked down on the city’s (reconstructed) sixteenth-century castle. While most tourists are probably reminded of samurai warriors and Kurosawa movies by the majestic castle keep, I couldn’t help but think of the 1955 feature Gojira no gyakushu, the second film in the franchise, released in the United States as Godzilla Raids Again. In one of the most memorable scenes of this not terribly memorable film (churned out only months after the original Gojira and the last of the series to be made in black and white), Godzilla wrestles to the death with Angilas, a kind of giant radioactive armadillo, in and around Osaka castle.
Today we arrived in Tokyo, and it turns out that our hotel is right in the shadow of Tokyo Tower, a 1000-foot-tall, orange and white knock-off of the Eiffel Tower. Completed in 1958, Tokyo Tower was a symbol of postwar Japan’s resurgence and the defining feature on the capital city’s budding skyline. Memorably, Uri Geller once used the structure as a relay point for the psychic waves he projected, bending silverware and repairing broken wristwatches all over the city. Of course, Tokyo Tower was also a staple of Godzilla movies, as it was a landmark (not unlike the Empire State Building) that no self-respecting monster could resist. In the endearing 1961 film Mothra, the huge larval creature decides to spin its cocoon on the side of Tokyo Tower before hatching into what surely is one of world cinema’s most memorable giant insects.
I could go on along these lines at some length, since I sometimes cease to think of Tokyo as a living, working metropolis and see it more as a sprawling montage of different backdrops from the various Godzilla features. The swanky Ginza district is where the monster rampaged in the original 1954 Gojira; the Diet Building, home to Japan’s parliament, was where King Kong once held court; and Tokyo Station, a marvelous, exuberant red-brick pile soon to celebrate its centennial, was where the gigantic one-eyed starfish creatures in the cheesy 1956 masterpiece Warning from Space wiggled their appendages threateningly. I have to admit that, like giant monsters, I find myself curiously drawn to the sights of Tokyo.