1991’s Otaku no Video is a two-part OVA that serves multiple purposes. It’s a wildly fictionalized parallel to the history of anime studio Gainax, a loving but harsh portrait of what it means to be an otaku, and a severe cautionary tale to those who walk the thin line between normal citizen and all-out maniac. It also sits firmly on the Itano Circus ground zero of a bunch of heavyweight careers, from Hideaki Anno to film director Shinji Higuchi. The former had just wrapped Gunbuster a few years prior, was smack dab in the middle of Nadia: The Secret of Blue Water, and just four years away from sending ripples throughout the otaku community with Neon Genesis Evangelion.
It is in large part because of its roots in anime history and the white-hot time in which it launched that Otaku no Video manages to remain so relevant and exciting today. Sure, it’s still very much a product of its time, and its references aren’t exactly up-to-date for most modern fans, but there’s no denying its power to inspire. It’s both a love letter and a diss track; the type only true fans could compose, and the type that has no doubt inspired countless careers well beyond those of its core staff.
Otaku no Video is one of those rare fantasy-histories that’s both welcoming to newcomers and full of enough references and insider information to delight even the most hardened of veterans. Its core story centers around Ken Kubo, who lives a fairly decent life with his girlfriend Yoshiko. He’s even a member of his college’s tennis team, which makes his day-to-day activities a far cry from those of his former friend Tanaka. Tanaka, you see, is a hardcore otaku. Kubo quickly learns this when he bumps into him out of the blue, and it doesn’t take long until the lure of nostalgia drags him into the depths of fandom with its thick, relentless tendrils.
As anyone who has ever taken a deep-dive into obsession knows, it all spirals deliriously out of control from there. Gainax, being composed of a full-on brigade of professional nerds, knows precisely how to bring the birth of an otaku to life in animated form. There’s the camaraderie that comes along with shared interests. The oh-so-intangible feeling of discovering something new. The timeline-altering possibilities of pursuing your dreams.
Most of all, Gainax shows a true mastery at depicting fandom at its most grassroots level. Anime fans huddle over their VCRs to record the latest episodes as they air, and the truly dedicated lie sprawled across the floor after pulling yet another all-nighter. They watch series over and over again to isolate those perfectly animated moments and key emotional beats that make anime special. Doujinshi and cosplay eventually pave the way for greater ambitions, but it all stems from the sheer love of it all, legs toasted to perfection beneath a well-weathered and instant-ramen-strewn kotatsu.
In the case of Otaku no Video the aforementioned dream comes to fruition in the form of Grand Prix, a company focused on licensing and mass-producing garage kit models based on a number of properties. Gainax doesn’t try to be too coy about the connection between itself and GP, which would later be taken over, forcing its founders to form another company even closer to the anime studio’s own. Kubo’s transformation from nicely-groomed Guy Normal to half-shaven maniac may seem like a rapid-fire switcheroo, but it illustrates just how quickly one could potentially slide down the “Oh, hey, I remember this show from when I was a kid!” rabbit hole.
The Minds Behind the Mania
Vandread and Gunsmith Cats director Takeshi Mori is at the helm for Otaku no Video, but the beating heart behind it all is the “Otaking” himself, Gainax co-founder Toshio Okada. Hot on the heels of Gunbuster came a script for Otaku no Video that could only be written by someone who lived that life to the fullest. Kubo may end up being the OVA’s self-proclaimed Otaking, but the fact that his friend Tanaka looks an awful lot like Okada is no coincidence. He’s the real firestarter here, just as Okada helped kindle the flames that would eventually become one of the biggest anime production houses of the years that followed.
A large portion of the staff roll is a virtual who’s who of anime legends. Character designs come from Kenichi Sonoda, known most prominently as the creator of the Gunsmith Cats and Riding Bean manga and the character designer of Bubblegum Crisis. Art director Hitoshi Nagao pulled the same duties over the years on everything from the infamous(ly awesome) Baoh OVA—based on the manga by JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure creator Hirohiko Araki—to an episode of Dirty Pair and a ridiculous amount of Suncoast-bound hentai like Countdown, F3, and Urotsukidoji II: Legend of the Demon Womb. Sure, he may not be the most high-profile creator who worked on Otaku no Video, but who would pass up the opportunity to mention both Baoh and Urotsukidoji in the same sentence?
Film director Shinji Higuchi storyboarded the OVA along with plenty of other Gainax projects, including Evangelion, Gunbuster, and the Khara-produced Rebuild of Evangelion films. Despite his impressive anime résumé, Higuchi is just as well-known for the live-action projects that followed. He most recently teamed up with Hideaki Anno on Shin Godzilla in 2016, and helmed the pair of live-action Attack on Titan films that kicked off in 2015. Without diving into each individual career, the list of animators is a doozy, too, including the likes of Keiji Ishihara (Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood, Madoka Magica movies), Hidenori Matsubara (Patlabor: The Movie, Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo), and Takehiro Nakayama (Golden Boy, InuYasha), among others.
Many of the references in Otaku no Video fold in upon themselves, especially the sequence in which Tanaka shows Kubo clips of amazing animation from an unnamed series. The footage in question comes from Gainax’s own Daicon opening projects, which featured the work of Royal Space Force: The Wings of Honneamise director Hiroyuki Yamaga and assistant director Takami Akai, as well as Hideaki Anno. You can see later takes on the formula in Daicon III and Daicon IV, electrifying shorts that introduced talent such as Mahiro Maeda (director of Blue Submarine No. 6 and Gankutsuou) and Ichiro Itano (Megazone 23 Part II, Angel Cop).
If Otaku no Video is a feast of visual references to other anime and manga titles, Daicon IV is a Fat Boys all-you-can-eat Golden Corral buffet. Godzilla stomps around while the bunny costume-adorned lead beats up on Ultraman villains and duels with Darth Vader himself. Xenomorphs rage, Dyna Robo attempts to smash, way more copyrights are recklessly violated, and we zip and zoom through the sky atop the Stormbringer sword to the triumphant tune of ELO’s “Twilight.” Gainax wouldn’t be what it became without the Daicon films, so it’s fitting that they made their way into Otaku no Video, even if but for a fleeting moment.
Portrait of an Otaku
In what may be Otaku no Video‘s greatest self-referential dig and deepest cut, the OVA goes back and forth between animated segments and live-action interviews with “real life” otaku. Titled “Portrait of an Otaku,” these brief profiles cover people—faces blurred and voices altered for the sake of anonymity, of course—ranging from obsessive video tape recorders and hardcore military otaku to porn-obsessed shut-ins and even the obligatory ex-pat who reveres the Japanese way of life. In actuality, these segments consist of a mix of friends and employees of Gainax, which may be exactly why it hits a little too close for home.
The interviews are all extremely exaggerated and hammily acted, and it seems as if the obscured subjects are about one take away from busting out laughing. With Shinji Higuchi behind the camera and Hideaki Anno handling the absurdly nerdy sets, the authenticity of each segment is both hilarious and slightly alarming. Previous home video releases of Otaku no Video came with the option to watch the animated portions separately, but there’s something special about seeing it all woven together into a truly bizarre tapestry.
Beyond all of the careers launched and all of the nooks and crannies of fandom mocked, the most remarkable aspect of Otaku no Video is… it’s true. No, not necessarily in regards to the exact history of Gainax, or to the stars-spanning vision of otaku nirvana, but the depiction of fandom itself. Sometimes it’s ugly, sometimes it’s ridiculous, and sometimes it’s beautiful and inspiring. As a result of its depiction of enterprising spirits and sky-high ambitions, Otaku no Video rarely falls too far outside of being relatable to American fandom. If you have a nerdy bone in your body—and chances are high that you do if you’ve read this far—you owe it to yourself to visit (or revisit) this unique time capsule of anime history.
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Joseph Luster is the Games and Web editor at Otaku USA Magazine. You can read his webcomic, BIG DUMB FIGHTING IDIOTS at subhumanzoids. Follow him on Twitter @Moldilox.