Even as otaku culture is recuperated by elites and the mainstream, and as the terms “anime” and “manga” have become part of a common international lexicon, otaku culture and practice have retained their subcultural credibility. In Japan, much of manga and anime is associated with mainstream consumption; otaku must therefore differentiate themselves from ippanjin (regular people) through a proliferating set of niche genres, alternative readings, and derivative works. In the United States, the subcultural cred of anime and manga is buttressed by their status as foreign “cult media.” This stance of U.S. fans is not grounded, however, in a simplistic exoticism. Susan Napier suggests that “rather than the traditional Orientalist construction of the West empowering itself by oppressing or patronizing the Eastern Other, these fans gain agency through discovering and then identifying with a society that they clearly recognize as having both universal and culturally specific aspects” (Napier 2007, 189). She describes how U.S. fans most often explain their interests in terms of the works’ “thematic complexity and three-dimensional characterization” rather than as an interest in Japan per se (Napier 2007, 177).
Put differently, the international appeal of otaku culture is grounded precisely in its ability to resist totalizing global narratives such as nationalism. The long-running and intricate narrative forms of popular Japanese media represent a platform or, in Hiroki Azuma’s terms, a database of referents that are highly amenable to recombination and customization by fans and gamers (see Chapter 2). We can see this in the stunning diversity of doujinshi derived from the same manga series (see Chapters 5 and 9) and in the activities of young Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh! card game players who design their own decks out of the nearly infinite set of possibilities on offer through a growing pantheon of monsters (Buckingham and Sefton-Green 2004; Ito 2007; Sefton-Green 2004; Willett 2004). While certain female fans might look to Gundam for source material to tell stories of erotic trysts between the male characters, other fans geek out over building and customizing models of the giant robots.
Mizuko Ito, Fandom Unbound, loc. 246-63