Whereas 3D Kanojo is an attempt at humanizing the otaku that ultimately backfires due to its embodiment of the presumptions and prejudices that it aims to subvert, Comic Girls presents a significantly more nuanced perspective. Instead of treating otakudom as an inherently unwanted condition and a substitute for a lack, the show celebrates it on its own ground. Indeed, its very premise focuses on a communal otaku space, following the young members of a female manga artist dorm in their pursuing careers. With their love and talent for the art of manga being at the dramatic forefront, the passion and creativity that permeates otaku culture is highlighted and centered.
The stark contrast between the two series’ attitudes toward otaku is potently illustrated in how they approach a trip to Akihabara. 3D Kanojo‘s trip opens up with an establishing shot of a city street. A few shop signs on the left signify what district it is – one couple of which says “DVD BOOK” and the others being too sketchy to make out – which generously share the shot with some trees on the right and a crowd of undistinguished pedestrians in the middle. It cuts to Hikari and Yuuto hanging out on the sidewalk, the former examining a fashion magazine with a puzzled face. Mitsuya walks by, and Hikari convinces him to “make me fashionable.” The trio head over to a clothing shop where Hikari tries some outfits. The aim of the show at large becomes evident; in favor of Hikari’s pursuit toward a normatively accepted lifestyle, Akihabara as an otaku space is completely dismissed. Comic Girls‘ trip on the other hand goes in the opposite direction. It opens up with a much wider establishing shot, depicting the tall buildings of the district from a centered low angle with large, colorful shop signs and billboards decorating them. The buildings are slightly hiding behind a group of trees in the foreground, as if to signal an exotic other world waiting to be explored. After a pair of closeups of the shop signs and billboards, a rapid 360 degree tracking shot shows protagonist Kaoruko in absolute awe over all the wonders that surround her. “Is this heaven?!” she bursts out before joyously exploring what all the shops have to offer: lovely product displays, hard to find books and merchandise, the blessing of release day buys, and a beautiful figure that she’s been wavering on buying whose in-the-flesh aura is so moving that it convinces her to do so. In contrast to 3D Kanojo, the otaku space of Akihabara is here not only the narrative focus but extravagantly romanticized.
In light of this difference in attitudes, it is interesting to note that Comic Girls features several arcs that echo the anti-prejudice theme of 3D Kanojo. One such arc is Ruki’s autograph signing event. Early on, Ruki is established as the ero author of the group, a title that she wears with shame since she unwillingly got thrown into the genre due to her sexually attractive art style. With this conflicting relationship to her authorial self, she is naturally very anxious before the event, thinking that she only will be labeled a pervert or that her fans will be utterly disappointed by the person behind the pen. But the moment she steps on stage, she is met with exalted cheers from her fans. Seeing firsthand how much love her readers have for her work, she is brought to tears. Whereas ero manga prior has been framed through Ruki’s shame as merely cheap junk, this scene completely shifts the framing with its depiction of the deeply emotional resonance that the genre’s consumers hold toward it.
A similar journey can be seen in the arc of the girls’ homeroom teacher, Miharu. After having run into Koyume and Tsubasa while cosplaying at a theme park, Miharu is deeply worried over the exposure of her otakudom to her students. Her character arc runs along the same line as that of Sawako in K-On, in that it revolves around a conflict between two contrasting social identities of respect and stigma. To quote IAmTheSpacyFilmer’s take on Sawako’s arc: “In constant quests to obscure her garish heavy metal past, and schemes to present herself as the perfect teacher, she ends up obscuring her true self in the name of the school’s conformist ideal of her career.” SpacyFilmer goes on to argue that the eventual resolution to Sawako’s identity conflict lies in a recognition and embracement of the two sides as equal parts of her true self. Both the heavy metal Sawako and the teacher Sawako have a degree of artificiality and a degree of authenticity to them, and it is “[i]n not forcing a one hundred percent pure version of any aspect of herself [that] she will find true happiness and respect.” (IAmTheSpacyFilmer, 2017) A similarly integrative conclusion is reached when the girls find out about Miharu’s otakudom – and she simultaneously finds out that Tsubasa is the real identity of her favorite manga artist. In spite of the contrasting statuses between Miharu’s teacher title and her personal life (not least showcased in how she fangirls in front of Tsubasa and addresses her sensei, even though she is the sensei officially), the girls lose no respect for her but embrace the reveal with casual acceptance. Tsubasa asks Miharu to keep her real identity a secret, but in the same breath expresses gratitude for having heard directly from a fan for the first time. As the divisions of respect and stigma are rendered arbitrary, the worlds of teacher and otaku don’t clash but are simply recognized as two sides of the same coin.
The arcs of Ruki and Miharu both concern a split between the stigmatized otaku and the normatively accepted non-otaku, of which the former is initially undermined by self-shame. But unlike 3D Kanojo, which progresses in complete accordance with this undermining, both arcs ultimately shift this attitude into a celebration of otaku and a diminishment of the split itself. As if to poignantly punctuate this seeming counterpoint against 3D Kanojo, Tsubasa’s arc features a conflict with her wealthy and conservative family and their strict rejection of her manga career. As Tsubasa first tries to hide her otaku self from her family, to then get brainwashed by her mother into a socially “respectable” lifestyle, the absolute antithesis to 3D Kanojo‘s dramatic structure is presented, wherein the “normal” space is the point of antagonism while the otaku space constitutes the goal for the protagonist and resolution of the conflict.
But even among texts that celebrate otaku, Comic Girls is remarkably progressive – not least in its approach to gender and sexuality. With all of the ensemble cast members (well, all characters really) being female, the attention is not on the standard male otaku but exclusively on the so often discursively disregarded female otaku. And unlike the one female otaku featured in 3D Kanojo – who merely follows a “hysterical fujoshi“-stereotype in addition to being antisocial and self-deprecating – Comic Girls features girls and women with diversely varying personalities who all hold their different otaku interests and/or desires with pride (the cases where an otaku self-shaming is present, it is, as noted above, ultimately countered). A great example of the show’s commendable female otaku representation is the fact that all of the attendees of Ruki’s fan event are women. It should be noted that Ruki is an author of ero in general, and not of boys’ love or yaoi specifically. In other words, this crowd does not simply consist of fujoshi – which the general discourse around female otaku often is limited to – but of women with all types of otaku desires. The scene thus acknowledges and celebrates not only the major existence of female otaku, but the wide diversity of desires that they hold – not least those typically perceived as being reserved for male consumers.
That being said, the series also has a notably open attitude toward queerness. Consider a scene where Koyume and Ruki are sitting at a restaurant. As the topic of romantic relationships comes up, it is revealed that Koyume has a crush on Tsubasa. In her alien experience of having fallen in love with another girl, Koyume says: “Don’t think I’m weird, okay? I don’t even understand it myself. I know that Tsubasa-san is a girl, but she’s cool and really hot. Not to mention, she’s like a prince, but can be really innocent and cute.” Several apparent elements are included in Koyume’s affection for Tsubasa. In addition to being an admired senpai, Tsubasa is also acknowledged as very physically attractive – but not least is she a clear tomboy with a dominant and exuberant personality. In her affection for Tsubasa, Koyume expresses a confusion about her own sexual identity, afraid of being “weird.” Her dilemma strongly echoes the “confusing desire” that JekoJeko identifies in the concept of traps. He argues that anime characters that appear as their opposite gender are not traps in the sense of their own physical deception, but in the sense that the viewer’s sexuality is trapped by their attraction to the character. Hence, the questions “are traps gay?” and “does liking traps make me gay?” are but reactions to the destabilization of the viewer’s own (assumed) sexuality, which subsequently constitute the ontological basis for the trap itself (JekoJeko, 2017). Koyume is caught in a very similar destabilization, self-alienated by the fact that she has fallen in love with another girl – but Ruki ultimately steps in to make sense of this confusion. She easily sees through Koyume’s feelings with a habitual attitude, as she has seen girls fall in love with Tsubasa countless times before. Instead of responding with even the slightest degree of othering, she only encourages Koyume to ask Tsubasa out on a date. Ruki thus naturalizes Koyume’s destabilized sexuality by casually looking beyond the girl-girl conundrum toward a simple person-person perspective.
Considering Comic Girls‘ progressive representation of otaku and attitude toward gender and sexuality, let us now take a step outside of its fictional confines. From the regularly recurring visual cards that resemble manga panels, to the cast members being archetypal reflections of their respective manga genres – kiddy Kaoruko draws yonkoma, girly Koyume draws shojo, tomboyish Tsubasa draws shonen, and creepy Suzu draws horror – there is a meta element to Comic Girls, suggesting that the show isn’t just about otaku but also for otaku, and additionally that the two layers are linked. The strongest evidence (and actualization) of this link is the fact that all instances of fanservice sexualization include the gaze of one or more characters. Most often, this gaze belongs to Kaoruko. Kaoruko is gay, horny, and very into yuri. Whenever she is placed in a sexually arousing situation with the other girls, or when their interactions with each other suggest the slightest degree of homoeroticism, she is quick to respond with a blushing face and a perverted mind. Numerous instances of this occur throughout the show – from boob grabs to beach episodes to bathtub antics – but for the sake of this analysis, let us focus on one:
As Kaoruko strolls through the dorm corridor, suggestive voices from Koyume’s bedroom catches her attention. Her eyes locked on the closed doors, she sees through the door slit how Ruki sensually comes on to a merely underwear-dressed Koyume. As the action gets increasingly intenser so does Kaoruko’s arousal, until she finally pops. In her disarray of erotically sensational overload, she collapses, and Ruki and Koyume step out to see her lying on the floor. Looking at each other with a smile, Kaoruko is filled with embarrassment and apologizes for interrupting. Ruki quickly explains that Koyume just was modeling for her manga material, and Kaoruko’s erotic interpretation of the situation gets deflated.
In order to examine how this scene situates the otaku viewing subject, it is worth turning to Thomas Lamarre. In his discussion of Chobits, Lamarre recognizes a disruptively ambivalent approach to Lacanian subject formation caused by the visual materialism and language of animetism. Drawing from Slavoj Žižek’s mapping of cinematic suture, he identifies a structure of fluctuation in Chobits between perceptual objectivity and subjectivity. This structure includes an objective shot – of the camera gaze positioned at an object of affection – paired with a subjective shot – of a character (protagonist Hideki in Chobits‘ case) signified to be the gazing subject. In accordance with suture, the second shot communicates, in relation to the first, a sense that Hideki “owns the place” – yet at the same time an actuality that he ultimately is not the one who “runs the show,” in that not he, but an Absent Other, is in control of the camera’s perceptual field. “The anime thus gives a sense of Hideki as the subject striving for ontological consistency, which is the place from which we are encouraged to watch or interact with the unfolding story.” (Lamarre, 2009: 293) Beyond this point however, the show diverts from the logic of suture. As a display of his response to the object of affection, Hideki typically enters an “affect-image” where he is “caught up in his own affective loop of fantasy,” flamboyantly posing in front of a colorful abstract background of geometric shapes. He is then snapped out of the loop by the eyes of Others, and struck with embarrassment. These eyes of Others are never judgmental however, despite Hideki’s notion that they are. The Others thus turn out to not be Others at all, but accomplices of his fantasy. This Other-turned-accomplice ultimately flattens the Absent Other (Lamarre, 2009: 295-297).
This flattening also operates at a materialistic level. Žižek posits that the show being run by the Absent Other is determined by the material limit of the cinematic frame, as well as the displacement of it by techniques of editing. While the frame constitutes the viewer’s limited perception of the world presented through the film image, the editing of images into a sequence gives the impression of an increased perception – but one nonetheless deemed to be incomplete (Lamarre, 2009: 286). As desired as it is, the viewing subject will never get the whole picture, always remaining in lack. However, the animetic image is not determined by cinematic framing and editing. As Lamarre centrally argues, the material essence of limited animation lies in the relationship between layers rather than frames. It does not rely on a bounded camera that generates perspectival, Cartesian structures of depth, but instead disperses all visual elements upon the surface of the image. So even when Chobits strives for a logic of suture, it cannot fully achieve it since the flattened image defies framing. The result is an ambivalence “in which the coordination of perception into emotional movement (suture) feels entirely possible yet thoroughly untenable, unsustainable.” (Lamarre, 2009: 298-299)
The scene in Comic Girls follows the same pattern. It begins with a back-and-forth between an objective shot of Ruki and Koyume, and a subjective shot of Kaoruko. The inclusion of a gradual zoom-in to both shots emulates a Cartesian movement-into-depth, but one that remains as mere emulation as it only closes in on two flattened images; a framing cannot be fully achieved. When Kaoruko subsequently pops, she enters an affect-image where she spirals down into the background, which, as an illustration of her fantasy, displays a homoerotic dojinshi version of Ruki and Koyume. As it cuts to inside Koyume’s room, showing Kaoruko in silhouette behind the closed doors as she trips over, the Absent Other turns the gaze toward her. When Ruki and Koyume step out to find her on the floor she is instantly embarrassed, but they don’t pass any judgment on her perverted imagination – hence, the Other-turned-accomplice of fantasy flattens the Absent Other. All in all, the scene’s pursuit for yet ultimate lack of a logic of suture places the subject-object relation in an unstable flux. Although Kaoruko is in accordance with suture framed as the lacking subject – whose quest for ontological consistency and perceptual totality the viewer is encouraged to project themselves onto – her place within the flattened animetic image defies such framing.
But how does the show situate specifically the otaku viewer into this? A consideration of the context of its genre, nichijokei, may prove useful. Motoko Tanaka writes that, as nichijokei typically revolves around the “homosocial relationships” of its female ensemble cast, a male character is notably absent. Whereas a genre like sekaikei usually features a passive male character for the male otaku viewer to project himself onto, in nichijokei such a feature would only distract from the moe affect of possessing the girl characters. The potential romantic relationship that comes with a male character would not only cross this boundary of pure possession, but add an unwelcome element of otherness and tension to the genre’s isolated Imaginary space and everyday narrative mode (Tanaka, 2014). So as a nichijokei text, Comic Girls quite evidently breaks a lot of rules. While it doesn’t feature a male character through whom elements of self-projection and romantic tension are introduced, it does something arguably more radical: assigning these elements to the girls themselves. The romantic arc between Koyume and Tsubasa is a clear example of the latter element – but of most interest is Kaoruko’s embodiment of the former.
At the same time as Kaoruko embodies the role for possession, she also possesses a channeling gaze that disrupts the very framework of the nichijokei space. At the instances of her fetishizing indulgences, where the object of her fetishization is paired with the display of her affective response, she is simultaneously an object of moe affect and a subject of sexual affect – one for the otaku viewing subject to gaze at and channel his gaze through. Her ontological multiplanarity within (and consequent disruption of) the nichijokei space thus flattens the very distinction between object and subject. Additionally, Kaoruko is evidently not a male but a female subject, and one with a homosexual orientation and particular affinity for homoeroticism between other girls. Not only is the subject-object hierarchy ruptured, but so are the structures of gender and sexuality associated with it. In this disorienting ambiguity of object, subject, gender and sexuality, where is the male otaku viewer ultimately supposed to position himself?
Perhaps asking that question is to look at the issue from the wrong angle. After all, as Lamarre notes, moe is a response “prior to the formation of a distinct subject or viewing position.” (Lamarre, 2009: 281) It is a response generated through a “dynamic system,” in which the otaku consumer, as “cooperator,” organizes the elements upon the distributive field of the animetic image into “emergent patterns” that evolve toward the moe “attractor.” (Lamarre, 2009: 274) In other words: moe is not an affect that inherently exists in a defined object, nor is it based in a straightforward viewer/subject-image/object hierarchy. Rather, it is generated through a dynamic negotiation between consumer and image, both of which can take on a vast variety of forms. Moe can be an affect of possession toward nichijokei characters, but it can also be an affect of sexual interaction. It can be an affect of embodiment, as seen within cosplay and lolicon (Galbraith, “Lolicon“, 2011: 103; Galbraith, 2009; Galbraith, 2014: 75-76), or it can be a performative affect for scenarios instead of characters, or more particularly for the act of imagining such scenarios, as illustrated in yaoi and fujoshi culture (Galbraith, “Fujoshi“, 2011: 223; Galbraith, 2015: 154-156). In its breakaway from a conventional subject-object relationship, moe is an affect that crosses categories of gender, sexuality and orientation, existing as the nexus for a vast spectrum of desires.
In this context, the case of Kaoruko (and by extension Comic Girls at large) doesn’t seem too radical, as it simply approaches moe and otaku desires for what they are; heterogeneously fluid. Just like Ruki reconfigures the destabilization of Koyume’s sexuality into a seamless embracement of the fluidity of desires, the show itself is inclusive rather than subversive. It doesn’t destabilize the position of the male otaku subject so much as it welcomes otaku consumers and desires beyond this standardized category.
Following the scene of Kaoruko’s homoerotic imaginary excursion, is one where she joins Ruki in her modeling session with Koyume. As they get into the topic of realistic body drawing, Ruki advices Kaoruko to pay closer attention to Kaoyume’s physique; her “curvy” shoulders, “jiggly” belly, and “bouncy” bottom. Koyume gets upset that she essentially is being called chubby, which leads to a quarrel between her and Ruki over their envies for each other’s body shapes. Koyume gripes that Ruki’s slim and tall body is like “right out of a shojo manga,” while Ruki is jealous of Koyume’s bust and argues that her cute and energetic type is what’s “actually popular in real life.” Upon Ruki’s grievance that “Everyone likes big-chested girls!”, Kaoruko chimes in: “True, breasts are important… But what’s more important is a girl looking embarrassed about her chest size!” Eventually Tsubasa enters the debate, displaying what the other three perceive as the ideal body type in terms of fitness and proportions. Tsubasa objects, draws the most muscular of physiques and argues that “You need to be at least this muscular, or you fail as a hero of darkness.” When Ruki expresses that such a degree of muscularity would only be creepy, Tsubasa firmly holds her stance. In contrast to the common trope of girls concerning over the attainment of a singular, normatively standardized female bodily ideal – less weight and larger breasts – these girls express all kinds of bodily preferences, each according to their individual values as characters. Herein lies the ethos of Comic Girls: the recognition and celebration of the diversity of otaku consumers and their desires.
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