Beautiful Fighting Girl (trans. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson)

Saitō Tamaki,
Beautiful Fighting Girl, (trans. Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson)
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011
ISBN: 978 0 8166 5451 2
US$19.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of Minnesota Press)

Keith Vincent and Dawn Lawson’s lucid translation of Saitō Tamaki’s flawed but engaging and sophisticated book Beautiful Fighting Girl may have been intended as a contribution to the study of psychoanalytic thought in Japan.  After all, Saitō is not only a cultural critic, but also a practicing psychiatrist who speaks in the Lacanian idiom.  The original title of his book, Sentō bishōjo no seishin bunseki, translates unredacted as A Psychoanalysis of the Beautiful Fighting Girl.  It was originally presented as a quasi-clinical study of an ubiquitous character type in anime and manga: the pubescent girl armed for battle against oppressive forces.  Of course, the reader quickly understands that Saitō’s “patient” is not so much the Beautiful Fighting Girl as it is the (male) otaku who habitually consumes her image. While the Lacanian metaphor that runs through Saitō’s argument is not always satisfying, and at times seems unconventionally applied, his psychoanalytic orientation did make one significant intervention by placing the topic of sexuality as related to images of these often precociously voluptuous girl warriors under the microscope.  Surprisingly, back in the year 2000, when Saitō’s book appeared, there was scarce thoughtful commentary on the subject.[1] His psychoanalytic approach reportedly created a sensation, and has been credited with founding the subfield of otaku studies that grew with momentum in the ensuing years.  Commentary that has been included with the present translation, including a detailed introduction by Vincent, two afterwords by Saitō, and a reflection by Azuma Hiroki – a rebellious disciple of Saitō’s – helpfully establishes the significance of the book’s contribution to Japanese cultural criticism.

In opening this conversation, Saitō responded to several discourses that were dominant at the time of the original writing, notably the tendency to pathologize otaku as socially withdrawn and potentially dangerous perverts. He notes that the term “otaku” was first coined by a commentator who, in a 1983 essay, mockingly observed how certain manga and anime fans had taken to addressing each other in stiltedly polite language, such as the stiff second person pronoun “otaku” (such uncommon locutions fed the perception that otaku were socially maladjusted). By 1989, when it was revealed in the mass media that an “otaku” named Miyazaki Tsutomu had murdered several young girls, this image of social maladjustment acquired a more sinister hue and led to widespread stigmatization. Saitō pointedly dismissed such prejudices, insisting that otaku, however polymorphously perverse, are not mentally ill. He furthermore resisted a tendency toward mimetic interpretation. From the perspective of mimetic analysis, the Beautiful Fighting Girl functioned as a reflection of either of changing social values that increasingly empowered girls, or else a persistent psychological immaturity and perversion on the part of Japanese men who were seen to infantilize women by means of such images. This sort of thinking is still not uncommon – or entirely unjustifiable. The crestfallen consensus among fans that the Mako Mori “fighting girl” character in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013) had failed the Bechdel test[2] is an example of how audiences continue to be invested in the notion that a female character who wages war (against colossal CGI monsters, and from within the armor of a giant robot) should mimetically represent gender either as it does, or as it ideally should exist in social reality. By contrast, Saitō is far more concerned with the fictionality of the Beautiful Fighting Girl, and her non-correspondence with social reality.

What then characterises otaku sexuality as Saitō sees it? Fiction is an operative concept. The habitat in which the Beautiful Fighting Girl thrives is an internally regulated “ecosystem of fantasy” (169). As an object of desire, she is cultivated and nurtured with the resources of a fictional context, and the sexual interest she inspires does not as a rule extend beyond the imagination and the flat world of the drawn image into reality. There is a word in otaku culture for this kind of desire: moe, a “budding” or “burning” of feeling directed at fictional characters and the stock of affectively invested qualities used to compose them. Saitō carefully explains that otaku are generally not real-life pedophiles. In fact, the measure of an otaku in his rather clinical perspective is precisely his ability to obtain “release” exclusively by means of a drawn image – in other words, the ability effectively to use a drawing (of a Beautiful Fighting Girl) as a masturbation aid. Otaku sexuality is thus unapologetically masturbatory and heavily oriented toward fantasy, but for Saitō this does not indicate some constitutional deficiency. On the contrary, it reflects a very conventional kind of neurosis. His conclusions in this regard have aroused some controversy, as Vincent outlines in his introduction to the translation.  Azuma Hiroki has responded with an influential account of otaku as sexually and psychically impoverished “animals,”[3] and Morikawa Kaichirō has highlighted what he sees as the striking gender segregation of otaku culture, and the sobering reality that nearly 90% of male otaku in their early to mid-thirties are unmarried. To be an otaku, Morikawa concludes with playful alarmism, is to fail at romance, and thus to embody a social problem that should concern government policymakers charged with combatting falling national birth rates.[4] Of course, Saitō’s own position, echoing such Lacanian mantras as “the sexual relation does not exist” and “all phallic sex is masturbatory,” emphasizes the role of fantasy as a support of all sexuality, with the consequence that otaku are rescued from exile on the far side of sexual and mental “health.”

Sexuality in this ecosystem is invariably dependent on another coordinate: technology. The Akihabara neighborhood of Tokyo, iconic as a utopia for male otaku, is an emblem of this symbiosis. Long recognized as a significant market for all manner of electronic gadgets, in recent years Akihabara has also become home to a subcultural industry catering to moe desires. Morikawa dates this trend to the 1980s, when computer hobbyist magazines circulated in Akihabara began using computer-rendered images of young girls as cover art. Today, one can shop for electronics, then cross the street for dinner in a maid café, where girls in maid costumes and kitten ears serve rice omelets decorated with hearts and other ketchup art while casting magic spells that are supposed to make the food more delicious. When I visited an Akihabara maid café, I was struck by signage posted conspicuously at the door warning in severe terms that sexual advances toward the girls would not be tolerated; the men inside, dressed in business suits accessorized in the most quotidian way with company lanyards, were very much keeping their hands to themselves as they divided their attention with suspiciously cool indifference between their cell phone screens and the mewing solicitudes of the costumed wait staff. Cell phones and maid costumes seemed to function in altogether similar ways, as technologies of mediation guaranteeing the fiction of an erotic encounter prohibited from “real” consummation.

Saitō’s book is at its most interesting where it proposes a media theory around the Beautiful Fighting Girl, a figure he speculates to be a product of an encounter between adolescent sexuality and a historically image-saturated media environment. For Saitō, media are best understood in terms of context. A context, he says, is a framework that “attaches meaning” to content (he gives the example of an actor who appears in both a television drama and a commercial broadcast in the middle of the drama, whose distinct role in each instance is situated by the discrete contexts of the drama and the commercial as media forms). By this definition, a mode like anime can be a proper medium in its own right (and “mediation” furthermore extends to psychic life and the constitution of the subject). From here, he advances a premise: that the contextual framing of reality has shifted fundamentally with the evolution of media technologies. Especially with the spread of the Internet and of consumer digital imaging technology, fiction itself has become an expanding context that has encroached upon others, notably that of social reality, with consequences for subjectivity.

The popularity of the idea that divisions between the virtual and the “real” (as distinct from the Lacanian Real) have become blurred and uncertain is reflected, for example, in the recent productivity of what Thomas Elsaesser has called the “mind game film.”[5] This refers to a wide variety of films that share a common propensity for puzzle-like narrative complexity motivated by some fundamental disorientation, often in the form of a mental illness, such as the inability of a protagonist (or of spectators) to distinguish between what is imaginary and what is real, or a failure to establish the boundaries of an integrated subject in relation to “other minds.” A film like The Matrix (1999) ties uncertainty explicitly, and topically, to the mediation of reality by digital technology, but as Vincent notes, the idea that new media impact the contexts through which we experience our own subjectivity in relation to the world is at least as old as the printing press, which gave birth to Don Quixote.  Psychoses as old as psychiatric science itself have proven durable and adaptive to changes in technology and the media environment. Voices or bodily hallucinations that were once experienced as divine messages or communications from the realm of the magical or the spiritual have in modern times been rationalized as the effects of electrical or microwave interference, or advanced surveillance techniques.  Today, there is reportedly a delusion named the Truman Show Syndrome, after a 1998 mind game film starring Jim Carrey, in which the psychotic believes himself to be the subject of a secret reality television show. In his own argument, Saitō similarly maintains that the psyche is both constant in structure and adaptable to its environment. For Saitō, the structure of desire itself remains unchanged, but its objects and attachments are affected by a media environment in which the image runs rampant.

Of course, Saitō underlines that his otaku are not mentally ill. They are not psychotics suffering from a syndrome, or victims of some grandiose plot. They do, however, maintain a unique relationship to fiction itself – a relationship that may appear pathological at first glance. Saitō sees this attitude expressed in three general characteristics of manga and anime as otaku media forms. The first is what he calls the “atemporal” quality of these forms, but I think his point is better served by the concept of “kairos,” which he also proposes. In contrast to “chronological” time (which he questionably characterizes as the essential temporality of cinema), the kairological time of manga and anime does not “flow;” it “contracts and expands.”[6]   An action, which in “reality” occurs in a split second, is stretched into an epic or a monument in anime. It can fill a temporal universe of its own making, and lends itself to agelessness and cyclicality. This is the time of fantasy or of “description” as opposed to the time of “action” in reality.

Secondly, manga and anime exhibit a high degree of codification and abstraction, what Saitō calls their “high-context” nature. Complexity is not mimetically reproduced, but is signaled in shorthand through symbolic abbreviations: speed lines, a swatch of color as a drop of sweat on the brow, or a graphic stroke as a furrow that efficiently indicates a whole psychological state (a signaling technique known as manpu in Japanese). None of these “codes” has any meaning by itself, but working interchangeably and in unison, they form a highly abstract system capable of conveying large quantities of information at glance. For Saitō, this means that anime and manga as media facilitate a special kind of reading: a “speed reading” in which imaginary objects, processed symbolically, can be absorbed in concentrated form.

Thirdly, because the aesthetic system of manga and anime involves the orchestration of such separate, codified parts that are not in themselves self-sufficient (Saitō calls them “specs” or “functions” as opposed to objects or characters), this system is fundamentally similar to a subject suffering from multiple-personality disorder, in which the ego is divided between several partially articulated identities. He contrasts this to the Bakhtinian “polyphony” of the modern European novel in which multiple fully-formed characters with grounding in a contingent social reality, and motivated by integrated psychological realities, overlap and interact in complex ways.[7] In manga and anime, characters are little more than interchangeable “types” – like the Beautiful Fighting Girl – that can easily be sampled, assembled, and remixed in different contexts.

These characteristics can lead us to conclude, on the one hand, that the people who consume anime and manga are especially vulnerable to the proliferation of media technology and the creep of information upon social reality.  Indeed, as Saitō argues, the growth of otaku culture not only accompanied, but was made possible by the development of the so-called “media mix.” The advent of the VHS recorder in 1976, and subsequently of Laserdiscs, on which retrospective episodes of the classic television anime Urusei yatsura were released in a pioneering “box set” in 1990, promoted a culture of collecting and resampling. This proclivity was also nourished by the Comics Market, an otaku mecca, where since its founding in 1975 massive quantities of amateur dōjinshi publications featuring sampled and remixed variations of stock characters from the collective database of anime and manga fictions have been exchanged. The release of the Sega Saturn and the Sony PlayStation in 1994 added another level of complexity to the otaku media habitat, one across which Saitō argues manga and anime were able to migrate with unique efficiency thanks to the aforementioned characteristics.

Otaku therefore can appear to be foundering in a swelling sea of fiction. But, on the other hand, with its codification and modularity – its ability to “symbolically” process the imaginary- otaku fiction can also neutralize the surge. The Beautiful Fighting Girl, a transplantable “function,” is perfectly adapted to the media mix as a creature spawned and nourished by the virtual reality of information overload. But going perhaps a step farther than Saitō, she can also be seen as a kind of perverse satire- a travesty – of that very image economy. In this respect, the otaku relationship to the information society is characterized by a distance, even a certain critical self-awareness.

Saitō in turn advances a step beyond the mediation-as-reflexivity thesis in returning to sexuality. Otaku are self-consciously engaged in contextual play, performing through media a satire of fictionality in the information age, and in so doing live self-consciously within fiction as a hermetic yet extendable environment. But by investing in fiction with sexual desire they are also in an important sense “anchoring” it to reality. Not social reality, but the reality of desire. The Beautiful Fighting Girl, says Saitō, is a “point of connection” between a spreading fiction and a form of desire that is resistant to fictionalization. Anime and manga become, in conclusion, a kind of rest stop along the information superhighway in which to “verify” at one’s leisure the “reality of sexuality.”[8]

Saitō spends a great deal of time establishing the genealogy, and the specificity, of Japanese representations of girls who fight, but in explaining the significance of the fact that they fight, he becomes especially reliant on his Lacanian lexicon, arriving at what I find to be less than satisfying conclusions about hysteria. Apart from the sensible proposition that the pubescent “phallic” girl in battle armor is especially accommodating to polymorphous perversion and “omnidirectional sexuality” (pedophilia, homosexuality, fetishism, sadism, masochism, etc.),[9] the significance of the fact that she fights could use more elaboration. Specifically, my doubt relates to whether the beautiful fighting girl is categorically unique, or just a variation on a theme that is interpreted with only superficial differences in the case of the hostesses at maid cafés, who replace weaponry with kitten ears, lace, and magical powers that influence the flavor of spaghetti rather than the fates of embattled fictional civilizations. Sexualized beautiful girls, fighting or not, are the staple of male otaku culture.

Moreover, although Saitō’s intervention sets out to deflect vulgar socially mimetic analyses of otaku subculture, such readings may nonetheless account for how these images work in popular culture. After all, the Beautiful Fighting Girl is not the exclusive privilege of otaku. Saitō himself notes that as a prototype this figure was intended for a general tween audience, but unexpectedly attracted a subcultural following. To explain the Beautiful Fighting Girl exclusively in relation otaku is like accounting for the celebrity of Justin Bieber solely by analyzing the perversion of lesbians (acknowledging the fact that lesbian desire for Justin Bieber may in some instances be more ironic than moe). Of course, just as Biebianism has enriched popular culture as a whole, identification with the otaku subject position has likely informed the popular consumption of what are now by no means strictly subcultural images of fighting girls. Saitō does not dwell in a systematic way on such considerations, though he does at times question his own outsider relationship to otaku culture as he performs a balancing act between the objectivity of the analyst examining an orientation he claims not to share, and the empathy of someone who acknowledges a deeply shared cultural knowledge.

Furthermore, contrary to the argument that the Imaginary is running rampant and that fiction is overflowing into reality, there is also a plausible counter-argument that, far from blurring the distinction between the virtual and the real, technology has made us all think rigorously about virtuality or fictionality in ways that have actually fortified its distinctness for us. Just how exclusively or uniquely do otaku apply playful rigor to an increasingly fictionalized media ecosystem?

Finally, it is hard to resist remarking upon the place of Saitō’s book itself within an information economy that, after all, also extends to scholarship. The packaging of the original Japanese edition of the book in anime-inspired artwork by Takashi Murakami, a “pop” artist and purveyor of a voguish philosophy known as “superflat,” efficiently absorbs its contents into the undifferentiated, polymorphously perverse space of the media mix. With Murakami as an envoy, this mix has encroached upon such privileged contexts as gallery art and luxury fashion (through the medium of the Louis Vuitton handbag). Who is to say that scholarship is more elevated, privileged, or even more rigorous than the otaku imagination? Probably not Saitō.


[1] As Azuma Hiroki recalls in his afterword to Beautiful Fighting Girl, p. 181.
[2] The Bechdel test, introduced by Alison Bechdel in her comic book series Dykes to Watch Out For, evaluates cinematic representations of women according to three criteria: whether or not a given film (1) features two female characters who have names and (2) talk to each other (3) about something other than a man.
[3] Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals (translated by Jonathan Abel and Shion Kono for a 2009 University of Minnesota Press edition).
[4] From Morikawa’s comments in a talk given at Harvard University on September 27, 2013 as part of a panel on the “Rise of Amateur/Otaku Popular Culture in the 1970s and Issues of Archiving.”
[5] See Elsaesser, “The Mind Game Film” in Warren Buckland (ed.), Puzzle Films (Oxford: Blackwell, 2009).
[6] Saitō, 137.
[7] John Treat observes that Multiple Personality Disorder has become a significant theme in contemporary Japanese literature, especially in the writing of Murakami Haruki.  See Treat, “Murakami Haruki and the Cultural Materialism of Multiple Personality Disorder,” Japan Forum 25.1 (2013).
[8] Saitō, 171.
[9] Saitō, 158.

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Ryan Cook

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Ryan Cook

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