A Freak Encounter: anime fans and the friki subculture
Fragmented Magazine #3, Melbourne, 2016
Not long ago during a family reunion in Guadalajara, Mexico, I shared my fondness for Japanese animation with a cousin of mine. Her reply was simple yet quite telling: así que eres un raro—so, you’re a freak then. Perplexed, unmotivated and lacking the words to explain why her opinion was misguided, I asked her why she thought so negatively of anime. However, she failed to provide me with a reasonable explanation and I was never able to properly reply to her criticisms. Eventually I realised that I simply should have known better from the start.
In Japan, from advertisements to corporate logos, one is literally surrounded by a surplus of anime iconography. However in Guadalajara, anime and manga are rarely seen. To come in contact with anime, outside the Internet, one often has to seek specialised shops. This lack of exposure means that anime is generally seen as childish and perverted, while fans are typically associated with social ineptitude and weirdness.
This view is so common and ingrained that an anime subculture has emerged called friki, a term that derives from the English word ‘freak’. Closely related to its Japanese counterpart, the infamous otaku, los friki are extreme hobbyists and fans of, among other things, anime and manga. However, los friki possess some peculiarities of their own. They encompass various other subcultures, including trekkies and gamers, and have gained enough momentum to gather into a pride march that takes place every year in Mexico City where they can be seen dressed as their favourite characters and marching in the streets. The sight is colourful and well...freaky. Like Pokémon gone third world.
At its very essence, los friki are hobbyists whose behaviour and tastes differ greatly from the mainstream. They appear to exhibit pride in their marginalisation – an attitude readily glamorised by the Friki Plaza, a market dedicated to the trade of specialised pop-culture paraphernalia across different states in Mexico. Operating under the slogan todo, menos normal— everything, except normal—the Friki Plaza encapsulates the sense of juvenile abnormality made apparent by the friki identity. In Mexico City, the Friki Plaza consists of various floors stocked with anime, videogames, cards, food stalls, and other collectable items. It is somewhat reminiscent of shops in Akihabara, the well-known district in Tokyo dedicated to selling electronics and pop- cultural merchandise. Commonly referred to as ‘electric town’, Akihabara emerged as a point of interest for otaku in the 1980s after it began to cater to their interests. Soon it positioned itself at the centre of the subculture. Today, it is considered a site of pilgrimage for otaku living outside of Japan. The differences between shops in Akihabara and the Friki Plaza are obvious however. Typically, the selection at the Friki Plaza is quite dated: titles such as Dragon Ball and Pokémon remain in demand, whilst the top hentai (porn) floor that has become notorious among unsuspecting tourists is noticeable missing. In contrast to Akihabara, pirated DVDs as well as cheap and illegal paraphernalia of dubious quality has proliferated.
The peculiarities of anime became immediately apparent to me as a child. Garish and more sentimental compared to most American cartoons, it conveys a watching experience similar to a chrome balloon filled with polluted air: beautiful on the outside but grim on the inside. Even though I was unable to articulate the visual pleasure that this cheap, plastic and hyperbolic media provoked in me at the time, it was clear that I was watching something different and decisively more violent. Indeed, the seductive blend of strangeness, violence and sexuality that accompanies anime is without a doubt one of its greatest allures. My first encounter with its fandom also occurred during my childhood when an otaku friend of my brother-in-law lent me fan-subbed copies of Dragon Ball Z and Ranma 1⁄2 movies. He seemed old, awkward and noticeably insular as he sourced the animations from a room filled with VHS tapes. I started to gain interest in the history and cultural context of anime much later after being exposed to contemporary artists that critically engaged with Japanese animation. Some of these artists included Takashi Murakami, Yoshitomo Nara, Momoyo Torimitsu, Mariko Mori and Kenji Yanobe.
Anime is an umbrella term that is associated with a style of Japanese animation that became popular in the 1960s. It is a distinctively Japanese cultural expression that was influenced by the iconography of the ukiyo-e, or ‘floating world’, woodblock prints of the Edo period (1600 to 1868). These prints were copied and disseminated in Japan, eventually evolving into manga comic books during the American occupation. The popular manga artist Osamu Tezuka heralded the transition from manga to anime after World War II by developing a personal style influenced by cinema and more specifically, Disney cartoons such as Snow White and Bambi. From the 1960s, he produced some of anime’s most famous titles including Astro Boy, Black Jack and Kimba the White Lion. These works played a pivotal role in the consolidation of the anime aesthetic. With the creation of Astro Boy in particular, Tezuka’s formal sensibilities established the cute morphology and childish sexuality that typifies many characters found in anime today.
Anime’s idiosyncratic language distinguishes it from its Western counterparts. Firstly, its reliance on flat shading and limited animation may seem, to the Western eye, flawed by its ‘shortcuts’: in anime, mouths rarely match the dialogue and it is common for animators to let characters stand motionless in order to save labour costs. A product of traditional Japanese sensibilities, anime favours symbolism as a simple means to communicate complex ideas, themes and values. Anime also possesses a set of expressionistic tropes that are unique to the genre. In the chibi style, for example, shrinking a character to convey a humorous moment is a recurring convention.
The narrative and thematic content of anime also tends to differ from Western cartoons. The trauma experienced after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is explored in several titles including Akira and Barefoot Gen. The manner in which Japanese society tends to privilege group thinking is apparent in the family structures and the oppressive academic environments depicted in anime. The hierarchies that dominate Japanese classrooms and the anxieties that revolve around young, female students—an icon of Japanese pop-culture—are also typical motifs.
According to journalist and academic Tania Lucía Cobos, anime was first broadcast in Mexico from the 1970s, it peaked in popularity in the 1990s, but began to lose favour with viewers by the 2010s. Cobos notes that the introduction of anime to Mexico and Latin America is underscored by various factors. Firstly, anime was cheaper to broadcast than American cartoons, and though much anime was aimed at mature audiences in Japan, in Mexico they were broadcast along side children’s shows. The first anime titles to be seen in Mexico—Heidi, Princess Knight, Candy Candy and Speed Racer—were dubbed in Spanish. (Note that many of the Spanish titles vary from the English translations or the original Japanese. For example, Speed Racer is named Meteoro, which translates from Spanish to meteorite.) Largely aimed at male audiences, the mecha—or “fighting machines” genre—arrived in Latin America in the 1980s with Mazinger Z, Steel Jeeg, Gaiki, Starzinger, and Robotech. During the 1990s, anime gained unprecedented popularity with the introduction of Saint Seiya, Ranma 1⁄2, Dragon Ball, Sailor Moon, and Captain Tsubasa. The success of these shows led to more regular programming and provoked a wider interest that increased in the early 2000s with Pokémon, Sakura Card Captor, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Naruto. Recently, anime’s presence has somewhat diminished in the popular imagination, but, consequently, its absence has strengthened the subcultural tone of anime fandom.
Many Mexicans adopted the otaku identity in these four decades, a subculture that revolves around the obsessive consumption of anime and manga as well as as collecting toys, video gaming, cosplaying and participating in online chat rooms. Otaku also connotes social introversion, isolation, awkwardness and a predilection for fantasy over reality. Mexican sociologist Dominique Menkes notes that one of the key social factors that underline the identity is the severity of the Japanese academic system and the manner in which academic pressure is intertwined with family dynamics. Indeed, families are commonly structured to facilitate the child’s scholarly success. The combination of high expectations and frequent bullying exert tremendous pressure on Japanese students, infamously leading to suicides and social retreat. These are some of the reason why the Japanese youth seek avenues for withdrawal and subcultures such as the otaku emerge. Unlike Japan, pressures of this sort are not as prominent in Mexico, particularly since academic excellence doesn’t play the same social, institutional or cultural roles. The Mexican version of the otaku subculture, therefore, appears dislocated.
Perhaps it is because of these slippages and incongruences that los friki surfaced in Latin America. Though it appropriates many elements of otaku culture, los friki are unique in the way they encompass different fandoms: as a friki, one can be a fan of Glee, Harry Potter, Game Of Thrones and Big Bang Theory. Los friki are best understood as intense hobbyists deemed ‘weird’ by the Mexican status quo. The Mexican otaku, however, are largely hard-core fans of anime and manga. Otaku could also be characterised by a set of sexual interests and sensibilities that tend to be absent in friki subculture—the fetishisation of young girls is typical in this regard.
The difference between the two is certainly confusing and one wonders if either friki or otaku could distinguish themselves from each other. The friki pride march suggests otherwise, as otaku and friki mix without notable distinction. Friki subculture strikes me as how an Emo may seem to a Goth: the ‘popshop’ version of otaku. It is perhaps nothing more than another example of commodified inadequacy—My Chemical Romance meets Akihabara stall—where a sense of alienation is valued, consumed and desired as a form of subcultural capital. This becomes evident when one browses through photos of the march and recognises numerous banners, held like flags, advertising the Friki Plaza. Perhaps to be a friki, one just needs to agree with what the American artist Barbara Kruger stated in one of her best known artworks: “I shop therefore I am”. After all, the Friki Plaza seems to provide all the rituals and symbols that ultimately define the friki identity: leisure shopping and a wacky wardrobe.
Perhaps in parochial cultures, such as in Guadalajara, even something as unexceptionable as anime will make you stand out. In this environment it may be the continuous exposure to social exclusion that turns fans into ‘freaks’ and motivates them to form subcultural ties with their peers. Indeed, one of anime’s foremost international appeals is that it enables fans to lose themselves in a pool of difference and momentarily escape from their immediate surroundings—shutting down societal norms and expectations, including those established by their families. As for me, this text, along with the making of the multimedia exhibition My Material World, where I turned a photo of my grandfather into an erotic anime character, enabled me to think through my cousin’s myopic comment (“so, you’re a freak then”) and speak back in my own terms. But am I a freak? No, I am painfully average and proud of nothing.