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"Otaku Unite!" Great, But Not Perfect, Documentary

by on March 7, 2006

There are very few anime documentaries out there, and most of them poke fun at the fandom instead of looking at it in a neutral light like other documentaries are supposed to do. Who knew a college kid’s final project would be the one to get things right?

For his final project, anime fan Eric Bresler had a dream: To make a documentary about anime fandom and explore the world of the otaku. After taking two years to compile research, acquire licensing rights and interview a LOT of people, Eric’s dream has come true. From cosplay to dancing to Robotech to kaiju, Otaku Unite! covers a generous portion of the anime fandom, and does so in a way that newcomers can see what everything is all about and actually be interested, while veteran fans won’t feel like they are being portrayed in a negative light.

To start out, we oddly go to a feature about monster wrestling with a look at Kaiju Big Battel (Yes, it’s supposed to be Battel). For those who don’t know, kaiju stuff is basically when you dress as a giant monster, such as in the Godzilla and Gamera films. This beginning is pretty interesting once it gets going, but its inclusion in the film seems odd. Maybe it should’ve been saved for the extras or a second volume. After that, we get the intro to the documentary and various people (including anime fans, convention chairpeople, and manga editors) explaining what the word “otaku” means, both in the literal and in the figurative sense. This is a really interesting segment, as nobody is able to give a true definition of what “otaku” means in American culture.

Next, there is a look back at anime through the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, specifically Speed Racer and Robotech. The Speed Racer material is interesting because they managed to get an interview with Peter Fernandez and Corrine Orr, who voiced Speed and Trixie in the aforementioned series. Though they don’t do much anime anymore, it was interesting to hear how anime was recieved back then. Most of the Robotech material is taken up by Carl Macek, who was the head supervisor and story editor for the series (and who now works for ADV) as he explains why the changes were made, how he made them, and how it was recieved way back when. While I never watched either Robotech or Macross, this was still a really nice look into anime dubbing back into the 80’s, which is extremely rare nowadays.

Other segments on this disc include a look into Yaoi-con, the Sailor Jamboree, the very first anime convention wedding, the first Anime Friar’s Club Roast and even a look back at the supposedly-first anime convention, AnimeCon ’91. All of these segments are relatively brief, but they get the essential details such as how each of them got started and, for most of them, where they are today. Each segment gets a healthy running time and the editors do a good job of not painting each of these things in a negative light. They could have made fun out of a wedding where over 3/4 of the people attending were cosplayers or said any number of jokes about Yaoi-con, but they let the visuals speak for themselves. There’s a lot more segments, such as visits to Anime Weekend Atlanta, AnimeExpo and Project-Akon, as well as a look at the various Masquerades and how they’re conducted.

You can’t have a good documentary without interviews and this disc includes a lot. Everyone from random anime fans, to the President of Geneon Entertainment, to several convention chairpeople, to several voice actors (including Doug Smith [Kintaro in Golden Boy] and Matt Miller [voice of Tenchi in Tenchi Muyo!]), to the author of Manga! Manga! The film’s “star” is Jonathan Cook, a DJ who plays an hour of anime music every night on his Tennessee college radio station. Over the course of the documentary, he shows off his cosplaying skills (as both Inu Yasha and Miroku), his past experiences and his time working as a staff member on Anime Weekend Atlanta. Most of the time, his journey is rather fun to watch. However, the segment near the end where he thinks the judging was rigged since he didn’t win the Masquerade for his “Inu Yasha Fanservice” act was an eye-roller. Overall, all the interviews are very informative and they definately highlight this documentary.

Unfortunately, not everything’s rosy on this feature. While it does cover a lot of topics, its paltry 70-minute running time means that a LOT of topics are left out. These include the rise of other mainstream series (such as Gundam, Pokémon, and Evangelion), the various non-Yaoi genres of anime, the influence of America on the anime industry and basically everything tha has happened post-1990 that is not convention-related. Sure, there is a brief (and I do mean brief) segment about Toonami, but they just talk with a freelance editor and show some clips from the minute-long 2003 intro (where TOM is racing to get to his chair). According to the commentary, the first cut of this documentary was 3 hours long, but I think they cut out too much. Also, everyone speaks positively about anime’s influence except for Dave Merril (Chairman of AWA), who is not quite as crazy as some of the other anime fans around. I wish there would have been a closer look at some of the bad stuff that’s happened in the anime fandom (such as the rise of piracy or 4Kids), but most likely that was left on the cutting room floor.

Also, there is no narrator, and while the video itself transitions decently, a narrator could’ve spiced things up. However, that is a minor quibble compared to the larger problem (at least for me), the lack of Otakon coverage. Considering that Otakon is the largest anime convention on the East Coast, it’s close to Philadelphia and it was Bresler’s first anime convention, it seems weird that, except for an off-hand mention, the convention is nowhere to be found. Sure, Central Park Media tries to rectify this by including a lot of Otakon cosplay pictures in the extras section, but it still isn’t enough for me.

Video-wise, everything’s rather nicely transferred. The video isn’t as crisp or clear as a professional documentary, but considering the equipment used, it could’ve look a lot worse. Things might look blurry if you have a high-end TV, but for the masses, this DVD will look rather fine. Audio-wise, we only get a stereo mix, but that’s excusable since this the equipment used was borrowed from the college’s video production class. However, everything is clear and there’s no hiss to be found, so there’s nothing to really complain about on this end.

Extras-wise, we get a decent smattering. There’s a video of the documentary’s premiere at the Philadelphia Film Festival, which starts out with “Miguel Sanchez” (a Geraldo Rivera parody) investigating the international terrorist killer propaganda known as Otaku Unite. This segment is hilarious, and lasts far too briefly. Then, we get to the actual premiere, which goes by quickly so they can show a random concert that really has nothing to do with anything, though the creators of Aqua Teen Hunger Force guest star for no reason. Elsewhere, there’s an episode of Philly Live, which had Bresler on to promote the documentary. Because this is on a public access station, and probably recorded using regular VHS tapes, the quality is sub-par at best and there is this annoying “Courtesy of WYBE” watermark throughout the whole video. After that, we have a series of commercials for Kaiju Big Battel (which are hilarious), the aforementioned Otakon 2005 cosplay pictures and a whole smattering of trailers. Finally, we have the commentary with Eric Bresler and Charles Smith, one of the crew. Their dicussions are pretty insightful, but oftentimes they’re taken over (signified by a cartoony warping sound) by “Johnny Otaku,” who puts on clips of random interviews and background noise. It’s funny the first couple times, but by the 3rd time it gets annoying, and by the 50th time I want to kill that damn Johnny.

The most glaring omission on this extra is all the deleted scenes, which would have been really interesting to watch, especially since Eric & Chris didn’t want to cut a few of the segments out of the main feature. Perhaps Eric can cobble together a companion documentary out of these scenes and get it released.

Overall, this is a very well-done documentary, but it covers too little. If this became a series of documentaries, I would be overjoyed.

For further coverage of this release, be sure to check out Toon Zone’s interview with Otaku Unite! filmmaker Eric Bresler.

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