A self-proclaimed sociologist with no academic background in the field of sociology, bitmap has nonetheless published dozens of posts on modern Japanese pop culture over the Internet, and has been described as “an unconquered genius” by his peers. His works focus on the realities and fantasies of modern otaku culture, often centered around what he deems the “Anglo-anisphere,” and the resultant, delicate interculture.
What follows is a cursory introduction to the Japanese concept of denpa, in which a theoretical historical framework under which the “denpa aesthetic” developed over time is established and explored briefly.
The permutations of the concept of the “radio wave” in common and otaku parlance
In the Japanese language, the term denpa literally refers to radio waves, the familiar form of radiation believed to be generally harmless.
However, the term began to take negative connotations, starting in 1981, when the perpetrator of the Fukagawa serial slasher incident claimed to be affected or controlled by these radio waves into performing his crimes. From then, the idea of certain people acting out as if they were being controlled by harmful radio waves took hold, leading to the use of denpa as a slang term for this group of socially deviant people, spawning the slang terms demupa, dokudenpa, and denpa-kei.
From the real-life equivalent, we get the denpa-kei character in otaku subculture. The most influential work to this end is the early visual novel Shizuku, which heavily featured these harmful radio waves as plot points. Today, we find as an archetype the denpa onna―“radio girl,” often depicted as a delusional character with strong belief in the extraterrestrial hypothesis. In this way, the denpa-kei, as both a social phenomenon and as a part of otaku fiction, share many details with the Western stereotype of “tinfoilers”.
Meanwhile, as the genre of the visual novel and eroge evolved throughout the 90s, the otaku subculture saw the development of a new, unique brand of J-pop. Although it’s been labeled differently over the years, today it is best known as denpa music. Its strange conventions and lyrical content bring to mind the fanciful ideals of the denpa-kei (as well as the tendency for denpa songs to get stuck in your head, reminiscent of denpa waves). Denpa music today is a large part of general otaku culture, frequently making an appearance in both eroge and anime. Because it is distinct from the concept of denpa-kei, the subgenre of denpa music carries little of the stigma that is associated with denpa-kei.
Identifying and separating the denpa aesthetic from the phenomenon of denpa music
I believe that a new aesthetic can be found not only in denpa music but in other forms of media. I call this the “radio,” or denpa aesthetic. In order to identify traits unique to this aesthetic, I will use denpa music as a starting point. Two aspects of denpa aesthetics can be isolated from denpa music as follows:
- The denpa aesthetic exists within the otaku infrastructure.
Denpa works are commentary on otaku sensibilities, and yet they are in a unique position of acting as such from within the realm of otaku consumption itself; denpa works are bought by otaku and treated the same as other otaku works of the non-denpa persuasion in many respects. In this way, they are self-propagating, not unlike the Lowbrow movement.
- The denpa aesthetic is defined by excess.
If there’s one common idea in denpa works, it is that of “excess.” Take denpa music, which takes―among other things―the catchiness, high-pitched vocals, and wotagei of idol and seiyu pop and takes them to their logical extreme. Where denpa works thrive is in pushing the conventions of the otaku subculture to its limits.
There are other elements common in denpa works, of course, but as an introduction to the denpa aesthetic, I feel that these two facets are the most important to understand as core philosophies. Other particulars will reveal themselves throughout the course of the rest of the essay.
The framework of the restrictive mindset up to the 21st century
But how did the denpa aesthetic develop? To understand these circumstances, we must go back a bit in Japanese history. Personal computers and video game consoles came to Japanese homes in the mid-70s and took off in the early 80s. With this new technology came harsh restrictions by today’s standards. These systems only supported tiny pixel resolutions, small color palettes, less than a megabyte of total memory, primitive sound chips, and so on. And yet, computer software was able to convey sophisticated images, sounds, and experiences working under these restrictions.
I call this the rise of the “computer aesthetic,” which lives on in the media of pixel art, chiptunes, and “demos” produced by the demoscene subculture, just to name a few. Those creating works in the computer aesthetic embrace the artificial, computerized aspect, and revel in the abstraction this brings to their works. Pixel artists resort to very iconic renditions; chiptunes use “instruments” that, although not very realistic-sounding, nonetheless retain an almost symbolic relationship with the real horns and other instruments that they are modeled after.
The computer aesthetic in turn, is indicative of a greater “restrictive mindset,” one defined by severe technical limitations. However, the restrictive mindset had been present for several decades prior in Japan in the medium of anime. Whereas Western animation originally developed in an environment centered around lushly animated, disparate shorts, Japanese anime took after their comic counterparts and were produced in a serialized manner very early on. This led to the use of limited animation techniques to keep up with restrictions on budget, time, and manpower. This mindset manifests itself not simply in animation itself, but even in design: take Osamu Tezuka’s “Star System,” in which the same unique character designs are purposefully reused in different contexts, as if they are recurring actors playing different roles. Additionally, the hanko-e philosophy of design, where many characters share the same basic facial features, has its roots in manga and anime but really took hold in eroge, coinciding with the rise of the recombinatorial “database consumption” that Hiroki Azuma focuses on.
How technological advances spurred the post-restrictive mindset
As time went on, however, the technical bottlenecks that had limited artists in the past no longer began to apply. By the turn of the 21st century, computers supported large pixel resolutions, millions of colors, lifelike audio quality, and processing power exponentially larger than that of computers a mere 20 years ago. Likewise in the world of anime, higher budgets, a shift toward increasing use of digital means in production, and the otaku boom of the 90s all contributed toward greater possibilities, even for television anime. Japanese creators who had developed works under the restrictive mindset now faced a new paradigm of creative capability.
So the post-restrictive mindset is a reflection: a direct response to the atmosphere of limitations that had dominated Japanese thought prior. The denpa aesthetic is a part of this greater post-restrictive mindset, centered solely around an otaku-centric viewpoint. With this, I introduce the third vital aspect of the denpa aesthetic, continuing from earlier:
- The denpa aesthetic is a direct response to moé.
I use moé here in the way Azuma uses it in Database Animals; that is, not the personal feeling experienced by otaku of wanting to protect a fictional character, but rather the system of moé-elements, in which there is a shared ever-changing database amongst otaku of certain recurring traits in otaku design. So works of the denpa aesthetic are explorations of the moé database, and they accomplish this, as mentioned previously, through excess. Take the following as an example: a character with a few moé-elements is normal, and will elicit a moé response from the otaku. But keep on piling moé-elements, even those incongruous with each other, and what results is a character that now has the ability to evoke something else entirely: this is denpa.
Denpa music can be analyzed in a similar way: it takes all of the elements of cutesy, catchy J-pop songs and compounds them until the end result is something that is so cute as to be just a bit irritating. As for anime, series that exhibit strong denpa qualities to start the reader’s exploration include Moetan (2007), Kyoran kazoku nikki (2008), and the recent Kill Me Baby (2012). Be it through character design, direction, or even the voice acting, these shows exhibit different ways in which the denpa aesthetic manifests itself. These could be expanded upon in greater detail, but as a primer on denpa, I feel the matter is best left here.
In many ways, the denpa phenomenon is one that is already familiar to many otaku; it is one that is successfully integrated into the existing system of otaku consumption, a far cry from external evaluations and criticism of moé. However, by more clearly identifying this unique aesthetic, we take one step toward a greater understanding of this nuanced ecosystem of ideas in modern otaku Japan.
2. [^] Demupa is a spelling variant, dokudenpa can be translated as “poison radio waves,” and denpa-kei means “radio type,” reflecting a similar naming convention for certain groups and subcultures (cf. Shibuya-kei, Akiba-kei).
3. [^] 1996, published by Leaf. The title translates to Droplet in English.
6. [^] Over the years, denpa music has been referred to as Akiba-pop and A-pop; it has also found itself conflated with many other subgenres, including gamewave, bitpop, and chiptune music.
7. [^] Here, and for the remainder of the work, “aesthetic” is used as a noun to mean “a particular theory or conception of beauty or art : a particular taste for or approach to what is pleasing to the senses and especially sight.” Merriam-Webster.
8. [^] Denpa bigaku in Japanese, bigaku literally being “the study of beauty.”
10. [^] Wotagei refers to cheers and background choruses popular at Japanese concerts for idols and seiyu, often emulated in denpa music by the singer. Seiyu are Japanese voice actresses for anime, drama CDs, and the like, who are heavily marketed like idol pop groups are.
12. [^] The demoscene subculture is centered around producing demos, programs usually categorized by a filesize limit that serve to demonstrate the full graphical and audio capabilities of the hardware and, of course, the proficiency of those who create the demos. Wikipedia article.
13. [^] The Japanese animation industry originally focused on full-frame animated features à la Disney, a situation that changed quickly with the rise of television and the subsequent decline of the Japanese film industry. An excellent overview of films by Toei Animation during this early stage: Part 1, Part 2.
14. [^] Hanko-e here means “stamp picture,” referring to how the faces look as though they could have been stamped on.
15. [^] For further reading on “database consumption,” consult Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Hiroki Azuma.