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Original works and Derivative works

We have just seen how Japanese practice of “derivative works” can be linked to the idea of postmodernism. So our next question would be–is there any feature of “derivative works” that can also be found in other cultural practices?

The following passage is an excerpt from Satoshi Masuda “Database, Pakuri (Rip-offs), Hatsune Miku,” Urbanscope Vol.7 (2016) 17-19, originally published in Japanese in the inaugural issue of Shiso Chizu, a journal specializing in contemporary theory and criticism edited by Hiroki Azuma and Akihiro Kitada in 2008.

One of the interesting arguments triggered by Azuma’s Otaku in Japan was the link between otaku culture and hip hop music–which seemed to be completely irrelevant at first sight. Reviewing previous studies on the subject, musicologist Satoshi Masuda carefully considers the similarities and the differences between “derivative works” and the act of sampling. This examination inevitably reveals the Afro-Asian aspect of postmodern practice in subcultures around the world.

Databases in music

Let us first take a look at the main points of the database consumption theory. The otaku’s consumption behavior is geared towards characters and settings, rather than the individual narratives (or works) that they compose. Furthermore, these characters are comprised of symbols that can be reduced to moe elements (1). […]

These characters, removed from the “original” narrative, are used as elements by the otaku for their derivative manga works. However, the relationship between the “original” and derivative work is not that of an original (archetype) vs. copy, but rather that of two simulacra, equal to the extent that they are both composed of elements accumulated within the database. Rather than humanly agreeing to an individual work or author’s worldview, the otaku imagination is oriented to chara(kyara)-moe(2), which responds animalistically to symbolically-produced characters. […]

Now, let us similarly apply this theory to music. New dance music, such as hip-hop, house and techno, that developed in the 1970s and 80s and rose to the status of popular music in the 90s can be characterized by the presence of a DJ that “plays” existing records, rather than musicians that play certain instruments. […]

To a DJ, each record is merely an ingredient for his derivative work. The meaning infused into the “original” record is broken down and focus is placed on separate music fragments. These fragments, or ingredients for this new act of creation, are called “stuff.” DJs collect records not as great works (of music), but for use as stuff. They thus literally create a database of musical sound fragments.

This kind of practice in DJ culture coincides, formally to a great extent, with the orientation towards characters in otaku culture. Consumption, or the creation of derivative works, occurs based on the unit of elements (breaks and specific sounds/characters and settings) rather than the entirety of the individual work (music, narratives), and the derivative work holds a status equal to the primary work (rather than a relationship of original to copy, they are equally simulacra to the database). Furthermore, the producers-cum-consumers of both types of derivative works respond “animalistically” to elements rather than perceiving the works as small, complete works in and of themselves (small narratives). As Go Ito points out, this can be compared to “anime eyes” (a corporeality that responds acutely to the symbolic format of moe element symbols constituting anime characters) and “techno ears” (a corporeality that fathoms pleasure from inorganic electronic sounds) (Ito 2007: 265). However, there is a difference in database consumption in otaku and DJ culture that cannot be overlooked. This difference is mainly the result of differences in the characteristics of manga, anime and music in media theory.

First of all, sound fragments like break beats (parts of a song extracted as samples) and other special sounds that form the DJ’s unit of consumption, have a lower level of autonomy as compared to characters that appear in manga, anime and games. The DJ’s imagination consumes these sound fragments as elements to be incorporated into a “different song” (there would likely be very few users who would listen to a CD of samples on a daily basis). On the other hand, characters can be consumed alone, without having to belong to a particular work, and thus assume a semiologically more complicated structure.

This semiologic difference between the two likely rests in the qualitative difference in the creative effort exerted in the two cultures’ practices and databases. Azuma mentions the double articulation of characters and moe elements in the otaku database, in which there is a database of characters and settings and furthermore, a database of the individual elements that compose these characters and settings (Azuma 2001:77). This kind of double articulation of characters and moe elements, however, does not exist in the DJ’s database of sound fragments. In music sampling, a unit of consumption that is identical to a unit of reproduction results in replicas consisting of superficial sounds (sampling using machines), while the same for characters in the otaku’s derivative works do not reproduce such simple replicas(3). While founded upon images depicted in manga or anime, derivative works in otaku culture attempt to attach different lives to characters by imagining (or collectively creating) characteristics that are not necessarily included in the existing manga or anime. On the other hand, sampled sound fragments, the unit of consumption in DJing, are practical sounds that do not have a “thickness” equivalent to otaku characters (which can be imbued with characteristics). Thus, there is a difference in the semiological status of the two cultures as well as in the creative effort required in reproducing them.[…]

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This article is from the free online course:

An Introduction to Japanese Subcultures

Keio University