Database structures can be problematic simply because, on the surface, they might be seen as chaotic, disorganized, and if you make a small leap, inefficient or useless, at least regarding narrative. Azuma, however, begins to put some of the meaning back in database; although it doesn’t have a grand narrative, its meaning and use is ultimately highly flexible because it more easily responds to what the user is looking for/needs/expects/contributes. In a positive way, this gives us an abundance of meanings since there are more opportunities for fruitful connections. Sort of like Legos — if you have many sets, you can make more things — even those sorts of things that no one has made before. If you have only one set and an insistence on following the instructions that came with it, you’re always going to get the same thing, and so is everyone else.
Derivative works, then, might be seen as contributing to this flexibility because they increase the pool of information in the database for others to enjoy and remix. To extend the metaphor, a derivative work would add a new set of Legos. In fact, narrative universes might be seen as needing the derivative. Azuma writes: “In otaku culture ruled by narrative consumption, products have no independent value; they are judged by the quality of the database in the background. . . .consumers, once they are able to possess the settings, can produce any number of derivative works that differ from the originals” (33). Derivatives are natural because each subject interacts with the database in its own unique manner, and postmodern subjects are perfectly able to understand the difference between the subjective outer layer where they are remixing/working and the deep inner layer that contains all of the “settings and small narratives” of the narrative world.
So, we see an affirmation of the subject. Because the deep inner layer doesn’t have a big narrative meaning until the subject gives it one, this layer, the foundation of the database, can be said not to exist. There is potential, but like the tree falling in the woods, it doesn’t coalesce as a mode of expression until someone is there to experience it; whereas with a grand narrative, we might assume that it carries on regardless of whether someone is aware of its existence.
Taking this view does complicate ideas about what “author” and “creators” are or do, however. If we are continually pulling from a database, then everything, in a way, can be seen as a copy. What does it mean to be original when you’ve grabbed all of your materials from chunks that already exist? Is creation the act of ordering or of fabricating the bits that are stuck together? Who created the house, the bricklayer or the mason who made the bricks? It wouldn’t be a house if the bricks weren’t ordered into the shape as such, but it also wouldn’t be a house if the materials didn’t support this format, and in fact, there’s more brick than mortar in the structure.
Consumption, too, is problematic, although it might be less so than authorship. Later otaku, for instance, are comfortable with not having a grand narrative and are thus able to consume the database without any tension related to forcing a fiction into the narrative’s “empty” space. Azuma writes: “Compared with the 1980s otaku, those of the 1990s generally adhered to the data and facts of the fictional worlds and were altogether unconcerned with a meaning and message that might have been communicated” (36). We must still ask questions related to where consumption ends and authorship begins, but following Azuma, we can see that postmodern characteristics have made it fairly easy to consume the database, even as “fractured” as it is.
Azuma, Hiroki. Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals. Translated by Jonathan E. Abel and Shion Kono, University of Minnesota Press, 2009.