Outbreak Company is a love letter to otaku everywhere—and that is both its greatest strength and greatest weakness.
Outbreak Company is a comedy about a hardcore otaku, Shinichi, who is hired by the Japanese government to promote otaku culture in a newly-discovered parallel world. The parallel world is typical magical fantasy fare—with elves, dwarves, knights, dragons, princesses, and everything else you’d expect. However, it is also a world with a different culture and rules. Racism is commonplace and the humans subjugate the other races by keeping them illiterate and uneducated.
Shinichi realizes he is in a unique position to help change this and thus starts a school. By teaching about manga and anime, he is able to show the people of this magical world something unique, alien, and truly captivating. Through subjecting them to specifically themed anime and manga, Shinichi is able to teach them the ideas of freedom and equality.
Then, by teaching Japanese to not only the humans but also the other races, he makes it so that they can read/watch on their own. Basically, he is put in the position to educate the next generation with the values of modern Japan and thus start a wave of social change across this magical world—and some of the world’s inhabitants are very much against that.
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Of course, that also means he is very much on an active quest to destroy another world’s culture and replace it with his own—whether he realizes it or not. It really is a brilliant plan on the part of the Japanese government, assuming parallel-world domination is your goal.
By halfway through the series, it has come to the point where people in this magical world can read Japanese but are illiterate in their own language. Plus, by spreading escapist entertainment, the world is becoming more and more enthralled by Otaku culture and becoming less concerned with the problems of their everyday lives. If the Japanese were to invade by force a decade down the road, they’d probably be welcomed as liberators.
As a comedy, Outbreak Company generally uses three types of humor. The first is simple slapstick: like when a local guide leads a group of Japanese soldiers into a dragon's cave and tells them that the only thing that will enrage a dragon is the smell of antiperspirant—and then they turn around to see a soldier putting some on.
But where the humor really shines is with the second type of humor: deconstruction humor. Because Shinichi is a hardcore otaku, he sees anime tropes in everything and is overeager to try and make the tropes into reality. When he sees the racial tension between the elves and dwarves in his own school, he decides to have them play a soccer game—so they will learn the joy of competitive sports and learn to respect each other as they bond over the game.
But what this really means is that he pits two groups of people who hate each other—one with super strength and one with earth-shattering magical powers—in a battlefield-like area and tells them to fight it out. The plan goes about as bad as you would expect, with hilarious results.
The third type of humor is more problematic: insider otaku humor. This portion of the comedy is directed at hardcore otaku and basically excludes any casual viewer. Thus, when one of Shinichi’s teachers, Minori, dives headlong into a speech about the specific terminology of boys-love manga, or later, when Minori begins singing the Gatachman Crowds transformation song off-key randomly, it is hilarious if you are in on the joke. But if you are just a normal anime fan, these jokes will go right over your head, leaving you confused at best.
[Skip to the next section to avoid spoilers.]
When Shinichi finally discovers that his mission is not to spread the love of otaku culture for its own sake but rather to spread it as a cultural virus—leaving this magical world ripe for Japanese exploitation—Shinichi takes it rather hard. However, by the end of the series, Shinichi and his companions have thwarted the plans of the Japanese government and everything is now happily under control—except that it isn’t.
Shinichi’s plan to stop the otaku culture virus is to begin producing manga and light novels locally in the magical world—thus preventing their reliance on the Japanese for cultural entertainment. This plan is fundamentally flawed.
Shinichi has only one school. Among the members of that school, he has one decent artist and one decent writer—hardly enough to provide entertainment to a whole kingdom, much less a whole world. Moreover, instead of banning Japanese imports to prevent the cultural contamination in the years it will take them to set up their own publishing system, they decide to continue business as usual—thus continuing the cultural invasion exactly as it was before.
Besides, who’s to say that the locally penned manga/light novels won’t be treated as cheap knock-offs just because they didn’t come from Japan—after all, that is how they are often viewed in the real world.
On a more personal note, Outbreak Company is one of the few anime that has made me truly irate. Whenever Shinichi waxes about how Japan is so superior because there is true equality and no racism, I just want to throw a brick at my screen.
I have lived in Japan for nearly a decade and I am in love with this country on many levels. But, like anywhere, there's racism—like how Korean-Japanese or Chinese-Japanese minorities are treated, for example. And as an obvious foreigner, I have encountered more than my own share of it first hand. Sometimes, it's something small, like an old woman's scowl or people fearfully refusing to sit next to me on a packed train. Other times it's something big like being turned away from a hotel or not being allowed to rent an apartment based solely on the color of my skin. And then, there's the people in black face or wearing giant prosthetic noses on TV.
Don’t get me wrong. Japan is far less racist than the magical world of Outbreak Company, but it is hardly the paragon of equality and racial tolerance that Shinichi implies; and the very idea that the writer thinks it is insulting to my very core.
As I said in the intro, Outbreak Company is a love-letter to otaku—and the more otaku you are, the more you will enjoy it. However, even if you are just a casual anime fan, you’ll get more than a few laughs from Outbreak Company. Moreover, it really does a good job exploring the positive and negative effects of foreign popular culture on a previously isolated land.
If you love the idea of an anime that mocks anime tropes yet has an interesting thought experiment at its core—and you don’t mind a few holier than thou rants about Japan—you’ll definitely enjoy Outbreak Company.
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