First Impressions: Outbreak Company


Exporting manga one loli at a time

Typically, there're a few shows every season that critics can write off as dumb fanservice and/or otakubait shows, and from the promotional material, Outbreak Company looked like it was going to be one of them. To a certain extent, it is a pandering otaku show; the premise, featuring an otaku brought to a fantasy world to be the "ambassador" of otaku culture from Japan, is obvious wish-fulfillment material, and there's plenty of anime in-jokes to be had. From the fanservice angle, there's lots-- not only do we have a character who wears a maid costume 100% of the time, but there are jokes about breasts of all sizes.

Yet, while fanservice shows are notoriously lazy, Outbreak Company breaks the mold by harboring some rather strange, if welcome, ambition. I have to admit, whatever I may have expected from this show, it wasn't a meditation on the limits of good intentions when they come in the form of cultural imperialism, explorations of different kinds of social caste systems, and the way art can be a powerful weapon against political extremism. All of which this show touches on in its first three episodes.

I don't get it-- what's going on here? It's like half the staff of Outbreak Company got a memo that said "We are making a groundbreaking show that will both criticize otaku culture, yet also show why such enthusiast culture is positive, and perhaps even necessary for the advancement of human society," and the other half got a memo that said "LOL boobs, lolis and maids, let's do this thang!"

She's sitting on his lap of course

My first clue that something was a bit strange with Outbreak Company was during the scene where Shinichi, our otakutagonist (yeah I just made up a dumb word, deal with it), learns the reason why he was selected to head the cultural outreach program to the newly-discovered Holy Eldant Empire. Matou Jinzaburou, the official who selected Shinichi for the program, explains that while the government realizes that exporting Japan's anime/manga culture would be the best way to win the hearts and minds of the Eldant people and forge strong ties between the two nations, they're hesitant to do so. Why? Because government sucks at that.

"Whenever the government officials get involved in such things, no good comes of it. We can only build something, watch its administration degrade, and close it down, time and time again," Matou explains. Wow. I don't know if that was meant to specifically criticize the Japanese government's attempts to make the rest of the world recognize "Cool Japan," but it's certainly easy to read it that way.

So, since government sucks at cultural outreach (it is known), the government decided to basically pick an enthusiastic otaku, plant him in this new realm, and hope that otaku culture basically goes viral in Eldant thanks to his exploits. That way, even if they fail, they haven't lost much because they haven't invested much. Honestly, I can't find much fault with their reasoning there.

The gang

Of course, one cutting remark does not make a show a satire or a deconstruction, and Outbreak Company doesn't seem to aspire to be either of those things; the tropey bits, such as the way the capricious loli Empress and shy half-elf maid start fighting over Shinichi from the get-go, are played as straight as can be. Yet, without seeking to do anything too groundbreaking, the show manages to surprise the viewer by going to smarter places than you anticipate.

For example, Shinichi faces a difficult problem in trying to communicate a love for manga in a feudal society where most of the populace can't read. That leads to building a school, but of course such an enterprise starts crossing the line from sharing a love of otaku goodness to heavy-handed cultural imperialism-- or does it? Does it make a difference that it's Shinichi, as an individual, teaching the Japanese language and culture to the Empress, or this just a more subtle way for Japan to "conquer" this new realm? Does it really matter if it's soft power or hard power at work, so long as you get what you want?

Empress loli....I mean Petralka

Time will tell whether or not the show is committed to exploring some of the intriguing questions it provokes, or whether it just seeks to make its buffet of fanservice more intellectually palatable by bringing in some topics with thematic heft to them. For me though, even if the show falls apart in future episodes, I have to say I appreciate the fact that they attempted to do something interesting with this premise. This show could have very easily been an incredibly boring, "Typical otaku guy is worshipped for being an otaku, yaaaay wish fulfillment!" story, and as of right now, it's not coming across that way. There's an element of that-- a large element-- but there's more going on here.

Outbreak Company is available streaming on Crunchyroll.

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Karen Mead
Karen MeadContributor   gamer profile

Hi, I'm a former newspaper journalist who got tired of having a front row seat to the death of print. There probably could be some interesting story there about a disenchanted reporter moving on ... more + disclosures



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