By Greg Erlandson
I read with horror the recent news story from Pittsburgh about a very troubled man who kept a running blog about his inability to have any sort of relationship with a woman. His self-pity took a lethal turn when he decided to walk into an aerobics class with a duffel bag full of guns to exact vengeance on the entire gender he felt was ignoring him.
Extreme emotional immaturity among young men, albeit less murderous, seems to be a recurring media theme these days. In Japan, awkward males vent their social frustrations by dating customized pillows, according to a New York Times story.
The Times recently reported on "Love in 2-D," a Japanese social phenomenon where "grown" men develop relationships with cartoon characters whose images are imprinted on pillowcases. It is apparently the latest wrinkle in what the Japanese call otaku, a kind of super-fandom that has accompanied the obsessive video game and manga (or illustrated novel) culture that consumes many Japanese. In this extreme case, images of manga or video-game characters -- recognized by prepubescent figures and large doe eyes -- are imprinted on pillowcases and become companions for lonely men.
Nisan, a 37-year-old man interviewed in the article, loves Nemutan, a video-game character he fell in love with at an otaku convention. He takes her on dates, goes to restaurants or sings karaoke with her. He keeps a separate pillowcase image of her at his office in case he has to sleep there, and when he dies, he says, "I want to be buried with her in my arms."
Toru Honda is perhaps Japan's best-known advocate of 2-D love. He is 40 years old, and he argues that real love is no longer possible, that it has been turned into a commodity by incessant marketing and "romantic capitalism." "As long as you train your imagination, a 2-D relationship is much more passionate than a 3-D one," Honda argues.
Advocates for 2-D love see relationships with inanimate objects as an appropriate outlet for romantic needs and passions, without any fear of being rejected. One observer says that all men can be graded on a scale from one to ten, with one being someone only interested in real women, and a 10 being someone who has no interest in real women at all. The implication is that all men may have a little bit of 2-D in them.
The 2-D otaku phenomenon quickly becomes a weird window in the darker corners of the male soul. Its practitioners list the benefits of 2-D love as including no need to be concerned about hurting the other person, keeping one's room clean or being faithful to only one character.
In a few years, however, pillowcases may be passé, if Japan's ever-creative technologists have their way. 3-D love may be back in the picture, this time with robots. Last March a prototype of a girl robot modeled on the same cartoon figures was unveiled. Technology may soon be able to supply what nature does not: artificial women who won't object to messy rooms or robot infidelity, but will always be unchangingly pliant and available, even as the sad little men who love them will be emotionally devolving before our very eyes.
Given such phenomena, it is no surprise that Japan's birth rate has been plummeting for years, but I wonder how long until America's entertainment industry finds a way to exploit robot love.
And when it does, can 2-D or robot weddings be far behind? After all, if a man truly loves his cartoon figure, what is to keep him from pursuing such happiness? No one is being exploited. No one is being hurt. Woody Allen once explained that "the heart wants what the heart wants" to justify deserting his girlfriend for her stepdaughter. Someday, it may justify legalizing man-machine marriage.
Full social acceptance, of course, will only come when robot love has its own reality TV show.
Greg Erlandson is the president and publisher of OSV.
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