A Cry For Help

If you believe the saying that dead men tell no tales, you need to give this tape a listen.

“S-O-S. Help me. I'm on a cliff and can't move. Hoist me up!”

This recording was discovered on Daisetsu-zan, the highest mountain range on Japan's northern island of Hokkaido, along with remnants of a human skeleton--hips, a thigh, an upper arm--mauled by animals beyond recognition. But the bones are the least mysterious detail of this story.

On July 24th, 1989 rescue helicopters combed the mountain in a desperate search for a missing hiker. Just as hope seemed lost the pilot noticed something below--tree trunks arranged into letters, five meters from head to tail--a giant SOS! The rescue team swooped down to recover the hiker three kilometers north of the sign, unconscious but otherwise healthy.

The hiker awoke in the hospital with excited officers at his bedside. But when they asked about the SOS, he blanked. The message wasn't his. So who the hell left it?

Helicopters returned to the site the next morning and brought back more questions than answers. They found a backpack containing, among other sundries, a Walkman with tapes and, nearby, the skeletal remains of its owner.

The man didn't simply record a distress call, he hammered it into the mic one mighty swing after another. "S! O! S!," each strained syllable punctuated with a pause for breath.  

The cryptic message and its location revealed the details of his final days. We know he wandered off trail and got stranded on a plateau between an insurmountable cliff and a steep drop. He gathered logs to send a signal after the first search helicopter failed to notice him. Exhausted from the labor, he spent the last of his strength recording a call for help. Surely the battery would last longer than his voice--pretty smart.

Not as smart--going up the mountain alone to begin with. The victim was a tetsu-ota, a train fanatic, not an outdoorsman.

Police identified the man as Kyoto Institute of Technology graduate Iwamura Kenji. His love for unusual train cars and vintage locomotives took him on cross-country journeys to Shikoku in the south and Hokkaido in the north. His fated trip to Daisetsu-zai was a present to himself to celebrate a promotion at work.

Iwamura went missing on July 11th, 1984 at the age of 25. His message was ignored for five years until, by utter chance, someone tuned in. But instead of providing closure its discovery threw the cold base back open. Why wander into the wild by himself? Why leave his camera and other belongings at the hostel? Why was the Walkman covered in stickers of anime girls, the tapes filled with anime theme songs?

Magical Princess Minky Momo smiles from the cassette case. ( Source )

Magical Princess Minky Momo smiles from the cassette case. (Source)

Trains were just the beginning. Iwamura was an unabashed geek--an otaku. He recorded anime off TV and belonged to the campus computer club. Classmates remember him as being friendly and well adjusted, albeit the type to focus his energy on hobbies over small talk. But when he had a point to make, he'd make it--even if it meant hauling logs to build five meter letters on a mountain.

Iwamura shared the airwaves with another call for help. Miyazaki Tsutomu, a 26 year-old shut-in, was arrested on July 23rd, mere days before Iwamura's recording was discovered, for crimes that the Minister of Justice declared to be "so terrible that the death penalty isn't good enough."

Miyazaki had kidnapped and murdered four girls aged between four and seven. He mutilated and molested their corpses, going so far as to grill and eat the fingers of his last victim. The media latched onto the story and dubbed him "the otaku killer" for his glasses, unkempt hair and VHS collection that rose to the ceiling.

The media frenzy wasn't Miyazaki's first brush with fame. Otsuka Eiji, a pop culture pundit with special interest in the case, recounts Miyazaki's 1982 appearance on You, a roundtable talk show for young adults. When the moderator, copywriter Itoi Shigesato, approached Miyazaki for comment, the boy clammed up. He was too shy to speak his mind even though he clearly had something to say. Why else be on TV?

Years later Miyazaki would finally deliver his message, brutal and inarticulate, with the murder of four innocent children. We don't what he was trying to say--neither did Miyazaki himself, judging from the court record--but he placed otaku on trial alongside him.

Whether Miyazaki fit the definition of otaku--or what that definition is--went out the window. The proceedings opened the first serious discourse on anime for consumers and producers alike. It made anime dangerous, gave it a purpose and directors the leeway to experiment.

People caught a horrifying glimpse of Miyazaki in the mirror. The introspective works that followed, including Serial Experiments Lain, Neon Genesis Evangelion and Perfect Blue dealt with the loss of self and breakdown in interpersonal communication brought on by the Information Age. They were equal parts entertainment, social commentary and self-therapy.

Anime has long since given up on questioning itself. The word “Otaku” has gone from slur to self-affirmation to marketing buzz word. Cool Japan, the government initiative to promote Japanese culture abroad with an emphasis on anime and manga, celebrates the current generation of unemployed, unmarried and unmotivated youth. The latest hot property? Kantai Collection, an online game that anthropomorphizes World War II vessels of the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Though apolitical in execution, it doesn't take a social justice warrior to see how easily political opponents could spin this into proof of Japan's alarming shift to the right. Should the country come to blows with Korea or China over it, no problem--JSDF new recruits are itching to try out the hardware they see in military anime.

Otaku, the industry and the political vultures circling them can no longer see themselves objectively. They've forgotten the point they were trying to make--assuming they ever had one. And so another warning goes off the radar. Makes you wonder, what sort of tragedy will it take to make people tune back in?

Written by Dave Kracker