As of May 31, 2011, Tokyopop, which originally started as Mixx and at one point was one of the largest licensees of manga in North America, will be closing their publication doors. What was once a strong up-start in the U.S. market thanks to the acquisition of hits like Sailor Moon in the 90’s had become a shadow of themselves, losing their once powerful hold on the young adult manga market. In recent years, Japanese publishing giant Kodansha rescinded the rights to titles that had been licensed to Tokyopop, and Borders, Tokyopop’s largest customer, filed for bankruptcy, leaving debts that would never be repaid (as well as many layoffs).
After all is said and done, Tokyopop would’ve been remembered as a company that, while making some questionable choices in their life (OEL manga) published some very high profile titles, and pushed the Japanese “tankobon” format in the Western world, forcing a complete re-structuring of manga publication in America for the foreseeable future.
Would’ve been, had Stu Levy not had his way.
You see, Stu Levy isn’t the kind of guy to “just” run a large and popular publishing house — he’s a “big picture” thinker, see? He’s got big plans. Why limit Tokyopop to just doing books when there’s properties to exploit, television shows to air, movies to produce and merchandising to be manufactured? And lest we forget his stint as “DJ Milky”, hot deejay and co-creator of Princess Ai with bloated has-been Courtney Love, and his little hobby writing profound and thoughtful “gothic poetry” (I’d like to remind the reader this is a man in his mid-forties).
As you can see, Mr. Levy has quite a bit on his plate, charismatic entrepreneur he is. Levy himself would probably fancy himself the Richard Branson of the “otaku” ethersphere, but to an outsider looking in, he appears to be a man living an extended adolescence, bouncing from one thing to another, with no real focus on any one pursuit. Jack of all trades, master of none. Just look at the way he treats his own publishing company: as a stepping stone to the much more lucrative and glamorous world of “entertainment media.” Why just publish properties you’ve swindled away from college kids with a blood oath contract when you can cut them out of the whole thing by turning them into much more lucrative television and movie properties?
Which brings us to the subject at hand: America’s Greatest Otaku, a piece of work which may be the apex of Stu Levy’s hubris to-date.
Initially pitched as the Tokyopop U.S. tour in the summer of 2010, the stated purpose of this tour was to spread “otaku culture” across the U.S. and visit various locations which would interest fans of anime, manga, and general Japanese culture. As the tour continued, various contestants would be visited in their hometown and interviewed for the chance of a lifetime: A trip to Japan, birthplace of “otaku culture.” Eventually the eight week trip was edited into eight episodes of reality (Internet) television, which ran from March to April 2011 on Internet media hub Hulu.
It became apparent as soon as episode one began streaming that what was being presented could be seen as a reflection of Levy himself: flighty, unfocused, sloppy and awkward. In other words, a train wreck. For the most part, the Internet collectively laughed at Levy and company’s incompetence and abandoned the show; heck, even the hardened anime pirates gave up ripping and torrenting the show after episode two. (And these are people that had no problem fan-subbing all of Qwaser of Stigmata [A Tokyopop title! -Ed.], for God’s sake.)
But this writer stuck with it through all eight episodes. It was painful, long-term medical problems may result. But dammit, I took the red pill, I had to see how deep the rabbit hole went.
Each episode begins with Levy himself as the host, sporting a swatch of bleached hair that, from all indications, seems to be the Scarlet Letter of douche-baggery. Why Levy decided to be the host himself rather than a more charismatic (and, let’s be honest, photogenic) host is between him and his team, but I assume it has something to do with his desire to always be in the middle of everything, no matter the detrimental effects.
The first episode begins with the six kids picked for the tour piling into a bus emblazoned with the likes of Van Von Hunter and the skull mask-sporting main character of I Luv Halloween, properties which have made little financial gain for Tokyopop in general, but are wholly owned by Levy himself, so they will attain as much exposure as he can give them as they are nursed into properties fit to spin into million-dollar-media franchises. Something that becomes apparent very quickly is how few of the locations visited have anything to do with the culture that Levy and crew initially seem to be attempting to present to the audience. With the exception of Anime Expo in the first episode, visited locations descend into a proverbial hell by the second episode with poor team “D & D” getting sent to Salt Lake City to do a segment on the library and cosplay around the Mormon temple grounds. What started as hopeful enthusiasm from the intern hosts turns into visible disappointment as the Otaku Six members are sent to various places in the middle of nowhere with a highly tenuous connection to Japanese culture, pop or other-wise. Rinse and repeat ad-nausea for eight episodes.
America’s Greatest Otaku makes the cardinal mistake of being flat-out boring for long stretches, with graphics and transitions that regularly take too long, sloppy editing in places that would leave even a novice of film-making and video editing screaming “Cut! Cut!” and locations that come off as tedious despite the hosts trying to play them up. When the program features five minutes of your interns trying unsuccessfully to get into a closed Buddhist temple, you probably need to call it a day — and you definitely shouldn’t use the footage in the show. We don’t even get to know the interns themselves beyond their ready-for-The Real World gender and ethnic roles (the white guy, the black guy, the Asian girl, etc.). Maybe if the viewers saw their personalities come through on the long bus rides between states, they would’ve been interesting hosts. As it stands, they remain ciphers to the viewer through no fault of their own, leading to people devoid of personalities droning at the camera for an insufferable amount of time.
The contestants chosen to be interviewed for the series are picked and edited in such a way that it seems the intent was to paint an unfavorable portrait of the average American “otaku.” While there are a handful of interviewees who make their own costumes, and one intriguing Iraqi immigrant who writes and draws her own comics, the rest of the contestants interviewed can be put into one of two categories:
Category-A are fans so caught up in the act of collecting (be it figures, autographs or manga) that it seems there’s never a moment of pause to ask themselves why they consume what they do and to what end. None of them seem to show a penchant for any particular genre, artist, or series they like, and are instead driven by the consumption of product.
Category-B essentially come off as scatter-brained kids who used their time on the show to goof around for the cameras and show off their mediocre drawings, songs and vocal talents, usually doing all of these things and none of them particularly well. They ultimately come off as a waste of the interviewers’ and the viewers’ time.
The contestants paint an ugly picture of the average American in the sub-culture as vapid consumer whores, devoid of anything of self-worth or interest beyond their media consumption, or exhibiting the attitude of a toddler dancing about screaming “Look at me!” Is it an honest portrait of “otaku” at large? Probably. But the goal of this program was to show them in a positive light, which it decisively fails at.
The final episode features the “winner” among the contestants, a lanky black guy named Chris with a penchant for dressing like Mario, going to Japan — not to explore Tokyo at his leisure, but to be followed around Akihabara by a Tokyopop camera crew and have cringe-inducing moments play out inside a maid cafe, a butler cafe, and a live super sentai show populated by six-year-olds and their parents. I’m going to give the guy the benefit of the doubt and assume that these locations were pre-selected by Levy or his crew, and not by Christopher himself, but I will not make excuses for the man when he chooses to walk around Akihabara in a ratty hand-made Mario costume to the chagrin of the viewer (or anybody with a lick of self-awareness).
While America’s Greatest Otaku could be seen as an unintentional smearing of fans of anime and manga in North America, the choices made in locations and editing by Stu Levy and his crew ultimately reflect more poorly on him than any of the guests or hosts featured on the show. After plumbing the depths of all eight episodes, it hit me — Stu Levy is himself America’s greatest otaku: a warped, shallow man-child who has no other pursuits but his own self gratification and exploitation of Japanese culture for his own personal gain. And if his soon-to-be documentary about the tsunami disaster earlier this year is anything like this, his mangling of the culture of the rising sun may be truly just beginning.
So farewell, Tokyopop. It’s too bad a company that built their reputation as a purveyor of manga and Japanese cultural imports wasn’t powerful enough independently from their founder to be remembered for the hundreds of well-received series they translated and published over the years, and will instead be marked as a foot-note, along with America’s Greatest Otaku, in what is sure to be a long list of the eventual failed business ventures in the career and life of Stu Levy.