The Failure of “America’s Biggest Otaku”


2010 was a foul time for Tokyopop.

Initially of the millennium that they had dominated the American manga market, constructing their fortune upon manga titles like Sailor Moon, Love Hina, and the collective works of CLAMP.  These fortunes fell swiftly within the latter half of the last decade because of Kodansha pulling a lot of their well-liked manga licenses, the failure of their Rising Stars of Manga initiative, the 2008 financial recession, and the unstoppable juggernaut that was Naruto.  Tokyopop’s state of affairs was nonetheless precarious after a spherical of layoffs in 2008, however firm founder and CEO Stu Levy was sure he might flip issues round.

Levy had all the time marketed himself as The Face of Tokyopop, a person whose frosted ideas and tinted shades indicated that he was Cool and Down With The Youth.  For years, he tried to make use of Tokyopop as a stepping stone towards his true dream of turning into a multimedia mogul.  To attain this, he dabbled in anime, films, music, Authentic English Language (OEL) manga, Younger Grownup novels, and horrible goth poetry underneath the alias of “D.J. Milky,” to little success.

This plan can be completely different, although.

A bus adorned with the Tokyopop logo, as well as drawings of Princess Ai, Van Von Hunter, and other characters from the company's lineup.A bus adorned with the Tokyopop logo, as well as drawings of Princess Ai, Van Von Hunter, and other characters from the company's lineup.

It will not solely assist his firm to higher perceive their viewers, however give Stu a foothold into the world of tv manufacturing.  The technique was twofold: first, there can be the TokyoPop Tour, a promotional tour the place he might meet with followers at conventions and suburban bookstores throughout the nation.  The second was that he would movie a actuality present about anime fandom throughout stated tour, a quest to seek out America’s Biggest Otaku.

Twelve years after its debut, America’s Biggest Otaku is generally thought to be a conceit mission for Stu Levy and one in every of Tokyopop’s most embarrassing ventures.  Many have heard of it in passing, however few bothered to observe it when it was new and fewer nonetheless have tried since then.  I knew there needed to be extra to its story, so I took it upon myself to observe the present and uncover the true story behind this notorious catastrophe.

In a summer season 2010 interview with Deb Aoki, Levy defined that the mission was born from his personal goals of fame:

“I all the time needed to get on the highway and do this sort of factor – get a bus, meet followers, do a Tokyopop tour.  I’ve needed to do that for six or seven years.  I all the time needed to be a rock star, be in a band, however I by no means pursued that….My internal rock star all the time needed to get on the highway and try this.”

Screenshot from America's Greatest Otaku that depicts Stu Levy stepping off of the TOKYOPOP busScreenshot from America's Greatest Otaku that depicts Stu Levy stepping off of the TOKYOPOP bus

It wasn’t meant to be totally about him, although.  He additionally needed to highlight the range and expertise current inside the better anime fandom to take away the lingering stigma of being an “otaku.”  It will additionally function a type of market analysis, a strategy to get “a sense for which strategy to flip the ship, the business, this enterprise, for my very own profession and life and the TokyoPop model.”

In one other interview with Writer’s Weekly, he acknowledged that this mission “could circuitously have an effect on merchandise gross sales however we hope for an general halo impact as followers reconnect with the model.”  His choice to affix the tour and function host, although, was a last-minute alternative on his half.  That was simply how he rolled, based on an interview with The Comics Journal:

I sometimes suppose up concepts alone, letting ideas gestate till they grow to be a really clear imaginative and prescient.  Typically I begin to plan whereas that imaginative and prescient remains to be coming collectively in my head.  Plenty of this needed to do with branding, design, and aesthetic.  The TokyoPop Tour has mixed all of these components – and the imaginative and prescient crystallized for me because the starting stage progressed.  My choice to aim manufacturing on a present whereas on tour was the crucial one – together with my choice to personally be a part of your complete tour hands-on.

In different phrases, Stu Levy was apparently making issues up as he went when it got here to America’s Biggest Otaku, and did so at a lightning tempo. The name for interns went out in March 2010.  He and his workers had been choosing finalists by the top of April – six to work straight on the tour/present because the “Otaku Six”, and 6 to function assist workers at Tokyopop’s predominant workplace.  The press releases went out a month later, calling for candidates for the present together with the promotional blitz for the sequence itself. By July, Levy and his interns had been on the highway, able to make his goals a actuality over the subsequent two months.

Screenshot from America's Greatest Otaku that depicts Stu Levey taling with the show's contestants, who are standing against a graffitied brick wall.Screenshot from America's Greatest Otaku that depicts Stu Levey taling with the show's contestants, who are standing against a graffitied brick wall.

Levy could have needed to swan his approach throughout the nation like a rock star, nevertheless it’s clear that almost all of what little finances this present had went into the custom-made bus that was meant to function a focus not only for the present, however for the promotional tour as nicely.  The custom-made coach was not emblazoned with any recognizable manga characters. Relatively, it was plastered with characters from OEL titles similar to Princess Ai, Van Von Hunter, and I Luv Halloween.  Based mostly on a surviving account from Kleefeld on Comics, stated tour primarily consisted of the interns internet hosting awkward Q&A periods and giveaways of random manga volumes for small crowds of teenagers, tucked away in random retailer corners.  In the meantime, Levy would say a couple of phrases and provides out autographs afterward.  It was a slapdash strategy to promotion, and that strategy bled into the present round it.

What’s America’s Biggest Otaku like? Think about the world’s most awkward fusion dance of a actuality present and a travelogue.  The truth present segments really feel half-baked, seemingly made up on the spot primarily based on regardless of the workers might seize from the greenback retailer or the lodge breakfast buffet.  The travelogue parts aren’t significantly better, because it’s clear that the tour stops had been chosen with out researching whether or not they had sufficient related “Otaku Spots” to cowl.  It wasn’t so onerous in locations like San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Washington DC the place they might discover loads of locations and folks associated to anime and Japanese tradition.  It was a lot more durable in locations like Oklahoma Metropolis, New Orleans, and Louisville, although, the place the workforce needed to depend on gimmicky sushi eating places, introductory language lessons, and barely associated artwork installations.  The phase on Salt Lake Metropolis is by far the most important catastrophe, full with a visit to the general public library, a failed try at coming into a closed Buddhist temple, and a cosplay photoshoot on the Salt Lake Temple, the place volunteers tried to proselytize to the interns.

Screenshot from America's Greatest Otaku that depicts a pink-haired woman in a red top and black blazer talking into a microphone. She's sitting in a leather chair at a Borders bookstore, sitting in front of a green background and next to a giant box of Pocky.Chyron: "Borders: Salt Lake City"Screenshot from America's Greatest Otaku that depicts a pink-haired woman in a red top and black blazer talking into a microphone. She's sitting in a leather chair at a Borders bookstore, sitting in front of a green background and next to a giant box of Pocky.Chyron: "Borders: Salt Lake City"

That lack of character extends to the hosts of the present.  For all of the fuss Stu Levy made about becoming a member of the occasion on the final minute, he’s not in America’s Biggest Otaku all that a lot.  When he’s on display, he exudes all of the allure and power of a day-old tuna fish sandwich.  After the primary episode, he solely seems within the opening and shutting host segments, which had been clearly filmed in no matter public area and empty lot his crew might discover.

Talking of these faculty children, the “Otaku Six” is perhaps the strangest and least thought-out a part of the present.  Technically, they’re Levy’s co-hosts, however they had been additionally part-time digital camera operators, sound techs, vlog-makers, and tour cease workers, receiving solely room, board, and a bit of faculty credit score in return.  They had been typically cut up into pairs to compete in last-minute challenges vaguely tied to every episode’s theme, enduring embarrassment for the sake of a free sushi dinner for the winners.

I don’t need to be too harsh on the Otaku Six, who had been clearly only a bunch of bizarre faculty children making one of the best of their state of affairs.  It’s simply that they didn’t match the form of present America’s Biggest Otaku needed to be.  Most of them didn’t possess the kind of perception or on-screen charisma essential to function good hosts. There was no private drama to mine for content material, as they principally obtained together with each other.  They didn’t even appear all that captivated with anime and manga, making their label and goal all of the extra baffling.

The precise contenders for America’s Biggest Otaku fared no higher.  Most of them had been teenagers who had been seemingly picked extra for his or her novel hometowns than their expertise, or followers who acquire extra for the sake of assortment than for any explicit fandom.  Others had been downright cringe, such because the Denver boy who made an anti-BL parody music or the aspiring voice actor from Indiana whose voices wouldn’t move muster on a morning radio present.  A number of candidates managed to shine, be they a gifted cosplayer from California, an Iranian-born artist who made her personal zines, or Chris Wanamaker, the founding father of the DC Anime Membership who finally gained the title of America’s Biggest Otaku and a visit to Japan.  Even then, the present pressured him to play host on his personal journey, as he visited a maid café, a sentai stage present, and a bunch of Harajuku vogue outlets in his selfmade Mario cosplay.  Evidently Wanamaker took his brush with fame with good grace, leveraging it to advertise his membership and numerous charity occasions.

Screenshot from America's Greatest Otaku that depicts Chris Wannamaker, dressed as Super Mario as he talks with a maid at a Japanese maid cafe.Screenshot from America's Greatest Otaku that depicts Chris Wannamaker, dressed as Super Mario as he talks with a maid at a Japanese maid cafe.

Because the tour and filming got here to an finish, Levy was assured that America’s Biggest Otaku was a brand new starting for Tokyopop and his goals of fame.  As a substitute, it will function the herald of the corporate’s imminent demise.

America’s Biggest Otaku was meant to debut within the fall of 2010, however for causes unknown it was delayed to February 2011.  Based mostly on what few opinions I might discover, audiences of the time had been unimpressed.  Probably the most damning evaluation got here from Colony Drop, who described the present as “a mirrored image of Levy himself: flighty, unfocused, sloppy, and awkward,” and famous that even “the hardened anime pirates gave up on ripping and torrenting the present after episode two.”  

The sequence did unintentionally get Funimation into hassle, because the crew’s go to revealed they had been utilizing fansubs as reference for a dub recording.  In the meantime, Levy was doing injury management on the present’s weblog and within the feedback sections on Hulu, countering “haters” and “otaku negativity,” whilst he was overtly dismissing his personal firm.  The sequence was a catastrophe, however issues had been solely getting worse for Tokyopop.

Simply earlier than America’s Biggest Otaku’s debut, the bookstore chain Borders filed for chapter.  Years beforehand, Borders made a cope with Tokyopop the place they gave Tokyopop a better share of shelf area and promotion in return for bigger refunds on any unsold books.  With the rapid closure of over 200 shops, Tokyopop was on the hook for hundreds of thousands in refunds with none funds for brand spanking new inventory to counter them.  Every week later, Levy laid off virtually all the workers at Tokyopop, together with all their senior editors.   By mid-April, Tokyopop had already introduced their closure, all whereas America’s Biggest Otaku limped on to its conclusion.  Stu Levy had no time to linger on these failures, as he had already moved on to a brand new ardour mission: a documentary on Japan’s tsunami restoration titled “Pray For Japan.”

Is it truthful to name America’s Biggest Otaku a conceit mission? It actually fails at being one for Stu Levy straight, if just because he’s barely in it.  It’s extra correct to name it a conceit mission for Tokyopop, itself.  It was a Hail Mary transfer on the a part of Levy; one final try at convincing the world that Tokyopop was cool, youthful, and related.  As a substitute, all America’s Biggest Otaku did was entwine that desperation with the drama of the corporate’s closure, preserving all of it like a bug in amber.  Tokyopop can attempt its finest to maneuver on as an organization, however because of the Web Archive, its largest failure will proceed to hang-out it for years to come back.



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