Last week, we introduced Otakon, one of the largest conventions of its kind on the East Coast of the United States and a fan-favorite convention for the past 25 years. Manga Planet had the pleasure of doing an interview with several key members of the Otakorp, Inc., the organizers of Otakon at Japan Contents Showcase in October 2019. Ethan Kick, Division Director of Guest and Industry; Brian Cutler, Programming Director, and interpreters Darius Jahandatire and Maho Azuma gave us a glimpse of the inner workings of Otakon, and share their passion for Japanese pop-culture content as well as insights on the anime/manga fandom on the US East Coast.
First, when is Otakon held and how many attendees do you usually have?
Ethan: We have about 30,000 unique attendees. For turnstiles, we have around 100,000 or so.
For 3 days?
Ethan: Yeah, we have Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.
What time does it start and end?
Brian: 9 in the morning until 2 AM.
Brian: That’s for Friday and Saturday. On Sunday we end at 4 AM.
I see, and then you have a small party for the staff?
Brian: Yes we do have a party after everything’s been packed up.
That’s nice! So, what type of activities do you have in Otakon?
Ethan: Sure, we have a variety of activities. Sometimes it will be fan-run panels and events. They’ll talk about any number of topics from manga to anime to personal favorite titles. We also have several concerts that we do with varying styles of concerts. There are solo pop artists, rock bands and orchestras at times. We also do screenings of movies, premieres. Sometimes we do bring the talents associated with the work (being screened) to talk about it.
So you have just finished the 2019 convention, did you have any manga artists as guests?
Ethan: We did not have one this year. It’s not that we haven’t had any manga artists as guests, but timing-wise, it’s a bit tricky to schedule, because out of all the guests that we’ve had, manga artists’ availability is usually one of the toughest. But manga is a big part of our event because it goes hand in hand with anime.
As I can see from your guest list, it’s a mix of Japanese and American voice actors. May I ask how much of these are Japanese and are American, in terms of percentage?
Ethan: Last year, I would say 70-30. 70% for the Japanese and 30% for the American guests.
Oh wow, that’s a lot of Japanese guests!
Ethan: Yeah, we had a large interpreter team.
That’s quite reassuring. And you bring in cosplayer guests as well?
Brian: We bring in a handful of cosplay guests to judge our masquerade and costume contests.
Have you had any BL-related activities in your event? Is BL a big thing in America?
Brian: It is. I don’t think we’ve done any specifically but we do know that it’s a part of the Japanese anime/manga appreciation. We know that there’s a market for it. It sells well with our dealers.
Ethan: And there are certainly fan panels as well.
I see. Have you brought in manga artists or manga-related talents/guests?
Ethan: It’s been a little while. It has been a little difficult with our timing recently. I know we’ve tried. For example, we promoted Hi Score Girl a few years ago, with Warner and Square Enix, and we’re trying to bring in the manga artist but it didn’t work out at the time. I remember last year we tried to bring out the mangaka for Fire Force but the timing didn’t work out because the mangaka had just been to Anime Expo. Because it’s difficult for artists from Japan to go to the country on the 4th of July only to come back a month later for our convention.
Brian: Sometimes the con dates’ proximity to Comiket (Comic Market) discourages us from having mangaka come.
Ethan: Because Comiket and Otakon happen on the same weekend.
Can you tell us more about yourselves? What do you do at Otakon? How did you get into anime?
Brian: I’ll go first. My name is Brian Cutler, I was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania. I got into what was Japanese culture back in the 80s, back when they were showing things like Transformers and Voltron. Some things were brought over and changed. At the time, we barely knew that these were Japanese anime that we were watching.
Where do you watch them? On TV?
Brian: We watched them on TV, yeah. Nowadays we watch them online [laughs].
Can you tell us more about your career?
Brian: I was the Programming Director for Otakon and I’m currently the Vice Con Chair for Otakon 2020. In real life, I’m a molecular biologist.
Wow. So you have a day job besides Otakon?
Brian: Yes, Otakon is strictly a volunteer-only event. The only people that get paid are the lawyers.
Ethan: And the accounts.
I see. Tell us more about your family, if you’re okay with that?
Brian: Sure. I’m married and I have 3 kids. My wife was more into anime than I was. She got me to go to Otakon, which was back in 2005. And all three of my kids enjoy all sorts of aspects of Japanese culture, be it watching anime or reading manga. My kids have a whole bookshelf full of manga.
That’s nice. How about you, Ethan?
Ethan: My name is Ethan Kick, I was born in Seoul, South Korea. I was adopted actually, through Catholic charities. My family moved to Baltimore, Mayland when I was 4, and then we moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and I’ve lived there ever since. I have a pretty standard family structure, I lived with both of my parents and my brother who’s also adopted. After college, I was a history teacher for a while and currently, I’m bartending. It’s a lot of fun and I enjoy it. I enjoy the social aspects. At Otakon, I’m the Division Director of Guest and Industry. Our division has two goals, we deal with talent acquisition, so all our guests that we bring in, whether they’re music, manga-related or anime, we’ve also brought on Korean guests, our team does all the acquisition and make sure that their accommodations during their stay are comfortable. I run 9 different departments under my division, and these departments are split into 2 functions. One would be part of the support, for example, one team will be in charge of transportation, while the other team would be an interpreter team. They’d escort the guests during panel interviews.
So you’re a bartender and a volunteer for the con, as well. How long have you been involved with Otakon?
Ethan: I didn’t know anything about anime conventions until I graduated from high school. My cousin, who volunteered at the con, told me about it and told me to come and try it out. So that was 9 years ago, I never thought that I’d go to Japan to do what I’m doing [laughs].
So you’re taking time off from your day jobs to do this for Otakon?
And how about you, Darius?
Darius: I’m Darius. I’m on Ethan’s team and I’m an interpreter. I also do some of the acquisition stuff.
So both of you are interpreters?
Darius and Maho: Yes.
How long have you been with Otakon?
Darius: This is going to be my fourth year with Otakon.
Maho: Maybe 5 years?
And what was your first interaction with anime and Japanese culture?
Maho: I was born in Japan, so… I’m not interesting to cite for this interview [laughs]
Darius: In my case, my first interaction was just on TV. Of course, I saw Pokemon or whatever was on. When I was in middle school I saw Naruto and Dragon Ball Z. That was, of course, all in English, but since the broadcasts in America are a little behind, I was updated on all the latest English episodes, that’s what got me into watching in Japanese and stuff like that.
What do you use to watch those anime back then?
How about manga? Do you guys read manga?
Ethan: I do a little bit. I read Prince of Tennis. It’s hard to find English translations for certain titles, I end up reading scanlations, which is the sad part. I should just learn Japanese, but instead, I wait and hope that there’s an anime adaptation.
Brian: I think I only read scanlations when I can’t find what I want online or at the bookstore. So it’s not being able to read Japanese, I mean it’s just the way I want to see things I want to see.
So your access to anime/manga, well manga mainly, would be bookstores?
Brian: Bookstores or conventions. There are whole book conventions where the whole thing is about selling manga. So I’ll buy like 20 books for a hundred dollars, and just grab whatever I can. But some of the more popular items, I can order online on Amazon. My middle daughter loves Haikyu!!, so she has it subscribed to Amazon, so when a new book comes out it’s delivered to our door.
So, you get the actual book then. Is it translated?
Brian: Right, it’s the translated one. It’s localized.
Do you also read manga online? Like digital?
Ethan: I’m pretty old school, so personally, my degree and background are in history, so I’m used to reading actual books. It’s not just manga.
Darius: I don’t read much manga but the manga that I want to read, tends to be on Kindle, because everything I read is on Kindle.
Is there any manga in particular that left a very strong impression when you read it? Or if there’s a very memorable title?
Darius: Aku no Hana (Flowers of Evil)
Can you tell us why you found it memorable?
Darius: It’s very engaging and emotional. It’s like you go through an emotional journey when you read it.
Ethan: The manga that was the most impactful to me, which was also my very first manga, was Rurouni Kenshin. It was part of what got me into manga, even though it’s not quite like Darius’ which was a much richer story in a lot of ways.
Brian: I enjoy The Legend of Zelda manga series. I know they’re adaptations from the video games but they give you so much background about the world that I appreciate.
Do you also read novels? Light novels?
Brian: I don’t read light novels but if I’m going to read a book, I usually read a mystery novel.
Darius: I read a decent amount of Japanese literature, light novels and such.
I hear that there’s a trend right now where light novels are getting more popular than manga. Moving on, do you have any Japanese content that made an impact on you?
Darius: In my case, it was Naruto and Dragon Ball Z.
Brian: Mine was the localization of things like Robotech (Macross) and Transformers, Voltron and all those cartoons that were localized and got changed so much.
Ethan: I’m definitely in the generation of Americans that grew up with Toonami on Cartoon Network and even back then there wasn’t a lot of access. For me, it was either going to Blockbuster (a video rental shop) hoping that they had a VHS or something or whatever was on Toonami.
So you used to rent VHS back then?
Brian: I rented AKIRA every time I saw it in the store, eventually, I bought my copy. But the first time that I experienced anime the way that it was meant to be was on Syfy Network. Every Saturday morning they have what they called Robot Carnival, where they were showing anime that were dubbed, but these were so much closer to what it was in Japan. So things like Record of Lodoss War, some of these are gateway title to the realm of anime and they were showing it on American television.
Did the title transform that much when it went through the process of localization?
Brian: Back in the ‘80s, they changed them so much. They were removing violence, and even in Pokémon, they were removing violent things. There were even episodes they wouldn’t show because of certain themes in it.
Darius: And they even translated “onigiri” as ”doughnuts” [laughs].
Brian: They changed things like GoLion to Voltron. They just completely ripped it apart and put it back together.
I hope that you had the chance to watch it (without the revisions).
Brian: I did, yes. And ironically, I liked the ending of the American dub better than the Japanese version.
Which manga title you’d say is the most memorable for you? Share your thoughts on our Twitter account @mangaplanet!
Next week, Ethan and his team talk about Otakon, which celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2019 and their plans for the convention!
About Manga Planet: Read manga, support artists
In 2012, Manga Planet started as a joint project between Dai Nippon Printing Co., Ltd. and FANTASISTA, INC. to research and explore the ways manga is read throughout the world. Aiming to bring new manga to fans from all over the world and support artists and the industry, Manga Planet pushes for affordability and access to manga through a subscription-based service.
Readers who subscribe to Manga Planet and pay a flat monthly fee of $6.99 will have access to our expanding library of English-language manga. To subscribe, please go to read.mangaplanet.com and create an account. More information is in our guide.