In Spring 2010, TokyoPop announced an open call for summer interns – but not for just any paper-pushing, make-five-copies-of-this-memo-and-get-me-a-latte internship, but something much more ambitious. TokyoPop CEO Stu Levy and crew had something bigger in mind – something as big as a bus and as wide as the lower 48 States: the TokyoPop Tour.
The TokyoPop Tour was launched as a cross-country journey to find "America's Greatest Otaku" and to film the various hotspots (and maybe not-so-hotspots) of anime and manga culture in North America. With a colorful bus, a camera man, a bus driver and six interns called "The Otaku Six" in tow, plus six more interns working logistics at the TokyoPop headquarters in Los Angeles, Levy set out to find the heart of otaku-dom, and film what they find along the way.
The goal here? Surprisingly, their primary mission wasn't solely to promote TokyoPop manga – but to film an 8-episode reality show that would be broadcast on Hulu.com in November. The focus of this show was Levy and crew's quest to find the person who would be worthy of the title "America's Greatest Otaku," and worthy of a trip to Tokyo to experience Japanese pop culture in its natural(?) habitat.
I spoke with Levy and the Otaku Six early on in their journey after they had hit two of the 20 cities in their nearly eight-week tour. While they were still getting used to life on the road, they were all clearly excited about the adventure they had embarked upon and what they would encounter on the road ahead.
WHERE THE HECK IS WINNEMUCA AND WHAT IS THE 'ESSENCE OF OTAKU-DOM?'
Q: So where are you guys right now?
Stu Levy: We are in Winnemuca, Nevada. (laughs) I swear to god, I'm not making that up!
Q: (laughs) What are you guys doing there?
Stu Levy: We drove from San Francisco to here. There's a certain amount of hours you can drive in day, because of regulations. We're on our way to Salt Lake City, so this was more or less the halfway point. We drove last night, we got in here about 2 AM and stayed the night here. We're picking up a couple things, and then we're going to head out in a few hours to Salt Lake City. I think we'll be arriving there later tonight.
Q: Wow, so what are you guys doing at Salt Lake City?
Stu Levy: Salt Lake City is one of the 20 cities that we're covering. In each city we're looking for popular spots and searching for our greatest otaku. But to be honest, so far, we're sort of panicked for Salt Lake City. We've not found much.
Q: Oh, really? Oh, that's too bad.
Stu Levy: Yeah, we're hoping we might be able to get a little bit more otaku culture in SLC but it's seeming kind of limited. But if it's there, we will find it! This is the first year of the show, and so I'm sure after we finish it and it's up and everybody is enjoying it, then next year hopefully people just pile in and say "Hey, come here!"
Q: So you're thinking about doing this as an annual event?
Stu Levy: I'd love to. I mean, so far the reaction has just been amazing. We're driving down the road, literally, we're driving out of SF and I'm looking out the window a little bit and there are people – a lot of people taking photos one their iPhones while they're driving by our bus.
Q: I remember when you guys were pulling out of the Los Angeles convention center from Anime Expo, people were honking because you have that "Honk if you love manga" sign. (laughs)
Stu Levy: People even slow down when they notice us, they brake, and try to get to the side of us, and stuff.
So far, we've visited some really cool places and shot them, and we interviewed people. We got some really good footage. We're basically covering what we call "otaku spots," which are places that are particularly interesting to our culture, and then the greatest otaku candidates themselves.
Q: So you're actually going to the candidates' homes and interviewing them?
Stu Levy: It depends on the person and sort of what they do and who they are. Our definition of otaku is a bit of the broader definition, which is somebody who's really into it and that means they also have ways of expressing themselves.
So that means they can be creating their own cosplay, drawing manga, singing karaoke or writing. We delve into creative activity, as well as just loving the culture and being a huge fan. There have been a couple people out there with amazing collections but these people also tend to be designers. It's kind of amazing that the more otaku somebody is, the more they actually do things in the field, too.
Q: You're on this tour looking for America's greatest otaku... so "greatest" means... what? What kind of qualities are you looking for?
Stu Levy: One of the things we're doing in the show – we've come up with something called "six core qualities." The essence of otaku. We're learning lessons along the way as we meet otaku. And so those will be the qualities that determine who the greatest otaku are, but they're kind of abstract concepts.
In a way, it might be more fun if people watch the show to see what those are. We're doing things in that direction, in general I think it's better to not say "here are the six core qualities." You want to leave a little bit of stuff for people to check out on the show. It's a bit of an abstract concept, it's not as clear as, for instance, a dance show where you're judging if this person can dance or not.
In general, we're looking at the depth and breadth of knowledge, we're looking at the commitment, we're looking at self-expression, these kinds of things. We're looking for somebody who has really dove into otaku culture and has basically committed their life to it. That's really what we're looking for here.