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Filmmaker Eric Bresler On "Otaku Unite!"

The following interview was conducted with Eric Bresler, director of documentary film Otaku Unite!, at the New York Comic-Con on Februrary 25 and 26, with some supplemental questions being answered over e-mail.

Toon Zone: What is Otaku Unite!?

Eric Bresler at New York Comic-ConEric Bresler: Otaku Unite! is a documentary on the history of Japanese animation fandom in the United States. More specifically, it traces the importation of anime in the early 60’s and follows its development from a cult interest to the huge, almost mainstream visibility it’s attained today. It also talks about how the fandom accompanied the shows’ rise and visibility. In 1991, there was one convention in the United States. In 2001, 10 years later, there were over 40 conventions, and five years after that we’re up to 60-some-odd anime conventions annually.

TZ: How did you discover anime fandom?

EB: I kind of stumbled on anime fandom. I’ve always been interested in underground music, whether it was punk rock or indie rock, and that kind of led me into underground music of other countries. To make a long story short, I started listening to Japanese music. I really felt an attachment to it, and I followed that throughout high school and throughout college, where I started doing a Japanese music radio show. Japanese music led me to the anime conventions.

I wasn’t really familiar with anime. I just always considered it another genre of film, basically. I didn’t know there was this huge subculture evolving around it. So I stumbled upon Otakon, which was in Baltimore, and that was my first anime convention. I was amazed that I didn’t really know of its existence. I spent the next couple of months looking into it, wondering why I had never heard of it, wondering how long it had been organized, and that’s what led into Otaku Unite! I had been looking for a feature length project that I could work on, and as I researched it, I thought, “You know I could spend the next year of my life talking to these people and discovering more about their world.” And that’s how the film came about.

TZ: What is your background, exactly?

EB: I attended Drexel University for film and video. I spent my college years working in the less creative and more industrial aspects, like electronic press kits and things like that for bands and record labels. Things that creativity really wasn’t involved in, which is why I loved Otaku Unite!, because it gave me a chance to mold this project how I saw fit, which is the most you can ask for.

TZ: How long did it take you to make the film?

EB: Shooting began November 2000. It wrapped April 2002, and the world premiere was in April of 2004. So that right there is three and a half years (laughing). And now it’s almost March 2006 and the DVD’s coming out. So that’s over 5 years all together. But it’s an amazing turnaround when you consider budget, and the fact that I covered all aspects of this production myself, which is what I wanted to do for the learning experience – from the websites and the merchandise to the licensing of clips and music, and then the licensing out to Central Park Media.

It’s something that I’m proud of. I’m proud of the result. I think it turned out well. It’s a nice balance of knowledge that people who know nothing about anime would need, and it doesn’t contain enough specifics to bore the people who are already into anime. There’s a balance achieved for both audiences – the fans and the mainstream.

TZ: What would you say was the most surprising thing you learned about otaku while you were making the film?

EB: I think the most surprising thing was that on the surface…it’s not so much visible here [at the New York Comic-Con], but you go to an anime convention and almost every other person is in costume. The other people are running around…there’s this kinetic energy that these anime fans always have. The majority of them are always running around, always talking very fast and very passionately about their programs. On the surface, they may fall into the whole geek stereotype, but as we sat down and interviewed these hundreds upon hundreds of people, we realized that they’re just really passionate about their hobby of choice. They’re not afraid to visibly show it. But underneath, they’re all just completely normal people.

It was always shocking to hear the careers these people have. The older males dressed up in sailor outfits, they’re accountants. I always made a point to ask what their careers were because I got such a kick out of it. People in huge dragon costumes, and it ends up that they work for the railways or something (laughing). Stuff that you’d never guess. They’re just really normal people. I guess you can compare them really to any other subculture, although anime fans’ level of passion is definitely higher than, say, the average sci-fi fan or Star Trek fan. I think it’s the passion that sets them apart.

It’s also unique because unlike all the other subcultures that exist in the U.S., the anime fans are endorsing something that’s not American…something that’s actually VERY foreign. And that has to be respected itself, because there’s so many aspects of anime and manga that you won’t understand unless you research the topic. So by default, these anime fans are really involving themselves with a different culture so they can get the most out of the crazy cartoons – you know what I mean, the anime that ends up being pretty weird.

TZ: You mentioned research just now. How deep does that research go? Is it just at the level of researching the shows themselves, or does it go deeper than that?

EB: That’s one of the things that’s truly amazing. These kids don’t just watch the cartoons and read the books. They’ll actually go as far as to learn the language, both spoken and written, so it’s not uncommon at all to go to an anime convention and see young American kids speaking to each other in Japanese or translating manga that’s written in Japanese to other attendees. They make it a lifestyle. They’ll also go as far as to import Japanese clothing. One of the big sellers at any anime convention is Japanese snacks. The whole fandom is actually expanding to include other aspects of Japanese culture, whether it’s music or snack foods or clothing. That’s one of the neat side-effects of the anime craze – an acceptance of all of Japanese culture. And it should be respected, because you really don’t see that a lot in North America these days.

TZ: In terms of just putting together the movie, what would you say was the most surprising or educational thing that you learned about the process?

Eric Bresler and CPM's Peter Tatara at NYCCEB: You know, it took me a while to edit it. The most surprising thing that I found was how cohesive it was by the film’s end. I talked about the balance before, and how I was always trying to achieve this balance. I wanted the movie to appeal to anime fans and to people who knew nothing about anime. And rather than just show topic after topic — like, “Here’s the history, here’s the fan history, here’s the costuming,” — I needed something to link it all together. One of the stars of Otaku Unite!, his name is Jonathan Cook. He’s a very active anime fan. He’s obsessive, a costumer, a convention volunteer, he’s an anime DJ, and by focusing on him throughout different parts of the movie, he created his great thread that seamlessly leads from one topic to the next. So it was amazing that I found this guy, and I’m glad I spent as much time with him as I did. Many people consider him the highlight of the film, especially non-anime fans. Some anime fans come up to me, and they tell me that he’s not an accurate representation of anime fandom. Maybe the things he says aren’t necessarily representative of anime fandom as a whole, but he’s an individual. I think that his passion, though, and the fact that he does all these different things within this one fandom – that’s a perfect example of what I’m covering with Otaku Unite!

TZ: What does he think of the film?

EB: Great question. He was at a test screening that we did at a big convention in Atlanta in the fall of 2003, and he came up to me afterwards and he didn’t say that he liked it or not. He said, “You portrayed me in ways that I was hoping you wouldn’t, but it’s your movie, so good work.” And then he didn’t talk to me for a while. He sent me a Christmas card this year, though. It said, “Eric, Merry Christmas. Even though I didn’t completely agree with your movie, I hope you’re having the best of holidays.”

But I don’t see how he can complain, because since then, since people have seen this, he’s now a guest at conventions himself because of the visibility that he gained from Otaku Unite!. You’d think he’d be happy with the fact that he has been elevated beyond the level of just being an anime fan. He’s now a visible character. I definitely don’t think he was portrayed in a negative light.

TZ: Did you find that there is a lot of sub-division within the otaku population? What kinds of things did you find there?

EB: Oh, definitely. One of the more controversial – not that Otaku Unite! is the least bit controversial – but one of the things that parents were often shocked by was that there was a segment on yaoi, yaoi being the “male on male” comics. We actually attended the first yaoi con in San Francisco, and there’s a segment in Otaku Unite! just about that convention.

If you think about it, it’s not so strange, but it’s comics that are males on males, but they’re geared towards females, which may be a little strange just because that kind of topic never gets visibility in the U.S. That was a little controversial as far as the movie goes, but beyond yaoi, there’s comics that are dedicated towards young girls and young boys. Each gender gets its own comic. Each genre gets its own audience. There’s certain cartoons that just the video gamers watch and associate themselves with. So within anime fandom, there are definitely sub-divisions. And, of course, the adult stuff is a whole different world, which also leads into the world of furries, which I discovered throughout shooting the more “fetishistic” aspect of the subculture. Costuming, I think to a degree, is a fetish in and of itself, so for some people it’s not very much of a jump towards a more sexual type of costuming.

TZ: Do you detect that there’s a lot of a sense of irony in the fandom?

EB: It’s tough to say. One of the things we cover in Otaku Unite! is the clash between the older fans, who have been promoting anime since the 70’s, and the newer fans, who have latched on since Pokémon came out. There’s a definite clash between the two generations, because these older people have seen the anime fans come and go in cycles throughout the past three decades. That’s just the way it’s going to be when something becomes popular real quick, that it can die just as fast. So I guess anime doesn’t hold the young kids’ interest as long as…not as it “should,” but as as you’d think it would, I guess…

TZ: Considering the passion they have for it, I guess?

EB: Exactly, exactly. The passion is there, and they’ll go out to the Suncoast or the Best Buy and buy all the T-shirts and the merchandise, and then go to cons and buy all the comics and everything, but a couple of months later, that anime interest will lead into something else, whether it be video games or whatever. You go to the Hot Topic in the mall, and you can walk in there with your anime hobby and you can walk out with 10 different hobbies, relating to music or cartoons or anything. As anime as a sub-genre is commodified more and introduced into mall stores and these mainstream cable networks, I think it’s losing some of its uniqueness. It definitely is. So I guess what I’m saying is that there may have been a level of irony at first, but I think the more visible it is and the more people learn about it, the question is kind of negated just because it’s becoming a part of American culture.

I’m still undecided whether it’s as mainstream as it can be. We’ll see. I think so. I think American animation studios are styling their cartoons off of anime now, so I think it’s almost there. It’s nice with something like the Miyazaki films that go to theatres, because they’re considered Japanese films, which is very nice. When they’re shown in the theatres and when they’re reviewed, they’re not really referred to as anime – a word that we don’t even really need to use. It’s just a convenience classification for video stores. There seen as Japanese animated films, which is what the Miyazaki films are.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with anime losing its identity as Japanese, because that’s how it started in America. When they were first on television, nobody really knew they were from Japan. They could see that there was a different style to all the cartoons, but nobody had any idea. The kids watching Pokémon and that continue to watch shows after that – they don’t know Japan from anything, but they just like the style or the content, which is very Japan specific. Unknowingly to them, though.

TZ: How insular do you think anime fans are? How easy is it to “break into” anime fandom?

EB: Well, these days there are so many resources available to people who want to be anime fans. It’s just a matter of walking into a Suncoast or any major bookstore. Anime and manga have their own permanent sections in many retail outlets. But one of the central merits of fandom itself is that they’re very open to speak about their passion, which is why this movie was actually pretty easy to make as far as getting interviews goes.

TZ: How was the movie received at the New York Comic-Con, both at the screenings and in sales at the CPM booth? Any funny stories about what happened there?

Otaku Unite!EB: The Saturday night screening of Otaku Unite! in the main anime room went extremely well. The place was packed and the laughter and cheers of the crowd were heard way down the hallway. My favorite crowd reactions during Otaku Unite! screenings thus far has always been when the fans shout out the names of their favorite characters when they appear on screen, which happened quite a bit. Yet another example of the passion of the fans as well as the success of Otaku Unite! as a documentary.

TZ: You said earlier that you discovered anime and the whole anime subculture through making the film. What are you favorites of the things you’ve discovered since then?

EB: That’s a good question. You know, I like anime shows that stand on their own, outside the world of anime. I love that show, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s called FLCL? Fooly Cooly? I think that show’s fantastic because the soundtrack is great – this great band called the Pillows does all the music, and it matches the animation and it matches the craziness. I think that show is cohesive enough to stand on its own outside of anime. I think it could be a prime-time show, definitely. And it’s unique – the humor is insane. It’s great fun. FLCL is one of a few anime programs that I really like. I’ve watched a lot of the soap-opera-y types, the 26 or 52-long episode ones, and they’re fine but I really don’t see why the kids obsess over them. I don’t really read the manga. I’ve always been interested in Japanese films, and that continues today. That’s really what I spend all my free time watching.

TZ: What’s next for you?

EB: A few months ago, I opened up an on-line retail site called TokyoNoRadio.com. I import underground Japanese rock and underground music from all genres. So that’s a retail site, and that’s coming along nicely. It spins out of my contacts that I gained through Otaku Unite! and just my regular interest in Japanese music. And that’s about it – I spent the last four months putting together my personal website, which is EricBresler.com. I just launched that this week. So I’m thinking about getting a career (laughs), you know, a more settled down career. I’ve been in Philly so long, I’m interested in possibly traveling or relocating. I guess the future is undecided.

TZ: Anime has definitely grown a lot in America in recent years. What would you say to a person who says they’d rather spend the time and the money on more anime rather than a documentary about anime?

EB: That’s a great question that I’ve had fans ask me in the past. The title Otaku Unite! has always worked on two levels for me, one being the literal gathering of anime fans at the conventions, the history of which is illustrated in depth in the movie. The other is more of a rallying cry, or a call to arms that the anime fans have adhered to over the years which led to the organization of fandom and its current success. The majority of the young anime fans these days are unaware of the fact that it was the efforts of the fans of the past that led to the current success of their hobby. If it wasn’t for the organizational efforts of early groups like L.A.’s Cartoon/Fantasy Organization (who continue to exist today) there wouldn’t be shelves of anime in your local video store or manga in your local book store. So, Otaku Unite! can serve as a source of valuable information for these newer fans who will discover the history of their passion and will gain some knowledge necessary to help anime continue to thrive in the U.S.

And for those who aren’t seeking knowledge or feel like they already know it all, Otaku Unite! can serve as a further exploration of their hobby through the hundreds of cosplayers, passionate fans, and scholars who are interviewed in the film. My ultimate intention in creating Otaku Unite! though was to preserve the history of this fandom before its records became lost in time. Otaku Unite! is a time capsule that will forever capture Japanese animation’s highest points of visibility and popularity in the United States. It has already been used as a learning tool in a multitude of university classrooms around the world and as time goes on I feel that the information contained in it will only become more valuable.

Toon Zone News would like to thank Eric Bresler for taking the time to speak with us and Central Park Media for their assistance in this interview. The official Otaku Unite! website has more information about the film, including media coverage, photo galleries, and articles about otaku culture.

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