One of the things I’ve always found interesting about anime conventions is the idea that everyone can have a different perspective about the experience. In a series of features focusing on anime conventions as a whole, I felt it was important to approach the topic with that in mind. Since OTAQUEST was born out of anime conventions in a way, I figured the best way to kick things off would be to sit down with Taku Takahashi, our co-founder and producer, to talk to him about his experiences as someone who has appeared at events all over the United States as a musical guest, but has also had a chance to experience conventions on both the business side and as a genuine fan from Japan.
Eddie: I don’t know if you realize this or not, but yesterday was six years from the first time we met in Tokyo at Sound Museum Vision —
Taku: Oh wow.
Eddie: and I’m sure you remember how it all went. Myself, Corey, and Matt (of Attack The Music) all went backstage and initially approached you about performing at Anime Central during our show Synergy because that was a goal of ours for a long time.
Being that you were a veteran of the Japanese club scene, but not someone with so much experience in the field of anime conventions — I think at that point you had only performed at Waku Waku NYC — I was curious as to what your initial thought was when we asked you to perform at an anime convention?
Taku: If I’m being honest, I totally wasn’t sure if I should do it or not. I didn’t really have any idea what it was like out there, in that scene; there was a point in time where m-flo had been asked to perform at an anime convention, though that never happened. That was largely because we were too busy doing things in Japan though, but that being the case I was aware of anime conventions having Japanese artists because of that encounter. With that being said, I never knew about the “after-party” culture; having a lineup of DJ’s perform associated with the convention.
I remember DJ Dragon approaching me about it the first time and we just talked about it, and then my management came and talked, and it was actually them who told me that I should try it out. It was at that point that I thought to myself, well, why not. I honestly went to it with absolutely no idea —
Eddie: So, it’s funny you mention that; with Anime Central, we had been doing the party for I think about six or seven years at that point, and there was a conversation about trying to bring you out there — that was actually one of our missions, to try and get you to come out. Some people at Anime Central were so convinced we could never do it; I guess they reached out to Avex at some point and tried themselves, and at that point, they must have turned the convention down when asking for you. So I thought it was really cool when you were open to the idea, we ended up bringing you out in 2015, and after playing to that crowd I think we’ve had you back at Anime Central four or five times at this point.
I wanted to know, after that first party in 2015, what was your impression of the convention scene? Not just the party aspect, but of the convention as a whole now that you finally got to see it first hand?
Taku: First of all, I was surprised how so many people were there at the party. The first time we were supposed to do it, there were some issues with someone pulling the fire alarm, and the first day was kind of all over the place, but then I performed again the following night, and despite everything, both nights were amazing. Both days the crowd was a lot of fun to perform to.
I was very nervous as to whether or not the stuff that I was playing would work with the crowd or not, but the crowds were super crazy and enjoyed what I would play and mashup. It worked really well. I was surprised that these people were just here to party, and that they loved Japanese culture, and that was definitely a big piece of culture shock to me.
Eddie: So Anime Central is definitely a bigger convention — I think it’s top five in the US. It was really interesting to me because we started with Anime Central and then we did the party in New York in October, then the following year you did Anime Central again followed by a handful of other conventions of all sizes. When you had a chance to perform at some of the smaller conventions, I’m talking the ~10,000 attendee cons rather than the 30,000-40,000 attendee conventions like Anime Central, what was your thought in regards to performing at those events?
Taku: First of all, I was surprised again that there were so many people who loved Japanese culture — music, fashion, etc. When I was at Anime Central, I realized there were a lot of people really devoted to Japanese pop culture. Jumping back to something you said earlier, you mentioned there was a point in time where Avex actually turned down Anime Central’s offer. You can’t really blame Avex, because Japanese companies become very cautious towards events that they’ve never experienced before. One thing I noticed when I was in the United States was there’s a lot of very devoted fans, but there are very few legitimate connections with the Japanese companies from the conventions themselves. Conventions seem very hard, but it’s also very hard for them because Japanese companies simply have no idea, especially back then, as to how conventions are, especially those that are NPO’s, and that it’s not just a regular music festival. So I realized that there are all these companies who have no idea, yet there are all these people who love the things these companies do, and that’s where I realized it was a lost opportunity for these Japanese companies. That’s where my interest in conventions really started, especially in smaller conventions, and anywhere I could go I just went there, and the amazing thing was all the places I went it just really worked. I got to meet all these people who are just really into Japanese pop culture, as well as music. I mean, these people are all very important for Japanese pop culture and that experience helped me realize that.
Eddie: That was one of the things I was going to bring up; so in your opinion, anime conventions could play a very big role in the wider promotion of Japanese music in the United States than it already is —
Taku: I think it is already — though it is called an anime convention, though there is music as well. With that being said, I really believe Japanese companies should invest more into these conventions in order to cultivate a larger audience for Japanese pop culture.
Eddie: Do you think the operation of Japanese companies with North American conventions would be different if the Japanese government was to support these companies going over there more than they currently do?
Taku: I mean, if the government supports more, it would be better. With that being said, we don’t really have a functional system like that in place.
Eddie: I’ve seen all the paperwork filing and trouble so I definitely understand what you mean.
Taku: Yeah, I understand it’s not easy for the government to create something like that. It’s not the easiest thing for them to decide which companies will represent them; it’s just not a simple thing. That being said, I still believe that if there’s a way — the main reason Korean music is so big, and it didn’t just happen one day, it took over ten years to make it happen, but the Korean government support was one of the big carriers for K-Pop taking off in the West. I just hope someday that the Japanese government can get behind this in a similar way, working with the conventions, to support Japanese pop culture.
Eddie: I feel like right now, perhaps more so than any other point in recent history, that just about everybody is exposed to Japanese pop culture — whether it’s the fact that anime is as big as it ever has been, and on top of that Japanese street fashion is really big right now too.
I kind of want to go a little bit into COVID-19 and how it’s really affected everything this year. I know m-flo, in particular, had announced that they were going to be performing at Anime Boston before this all happened and then the convention was canceled. On top of that, you usually perform at several events every year, and we’ve been doing our OTAQUEST LIVE show these past couple of years, and obviously that’s not happening now. So outside of your plans in Japan, how much has Coronavirus affected what you’re doing internationally, positively or negatively? I know you’ve been embracing digital live shows and you’ve got a few planned.
Taku: Well we were supposed to have a few live shows and all of them were canceled. Yet, at the same time, we can’t go to the United States right now, so I can’t directly talk to anyone over there. Actually, I’d say that the virus has made it even harder to communicate digitally as well, just because everyone is so caught up with the state of things. So yeah, it has really dragged everything a lot — everything is moving very slowly.
Eddie: Most conventions in the States have canceled at this point, and there’s still some kind of holding out hope that things will have calmed down towards the end of the year, though even they’re up in the air. What do you think about the shift where everything is moving online suddenly?
Taku: I think that’s really our only choice.
Eddie: Do you think it will be effective though?
Taku: Some of them are effective, but at the same time everyone is doing the whole online thing, so it’s more important than ever to be able to come up with good content; something that satisfies the viewers is very important. I think just doing it for the sake of it doesn’t work anymore, the more people are doing it, the more creative you have to be so it doesn’t saturate the market even more.
Eddie: I know as of right now several of the conventions doing things at the moment just don’t have a lot of collaboration with Japanese companies as of right now, though with that being said there are a few upcoming ones with Japanese guests — ours included; do you think this would be a good time for Japanese companies to try and reach out, especially using the internet?
Taku: It’s always important to be connected. One of the big reasons Japanese pop culture hasn’t taken off in the way that Korean pop culture has is connection. I see a lot of Korean artists making their way overseas to perform and be connected to fans and the industry itself which creates a lot of opportunities. With that being said, a lot of Japanese companies will just tend to wait in Japan. So yes, whatever the method is we need to keep the connection and I think it’s very important that even though people can’t travel, if you can connect someone within Japan to their international fans it’s very important.
Eddie: That was definitely a driving force in us kicking off OTAQUEST CONNECT.
Taku: Yeah, it’s not just for the Japanese companies, but I saw a lot of conventions being postponed or canceled. That’s where I realized we can’t lose that connection between Japanese creators and fans, which is one of the whole reasons we started OTAQUEST and wanted to make this happen.
Eddie: What would you say — and I mean, obviously we’ve only just made our initial wave of guest announcements, but what would you say your goal is for the convention aside from connecting people?
Taku: It is about connecting people — that’s the most important thing. Not just people, but connecting conventions together, connecting people together, connecting corporate entities and the users; we’re not simply building a TV show, the more important thing to us is to create a movement — and for something like that it can’t just be a handful of people, it needs to be something bigger with numerous connections. That’s the most important part. The other important aspect would have to be keeping the flow going; since OTAQUEST has a direct connection to creators and directors, we want to create an opportunity for people to experience the anime, music, art that they love. American audiences have always been more interested in behind-the-scenes work than Japanese audiences, so it really motivates the creators to realize that there are people who specifically love their work. There’s a lot of people who are briefly aware, but it makes a huge difference to have that interaction with real people. Even now there are a lot of Japanese companies who are skeptical of conventions, and I think that’s why it’s really important for us to do something, even if it’s online, to create more interaction between the creators, companies, and fans.
Eddie: That definitely makes a lot of sense, and I feel the same way. I feel like a lot of conventions feel the same way, and I think it’s as you said, they just don’t have the ability to reach out, or the Japanese companies just aren’t convinced.
Where do you think post-Corona, post-online events, best-case scenario, where do you think things are going to go?
Taku: Simply put, let’s say a convention tries to book a certain director from a certain show, anime production is an extremely hectic process where there’s very little time. Even in Japan, those directors don’t have a lot of time to do promotion for their work. They still have to figure out a way to fix that schedule; it’s very tough for them to make time to do anything for promotion in-person. For instance, even though North American conventions are generally on the weekend, it means the director has to clear their schedule for five days, which realistically is a lot of working time lost. Because of this, there’s a lot of directors who aren’t able to go to the United States.
If I was to look at it from a positive perspective though, this Corona situation is making more conventions work with online activities and realize how it all works. So the brighter side is, say a director isn’t able to travel, maybe conventions will look to adopt something like a live-streamed panel. Obviously the best-case scenario would be for fans to get to meet them face-to-face, do autograph sessions, etc., but I think this will open up a lot more options that maybe in the past just wouldn’t have been viable.
Eddie: Do you think streaming conventions will continue to have a place once things calm down and co-exist with physical conventions?
Taku: Things can really go two ways here, things can be streamed from the convention, and things can be streamed from Japan to the convention —
Eddie: So like an online-offline kind of thing?
Taku: That way people like directors can participate from Japan. So, two perspectives, someone who can’t participate in person can actively join in online, which is the first one — Japan to the convention, and also people who can not go to a convention might be able to tune in for the panels via streaming. Of course, there’s the financial perspective, not that NPO’s can make money, but it’d be difficult to make the full transition online, so maybe they mix the best of both and have people both there in person and those streaming online via ticket sales. I mean, conventions aren’t simply just watching panels — but at least the panel aspect, I think that’s going to change.
Eddie: I can definitely see that happening.
To wrap things up, and this isn’t so much a business question but more-so a personal question, but it’s widely known you’re a fan of both anime and pop culture yourself. And during your time as a convention attendee, you’ve gotten to experience all aspects of that culture. So I wanted to ask, during all your time as an attendee at these conventions, did you have one moment that stood out to you in particular as a favorite moment amongst all the conventions you’ve been to in America?
Taku: I’d say Anime Central’s SYNERGY was one of the best, and also Anime Expo’s NEON DISTRICT were both insanely crazy. I wish they’d do it once again, it was crazy taking place in their main hall. There were a bunch of Japanese artists there, and obviously we handled a lot of the bookings, but all of the artists were very excited to be there and that was super memorable.
Eddie: That’s basically all I had to ask, but are there any closing statements you wanted to add?
Taku: Yeah, with OTAQUEST CONNECT we’re trying to create a real connection for fans of Japanese pop culture and creators. This is our first time doing anything like this, and it’s a total experiment, but we know there are so many people out there who love Japanese pop culture and I just hope we can create something for them. In order to keep this going, we’ll need everyone’s support, and if there’s anyone you’re interested in seeing from our lineup, we hope you’ll spread the word. It’s a free online convention, so I can hope you’ll all enjoy it.