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Stuart Levy

by Mikhail Koulikov,
In just a few years, a company whose first products were translations of Japanese dating simulation computer games has evolved into a major publisher. And while Tokyopop's logo is now a familiar sight in the graphic novels sections of major bookstores and many of their titles are almost permanently occupying the top positions on the BookScan list, many manga readers are still barely aware of just how Tokyopop became what it is now. Or that at the heart of it, Tokyopop is very much the result of one man's dream—and business decisions. That one man is TOKYOPOP founder and chief executive officer Stuart Levy:

What is your background, in terms of where you grew up, where you went to college, and how you first were introduced to Japanese popular culture?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California, which allowed me to be exposed to a number of different cultures. Growing up, my neighbors were a Korean family with seven kids, so I spent more time in their house than in mine since there was always something going on. I was more or less weaned on kimchi, bulgogi, rice, nori, and chige. We used to hang out and play Nintendo, watch TV and generally goof off together. One of the big Nintendo games at the time was Street Fighter (now you can guess how old I am...) and I often think about how the Japanese phrases (like “souryuuken!”) and anime-style graphics really influenced us. Another heavy influence for me was sushi—no joke. From Junior High, I used to eat sushi at least once a week at the local all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant (which now of course I know really sucked—but at the time thought was gourmet). I went to college in Los Angeles and graduate school in Washington DC.

Not many people know this, but you are actually a lawyer by profession. Do your colleagues in the industry find it strange or unusual that, with such a background, you've ended up in publishing, and specifically in publishing manga?

Good question. First, my parents wanted to kill me when I decided to move to Japan instead of practice law. They thought I was crazy. Many people have said, “You'd make way more money as a lawyer!” That's probably true, but it's no contest for me—while I have lots of work that is very challenging and even many tough problems to solve, my current work is much more fulfilling than if I had practiced law instead. Believe it or not, my first year out of school (back from Japan), I couldn't get a “real job” so I took on freelance clients in both law and graphic design. I enjoyed designing much more than law—and actually got paid a decent hourly rate (but not enough hours to pay the bills... ). So, my graphic design and Mac production background is also a big influence—I think having an eye for visual art is really key in this field. One more thing to point out is that I don't think of TOKYOPOP as a “publishing company” per se. Our attitude and what we really do is closer in vision to a pure entertainment company, that just happens to use paper as our medium. We are in every way telling visual stories.

How did you come to live in Japan?

It was in grad school when I first decided to go study in Japan. I couldn't resist! And it was also a great excuse for me to visit Korea too, for the first time, since I have always been an “honorary” Korean because of my background. Basically, when I first visited Japan for a summer foreign study program at Tokyo University, I was shocked—I couldn't believe how much I loved the culture. Of course, this was way before J-Pop culture was known in the States and before the Internet, so I really had no idea what to expect. Nowadays, everyone gets to experience Japan early through the Internet and anime/manga etc. so I'm jealous of this generation! Some other brief bits about my background and influence—when I lived in Japan Post-grad school (I studied for a year at Keio University), I was addicted to Dragon Ball Z and watched it on TV every day with my host family's little brother. We were both Super Saiyajin! My first manga titles I read and loved were Kiseiju (which TP publishes) and Slam Dunk (which was published by Raijin but didn't work unfortunately—it's an amazing series). Once again, I'm dating myself.

TOKYOPOP has changed quite a lot from its late-1990's MIXX days. What were your plans when you first founded the company?

The vision had always been to bridge the East and West in terms of pop culture. In fact, our original company name stood for “mix of cultures; mix of entertainment; mix of media.” Since focusing on one brand (TOKYOPOP), our vision hasn't really changed at all. We are still all about bridging cultures in the pop culture arena.

Do you have a particular TOKYOPOP property that you like most, or that holds a "special place" in your heart?

Well, as I mentioned above, Parasyte was the first manga that ever got me hooked, so it has always been special to me. Unfortunately I can't say it has sold very well, but there are various reasons for that. The art takes some getting used to, but since the story is so amazing, it's worth it. There have been talks about a live-action film for many years. I hope one day the film gets made so we can relaunch the manga in “authentic” form and introduce it to a whole new generation of fans. One more property that is special to me is Princess Ai. It's really our first original property and our first true cross-cultural property. I was personally very involved in putting the project together and getting all the talent involved, which was just an insane process but ultimately very rewarding since the work itself is coming out so well. We are developing an anime as well, so it's great to be involved as an anime producer and work with the animation production company in Japan. It's all a fascinating learning experience.

Recently, TOKYOPOP has been working quite a lot with Western companies, for example, on the various Cine-Manga properties. Is there a marked difference in dealing with them as opposed to Japanese publishers?

No question. There truly is a “cultural gap” when it comes to business, relationships, attitude, etc. I can go on and on about this—especially after a few beers—but suffice it to say that it's very challenging to get one another to understand each other's perspective. It's hard enough in one common language to properly communicate as well as see eye-to-eye in a mutually beneficial and fair way. When you add in not only another language but a totally different culture like Japan, the challenges multiply infinitely. One of the hardest but most rewarding parts of my jobs personally is to be the one building that bridge—because I speak the language and am involved in both the business and creative side I try to understand and communicate the various perspectives. When it all comes together it's really a wonderful feeling.

Where do you see the company in a couple of years? Or, where would you like to see the company in a couple of years?

The TOKYOPOP vision is to create a truly global entertainment brand that bridges the East and West. That sounds a bit corporate but it is what I am saying above—that I've always been dedicated to building that bridge and that's the spirit of the company. It's really exciting to see what I call “manga culture” spreading throughout the world. There are really talented creators not only in Japan or Korea but in the US, Europe, South America and Southeast Asia that are learning the medium and the “language of manga.” Manga itself is such a magical blend of East and West—its influences range from traditional Japanese aesthetics to Western visual storytelling. I love the way that you can watch how Tezuka and Disney influenced each other. Even going back as far as a guy like Hokusai and how he was excited and influenced by Western painters like Rembrandt, only to develop his own unique style that evolved traditional Japanese ukiyoe, which resultingly influence guys like Van Gogh. That's so damn cool! That's exactly what is happening now, and it's exciting to think that TOKYOPOP is one of the leaders here. That's always been my dream.

What kind of things do you do in your free time?

Uh—free time? I don't remember much of what that concept is all about, but if I do squeeze in a moment or two of private time I love the onsen (Japanese hot bath), traveling to new places all over the world (I try to do business all over the world so I can have an excuse to travel), film and music. I love seeing new places—especially cities—and taking long drives to experience the countryside too. Thank god for e-mail and the Blackberry!!

Also, I'd like to say I really appreciate and respect what Anime News Network does. It's pretty amazing the extent of the information you guys provide—how do you do it?! It's a great reference to come and do research that can't be found in other places. Thanks for all your hard work and efforts!

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