Justin Sevakis

by Bamboo Dong,
Just Sevakis has been involved with more parts of the anime industry than one would have thought possible for a man of his youthful age (24). He first found his humble anime roots at the impressionable age of 13, when he borrowed Project A-Ko from Blockbuster. After hopping into a local anime club and writing a wildly popular newsletter, he and a friend started a VHS fansub group called Kodocha Anime, infamous for their purple tapes. After high school, he founded Anime News Network while en route to the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He eventually landed a job with SciFi.com to start their Anime Colony website, but quit, only to find himself working at Central Park Media subtitling more hentai than the average man could stand to watch. Now he's with Imaginasian TV as a producer, helping to license content for the US' first 24-hour national television network focused on Asian programming. To say that he's done a lot over the years is quite the understatement.

You founded one of the biggest fansub groups back in the 90s. Has that affected the way that you look at fansubs, both now, and when you were working for CPM?

Hmm... It has, and it hasn't. Even if I wasn't making them, I would have been dependant on them at some point in my otakudom for my anime fix, so I don't think my stance on them would change much. However, the experience I gained from working on them was invaluable. At the time I was doing fansubs (mid to late 90s), they were starting to become more advanced, production-wise. The subtitle production values we were seeing from the professional North American distributors at the time was nowhere near the level we were approaching. Taking what I learned from doing it "the fan way" and incorporating that in a professional environment was one of my biggest challenges at CPM—simply because there was a schedule to keep, and everything costs money when you do it professionally. The biggest benefit of being a fansubber is that you basically have as much time as you want to give yourself to make it look JUST how you want. Anyone in a professional environment who has that much time to blow obviously isn't earning their paycheck. My opinion when I was a fansubber was, “hey, I'm a kid doing this in my bedroom on less than $2000 worth of equipment. THEY have a budget!” I still think that. So the challenge becomes keeping the quality up under the more restrictive limitations of the professional work environment. That became both fun and a nightmare, at different times.

What is your current stance on fansubs?

Undecided. It's hard not to think that they're definitely starting to hurt some things, when the average episode of Naruto gets 200,000 downloads in a week. I mean, that's a lot more than the average anime DVD sells, probably by a factor of 10. Naruto's a good example, because it's been licensed for a while now, and although they're a little harder to find, they're still being made. There's no checks and balances anymore, which were easy to implement in the old days because of the inherent cludginess of having to deal with VHS. That's the big reason Kodocha never wanted to make the leap to digisubs—because they never degrade, and they're about DVD quality. If you don't care about the dub track, there is absolutely zero reason to upgrade. THAT is a big problem. I expect fansubs to become a bigger issue in the future, with companies on both sides of the Pacific.

It seems like you've had quite a long history of doing anime-related things. Were you planning on working with anime when you got your film degree, or do you have other life ambitions?

I definitely have other ambitions. You could definitely argue that I got my film degree because I was so into anime, but I never wanted to make anime per se. First, because I don't think I could make an anime I could be happy with. Second, because what appeals to me about anime in the first place is its surreal nature.

Anime to me is amazing because the good ones can take completely surreal environments and situations—things that could never happen in real life—and just forget about those differences. It concentrates on telling a story about its characters. That's what I would love to bring to American cinema and television. I'm truly of the opinion that American popular culture is reveling too much in the super-realistic, and because of that, our imaginations have become lazy. From a more ideological standpoint, it also makes it harder for who can't immediately identify with the characters to relate to. It used to be that fantasy fiction had that element of surreal environment-meets-real people, but now its common traits have become cliché, and writers are just making more by formula at this point. To break free of those ruts, that's my big motivation. It's why I went to film school, and it's why I'm in television.

Can you tell us a bit about what you do at Imaginasian TV?

I wear a lot of hats. First, I'm kind of an anomaly here, in that I'm technically a producer, but I don't really shoot anything. (Not yet, at least.) Instead, I actually license the anime. Because I've been a part of the scene for so long, I already know everyone I need to talk to, so that was a huge advantage when I started. I also work with editors (and sometimes edit myself) to format the shows for broadcast. I work with the marketing department to make sure we get our word out to the anime community, which we regard as our biggest crossover market. I'm also the biggest video nerd here, so I also double as a digital video engineer. I do a lot of designing of workflow, operations, that sort of thing. You know, typical nerd-burdens.

What's your stance on editing content for television? What do you base edits on?

Well, the FCC is being very scary these days, as anyone who follows the whole Howard Stern thing knows. You simply cannot get away with a lot of stuff on TV. That being the case, I prefer to let our content speak for itself and make as few changes as possible. Some of it's art, some of it's not, but if we didn't like it in the first place, we wouldn't be licensing it. There are other minor issues such as allotted running time, but those aren't really big concerns.

I'm not a fan of large-scale “Americanization” of anime, but I doubt many hardcore anime fans are. There are exceptions. Personally, I think a skilled editor and writer could have salvaged a few anime from being absolutely horrible to being watchable, or even good. Even some good anime have become better with some editing. I actually preferred the edited versions of Kite and Steamboy, for example. I only wish they would've done that to Metropolis. Say what you will about artistic integrity, but some directors really do need a strong producer to reign them in a little bit. That really doesn't seem to happen in Japan very often.

Do you see yourself doing this 10 years from now? Do you think the industry will even last that long?

I'm not sure where this industry will be one year from now, let alone ten. I think it's fairly obvious the bubble is bursting, and the fallout has been alternately fun to watch, or just painful. As for me, hopefully I will be taking what I've learned and making new content of my own. Honestly, I've attained so many of my dreams over the last five years, from working on a Ghibli DVD to helping build a movie theater—I feel very lucky. I don't have much to wish for anymore except for my own growth and continued success.

New content? What do you mean?

By new content, I hope to create a few movies and TV series. TV, I think, is the most under-utilized storytelling medium, and I'm anxious to start doing more with it.

What would be your ideal project?

I have my secrets, so I'm not going to give away the plots I'm working on until I'm ready to pitch them and actually have some episodes and screenplays written, but right now I really want to do my own drama series. Bringing the Asian “dorama” format to an American audience is, I think, a big opportunity. I would also love to adapt a few manga and manhwa titles. Who knows? There are so many good stories to tell, the problem is only deciding which ones.

What's your favorite dorama?

I'm going to sound like a total wimp right now. Actually, it's Beautiful Life. As much as I hate to admit it, I cried longer and harder at the ending of that show than anything else I've ever seen in my life. I mean, I cried like a little girl being stepped on.


Thanks. You'd better print that, 'cause I feel like one. I never cry at movies! I didn't even cry at Grave of the Fireflies! The only two movies I've ever cried more than a sniffle at were Omoide Poro Poro and Pom-Poko! Oh wait, My Neighbors the Yamadas too. And there was that one time I was moved to tears by the Kellogg's logo at the end of Barney and Friends, but I was really really hopped up on over-the-counter cold medication at the time.

So on a more random note, I hear you do XBox mods. Have any cool pictures?

I don't go nuts with the outer casing. It's more the functionality aspect. I've been a big emulation buff for years, and I want to be able to watch DivX movies on my HDTV. Perfect fit. Plus, I got to learn how to solder. I have two now, one in my bedroom and one in my living room. I luv my XBox-chan.

So is there anything you would have changed about the way your career path has taken you thus far?

Path-wise, I don't think I could have been luckier. While I wasn't a fan of a lot of the stuff I had to work on at CPM (the hentai, for example), I don't think I would have learned nearly as much at some of the other companies. And being in NYC in and of itself has been extremely rewarding.

What I would change is how I reacted to these environments. My favorite saying is, “Nothing will ever embarrass me more than the person I was before today.” When people are unsure of themselves, they puff themselves up, and try to show off what they deem to be their good qualities. I was very unsure of myself at many stages of my career so far, and I know for a fact I came off as an arrogant prick on a lot of occasions. Luckily, the people that hated me the most had to work with me for a long time, and most of them I was eventually able to win over, but I truly regret how I've conducted myself in the past. If I could go back in time, I would kick my own ass.

So tell me about what you're working on at Imaginasian right now.

Well, we're licensing some new anime for our next season, some of which is absolutely A-list stuff that I couldn't believe I was able to get. Can't make any announcements yet, because the contracts aren't signed, but I think everyone will be pleasantly surprised. We have a few new markets coming online before this summer... More on that will be posted on our website soon.

Behind the scenes, we're working on a lot of internal improvements, and correcting a lot of logistical problems as they come up. As you can imagine, when a company is so young, there's a lot to learn. Regrettably, there's a lot of trial and error involved, but I think we're doing pretty darn well, considering we've been live for less than 9 months. We hope to start airing our first manga-related drama series pretty soon. We're also pushing our first original show, Uncle Morty's Dub Shack, which is an awesome parody dub show. It got a great review in the San Francisco Examiner last week. And, of course, lots more nerding out. Hopefully, we'll be going to some conventions this year, so we can talk more to fans to hear what they want.

We're also doing a really cool Video-On-Demand film festival with the In Demand channel on Time Warner Cable in a few markets around the country. Some anime movies, and some really cool Asian live action movies. We're going to be sending out a press release about it as soon as we finish nailing down some details.

Are there any plans to expand Imaginasian to more geographic areas?

YES YES YES YES YES! We know there's a lot of people out there who really want to see our network, but can't right now. We're in a lot of negotiations right now, but basically the ones who are closest to big cities (especially ones with large Asian populations) will be the lucky ones. We should be in a lot more of those areas by summer. Of course, if you want to help, you can always go the MTV route and call and annoy your cable company to pick us up. We always appreciate that, and it really does help.

Is most of the anime content on IATV subbed?

At this point, yes. Some of it is for contractual reasons, but we try to decide what's best for the audience of a particular show, and how much Japanese flavor would be lost if we showed the dubbed version. Of course, if one version is clearly superior than the other, obviously we'll try to show that one. And to all the sub Nazis out there, that can go either way. ;-)

Any projects IATV is toying with that haven't been nailed down yet?

Well, we want to do much more original content. We would like to work with some more Asian American indie producers, and maybe showcase some shorts—both animated and live action. We have big plans—there are many aspects of the entertainment industry we'd love to be a part of. The trouble is figuring out which ones we can make the biggest difference in. The TV network is a huge effort, so obviously it gets the most attention. Once it's a little more established, we'll take a look at doing some other stuff.

Think IATV will ever get into home video?

We have no plans to add to the complete oversaturation going on in the anime home video market at this time. As for other possibilities, I'll have to go to that old standby answer: CANNOT CONFIRM/DENY.

What do you think about this whole AZN TV business?

We are very happy that International Channel and their parent company Comcast has realized the power behind the underserved Asian market. We are looking forward to seeing what they have to offer, and we wish them the best. Our goals are to serve the Asian community and those interested in Asian pop culture, and we're certainly not going to complain if someone else wants to contribute.

Alright, well that's about all the questions I have. Thank you very much for your time! Any last parting words?

Anime fans are being given big dreams and big possibilities. Perhaps moreso than any other media consumers. The trick is to take those dreams and make them your own. I see so many people that just “want to get into the anime industry,” but they're not looking at the bigger picture. What is the art trying to say to you? What does it inspire you to do? If one really loves this unique art form, I believe giving back your own ideas and dreams are the best way to give your appreciation.

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