John Oppliger

by Bamboo Dong,
At one time or another, you've probably read AnimeNation's weekly column by John Oppliger, "Ask John". The column is as much a fixture in the online anime world as AnimeNation itself, and has taken countless questions from fans and answered them in the thoughtful fashion that only a lifelong otaku could. As if answering anime questions for a living isn't enough, he also spends his days deciding what titles AN Entertainment would want to license, writing press releases, and editing subtitle scripts for AN Entertainment's current titles.

Let's start with the AN Entertainment side of things. Most people are already familiar with the work you do with Ask John, but what exactly do you do for AN Entertainment?

I'll readily admit that my familiarity with Japanese language is novice level, at best. But I do have an M.A. in English and professional teaching experience, so my main role with AN Entertainment is in revising rough dialogue translations into subtitle scripts that are accurate and also sound like natural English. That's where most of my work for AN Entertainment lies, but I also compose all of AN Entertainment's formal press releases, write our DVD translation notes and packaging text and often serve as an official company spokesman. I'm also heavily involved in AN Entertainment's licensing. I bring a lot of titles and samples to the discussion table, and help determine which anime series AN Entertainment may or may not be interested in trying to license based on our staff's tastes and the brand identity we want to create for AN Entertainment. (I hope that didn't sound too formal. It's time consuming, but fun work.)

As an anime fan, did you ever imagine that you would be on the licensing and releasing side of things? How did that all come about?

As an American anime fan, I've always dreamed of being involved in helping to boost recognition and respect for anime in America. I actually came to work for AnimeNation as a result of "right time, right place." To make a long, and honestly not that exciting, story short, I came to know AnimeNation's owner when the company was still a start-up. He was searching for an employee that knew something about anime. I was looking for a full time job. Almost as soon as I began working for AnimeNation, I suggested moving into licensing. In fact, AnimeNation did investigate licensing the Akihabara Cyber Team and Berserk TV shows back in 1999. But as you're aware, our licensing plans got delayed by a few years. We finally moved into licensing when we decided that AnimeNation was mature enough and financially stable enough to allow us to branch out.

To date, what has been your favorite moment since AN Entertainment was created? Is there anything you wish you could go back and redo?

Undeniably, my favorite moment from AN Entertainment was having an opportunity to meet Mr. Koji Masunari, the director of Risky Safety. I was a bit surprised to find that Mr. Masunari wasn't even aware that Risky Safety had been released in America. But he was very gracious and very gratified to find the show released in America, and I was very honored to meet him, and very grateful that he'd directed such a wonderful little program. As I reflect on AN Entertainment's first two titles, Risky Safety and Miami Guns, I'm disappointed that they haven't been more popular with American consumers, but I honestly believe that they're both good shows. If I had to do it again, I'd still recommend them as AN Entertainment acquisitions. If I could go back in time and change one thing that I've done with AN Entertainment, it would be correcting a mistake I made when we were working with Risky Safety episode 13. There is a scene when Moe makes a donation at her local shrine. I thought she donated a 5 yen coin, and explained the significance of that in the translation notes. I discovered later that if you watch the scene very closely, it's actually a 50 yen coin, which has a different meaning in the context of the scene. I know that seems like nit-picking, but that's a part of my personality.

With the market slowly becoming more and more saturated, how do you think that will affect AN's licensing and marketing strategies?

The American anime market saturation has already affected not just AN Entertainment, but all of America's distribution companies. I think it's revealing that Sakura Con occurred recently but had no anime title acquisition announcements. Licensing anime is getting prohibitively expensive relative to what it earns back. So I suspect that we're going to see the entire American distribution industry scale back the amount of anime that gets released in America. Hopefully, the market correction won't have a major effect on AN Entertainment, because we've never been guilty of flooding the market. I think we're very conscientious about acquiring good shows and not just whatever we can get our hands on, or whatever we think will make a buck.

There are many who cite that the anime industry is going downhill. What do you think would revitalize that? Where do you see AN, and the industry, 5 years from now?

It's really difficult for me to make judgments about the quality of the American anime industry. From roughly 2002 until 2004 there was a massive amount of anime released in America. A lot of people can say that it was mostly crap, but diversity is never a bad thing. I'm actually a little bit worried about the direction the industry is heading in the future because the commonly heard theory among fans is that fewer titles licensed for American release will weed out the garbage. In reality, fewer titles getting released in America means that we won't see as many really brilliant fringe titles. If less anime gets acquired for American release, that is the opposite of the saturation people refer to, it's not going to be the most outstanding shows that get released in America; it's going to be whatever's most profitable. Paranoia Agent may be much more thought provoking and mature than Dragonball, but if I'm a distributor, I license Dragonball because it's going to sell 50,000 copies more than Paranoia Agent.

If the American anime industry does constrict, it may be just a return to roots for the American fan community, and an opportunity to re-start the American industry. In fact, some degree of shake-out may be just what the American industry needs to refocus attention on what priorities should be: bringing anime to American fans instead of using anime as a mad money grab. There will always be American anime fans, so there will always be an American anime industry. If the American anime community gets back to basics and rediscovers what's most important about anime, I think they'll find that AnimeNation and AN Entertainment have been there all along.

Any interest in branching out into different markets like manga, toys, etc?

We've had staff discussions about merchandising and licensing in other fields like manga, live action and soundtracks. We've even made some preliminary steps in that direction (sorry I can't be more specific). Right now our focus is on Haré+Guu, but the odds of us looking at tangential fields are pretty strong.

Can you give us any hints as to when Hale Nochi Guu will be out?

To be honest, we don't even have a good idea ourselves about exactly when Haré+Guu will debut domestically. We're aiming for a summer release but literally countless things are cropping up which may delay that a little. We're determined to get the first disc out this year come hell or high water, but right now even we don't know anything more certain than that. We don't want to compromise our own quality standards by rushing, and we want to have everything lined up so that when the DVDs do start coming out, they'll all come out on time.

I'm far too curious not to ask this... are you familiar with a new series called Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro-chan, made by the same person who did Hale Guu? Do you think it's something that would fit AN's repetoire?

I do know Dokuro-chan. The show is actually one that I've been anticipating since late 2004 when it was first announced. I didn't know that it had any relation to Haré+Guu, though, so you've got me there. Judging by the first half hour Dokuro-chan episode, it almost seems like something you could get if you combined the shinigami and angels of Risky Safety with the crazy violence of Miami Guns then multiplied the result by ten. What do you think? Seems like an ideal AN Entertainment title to me.

About your column, Ask John, how many questions have you answered? How do you pick which ones to answer?

According to the AnimeNation website, I've written over 1070 "Ask John" articles, but if you consider that maybe only one out of every fifteen or twenty questions I answer gets used as an "Ask John" article, I've answered a whole lot of questions in the past six years. Most of the questions I answer are ones that only require a sentence or two reply and aren't really informative to anyone besides the person asking the question. I try to share questions and replies that I think will be informative, interesting or thought provoking to lots of anime fans. I'm happy when I can help other fans, and pleased when I can educate other fans. And I'm satisfied when I can prod anime fans into really thinking about anime. They don't have to agree with me. The mere fact that they're really pondering anime means I've done something positive. Some readers believe that "Ask John" is some sort of personal ego trip for me. I never want that to be the case. I just enjoy discussing anime and helping other anime fans.

How do you make sure your statements are culturally and factually correct? Looking back to the past, when you've made a mistake, would you have changed how you handled the situation?

I do the best I can. And I do make mistakes. In fact, the thread on the AnimeNation forum for readers to point out errors I've made is now up to 20 pages. But for over a thousand articles, I think my track record is pretty good. Since I'm a trained writer, I'm always conscious of staying respectful of different sides of a debate. When I make mistakes I make corrections. And I've never been shy to publicly acknowledge my mistakes. I'll always correct factual errors, but I'm hesitant to revise my opinions. At the time I wrote a given article, it was an honest and faithful explication of my impressions, so re-writing it later with the benefit of more knowledge and experience seems like cheating. That's why whenever a situation like that occurs, I'll usually add an addendum rather than re-write.

How does it feel to be a key source of information and opinions to fans? Do you feel any sort of responsibility towards fandom?

If I was writing pure fact based reference material, naturally I'd want it to be precise and correct. If I was writing only subjective editorials, I'd probably be highly subjective. But the "Ask John" column is a mixture of both, so I strive to be accurate, but I compose my articles with the intention of encouraging speculation. When I write my opinions, I don't want readers to take them as literal truth. I want readers to use my theories as a basis for deducing their own conclusions. They can agree with me, or disagree. I'm happy with either as long as their conclusion is their own. Honestly, I know that I'm considered an authority, and I know that I have a responsibility to the people that make up the worldwide anime community because of the position I'm in, but I try not to think about that too much, because if I do, I'm afraid that I'll get egotistical. I just try to live up to my own standards of integrity, and that seems to be agreeable to a lot of readers.

I'm very impressed with the way that you're able to answer all the questions with so much clarity and thoroughness. Are you ever tempted to lose your cool and scream at people who ask stupid questions?

Anyone that's been an anime fan for any length of time has probably encountered “stupid questions.” I'll admit that sometimes professional courtesy restrains me from being quite as blunt as I would be if I wasn't a company representative. But everybody started out as a novice anime fan at some point, and many of us, including myself, had help from other fans along the way. So I always remind myself that no matter how silly or pointless or narrow-minded the question seems, it's coming from someone that has at least a vague interest in anime. So providing a polite, rational reply does more to benefit anime and anime fans than being snappish. Oh, and thanks very much for the compliment.

Given your long presence in fandom, what surprises you the most about the current status of anime and manga?

I have to be blunt with this response. What surprises me most about contemporary American anime fandom is how little it's changed philosophically. There are a lot of American anime fans that take anime for granted and see it in such a materialistic way. I think that anime is a really wonderful creative and evocative art. But there seem to be a lot of fans that feel they're entitled to anime, and feel outraged when they don't get cheap or free anime on demand. There seem to be a lot of fans that believe current anime is just recycled ideas and disguised advertising. I hear a lot of fans say that they don't buy series without collector's boxes. I just can't comprehend being an anime fan if you don't like and respect anime. A lot of hard working people put their lives into creating anime. It just seems rude to disregard that effort or expect it to exist just for your personal gratification. What surprises me most about the contemporary American anime scene is that it started as a fan community but seems to have lost a lot of its spirit of community and partially turned into a collective of individuals.

Has your outlook on anime and fandom changed since the creation of AN Entertainment?

Since the establishment of AN Entertainment, my awareness of the business side of anime has expanded significantly. I'm much more conscious of movements in the industry now. But I don't think my perception of the fan community has really evolved that much as a result of AN Entertainment.

For a few informal questions: you've mentioned before that you have over 100Gb of hentai on your computer. How long did it take you to compile all that? I'd be lying if I said I wasn't impressed.

I like all kinds of anime, and that includes hentai. I don't go out of my way to advertise that I'm a fan of adult anime, but I'm also not ashamed to admit it. I'm not particularly proud that I have a rather staggering collection of adult manga and doujinshi scans, but I think that's balanced out by the fact that I do own an extensive collection of legitimately purchased imported adult manga comics, doujinshi and anime. I'm probably one of the internet's veterans when it comes to collecting adult anime online considering that I recall downloading adult anime art as far back as 1995.

Do you have any plans for later in life after AN?

I'm one of AnimeNation's "lifers." I have a retirement plan with AnimeNation, and I hope and expect to make AnimeNation and AN Entertainment a lifelong career. I'm a die-hard anime junkie. It's literally my life, and I expect to be a fan until the day I die. Some people may consider that irresponsible, but I think that enjoying my life is more important than becoming rich or famous or successful. As long as AnimeNation pays my bills, that's where you'll find me.

And lastly, for something completely frivolous, who's your wrestling alter-ego? If not wrestling, what about anime?

You know, I've never figured out exactly what the connection is between pro wrestling and anime. There's Tiger Mask, Prowres Sanshiro, Jushin Lyger, Wannabe's, Metal Fighter Miku, and even episodes of Kiddy Grade, Dirty Pair, and Air Master. And a lot of anime fans seem to be wrestling fans. But I've never been one of the faithful. The appeal of pro wrestling eludes me still. It'll probably sound pitiful, but I think my anime alter-ego is the Henma Ikimono from Di Gi-Charat, literally the "strange thing." It's a yellow bear-like animal that simultaneously seems happy, confused, sad, and angry. It eats anything. And although nobody wants it, it's always around. I think that's a pretty good summation of me as well.

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