The last episode of America's Greatest Otaku debuted tonight on Hulu. I've been watching along since the first episode (reviewed here) and now, having seen the entire series, I have to say that I'm surprised it didn't seem more bogged down.
The set-up of every show was that Stu Levy would provide a wooden welcome. Then the "Otaku Six", having already divided up into teams of two, would randomly choose which cities they would focus on. The bus would take them all to that city, where the two interns would get the low-down on one or two local otaku-ish venues, interview one or two AGO candidates and try to perform some silly challenge Levy issued. The bus would go to the next city where the next two interns would do the same thing. Then a third city with the last two interns. Then Levy and the Otaku Six would chat a bit about the challenges and quickly review the places they'd just seen.
The challenges made no sense. They were allegedly inspired by Japanese proverbs about otaku culture, but that was really a stretch in most cases. Not to mention that the winners of the challenges got... bragging rights, I suppose? There were no prizes or penalties, so the challenges were both unrelated and pointless.
The AGO candidate interviews were, for me, uncomfortable. The Otaku Six did most of the interviewing and none of them really seemed to come across as being very adept at it. By and large, they didn't seem to engage the candidates so much as just recite a series of questions. That could well have been a problem with the editing.
From a technical perspective, that was a noticeable detraction for me. The shows, on the whole, didn't strike me as very well edited. I felt I was WAAAAY too conscious of it. Intermediary text pages seemed to linger too long, overuse of inappropriate filters between key shots, abrupt jump cuts that disconnected images that shouldn't have been disconnect, uneven pacing...
Despite its problems, though, I kept watching because the location pieces were generally interesting. I mean, a ninja-themed restaurant? A J-pop hair salon? A kyudo dojo? Here in the U.S.? That's some pretty cool stuff. Some locations were more otaku-related than others, not surprisingly, but there was a really good mix of things.
The series finale was decidedly anti-climactic. The first half was spent saying good-bye to the Otaku Six, which may have been more poignant if we got to know them through the show. We saw glimpses, certainly, but we didn't see much of who they were as individuals. So the parting, while genuine for them, came across as overly dramatic for viewers. Then five judges (who had never been named or referenced throughout the show) spoke a bit about the AGO candidates, and why they selected winner and two runners up. While I liked hearing what they had to say in explaining what aspects of the candidates stood out as particularly otaku, I didn't much care for the rest of the episode, which followed the winner around a week-long trip to Japan. He was clearly thrilled and in awe but, here again, they had him conduct unengaging interviews. (No fault of his, though! Everyone was answering his questions in Japanese, which he obviously didn't understand.)
OK, so if you drop the last episode, all the AGO interview stuff, the challenges, the excessively long screens of text, the introductions, the closings -- basically everything but the otaku locations -- I think this could've made for a really good two-hour documentary. Those location portions were really interesting and insightful. Eight forty-some minute episodes didn't really work that well though. It seemed like they were putting a lot of padding in to get eight episodes out of it.
Of course, it's almost impossible to watch this without putting it in the context of Tokyopop closing its American manga operations. I've got a small collection of manga, but I don't follow it that closely. Levy, though, has been something of a personality in the manga industry and the show reflects that personality, I think. A lot of people have commented that he had some great ideas for Tokyopop but his execution was disjointed with poor follow-through. A lot of that shows through in America's Greatest Otaku. There's the germ of an idea there, but he tried taking it into too many different directions at once. I'd love to have seen what a really strong video editor could've done with all the footage he collected, because it looks like there's some really great stuff in there.
Tokyopop did some really great things over the years, but Levy's scattershot approach seemed to hinder things more than help, and look where the company wound up. Unfortunately, much the same could be said about AGO.
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