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Anime Key Player Interview #5
Ethan Kick, Division Head of Guest and Industry Relations, Otakon Part.1

2018.07.17


We proudly had an opportunity to have an interview with Mr. Ethan Kick from one of the largest anime conventions in the United States “Otakon” in Washington D.C., formerly held in Baltimore. Ethan talked to us about his own story and the experiences through Otakon.


Nice to meet you Ethan. First off, can you tell me a little bit about yourself?

Sure. My story's a little bit different from most people. I'm actually from South Korea. I was adopted when I was born through Catholic Charities and my family adopted me from Baltimore, Maryland which is where Otakon originally has been for quite a long time and it ties back into it later. 

When I was about 4, my dad's work moved to Atlanta so I've lived most of my life in Atlanta but I would still go back to see the rest of our family that lives in Baltimore from time to time. It was always a fun experience. I always had a really interesting connection. The U.S. has a lot of different regions and they're all very different culturally, so I have a bit of the South East culture but then also the mid-Atlantic culture where my family's from. So that's kind of a little bit about my background. 


What’s your family like?

My family is a very stereotypical American family (laugh). All my aunts and uncles have two children exactly, so I have four cousins on each side of my family.


Do you have siblings?

I have one younger brother, he was adopted two years after me from Busan. He's into anime and video games too. I always loved history, culture and art. He was very into science and he's a physicist. I’m more of a historian.


How was your childhood like?

Until I was about four, I grew up in Baltimore and then the rest of my life through school I was raised in Atlanta. I live in the northeastern part of the city which is very culturally diverse, there's actually a sizable East Asian population between China, Korea and Vietnam. There are very big population centers so for me even though the southern United States isn't where you traditionally think of for a large Asian population, there actually was where I lived. 

I was never like the only kid in my class, which was, I think, designed by my parents. They probably chose that location when we moved.


So you moved to Atlanta, spending most of your life there. But how did you get involved in Otakon at first?

Otakon is now in Washington D.C., but I started staffing there when it was in Baltimore. 

How it connects back is that my cousin Michael actually worked for Otakon for a number of years and he would tell stories. I liked anime as a kid and I loved video games. That's how it connects back to Maryland because he originally started staffing Otakon and one year he's like “you should come up.” Before that I’ve never heard of conventions, I didn't even know they were a thing. 

 


So he told you to come and you decided to work there?

Yeah, I saw it and I was blown away. I knew people liked it, but I never knew that people gathered in large masses to go and celebrate.  I thought it was cool. I would be like “I know that person and what they did and I never thought I would see them in person because they lived in Japan or Korea.”


Was the convention big when you first went?

Yeah so when I started the convention, it was 2011. During the first year, I remember I saw Distant Worlds. They were playing the Final Fantasy Orchestra that year.


That is so cool. So how did you like get into anime and Japanese culture?

So it's a mix of things. My parents really loved acting and theater so when the original Dungeons & Dragons came out, a few of their acting troupe before it became a more niche kind of geek centric sort of thing, they would play with all of their theater friends and they would play roles. But they stopped doing that after a while. 

When the original Nintendo came to the United States and they tried it at one of the Target or Best Buy stores, they immediately bought one and took it home and set it up. My cousin I was telling you about earlier, Michael would go over to play because his parents were not into video games at all. Which is probably why he started going to Otakon to meet other people. But he would always want to stay at my parents’ house and just play Nintendo. So right after I was born, they got me a Super Nintendo and I had that growing up. I was like three years old and I would be playing video games and my mom would help me read the text and the words for the spells on Final Fantasy.  My dad really liked strategy games. So for the game Civilization, he would be explaining history like saying “that’s a caravan” or saying “that's a region from Rome.” 

My parents are really big on education, so when I went to kindergarten, they always used flashcards and they taught me multiplication and division. So when I was in kindergarten, I knew division and they were like “What? Why do you know division?” So video games and my parents kind of got me into it early. 

Also Toonami was really big in America. After school I had an hour and a half to finish my homework in order to watch the show. After I finished it I would just sit there for two hours and just watch. I watched Rurouni Kenshin, Outlaw Star and Gundam. It was the coolest thing ever.


Did you watch it dubbed?

Yeah I watched it dubbed. I wouldn't have known if there were subtitles. As a little kid you don't understand but I thought these cartoons were way cooler than Tom and Jerry. There were giant robots and it was not just one single episode, the story kept on going. It was awesome.


What was your favorite anime when you were little?

When I was little, Gundam Wing easily got me into like robot type shows. Outlaw Star was really cool too. That's a show that I didn't hear well in Japan, but in America it's incredibly popular. That was definitely what I grew up with.


Anime kind of helped you get your homework done.

Yeah, definitely.


Did you know that anime was Japanese?

Until I was about eight or nine I didn't really understand. It started to make more sense because I would eventually figure out what manga was. They had mangas at Barnes and Noble. In the U.S. it’s a little different there aren't as many smaller stores similar to Akihabara with specialty stores. Most stores are big retail chains so unless they carry them, it's a lot harder to see them in stores. But they eventually started bringing it in and that's how I was able to start realizing because the books were reversed. That’s when it all started clicking.


Did you get used to it?

It took a minute but as soon as you get it down it's not so bad.


You were watching anime on cable and I'm sure it was in English. Were the songs in English too?

It was back when licensing was really difficult, not all the songs made it. One of my favorite songs was “Freckles” for Rurouni Kenshin. That song was awesome. I think it was dubbed, but most songs didn't come out stateside. A lot of the songs would be instrumental so it wouldn't have the vocals to avoid copyright with the artists. The company would still have rights to the music and the instrumental section, but I don't think they had the rights to the vocal part. So, a lot of it will come over as instrumental but I still jammed out to. I loved it.


What’s the first anime song you heard?

Oh so “Freckles” from Rurouni Kenshin but I also liked “Through the Night” from Outlaw Star. It was awesome too. When you go to any anime convention in the U.S. and if you play that song, everyone would know what that song is. That song was really popular. When the later Gundam series started coming out licensing got better. 

I think Pokemon, more than anything else individually really showed the American market that Japanese contents can do well and that it's not just different, we were really interested. After that studios like Funimation and then much later Crunchyroll were able to start getting simul-license. That’s when it was really able to come over full force and of course, with internet, it went from nothing to what is now. Once you could see things on YouTube you could just watch the openings that were coming out that season.


What’s your impression on anisong? Did you like it, or did it sound strange to you?

No, it didn't sound weird to me. I like theater and musicals, but I also love Japanese music, jazz and swing music. I just love music in general.


How about Jpop songs? Were there any popular Jpop songs?

I think the most popular Jpop singer would be Hikaru Utada who did the Kingdom Hearts song. As soon as Kingdom Hearts came out in the States and people heard that I remember everyone really got into it. For someone who didn’t do as many video game and anime openings but mostly her own albums and singles, it was so good and it opened up Jpop to my generation. Nowadays, it's a lot easier to get into it. I'll see a kid walking around watching Crunchyroll and they can get the full experience.


That’s great to hear. So what's the concept of Otakon?

Otakon is an interesting event because it's fan oriented and fan run so no one gets paid from the organization except for certain contracts on our legal team or our technical team. But everyone volunteers because they love it. We all get into the organization for different reasons, but for me, my cousin invited me one year. Andy who is my boss joined when conventions were small and before the internet. I asked him how small it was back in the day and he said it was about 68 people in a room. I thought “is that a convention? That sounds like a medium-sized party.” They would bring over a guest and there might have been an interpreter. So it's like kind of crazy.

 


So you guys have volunteers?

Yeah so our organization started in 1994, it was started by four different gentlemen at an University in Philadelphia, I believe, or somewhere in Pennsylvania. They were able to make this event and have it grow over the years and since then most or maybe all of them have moved on to other projects because they have family and other commitments. But Otakon has grown past that and for better or for the worse I couldn't even tell you what their names were. I know the story and the legacy, but it's evolved through the generations and we keep the tradition going in new ways and it’s changing ways now too.


Wow. So it’s been around since 1994?

Yes, this is our twenty-fifth Otakon coming up. It’s not our 25th year though.


So you have more than one event in a year?

It's part of the history but there were a few years early on when they had multiple events a year. This is our 25th Otakon.


Next: Ethan Kick Interview Part 2 – Otakon’s history and its growth.

It will be published on 23 July, 2018!
 

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