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This month we interviewed Stephen P. Lepisto, Webmaster of Otakuworld and co-creator of the Legend of Ika Takozushi.

Post: How did you get the idea to make the Kamishibai program?
Stephen: Jennifer Reitz was going through a massive creative burst and had no outlet. I was working on what would become Kokoro Wish at that time, mainly low level stuff and therefore had nothing for her to create with. She came up with the basic idea of Kamishibai, although we didn't call it that initially, and I put it together in about two weeks. It took her another two weeks to complete the accompanying story, "The Legend of Ika Takozushi", which we co-wrote.

Jennifer knew of Kamishibais back then but she didn't know the actual name. So while I was writing the program, she did some research and found the name "Kamishibai" and that's what we ended up calling it. Further research at a local sushi restaurant revealed the details of how a Kamishibai was presented (which became the introductory paragraph on Otaku World for Kamishibai).

Incidentally, although I been a programmer for over 20 years, Kamishibai was my first true Windows program. That's why it was a little rough around the edges.


Post: When did you first release Kamishibai?
Stephen: I believe it was in February, 1997. About five or six months after Otaku World actually went live at otakuworld.com. That would make it well over four years old by now. My, how time flies. Interestingly enough, there were very few stories in the first year Kamishibai was available, maybe six or seven in all. After about a year, things started to pick up very quickly, especially after the introduction of Jennifer's wonderful "Pastel Defender Heliotrope" (which she did all by herself, including sound effects). We now have about 280 unique stories told in about 550 separate chapters.

Post: What inspired you to write "The Legend of Ika Takozushi?"
Stephen: We knew we needed a story to go with the program to "show how it was done". Jennifer again came up with the general idea of the story (she was in that creative burst, after all). We talked it over for a couple of hours, basically bouncing ideas off each other, getting the feel for the overall story. It naturally flowed from the idea of Don Quixote (a favorite of Jennifer's). I then sat down and fleshed it out as a story. Once I had finished converting the story into a Kamishibai script, Jennifer went over it and made a couple of modifications such as the actual name of the Matsuri youbutsu. Between the two of us we came up with all the names.

I came up with the Twirling Tentacles of Death and the subsequent "joke" at the end of the story as well as all the dialog. That was part of the "fleshing out" process.

After I had turned the story into a Kamishibai script, Jennifer drew it. I tried to put enough description in the text to give Jennifer an idea of what to draw without actually describing the picture in detail. Wait, that came out wrong. Let's see... well, here's an example of what I'm trying to say. I wrote the following description for a scene before the big battle (this is Ton Katsu speaking):

"That is what I also thought. If that is the case, then what do you make of that ominously large dust cloud coming over the far hill?"

All you see here is text but it clearly invokes an image. Jennifer "saw" the image which is presented with this description. That's how it worked throughout the story.


Post: What Kamishibai stories do you personally like to read?
Stephen: Well, I do read every story that comes into Otaku World now, as part of the review process. I enjoy the wide variety of things Kamishibai authors come up with. It pains me to reject a story but I do have to maintain some levels of standards for subscribers. There are stories posted long ago on Otaku World that I would most likely reject today. That's why I came up with the Kamishibai Guidelines.

As to the stories I actually like, well, I'm drawn to excellent art and an excellent story, not necessarily in that order. A good story can have not-so-good art and still be a winner. A bad story with excellent art simply isn't going to cut it with me. I like a really good one shot story since I don't have to wait for the end to show up a year later (if at all, grumble, grumble). Multiple chapter stories are good but it can be difficult at times keeping up with what's going on.

I hesitate to point to any specific story since I don't want anyone to feel slighted. I can say I definitely like "Pastel Heliotrope" and, of course, Takozushi. I am amazed at Firefly's diligence in creating no less than 19 chapters of "Questors". Of course, Lianu's "Ming and Dracoa" and Kusukusu's "Time and Space" series are no slouches either. Toni's "Dracula" has some of the most amazing cinematography I have ever seen in a Kamishibai. And Liza Fitzroy's "Ragnarok" is nicely written with very good images. I particularly like Katie J's take in "Magical Warriors Powerpuff", a really neat story. And I really like Sailor Bunnie's "Panda Bear Joke". It was told well and nicely illustrated. These are the stories that currently spring to mind. As I said, I generally don't explain what I do and don't like since I'm the editor of the Kamishibai Area and I would hate to be accused of playing favorites. So my apologies to all those other authors I didn't mention.

(I'm sure I'm going to get flames for that last paragraph. Oh well, life as an editor.)

Ultimately, it has been quite fascinating watching people evolve in their writing abilities. However, to this day I wish I had created an editor for Kamishibai where I could integrate a spelling checker. Another time perhaps.


Post: What are a few of your favorite animes?
Stephen: In no particular order (presented here as I think of them), Dragonball Z, Tenchi Muyo, Giant Robo, Secret of Blue Water, El Hazard, Oh! My Goddess, Akira, Armitage III, Kishin Corps, Barefoot Gen, Nausicaa, My Neighbor Totoro, Laputa, Porco Rosso, among others.

Post: Do you have any advice you'd like to give to Kamishibai Artists?
Stephen: Read the Kamishibai Guidelines please, as well as the Kamishibai FAQ. I don't get very many questions nowadays about how to create a Kamishibai, which is good, and I just point them at the documentation presented on Otaku World.

Two other pieces of advice (mentioned in the Guidelines but I will reiterate them here): run your work through a spell checker and learn your grammar.

I would have loved to show you an example but, surprisingly enough, I can't put my hands on one at the moment. Sigh. Class is dismissed. Next question.


Post: How do you determine what goes on the page and what doesn't?
Stephen: Ultimately, if the story leaves me satisfied, I will post it. By "satisfied" I mean I feel the story reached an appropriate end after a good start and good middle part. Now, this ending could be a cliffhanger, if the author intends to continue the story in another chapter. Or it could be a one-shot story such as Takozushi. It could even be a joke, such as the "Panda Bear Joke" or the recently posted "The KotoDisaborba Project". I don't do jukeboxes or slide shows anymore. I also don't really want to see any more Sailor Moon stories except those lampooned MST-style (I really enjoy those, cruel though they may be).

I wrote the Kamishibai Guidelines to help clarify what it is I'm looking for in a Kamishibai story. I do decide on each story on a case by case basis, however. Occasionally, I will reject a story if it has way too many spelling errors or grammatical problems (I no longer do rewrites). Those stories I send back to the author requesting the necessary fixes. I will also automatically reject any story that doesn't pass the Validate File on Load option (available in Kamishibai from the options menu: select it and then load your story). In those cases, I send a list of what is wrong to the author so they can correct it. Often they do fix it, sometimes they don't respond so the story never gets posted.

Kamishibai is a way to tell a story, just like writing a short story or a comic strip. If you have a story to tell, chances are it can be expressed in Kamishibai format. I am not going to penalize you for being unable to write like a professional; I understand that virtually all Kamishibai authors are still learning to write. However, this doesn't mean I don't have some standards of writing I adhere to when I judge a Kamishibai submission.

I mean, when I get a story along the lines of "Girl starts high school. Girl learns she is inheritor of vast magic. Bad Guy attacks Girl. Bad Guy is killed by passing asteroid. Girl finishes class. The End.", and all this is told in nine scenes, I will most likely reject it no matter how good the scanned images look.

And yes, I did reject this story a long time ago.


Post: You made a comment about no longer doing rewrites. What do you mean by that?
Stephen: Well, for the first two years Kamishibai was on Otaku World, I made sure every story posted was the best it could be. This often meant actively editing the story for spelling and grammar. Where necessary, I would rewrite a scene so it made more sense. It could take me two or more hours to process a single story. After two years of this, I couldn't take it anymore so I handed the Kamishibai area over to Dov for a time. He instituted the policy of posting whatever came in without reviewing it. When I took back the Kamishibai Area about a year later, I kept that policy since it allowed me to keep up.

Then subscriptions were implemented and I needed to once again insure the stories available on Otaku World were going to be worth a subscriber's time. So I now review all stories and validate all resources in a story. I ask the author to make any necessary corrections, I don't generally do that myself anymore; too much work. And I don't do rewrites anymore.


Post: What is the status of Otakuworld finacially since the subscriptions went up?
Stephen: Otaku World is holding its own. It brings in enough to pay for server and bandwidth costs and a little for Dov's, Jennifer's, and my time. We have backed off from daily updates because a) it wasn't increasing the number of subscribers and b) we still aren't bringing in enough to justify that kind of time. However, the number of subscriptions are slowly growing and the majority of those subscriptions are for three months or more which gives us a reasonably stable base on which to project future costs and income.

Based on our original cost goals, we are about halfway to where we want to be in terms of subscribers. Our target was to bring in enough to pay Dov, Jennifer, and myself a parttime salary so we could each devote about 10 to 20 hours a week to the site. However, we are currently bringing in half of what we need so we put in a commensurate amount of time or about 5 to 10 hours a week. I can eat up 10 hours just adding a new feature to a program so I have to be careful with my time.

At the moment, my time is divided among the following areas (in no particular order):

1) learning a new set of programming skills so I can land a full time programming job
2) basic bookkeeping and administrative chores for Accursed Toys (I'm the president so there are those duties to perform)
3) be chauffeur to Jennifer who is unable to drive (I enjoy the outings, however it does take time)
4) plan and cook two meals a week for our household (kills a couple of evenings right there)
5) develop the next version of Otaku Mascot
6) Add categories to the Otaku Mascot web site
7) Add categories to the Kamishibai web site
8) Fix a sound problem with Kamishibai on certain systems
9) Finish the Boppin' update to Windows
10) Replace a hard drive in our LAN's file server
11) Play system administrator to the Otaku World server
12) Fill remaining time with various shows, online reading and forums, and sleep

Some things come and go on this list but it gives you a general idea of what I'm currently up to. I've the feeling I left something off this list but I can't place it. Oh well, it will surprise me later.


Post: Do you ever see yourself and Jennifer Diane Reitz teaming up to make another Kamishibai?
Stephen: I don't know. I do have in mind a story, "Althea and the Spider", but I haven't actually written anything down; it's all in my head at the moment. I have been pondering this one for many, many months, just waiting for the time when I can sit down and write it. I can't illustrate it but maybe Jennifer would do it. However, I have to write it first.

Jennifer also has, in the back of her mind, another Ika Takozushi story but we have never talked it over so who knows.

I have so much on my plate now that it's a wonder I have found the time for this interview.


Post: Any additional comments, concerns, or thoughts for us?
Stephen: Personally, I'm gratified that a program that I have created has allowed such a community to form around it. Oddly enough, I'm not an overly sociable person, which is part of the reason I wasn't active in the community at the beginning. I have tried to change that in the last six months by following the Kamishibai forum daily and trying to post Kamishibai stories at least once a week or so. And I read every story now. The hard part for me is remembering the handles of authors and who did what: as I said, there are over 280 stories on Otaku World and even I get confused as to who did what.

Dov, Jennifer, and I are committed to keeping Otaku World on the web and we believe Kamishibai is a strong part of Otaku World, even if Kisekae gets more hits <grin>. Kamishibai authors are unique in that not only do they have to express their ideas in pictures, but they have to use words, sounds, and music too. Kisekae and Otaku Mascots are primarily pictures with some sounds. Kamishibai uses not only pictures and sounds but words and music to convey a cohesive narrative. Kamishibai is about telling stories. And all you really need is a text editor and a paint program. Those who can create Kamishibai stories should feel good about themselves: this isn't simple point and click stuff. And the more you do it, the better you get.


Post: Thank You for your time!
Stephen: You are very welcome! Thank you for the opportunity!




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