Katsushi Ota is an editor at Japanese publisher Kodansha and the visionary behind the literary anthology magazine, Faust, noted for “light novels,” a popular Japanese format of illustrated novellas published in a small trim size. Faust is a four year old publication in Japan with a circulation of 65,000 that has been licensed and published in Taiwan and Korea. In August, 2008, Del Rey Manga will publish it in the U.S. Del Rey Manga director of licensing and acquisitions Mutsumi Miyazaki, said the U.S. Faust will feature exclusive interviews and stories selected for American readers. It will also feature illustrations by some of the most popular mangaka in the U.S., including such creators as Takeshi Obata (Death Note, Hikaru no Go), CLAMP (xxxholic, Tsubasa), and Ueda Hajime (FLCL). Ota visited the New York Anime Festival and spoke with PW Comics Week on the popularity of light novels, his vision of Faust, and the importance of pop culture in a post-modern world.

PW Comics Week: How popular is Faust in Japan?

Katsushi Ota: It’s unique, one of a kind. There are a couple of light novel anthologies by other magazine [publishers] but the stories in Faust, a lot of them [call into question] whether they should be considered as light novels. They’re very sophisticated. A lot of them [attract a] crossover demographic and use illustration. The writers I select for Faust are mostly winners of literary contests. That’s unlikely for other light novel authors in other magazines. Two writers in Faust have won Yukio Mishima awards [named after the late acclaimed Japanese novelist].

PWCW: What kinds of stories are featured in Faust?

KO: They address the consciousness of adolescence, the self-consciousness.

PWCW: So Faust is for a young sophisticated reader?

KO: Yes, exactly. It is for smart readers who are too smart. They’re much more sensitive than other kids so they feel a lot of things and can understand literature. For them, an anthology like Faust will be well received. It’s something they need in their life.

PWCW: What was your vision for the magazine and has it changed?

KO: The Japanese literary scene has been drastically changing in the past 5-6 years. For about the past 20 years various mystery novels have been published, so there has been a lot of activity in that movement. Among those mystery writers, many have been influenced by Japanese pop culture. You can see it in their writing. I wanted to create a venue for those kinds of writers in Japan. It was exceptionally successful, more so than anyone at Kodansha imagined, even myself. It’s primarily popular among male readers. I’m hoping it will be different in the U.S., that female readers will read it. The biggest change has been that at first it was targeted to a local audience but now I want to spread it to the rest of the world.

PWCW: Is this new international vision reflected in the magazine?

KO: Yes. For example, vol. 6 [in Japan] came out shortly after the Taiwanese version so vol. 6 featured an interview with the Taiwan president and editor-in-chief of the Taiwan publisher. Vol 7 comes out in March 2008, and we’re doing a special article about up and coming artists in China.

PWCW: Are the Taiwan and Korean editions the same content but licensed and translated or is it adapted for a different audience?

KO: For the Korean and Taiwanese versions, we left it up to [the Korean and Taiwanese editors] to pick their own editorial. We ask that they use the existing materials but for the Korean version, about 30-40% is their own Korean material. It’s a partnership. But the biggest challenge is to have someone who is passionate about this material. For the U.S. version, I feel that without Dallas [Middaugh, associate publisher], it wouldn’t have been possible. I feel grateful.

PWCW: Do you set themes for the writers to address in their stories?

KO: I choose writers who I like and respect, and whose material I respect and I ask them to write something specific. For example in vol 4 of the Japan edition, we had a sleep-over field trip with the writers. I chose five writers and locked them up in hotel in Okinawa for four days, 3 nights and then had them write consecutive stories. So one would start the story and then pass it along to the next writer. Within those four days, the story was written in real time. Then we broke out their schedule and you can see which writer only slept four hours, etc. For another project, I had the theme of coming to a big city, a capital; for example, coming to Tokyo. Other times, I just ask a writer to write about something and leave it up to them.

PWCW: You have some well known manga creators drawing the illustrations for Faust. Are they also fans of the writers they are paired with?

Del Rey's Mutsumi Miyazaki (l.) and Ota

KO:It depends. Yun Kouga, one of the best selling mangaka, accepted right away because she’s a fan of Faust. For xxxholic, Okawasan, leader of CLAMP, came to me because she wanted to have [the manga] xxxholic novelized. That’s how we were able to excerpt it in Faust. We are excerpting the first chapter of the novel in the U.S. edition. Other illustrators may not have been as familiar with Faust, but as soon as they see it, usually they say yes, because the book is so good looking and has good art in it. They feel encouraged to work on Faust

PWCW: You also started the Kodansha Box project, which Del Rey also plans to publish here. Can you tell us a little about it?

KO: They’re novels and manga that have already been published as tankobon [serialized manga collected as a book] and then we republish it [in a boxed edition.] It’s everything in a box: literature criticism, philosophy, information technology. We published Hiroki Azuma’s Collection of Information Environment, a series of free books from the Literature Society Dialogues. He studied Jacques Derrida. [Azuma-san] is the most famous post-modernist in Japan. Ueda Hajime’s [manga] FLCL is also a Kodansha Box book. I like the idea of opening a box to read your favorite book, so that's how I did it. It's loved by anime, manga fans, and gamers in Japan. [The American manga influenced comics artist] Fred Gallagher's MegaTokyo [published by DC/CMX] will be a featured book of Kbox [in Japan.]

PWCW: What do you think of the growing popularity of manga and the interest in Japanese pop culture in the U.S. and in in the world?

KO: I don’t think it’s something that I can define as good or bad. [I think] it’s about how people utilize it from here on. As a Japanese, I’m pleased to see the culture from my own country accepted and becoming popular. I see it as such a positive thing. With manga, with Faust, Japanese readers and U.S. readers now have something in common. To be able to have a similar experience from the books I create, that’s a special thing.