Otaku USA Magazine
Mile High Anime

As Jeremy Pieta takes the stage, hundreds of young men and women clap, scream, and flail their arms. As he speaks, they’re caught on his every word. He leads the crowd in a chant and they respond in unison, like a well-oiled machine. Pieta is rock star.

For a weekend, at least.

Pieta is the president of Nan Desu Kan, Denver’s yearly anime convention. Boasting a 7,500 per-day attendee count, NDK is the biggest con in a 14-state radius. 2010 was its 14th year, and Pieta has been president for seven.

But it’s not just being president of the con that makes its attendees hoot and holler when Pieta takes the stage. He’s also an extremely charismatic guy. Tall, with a strong jaw and jet black hair, he looks like a young Josh Brolin, and he speaks at a maniacal clip, as if he can’t help but be excited to talk about the topic at hand—even during the waning hours of the con, when we sat down to dish about NDK’s past, present and future.

How’s this year been?

This year’s been really, really cool. We got 7,500 people in the door, which is fantastic. Everybody’s been playing nice, and we’ve been having a great time. We’re getting this down. Which is kind of strange. We’re looking around going, “is this getting easier? Well, no, but it’s finally kind of working out!”

How would you compare this year to the year you started as president?

Well, it’s about three times as large. It’s grown by an order of magnitude in every respect. It’s just like it’s always been, because we try to keep that NDK feel, but it’s just more.

You were in a different hotel back then.

Right. It was a great space, but we’ve had the population explode.

And now you’ve had to introduce an attendance cap for next year. Is that frustrating?

Very, yeah. One of the things we run into is cost for our attendees. We could move to the convention center downtown, but there are no attached hotels, parking becomes an issue… a kid who saves up all year to come to NDK only has a set amount of money, and if I hold it [here] at the Denver Marriott, he can come. If I move it downtown, it’s going to be tough for that kid. 7,500’s not bad. And if we keep it here, I can guarantee attendees a level of service I couldn’t elsewhere.

Your con, and cons around the country, continue to grow, while the anime industry itself has kind of taken a nosedive…

Well, I did Star Trek cons for years. When Trek faded for a while there, right before Next Generation, that’s when the con scene exploded. There’s one place everybody’s always going to be able to go and say, “hey, I’m still a fan of this.” Fandom never dies. It’s a spark you keep inside, and that’s what I aim to keep cultivating here.

Over half of your attendees are now under 18. Does that demographic shift make it a different experience from when you first took over?

Yes and no. Back when I started, the old guys were the guys who fansubbed, who grew up with Robotech and Galaxy Express 999. Then the new crowd came in with all the Pokemon stuff, and the old crowd’s reaction was, “bah, you kids get off my lawn!”

But that’s how it always is. The old crowd’s still here, and now the Pokemon kids do the same thing: “Bah, what’s this Pokemon Black and White? Back in my day, we only had 150!” It’s fascinating to watch.

You seem skeptical of sticking to one generation of fandom.

Yeah, I mean, Robotech is my bread and butter. I cut my teeth on big robots and jets. But I try to pick whatever I can from each generation, and not nail myself down to any one thing.

Your Japanese guest this year was Yasuhiro Imagawa, director of Giant Robo and G Gundam.

I’m ecstatic to have him. I’m sitting around eating a bagel with one of the legends of the field. It gets exceptionally surreal nowadays.

Do you worry about the demographic being younger, and not knowing Imagawa’s stuff?

A little bit, yes, but I see it as an opportunity to teach them. I say, “hey Pokemon kids, you don’t know Giant Robo? Be at this video room at this time, and I will show you Giant Robo!” And a whole new generation gets exposed. The demographic barrier is easy to shift as long as you’ve got good quality material, and that’s not hard to come by where Imagawa-san is concerned.

What’s a day in the con like for you?

I’m blessed to have an organization full of fantastic people that I don’t have to sit around and micromanage. So I get to walk around and make sure nothing’s burning down and everyone’s happy. It’s con weekend… if you don’t have a smile on your face, you’re not doing it right.

In comparison, what does a day look like in, say, March?

It takes roughly 18 months to plan a convention. So six months out of a year, we’re planning two at once, which is… fun. I’ve got a nine to five job on top of this. A lot of the bones of NDK, my wife [executive director Amanda Liebermann] does. I just sit here and look pretty (laughs).

You two got married at the con.

Yeah, a couple years ago we said, “hey, we love each other like crazy. Let’s do this.” It’s the one place where all our family and friends are at the same time. After closing ceremonies were done, we left all the NDK stuff up, the hotel made us a really awesome ice sculpture, and we got married on the main stage. This con is in my blood, in my relationships, it’s everywhere.

Safe to say you won’t be quitting anytime soon.

I surely hope not. I’d like to be doing this as long as I possibly can. This job is the dream of a small nerd growing up in Colorado. I would like to do this until I die.


Photos by Matt Schley

Matt Schley

Matt Schley (rhymes with "guy") lives in Tokyo, and has been OUSA's "man in Japan" since 2012. He's also written about anime and Japanese film for the Japan Times, Screen Daily and more.