May 30, 2020

dLibrary Japan (update)

When I first started streaming with Netflix, I hoped it would continue to build its library of live-action Japanese content. Alas, Netflix is the latest service to discover that there simply isn't a big audience for localized Jdrama in North America.

So while Netflix has been busily licensing anime movies and series, and producing anime content for its Netflix Originals catalog, it hasn't added any new live-action scripted Japanese programming. That means dLibrary Japan has the market mostly to itself.

Over the past year, dLibrary Japan has taken that responsibility seriously, evolving from a usable but clunky beta site into a fully functioning streaming provider.

At the end of May, dLibrary Japan revamped the website, making much needed modifications to the Continue Watching list and significantly improving content discovery. The only critical thing left on the to-do list is to move the new features to the app.

A few bugs remain. The "remember me" login checkbox doesn't remember me for very long. And to get picky, "details" is spelled wrong on the website.

There is still no way to search the website but they've added scads of genre categories and subcategories, making it easy to narrow down selections. You can always search the catalog using the app.

One of the new categories is subtitled content. Though it has less than two dozen titles, five of them are NHK Taiga dramas. At fifty or so episodes each, these historical epics alone might be worth a subscription if you haven't seen them before.

dLibrary Japan is mostly Japanese-only (you can navigate the site in English or Japanese), and is acquiring that Japanese-only content at a brisk clip, adding several new series or seasons a week. I'm looking forward to seeing how the site will grow in the future.

dLibrary Japan is supported on most browsers. There are apps for Android smartphones and tablets, Apple iPhone and iPad, Apple TV, and Roku.

Related posts

dLibrary Japan
Netflix in Japanese
TV Japan and NHK World

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May 23, 2020

Hills of Silver Ruins (4)

I've posted chapter 4 (book 1) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

The same way the president of the United States is also commander in chief of the armed forces and the chief executive, the Taiho (台輔) or Saiho (宰輔) also serves as chief advisor to the emperor, province lord of the capital province, and commander of the Provincial Guard, which constitutes half of the Imperial Army.

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May 16, 2020

Hills of Silver Ruins (3)

I've posted chapter 3 (book 1) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

The kanji compounds the author uses for throwing knives (飛刀) and concealed weapons (暗器) are derived from Chinese martial arts. Both words show up in Chinese dictionaries but not most Japanese dictionaries, though the latter one does have a Japanese Wikipedia entry. Even so, the meanings of the words are pretty apparent from the kanji alone.

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May 09, 2020

Rifle is Beautiful

Sports is the most enduring genre in manga and anime. With the conflict built into the narrative, athletic competition is an always reliable source of story material. Baseball has long been the king of this particular hill, but the genre has tackled everything from mahjong (Saki) to archery (Tsurune) to bicycle touring (Long Riders).

And just when you think maybe all of those permutations have been exhausted, competitive karuta makes a brilliant contribution with Chihayafuru. And shogi becomes the center of the masterful melodrama, March Comes in like a Lion.

With both mainstream team and individual sports, significant parts of the story are often fashioned out of the play-by-play. Even Yowamuchi Pedal (bicycle racing) and Chihayafuru spend multiple episodes on a single competition, at each step along the way diving into the winning strategies of the players.

But with archery, there's not a whole lot to make of an arrow striking a target. Either it does or it doesn't (though roster order apparently matters). So Tsurune focuses more on the mental than the muscle, starting out by giving the protagonist a bad case of target panic as a source of the conflict (along with a bunch of teenage angst and a family tragedy to boot).

Even archery is more action-oriented than firearm "bullseye" or "range" shooting, where the "objective is to score points by hitting a round shooting target as close to the center as possible with slow precision fire." When the shooter is doing everything right, the only thing that moves is the trigger finger, and imperceptively.

Rifle is Beautiful (distributed in North America as Chidori RSC) is about a high school shooting team, so it could go down the melodrama route (like Tsurune) or slice of life. It takes the latter approach, what I call the "cute girls doing interesting things" genre, though more competitive aspects do emerge in the concluding arc at the national high school championships.

Now, given that Japan has some of the most restrictive gun control laws in the universe, the obvious question is what kind of rifles they are shooting.

Two of the girls in the series participate in air gun competitions. Doing so, we are told, is expensive. In order to purchase an air rifle (as opposed to less regulated airsoft and paintball weapons), you have to present a certificate obtained by attending a gun safety lecture and pass a test at a local police station. Thereafter, the certificate has to be renewed every three years.

So the emphasis of Rifle is Beautiful is on "beam."

Not a laser beam. The light source used in a beam rifle is the same kind of xenon lamp used in electronic camera flash units. The result is a weapon that literally couldn't hurt a fly (unless you smacked the fly with the butt of the rifle). A well-hit line drive, by contrast, is seriously dangerous. Not to mention a bow and arrow.

The target of a beam rifle is a photoelectric grid that feeds the "hits" to an electronic display that generates the sound and calculates the score. From a gadget point of view, this is totally cool technology. As an extracurricular activity, it means a shooting range can be set up in a high school gym. Of course, it helps if the high school has already purchased the equipment.

Not many have, so the entire Tokyo regionals can be held in a high school gym too.

Hikari Kokura chose to attend Chidori High School because it did have the equipment. According to the well-established formula, she has to scrape together enough members to form a club. That turns out not be much of a challenge either. There isn't a whole lot of drama in Rifle is Beautiful. It's more about the how, what, and why of the sport.

Hikari gets a bit of a character arc at the end, but as with series like Laid Back Camp and Long Riders, your entertainment value will depend on how much you enjoy the subject matter and the characters and the comic relief (supplied by the club's scatterbrained faculty advisor), and less the threadbare plot. As a low-stress entry in the slice of life genre, it worked for me.

Here's footage from the 2019 high school championships at the Tsutsuga Shooting Range in Hiroshima Prefecture. It's been held there ever year since 2006 so you will recognize the setting from the series. If you wonder why the girls are walking rather stiffly in their uniforms, the series explains that as well.

Treat Rifle is Beautiful as a promotional video and you should have a good time. It's been officially endorsed by the National Rifle Association of Japan (first and foremost a sports organization). All the power to them if the series can excite more interest in what is, at heart, a very Zen activity.

Related links

Chihayafuru (CR HD)
Laid Back Camp
Long Riders
March Comes in like a Lion (CR NF)
Rifle is Beautiful
Tsurune (CR HD)
Yowamuchi Pedal
A title by any other name

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May 02, 2020

Hills of Silver Ruins (2)

I've posted chapter 2 (book 1) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

The ritual of petitioning the Riboku tree for a child resembles the custom of writing a wish on a paper strip (tanzaku) and tying it to a bamboo branch during the Tanabata festival.

Kijuu (騎獣) are domesticated youjuu ("magical animals") captured in the Yellow Sea (actually an island). Like a pegasus, kijuu can fly or leap great distances. Like horses, the best ones cost a small fortune.

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April 25, 2020

Hills of Silver Ruins (1)

I've posted chapter 1 (book 1) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

The destruction of Zui'un Temple resembles the Siege of Mount Hiei by Oda Nobunaga in 1571. At the end of the siege, the Enryaku-ji temple complex was razed to the ground. The assassination of Oda Nobunaga in 1579 by Akechi Mitsuhide, one of his top commanders, also strikes a familiar chord.

Ryou'un Mountain (凌雲山) or "skyscraping mountain" is a category of mountain whose summit reaches the Sea of Clouds. Each province has at least one Mount Ryou'un that houses the imperial or provincial palaces and the government offices.

The Rishi (里祠) is the sacred building in the center of every city where the Riboku (里木) tree is enshrined. See chapter 53 of Shadow of the Moon for Rakushun's explanation of the role the Riboku plays in daily life.

Wizards of the Air (飛仙) who achieve their status through their own effort are listed in the Registry of Wizards on Mount Hou. Wizards of the Air can also be appointed by the sovereign and have an imperial title but do not serve in the government. They are listed in the Registry of Wizards of that kingdom.

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April 18, 2020

A title by any other name

The anime industry in Japan now takes in almost as much income from overseas markets as it does from domestic distribution. One logical consequence of this international growth is that anime studios are increasingly incorporating English titles into the opening credits of original Japanese productions.

The best known example to date is probably your name. For the North American release, all they had to do was flip the font sizes.

Besides keeping publicity efforts inside and outside Japan on the same page (a constant challenge for news sites like ANN is what to call a new series announced in Japan but not officially licensed), this is a clever way for writers and artists to exert control over their content.

The most basic approach is to translate nothing and instead transliterate the original Japanese into its romaji equivalents, as with anime like Chihayafuru and Hinamatsuri and movies like Akira Kurosawa's Ran.

Taking a step up in complexity is a straightforward (if abbreviated) translation of the Japanese title. Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away is the last word in the full Japanese title, Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi. More recent examples include Sound! Euphonium and Children of the Whales.

A title can double up on the meaning by addressing one aspect in Japanese and another in English. Ghost in the Shell, which Masamune Shirow adapted from Arthur Koestler's philosophical treatise, The Ghost in the Machine, is titled "Mobile Armored Riot Police" in Japanese.

And then there's the uniquely Japanese approach that creates the English title first then transliterates it back into katakana for the Japanese title.
To be sure, it has long been common practice for Japanese distributors of Hollywood movies (especially action flicks with plots that can be summed up in a poster) to phonetically transliterate the English titles into katakana. Congratulations! You can read Japanese.

As Brian Ashcraft points out, "One thing Hollywood continually gets wrong [is that] when it tries to recreate Japan, it puts everything in Japanese, which simply isn't done in reality." English is ubiquitous in public spaces, though not necessarily the English that native speakers of the language are used to.

English is a required subject in Japan, and Japanese students are very good at mastering the subject well enough to pass the tests. But not much beyond that. The result is a working comprehension of English that is, well, quirky. The kind of quirky that can make the end results all the more striking.

I mean, it's hard to imagine even an imaginative native English copywriter coming up with titles like Made in Abyss, Angel Beats! and No Guns Life. Again, the Japanese titles simply transliterate the English into katakana.

And here's one more.

Wait a minute, what happened to the North American release?

Rifle is Beautiful is a great title. Chidori RSC is utterly opaque. It stands for "Chidori High School Rifle Shooting Club," which you would never figure out without watching it first. I initially assumed that "Chidori" was the name of the main character.

I can only imagine that Sentai Filmworks thought Rifle is Beautiful sounded like an NRA bumper sticker and wanted to avoid catching any flak about it. Because, you know, somebody might get triggered. I do understand the caution, but this series is as harmless as the rifles the girls shoot.

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April 11, 2020

Twelve Kingdoms glossary

I number the chapters sequentially for file management purposes. The part + chapter format used in the books is shown in [brackets] at the beginning of each chapter (except for the first chapter in a section).

I will be adding to and amending this abridged glossary as I proceed. Corrections and clarifications to the translation and the glossary are welcome.

Administrative Divisions

Administrative divisions in the Twelve Kingdoms closely follow those of China, as illustrated in this Wikipedia table.
Kingdom Emperor or empress Comprised of nine provinces.
Province Province lord Or marquis.
Comprised of 50,000 households or four prefectures.
Prefecture Governor Comprised of five shires.
Shire Administrator Or county.
Town Mayor The smallest walled community. Villages may be surrounded by palisades.
Village Village manager and superintendent The superintendent runs the rike and advises the village manager.
Hamlet Comprised of eight families.

General Terminology

The Divine Decrees (太綱) are a fusion of constitutional and natural law. Laws promulgated by the emperor cannot deviate from the Divine Decrees. Violations have drastic physical consequences. The most common manifestations of imperial wrongdoing are that youma proliferate and the kirin falls ill (shitsudou).

If the emperor does not mend his ways and the kirin dies from the shitsudou, the emperor will die too.

Some repercussions are even more immediate. An emperor who invades another kingdom—regardless of the reasons—will die almost at once. At the end of Shadow of the Moon, Youko enlists the help of the Imperial En in reclaiming the throne of Kei. She does this legally by deputizing him as a soldier in her army.

In The Shore in Twilight, Youko recruits emperors and empresses and their kirin from around the Twelve Kingdoms to figure out how to assist Taiki without going against the Divine Decrees. This proves to be a difficult but not insurmountable problem.

The gengou (元号) or nengou (年号) dating system begins with an era name created specifically for the reign of that emperor. The year the enthronement counts as year one. The era name Youko chooses is Sekiraku (赤楽), meaning the color red and the first character in Rakushun's name.

Hourai (蓬莱) is a mythical paradise derived from the Chinese legend of Penglai. It is also a classical geographical name for Taiwan, which in the Twelve Kingdoms has come to mean Japan.

Kijuu (騎獣) are domesticated youjuu. Like a pegasus, kijuu can fly or leap great distances. The ki (騎) refers to equestrian activities. The juu (獣) means an animal. Like horses, the best ones cost a small fortune.

The kirin (麒麟) is a Chinese unicorn. Born on Mount Hou in the Yellow Sea, the kirin hearkens to the Divine Will and chooses the sovereign. If the kirin dies, so does the sovereign, and the throne will remain empty until another kirin is born on Mount Hou and grows old enough to choose a new ruler.

The same way the president of the United States is also commander in chief of the armed forces and the chief executive, the Taiho (台輔) or Saiho (宰輔) also serves as chief advisor to the emperor, province lord of the capital province, and commander of the Provincial Guard, which constitutes half of the Imperial Army.

A rike or rika (里家) is a foster home and school for orphans and the aged that also serves as a community center. The rike is run by a superintendent (閭胥).

The Rikkan (六官) literally means "six ministries." It is the equivalent of the cabinet: Administration (天官), Education (地官), Protocol (春官), Defense (夏官), Justice (秋官), Public Works (冬官). Also known as the Ministries of Heaven, Earth, Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter.

The rishi (里祠) is the sacred building in a city or town where the riboku (里木) tree is enshrined. The ritual of petitioning the riboku for a child resembles the custom of writing a wish on a paper strip (tanzaku) and tying it to a branch of bamboo during the Tanabata festival.

Ryou'un Mountain (凌雲山) or "skyscraping mountain" is a category of mountain whose summit reaches the Sea of Clouds. Each province has at least one Mount Ryou'un that houses the imperial or provincial palaces and the government offices. The mountain itself can have a different name.

A shoku (蝕) is a wormhole between two parallel universes. Or as Rakushun explains in Shadow of the Moon, "[A] shoku is when here and there get tangled up together." Shoku can be engineered on purpose by a wizard or kirin, as with Youko, but also occur at random, as with Suzu in A Thousand Leagues of Wind.

Shoku cannot occur above the Sea of Clouds or in the Yellow Sea.

A meishoku (鳴蝕) is a shoku triggered by a kirin in distress. Even small shoku are highly destructive. Natural shoku can occur silently and imperceptibly. Kirin and their shirei can travel back and forth to Japan and China with few side effects. But a high-status individual like an emperor will cause a massive shoku.

Youjuu (妖獣) are animals from the Yellow Sea that can be captured and domesticated. The you (妖) refers to their magical properties.

Youma (妖魔) are creatures from the Yellow Sea that usually emerge during a kingdom's decline and fall. The ma (魔) refers to things of an evil or demonic nature. Youma cannot be domesticated but can be subjugated by the kirin.

Wizards of the Air (飛仙) who achieve their status through their own effort are listed in the Registry of Wizards (仙籍) on Mount Hou. Wizards of the Air can also be appointed by the sovereign and have an imperial title but do not serve in the government.

Wizards of the Earth (地仙) are government officials who have risen high enough in the civil service to have their names listed in the Registry of Wizards. Like Wizards of the Air who are appointed, they are listed in the Registry of Wizards of that kingdom.

Wizards of the Air and Earth who are delisted resume their mortal lifespans from the point when they were appointed.

Emperors and empresses have a separate Registry of the Gods (神籍) on Mount Hou and cannot be delisted, though they can be killed by decapitation and will die if the Taiho dies. A sovereign who abdicates will die soon thereafter.

The Yellow Sea (黄海) is an island in the middle of the Twelve Kingdoms. Ringed by the impenetrable Adamantine Mountains (金剛山), it is accessible through four massive gates only at specific times during year. The Yellow Sea is home to the youma and youjuu. Mount Hou (蓬山) is one of five holy mountains at its center.

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April 04, 2020

Last name first

On March 30, NHK World's foreign-language services and websites reverted to the traditional format for Japanese names. This follows a policy adopted six months ago by the Japanese government to prefer the surname-first style in Latin script documents.

The surname-last name order for Japanese names in Latin script came into fashion during the Meiji era, when Japan aligned itself with the West. After 150 years, the Japanese government decided it wasn't its job to do the orthographic flip-flopping anymore.

Japan is actually catching up to the rest of Asia in this regard, as surname-first in Latin script publications has long been standard practice for Chinese and Korean names. Chinese President Xi Jinping, for example. And South Korean President Moon Jae-in. But not Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo would like that to change. This update to the NHK World style guide is one small step.

Incidentally, when names originally written in Latin script are transliterated into katakana, the surname order is preserved. So "Brad Pitt" is still "Buraddo Pitto" (ブラッド・ピット). Following the cultural conventions of the source material is a good rule. Though this rule can cause confusion.

Hosts and anchors with Japanese names who were not born in Japan or are not Japanese citizens may stick with the surname-last format. On domestic NHK broadcasts, such names would be written in katakana, not kanji, making the distinction clear. But that clue gets lost on NHK World.

So some Japanese names on NHK World are surname-first while others are surname-last, leaving it up to the viewer to guess why.

In my own writing, I'm all over the map. Accustomed to rendering historical names surname-first, that's what I did in Serpent of Time. In the contemporary Fox & Wolf, I reverted to surname-last, as I do in the Boy Detectives Club novels.

It comes down to trying to anticipate what the reader expects, and western readers generally expect surname-last. Then again, it might not be a bad idea to start changing those expectations.

A related style conundrum are long and double vowels. In Serpent of Time and Fox & Wolf, I used Hepburn romanization. In the Boy Detectives Club novels, I don't bother. In the Twelve Kingdoms, I transliterate the vowels as they would be written in hiragana, which is my linguistic preference.

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March 27, 2020

The rising ebook in Japan

For a country with such a post-modern reputation, Japan loves paper, especially paper books and paper money. The ¥10,000 note, the equivalent of a $100 bill, is used and accepted everywhere.

Cash in circulation in Japan amounts to over 20 percent of GDP, significantly higher than the United States (8.3 percent), China (9.5 percent), or the Eurozone (10.7 percent).

Recent trends suggest that Japanese may be embracing electronic publishing faster than they are embracing electronic money. The ebook in Japan gained significant momentum in 2019.

According to the All Japan Magazine and Book Publisher's and Editor's Association, while print sales fell for the fifteenth straight year, sales of digital manga shot up 29.5 percent. Digital book publishing rose 8.7 percent. The entire digital market was up 23.9 percent. The overall publishing market even saw a small increase.

Physical video media also took a hit, with the Japan Video Software Association reporting that the market for physical media declined almost 11 percent from 2019 to 2019. Blu-Ray sales fell one percent while DVD sales were down 20 percent.

Like the ebook, Japan is also embracing the convenience and lower costs of streaming. Netflix, Hulu (wholly owned in Japan by Nippon TV), and Amazon Prime are making their presence known in a big way. Even NHK is jumping on the bandwagon, and will launch a domestic live streaming service in April.

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March 19, 2020

dLibrary Japan (content)

As promised back in September 2019, dLibrary Japan is building its catalog at an impressive rate, adding several new titles a week. The lack of content is no longer an issue. Whether you stick with it will depend on what you make of their curated selection so far and on your willingness to watch mostly non-localized content.

Two big reasons to sign up for dLibrary Japan are NHK's two flagship series, the weekly Taiga historical drama and the daily Asadora serial. It'd be nice if they showed up on a predictably timetable after their domestic runs, but the licensing windows are all over the map. Check the "End Date" before getting too invested.

dLibrary Japan has a good selection of six recent Taiga series, including three of the most interesting woman-centered stories you'll find anywhere. And they are subtitled!

Go follows the three nieces of the warlord Oda Nobunaga as they play a major role in shaping the end of the Warring States period, two of them marrying into clans on opposite sides of the conflict.

Atsuhime examines the life of Tenshoin, the adopted daughter of the province lord of Satsuma. Hoping to become the power behind the throne, he arranged a marriage between her and Tokugawa Iesada, the third-to-last shogun.

Yae's Sakura is about a markswoman who fought on the side of the shogunate during the Boshin War that launched the Meiji Restoration. Her firearm of choice was a Spencer repeating rifle.

And then for a view of the events depicted in Atsuhime and Yae's Sakura from the perspective of Japan's Alexander Hamilton, Ryomaden follows the life of Sakamoto Ryoma, who, like Hamilton, tragically died a violent death before his time.

Asadora serials include Ume-chan Sensei, about a girl who attends medical school and becomes a doctor during the Occupation. Toto Nee-chan is a biopic about Shizuko Ohashi (1920–2013), who in 1948 co-founded Notebook for Living, a home improvement magazine still in print.

Though Oshin was the most-watched television program in Japanese history, its Gothic Perils of Pauline plot leaves me disinclined to slog through it. During the 1980s (it debuted in 1983), Oshin became a synonym for perseverance in the face of neverending hostility and opposition.

The cheerfully upbeat Toto Nee-chan is more my speed, and it's been nice to revive my old TV Japan habit of watching a fifteen-minute Asadora episode every night.

Along with the Taiga and Asadora dramas, the scripted content includes family and food dramas, and an eclectic collection of police procedurals and medical dramas, such as the preternaturally cute Aoi Miyazaki playing a teenage super-sleuth in Mobile Detective and Ryoko Yonekura channeling Gregory House in Doctor X.

Mobile Detective is worth watching simply as a reminder of what "cutting edge" smart phone technology was like a mere fifteen years ago.

dLibrary Japan has the first three seasons of Midnight Diner, an ensemble series that takes place at an all-night hole-in-the wall restaurant (Netflix has seasons 4 and 5). And speaking of food dramas, dLibrary Japan has six seasons of Solitary Gourmet, pretty much the salaryman version of Wakakozake.

On a quirkier note is Room Laundering (think "money laundering"), which arises out of Japanese superstitions about renting an apartment in which the previous occupant died. Miko's job is to move in, figure out why the ghost haunting the place is hanging around, and get it to move on. The real estate version of Ghost Whisperer.

For whatever reason it was shot in a 21:9 aspect ratio. I really don't see the point of that (I don't see the point of shooting anything in 21:9 except as a special effect).

There are a handful of documentaries and talk shows, such as Matsuko no Shiranai Sekai ("The World Unknown To Matsuko"), and the Wildlife and Great Nature documentary series from NHK. Plus a cute travel show in which Tetsuro Degawa rides a electric scooter until the battery is dead and then bums a charge from the locals.

In the movie category, dLibrary Japan has the entire Tsuribaka Nisshi ("Diary of a Fishing Nut") franchise. Starring the delightful character actor Toshiyuki Nishida, this film series follows the adventures of a salaryman at a construction company who will concoct any excuse to go fishing. And still manages to save the day.

The handful of anime titles on dLibrary Japan are aimed at kids, such as Anpanman, a long-running kid's franchise (1500 episodes and counting) hugely popular in Japan and practically nowhere else. (Tim Lyu explains why.)

So far, there's more than enough to keep me interested. If dLibrary Japan keeps adding new programming at the current rate, it will become the unquestioned home of live-action Japanese television in North America. Though I'm afraid it won't be able to significantly expand beyond the TV Japan and Nippon TV audiences without more localization.

Related links

dLibrary Japan (background)
dLibrary Japan (user experience)
dLibrary Japan
dLibrary Japan Roku app
NHK World
TV Japan

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March 12, 2020

dLibrary Japan (user experience)

dLibrary Japan has been a work in process since it launched and still is. But, hey, that only means there's lots of room to grow! And it's improving at a reassuring pace.

To start with, the picture is great. dLibrary Japan streams HD video, much better quality than I ever had with Dish. The Roku app is snappy and easy to navigate. Though Roku replay button doesn't work, the "skip forward/back" implementation of FF and rewind works better than the typical VCR-style controls.

For example, HIDIVE uses the standard 2x/4x/8x/16x/32x FF/rewind UI, but especially with longer videos, its 32x isn't nearly fast enough. Also unlike HIDIVE, the dLibrary Japan login page has a "remember me" checkbox. Unfortunately, like HIDIVE, it doesn't remember you even when it's checked.

The home page borrows from the Netflix interface (a streaming standard of sorts) though it's a rudimentary implementation. There are a half dozen genre categories but no search function. Seasons from the same series often aren't grouped together. The queue can be bookmarked but not the landing pages for shows.

The Roku app employs a "Windows 8" design approach, with big blocky icons. The catalog can be searched from the app, giving the app better discoverability than the website. The biggest missing feature is the lack of a viewing history or any way to keep track of your progress in a series from the app or website queue.

In order to automatically queue up episodes in order, you have to turn on Auto Play in Settings and launch episodes from Continue Watching. It's a workaround that works well enough most of the time, but these history and queue issues are currently the Roku app's most annoying bugs.

Though with apps like Netflix suffering from feature overload, there is something refreshing about the sheer simplicity of the interface. In any case, along with better progress tracking in the app and a search function on the website, the genre list needs more subcategories, such as for the Taiga and Asadora dramas.

Considering how much the NHK World app has improved, with the VOD catalog and program guide now accessible from the app, I expect dLibrary Japan to keep pace as well. Perhaps NHK Cosmomedia can take the lessons learned from NHK World and dLibrary Japan and create a streaming triple play with TV Japan.

Related links

dLibrary Japan (background)
dLibrary Japan (content)
dLibrary Japan
dLibrary Japan Roku app
NHK World
TV Japan

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March 05, 2020

dLibrary Japan (background)

Long after politicians stopped worrying about Japan as an economic threat (and started worrying about China instead), Japanese popular culture is gaining an increasing mind share around the world, including in China. And yet getting access to Japanese live-action entertainment remains an uphill climb in North America.

Unlike anime, its own genre category on streaming sites such as Hulu, Tubi, and Netflix, Jdrama hasn't found a significant audience outside of Asia. Netflix has ten times as many Korean live-action dramas as Japanese live-actions dramas. DirecTV offers just three Japanese channels and over a dozen Korean channels.

Demographics has a lot to do with this. Korean-Americans (1.8 million) outnumber Japanese-Americans (1.4 million). Korean immigration peaked in the 1980s while Japanese immigration peaked at the end of the 19th century. The large home market for Japanese studios also lessens the need to compete abroad with Hollywood.

Japanese dramas and "unscripted" content (news, talk, and reality shows) are more popular across Asia, where Fuji TV distributes through Alibaba. Hulu/Japan is wholly owned by Nippon TV (the highest-rated network in Japan) and reaches 19 Asian markets.

The Big Three (Crunchyroll, Funimation, HIDIVE) keep their anime offerings up-to-date, and simulcast new series every season. But when it comes to live-action titles, "new" means released in the last decade. Over the past year, Crunchyroll has aggressively pruned its live-action catalog (once the largest) to two dozen titles.

Netflix is the only streaming service actively increasing the number of localized non-anime listings. Alas, little of the content on its Japanese service (like all of the Tora-san movies) is available in North America, where most of the live-action series are "Netflix Originals" rather than content from the domestic networks.

As a result, the only legal way to stay up-to-date with Jdrama has been TV Japan (via Comcast and DirecTV) and Nippon TV (via DirecTV). TV Japan carries a curated selection of shows from NHK and the commercial networks, scheduling episodes soon after being broadcast and some within a few hours. News is carried live.

It can do this because, aside from Cool Japan, sumo, and one nightly news program, TV Japan (and Nippon TV) localize almost none of the content. In language acquisition terms, TV Japan and Nippon TV are "immersive." You experience the content the same way you would in Japan (unfortunately sans most of the domestic commercials).

dLibrary Japan now offers that experience as a streaming option.

If you are serious about learning Japanese, a necessary step is immersing yourself in a wide variety of Japanese programming (including Radio Japan). If culture is your primary interest, NHK World is an accessible guide (and includes news and sumo). It's free, mostly in English, and along with streaming, broadcasts OTA in many markets.

NHK World even carries the occasional scripted show, like Home Sweet Tokyo, an amusing educational sitcom about an Englishman who moves to Tokyo with his family to live with his widowed father-in-law.

You can (and should) watch a lot of subtitled anime. But for a true immersion experience and access to a largest catalog of live-action Japanese television available to audiences in North America, the only legal streaming solution is dLibrary Japan from NHK Cosmomedia (which also distributes TV Japan and NHK World).

When it first debuted, dLibrary Japan was full of promise but little substance. Its catalog was threadbare and it had none of the major apps. But at the end of September 2019, dLibrary Japan gave its home page a much needed makeover and announced that "New programs will be available every week from October!"

It has followed through with that promise. Along with the Google Play and Apple TV apps, dLibrary Japan added Roku support at the end of January 2020. Now they're getting serious.

At $9.99/month, dLibrary Japan is a dollar more than Netflix's lowest cost tier and two dollars more than Crunchyroll, both of which have bigger catalogs (by orders of magnitude), so I count it as a "premium" provider.

But let's compare and contrast the streaming services. I paid $41 (total) a month for TV Japan from Dish. When TV Japan left Dish for Comcast and DirecTV, the cost for the most basic international package including TV Japan almost doubled. That's when I cut the cord. Here's what I'm paying now.

Netflix $8.99/month $107.88/year
Crunchyroll $7.99/month $79.99/year
Funimation $5.99/month $59.99/year
HIDIVE $4.99/month $47.99/year
dLibrary Japan $9.99/month $119.88/year
NHK World free

The yearly total comes to $34.64/month ($37.95 month-to-month). A ginormous amount of content for six bucks less than what I paid for TV Japan on Dish, and a third the price of the full Japanese package (TV Japan, Nippon TV, NECO movie channel) from DirecTV. That's the big difference that streaming can make.

Related links

dLibrary Japan (user experience)
dLibrary Japan (content)
dLibrary Japan
dLibrary Japan Roku app
NHK World Roku app
Nippon TV and NECO

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February 27, 2020

Dragon Pilot

Based on the manga created by Toshinao Aoki and Studio Bones, the animation in Dragon Pilot brings to mind the comic strip art of Bill Watterson. The premise of Dragon Pilot as well is the crazy kind of gross but hilarious and yet clever idea that Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes would come up with.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the world (and most Japanese), a select few of Japan's military aircraft, including an F-15J and an F-2 (Mitsubishi's made-in-Japan version of the F-16), are dragons disguised to look like fighter jets.

Hisone Amakasu is a rookie airman at the Japan Air Self-Defense Force Gifu Air Base. One day out of the blue she learns she has passed a "qualification" (she wasn't aware of) and is summarily transferred to a huge hanger way off in the corner of the base that no one seems to know about—except for an odd old woman who pushes a food cart around the base.

When Hisone finally finds the hanger, she walks in and is confronted by a huge dragon (she later names "Masotan") that promptly eats her.

The ground crew is delighted. It's been a while since a pilot passed muster with this particular OTF (an "Organic Transformed Flyer," as the military labels them). You see, the pilot doesn't ride atop the dragon like a horse. The dragon swallows the pilot, who "flies" the dragon from its guts. And when the flight is over, regurgitates her back out.

And, yes, the pilots have to wear special flight suits to keep from getting digested.

Needless to say, the dragon has a lot of discretion about who gets swallowed, and some, like Masotan, can get picky. The dragons are perceptive about the personalities of their pilots. They can even pick up mechanical issues with the real F-15Js they fly with (via the heads-up display in the helmets the pilots wear). But they don't talk.

It's eat or don't eat. Once they've formed an attachment, the one thing that really gives a dragon an upset stomach is his pilot forming a romantic relationship with another human being (which reminds me a similar plot device in My Zhime). No surprise, then, that the girls who make the best "D-Pilots" are not very socially adept.

For all its inherent silliness, Dragon Pilot raises fascinating questions about choice and free will. Hisone got something she didn't know she wanted. Nao wants something she can't get. Elle got what she didn't want instead of what she did. Moriyama gave up what she wanted and walked away to happily make another life for herself.

As Hisone tells Okonogi, a member of her ground crew and also, by family lineage (not something he had a lot of choice about either), a Shinto priest, "It's always best when the things you like and the things decided for you are in agreement."

That religious angle is no small matter. One of the old gods of Japan is a whale-sized monster, literally the size of a small island. It briefly comes out of hibernation every seventy-four years. The job of the dragon pilots is to escort it to a new resting place before it goes all Godzilla on Japan, and put it to bed with an ancient Shinto ritual.

The old school ritual required one of the miko attendants to stay behind in the "belly of the whale," so to speak. As far as Hisone is concerned, that is very much not okay. As it turns out, the food cart lady is the last living member of her squadron from the last time, when her reaction was the same as Hisone's.

In Calvin and Hobbes style, Hisone figures out an unlikely solution. It's a credit to the writing that the series manages to take these serious turns—and turn back again—without spoiling the comedic mood created earlier or making light of the dramatic decisions that Hisone faces (but be sure to stick through the final closing credits).

Masotan ultimately gets a character arc too, which suggests that perhaps the dragons will figure out how to compromise on the whole personal boundaries thing, and not force their pilots into the kind of all-or-nothing choice that Moriyama was left with. We have every reason to hope that the dragons will mature alongside their pilots.

Dragon Pilot can be streamed on Netflix.

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