August 09, 2018

The Cassandras of computers (1/7)

Cassandra was cursed by the Greek god Apollo with the power to make true prophesies that nobody believed. A quarter century ago, the Cassandras of the computer world had an additional problem: they didn't always believe the future they were forecasting either.

Columnist John Dvorak was a curmudgeonly contrarian back when he started writing for PC Magazine in the 1980s. He's still on the job thirty years later. During his first decade, he made several notable predictions, reported a story that foreshadowed a tidal wave of technological change, and then missed the very confirmation of what he was writing about.

After a hands-on demo of the Canon RC-701, the first commercially-available camera to use a CCD instead of film, Dvorak stated in the 26 January 1988 issue,

It's the future. Not only will we one day take photos on floppies or plug-in RAM (or both), but we will manipulate them on our machines at home. Finally, a use for the home computer: a device to edit snapshots. And note: because the photo is on a cheap disk, there will be no reluctance to take tons of pictures because we'll know we can erase and reuse the disk—something we'll never actually do.

After first musing that it was time to sell Kodak stock, he reconsidered and thought that maybe Kodak had a future selling printers and paper. His initial reaction was the correct one.

At the time, it was also a warning nobody wanted to hear (including Kodak). After he again broached the subject two years later in his 25 December 1990 column, a reader wrote in to scoff, "What a laugh. John Dvorak says that photography as we know is dead." But this time Dvorak had seen the future with 20/20 foresight.

He hit the nail on the head a few other times too, pointing to the rise of Unicode and predicting that LCD screens were "the wave of the future." In his 26 January 1993 column, he railed against pagers and portable phones, saying they reminded him of the Borg from Star Trek. "The desire for instant communication reflects our own insecurities. Dump them."

Dvorak recently revisited the latter subject in a 6 June 2018 column, in which he termed the malady "FOMO," or "the fear of missing out." (Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier recently devoted an entire monograph to the subject.)

Also in 1993, John Dvorak foresaw the importance of Texas Instrument's brand-new DLP projection system and correctly predicted that giant magnetoresistance technology would make 250 GB hard drives "commonplace" a decade hence. Wading into the field of business anthropology, after a junket to Japan in 1990, he observed,

The Japanese are incredible time wasters. While the Japanese may make an efficient assembly line, the Japanese style of doing business is the opposite. It's a miracle anything gets done. Companies compete fiercely with each other. "Japan Inc." is a cooperation between government and business that is the opposite of what we experience in America. In Japan, government helps business succeed because the government knows that business success means wealth and jobs for everyone.

Dvorak naturally caught a lot of politically correct flack for those comments, but I don't see anything there to disagree with. In fact, in one short paragraph, he neatly summed up The Enigma of Japanese Power by Karel van Wolferen.

But back to the subject at hand. In the last issue of 1989, John Dvorak reported in his "Inside Track" column that

According to Silicon Valley rumor mongers, Bill Gates has hired operating system guru and program designer David Cutler to develop what everyone is calling portable OS/2. This will be generic OS/2, but completely written in C. The idea is that once OS/2 becomes a viable and popular operating system, it will still be confronted by the portability issue. Portable OS/2 could be quickly ported to a RISC machine. This may be the secret project that finally makes Microsoft the biggest software company in the world.

He got it two-thirds right. David Cutler was designing an operating system that would prove wildly successful. He would port Windows NT to Digital Equipment's 64-bit Alpha, the first of many attempts to run Windows on non-x86 platforms, most recently Windows RT (nope) and the Qualcomm Snapdragon using software emulation (maybe).

But Bill Gates had actually hired David Cutler (along with most of Cutler's DEC Prism team) in 1988 to write Windows NT. Since this yet-undisclosed operating system would compete directly with OS/2 and thus IBM (the irascible Cutler loathed both OS/2 and Unix), the information had been leaked using language that didn't alarm the wrong people.

After all, IBM and Microsoft were still best buds. They invented the PC hand-in-hand. OS/2 belonged to both of them, even more so than DOS. That's what everybody believed, and they believed it so completely that early news of the breakup was taken with a grain of salt.

When the Wall Street Journal reported in its 28 January 1991 edition that Microsoft was planning to "scrap OS/2 and refine Windows," John
Dvorak and the rest of the computer press labeled this spot-on revelation "dubious" and dismissed the "premature obituary for OS/2" as a "fiasco."

After previously doubting that "IBM's OS/2 would be able to knock Windows and DOS from the top of the hill," in his August 1992 column Dvorak hopped off the fence and wrote that PC users with the necessary hardware would be "nuts not to try OS/2." A year later, with the release of OS/2 2.1, he predicted that

the popularity of OS/2 will increase dramatically when people finally start to grasp the power of true multitasking.

Well, that stood to reason, did it not? If OS/2 wasn't the future of the personal computer, then what was? Because it wasn't Unix and it wasn't Mac OS and Windows NT was designed for high-powered workstations and servers. The answer was obvious even then, but the Cassandras of computers couldn't believe their own lying eyes.

Related posts

The future that wasn't
The accidental standard
The grandfathers of DOS
The cover

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August 02, 2018

The streaming chronicles (2/4)

Click image to enlarge.
In which I troubleshoot the Roku Express for a problem that so far has turned out not to be one.

I've been using the Roku Express for two months. I still recommend it as the most economical standalone streaming solution, though with some caveats. Namely that it thinks my router is physically located in another zip code.

A Wi-Fi analyzer placed next to the Roku Express never drops below -50 dBm on a clear channel. Full strength. But the Network > About screen lists the signal strength as "Poor" and the "secret" Wi-Fi screen (HOME x5, Up, Down, Up, Down, Up) reports a signal strength of -80 dBm.

("HOME x5" means to first press the HOME button five times. Click on the sidebar graphic for a list of the Roku secret screens.)

At first I thought Wi-Fi Direct, a Bluetooth-like protocol that communicates with the remote control, might be the guilty party.

The Roku broadcasts an SSID called "DIRECT-roku" on the same channel as the access point. With a Wi-Fi signal strength around -50 dBm, the DIRECT-roku SSID often peaked at over -40 dBm, which is like cranking the stereo to eleven and blasting it all over the neighborhood.

I program my AV gadgets to an IR universal remote (a big reason to prefer the Roku Express over competing models) and I don't need the mirroring functions. The following steps suggested by Brendan Long turned off the DIRECT-roku SSID on my Roku Express.

Go to Settings > System > Advanced system settings > Device connect and disable Device connect. Restart the Roku.

It turns out that "Device connect" is Wi-Fi Direct. Other than de-cluttering the radio spectrum, turning off Wi-Fi Direct didn't help. Neither did reinstalling the software (HOME x5, FF, FF, FF, RW, RW) or the Wi-Fi drivers (HOME x5, Up, Down, Up, Down, Up).

The software update might have improved the adaptive bitrate streaming protocols. It didn't affect Wi-Fi signal strength. But everything works fine as far as I can tell. My solution is to stick a piece of black tape over the "check engine" light and keep driving.

In any case, thirty dollars is simply not that big of a sunk cost. If it stops working, I'll take that as an excuse to play with other streaming toys. The next step is to implement some long-overdue upgrades to my home network and see what kind of a difference that makes.

Related posts

The streaming chronicles (1)
Family Gekijyo
Anime's streaming solution
Crunchy Fun and the Yahoos

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July 26, 2018

Kazuya Kosaka

One of the rewards of listening to the Gold(en oldies) channel on J1 Radio is hearing covers of songs that catch you totally by surprise. Flash back to the late 1950s and early 1960s when Japan's first television stations were going on the air. They licensed Hollywood productions to fill in their program schedules. And still do.

(I've had trouble of late getting the J1 Radio app to work on my Roku. J1 Radio is also available on the free version of the TuneIn app.)

Westerns were a staple of American television at the time, and so the genre naturally became a staple of Japanese television. Rawhide was a big hit. During a February 1962 publicity tour, Clint Eastwood, Paul Brinegar, and Eric Fleming met the Japanese press at the Palace Hotel in Tokyo.

It was only a matter of time before Japanese musicians began performing Western music and rockabilly. Kazuya Kosaka & The Wagon Masters not only covered the hits but reinterpreted them as well. I can't find Kosaka's cover of the Rawhide theme song (in Japanese) on YouTube. Here is his version of "Jailhouse Rock."

Kazuya Kosaka is probably better remembered today in Japan for his long career in movies and television.

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July 19, 2018

The future that wasn't

As the old Danish proverb (attributed to everyone from Niels Bohr to Yogi Berra) observes, "It's difficult to make predictions, especially about the future."

Forty years ago, a world-changing industry distilled out of the ether of human ingenuity. At the end of the 1970s, a Darwinistic fight for the survival of the technologically fittest seemed poised to crown CP/M and the Apple II as the king and queen of the micro-computer beasts.

And then a big asteroid called the Personal Computer slammed into Silicon Valley.

Unlike at the end of the Jurassic, when the smoke cleared, one very big dinosaur was still left standing. But IBM-Rex soon discovered that the underbrush was crawling with equally persistent critters, competing like crazy and nipping at its heels.

Fueling this frenzy was the knowledge that the meteor showers hadn't ended. Another big one was on the way. There was going to be a Next Big Thing. It was in the cards from the start. The rapid evolution of the CPU had obsoleted the 16-bit Intel 8088 only four years after the debut of the IBM PC.

In its haste to get a product to market, IBM used off-the-shelf parts and an operating system from Microsoft (that Microsoft hurried out and bought from Seattle Computer Products). Within a year, Compaq had reversed-engineered the IBM BIOS to produce a 100-percent IBM PC compatible computer.

With this accidental standard in place, it was off to the races.

Beginning with the Intel 8080 in 1974, personal computing has undergone a major technological consolidation at the beginning of each decade. The 1980s saw the emergence and dominance of DOS, culminating with Apple's famous 1984 commercial that (mistakenly) targeted IBM as "Big Brother."

Now the billion-dollar behemoths thrashed about trying to figure out what the Next Big Thing would be. They figured it out soon enough. The past was prelude, and a mutated amalgam of IBM and Microsoft were going to produce a 32-bit multitasking operating system that would soon rule the world.

Except OS/2 didn't. In the words of tech writer William Shakespeare, "It strutted and fretted its hour upon the stage. And then was heard no more."

Microsoft had toyed with Xenix (which it licensed from AT&T and eventually sold to SCO) and delved deeply into OS/2 development with IBM. In the end, Bill Gates chose to stick with Windows and maintained out-of-the-box backwards compatibility with MS-DOS for the next thirty years.

At the time, the consensus of option pointed to anything but that outcome. Right up until nobody could imagine any other result. Unfolding between 1988 and 1992, what makes this high-tech drama so fascinating is that the writers of the tale didn't know how it would end.

But now, a quarter-century later, we do.

Our time machine, thanks to Google Books, is PC Magazine. Over the next several months, I'll be hopping into that digital Tardis and zooming back to the recent past, following the story as its editors and commentators debated how the future—meaning the present day—was going to unfold.

Related posts

The Cassandras of computers
The accidental standard
The grandfathers of DOS
The cover

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July 12, 2018


Clint Eastwood defined the essence of the role in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns. A lone rider with no ties and no dependencies and no interest in the human condition, the "Man with No Name" is an unapologetic misanthrope who, despite himself, ends up doing right by his fellow man.

A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More were based on characters created by Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune for the equally iconic chambara films Yojimbo and Sanjuro.

Manga and anime embraced the trope, often adding a sidekick (a gregarious Watson to his taciturn Sherlock) and spirited girl with a cause or quest of her own. The relationship between the "wandering swordsman" Himura Kenshin and Kaoru Kamiya in Rurouni Kenshin is a case in point.

Such pairings became a staple of the romantic dramedy, perhaps no better exemplified than in Clannad. When we first meet him, Tomoya (Yuichi Nakamura) is a senior in high school. Cynical and aloof (not without his reasons), he proudly wears the label of "class delinquent."

The first day of school (one of those halcyon days in early April), he runs into Nagisa and his whole life changes. Not because he falls for her (that takes two dozen episodes) but because she presents him with a problem to solve. Solving the problem is what brings them together.

Hyouka follows a similar formula with equally outstanding results. That includes again casting Yuichi Nakamura in the lead and again pairing him with Daisuke Sakaguchi, who played his sidekick in Clannad.

Unlike Tomoya, Hotaro Oreki has no "troubled past." His goal is to get through high school with the least possible social involvement, expending as little energy as possible. That goal is frustrated when his older sister insists that he join the soon-to-be defunct "Classic Literature Club."

He shows up for the first club meeting to find one other person there, Eru (Elle) Chitanda, scion of one of the wealthiest families in town. The story, though, avoids the "poor little rich girl" meme and instead begins with series of one-off Encylopedia Brown type mysteries.

As it turns out, Hotaro is really good at solving puzzles. This realization prompts Eru to present him with an unresolved family scandal. Along with Satoshi (his childhood friend) and Mayaka (the student librarian), they tackle the curious fate of Eru's uncle.

Her uncle helmed the Classic Literature Club forty years before, until he was expelled from school under questionable circumstances. Hotaro ends up expending a whole lot of energy figuring out why.

Hyouka is the title of the literary anthology the club publishes every year. It becomes the most revealing clue of all. "A dumb joke," Hotaro mutters when he figures it out, and exactly what a wronged teenager would come up with.

The author of the series, Honobu Yonezawa, includes an additional twist in the opening and closing credits with his punning alternate titles to the stories, such as "The Niece of Time." I got that one. I had to google "Why Didn't They Ask Eba [Evans]?" to get the Agatha Christie reference.

The ED for the second cour is a delightful tribute to the "cozy" genre that could constitute an episode all on its own.

The ED for the first cour, on the other hand, is simply surreal.

Some episodes are straightforward head-scratchers, even so basic a matter as why a teacher messed up his lesson plan (which begins with a debate of why some people have shorter tempers than others, which leads to discussion of the seven deadly sins, which leads to Eru's version of "greed is good").

And then the film club sets out to make a murder mystery video for their class project. In the middle of the shoot, the girl writing the script has to leave. So the film club turns to Classic Literature Club to figure out how she intended to finish it, which means solving the mystery.

No sooner has he done that but Hotaro finds himself wrestling with issues of artistic integrity and authorial intent. These themes also arise in a surprisingly complex arc in the second cour that begins with a mostly harmless prank and concludes with a meditation about creativity and talent.

These slice-of-life whodunits usually involve no crime at all. The real mystery is human nature, and why Eru can so easily knock the otherwise cool Hotaro off his stride. Sensing that "the game is afoot," she is certain to lean in and exclaim, "Ki ni narimasu!" (I'm curious!) And will not relent.

Alas, he cannot resist.

Hyouka gives us Kyoto Animation at its finest, and more stellar work from the talented and productive Yasuhiro Takemoto. His previous directorial projects include Amagi Brilliant Park, Full Metal Panic? Fumoffu, Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid, and The Melancholy Of Haruhi Suzumiya.

Honobu Yonezawa wrote five novels and half a dozen short stores in the "Classic Literature Club" series, which have been adapted to 11 manga volumes, 22 anime episodes (plus an OVA), and a 2017 live-action film.

You can watch Hyouka on Crunchyroll.

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July 05, 2018

And then there was one

PBS affiliate in Utah, that is. For the last half-century or so, Utah's two biggest universities have hosted two independent PBS stations: KUED 7 (University of Utah) and KBYU 11 (Brigham Young University). For the last half-century or so, KBYU played second-string to KUED, carrying the same programming a month after KUED.

While it was nice to have a "backup" channel if you missed a show the first time around, KBYU couldn't help diluting KUED's audience and ratings, and dividing loyalties especially during membership drives.

KUED's launch of the Create subchannel (7.4) eliminated any problem of catching reruns of the DIY shows. And then last year, both stations arrived at a win-win resolution that was a huge win for KUED. On July 2, KBYU dropped its PBS affiliation and shifted its satellite channel, BYUtv, over to the primary OTA broadcast channel.

BYU Broadcasting announced plans to consolidate its television operations, BYUtv, KBYU Channel Eleven and BYUtv International, into one nationwide television network. Similarly, BYU Broadcasting said it plans to consolidate its radio operations, BYUradio (on SiriusXM Satellite Radio) and KBYU-FM/Classical 89, into a single radio network.

But listeners to Utah's last classical radio station proved to be a scrappy bunch. They weren't going down without a fight. And they won. Earlier this year, BYU Broadcasting purchased KUMT-FM (107.9) to host BYUradio,

preserving [the only] over-the-air classical music station in Utah. Classical 89 will continue to operate on its current frequency at 89.1 and 89.5 (Southern Utah County) on the FM dial.

So make that a win-win-win.

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June 28, 2018

The publishing industry in Japan

In the course of my Internet research about publishing costs in Japan, I collected three white papers and a Robert Whiting interview (all were posted for download on non-gated websites). Also recommended is mangaka Shuho Sato's tell-all retrospective about his own profession.

"An Introduction to Publishing in Japan" by the Japan Book Publishers Association: JBPA.pdf

"The Field of Japanese Publishing" by Brian Moeran: BrianMoeran.pdf

"The Japanese Way! Relationships between Authors and Publishers in the Context of Developing Works into Diverse Forms" by Tetsuro Daiki: TetsuroDaiki.pdf

"You've Gotta Have Wa If You Want to Get Published" by Robert Whiting: RobertWhiting.pdf

Manga Poverty by Shuho Sato (translated by Dan Luffey): Kindle ebook

The following are a live-action drama and three anime. Antiquarian Bookshop may be the coziest cozy mystery series ever. In the process, you'll learn a good deal about the used book trade in Japan. Shirobako is an "inside baseball" account about how an anime series is made.

Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun and Bakuman feature teenagers who want to be professional mangaka when they grow up, a subject that constitutes its own genre. Bakuman in particular pays close attention to the technical details of the profession. It debuted on NHK Educational TV.

The Sakuga blog provides a good explanation of the "production committee."

Related posts

The proof is in the printing
The actual value of the written word

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June 21, 2018

The proof is in the printing

A while back on the ANN website, Justin Sevakis asked, "Why Does Manga [printed in the U.S.] Turn Yellow?" That question raises the obvious antithesis: Why do Japanese tankoubon (manga published in perfect bound format) and paperbacks age so well?

A "light novel" (novella) I purchased back in 1989 for 360 yen ($3.25) has grayed and faded a bit but the paper remains pliable and the spine hasn't lost a bit of flexibility. Manga and paperbacks I ordered from Japan over a decade ago remain in near mint condition.

Despite a consignment system and resale price maintenance laws, paperbacks in Japan often cost much less than mass market paperbacks in the U.S. The Chihayafuru tankoubon I recently purchased are 429 yen each. Less than four dollars at the current exchange rate.

A 350 page short story collection by Fuyumi Ono is priced at 637 yen. That's about $5.75. The paper, full-color dust cover, and binding are comparable to the higher-grade "trade paperback" category. So what accounts for these differences in quality and cost? Shouldn't English-language publishers be able to leverage enormous economies of scale?

To start with, Japanese publishers don't dole out advances. Instead, they pay up-front at the time of the print run. Japanese publishers were essentially printing-on-demand before POD became a thing (though short print runs also mean that books can go out of print pretty fast).

According to Tetsuro Daiki, general manager of legal and licensing at Shogakukan (a major publisher), "The full sum [of royalties] is paid one month after the release of a book." And all those royalties go straight to the writer.

Publishing contracts in Japan are so standard that agents are rarely used (except when licensing foreign translations). This is in large part because the writer retains subsidiary rights by default. In the land of the doujinshi, Japanese publishers know that if you love something, you set it (sort of) free.

To be sure, when negotiating subsidiary rights, the publisher typically steps in as the agent, often with a seat on the "production committee." Again, as Tetsuro Daiki explains, "the authors as well as Shogakukan stand side by side in the contract negotiations." He believes, of course, this is for the best.

If authors try to keep all the [rights] to themselves and regard publishers as enemies, they [have] to confront all the odds single-handedly, leading to negligence of their essential creative activities. It is better if the authors devote themselves to writing, painting and creating new works, leaving business to publishers. This is the choice of the majority of authors in Japan.

The upshot is that publishers like Shogakukan can make available to their authors media formats (including manga, anime, periodicals, video games, television and theatrical adaptations, and even radio dramas on CD) rarely if ever offered to mid-listers in the English-speaking market.

For example, the Bakuman manga series (Shueisha) by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata has been adapted to an anime series (NHK-Educational), video game (Bandai), novel (Shueisha), and a live-action film (Toho). The extensive cross-ownership inherent in the production committee system results in extensive cross-promotion and pooled risks.

Which is all well and good. But as bestselling manga artist Shuho Sato explains in Manga Poverty, his autobiographical exposé of publishing industry finances in Japan, the "average" mangaka can still spend years in the red and never earn enough to cover his out-of-pocket expenses.

The market for print magazines in Japan has contracted sharply over the past decade. Publishers regularly lose money on first serialization rights. Reading the writing on the wall, when Shuho Sato renegotiated with Shogakukan, he transferred the secondary rights to his own company.

Shuho Sato's story ends with him adopting a hybrid approach. Shogakukan prints and sells the paper product while he publishes electronically through his website and shares that platform with other mangaka. After all, he asks,

If you truly believe that [authors] should feel indebted to publishers for making [their books] sell, then doesn't it also make it the publisher's fault if they don't sell?

One of Sato's more interesting revelations is how much it costs to produce a perfect bound book in volume. He secured from an industry source a quote of 150 yen per copy on a print run of 50,000 units that included a 10 percent royalty based on a list price of 500 yen. (Remember that Japanese publishers pay out royalties at the time of the print run.)

Subtract the royalty payment and the unit cost falls under a dollar. This again raises questions about the costs of manufacturing perfect bound books on this side of the Pacific and what exactly all the "overhead" is paying for.

A safe prediction is that hybrid or self-publishing will become the predominant economic model for mid-list writers and artists capable of producing all their own IP by the sweat of their own brows. The future of "traditional" publishing may well be a return to its roots primarily as printers.

Related posts

The publishing industry in Japan
The actual value of the written word

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June 14, 2018

Family Gekijyo (month 3)

The program schedule of Family Gekijyo (Dish) is beginning to resemble a shrunken version of Family Gekijyo (Japan), which is basically ION TV. It needs a website and a program guide, and current programming other than news updates and the occasional shogi tournament, but progress is being made.

Kasoken no Onna (科捜研の女) "Woman of the Science Research Institute" (1999).

Although this Kyoto-based police procedural predates both CSI and Bones, it compares well to both, with Yasuko Sawaguchi as Mariko Sakaki in the Temperance Brennan role and Kouji Naitou as Kaoru Domon in the Booth role. It's been on the air for 17 seasons (201 episodes to date) and still going.

Abarenbo Shogun (暴れん坊将軍) "Rough Justice Shogun" (1978).

Along with Mito Komon, one the longest-running series in the genre, totaling 831 episodes. Mito Komon ran on TBS and Abarenbo Shogun ran on Asahi TV, but they share the same premise: a high Tokugawa official dons a disguise and mingles among the commoners to bring ne'er-do-wells to justice.

Rinjo (臨場) "Scene of the Crime" (2009).

A police procedural based on the novel by Hideo Yokoyama. Seiyou Uchino plays forensic pathologist Yoshio Kuraishi in an updated version of Quincy, M.E. This rerun is an actual rerun for me, as I saw the original broadcast of the series on TV Japan. But it's worth watching twice.

Uchu Senkan Yamato (宇宙戦艦ヤマト) Space Battleship Yamato (1974).

Directed by the legendary Leiji Matsumoto, the influential first series begins with the WWII battleship Yamato getting turned into a starship to save the Earth. A dubbed version was syndicated in the U.S. as Star Blazers. New series and movies are still being made.

The Yamato was the first of Matsumoto's anachronistic spacecraft, which include steam locomotives (Galaxy Express 999) and Spanish galleons (Captain Harlock).

Family Gekijyo is broadcasting an HD remaster but its age shows. Working with what little he's got, Matsumoto tells a compelling story of survival and ingenuity. Imagine that the aliens in Independence Day mostly succeeded. Earth must strike back (as in Ender's Game) before they finish the job.

Garo: Makai Retsuden (牙狼-魔戒烈伝) "Garo: History of the Makai" (2016).

This time around it's an anthology series. But I'm bored with it and don't watch. Too much of the same thing can run some shows right into the ground. At the rate they're going, that could soon include the whole Family Gekijyo channel too. It still can't hold a candle to TV Japan.

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June 07, 2018

The streaming chronicles (1/4)

In which I expand my Japanese media options with a Roku.

At minimum, switching from Dish to DirecTV (the new home of TV Japan) would run another ten dollars a month (at least $46/month plus tax), on top a new set-top box ($60) and a 24-month commitment (ugh).

A Roku Express costs less than $30 and nobody has to commit to anything. Hey, I'm already saving money! And except for the occasional buffering, the picture quality on my 720p screen is better than I expected, almost as good as a solid OTA signal (the gold standard).

Here are the Japan-specific channels I've added so far.

NHK World is a remarkably complete news and information service. Many of the features are original NHK productions with English voice-overs or subtitles, including the all-important highlights during sumo tournaments. Frankly, NHK World alone justifies the cost of the Roku.

The NHK World stream is not optimized for motion, which lowers the quality of sports coverage. Maybe they'll fix that when they graduate to a public channel.

J1 Radio is a Japanese music station with four channels: J1 (top-40), Xtra (80s and 90s), A-Chan (anime OPs and EDs), Gold (classics from the 60s and 70s). In keeping with my old fogeyness, I mostly stick with Gold.

NHK World and J1 Radio are both free. NHK World is currently a Roku private channel, so use the code "nhk" under Manage Account to add the app.

The other big draw for me is Crunchyroll. The annoying ads can be removed for $6.95 a month, a great deal for the biggest source of anime anywhere. They've got a few live-action dramas worth watching too.

An ad-supported Roku channel worth adding is Tubi. The anime section compares well with content providers like Netflix and Amazon. It carries a handful of exclusive titles and some Japanese movies.

HIDIVE and dLibrary Japan are currently disqualified for not having Roku apps. HIDIVE has a smaller library than Crunchyroll but carries anime and live-action exclusives from Sentai Filmworks for $4.99 a month. A serious contender once the Roku app arrives.

At $9.95 a month, dLibrary Japan is too expensive and has too little new content. If it carried the full slate of NHK programming from TV Japan (its media partner), it might be worth it. Another wait and see.
Related posts

The streaming chronicles (2)
Family Gekijyo
Anime's streaming solution
Crunchy Fun and the Yahoos

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May 31, 2018

Laughing matters

A consistent observation from long-time Western observers is that Japanese don't do the whole "dripping with irony" thing. It's sand in the gears of a culture that depends so much on going with the flow. (Google "Japan" and "sarcasm" for many links about the subject.)

The sociolinguistic concept does exist in Japanese and hiniku (皮肉) seems to cover all the lexicographical bases. To paraphrase Tom Selleck at the end of Quigley Down Under, "I said I didn't have much use for it. Didn't say I didn't know what it means."

At the other end of the spectrum, clever word-play (kakekotoba) has been prized since before the Heian period and is a key element of classical poetry. Japanese attitudes in this regard can be very British English, bouncing wildly between Oscar Wilde and Benny Hill.

A broad streak of Benny Hill-type slapstick is part and parcel of any "fan service"-heavy anime comedy. Like horror and monster movies, these genres are more familiar in the west because subtle comedy just doesn't translate well, West to East or East to West.

Hollywood loves action films because comedy is such a hard sell in the huge Asian market (and even the action genre is no guarantee these days). There's even a term in Japan for the problem: "American joke," meaning the kind of humor that only Americans think is funny.

The American contemporary solo "standup" style never took hold in Japan. Japan's solo format is rakugo, storytelling based on an established repertoire of Aesop's Fables-type traditional tales and just-so stories. The storyteller plays all the parts.

The standup format is manzai, which hearkens back to the old vaudeville duos.

Manzai is how a nation of introverts work out their inner rage in public (Sheldon Cooper + Penny = manzai). Trading insults (as distinguished from sarcasm) is part and parcel of the genre, as is physical humor (whacking each other on the head).

At best, manzai compares to a Smothers Brothers routine, revolving around the repartee between a straight man (tsukkomi) and a funny man (boke). But can also be so aggressively passive-aggressive that I find it painfully unfunny (and difficult to follow).

Well, that's what I think of the Three Stooges too.

Manzai duos aside, comedy in Japan is often skit-based (known in Japanese as konto, from the French conte) or revolves around group activities, including every sort of chat show imaginable.

NHK regularly broadcasts stage performances of vaudevillian-style melodramas. Despite the Edo period settings (interrupted by anachronistic jokes, breaking fourth wall, and characters finding excuses to burst into song), they are surprisingly accessible.

Then there are all those game shows. Americans typically only hear about the ones so obvious or outrageous they don't need translation. But many are dang high-brow, like using using Auto-Tune technology to measure how precisely on-tune the contestants can sing a popular song.

The participants in these "game shows" mostly come from the ranks of B-list celebrities. More Hollywood Squares than Family Feud. Japanese by and large prefer to watch other people having a good time than get up on stage and make fools of themselves (though there are those too).

One of the longest-running shows on Japanese television is Shouten. It resembles What's My Line (though the participants usually remain seated). The panel members are all veteran rakugo performers.

Again, the emphasis is on wordplay, trading insults, and the occasional pratfall (and mild sexual innuendo). I get about half of the verbal jokes.

I do get most of the kanji jokes, where they start with a standard kanji radical and then add a few strokes to invent a new word that creates a humorous juxtaposition.

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May 24, 2018

Wolf Warrior II

One of the biggest films of 2017 was a movie you might not have heard about. Unless you live in China. To be sure, as far as cinematic works of art go, Wolf Warrior II isn't one. Then again, neither was The Force Awakens, the only movie to earn more in a single market ($937 million in North America in 2015).

Wolf Warrior II raked in $854 million in China alone.

It certainly held my attention better than any Star Wars installment since 1980. Though, to tell the truth, my reaction to the whole bloody (literally) shoot-em-up verged on a ho-hum shrug—until the penultimate scene.

As I said, it's no cinematic work of art. But it is a decidedly important political statement delivered in the decidedly non-political package of a by-the-numbers actioner.

As with every action movie of this stripe, Jing Wu (acting and directing) plays Leng Feng, an ex-special forces guy who got himself court-martialed for Standing Up For The Little Guy and now is a Lone Wolf doing missions Nobody Else Can Do. He's Rambo with better martial arts skills, more charisma, and a less somber mien.

This really is the saving grace of the movie. Bruce Willis takes himself seriously in Tears of the Sun (2003) a movie that takes itself more seriously than it should. Sylvester Stallone takes himself seriously in Rambo 3, a movie that is impossible to take seriously, despite being about a serious subject.

Jing Wu doesn't take himself too seriously in Wolf Warrior 2, a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously either, despite having a way higher on-screen body count than Stallone's war movie about an actual war. The intricately choreographed gun fu and kung fu at times turn the non-stop violence into a bizarre ballet.

Though it does get numbing after a while. Jing Wu needed somebody on the set to wave his arms now and then and shout, "Enough already!" They must have ordered squibs by the container ship. I got to wondering who was responsible for cleaning up all the fake blood and doing the laundry.

Anyway, Wolf Warrior II borrows plot points from Tears of the Sun, in which Bruce Willis leads his SEAL team into war-torn Nigeria to evacuate a pretty doctor (Monica Bellucci) from a besieged hospital.

Having exiled himself to a fictional African country that soon plunges into a brutal civil war, Leng Feng steps up to rescue a pretty doctor (Celina Jade) from a besieged hospital. He was supposed to rescue her boss but the boss got killed first. (This happens an awful lot when you're getting rescued by Leng Feng.)

Although he starts out as a one-man army, Leng Feng gains a couple of allies along the way, including PLA veteran He Jianguo (Wu Gang). The unqualified respect shown for this character (who thankfully manages not to get killed) is a good indicator of where the movie is thematically headed.

Meanwhile, the entire (shiny and modern) Chinese Navy is camped out in the Gulf of Aden, all ready to pitch in and help as soon as they get permission from the United Nations. Here is where we depart from the Hollywood formula. No American Man of Action needs permission from the United Nations to do anything.

For good reasons, as the movie amply illustrates.

In Japanese military actioners too, the United Nations makes a convenient moral cover for whatever means are justified by the ends. And if you're Jing Wu, it probably is more politic to point at third parties obstructing the hero's journey and not your own national government (local government is a whole different matter).

Which may also explain a puzzling hole in the plot, namely what exactly is motivating "Big Daddy" (Frank Grillo) and his merry band of sociopathic mercenaries. What they're after can be easily inferred, but this isn't a genre known for subtlety. A stereotypical appearance from Big Pharma would have fit the bill here.

But vilifying Big Business isn't in the cards either (though like local government, little business catches a few sharp elbows). Instead, the bad guys are bad guys because they're, well, really really bad.

Well, in any case, the whole purpose of this foot-dragging is to raise the dramatic stakes. When permission comes, it's a regular fireworks show. Guided missile destroyers sure are neat! (And uncannily accurate.)

As Leng Feng races his convoy of survivors to safety, there's one last battlefield to cross. In a scene that could have been inspired by Eugène Delacroix, he ties a Chinese flag to his arm and perches atop the cab of a truck. The warring parties part like Moses at the Red Sea. Because Nobody Messes With China!

To be honest, I found the scene quite stirring. Unabashed, unironic patriotism is an endangered species these days, and it casts the movie in its own unique light.

A brief coda at the end sledgehammers that message home. Across the image of a Chinese passport, the text tells the citizens of China that "no matter what corner of the world you may find yourself in, your country will always have your back."

This "reminder" ties into a scene early in the movie, in which a Chinese businessman tells Leng Feng he's ditching his citizenship in the name of profit—and then backtracks when all hell breaks loose and a Chinese-flagged ship is the only available refuge. He gets to stay alive because he made the right choice.

Welcome to the century of Chinese exceptionalism.

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May 17, 2018

Otaku o'clock

The fourth Garo series concluded last week on Family Gekijyo. The big finale ended up being clumsily censored. For an increasingly campy show that had lost its sense of humor, the cloud of pixelization kicked it into Mystery Science Theater 3000 territory.

The first half of "Flowers of Hell" had a lot going for it, but then they apparently decided they weren't taking themselves seriously enough. Only some things are impossible to take seriously, no matter how stony the faces.

Unlike the earlier "Shiiki" episode, this bare nakedness could hardly be called integral to the plot. It seemed more in the HBO category of "because we found an actress who didn't mind." She started out the episode in a unitard. They could have left her in the unitard. It made no difference.

And given the repetitious mess that is Family Gekijyo, with no rhyme or reason as to when stuff will show up on the screen, and no parental controls, it could annoy people with kids. And annoy members of the old TV Japan audience accustomed to the stodgier NHK programming standards.

Family Gekijyo is a satellite channel in Japan. But perusing their program guide, I see that the occasionally TV-MA Golgo 13 (the adventures of a Japanese hitman) is scheduled at 11:00 PM.

Japan does not have an officially defined "watershed" for broadcasters. That's the time slot in many countries when OTA stations can switch from TV-PG and TV-14 to TV-MA. The latter almost never happens for American broadcasters, as the FCC doesn't provide a TV-MA safe harbor.

So in Japan, as television standards have grown more conservative in the last quarter-century, broadcasters shifted controversial programming to after 10:00 PM. This time slot has been wittily labeled "otaku o'clock" and uses the odd but logical "22:00-27:00" notation.

Aside from a small number of popular and"family-friendly" series that get prime time slots, this is when most anime debut, often as "brokered programming." That means the production committee purchases the entire chunk of air time and sells its own advertising. Like an infomercial.

Even then, more "edgy" anime are often bowdlerized to play it safe and encourage viewers to buy the DVDs in order to get the unedited versions, which is the whole point in the first place. The anime industry in Japan is supported by manga, merchandise, and licensing, not television advertising.

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May 10, 2018

Family Gekijyo (weeks 5-6)

As best I can tell, here are the latest additions to the program schedule.

 • TBS News
 • Sunuko's Falling-Down-Drunk Recipes
 • The Drifters (1977-1997)
 • Shimura's Cram School (2004)
 • Garo: Gold Storm (2015)

Garo: Gold Storm is a sequel to Garo: Yami o Terasu Mono. In other words, more of the same. At this point, I would describe Garo as a Magical Girl series for boys, sans the charm and humor. Even the once clever "Flowers of Hell" forgot how to be funny by the time the big finale rolled around.

If you just can't get enough goth and leather cosplay, this is the show for you. Otherwise, it has a bad case of Big Bad Syndrome and is desperately in need of the Deadpool treatment.

The Drifters started off as a rock band but gained far greater fame as a comedy troupe. They hosted the variety show Hachijidayo! Zen'inshugo! ("It's Eight O'Clock! Everybody Gather 'Round!") from 1969 to 1985, one of the highest-rated shows on Japanese television.

I think Family Gekijyo is showing episodes from the ninety-minute monthly specials that ran from 1977-1997. These were sketch comedy shows with an ensemble cast, comparable to The Carol Burnett Show.

Ken Shimura is a Drifters alumnus. His half-hour program mixes celebrity interviews with comedy skits (known in Japanese as konto, from the French conte).

The problem here is that I didn't watch The Carol Burnett Show. I don't watch the reruns now. I haven't followed a sketch comedy show since Monty Python.

So, not really my thing, and not for ninety minutes a night. Though to be honest, Shimura's Cram School is worth watching simply because Yuuka, Ken Shimura's co-host, is so darn cute.

The Tokyo Broadcasting System is similar to American broadcast networks like NBC and CBS, producing commercial content across the board. TBS still owns its radio system (launched in 1951), runs the Japan News Network (JNN), and operates TBS Newsbird, a 24-hour satellite and cable news channel.

Incidentally, the Family Gekijyo and TBS headquarters are both located in Akasaka, Tokyo, a couple of blocks apart.

The fifteen-minute newscasts aren't all that different from their NHK counterparts. The TBS newscasts are followed by a five-minute cooking show, Sunuko's Falling-Down-Drunk Recipes. As the website explains, "Super-simple recipes you can make even when you're blotto."

Here's today's new vocabulary word: hebereke.

Family Gekijyo on Dish seems to be turning into, well, Family Gekijyo. I originally compared it to ION TV. But ION TV specializes in recent material, often reruns of shows still in production. Family Gekijyo is closer to DTV subchannels like MeTV and COZI TV, preserving the golden oldies.

But the thing about subchannels is that they are subchannels, not the main event. TV Japan tries to keep up to date with a little something for everybody. Family Gekijyo is providing something for somebody, but I'm not sure who that is. As a standalone offering, it's mostly worth watching for the news.

So the question is whether Family Gekijyo can fill in the rest of the schedule with content compelling enough to pay for. I do hope so.

Related posts

Family Gekijyo
Family Gekijyo (weeks 1-2)
Family Gekijyo (weeks 3-4)

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