May 23, 2019

Watching Japanese in English

I noted previously that localized programming is the province of NHK World, with English-speaking hosts and subtitled or dubbed content. Prime-time news aside, TV Japan ("NHK World Premium") localizes little of its content. There are a few exceptions, starting with sumo.

When I first started watching TV Japan, it devoted two hours of NHK coverage to the makuuchi sumo bouts every afternoon during the tournaments, along with the nightly wrap-up shows. Now it's limited to one wrap-up broadcast and two hours of live coverage at 1:00 AM MDT.

But sumo is obviously a big draw internationally. During the fifteen-day tournaments, NHK World carries the thirty-minute wrap-up show four times a day and live coverage on weekends.

On TV Japan, a subtitled version of the weekly Taiga drama is broadcast on Saturday afternoon. Cool Japan is the same on NHK World and TV Japan. The international members of the studio panel all speak (often impressively fluent) English. The Japanese is subtitled.

On NHK World, domestic NHK documentary series like The Professionals are show with the on-screen Japanese subtitled and the off-screen narration redone in English, which works fine. Infotainment shows like The Mark of Beauty and Lunch On are dubbed in their entirety.

While the documentary segments of The Mark of Beauty work okay dubbed, when a charismatic actor like Masao Kusakari hosts a program, even if he's only on screen for about five minutes total, I want to hear Masao Kusakari, not a dub.

Especially with shows like Lunch On and Somewhere Street, though never shown on screen, the narrator is a participating character in the show, which requires decent acting skills and a well-translated script. Otherwise the dub can sounded forced and overacted or too cute.

It's a lot easier to overlook hits and misses in subtitles than in dubs. And subtitles don't color the quality of the original voice acting.

As you might imagine, I'm not a fan of dubbing. The same goes for languages I don't understand. I mean, one of the great things about watching Inspector Montalbano is just listening to Luca Zingaretti take on the role of the great Sicilian cop. It'd be a crime to dub him!

Unless, like Jackie Chan, he dubbed himself. Though I will admit that Disney and GKids often do a very good job. Having the heft in Hollywood to recruit quality actors and quality writers really makes a difference.

In any case, Japanese beginners will be more comfortable with NHK World. But if you are serious about learning Japanese, a good first step is getting out of your comfort zone with TV Japan or dLibrary Japan. And NHK Radio. Along with, of course, a whole lot of subtitled anime.

Related sites

dLibrary Japan
NHK Radio
NHK World
TV Japan

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May 16, 2019

Twelve Kingdoms on Crunchyroll

Crunchyroll is streaming the anime series originally broadcast on NHK in 2002 and 2003. Crunchyroll acquired the rights from Discotek Media, which will release a Blu-ray edition later this month. The Discotek Media license is limited to North America. The series is also available on Amazon (dub only) and AsianCrush (I don't know what regions).

Netflix still has the series on DVD.

The NHK adaptation audaciously tried to cover all of the books in print at the time. But 45 episodes are not nearly enough to do the material justice. As a result, the sped-up storylines overlap (Taiki gets an early mention devoid of context), plot elements and characters are mixed and matched, while others are invented out of whole cloth.

To get an idea of how fast the narrative is paced, Rakushun shows up in episode 5, too early in the hero's journey for Youko to convincingly hit her physical and metaphysical "abyss." The plotting at that point instead turns on the invented elements.

Sugimoto makes a compelling proxy for both Suzu and the monkey. In fact, she's got an interesting enough arc to justify her own isekai series. She just doesn't belong in this one (beyond chapter 3 of Shadow of the Moon).

On the other hand, I have no idea what Asano is doing there as he hardly does anything. I imagine some marketing executive insisted on giving Youko a male classmate to broaden the demographic appeal. Unfortunately, the presence of these characters dilutes the dramatic impact of Youko's moral transformation.

And there are still three more books to go plus a couple of short stories.

In any case, the NHK series makes for a decent sort of Cliff's Notes guide. In the process, it leaves plenty of room for future (more faithful) adaptations. As with the remake of Space Battleship Yamato26 episodes for Shadow of the Moon and 26 episodes for A Thousand Leagues of Wind would be a nice start.

For historical fantasy world building on a similar scale, with a similar setting (though derived from medieval Korea rather than from China) and a similar main character arc, I recommend Yona of the Dawn. It is not an isekai series and I can't say how closely it tracks the original manga.

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May 09, 2019

TV Japan and NHK World

Much of the programming on NHK World and TV Japan is repurposed from NHK's two terrestrial channels, NHK G ("general") and NHK ETV ("educational"), and its satellite network. Along with original content created specifically for NHK World and TV Japan by the Japan International Broadcasting Company (JIB).

JIB "produces English-language programs about Japan and Asia for an international audience." It is majority-owned by NHK with outside investors such as Microsoft and Mizuho Bank. The most prominent entry in the lineup is NHK Newsline, broadcast on NHK World at the top of every hour and delivered by English-speaking anchors.

Aside from the news, NHK World's programming revolves around a six-hour block that repeats four times a day, with most episodes rerunning several times a week. The net result is only a few hours of original programming every day, in addition to the sumo coverage and documentary specials.

One of NHK World's big draws is its sumo tournament coverage, provided on a time-delayed basis during the week and live on the weekends. The same English-language commentary is available on TV Japan using the SAP option.

NHK World's sister network is TV Japan, branded "NHK World Premium" outside North America. It is a subscription Japanese-language service that draws more heavily from NHK G and the NHK satellite network. The news is directly sourced from domestic Japanese broadcasts. There are very few reruns and repeats in the schedule.

Along with NHK's flagship Taiga and Asadora dramas, TV Japan carries NHK's scripted dramas, documentaries, and edutainment shows, along with a curated selection of popular shows from Japan's commercial networks. The higher-brow stuff, mind you, but not necessarily that high brow. Shows that regularly top the ratings.

NHK takes that "general" seriously and works hard to appeal to an audience larger than, for example, PBS. In Japan, it's not unusual for NHK to win its time slot.

In North America, TV Japan tries to maintain a consistent programming grid that approximates the prime time lineup in Japan. So, for example, the Sunday Taiga drama is broadcast at 8:00 PM in Japan and 8:00 PM EST in the United States (6:00 PM MST).

News is mostly the live NHK feed, though it may be time-shifted an hour or two depending on Daylight Saving Time and other factors. That means Good Morning Japan (early edition) comes on at 3:00 PM MDT and at 5:00 PM MDT (late edition).

Other than some subtitled movies and anime, TV Japan localizes very little of its content. This allows TV Japan to carry a wide slate of domestic programming soon after being broadcast in Japan and sometimes live. If you're a Japanese beginner, you'll be more comfortable with NHK World.

NHK World is a free public service. In Northern Utah, NHK World is broadcast over-the-air on UEN 9.4. Thirty-minute NHK World segments are carried on the PBS subchannels as well. NHK World is available on Roku and other streaming devices.

TV Japan has significantly expanded its distribution network in the past year. It is available on DirecTV (satellite) and Xfinity (cable), and via local cable and IPTV providers. But it has also become less affordable as a standalone option.

TV Japan isn't available on Sling International, DirecTV Now, or Xfinity Instant TV. I can only hope that TV Japan is holding back the streaming rights because it intends to launch a live streaming service like HBO Now. The pieces are already in place.

NHK Cosmomedia has NHK World up and running as a live streaming service, with apps for Roku, Fire TV, Apple TV and Android. The only new feature TV Japan would need is a program guide. All the functionality is there. Video-on-demand services like dLibrary Japan actually require a more complex interface.

dLibrary Japan is a video-on-demand service for content that NHK Cosmomedia originally licensed for TV Japan. At $9.99/month, it's pricier than anime services like Crunchyroll, but more affordable than TV Japan.

NHK's 2018–2019 Corporate Profile (PDF in English) provides a colorfully illustrated overview of the organization.

Related sites

dLibrary Japan
NHK World
TV Japan

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May 02, 2019

Happy Reiwa 1!

Japan's first imperial succession from a living emperor in more than two centuries made for a uniquely celebratory atmosphere. In Japan, midnight on April 30 was like New Year's Eve at Times Square. A countdown, fireworks, and great good cheer.

The new era has arrived!

I was working in Japan in January 1989. The mood was gray and somber. Emperor Hirohito had been on his death bed for months. The press macabrely reported every blood transfusion he received. A lot of blood transfusions. Happy times it was not.

The reign of Emperor Akihito commenced on 8 January 1989 and ended on 30 April 2019 in the year Heisei 31. On 1 May 2019, Crown Prince Naruhito inherited the Imperial Regalia and the Office of Emperor, marking the start of the Reiwa era.

Naruhito is Japan's fifth emperor since the 1868 Meiji Restoration moved the capital from Kyoto to Tokyo and restored de jure imperial rule. He is the 126th emperor of Japan, the oldest continuous and hereditary monarchy in the world.

Granted, beginning with Emperor Jimmu (reigned 660–585 BC), a "direct descendant" of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, the first nine emperors are "presumed legendary." Emperor Kinmei (reigned 539–571 AD) was the first with "historical verifiability."

Mutsuhito (1867) Meiji era
Yoshihito (1912) Taisho era
Hirohito (1926) Showa era
Akihito (1989) Heisei era
Naruhito (2019) Reiwa era

In Japanese, an emperor's given name is not used in public. As a result, imperial references differ depending on whether you are, for example, watching NHK in Japanese or English. In English, Emperor Naruhito is referred to as "Emperor Naruhito."

In Japanese, while alive, the emperor is "Tennou Heika (天皇陛下) or "His Imperial Majesty the Emperor." Emperor Akihito is now Joukou (上皇) or "Emperor Emeritus." Posthumously, an emperor is referred to by his era name.

As with the several months that elapse between the election an American president and the inauguration, the formal enthronement ceremony is scheduled for October. If you're the head of state of a country with formal diplomatic relations with Japan, you're invited.

Since the Meiji era, (male) Japanese politicians have worn the English morning coat on formal occasions.

In a historical first, Satsuki Katayama, a member of Prime Minister Abe's cabinet, became the first woman to attend an enthronement ceremony. She wore a kimono.

Related posts

The last year of Heisei
The name of the new era

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April 25, 2019

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (publication date)

On 19 April 2019, Shinchosha announced the publication dates for Fuyumi Ono's forthcoming novel. The following press release was posted on the official Twelve Kingdoms website.

The latest installment in the Twelve Kingdoms series goes on sale this October!! Thank you all for being so patient! Having finalized the release date for the long awaited new novel, we wished to fill you in on the details.

The author's epic manuscript of over 2500 pages will be published in four volumes. Volumes I and II go on sale Saturday, October 12. Volumes III and IV go on sale Saturday, November 9. (Please note that these dates differ from Shinchosha's usual release schedule.)

We received the first volume from the author at the end of last year and the final volume in March. The publishing schedule has been set and we are getting everything ready to deliver them to you.

The best way to enjoy this great new saga is to start with the books already in print. Special displays are being installed in bookstores around the country leading up to the October release. Golden Week would be a great time to reread A Shadow of the Moon, A Sea of Shadows!

For those new to the Twelve Kingdoms, or read it so long ago they've lost track of the important details, don't worry! We've created a new website—"The Twelve Kingdoms in Five Minutes!"—to get you started.

Let's all look forward to the October 12, 2019 launch date together!

Shinchosha also launched a Twitter campaign (the post is misdated on the home page) asking readers to share what they love about the Twelve Kingdoms series. Twelve (randomly selected) submissions will receive a clear file folder signed by Fuyumi Ono and illustrator Akihiro Yamada.

In Japan, "Golden Week" refers to four national holidays starting on April 29 that take place within seven days. This year, Golden Week will be extended to ten days in order to accommodate the abdication of Emperor Akihito on April 30 and the enthronement of Crown Prince Naruhito on May 1.

Related posts

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (It's official!)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (Happy New Year!)
Squared (lined) paper

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April 18, 2019

Streaming according to Pareto

Commonly known as the "80/20 rule," the Pareto principle was formulated by Vilfredo Pareto to describe the distribution of wealth. For example, 80 percent of the wealth being held by 20 percent of the population. Or 20 percent of the items in a store accounting for 80 percent of the sales.

To be sure, "80/20" represents an idealized distribution. The real world is bound to differ. But as a power-law probability function, the Pareto principle describes many real-world economic, social, scientific, and actuarial phenomena. It also applies to digital entertainment services.

Back in 2004, Chris Anderson observed that at Netflix, 20 percent (or so) of the titles accounted for 80 percent of rental traffic (the DVD still ruled back then). But he also noted that the other 80 percent, what he termed the "long tail," still added up to a significant amount of business.

As inventory costs have fallen towards zero for digital media, the value of the "backlist" (as it is known in book publishing) has grown substantially.

A flaw in Anderson's original thesis is that few media services are willing to sink the resources into their search and sorting engines that Netflix did. Without discoverability, the safe money is again on the hit productions that generate 80 percent of the revenue.

Cable television has long been in the business of selling the hits and the long tail. But the cable model has increasingly revealed the misleading way the long tail is commonly visualized, as a two-dimensional line that slowly tapers off to zero, rather than spreading out in all directions.

There isn't one long tail but hundreds, often with nothing in common. Imagine that back during the 1990s, if you wanted to subscribe to PC Magazine, you had to subscribe to every periodical Ziff Davis published. And Sports Illustrated. That's how the legacy cable model works.

Streaming, however, creates an economical way to split the long tails into standalone packages. Actually, digital television led the way, with OTA broadcasters carrying digital subchannels like QVC, Comet, Charge, PBS Create, and NHK World that aim specific content at specific audiences.

Curating titles in their own genre silos addresses the discovery issues, and makes it easier for the audience to identify the channel and content they wish to watch. But it's up to the customer to do the heavy lifting.

As opposed to grabbing the remote, turning on the TV, scrolling through the channel guide, and clicking on whatever, streaming customers have to install the apps, sign in, and queue up what they want to watch (though the first two steps should only have to be done once).

Those decision trees forge a closer relationship between spending choices and viewing choices. As Jared Newman puts it, "The easier cord-cutting is, the less money it saves."

Back when the DVD was king, nothing did Netflix's bottom line better than customers who signed up for their "best deal," its unlimited three-DVDs-out-at-a-time plan, but only got around to watching two or three when they could be cycling through a dozen DVDs a month.

As long as the cable companies can sell customers overpriced "fat packages" chock full of channels they rarely if ever watch, they will be loath to offer customized "skinny bundles" at a steeply discounted price.

And for the time being, they have little impetus to. "Traditional cable" remains the default choice in 90 million households. But for how much longer?

Only a decade ago, Netflix ran Blockbuster out of business. Today, shipping DVDs is a tiny (but still profitable) part of its revenue stream. Netflix was willing to deprecate its original business model in order to adapt to the changing technological times. Blockbuster was not.

Blockbuster CEO John Antioco attempted to pivot the company. The Blockbuster board was on board at first, but couldn't believe the world was changing that fast and refused to accept the substantial hit to the bottom line. Antioco got fired. Six years later, Blockbuster went bankrupt.

Will "traditional cable" turn out to be Netflix or Blockbuster? Well, antenna-only households have grown by 50 percent in less than a decade. One way or another, a tipping point is approaching, probably faster than we expect.

Related links

Why Blockbuster really failed
Japanese media update

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April 11, 2019

Beautiful Bones

Given a title like Beautiful Bones, you might jump to the conclusion that this light novel and anime series shares much in common with Bones, the police procedural starring Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz.

And you'd be right.

Those obvious assumptions are obviously intended. This a good example of "localizing" an anime or light novel title rather than literally translating the original. The actual title of the light novel series is "A Corpse is Buried Under Sakurako's Feet" (「櫻子さんの足下には死体が埋まっている」).

Long light novel titles have become trendy of late, which can give overseas publishers fits.

Like Deschanel's Temperance "Bones" Brennan, Sakurako Kujo is a socially maladroit osteologist with a penchant for stumbling across dead bodies. She isn't a famous author but comes from old money and lives in the (Gothic) family mansion with an elderly housekeeper and the menagerie of animal skeletons she reconstructs as her hobby.

She's more eccentric than Temperance Brennan, closer in personality to House and Holmes on the brilliant antisocial obsessive detective scale. Her Watson (or Wilson) is Shotaro Tatewaki, a high school student who does his best to keep her more manic proclivities in check.

Being a kid ("shonen"), he can only do so much. I can't help wondering how the series would play out if Sakurako were paired with Boreanaz's Agent Booth, someone with the strong personality and physical presence to root her more firmly in the real world.

But there's nothing wrong with this version either. Shotaro is a competent kid. Well, he has to be, given who he hangs out with. The result is, like House, Sakurako ends up with more latitude to be her own brilliantly semi-unbalanced self.

As voiced by Shizuka Ito, Sakurako often reminds me of Jolene Blalock's T'Pol on Enterprise, constantly having to put up with humans and their annoying illogical emotions.

Of course, when you create a smart detective, you have to create smart crimes for her to solve. That means the detective has to be smarter than the criminal, and the screenwriter has to be smarter than them both.

Making the smart detective a scientist gives them (the detective and the writer) access to a pool of deductible facts that is both technically complex and accessible through research (or hire a consultant). Shiori Ota, author of the novels, has clearly done one or the other or both.

The result is a well-structured set of mysteries that mostly play fair—we are privy to the same information as Shotaro. Each mystery concludes in one or two episodes. An unresolved arc involving a Moriarty-type figure runs through the series, but never overwhelms the individual episodes.

The anime ran for only one cour, so the unresolved arc remains unresolved, though the villain's identity and motives are revealed in the penultimate episode. But it does not end on a cliffhanger, and the light novels series is still active, with fourteen volumes now in print. So a second cour may be in the offing.

One other unique thing about Beautiful Bones is that the series takes place in Hokkaido, where the author grew up. It makes for a nice change of setting and provides for the kind of wide-open spaces (and much more driving) than you'll experience in Tokyo.

Related videos

Beautiful Bones (CR) (HIDIVE)

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April 04, 2019

The name of the new era

In Japan, the school year and the fiscal year begin on the first day of April. This year saw another first on the first. Shortly before noon, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga announced the era name that will mark the reign of Emperor Naruhito after he is enthroned on 1 May 2019.

The name of the new era is "Reiwa" (令和), pronounced "lay-wah" in Japanese. In a unique step, instead of referencing the Chinese classics, the usage for the kanji was taken from the Man'yoshu. Dating to the 8th century, it is the oldest extant anthology of Japanese poetry. The Japan Times explains,

The Man'yoshu passage that inspired Reiwa was written by poet Otomo no Tabito as an introduction to 32 plum-themed poems penned by his poet friends, according to officials. In the introduction, rei refers to "reigetsu" or "auspicious month," while wa describes the peaceful manner of an early spring breeze.

In contemporary Japanese, rei (令) means "dictate" or "decree." The more common wa is the same "wa" as in "Showa," the era name of Emperor Hirohito. It means "peace" or "harmony." So a literal reading of Reiwa based on modern meanings might be along the lines of "order and peace."

As University of Tokyo historian Kazuto Hongo observes, "The name sounds as if we are ordered to achieve peace, rather than doing so proactively."

The intended meaning based on the context provided by the Man'yoshu is something more like "auspicious harmony." In an effort to counter the "order and peace" interpretation, the Foreign Ministry has since clarified that the "official" English translation of Reiwa is "beautiful harmony."

In a press conference following the presentation by the Chief Cabinet Secretary, Prime Minister Abe waxed poetic.

We have decided the new name to be "Reiwa" in the hope that Japan will be a country where each Japanese person can achieve success with hopes for the future like plum flowers that bloom brilliantly after the severe cold.

As far as that goes, the kanji 麗 (rei) does unambiguously refer to beauty, but it violates the "simple to read and write" rule that a modern gengou must follow. Both 麗 and 令 (especially as a radical) have long been used in names for girls. In the coming years, they will likely become more common.

The proclamation of the era name traditionally follows the death of the emperor. Two years ago, in a national address, Emperor Akihito made clear his desire to retire, citing his age and declining health. A year later, a bill was passed by the Diet creating the necessary legal framework and timeline of events.

Emperor Akihito will formally abdicate on 30 April 2019. His son becomes emperor on 1 May 2019, and the new gengou will begin. So the rest of 2019 will be Reiwa 1 and 2020 will be Reiwa 2.

Unique among Asian nations, the gengou (元号) or nengou (年号) is not simply ceremonial, but is used in all government documents, from currency to birth certificates, and is widely adopted throughout the private sector. Practically any official document will include the gengou and the Gregorian date.

In their day to day activities, especially in years like 2019 with two gengou, Japanese have to be "bilingual" in gengou and Gregorian.

The modern gengou system (since 1868) actually constituted a great improvement. As Donald Keene explains in Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World,

Until the adoption of Meiji as the name for Mutsuhito's entire reign, the nengou was traditionally changed several times during the reign of a single emperor—at two fixed points in the cycle of sixty years, or when a series of natural disasters were attributed to an inauspicious nengou or when some prodigy of nature required recognition in the calendar.

In the modern era, a group of scholars in classical Japanese and Chinese literature and history comes up with a list of era names. Then the Chief Cabinet Secretary gathers input from leading opinion leaders, such as Nobel laureate Shin'ya Yamanaka and Naoki Prize winning writer Mariko Hayashi.

The short list is presented to the leadership of both chambers of the Diet, after which the full Cabinet makes the final selection.

Over the next month, computer programmers will have their hands full updating all of the date-dependent software. Crown Prince Naruhito is a healthy 59 years old, so the Reiwa era should last a good twenty or thirty years, at which point the whole process will begin once again.

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March 28, 2019

Mary Sue to the rescue

The eponymous character, originally named Lieutenant Mary Sue, was created by Paula Smith in her short 1973 parody of Star Trek fan fiction. Editing a Star Trek fanzine, Smith had noticed the predominance of stories that featured

the adventures of the youngest and smartest person ever to graduate from Star Fleet Academy and ever get a commission. Usually characterized by unprecedented skill in everything from art to zoology, including karate and arm wrestling, this character can be found burrowing her way into the good graces of Kirk, Spock, or McCoy, if not all three at once. She saves the day by her wit and ability, and, if we are lucky, has the good grace to die at the end, being grieved by the entire ship.

The Mary Sue can be simply summed up as a character who is too good to be true, having acquired more skills and talents and positive personality traits than our most generous expectations suggest is realistically possible.

Put the Mary Sue shortcut down to the rush of wish fulfillment or to impatient writers who want to fast forward to the "interesting" scenes. Or who think they are giving the audience what it wants to see. You know, because practicing to get good at something is for chumps.

Meeting all these criteria, a recent Mary Sue par excellence is Rey in The Force Awakens.

Yoda himself can't keep Luke Skywalker from getting badly beaten by Darth Vader in the second movie. Forget about crossing swords with anybody in the first. But Rey is an expert the first time she touches a lightsaber. She's as good a pilot as Han Solo the first time she sits in the cockpit of the Millenium Falcon.

Now, Luke does have a Mary Sue moment at the end of A New Hope, when he pilots an X-wing starfighter to victory. No, logging a couple hundred hours in the equivalent of a Cessna 172 does not mean you can hop into an F-35 Lightning and out-fly the Top Guns who've been at it for years.

We give Luke a pass here thanks to the narrative trick of making the audience a participant in the trials, travails, and eventual triumphs of the protagonist. As the help wanted ads put it, having proved his mettle, we'll let the good guy skate by on "equivalent experience" in lieu of a resume.

The problem with Rey is that's she's perfect from the moment she appears on the screen. We never see her resume. We never see her burning the midnight oil. Making it all the more annoying, as I outlined in my review, is that it would not have been difficult to give her one.

The big irony of the Mary Sue and its Star Trek origins is that The Next Generation wrote one right into the cast. Pandering to the fan base, I suppose. But perhaps any trope worth being singled out and savagely critiqued is one that connects at a deep level with a significant portion of the audience.

In that light, it deserves a defense. And so now I rise not to bury Mary Sue but to praise her.

To be sure, I cannot bring myself to defend Wesley Crusher. He is exactly the kind of annoying Mary Sue that Paula Smith snarked about back in 1973. Any reasonable appeal to verisimilitude cannot tolerate his presence on the Enterprise bridge.

But a Mary Sue story can be done right. Snow White with the Red Hair shows how.

Based on the manga by Sorata Akizuki, the anime (available from Funimation) ran two cours. The manga (not available in English) is still being serialized. As befitting the title, the story takes place in a spick and span Disneyland of a medieval kingdom (the setting itself qualifies as a Mary Sue).

When we first meet her, Shirayuki (白雪), whose name translates as "Snow White," is a conscientious herbalist who owns a small pharmacy. That is, until the lecherous Prince Raj, entranced by her brilliant red hair, decides to make Shirayuki his mistress. And won't take no for an answer.

Figuring that caution is the better part of valor, Shirayuki's answer is to pack up and scamper across the border, where she promptly runs into Prince Zen of Clarines and his retainers. It's "like" at first sight.

No mooning around. No one gets serenaded beneath a window. Shirayuki and Zen are preternaturally practical and competent people. Shirayuki has principles and no hesitation in standing up for them. And one of those principles is to own only what she's earned.

Although ostensibly a "European" kingdom, Clarines appears to be run by a ranked bureaucracy of mandarins appointed through an imperial examination system. Determined to stay close to Zen but refusing any handouts, Shirayuki applies for a job as an assistant court herbalist. And passes the tests.

But, again, the backstory has established that she works hard and is good at it, and goes to sufficient lengths to demonstrate that she is deserving of the position. Zen as well works for a living. Being a prince in Clarines comes with a portfolio. Besides going on inspection tours, he has to sit at a desk and push paper around.

These jobs not only make them more interesting but also generate compelling plot material.

(Seriously, what do Disney's Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty actually do? Well, Cinderella is good at housekeeping. What does Elsa do? Anna at least has the important job of keeping Elsa from going nuts and destroying the kingdom.)

There's no need to pretend Shirayuki and Zen aren't Mary Sues. They are too good to be true. Here we have a pair of protagonists who couldn't be any nicer without getting saccharin. Even Prince Raj can't resist becoming a better person when he's around them (a character arc that pays off well in the second cour).

Yet they both possess a depth of character that makes their stories compelling. Yes, nice people can be interesting and do interesting things. I would describe the resulting genre as a "cozy" romance, the equivalent of the "cozy" mystery.

Dispensed with are the angst, the sturm und drang, the love triangles, the miscommunication, all the melodramatic conventions of the genre. Another way of describing this romance sub-genre might be "You and me (and our friends) against the world."

In fact, the only real hint of romantic tension arises among their friends, principally Mitsuhide, Kiki, and Obi, who are Zen's retainers, though Zen assigns Obi to Shirayuki. Later in the series, Mitsuhide seems to have a thing for Kiki, and Obi definitely has unrequited affection for Shirayuki.

But being loyal to Zen and having earned his trust, Obi never does anything stupid or inappropriate. Aside from Mitsuhide getting goofy in one episode in which he goes looking for Shirayuki in the pharmacy and accidentally ingests an elixir, nobody embarrasses anybody or betrays anybody or compromises anybody.

Even for the day or so that Mitsuhide is under the effect of the elixir, he acts like a stereotypical gallant knight and drives everybody batty. It's a clever way of stating what the show is not about.

In the second cour, the world throws more high adventure their way, what with pirates and outlaws and damsels in distress and long lost family members showing up in unexpected places. But Shirayuki keeps her head on her shoulders (literally and figuratively) and the relationship never falters. Neither does her career.

In the end, nobody rides off into the sunset. There's no mention of any impending nuptials. We don't need to be told that Shirayuki and Zen will live "happily ever after." They only need to live their lives as best they can. From what we have learned about them, that will suffice. Real life is tough enough already.

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March 21, 2019

Japanese media update (updated)

So after a dozen years, I bid Dish a fond farewell. I must point out that the agent I spoke with was affable, courteous, and professional. If that's the norm at Dish in customer retention, my hat's off to them. Well done. I wouldn't have left if TV Japan hadn't left first.

TV Japan is why I subscribed to Dish in the first place. As I have documented in previous posts, in early 2018, TV Japan (née NHK Cosmomedia) abandoned Dish and made DirecTV its exclusive satellite provider. No explanation for only making their satellite service exclusive.

Family Gekijyo filled the empty programming slot. In Japan, Family Gekijyo resembles ION TV, its schedule consisting of a few original shows and a whole bunch of reruns. The problem is, Family Gekijyo in Japan in no way resembles the Family Gekijyo that Dish ended up with.

Perhaps Family Gekjyo is using the channel assignment as a placeholder for something else. Though it's more likely it underestimated the cost and difficulty of negotiating overseas rights for the content it broadcasts in Japan. Its Dish offerings are old, threadbare, and repetitious.

NHK, by contrast, has an annual operating budget of around $7 billion and an equivalent amount of political pull.

Which is too bad. Dish charged almost thirty dollars less than DirecTV and Xfinity for a similar "limited basic" package plus a premium international channel. (If you're an Internet or cable subscriber, the Xfinity rate card can be downloaded here.)

A dozen years with Dish established my pain point at $40/month total for a single à la carte programming package. TV Japan isn't available on Xfinity Instant TV. The lowest-cost "cable box" package pushes the out-of-pocket to $60/month, and that's not including all the additional taxes and fees.

Over $70/month to access a single channel? No way, no how. Frankly, even $40/month is too rich for my blood these days, especially compared to what streaming has to offer.

Crunchyroll is the biggest anime kid on the block and has the best website. Lots of reviews. Funimation has a smaller library but is the biggest licensee of physical media in North America. It's hard to pass over since the partnership with Crunchyroll ended and Funimation left with its exclusive content.

The thing is, these services are so affordable that subscribing to a couple will hardly break the bank.

Tubi is an ad-supported free streaming service with a surprising number of Japanese movies and anime. The ads can get samey but they are parceled out parsimoniously, they're not loud, and the ad engine is well-integrated. The overall viewing experience is superior to commercial TV.

For the time being, here's my list of go-to Roku channels:

 • Crunchyroll ($7.99/month or $79.99/year)
 • Funimation ($5.99/month or $59.99/year)
 • NHK World (free)
 • Tubi (free)

dLibrary Japan ($9.99/month) is how NHK Cosmomedia reuses content originally licensed for TV Japan. When it first launched, it charged too much for too little. But it's been steadily adding content to its catalog. Once it gets a Roku app, I'll kick the tires and drive it around the block.

Even with dLibrary Japan, I'd be nowhere near that $40/month threshold. I'll probably toss HIDIVE ($4.99/month) into the mix when it gets a Roku app. HIDIVE hosts a number of highly watchable Sentai Filmworks exclusives.

Related sites

dLibrary Japan
NHK World
Tubi TV
TV Japan

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March 14, 2019

Silver Spoon

Peaks Island Press proudly announces the second volume in the Donna Howard Mystery Series.

Since her adventures in Coin, Donna Howard has become an established investigator of relics and antiques, with the help of deceased historical people only she can see. This time around, her investigation takes her to Salem, Massachusetts, where she delves into the town's haunted history and the modern world of antique hunting.

Her research into the provenance of a silver spoon leads Donna to a stash of unexpectedly valuable junk in an old man's basement, an old man whose death Donna begins to suspect was less than "accidental." Along with opportunistic antiquers, she must also contend with a possible murder, a possible possession, and a possible boyfriend.

Because nothing can make the dead past and the living present more precarious than the unpredictable complexities of human relationships.

Google Play

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March 07, 2019


Girls und Panzer is a textbook example of how to launch a story in medias res without any title cards or opening crawls or expository dialogue to establish and explain the crazy backstory. You either suspend disbelief from the get-go or you don't.

Director Tsutomu Mizushima and veteran screenwriter and manga artist Reiko Yoshida throw so much insanity onto the screen in the first episode, while treating it all as "normal," that you find yourself scratching your head and nodding and saying to yourself, "Hmm, you know, I guess it kinda sorta makes sense."


The premise here is that high schools engage in war games as an extramural sport, with national championships and everything. Not in a virtual world (that'd be somewhat plausible), but with fully operational platoons of vintage WWII tanks, adding up to more rolling armor than most of the world's modern militaries.

All the caveats about "safety measures" notwithstanding, even if the shells were blanks (they're not), accidents alone would rack up a serious body count. The "sport" is not without some risks—Miho had previously quit after one such accident—but supposedly "risky" the same way that American football is "risky."

Yeah, no. I mean, there's suspending disbelief and then there's disbelieving the most rudimentary laws of physics.

Nor did I get a satisfactory explanation—aside from a single line of dialogue when a character poses the same question—of why entire towns are built atop gigantic aircraft carriers. Because, that's why.

Yet I couldn't stop watching. It absolutely shouldn't, but the whole thing simply works at every level.

At the story level, this shouldn't be all that surprising. The sports genre has been a reliable mainstay of manga and anime for half a century, and Girls und Panzer constitutes a solid entry in the canon. As such, the almost entirely plot-driven narrative makes it easier to look past the inherent craziness.

It's also a classic underdog story, as Miho has to figure out how to defeat larger and better equipped teams with her oddball tanks and crews. (Like "oddball," the series is peppered with references to Kelly's Heroes.)

You see, when Oarai Girls High School previously shut down the program for lack of interest and funds and sold off the equipment, the only tanks left were the ones nobody else wanted.

Although the focus of the series is on the tanks and the competitions, human drama is not absent. An interesting dynamic plays out between Miho, Maho (her older sister), and their mother. Naturally, the national championship will come down to a battle between the two tanks personally commanded by Miho and Maho.

I think we have a winner in the sibling rivalry metaphor department.

In fact, it is so easy to get caught up in the competitions and Miho's ingenious solutions to one impossible predicament after the next that you can easily overlook the the most unusual and compelling thing about Girls und Panzer. The girls.

These are all-girl teams in an all-girl competition in (as far as I can tell) an all-girl "sport."

They're teenagers, of course, so the subject of boys comes up. But not one speck of drama or plot development revolves around a teenage boy. I don't think a teenage boy even appears on screen. Men pop up here and there in peripheral supporting roles. But from beginning to end, every major character is female.

And yet we don't hear one speck of political or social commentary about this obvious fact either.

Miho's recruiting campaign (Oarai High is desperately short of tank crews) argues that tankery as a martial art is a great way to improve a girl's feminine attributes.

Historically, this argument is not that big of a reach. It was common practice in medieval Japan for the daughters of noblemen and samurai to study the naginata (halberd). Today, high school girls regularly participate in the traditional martial arts of judo, kendo (fencing), and kyudo (archery).

Hana Isuzu, Miho's gunner, comes from a family famous for its skill at kado (ikebana or flower arrangement). Hana's mother is initially opposed to her daughter's participation in tankery, but will later concede that it has improved Hana's artistic skill and expressiveness at flower arrangement.

Nobody at any point questions the ability of girls (as a sex) to operate tanks and command tank platoons. There's an important lesson here. The complete absence of "messaging" about the female composition of this heavily armored Themyscira or "Her-tank-land" makes the inherent message that much more appealing to boys.

The manga and light novels were serialized in seinen magazines (aimed at young adult males). And yet, aside from the standard short skirts and an obligatory hot springs scene, there's barely any fan service. Again, this is first and foremost a sports anime. It's all about winning the tank battles.

Tank battles fought by girls. In their Panzers.

Related videos

Girls und Panzer (CR) (HIDIVE)
Girls und Panzer OVA
Girls und Panzer der Film

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February 28, 2019

Cute girls doing interesting things

Being less constrained by the budgetary boundaries of Hollywood productions, and often based on material originally created by a production team of one or two, anime ends up throwing a lot more ideas against the wall to see what sticks.

As depicted in Bakuman, manga artists constantly compete to come up with a unique cast on the same-old same-old. The survival of the fictional fittest yields new tropes and formulas that are refined, exploited, and exhausted. Then the whole process starts all over again.

This Darwinistic struggle can also yield bursts of surprising creativity. Genres from opposite ends of the story spectrum intersect in ways that can only be described using multidimensional Venn diagrams.

A recent break-out genre is commonly referred to as "Cute girls doing cute things." It arose out of the primordial soup of moe, which can be defined as "the ideal of youthful and innocent femininity." In narrative terms, it means using cuteness both as a theme and a character trait.

Writers quickly realized that "more is better" and were soon populating their stories with casts of cute girls-next-door. This yielded slice-of-life comedies about cute girls hanging out, attending school, and having fun together, less concerned with plot than the warm fuzzies.

Representative series include Non-Non Biyori, Azumanga Daioh, and Strawberry Marshmallow.

Also drawing on the valuable insight that a sure way to create an interesting character is to give her a job or hobby, the focus was further refined to highlight cute girls engaged in specific activities. The better description now is "Cute girls doing interesting things in a cute way."

The genre-making hit in this regard was probably the K-On! franchise, about five high school girls who form a rock band. But to illustrate how heterodox such a simple concept can become, an earlier hallmark series was Aria, about cute girls working as gondoliers on Mars.

And then there is Girls und Panzer, in which a group of cute girls operate a platoon of vintage tanks in unrealistically realistic high school war games. On a less exotic note, cute girls form a mountain hiking club in Encouragement of Climb and a camping club in Laid-Back Camp.

Sakura Quest tackles the intractable problems of rural depopulation. Five cute girls (they're mostly adults this time around) are recruited by the tourist board to help revitalize a small town. The comic premise notwithstanding, they come up with real-world, practical solutions.

Seriously, you could use Sakura Quest as the text in a college course on the subject.

The stereotypical Japanese obsession with technical precision is on full display. Actual equipment and techniques are depicted in Encouragement of Climb and Laid-Back Camp. The tanks in Girls und Panzer are shown in exacting detail and are operated according to historical specs.

As with the ever-popular cooking shows, the goal is to geek out on a subject while keeping it interesting. And one sure way to make it interesting is to keep it cute!

Related videos

Azumanga Daioh
Encouragement of Climb
Girls und Panzer
Laid-Back Camp
Non-Non Biyori
Sakura Quest
Strawberry Marshmallow

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February 21, 2019

The ILAB is on the case!

Late last year, Amazon-owned AbeBooks caused a kerfuffle with its international partners when it abruptly switched credit card processors, leaving many of them with no way to accept payment for their products.

AbeBooks had told bookshops in countries including Hungary, the Czech Republic, South Korea and Russia that it would no longer support them from 30 November, citing migration to a new payment service provider as the reason for the withdrawal. The move prompted almost 600 booksellers in 27 countries to pull more than 3.5 million titles from AbeBooks, putting them on "vacation" as they cited the motto of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, "Amor librorum nos unit" (love of books unites us).

Amazon quickly said "Oops!" and pushed back the deadline while it figured out a more workable solution.

But I have to say that "International League of Antiquarian Booksellers" would make a great cover name for a secret society of cosmopolitan crime fighters. And that brings to mind Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia's Case Files by En Mikami, one of the coziest of all cozy mysteries series.

Shioriko Shinokawa is the pretty and preternaturally perspicacious proprietress of Biblia Antiquarian Bookshop. When not dealing in used and rare books, she and her Watson, Daisuke Goura, solve crimes of a literary nature. The live-action series (subtitled) is available on Crunchyroll.

Each episode takes its theme from a work in the Japanese or Western canon. For example, a case that turns on editorial changes made to the ending of A Clockwork Orange in the American edition that weren't amended until 1986. If nothing else, you'll learn a lot about publishing.

This is truly educational television.

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