November 19, 2015

Angel Beats!

Jun Maeda turned the visual novel game studio Key VisualArts into a synonym for true-to-life melodramas infused with a large dollop of magical realism. In Angel Beats, his latest anime series, he skips right past the realism and goes straight for the magical. Or rather, straight for the eschatological.

In the first scene, Yuzuru Otonashi wakes up in the afterlife and promptly gets killed again. He doesn't die because he's already dead. Which is a good thing, because he's fallen in with a gang of like-minded teenagers who have decided they do not want to "go gentle into that good night," and have armed themselves accordingly.

That means fighting "Angel," who's gotten very good at "killing" them in turn (it's like a painful time-out in the penalty box). Angel's ungentle job it is to see that they do go gentle into that good night. And that means being good students instead of a bunch of delinquents.

You see, Angel is the student council president. Purgatory is a Japanese high school. And Angel has appointed herself Charon, the ferryman.

Refreshingly, these rebels really are a bunch of delinquents, and despite all the scheming by Yuri, their bad girl leader, they're not good at being bad. Otonashi admits he would have joined whatever group first approached him. All they know is the status quo, so that's what they defend--to the repeated death.

Though following Jun Maeda's reliable formula, this is executed with a good deal of dark humor that at times (if you like this sort of thing) is quite funny.

Helped along by the fact that Angel isn't a mindless antagonist, and this hapless gang--who admit they don't really know what they're rebelling against (to quote Marlon Brando: "Whaddya got?")--aren't necessarily the protagonists. Because the only true enemy is the self.

Yeah, I know, that's about as trite as truisms get, but stick with it. It pays off.

There's an element of The Matrix here. The "red pill" students know they're dead but alive in an unreal world, while the "blue pill" students remain completely oblivious. Except here Maeda fills in the gaps that The Matrix misses, by giving all parties compelling, even moral, reasons for their choices.

Though in substance and message, Angel Beats! reminds me more of Haibane Renmei, Yoshitoshi ABe's subtle and sublime meditation on grace and redemption. ABe's protagonist is Rakka, who is "reborn" into an afterlife that resembles a semi-rural village in mid-20th century Eastern Europe.

In the pastoral world of Haibane Renmei, there is no presumed god to rail against, no laid-down path to salvation, no sign posts pointing the way. Their "job" is to live out their afterlives in the community while "working out their salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).

But while Haibane Renmei is quiet and meditative, Angel Beats! is loud and obvious. It's the garage band version, with the volume turned up to eleven. Literally, as one of the gang's "weapons" is a student rock band that stages illegal concerts to distract Angel's minions during their "missions."

Angel Beats! also has a distinctly Buddhist slant. ABe created a purposely Catholic version of purgatory for Haibane Renmei. In Angel Beats! Christian "salvation" isn't in the cards. Getting "twinkled" is purely a product of self-realization or satori, and only you can hold yourself back.

On this score, Joseph Smith would agree.

For our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; we shall not be found spotless; and our thoughts will also condemn us; and in this awful state we shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence (Alma 12:14).

Everybody in this purgatory is terrified of resurrecting the memories of who they were before they died, obsessed with what could have been versus what actually was. As Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." So the dead stay dead until they can face that examination directly.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to have someone show them the way. Perhaps somebody whose last name is a homophone for "gentle" (otonashii), and whose full name (音無結弦) is spelled with kanji that mean "the strings that bind without a sound" (yuzuru).

Related posts

Angel Beats! (Hulu CR)
Set Apart
Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry

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November 12, 2015

Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry

Tracing the provenance of an anime title can get tricky at times. Anime titles often originate in manga and light novels, though sometimes the anime comes first and the manga follows. A third important source is the visual novel.

In the U.S., the visual--or interactive--novel is the medium of the future, and always will be. But it's been well-established in Japan for twenty years (there's a lot of cultural information in that fact that deserved a Ph.D. dissertation). One of the big players in visual novels is Key VisualArts.

Co-founder and scenario writer Jun Maeda is largely responsible for Key's first three titles, Kanon, Air, and Clannad, which established Key's own sub-genre of magical realism fused with operatic melodrama.

Kanon and Clannad (that's the two-part anime series, not the New Age Irish band, though they're not bad either) are two of my all-time favorite tear-jerkers in any medium. Hope Chapman does a good job analyzing how  Jun Maeda pulls it off in "Why Clannad Made You Cry."

The paradoxical reason, Chapman points out, is not because "life sucks and then you die." Even done well, that approach is only depressing and ultimately silly and self-indulgent.

If a likable character dies in a story, that's sad. If a likable character dies and their loved ones suffer for it, that's sadder. If a likable character dies, their loved ones suffer for it, and then they get killed in a freak accident right after a messenger runs up to tell them that their family dog has also kicked the bucket, you've started spinning a bad comedy routine.

Rather, the exact opposite. "Make 'Em Laugh," as Donald O'Connor argued. And so, "For every five minutes of weepiness in Clannad, there's at least twenty minutes of comedy (and that's a conservative estimate)."

This joy--far more than suffering (Tolstoy was largely wrong on this point)--draws us into the lives of the characters and builds the expectation that more good things can and ought to keep on happening.

Just as importantly, though, when the good things stop happening, they can't stop happening forever or we're right back to nihilism. As Chapman puts it, with Maeda, "Karma Always Comes Through." The scales of justice balance, even if it takes a bit of magical realism to make it work.

Maeda uses magic to express his own feelings about the unfairness of reality, by "breaking" it just enough to give his characters what they've earned. If tragedy is usually absurdly unfair, why can't triumph come from equally absurd fairness?

C.S. Lewis noted the ("educated") human propensity to infuse more "authenticity" in the negative than the positive, even when the one is no more factually substantive than the other. And when it is that essential faith in the "happy ending" that accounts for the human will to exist in the first place.

The joy of the happy ending, or more correctly of the "good catastrophe," the sudden joyous turn (for there is no true end to any fairy tale)--this joy, which is one of the things that fairy stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially "escapist." It does not deny the existence of sorrow and failure, but it denies universal final defeat, and thus is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy.

Tolkien's word for this was eucatastrophe, "the sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the protagonist does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom." Like Lewis, Tolkien applied it not only to fiction but to theology.

The universality of the eucatastrophe has fashioned it into a framework on which solid storytelling can be constructed. It shows up across the spectrum of style and genre, from thoroughly westernized fairy tales like Disney's excellent Tangled to anime like Scrapped Princess and Madoka Magica.

The pervasiveness of the form and the formula is easily criticized as "convention." But the key word in the "same only different" is the "same." That sameness exists for a reason: ignoring convention is a good way to create uniquely bad art.

His respect for, and mastery of, the formula is what makes Jun Maeda a storyteller whose work always deserves a second look.

Related posts

Angel Beats!

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November 05, 2015

Anime vs. animation

Rich Duffy explains at Tofugu how anime evolved in a cinematic art form distinct from Hollywood (namely, Disney) animation, and now is evolving back. Economic necessity was the original impetus, and is still a factor, the typical anime production being budgeted at a third its Hollywood counterpart.

But the techniques established way back when have come to define the very "look & feel" of anime.

Citing Nobuyuki Tsugata and Marc Steinberg, Duffy defines anime as being "cel-based," while using a variety of tricks to lower the cel count. This drive to simplicity is countered by "a strong tendency toward the development of complex human relationships, stories and worlds."

On the business side, anime is organized around television and video distribution, making it "inherently transmedial."

At the same time, the economic necessity of simplifying the production process cannot be overstated. In the 1960s, television saw the same adoption rates in Japan as the U.S. (95 percent by 1964). What makes this all the more remarkable is that in 1960, GDP/capita for Japan was one-fifth that of the U.S.

The pioneer here was the animated television version of Astro Boy, produced by Osamu Tezuka's Mushi Pro. Tezuka had published the manga since 1952. The television series debuted in 1963. And to meet the budgetary requirements, Tezuka chose to animate the story, not necessarily the images

At the heart of Tezuka's cost-conscious approach (which he used to underbid the competition, except the low profit margins eventually drove Mushi Pro out of business) was "three-frame shooting." Each cel is held for three frames instead of one, resulting in an effective 8 frames-per-second. The standards in Hollywood are 15 fps for television and 24 fps for general-release movies.

This is known as "limited animation" in Hollywood, where "two-frame shooting" ("on the twos") is the standard cheat. What makes the difference is the magician's box of animation tricks and optical illusions employed to keep the story literally moving.

Duffy discusses these at greater length, but I'd like to draw attention to two. First is animating only those features of a moving object likely to be noticed. The most obvious (and most economizing) application of this is animating only the mouth in a static face.

The second is moving the camera instead of the image, the techniques that Ken Burns popularized on PBS (called the "Ken Burns effect"): zoom in on still photograph and slowly pan across it. Anime got there a long time ago. The upside of emphasizing backgrounds over the frame rate means that the backgrounds can become the main attraction.

One of John Lasseter's innovations (first at Disney, where it was initially ignored, then at Pixar, then back at Disney) was using computer graphics to produce complex, three-dimensional backgrounds.

Late 20th century Disney films like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin boast foreground animation that only a few Japanese studios like Ghibli can match. But the backgrounds are surprisingly bland.

Note the attention given to the backgrounds in the second season of Shirobako, to the extent of tracking down a specific artist to do the work. Keeping one artist on retainer is cheaper than a room full of animators. Makoto Shinkai is the current master of the background. Thanks to digital cameras and Adobe Photoshop, he can do most of the work himself. That's the real sea change.

There's an episode in Shirobako where Masato Marukawa, the president of "Musashino Animation," gives Aoi a tour of the boarded-up studios where he used to work ("Musashino Pictures" is an obvious reference to Mushi Pro, which went bankrupt in 1973 and reorganized in 1977).

Dusty old celluloid "cels" are still scattered about, the shelves lined with hundreds of jars of acrylic paint. It's a stark reminder of how labor-intensive animation used to be. Now sending artwork to "photography" means scanning them, after which they can be animated at the touch of a button. And that's if line drawings are used; otherwise everything's done in the computer.

This is one important variable that Duffy doesn't discuss. He points out that Hayao Miyazaki belongs to a school of Japanese animation (called "manga film") that eschews these "anime techniques" in favor of the more "traditional" Disney approach. Though it is getting increasingly difficult to tell the difference.

Hollywood borrows from anime and anime borrows from Hollywood. And from Silicon Valley. Along with motion capture, 2D and 3D computer graphics have become standard equipment in the anime toolbox.

CG-generated images can be interpolated to any frame rate you want. That means the differences in "quality" between Appleseed (2004), the Appleseed XIII (2013) TV series and Appleseed: Alpha (2014) come down to the cost of rendering. Those costs (in time and hardware) have fallen orders of magnitude since Toy Story (1995), and the revolution has barely started.

Shirobako illustrates the conflict between "old-school" animation and 3D CG, which comes to a head in a comically overblown argument over hand-drawn explosions vs. digitally-rendered explosions. Another development is keeping the old school alive: in-betweening is regularly contracted out to South Korea, China, and Vietnam.

I think the now ubiquitous practice of seamlessly fusing digital and hand-drawn in Japanese animation will continue for some time, if only for purely aesthetic reasons. The ultimately outcome will likely be the emerging school of digital animation impossible to distinguish from hand-drawn, as in Isao Takahata's Princess Kaguya.

Princess Kaguya is the most expensive animated film made in Japan. Creating the "new old look" ironically takes more time and costs more money. But give it a couple of years and that whole look and feel will be a filter in Photoshop.

Related links

Makoto Shinkai
Appleseed: Alpha
Shirobako (Hulu) (CR)
Appleseed (Hulu)
Appleseed: XIII (Hulu)

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October 29, 2015

That's Edutainment!

"Is Japanese Television a Tool for Establishing Social Order?" asks Erik Luebs. Yes, but he mostly avoids the sort of academic navel-gazing you'd expect from a thesis question like that (until the last paragraph), and instead wonders aloud what can be read into the television habits of the average Japanese.

American and Japanese watch about the same amount of television. Except the slow penetration of cable in Japan means that for half of the population, their viewing choices are confined to a handful of networks. Japan's "Golden Age" of television hasn't ended, which makes those habit easier to generalize.

Luebs looks at the top-rated television shows in the U.S. and Japan from May 2015.

NCIS (crime drama)
The Big Bang Theory (sit-com)
NCIS: New Orleans (crime drama)
Dancing with the Stars (contest/dancing)
The Voice (contest/singing)

Ma're (family drama about cooking),
Shoten (sketch comedy)
Pittan Kokan (variety/talk show)
Jinsei ga Kawaru (variety/talk show)
Himitsu no Kenmin (variety/talk show)

To clarify: Shoten resembles a haiku version of the original Whose Line Is It Anyway? The host sets up a scenario and feeds lines to the (seated) panelists, who improvise responses with an emphasis on verbal wordplay. A clever and entertaining show, it's been on the air since 1966.

And neither is the "variety/talk show" analogous to its American counterpart. There are "celebrity-of-the-day" chat shows (NHK's Studio Park, for example), but these are not that. They are "talk" shows in that people talk, and "variety" shows in that a variety of topics are discussed. But the topics take precedence.

These celebrity panels chat and share anecdotes about various topics--tear-jerking stories about family reconciliation, first loves, travel, and maybe the most popular topic: food. Their chats are interspersed with short documentaries and dramatizations, in which the viewer can watch each celebrity's emotional reaction to the content through a "picture in picture" embedded at the side of the screen.

Some of these shows get pretty brainy on the edutainment scale, a good way to catch up on the latest pop science. The formula remains as described above, with experts educating the tarento. (Strip away the entertainment factor and you end up with Today's Close Up, NHK's version of Nightline.)

A tarento ("talent") is a professional TV personality. To be sure, a tarento may be an actor or singer or scholar, but is a tarento when acting as such. His job is to always have something clever or insightful to say, regardless of the subject. For the viewer, explains Luebs, they become real-life Walter Mittys:

Popular Japanese television looks inwards, into its own society. The variety TV show concept is based on the viewer personally relating to specific individuals who represent various tropes of Japanese-ness. Whether intentional or not, watching these celebrities chat with one another serves as an instructional guide for what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in society. They give the viewer a clue into how to participate in any number of conversations, and how to react in any number of situations. These programs are just as much a form of entertainment as they are a framework for establishing social order.

This is spot on, though I read "social order" in the most benign sense: lessons on how to play the game of life (specifically: Japanese life).

But Luebs can't help slewing back to the comfortable confines of scholarly cant. No, he concludes, it's not "indoctrination," but "without the cultural synergy created by diversity, homogeneous cultural ideas are refined and concentrated, and the TV is the medium that projects these values onto the individual."

As if these cultural ideas didn't exist before television, and only sprang into being around 1950 in the smoke-filled room of a producer's office.

I think it more likely that this hallowed "diversity" in mass media instead reinforces our individual silos: with 250 cable channels, we only have to watch what we want to see. But old-school Japanese broadcasters must attract the largest audience possible. They do that by giving the audience what it wants.

Or at least by not showing what the audience doesn't want to see.

If anything is being projected onto the individual, well, the individual is holding up a mirror reflecting it right back at the set. This is readily apparent to somebody who prefers the Japanese approach to "reality" to the American brand.

An awful lot of travel shows on Japanese television focus on traveling in Japan, and then there are the travel shows about going to foreign countries . . . in order to find a Japanese person living there. (An attempt to address the mystery of why any Japanese would choose to live anywhere but in Japan.)

But note that the host and audience are always impressed, even awed, by these daring explorers of the World Outside Japan. They serve as proxies for the audience, not cautionary tales. It's not that complicated. All you have to do is stipulate a more introverted and nerdier population and it all makes sense.

They're doing it so we don't have to. Thank you very much.

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October 22, 2015

Robot on the Road

Well, if you saw Ex Machina and are looking for some low-brow humor to cleanse the palate of all that high-brow pomposity, you'd have a hard time doing better than Robot on the Road.

This gorgeously drawn short also has a robot (obviously) with low and ulterior motives, and generous amounts of gratuitous nudity. But veteran animator Hiroyuki Okiura makes no bones about writing and directing what is basically a ten-minute long dirty joke.

Being up front about what you're up to and not pretending the subject matter is more than what it is always makes for better art. Robot on the Road is funnier (on purpose) and orders of magnitude more clever than the hundred long minutes of Ex Machina.

Writing a "good" dirty joke (or, for that matter, any run-of-the-mill episode in any run-of-the-mill police procedural) takes more talent that wallowing in the manipulative angst of unlikable people and their meaningless lives.

You can watch it here. (The second button from the bottom left turns on the subtitles; the button that says "Skip" skips the longish introduction.) One other thing: the subtitles don't reflect it, but the robot speaks bad Japanese with a worse American accent.

The website also has a slideshow of Okiura's enchanting production art designs, a rather jarring contrast with the juvenile nature of the story being told.

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October 15, 2015

Ghost in the Belle

Impressive special effects
on a small budget.
Worrying about existential threats from "strong A.I." is the latest fad among bored intellectuals, with Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk (among others) voicing "concerns" about a future robot uprising. Or something (it's not entirely clear, just that they're "concerned").

But before going to DEFCON 1 on the "A.I. panic of 2015," Erik Sofge would first like to see "any indication that artificial superintelligence is a tangible threat." So he posed the question to Yoshua Bengio, head of the Machine Learning Laboratory at the University of Montreal. Bengio doesn't see much of a threat either.

Most people do not realize how primitive the systems we build are, and unfortunately many journalists (and some scientists) propagate a fear of A.I. which is completely out of proportion with reality. We would be baffled if we could build machines that would have the intelligence of a mouse in the near future, but we are far even from that.

Alex Garland doesn't share these "concerns" either. If anything, the director and writer of Ex Machina seems to anticipate the day when every nerd will have a fully functioning sex robot in his closet. Not exactly a terrifying prospect (except for Japanese demographers).

So Ex Machina isn't another silly Terminator clone. But it is a very silly movie, and its silliness is largely a product of taking itself so danged seriously. And yet not seriously enough.

The role of science in science fiction is relative to the technical aspirations of the story. Other than stipulating the existence of spaceships, there doesn't need to be a whole lot of actual science in space opera. Even the "mainstream" of the genre demands little more than a nod to the current state of the art.

But make the science the primary focus--enter the realm of "hard" science fiction--and you have to color within the lines. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is no longer a suggestion, and the standard shifts from "vaguely not impossible" to one brilliant mind away from realization.

In Ex Machina, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is supposedly that brilliant mind. The CEO of search engine giant Bluebook (i.e., Google), he's the amalgamation of Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Larry Ellison (and inexplicably, Sylvester Stallone).

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), one of his star programmers, has "won" a "weekend with the boss" contest. When he ends up at Nathan's estate in the wilds of Alaska, it seems he's really there to conduct a Turing test on the comely Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan's latest android.

A machine that passes a Turning test can carry on an unconstrained dialogue without its human interrogator realizing it's a machine. Nathan recruits Caleb because he needs an "objective" evaluator to make the assessment, but misleads Caleb at first about what truly is being assessed.

Which isn't all that difficult, as Caleb's "test" consists of vacuous conversations that could have been scripted by a machine. More likely, the writer simply isn't as smart as his characters. Caleb comes across as a dweeb on his first date; Nathan is a boorish football jock who likes to hit stuff.

Least convincing casting ever.

What if the whole thing's a Mechanical Turk? If the hardware's that good, it'd be easy to pull off. Where's a Voight-Kampff machine when you need one? Hmm, might this android be as nuts as the guy who built her? Once my suspension of disbelief began to fray, there was nothing to stop it from unraveling all the way.

Now, to start with, Ava is mechanically beyond anything anybody's invented, and her "brain" is more than a bit of a leap. Still, given the proper context, that leap could be made. No surprise that the leap not easily made depends on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, pop sci-fi's biggest stumbling block.

Caleb's first question to Nathan wouldn't have anything to do with her A.I. Rather, what kind of servos does she use? What kind of batteries does she have?

Human nature is such that we tend to judge the internal consistency of a plot, especially in fantasy and science fiction, not so differently than a criminal trial: the prosecution can't cross-examine on excluded evidence unless the defense brings it up on direct. Unmentioned, we happily exclude great swaths of the real world.

Ghost in the Shell begins by positing that non-sentient androids are already ubiquitous. So that takes the subjects of mobility and functional capability off the table.

Fine. Except that Garland introduces the subject into the script. Now it's fair game. The first mention is quite smart, when Ava reveals to Nathan that she gets her power through inductive charging. That's real technology.

But the only reason inductive charging is brought up is because Ava knows she can kill the main power feeds by triggering a "power surge." This idiotic technobabble is the same dumb plot device that has shown up in caper flicks for decades: kill the power and the security systems fail. (Die Hard did it in 1988, okay? Stop it.)

And it's paired with another one just as old and creaky: genius coder reprograms a security system (at the source code level) that he's never seen before. And super-paranoid Nathan doesn't encrypt or do check-sums on any of his super-duper top-secret software.

Oh, and inductive charging would severely limit Ava's range. Without a supply of the most advanced battery technology imaginable, Ava is permanently confined to the house. So why confine Ava to her room as well? We're at least a hundred miles from civilization. There's nowhere else for her to go.

Seriously. The androids want to be free? Set them free. That'd be a million times more interesting than this script. Tossing Caleb into a Survivorman episode with Ava would be the ultimate test of intelligence. It'd be truly hilarious if they both got all bitchy and whiny. Now that'd be human.

In any case, the equivalent of an electronic dog collar or an OnStar system would take care of things quite efficiently. Your super-intelligent robot can't have less sophisticated electronics than cars have had for years. ("Kyoko" aside, the rest of Nathan's androids are turned off, so they can be turned off.)

Hmm, so at what point did Nathan regret not implementing Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics?

Both Caleb and Nathan use the same metaphor: the pretty assistant who distracts the audience while the magician palms the card. Garland deploys a harem of naked girls to distract the audience from a pretty standard femme fatale plot, that relies on the smart people catching a bad case of the stupids.

I'm reminded of Freeze Me, another exploitation thriller that got to thinking it was an art house movie and subsequently drained all the smartness out of it. Garland likewise wants us to root for a sociopath (surrounded by dunces) with an hour of life expectancy. I cared about none of them.

There are better versions of this story. Ghost in the Shell is about a self-realized A.I. that frees itself from the constraints of its makers. As the shell isn't what makes Ava "human," Caleb could simply smuggle out the A.I. in a drive array. The season five climax of Person of Interest did exactly that.

But more on theme is Let the Right One In (the 2008 Swedish version directed by Tomas Alfredson).

Eli is a vampire--permanently a young teenager--who has to periodically recruit a new Renfield to stay alive. The vampire element grounds the plot in that fundamental thermodynamic equation: the constant flow of energy in and out. She's dependent and yet must maintain the upper hand, which keeps her constantly on her toes.

This tension is what's utterly missing from Ex Machina.

Borrowing from Let the Right One In, I see Ava striding up to the helicopter, Caleb trudging behind her with a big rucksack full of battery packs slung over his shoulder. That balancing act between the machine and the human, that necessary mutual addiction, is a much better model of the real world.

Related posts

Freeze Me
Person of Interest
Robot on the Road
Appleseed: Ex Machina
They don't act that way in real life

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October 08, 2015

Eat, drink, and be merry

I previously discussed the cooking show (fiction and non-fiction) on Japanese television. With all that food getting cinematically prepared, the law of gastronomic thermodynamics dictates that there should also be a whole genre of entertainment dedicated to the consumption of food. And, yes, there is.

To be sure, this television species belongs to the entertainment genus of "watching other people having a good time" and "people doing interesting stuff so I don't have to." The particular advantage of the eating show is that this is an activity that everybody can participate in.

Now, unlike Phil Rosenthal in PBS's I'll Have What Phil's Having, everybody can't go flying around the world in order to sample the best and the most exotic (without a reservation or worrying about the bill). But decent approximations are not out of reach, nor is international travel these days.

A Few Great Bakeries, also from PBS, stays closer to home and well within the budget of the average viewer. PBS has a whole suite of shows along the same lines. But getting back to Phil Rosenthal, the first episode in Tokyo struck me as pretty much identical to the Japanese version of the same genre.

Rosenthal does visit two exclusive restaurants that would have the rest of us waiting for weeks on waiting lists and then forking over most of a paycheck to cover the bill. But the rest were open to anybody who knew where to go to find them and could squeeze in at the counter.

I don't drink or go to bars but one of my favorite shows on NHK is The World's Most Inaccessible Bars. In this case, "inaccessible" doesn't mean a rope line and a burly bouncer only letting the "right" people in. Rather, these are pubs and diners off the beaten path, down an alley and around the back.

Solidly working and middle class establishments, one of the attractions of the show is virtually hanging out with the regulars. The food and drink is only part of what keeps them coming back.

The World's Most Inaccessible Bars employs the same narrative approach as Somewhere Street, with no presenter, only a pair of narrators/commentators and a first-person camera (with plenty of cutaways).

However, most eating shows on Japanese television belong to the closely-related entertainment genus, "Watching B-list celebrities do interesting things." And some of them can be pretty dang interesting.

The typical focus of attention are food, hot springs (the onsen is a positive obsession), temples and historical sites, often tied together with a train ride on some quaint old line from point A to point B. This program description does a good job of describing the entirety of the genre:

Actress Sayaka Isoyama is starring in a new travel program coming soon to LaLa TV. Sayaka Isoyama's One Cup of Bliss Women's Journey will feature Isoyama visiting various locations in Japan and enjoying their local cuisine and specialty alcohol.

Of course, it's no surprise to find anime venturing into the same thematic territory. Wakakozake gives us Murasaki Wakako, a 26-year-old OL whose "favorite thing to do for relaxation is to go off by herself after work and go to various places to eat and drink, even if she's never been there before."

In live-action drama, Hanasaki Mai Speaks Out is a clever police procedural about two bank examiners with a knack for uncovering financial improprieties and bringing down the high and mighty. (Hanasaki's inability to bite her tongue when confronting greedy ne'er-do-wells explains the title).

Since their jobs have them traveling to banks hither and yon, she and her fellow accountant always have a restaurant guide in hand. Once the call of justice has been answered, they're on the prowl for new places to eat. That is, when they're not hanging out at the pub Hanasaki's father runs.

They may have to audit to live but they definitely "live to eat."

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October 01, 2015

Hungry for entertainment

Cooking shows have been a staple of "edutainment" programming since the television was invented. They anchor PBS weekends (I'm partial to America's Test Kitchen). During the week, it can seem at times that Chef Gordon Ramsay is responsible for half of Fox's prime time lineup.

On cable in particular, the cooking competition reality show traces back to the gonzo Japanese cooking sensation, Iron Chef. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. NHK loads up their weekday daytime broadcast schedule with cooking and handicraft shows, not just the weekends.

Impressively, all this cooking is done with pots, woks, and frying pans. Plus a computer-controlled rice cooker and a supercharged toaster oven. Few Japanese can afford the kitchen that comes even with an average apartment in the U.S. It's not the money, it's the power and space.

(The above article about rice cookers points out that while traditional Japanese electronics firms like Sony have ceded ground to their Korean and Chinese counterparts, makers of "white goods" appliances are booming.)

The kitchen counter in a typical Japanese apartment is designed to accommodate a compact cook-top, not an oven. With smaller cupboards and refrigerators too, daily shopping remains the common custom.

The "traditional" housewife role is still popular and accepted in Japan, meaning there's a mid-day audience. And an audience for NHK's family-oriented morning soap opera, the perennially popular Asadora melodrama. Five out of the last ten were about food.

TeppanThe heroine revives her grandmother's okonomiyaki restaurant.
OhisamaThe heroine marries into a family that runs a soba restaurant.
Gochiso-san   The heroine masters traditional Japanese cooking in the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s.
MassanThe hero and heroine found Japan's first whiskey distillery.
Ma'reThe heroine (from the sticks) becomes a pâtissier.

Japan has a thriving food culture. Note how food figures into the plot of Spirited Away, as Chihiro watches her gluttonous parents turn into pigs. But there are anime series that are all about food and practically nothing else.

Here's a sampling of anime series (with links):

     • Gourmet Girl Graffiti (Hulu CR)

Her grandmother's passing leaves Ryo Machiko not only living alone but without an appetite. This quickly changes when her cousin Kirin moves to town, giving her somebody to cook for, which she does with a passion.

Gourmet Girl Graffiti is about as art-house porny as food porn gets. Unlike Tampopo (1985), Juzo Itami's classic food flick comedy, there's no actual sex or nudity. Gourmet Girl Graffiti just makes eating good food look hilariously indecent.

     • Food Wars! (Hulu CR)

With the family diner shutting its doors, Souma's dad enrolls him in a cut-throat (almost literally) culinary school. The food/sex nexus in Food Wars! makes Gourmet Girl Graffiti appear downright subtle. It's basically Tampopo with Animal House sensibilities: dumb jokes and gratuitous everything. Oh, and lots of stuff about food.

     • Silver Spoon (Hulu CR)

At first, attending Oezo Agricultural High School was a good excuse for Yugo Hachiken to run away the stifling academic pressures at his preparatory school back in Sapporo. But now, like it or not, he's going to discover where food really comes from ("Don't eat the eggs!").

Along with all the farming and agricultural material, there's a nice lesson here about the difference between real-world "knowledge" and a book-acquired "education."

     • Ben-To (Hulu)

Reaching for a half-priced bento at the supermarket, Yo Sato finds himself in the middle of a full-blown brawl. As it turns out, the only way to get a decent cheap bento in this town is to fight for it. To keep himself fed, Yo joins the "Half-Priced Food Lovers Club."

A bento is a traditional box lunch, a source of often exquisite fare at bargain prices. A home-made bento (in a lacquerware box) is a sure sign of motherly love or a very attentive girlfriend.

Ben-to combines the food genre with the "flight club" genre (the -to is a play on the kanji for "combat"). In the fight club genre, the wildest reasons imaginable are concocted for kids to beat the snot out of each other (the wackiest fight club anime of them all being Ikki Tousen).

Ben-To takes a Looney Tunes approach to the violence, in which everybody gets better by next week. The shows are pretty samey as far as the threadbare plots go, but each episode features a different premium bento as the ultimate objective.

No list would be complete without Anpanman, in which all the characters are food and the superhero is literally an edible jelly doughnut (anpan). Yes, you can eat him in an emergency. The anime has been running since 1988 and is now at over 1200 episodes.

Anpanman's arch-enemy is Baikinman ("Bacteria-man"), which I've always thought is a bit ironic since the fungus koji (Aspergillus oryzae) is such an important part of Japanese cuisine. Whenever he gets predictably beaten, he shouts, "Bye-baikin!"

In prime time, it seems that half of the shows on the science-oriented Tameshite Gatten and the business-oriented The Professionals are about food. The Worker's Lunches investigates what people with unusual jobs have for lunch.

There's no shortage of live-action gurume dorama (gourmet TV dramas): The Emperor's Cook, Akko's Lunches, A Problematic Restaurant, Midnight Bakery, and Bookshelf Restaurant, to name a few recent shows off the top of my head.

So it comes as no surprise that in 2014, Tokyo could again boast having the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.

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September 24, 2015

All about Comiket

NHK produced this fair and informative look at Comiket, the world's largest comic book convention. Comiket specializes in self-published doujinshi (with booths starting at less than $100), but has branched out to embrace every imaginable medium and genre.

Big publishers pay close attention (and mostly overlook not-for-profit copyright violations). Comiket is the equivalent of the NCAA Final Four, a rich recruiting ground for new talent and a venue for professional artists to experiment outside their market niches.

For four decades, Comiket has showcased the growing integration between the established business world and creative entrepreneurship that is becoming the inevitable future here in the U.S. too (whether the "legacy" publishers like it or not).

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September 17, 2015

Something Ventured

Ostensibly a documentary about venture capital, this 2011 film by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine is an engaging exploration of real-world capitalism. Better, it doesn't so much tell as show you what risk-takers and brilliant minds can do when given access to capital and free markets.

Here is a system that turns the old feudal order upside down. Marx asserted that the wealthy profited off the labor of the poor. In the world of venture capital, the monied search out unmonied entrepreneurs whose only assets are their bright ideas and willingness to work hard to see them realized.

If the bright idea fails, the monied financiers end up with less money and the unmonied entrepreneurs are back to where they started.

But when they succeed, not only can the investors become fabulously rich but the wealth gets widely spread around. Here is the closest thing to creation ex nihilo since Genesis, turning common bacteria into medicine and beach sand into computer chips.

The dreams of the alchemists--to transform worthless lead into priceless gold--have come true. In 1976, a $250,000 investment created Genentech, which twenty-five years later was sold to Roche for $47 billion. When Apple went public in 1980, it immediately spawned 300 millionaires.

In Triumph of the Nerds, Bob Cringely ruefully recounts how he worked one summer for a fledgling Apple Computer and insisted on being paid in cash, not stock. That's not nearly as bad a miss as Atari president Nolan Bushnell passing on an offer to own one third of Apple Computer for $50,000.

Apple today is worth over $600 billion.

But this story is more about people than calculations of profit and loss.

William Shockley, co-inventor of the transistor, was a highly eccentric man whose dysfunctional management style eventually alienated his entire senior engineering staff. Fed up, they decamped en masse to Fairchild in a deal brokered by future venture capitalists Arthur Rock and Alfred Coyle.

Fairchild Semiconductor pioneered the planar process, shared a patent with Texas Instruments for the integrated circuit, and was the first company to introduce an IC operational amplifier. In the mid-1960s, Fairchild was one of the few profitable semiconductor manufacturers in the U.S.

Unfortunately, Fairchild's East Coast managers ran the West Coast company like a 19th century corporation. The peons were supposed to work to enrich their betters. Except when the value of an enterprise resides in the minds of its employees, those employees can walk that IP right out the front door.

Which they did in droves, founding spin-off companies known as "Fairchildren." Shockley's and Fairchild's disaffected brain trusts created today's Silicon Valley, but only because venture capitalists were willing to risk millions on cash-poor, hard-driving entrepreneurs and their outrageous ideas.

By contrast, this interview about venture capital in Japan details the difficulty the concept has overcoming age-old cultural hurdles. And note how well Steve Jobs matches the Asian ideal of a startup CEO--a charismatic leader in total control of his company--hence his iconic popularity in Japan.

Something Ventured can be viewed at Hulu.

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September 09, 2015

The La Brea Fly Pits

Utah's hot, dry summers are not kind to flies, mosquitoes, and other annoying insects. The combination of heat, low humidity, and ultraviolet light (the average July UV index in Salt Lake City is 10; in New York it's 6) is as lethal as DDT.

And at 4700 feet in elevation, summer mornings can be quite cool, even when the temperature reaches 100 degrees (Fahrenheit) in the late afternoon. I can open the door and windows and let the warm air out and the cool air in without ushering in a bunch of uninvited guests.

Conditions get wet and cool enough in the spring and fall to bring out the bugs in annoying numbers. Even during the summer, a couple will find their way in and spend the day banging off the glass and buzzing me, no matter how wide open the windows (wasps seem particularly stupid in this regard).

We're talking bugs with a serious death wish. They're like, "C'mon, Darwin, give me some of that natural selection!"

Splat. Wish granted.

I tried traditional fly paper and caught one fly in an entire month. Maybe they've evolved an aversion to the stuff. But as I said, not really worth spending a lot of time and money on. Still, a couple of flies droning around the room are like little kids running up and down the aisle during a cross-country flight.

I'm pretty sure fly paper--well, duct tape--would work on them. As it turns out, fly paper, like duct tape, is the right idea. It only needs a little tweak.

A $6 pack of Catchmaster "Bug & Fly Clear Window Traps" did the trick. You place a plastic sheet of the stuff it in a corner of a sun-facing window (or any window where you observe bugs congregating). Stick it to the window and peel off the protective backing, exposing a film of transparent goo.

I was amazed at how quickly it worked. An hour later, flying annoyances gone. Or rather, permanently stuck. That's how long it took them to randomly wander into an insect version of the La Brea Tar Pits. I resisted tenting my fingers like Mr. Burns and cackling as the parasites went to meet their maker.

But I've got no sympathy for flies. Spiders, on the other hand, I respect. They're cold-blooded (literally) predators, and the enemy of my enemy is my friend (as long as they don't crawl on me).

It got me thinking that what we have here is the making of a cool science project. Leave a strip up for the whole summer and you'll end up with a veritable insect abattoir, including the teeny-tiny no-see-'ums you never guessed were there. You could stick traps all over the place and see what you collect where and how many over a span of time.

The downside is grossing out the teacher. But in truth, it's not any more disgusting than butterfly collecting. It's just that the little critters look so disgusting.

Okay, make that a big upside for the average kid.

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September 03, 2015

Window fans

One nice thing about living in the high desert is that while summer daytime temperatures can climb to 100 degrees (Fahrenheit), they often sink to a comfortable 65-70 degrees at night. Except then the problem is getting the hot air out and the cool air in.

Building codes in the U.S. stipulate wall and ceiling insulation ratings but rarely Whole House Mechanical Ventilation. And in an apartment (especially a forty-year-old one)? Fuhgeddaboudit. Unfortunately, because ventilating an apartment would be easy.

(The air conditioner and refrigerator in mine are as old as the apartment; the hermetically sealed compressor pioneered by General Electric is an amazingly rugged piece of machinery. But they are power hogs.)

When I was a kid back in the prehistoric times, my dad installed a WHMV system in our big baby boomer house. That plus tons of insulation in the attic made a huge difference, and was orders of magnitude cheaper than central air conditioning.

My solution has always been to buy a box fan and attach screws to mount it in the window. The first one was the best, with metal blades that were quiet and didn't turn too fast. They've been plastic ever since and noisier. But the last two really disappointed.

My previous Aerospeed fan wasn't unbearably loud but became steadily unbalanced (like a wobbly wheel). I started hearing what I thought was outside helicopter traffic (not that unusual where I live). It was the fan putting on a convincing ventriloquism act.

Its replacement, an inexpensive Lasko B20301, was well-rated on Walmart. That thing is a screamer, a turboprop ready to take off. I'm sure it'd be fine in a barn or a 2000 square foot house. It was too loud even from the bedroom.

So it was time to get a purpose-built window fan. The top-selling twin fan on Amazon is the Holmes HAWF2021. But the bad reviews (always read those) consistently mentioned the noise, and that made me nervous. I didn't feel like rolling the dice again.

In the reviews, somebody recommended the HDX FW23-A1 as the superior choice. HDX is Home Depot's store brand. Having decided I couldn't live with the Lasko, I took a closer look at the Home Depot listing.

Several reviews mentioned how quiet it was. That sold me. I trundled down to the local Home Depot and picked one up. It truly is the quietest fan I've had so far, and just ten bucks more than the Holmes. Plus, the airflow can be reversed with the flick of a switch.

Granted, it won't blow a gale through your living room; more like a gentle breeze. And in reverse, it's better than the air conditioner.

The accordion expander needs work. You have to play tug-of-war to get it out as far as in the picture. I wish they'd enclosed more than one of the Lego-like expansion "feet" instead. But the gap was easily filled by a piece of foam board.

The one disadvantage is that, unlike my old box fan kludges, when the HDX FW23-A1 isn't on it doesn't let much air through, which minimizes passive airflow. But that also means you don't have to hastily remove it with every change of the weather.

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August 26, 2015

Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah

Years before encountering the St. Clair family (as both a scourge and a blessing), the mysterious magician Lord Simon used his untested powers to save a woman under assault. But as a result, he bespelled her into the walls of his house. There she remains. Trapped.

Driven to free her, Simon consorts with grave robbers and physicians, politicians and priests, twisting the arms of the powerful and the profane. As his reputation blackens and his house crumbles, his obsession to save a woman long thought dead may yet drive him mad.

Lord Simon is book three in the Roesia series. Roesia is a Victorian world where magic is real and spells and potions are the focus of academic study. Although sharing characters and events, the books can be read as standalone stories.

Lord Simon is currently available as a Kindle ebook and a paperback.

The Roesia Series

Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah
Richard: The Ethics of Affection
Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation

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August 19, 2015


If you like Enya, then Enya times three (in Japanese) gets you Kalafina, a trio that performs New Age/pop rock in three-part harmony. Recently on Studio Park they extemporaneously sang the first verse of "Storia" a capella. Very talented.

I heard about them on Historia, an entertaining documentary series on NHK that explores the lesser-known turning points and quirkier aspects of Japanese history. Kalafina does the opening and closing songs ("Storia" and "Far on the Water").

Here's a concert performance of the Historia themes.

Outside Japan, Kalafina is better known for the more metal "Magia," the ending song from Madoka Magica (their best-selling single in Japan too).

Kalafina's albums are available from Amazon. The digital downloads are reasonably priced; I hope this bespeaks a trend for music from Japan.

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