May 25, 2015
Never found in translation
Despite Japan being one of the top book publishing and book consuming countries in the world, a translation database maintained by the University of Rochester lists only nineteen English translations of Japanese novels published in the U.S. in 2014 (not including manga).
That number strikes me as both too low and depressingly small in any case. Between 2007 and 2013, I translated nine light novels for Digital Manga and completed six fan-translations (titles, not volumes). That'd make me more than five percent of the entire market.
The compiled data (cited in the Wall Street Journal) is freely available from the University of Rochester's "Three Percent" website, which explains itself thusly:
Three Percent was named after the oft-cited statistic that only 3 percent of books published in the U.S. are translations. By collecting as many catalogs as we can and asking publishers directly, we've managed to come up with a fairly accurate record of the books published in translation since January 1st, 2008.
I split out the publisher entries for Japan going back to 2010 (before that they only list percentages of the total). They have titles from Vertical and Viz Media, both established manga and light novel publishers. But nothing from Yen Press or Digital Manga or TokyoPop.
And Yen Press is a Hachette imprint. I'd bet the database is one guy scraping data together from wherever. Wikipedia seems a better source, but it's incomplete too. Alas, even if "all the rest" matched the "Three Percent" database, we're still barely into double digits.
Viz Media published 10 titles in 2010 and none in 2014; Vertical peaked at 6 in 2012 and fell to 1 in 2014.
This is what I experienced first-hand: a tiny "light novel" bubble that has since popped, with TokyoPop catching (and causing) a lot of the fallout, including the loss of the "Twelve Kingdoms" licenses. Digital Manga isn't currently active in the light novel market.
Yen Press and Vertical are. Yen Press has acquired licenses for manga and anime tie-ins such as A Certain Magical Index and Sword Art Online. But for all of these companies (even Japanese-owned), novels are an afterthought at best; it's manga that keeps the lights on.
As the Wall Street Journal reports, the Japanese government is attempting (once again) to address the problem. The "Cool Japan" concept has been around since 2002, a belated reaction to the belated realization that anime and manga abroad were really popular abroad.
And yet government-directed efforts have been so halfhearted as to be practically invisible. South Korea spends six times as much as Japan on similar programs. But with the 2020 Olympics right around the corner, politicians and bureaucrats are getting serious once again.
Japan's government is paying to have Japanese-language nonfiction books translated into English . . . The move is one of several nontraditional public-relations steps by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration . . . as it engages in a public relations battle with China and South Korea.
So what's the connection to the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP) "initiated in 2002 by the Japanese Government Agency for Cultural Affairs"? No idea. Either multiple bureaucracies duplicating each other's efforts or multiple manifestations of the same project.
The "Japan Library" (the name of the imprint) has a goal of publishing 100 books by 2020. Selected by "outside experts" and avoiding works "with an overt political message," the books will be distributed free to libraries and sold at cost on Amazon. I'm looking forward to it.
I only hope that while skirting "overt political messages," they also skirt literary snobbery and include some popular genre titles in the mix. In the meantime, though, AmazonCrossing has become the most prolific publisher of translations in the U.S.
May 21, 2015
No pilot on board
Scripted Japanese television series (as opposed to "reality," news, and infotainment shows) don't follow the "pilot" approach.
In Hollywood, that means "auditioning" a series by filming a "first episode" (which may not be the first or even shown). If the pilot is picked up, more episodes will be ordered. If those episodes get good ratings, the series will be picked up for a year (20-24 episodes, half that for cable).
The broadcast and cable networks juggle upwards of 300 pilots every year (see a list here), and pick up less than a quarter. At two to three million dollars an episode, it is egregiously expensive. But this is a billion-dollar business and Hollywood is the dominant player in a worldwide market.
Japan isn't. And shows no signs of wanting to be.
Oh, it pats itself on the back when happy accidents happen (Akira Kurosawa, Studio Ghibli, anime). But outside a handful of its (friendlier) Asian neighbors, Japan's industry leaders haven't traditionally treated media like cars and electronics. Pirates created the overseas markets for anime and manga in the first place.
As a result, sites like Hulu list many more live-action Korean dramas than Japanese. The streaming model is changing that, along with SoftBank's purchase of DramaFever and Rakuten's purchase of Viki, both distributors of Asian television programming (still mostly Korean but expanding their catalogs).
Not to mention that Amazon-Japan is already a major retailer and Netflix is launching its service in Japan this fall.
Japan's terrestrial broadcasters and satellite channels and theaters already carry every Hollywood production worth seeing. Having ceded that ground, Japanese television studios instead choose to compete in those niches that Hollywood can't or won't bother to enter.
Speaking specifically of the gaming market, Nippon Ichi CEO Sohei Niikawa adheres to a similar strategy:
The overseas market is key. It's not something we can turn our backs to. However, I think it's a bad idea to create products targeted for the West. Even if Japanese people try their best to make a game that feels Western, there's no way they'd outclass actual Westerners doing that. I could probably count on one hand the number of Japanese people who'd even have a chance. I know we can't, so our only choice is to make titles that hardcore Japanese fans go for, then bring them out overseas as a purely made-in-Japan product.
Sure, there's plenty of the same only different on Japanese TV: police procedurals and medical dramas but with Japanese actors, Japanese culture and Japanese sensibilities. Add to that samurai dramas. Slice-of-life melodramas. The whole swath of (badly stereotyped) reality television. And lots of anime.
The big bonus is that declining to compete head-to-head with Hollywood productions means not having to run up the budget.
When Samuel L. Jackson signed on to produce and star in Afro Samurai (bringing to the table first-run U.S. distribution rights), he secured a budget of $1 million per episode, a truly head-spinning amount of money in Japan, but par for the course in Hollywood.
An average anime episode costs between $100,000 and $300,000. Star Trek had a budget of $250,000/episode in 1967! (Adjusted for inflation, that comes to around $1.5 to $2 million, so television production costs in Hollywood haven't changed very much in the past half century.)
As a rough estimate, Japanese live-action dramas are made for a half to a third of the base production costs of their Hollywood counterparts. Start by paying everybody "above the line" the equivalent of "scale." This does mean that the best television actors in Japan are constantly working.
And they don't do pilots. Well, a lot of anime series are based on manga and live-action series are based on anime, manga, and "light novels." So producers have a good idea going in of how popular a series should be.
Once a series gets greenlit, the full slate of 11 to 13 episodes (sometimes half-slates of 5 or 6) goes into production and will be aired in full. This constitutes a "series" or cour (クール), a backformation from the French cours. With a handful of exceptions, this is consistent across the industry.
(Exceptions include NHK's year-long Taiga historical drama, the 15-minute Asadora dramas that run six days a week for six months, and popular anime like One Piece and Sazae-san that have run weekly for decades. The police procedural Aibo is produced in 19-episode seasons.)
|On the air since 1969.|
One odd effect is that because of the short runs, popular performers like Masaharu Fukuyama will have already booked their schedules around the shooting. As a result, the two Galileo series were made several years apart. Ditto Takuya Kimura and the two Hero series.
In the meantime, Fukuyama made two Galileo theatrical movies and appeared briefly in a third spinoff.
At the opposite extreme, very popular shows such as I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper and Madoka Magica each ran a single series (so far). The producer of the former flatly stated there would be no more series. It's hard to imagine that in Hollywood.
Japanese television can be compared to the U.S. cable networks, producing episodic shows in half-seasons, with a wide mix of first and second-tier writers and actors, and third-tier budgets. It makes me wonder if there might be something to buying whole "mini-seasons" of shows.
Netflix has previously acquired the balance of shows from network series that were canceled mid-season, or produced an abbreviated season of a canceled show, as with Arrested Development. Yahoo is taking over Community from NBC for a 13-episode run.
In the case of Tina Fey's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix bought the entire 13-episode run when NBC didn't pick it up. I expect to see these arrangements get more formalized, with streaming services competing for second refusal rights or becoming a "farm team" system.
Under such a system, any television program that reaches the pilot stage would be considered good enough to be guaranteed an audience somewhere.
May 18, 2015
Writers have reasons to be wary of technology. Ann Althouse points to an Amazon review of Fifty Shades of Grey that, thanks to the Kindle's search function, reveals the author's writerly peccadilloes:
Characters roll their eyes 41 times, Ana bites her lip 35 times, Christian's lips "quirk up" 16 times, Christian "cocks his head to one side" 17 times, characters "purse" their lips 15 times, and characters raise their eyebrows a whopping 50 times. Add to that 80 references to Ana's anthropomorphic "subconscious" (which also rolls its eyes and purses its lips, by the way), 58 references to Ana's "inner goddess," and 92 repetitions of Ana saying some form of "oh crap" (which, depending on the severity of the circumstances, can be intensified to "holy crap," "double crap," or the ultimate "triple crap").
But technology giveth even as it taketh away. Writers can now defend themselves against embarrassing lexical exposés with a wide range of free online word frequency counters (like here). But it's the phrase counters (like here, here, and here) that really reveal the flaws.
The free Primitive Word Counter is a standalone Windows program that does basic text analysis. (Keep in mind that it's so primitive it doesn't understand apostrophes or smart quotes.) Textanz ($39.95) is less "primitive," with more tools and supported text formats.
And then there's WordStat, which will set you back a whopping $3,795. Heck, for that much, it should write the novel, edit and publish it, and attend the signing events.
Danger, Will Robinson! A very real problem with these tools is that seeing your writing so dispassionately deconstructed can make you overly self-conscious, like listening to a recording of your voice. Not all repetition is bad. It won Hemingway a Nobel Prize, after all.
One of the biggest mistakes beginning fiction writers make is trying to come up with different ways to say "said." (See rule #3.)
A few phrases duplicated in an 80,000 word novel won't be noticed. Your attempts to eliminate them might be. One thing I discovered back when I was producing educational videos was the extent to which people don't see--until it's pointed out to them--continuity problems.
I'm talking about the obvious stuff, like a prop changing color in the middle of a scene. A fascinating psychological question is what makes us notice some continuity problems and ignore others. Of course, once pointed out, you can't not see it.
With those caveats in mind, these tools do a good job of uncovering rhetorical tics, overused adverbs, and inconsistent usages. But with the curtain drawn back on your creative subconscious, you'll have to consciously learn what to ignore.
May 14, 2015
Anime's streaming solution
In Japan, physical media still rules the market. Resale price maintenance rules notwithstanding, paperback books cost about the same as in the U.S. and are better made. The page-turning part of the market remains highly competitive.
But physical electronic media? Here we find the kind of cartel that would make a Robber Baron proud. As a result, expect to pay two to three times or more in Japan for CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs.
CDs still account for 85 percent of album sales in Japan. As Monty Python would put it: Not dead yet! Clay Christensen be damned, the market will not be disrupted!
DRM-free MP3s are scarce on Amazon-Japan. But the times are a-changing, with entertainment behemoths like Sony gravitating to the walled garden of iTunes and its own proprietary formats. The Kindle is gaining ground with DRM ebooks that support right-to-left Unicode text.
The anime business is unique among IP exports in that it has a relatively large market in the U.S. Almost all anime DVDs sold in the U.S. preserve the original Japanese audio track (Appleseed: Alpha didn't). This leads to fears of reimportation.
The U.S. and Japan share the same Blu-ray region code, and region-free DVD players are ubiquitous outside the U.S.
Like the pharmaceutical business in the U.S., high prices at home support low prices abroad. Japanese distributors have at times tried pricing titles the same as in Japan. Most of the time: "Mr. Supply, meet Mr. Demand, and some very pissed-off fans."
In the case of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, though, the Japanese studio and distributors have held firm. A DVD "complete collection" that would usually go for $30-$40 dollars on Amazon is instead priced at $150. The "special edition" is twice that.
They are husbanding their hundred-million dollar franchise as a scarce resource, spacing out the spin-offs (such as Puella Magi Tart Magica, featuring Joan of Arc) rather than saturating the market.
They're certainly losing foreign sales, but I doubt those add up to more than a handful of percentage points. If they can sustain interest in the franchise, they can mine gold for decades.
To compare within the magical girl genre: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha has so far produced three series, three theatrical releases, with a fourth series in the works. Pretty Cure has racked up twelve series and eleven theatrical releases.
But then why is Madoka Magica available on Hulu and Crunchyroll for free? Because streaming really does change everything, without causing undue harm to the "traditional" economic model in the home market.
The other variable in this equation is HDTV. HDTV means that pirates can record a perfect version of a program off-the-air. But they still have to subtitle it and move it onto download sites (and not get nabbed by the DMCA in the process).
By creating a subtitled version in-house and simulcasting it to U.S. distributors, Japanese animation studios get a jump on the pirates and collect licensing fees and ad dollars to boot. Justin Sevakis sums up the effects on piracy in only a few years:
It used to be that fans who wanted to keep up with the current shows on Japanese TV were utterly dependent on fansubs, but thanks to legitimate streaming, most fans don't bother with torrents anymore. Pirate traffic is way, way down.
Regional restrictions are easier with streaming, including locking out anonymous proxies. And capturing (lower-resolution) streaming video in real time is just too big of a pain for most people to bother with. But beware, IP owners, of restricting access just because it's easy:
Most downloaders, I'm guessing, live in countries where legal streams aren't yet available.
Granted, this is the new "long-tail" economy, with revenue not so much streaming in as accumulating in drips and drabs. Internet advertising remains a work in progress (the biggest beneficiary being Google). Low income, yes, but coupled with low costs and low risks.
Hulu and Crunchyroll also offer subscriptions (for set-top box access on Hulu; for set-top box, simulcast, HD, and commercial-free access on Crunchyroll). Crunchyroll reportedly has 400,000 paid subscribers, the kind of numbers that can generate "real money."
"Most of which goes right back to the industry," says Crunchyroll CEO Kun Gao. And that industry is gearing up for more, what with Netflix's entry into the Japanese market and SoftBank's purchase of DramaFever (a distributor of international streaming content).
Streaming works for the same reason book publishers are now keeping an iron grip on their still-producing back-lists. Over the entire span of the copyright, a mid-list book that brings in, say, a mere $1000 a year in ebook royalties will rake in more of that "real money."
Which is a good reason for writers to hold on tight to those rights instead. Because nothing goes out of print anymore. As Mark Coker analogizes it, "the income stream from a [self-published] ebook is akin to an annuity, and specifically a variable annuity."
Thanks to the scalability and efficiency of online retailing, the digital bits and bytes that comprise your ebook can happily occupy an online retailer's shelf forever if you let it. Your book is immortal. You always have another day to find your next readers. You harvest your income over time as the book sells.
That may well soon become true of all published media, if it isn't already.
May 11, 2015
Welcome to the Machine
With the battle now fully engaged between the Machine and Samaritan (echoing C.S. Lewis's contention that the Earth is, in fact, "enemy territory"), the one remaining challenge is providing John Greer (aka Decima, played by John Nolan, Jonathan Nolan's uncle) an underlying motivation that matches those of the rest of the cast.
The problem, as Kate points out, is that "the abstract nature of belief" makes "religion difficult to write about," even when couched in equally abstract metaphors.
In order for Martin Luther to argue against indulgences (a practical reality), he has to believe in something far more abstract (that the soul cannot buy its way into heaven or out of accountability). In order for Joseph Smith to argue against infant baptism (another practical reality), he has to believe that Adam and Eve's Fall from God's presence did not entail a fall into sin.
A "bigger worldview lies behind most theological arguments," and that's what often goes missing in the mundane scramble after plot. But it has to surface sometime, else the plot will end up chasing its own tail. At the end of season four, we do catch a compelling glimpse.
A skeptical Control confronts Decima in what can be analogized to the conflict between the Confucianists and the Hobbesian legalists of the Qin Dynasty. Confucians focused on the primacy of ethics and a virtuous ruler, while legalists believed that the whims of any ruler could be subsumed by the objective machine of the law.
Or in the case of Person of Interest, the algorithm. Outside a shrinking number of crumbling Marxist states, the most familiar implementations of legalism are Sharia and the Mosaic Law.
Under legalism, we have the right to do nothing, except for a finite subset of actions the state allows. By contrast, to assert that rights are inalienable" and "god-given" means that we have the right to do anything, except for a finite subset of actions the state deems to be crimes. And even then, we are "presumed innocent."
Legalists see only chaos in such expansive views of liberty. Like Hobbes, they argue that "[T]he purpose of the commonwealth is peace, and the sovereign has the right to do whatever he thinks necessary for the preserving of peace and security and prevention of discord."
In the tension between these two perspectives, we find the foundations of Christian theology as reflected in Milton (or The Pearl of Great Price), which casts the War in Heaven as a conflict between a Hobbesian view of life (man must be forced back into heaven) and one in which man has free will (and can only return via grace).
Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down;
And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice.
The Machine is the "still small voice," while Samaritan is the enlightened despot. But in dramatic terms, while "justice" and "redemption" can be pursued forever (which is why we'll never run out of police procedurals), it's impossible to square Samaritan's objectives with reality. The world is too analog to "take over."
Every quest for world domination suffers the same fate: This too shall pass away. Entropy always wins in the end (perfectly symbolized by the fates of self-made enlightened despots like Elias and Dominic).
I can imagine Samaritan being oblivious to its own mortality, while John Greer is not. Hence his mission. The Machine knows its limitations, hence Root's procurement of the mysterious bulletproof attache case for reasons none of them understands at the time.
I think Jonathan Nolan is getting a better idea of what makes his machines tick. In the season four finale, Greer does a good job of articulating why the threat of filling the streets with stormtroopers was a diversion all along. He comes quite close to paraphrasing the legalist approach to pragmatic governance:
- The ruler exists to monopolize authority in order to prevent its abuse by feudal magnates [or federal bureaucrats].
- Special tactics or "secrets" should be taken by the ruler to ensure that others do gain not control of the state. Withdraw[ing] from affairs except to manage the course of ministers, the ruler . . . obscures his motivations. By these means, no one can subvert the state through sycophancy, but may only try to advance [within it] by heeding orders.
- The ruler uses the legal system to control the state; if the law is applied effectively, even a weak ruler will be strong.
It's a relief to know that the show shouldn't be going down the Terminator rabbit hole. That seems the only way Hollywood knows how to resolve conflicts involving sentient machines: "Robots take over the world!" Samaritan will have to take over something quite different. "Robots take over the government!" won't do either.
Jonathan Nolan has created the best cyber thriller on television (the mesh network episode was one of the smartest ever). He's resorted to both "conspiracy mode" and "Dr. Evil mode" that I worried about here, but has managed to keep pulling the rabbit out of the hat. I have to believe he'll write himself out of this corner too.
The best solution can probably be found in how churches and states have sorted themselves out of the past two millennia. Greer could argue, for example, that for all its notoriety, the Spanish Inquisition was a much less gruesome affair than the Thirty Years' War, and that his way will bring more "souls" to "salvation."
On a side note [spoiler alert], Nolan exercises the tightest cast control in the business. He pulled a "Scully" with Sarah Shahi (for the same reason as Gillian Anderson). Like Scully, they've kept Sameen alive, so I presume she'll be back. Camryn Manheim as Control ended up in dire straits, but I presume she'll be back too.
Enrico Colantoni is mostly (not absolutely, positively) dead. I liked Winston Duke as Dominic (another great bad guy from Nolan), but he's pretty dead. Martine (Cara Buono) is pretty dead too (after turning into the Terminatrix there for a while). Meanwhile, the Machine is in a literal box, reduced to a ghost in a shell.
Which means that, as things stand right now, we're back to the original cast size. You see, Joss Whedon, it can be done!
Oh, and the theme music for the penultimate scene of season four was recorded in 1975, but sounds like it was commissioned for this episode.
May 07, 2015
Pop culture Shinto
Shinto grew organically in Japan, inventing itself and its mythologies along the way. The first references appeared in the eighth century. In the official histories, the Imperial Court traced its ancestry back to Emperor Jimmu, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu.
Jimmu is said to have ascended to the throne in 660 BC. Emperor Sujin, who purportedly reigned from 97 BC to 30 BC, is the first Japanese emperor believed to not be complete fabrication. But the genealogies aren't considered trustworthy until the fifth century.
The "mists of time" can be awfully useful when it comes to the "evidence of things not seen." Sure, you can't prove any of it happened. But you can't prove it didn't! What the heck, it doesn't hurt to play along. As Wikipedia explains,
Shinto does not actually require professing faith to be a believer or a practitioner thus a person who practices any manner of Shinto rituals may be so counted, and as such it is difficult to query for exact figures based on self-identification of belief within Japan.
When the queries are done, the number of believers always add up to significantly greater than the total population. Japanese don't see religious affiliation or belief or even "atheism" as a zero-sum game. Why believe in just one? Cover your bases! Accept Pascal's Wager for all the gods!
Shinto in genre fiction typically has about the same relationship to its theological roots as a Marvel Thor flick has to Norse mythology. It's more about the ballpark verisimilitude, and as source material for compelling superheroes and cool characters.
This makes Shinto a deep well that manga and anime can draw from time and again, with little fear of offending anybody no matter how wild a tangent the story takes from the religion's theological roots.
The live-action Onmyoji, for example, casts the real Heian period court diviner Abe no Seimei (921-1005) as a superhero exorcist. Similar historical settings and tropes show up in anime like Otogi Zoshi.
Outside Japan, the Studio Ghibli classics Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and the lesser-known Pom Poko are the best-known explorations of Shinto metaphysics. While opaque to western viewers, most of the religious references would be familiar to Japanese audiences.
Shinto is more commonly known for the miko (shrine maiden) and the ever-popular inari (fox god). Shrine of the Morning Mist casts the miko as superheroes. In the more subdued Gingitsune, the daughter of a Shinto priest has inherited her mother's "spirit sight."
The inari and its kin are recurring characters in Japanese fairy tales, often transforming into human form. Thus a little supernatural matchmaking will get you a romantic comedy. The best-known rom-com pairing is Rumiko Takahashi's Inuyasha. Inuyasha is a half-demon inugami (dog god).
Unlike the semi-divine inari, the ranks of the inugami and shikigami are populated by the ghosts and goblins of Japanese mythology. They, in turn, are ruled over by the kami, which loosely translates as "the gods," whose job it is to keep the divine rabble in line.
Those gods can turn up in the most unlikely places.
Kamichu! begins with a junior high school student in a small fishing village in Hiroshima. Yurie wakes up one morning to discover she's turned into a minor Shinto deity. Rather than causing great alarm, she's treated more like "hometown girl makes good."
The focus instead is how Yurie comes to terms with her "godhood" with the help of her friends and family, and, in turn, keeps the local shikigami in line.
This brings to mind comparisons with Bruce Almighty, except that Bruce Almighty is monotheistic while Kamichu! is unapologetically polytheistic. The gods of Shinto aren't omnipresent or omnipotent or monotheistic or even worth worshiping sometimes.
In Noragami, Yato is a Shinto god (with a dark past) in need of a shrine, which means amassing followers by doing "good deeds." In other words, this god's charitable acts are entirely self-serving. Well, a bad boy with a good heart is a character arc that practically writes itself.
Shinto-based genre fiction tends to be more devil-may-care than the more "serious" Buddhism. Shinto does have a sober side, name in the connection to State Shinto.
State Shinto was abolished in 1945. It effects still persist in the politically sensitive symbol of Yasukuni Shrine and the Shinto temples and accession rites tied to the Imperial Household (much the same way the Church of England is to the throne in the United Kingdom).
A "bamboo curtain" of church/state separation is usually tactfully drawn between the political and sectarian function, but now and then it slips in curious ways, such as when a politician makes an "official" to a shrine. Prime Minster Abe has avoided Yasukuni but has visited Ise.
Princess Noriko (the emperor's grandniece) married the eldest son of the head priest of the Izumo Taisha grand shrine. This sort of thing is treated with a degree of deference unimaginable by Japan's tabloid press on any other subject.
In these specific church/state contexts, Shinto becomes a subject actually more off-limits than Buddhism. Royalty in Japan are a low key bunch to start with, and the very imperious Imperial Household Agency makes Buckingham Palace look like the cast of Monty Python.
As the Christian Science Monitor put it a while back:
The most secretive agency in Japan is not its intelligence organization. It is the Imperial Household Agency . . . . The agency tightly controls the flow of information about Japan's monarchy, not only to the public but to the rest of the government.
The Imperial Household Agency has gone so far as to close down archaeological digs that might possible put past historical events in the "wrong" light (such as revealing that early emperors were the descendants of Korean princes fleeing civil wars on the peninsula).
The fanatical right (still fighting WWII in spirit) doesn't give a fig about theology as long as you leave the modern-day emperors (and their origins) out of it. Steer clear of that minefield and the sky's the limit. Shinto can be as weird and goofy as you want it to be.
May 04, 2015
A movie's money's worth
Megan McArdle wonders if Hollywood finances will be unraveled by the "unbundling" going on in cable offerings. Arguing that they may well be, she points out that Hollywood movies are "incredibly expensive to make," and that cable television is a big source of operating profits.
Gone Girl, without a massive cast, exotic foreign shooting locations or blockbuster special effects, ran to about $60 million. That doesn't include marketing budgets or the overhead of running a studio, just the production cost of the movie. And, obviously, if you like big-budget, special-effects-driven Hollywood spectaculars, things start north of $100 million and just keep heading up from there.
Except that Hollywood spends that much money on movies because it can, not because it has to (and because when properly managed, a successful Hollywood movie generates a lot of cash flow without ever technically turning a profit, which makes the accountants happy).
In the process of panning Invictus, Bill Simmons damns Eastwood with this faint praise that's more revealing about Hollywood economics:
Eastwood bangs out expensive movies under budget and ahead of schedule. Doesn't shoot a ton of takes, doesn't drift from the script, doesn't waste afternoons waiting for the sun to set just right, stuff like that. He's the most efficient director working today.
Princess Kaguya (directed by Isao Takahata) is Japan's most expensive animated film to date, costing (wait for it) $50 million. In Japan, Frozen (budget: $150 million) now ranks second in all-time box office, right behind Spirited Away (budget: $20 million).
In the day-in-the-life documentary about Studio Ghibli, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki grumble at length about Takahata's inability bring in projects on schedule and under budget. They're kindred spirits to Clint Eastwood.
McArdle points out that "technology enables directors to spend vast fortunes on special effects," but again, only because they can. Compare Appleseed (2004) and Appleseed: Alpha (2014) to see how far motion capture animation has come in ten years, at a budget of $10 million for the former and barely twice that for the latter.
Over a decade ago, I couldn't tell the digital background mattes from reality in the moderately low budget remake of Samurai Resurrection (2003) until I watched the "making of" segment. The same goes for the extremely low budget Raise the Castle! (2009).
It's one of the most unintentionally meta films ever, a movie about a guy who can't build a real castle and so constructs one out of cardboard, made by a director who can't afford to build scale sets and so makes them out of cardboard in the local high school gym.
Aside from campy special effects that are supposed to look campy, I didn't notice most of the digital mattes. That's how sophisticated desktop editing software has become.
Japanese studios are increasingly turning to digital 3D and motion capture to make live-action versions of manga and anime. It won't be long before you will have to look very hard to tell the difference (in technical terms) between a Pacific Rim and a Patlabor.
The entire Patlabor: Next Generation series (a total of 7 hours in 8 parts) is budgeted at (wait for it) $20 million. Pacific Rim (2 hours) cost $190 million.
But what will ultimately make Patlabor: Next Generation worth watching is the quality of the storytelling. Once you have reached a certain level of technical proficiency, a better story is going to beat the crap out of better production values every time.
April 30, 2015
Pop culture Buddhism
Buddhism arrived in Japan as early as the third century. Then and for the next thousand years, China would be the mirror in which Japan saw its own reflection (thereafter replaced by Europe and the especially the United States). Like Constantine and Christianity, Buddhism found friends in high places who assured its rapid adoption.
Via this conduit, the accompanying organization structures and the written language were absorbed both into the body politic and the society at large. So even if you managed to extract the theology, the cultural framework of Buddhism is bolted into the bedrock of Japan.
Imagine that popular pagan practices--such as the spring solstice and winter equinox--hadn't be "Christianized," but had lived and let live. That's essentially what happened with Buddhism and the native-born Shinto sects in Japan. Two completely different but (mostly) non-antagonistic, non-exclusive religions progressing on parallel tracks.
This balance was upset during the Edo period (1603-1868). Buddhist temples were anointed the primary keepers of the census, to which even Shinto priests were subordinated. As a result, not unusual is the situation in episode 7 of Gingitsune, where a large Buddhist temple sits on the grounds of a small Shinto shrine.
The religious roles were reversed with the restoration of Imperial rule in 1868. But Buddhism quickly rose to become the defining ideology of the military class.
This association lives on in the martial arts and the (much more complex than Christian) end-of-life rituals. Just as importantly, Buddhist and closely-associated Confucian concepts underpin the equivalents of "Judeo-Christian values" and the "Protestant work ethic."
Because Zen and the martial arts are so tightly linked, Buddhism is the go-to source for cranky old warrior priests with paranormal powers and kung fu fighters (with the exception of home-grown sumo wrestling, which is closely aligned with Shinto).
The Soka Gakkai sect created the Komeito or "Clean Government" party in 1964. "New Komeito" incorporated as an independent party in 1998 (cutting official ties to the sect) but adheres to a socially conservative platform and consistently partners with the center-right LDP, helping it form ruling majorities for most of the past fifty years.
The Komeito is a "serious" political party and Buddhism is the "serious" religion, so your "Father Brown" types are going to be Buddhist.
After all, death, judgement (karma) and reincarnation are their jurisdiction. The equivalent expression of "He's gone to meet his maker" is "He became a Buddha." A dead body is often colloquially referred to as a hotoke, meaning a Buddha (仏).
This is most evident in the police procedural. Upon encountering a dead body for the first time, a police officer will pause, bow his head, and press his hands together (gasshou). It's the rough equivalent of crossing yourself, but is a far more ubiquitous gesture on Japanese cop and coroner shows than in their U.S. counterparts.
Because of those end-of-life connections, in the horror genres, Buddhism can be counted on to provides hell and hungry ghosts. Shinto spirits tend to be of the more mischievous kind (as in the aforementioned episode of Gingitsune), though their anarchic natures can wreak no end of trouble along with plenty of inexplicable weirdness.
But Buddhism cultural references are not all Sturm und Drang.
The Chinese classic Journey to the West, based on a Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk's travels to India, has inspired dozens of anime, such as Saiyuki and the mega-franchise Dragon Ball. The title of the low-brow harem anime Ah My Buddha is a play on the somewhat higher brow Ah My Goddess, whose characters also reside in a Buddhist temple.
Saint Young Men (already a classic) is a clever sit-com about Jesus and Buddha hanging out together in Tokyo. As both religions accept them as mortal human beings somewhere along the line, I see nothing undoctrinaire about depicting them as such.
April 27, 2015
Big Hero 6
A cool concept, I argue in my review of Patema Inverted, is not the same thing as a plot, but can fake it for ninety minutes or so. The same thing goes for inventive settings and ingenious "MacGuffins." As Wikipedia explains:
A MacGuffin is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or other motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation.
Big Hero 6 is a comic book movie constructed out of a bunch of MacGuffins and hand-waves. And not much in the way of plot.
Unlike Patema Inverted, it actually does have a plot. But it's so by-the-numbers that the writers can't resist commenting on the fact, as if to stave off criticism that they didn't know they were doing "the same only--" Well, mostly the same.
So a few bars of "Eye of the Tiger" launches the de rigueur montage sequence. "Fred" (the designated comic book guy who's also the comic relief) shouts at one point: "Hey, it's an origins story!" Stan Lee makes a cameo after the credit roll.
The hero is Hiro, an orphaned teen genius living in "San Fransokyo" with his aunt and older brother, Tadashi. Unlike his older brother, Hiro wastes his prodigious talents betting on underground robot fights (and winning big).
In an effort to set his sights higher, Tadashi introduces Hiro to his fellow grad students at the university robotics lab. Tadashi's senior project is "Baymax," a cuddly medical diagnostic robot that resembles the Michelin Man.
At this university, you can apparently bypass the whole matriculation process and invent yourself right into school. The challenge posed, Hiro comes up with the "microbot," actuated joints that swarm together and self-assemble like Lego blocks.
But then a mysterious explosion kills his brother and supposedly destroys the microbots. (Note that Hiro loses his entire nuclear family in the first twenty minutes, but it's so in tune with the superhero monomyth it jars less than it should.)
In order to track down the villain, Hiro teams up with a retooled Baymax and the rest of the Tadashi's eccentric roboticist friends. We're in ensemble Iron Man territory. Their superhero suits allow them to leap over gigantic plot holes in a single bound.
You really do not want to stop and think about all the disbelief you're being asked to suspend. I did appreciate that only an office building gets destroyed in the climax and the "evil capitalist" turns out to be mostly a red herring.
As a Marvel comic book movie, it'd be one of their better efforts. As a Marvel + Disney collaboration (Disney owns Marvel), well, it's not The Incredibles. Or Frozen. Or Tangled. It's a pretty good cartoon! Just not as good as it could be.
Rather like our protagonist at the beginning of the story, Big Hero 6 is overshadowed by its own unexploited potential. The problem is, the most interesting parts of the movie are the MacGuffins, and they are rendered almost invisible.
The microbots, to start with. And everything else our superheroes invent practically on the spur of the moment. Tony Stark really had to work at that "99 percent perspiration" stuff. And it still took a couple of iterations to get the Iron Man suit right.
And unlike Big Hero 6, the world (and especially the world's militaries) immediately took notice of Tony Stark. A world so blasé about breakthroughs in applied science can't help but bore me (which is which so many superhero flicks end up boring me).
Doubly so for a world so blasé about a place like "San Fransokyo." The backstory is easy to imagine: the "big one" hits Tokyo and millions immigrate to the West Coast of the United States.
Imagine the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, only with better weather and zoning laws. San Fransokyo is one big Little Tokyo. Kanji signage dot the streets. The towers of the Golden Gate Bridge resemble torii gates.
Alas, we barely get to savor any of this. It blurs past. Besides a couple of Asian characters and some cool backgrounds, it has no obvious impact on the story at all (police cars do sport Japanese-style light bars).
Second, Alistair Krei, the "evil" capitalist and supposed antagonist, has built himself a freaking Stargate. No, really, it's the Stargate! Works the same too. That's the kind of thing you could do a whole movie about (plus three television series).
I mean, a wormhole transporter that passes through a different dimension! And yet, again, this total upending of science goes utterly unremarked upon. It's nothing more than another disposable MacGuffin.
Now, like Hiro's self-assembling robots, Big Hero 6 has all the hallmarks of a sequel-making machine. So maybe we'll still get to explore the heart of San Fransokyo. Maybe Krei will fix up those Stargates and do some off-world exploring.
We've got some first-rate world creation going on here, a world that only needs a cast of characters to actually live in it.
April 23, 2015
Japan's (ir)religious wars
Japan's wars over religion have never been all that religious. To be sure, rabble-rousers like Nichiren sowed doctrinal strife no less than did Martin Luther. But the Thirty Years' War didn't follow, in large part because the church in Japan has only rarely not been subservient to the state.
Then there was that whole Aum Shinri Kyo business, but I'll leave the fringe element out of the discussion and focus on the Napoleons. Though there's not much in the way of open theological debate to be found, wars involving religion could get pretty nasty.
In 1571, Oda Nobunaga razed the Buddhist temples on Mt. Hiei, killing upwards of 20,000. At issue was the power of Tendai Buddhist "warrior monks" at Enryaku-ji monastery. They'd aligned themselves with rival warlords and exerted undue influence (Nobunaga believed) over Kyoto politics.
|Though home to Tendai Buddhism since 788,|
no building on Mt. Hiei dates to before 1571.
The Portuguese first arrived in Japan in 1543, bringing with them guns and Jesuits. Although he openly declared himself an atheist, Nobunaga was fascinated by western culture, quickly learned how to use the musket in large-scale offensives, and gave the Jesuits wide latitude to proselytize.
That latitude ended with his assassination in 1582. His successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, was already suspicious of Christian influence in the fractious western half of the country. The Jesuit Gaspar Coelho made things worse by promising Hideyoshi arms and warships that would never be forthcoming.
When the Hideyoshi realized he was being conned, Coelho threatened a coup. But Hideyoshi at the time commanded one of the largest armies in the world. Although Coelho's petitions for military support were summarily rejected by his superiors, Hideyoshi was convinced he had traitors in his midst.
The Tokugawa shogunate doubled down on Hideyoshi's policies to expunge Catholic influence from the country. As far as the shogunate was concerned, if the Catholics weren't all in with them, they were against them, so against them they were deemed.
In 1637, the Shimabara Rebellion culminated in the siege of Hara Castle. When the castle fell in early 1638, some 37,000 Christian peasants and masterless samurai died or were executed.
After Shimabara, only a small contingent of Protestant Dutch traders was allowed to occupy a tiny island near Nagasaki. Again, though as merciless as the Inquisition in forcing adherents to abandon their beliefs, at issue was the consolidation of power and an isolationist foreign policy, not theology.
These fears of foreign influence were not unfounded. Two centuries later, the Satsuma domain (just south of Nagasaki) armed itself with British weapons and warships and led the revolt that overthrew the shogunate.
Shimabara was also largely a problem of local governance. The governor of Shimabara was subsequently executed for cruelty and incompetence. The message: if the peasants revolt, they'll be executed; if you gave the peasants good reasons to revolt, you'll be executed too.
In the mid-19th century, a final religious conflict arose when the Meiji government switched the state religion from Buddhism to Shinto. For 250 years, the Buddhist temples had grown fat and corrupt under the patronage of the shoguns, who used the temples as tools of control via the census.
Over a period of four years, popular uprisings following the Meiji Restoration in 1868 destroyed tens of thousands of Buddhist temples and works of art (though resulted in few deaths). The haibutsu kishaku was basically a super-condensed, hyper-kinetic version of the English Reformation.
Like Catholicism in 16th-century England, Buddhism was down but not out. During the 1930s and 1940s, Zen Buddhism saw a resurgence (side-by-side with the state-sponsored Shinto-based emperor cult) as the "spiritual backbone of the military army and navies during the war."
But in the late 19th century and ever since 1945, deprived of its power to tax and compel affiliation, Buddhist temples have had to attract parishioners the old-fashioned way: with goods and services. Buddhism now dominates the lucrative funerary business in Japan.
As if by a cosmic gentleman's agreement, Shinto gets the first half of life, including coming-of-age ceremonies, weddings, and the blessing of inanimate objects like dolls, needles, and buildings; Buddhism get the second half. Though both Shinto and Buddhist temples hold doll funerals.
|After which they'll be cremated (the dolls, that is).|
And, of course, a Christian wedding is fine too (if the Shinto rite doesn't suit your tastes or wallet: renting wedding kimonos for the bride and groom alone can cost several thousand dollars).
April 20, 2015
I'm old enough
Megan McArdle wonders why parents have become so paranoid of late, freaking out at the sight "children walking down the street alone." Alarmed enough to trigger the equivalent of SWAT deployments to "rescue" kids from . . . nothing, actually.
"Why," McArdle asks, "has America gone lunatic on the subject of unattended children?"
Because the 24-hour news cycle fools us into treating national totals of rare events as the numerator in calculations of risk. Human beings are really bad at statistics, and when the denominator is a third of a billion, we discard it and substitute in Dunbar's number.
Dunbar's number is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. These are relationships in which an individual knows who each person is and how each person relates to every other person.
In other words, the maximum number of people we're honestly capable of giving a damn about, between 100 and 250. Populations larger than that become abstractions. So a single commercial plane crash is a national tragedy while 32,719 (in 2013) auto fatalities earns a shrug.
Stalin summed up the paradox when he observed that "One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic."
Plus a much greater investment in fewer children that boosts their marginal value to infinity. Hence the impulse to lock them away in padded rooms until age thirty or so.
But not necessarily. Although even fewer kids are being born in Japan, they start walking to school by themselves in elementary school. If the school is too far away to walk, they'll have bus and train passes. This is reflected in popular culture, like Non Non Biyori.
It's true that the crime rate is lower in Japan, but the American parents who worry the most live in middle-class suburban communities that have about the same crime rate as Japan.
Crime isn't the real risk anyway. Japanese kids are more likely to get killed in freak traffic accidents (streets outside city centers in Japan often have no sidewalks or shoulders). But with a denominator of 130 million, they're as rare as school shootings in the U.S.
And they trigger calls for better traffic enforcement. And sidewalks. Maybe Japanese are better at math. They don't panic at the sight of small children walking someplace by themselves.
The best (though hardly "empirical") proof of this comes from an NTV reality show, I'm Old Enough (「はじめてのおつかい！」).
In the show, children aged six (and younger) are given a task to accomplish (usually by their mother) and set out on their own. To be sure, there's a camera crew and a producer no more than a couple of feet away, and we don't see the kids who get lost along the way.
I'm sure there's helpful hinting and herding and location scouting going on too. But it's pretty impressive that they're allowed to tackle these tasks at all.
We're talking about walking to the store, picking the right item off the shelf, standing in line, and paying for it. Or taking a train to another stop and walking several blocks to find daddy's office. And then making it back home. By themselves.
The real payoff is the reaction of some of these kids when they realize what they've done. One little girl, upon finding the right item on a supermarket shelf, jumped up and screamed, "Yatta!" We did it! Like she'd just won the gold medal at the Olympics.
That's the pure delight that comes from accomplishing something concrete on your own.
George W. Bush was onto something with that "the soft bigotry of low expectations" line. I don't mean the "tiger mom" stuff, but getting to try (and fail) at the simple things, the increasingly rare privilege of not being treated like a Fabergé egg in everyday life.
Here's an episode from I'm Old Enough. It's pretty self-explanatory (and usually the camera crew does a better job staying out of sight; in recent episodes the cameras are all but invisible).
April 16, 2015
The three families
In order to avoid the Henry VIII problem--the ruling family running out of male successors--at the birth of the Edo period in 1603, Tokugawa Ieyasu created the Sanke ("three families"). If the main line failed, three related families (the Owari House, the Kii House, and the Mito House) could supply the shogun.
The Tokugawa (and founder Matsudaira) clans are still respected as a kind of unofficial royalty in Japan (in Fox & Wolf, Yuki's father is a Matsudaira, which makes him the equivalent of a blue blood).
But not even this much redundancy can survive a fertility rate of 1.4. The Owari House and Mito House are still going concerns, but the Kii House is headed by an unmarried woman who has no children. The Kii House has divested itself of its non-commercial holdings and will fade away in a few decades.
The Mito House remains well-known for both fictional and historical reasons. First, the crime-fighting adventures (based loosely on the actual person) of its second clan head, Mitsukuni, were turned into the long-running Mito Komon television series.
|Mitsukuni (not Colonel Sanders in disguise) holding his "badge" of office:|
ne'er-do-wells cower before the insignia of the Tokugawa clan.
Second, during the early 19th century, the "Mito School" of political philosophy (which also traces back to Mitsukuni) tacked far to the right. In reaction to the "Unequal Treaties" opening up Japan, it promulgated a nationalistic, imperialist ideology that was embraced by the Meiji revolutionaries.
Efforts to suppress the Mito School (culminating in the Ansei Purge) triggered a full-blown insurrection and the assassination of Ii Naosuke, who held the equivalent office of prime minister (the purge was his idea). In response, the shogunate adopted several of the reforms demanded by the Mito School.
The last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, was from the Mito House. Being the most sensible shogun in years, he abdicated after a year in office and passed the reins of government to the emperor. As a result, unlike many of his contemporaries, he went on to live a long, largely uneventful life.
The culture of adoption
The downside of adult adoption
April 13, 2015
The magic of the mundane
Blogger John Hansen came up with a great antidote to the demand for "realism" in young adult literature: story pitches that are "very realistic." They double as examples of "high-concept" plots (turned into haiku by Twitter's 140 character limit), although the irony renders these decidedly "low-concept."
You can browse the whole Twitter list at #VeryRealisticYA. It's perversely entertaining.
Girl can't decide between two boys. The boys realize the girl is shallow and become best buds.
Teenage girl meets 300 year old vampire. They have a hard time connecting because he's 285 years older than she is.
Teen doesn't sacrifice safety, family and normalcy to go to extremes against her government for some random scrub she just met.
Girl leaves home to save the planet. Parents file a missing persons report, police find her, bring her home. She's grounded.
Teens suspect crime has occurred. They inform parents and police and go back to being teens.
Girl thinks her life is over after her high school crush dumps her. She grows up. Can't remember his name ten years later.
High school doesn't have a strict popularity system, just various groups of friends that somewhat overlap.
Girl overhears CEO's sinister plot to rule the world. Turns out her startup's founder is just really full of himself.
The survival of the world depends on girl learning to control her powers. Girl can't. Everyone dies.
Actually, that last one has been written: Madoka Magica, which turns on the inability of teenage girls to understand or properly use the superpowers they've been given. It's the recognition of this mundane truth of human nature that elevates it above most in the "magical girl" genre.
|Spoiler: everybody dies but Homura.|
Which brings me to the importance of the ordinary in fantasy. Fantasy is fantastic only compared to ordinariness. Without it, fantasy gets lost in superlatives. That's why Batman is more intriguing than Superman. A too super superhero becomes his own Deus ex Machina.
It gets to the point where the only scary thing supervillains can do in Hollywood blockbusters is destroy large-scale infrastructure. Well, so can earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes. Natural disasters are not entertaining (except in PBS documentaries).
Man of Steel shares the same problem with Thor: The Dark World and every other superhero flick that ends with the piecemeal destruction of a major metropolitan area: they're boring. (Avengers succeeds thanks to Robert Downey Jr. and by being genuinely funny.)
Kate points out the necessity of characters like Spike (from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) who are mostly content with their plebeian tastes and plebeian goals. They don't want to destroy the world or conquer the universe. They just want to get on with life and enjoy themselves.
Fantasy needs to be grounded in characters who live in the here and now, who avoid world-shaking existential crises. There is, in fact, a whole genre in Japanese fantasy about otherwise normal people with a single unique characteristic that hardly anybody notices.
In Kamichu! the heroine is a minor Shinto deity. Everything else about her life in a fishing village on the Inland Sea is (almost) completely normal. Rather than "Stop the presses! Inform the world!" she's treated more like "Local girl makes good."
Someday's Dreamers is about social workers who happen to be witches. They work in a government agency like any government agency that social workers work for. Except, you know, they're witches.
This is the low key approach I wish Angel would have taken: a noir detective series about a P.I. who happens to be a vampire. Instead, the whole vampire meme came to dominate everything, thereby exhausting most of the decent story possibilities.
|Luke contemplating the Tatooine sunset and worlds beyond.|
A little normalcy goes a long way, not only in slice-of-life stories but in the big heroic journeys too. A key to what made the first Star Wars movie so good are the mundane motivations at the heart of the story: Luke wants to get off that hick planet and Han wants to earn a few bucks.
The Buffy model, in which the teenage heroine wants to keep being a "normal" teenager, has become de rigueur in YA fantasy. But unfortunately, as in Buffy and Angel, so is the constant resort to dystopian futures and apocalyptic plots.
That's what makes iZombie a refreshing change. Like Buffy, our heroine deals with everyday life and the challenge of being "normal" when she is anything but. As a champion of justice, she is decidedly small-scale, her superpowers not terrifically super, and difficult to handle.
|Blaine turns over a new leaf . . . for about five minutes.|
Upon becoming one himself, the low-life who accidentally turned her into a zombie, the very Spikey Blaine, contemplates his navel for about five minutes. And then leverages his old skills--dealing drugs--into a brand new one: the culinary brain wholesaling business.
He's still a sociopath, but a surprisingly entrepreneurial one, and that's infinitely more interesting than trashing Manhattan.
As far as that goes, instead of destroying Manhattan, I'd tell Loki to ditch Asgard and run for mayor of New York. You know, like Mayor Wilkins of Sunnydale on top of the Hell Mouth. A much bigger challenge and a way better night life.
April 09, 2015
The downside of adult adoption
The long-standing practice in Japan of mukoyoshi ("adult adoption") solves the kind of succession problems that bedeviled kings like Henry VIII. But for the warlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1536-1598), it caused hefty problems for the adoptees.
Hideyoshi rose to power after the assassination of Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582). Despite a marriage of thirty years and having mistresses ensconced in castles hither and yon, he never produced any offspring. That is, until he took Cha-cha (Lady Yodo) as his mistress (at the time, legal paternity was up to the head of household).
As Oda Nobunaga's niece, Lady Yodo had an impeccable bloodline and so could bear him a son worthy of being appointed shogun, a post denied Hideyoshi because of his commoner roots. Which she did. Twice.
Even at the time, people wondered aloud about this "miracle." Unfortunately for them, Hideyoshi had turned into a cross between batty King Lear and paranoid Richard III. He launched two disastrous invasions of Korea and ordered the death of a highly-revered adviser, Sen no Rikyu (perhaps because Rikyu's renown eclipsed his).
Questions about the paternity of his sons were quickly quashed when Hideyoshi had the rumormongers executed (that's one way to address a potential PR problem).
Hideyoshi's first son died young (superstition attributed his fate to bad karma from Sen no Rikyu's death). The second, Hideyori, was designated his successor. But what to do with his adopted sons, that might also vie for leadership of the clan? Well, charges of treason were trumped up and they were sentenced to death.
Hideyoshi surely hadn't forgotten how easily he had routed Nobunaga's diffident sons and worried that the same thing would happen to his own.
And, well, it did. After his death, the regents appointed by Hideyoshi split into East and West factions. In short order, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the leader of the East faction, annihilated the West at the Battle of Sekigahara and had himself appointed shogun instead.
The travails of the Toyotomi clan in producing an heir additionally motivated Ieyasu to create the Sanke ("three families"). If the main line failed, the male descendents of his three youngest sons were qualified to become shogun. A royal family with understudies.
The selection of the shogun itself was a political process overseen by a council of elders. Ieyasu's genius was in seeing national governance in political terms and not simply as primogeniture and will-to-power. Shoguns often abdicated and most weren't appointed until after they'd reached adulthood, and sometimes much older.
The culture of adoption
The three families