July 29, 2015
Just don't stand there
I recall an actor extolling the benefits of smoking. On screen, that is. He'd grown up in the old studio system, back when people smoked without apology. It all came down to keeping one's hands busy, giving the actor something to do when he wasn't actually doing anything:
Take out a pack, extract a cigarette, give it a couple of taps to pack the tobacco, search the pockets for a book of matches, find it, get one out, strike it, light the cigarette, wave out the match, take a puff, exhale smoke. And on it goes.
(In other words, real political life is not like The West Wing.)
And yet the engine of a story has to idle occasionally. The protagonists can't be in pursuit of the plot 24/7. So what are they doing when they're not?
In real life, people are pretty boring. Middle class, suburban teenagers in particular are really boring. But you can't bore the viewer in the name of "realism." Hence that most reliable of genre fantasy plots: boring kid discovers he's not.
Harry Potter, Peter Parker, Luke Skywalker, to name a few.
The job of the teenage superhero is Saving the World, except Saving the World gets boring week after week too. It really does. Besides, what do they do when the world doesn't need saving? As Kate suggests, it's a problem solved "by simply giving the main characters jobs."
I'd argue that the appeal of action heroes like Tony Stark, Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, and Clark Kent is due in large part to the fact that they all work for a living. At least when we first meet them. And the less real work they do, the less interesting they are.
I'd prefer to see more of Peter Parker using his superpowers to creatively enhance his job as a photojournalist instead of battling the latest comically absurd supervillain. In other words, less time spent saving humanity (sorry, humanity), more time making a living.
For the Y/A protagonist, being a student can qualify as a job. One of the best examples of this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy's two jobs (student/Slayer) means that the mundane is constantly bumping up against the supernatural. This is great for story possibilities.
Manga and anime execute this formula to great effect.
In The Devil is a Part-Timer, our villain with a good heart has gotten stranded on Earth and has to get a job at McDonald's to make ends meet. Even funnier, being the competitive guy that he is, he works hard and cares about being successful at what he does.
So in-between destroying/saving the world, he's got to staff the late shift and keep the customers coming when a Kentucky Fried Chicken opens across the street. It's a much better way to humanize the protagonist than being nice to children and rescuing wayward pets.
(Though just to be sure, he does that too.)
When it comes to non-paranormal melodramas, the budding manga artist is a popular job for a teen protagonist. In Hanasaku Iroha, Ohana works at her grandmother's inn while attending school. In Kodocha, eleven-year-old Sana is a hard-working child actress.
Serious hobbies also qualify. The sports manga/anime is its own huge genre, but there the sole (even relentless) focus of the story is often the sport. There are exceptions: I'm thinking specifically of stories where the story is about something other than the "job."
I think Yawara falls into that category. Yawara Inokuma's grandfather has trained her since infancy to be a judo champion. But now a teenager, she's rebelling. There's plenty of judo, but the story is more about her relationship with her grandfather and classmates.
In K-On, five students at an all-girls high school form a band that turns out to be pretty darn good (almost despite themselves). The running joke is that they're always so busy doing other things that they only get around to practicing the night before a gig.
In Garden of Words, Takao wanting to become a shoemaker works because it keeps him from moping all the time and gives him a goal in life. And it being an odd thing for a teenager to be interested in makes him all the more interesting.
Genre fiction gets boring when it tries too hard not to be. The result is a storm of action and emotions, except that constant action is exhausting and emotions are effervescent. Forcing characters into regular contact with the ordinary world is what brings them to life.
July 22, 2015
The book detectives
Shioriko Shinokawa (Ayame Gouriki) runs the "Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia" in the old historic town of Kamakura. She's quiet as a mouse, pretty as a picture, and brilliant as Sherlock Holmes.
The series begins with Daisuke Goura (Akira) coming to sell a collection of Natsume Soseki books that once belonged to his grandmother. In particular, one prized volume that appears to bear the famous author's signature, along with a mysterious dedication.
Shioriko concludes that the signature is a forgery, and that Daisuke's grandmother was the likely forger. That she would do so in a book she had always kept to herself only points to another mystery, one that reveals a curious truth about Daisuke's own past.
This first episode gets our two protagonists together so they can solve more mysteries of a literary nature. Each episode involves a specific classical work or famous author and Shioriko's exhaustive knowledge of world literature and the book collecting business.
Many of the episodes don't even involve a crime per se. The A Clockwork Orange episode starts as a shoplifting case and revolves around the missing last chapter in the first edition. An actual felony occurs at the end of that episode.
But nobody gets murdered, so this Kamakura isn't like those sleepy English villages where people are dropping dead right and left.
Ayame Gouriki pulls off the tricky task of being preternaturally pretty but more that bookish enough for the part. Despite the physical mismatch (he's eight inches taller), Akira (née, Ryohei Kurosawa of the band Exile) nerds it up and makes a good Watson.
Akira shares the Watson duties with veteran character actor Katsumi Takahashi, who also doubles as the Mrs. Hudson.
Thirty miles south of Tokyo, the ancient city of Kamakura is an ideal setting for a musty old bookshop. Minamoto no Yoritomo established Japan's first shogunate there in 1192, though it's better known today as home to the enormous outdoor statue of the Great Buddha.
Much of old Kamakura has been preserved as a veritable walk-through museum, a cozy place for cozy mysteries about books.
Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia's Case Files is based on the best-selling novels and manga by En Mikami (tragically, no English translations yet). The live-action 2013 Fuji Television series can be viewed on Crunchyroll (subtitled).
(The "free" version of Crunchyroll requires putting up with their obnoxious ad engine, whose primary purpose is to annoy you into buying a subscription. The free-market capitalist in me shrinks from pointing this out, but Adblock Plus works on this site.)
July 15, 2015
|The couple in question.|
That's not an insurmountable problem in story like this (with so much else going on). But as Kate asks, "What on earth will they talk about for the rest of their lives if they can no longer talk about their growing romance?"
Pushing aside everything you know about the characters from the anime, the live-action movie makes this hard to ignore. On the plus side, it hits all the major plot points from the first season of the anime. The two-hour time constraint means much less angst to wade through.
But the deeper side-story about Ryu and Chizuru is reduced to about five minutes. Racing from conflict to conflict, the relationship among Sawako, Ayane and Chizuru--the true substance of the series--becomes a fait accompli rather than a nurtured and growing thing.
In the process, Shota ends up a conventional teen lead, little more than a "MacGuffin." That's Hollywood slang for "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."
What separates formula romance from, say, Jane Austen, is giving the heroine a reason to want the hero aside from him being the closest available white knight. Aside from being a nice guy, nothing about Shota convinces us that he is desired for anything more than being desirable.
Even in the movie, we learn far more about Ryu than we ever do about Shota. (The movie actually adds more backstory about Sawako than is in the anime.)
As Sawako, Mikako Tabe, in turn, has to lean more heavily on affect than acting. Trying too hard to match the look of the anime forces her to compete with her hair in the early scenes. Her performance improves considerably when she can finally wear her hair up or back.
Even then, she has barely any material to work with, other than her character's odd personality. The movie unintentionally makes it obvious that here are two kids who really need to get themselves a life, something more substantive than pining for each other.
Sawako at least has her flower garden. I would have liked to see this used much more as an outer expression of her inner self. Make her a budding botanist.
Kimi ni Todoke is a good example of how animation can be the superior visual medium when so much of the subject matter is internal or subjective. Manga artist Karuho Shiina can draw what she wants us to see (hair, to start with), especially if she wants us to see a state of mind.
|Sawako and Chizuru in super-deformed mode.|
Manga and anime have rich repertoires of abstract effects and visual metaphors, such as the "super-deformed" style.(1) These effects don't interrupt the narrative and announce themselves precisely because they are drawn. We've already disassociated story from "reality."
Pixar has further proven the point with Inside Out.
I think a movie adaptation like Kimi ni Todoke would work better by addressing a far smaller slice of the original. A straightforward summation of events, however accurate, simply can't generate the same emotional Sturm und Drang.
|They look and can play the parts.|
The movie does get a few things exactly right: Haru Aoyama and Misako Renbutsu are perfectly cast as Ryu and Chizuru. There's the better movie to make: flip the point-of-view around and tell the story from their perspective. All the necessary material is already available.
Here is a useful guide to the dating scene in Japan.
Japan's “Love Confessing” Culture
What It's Like Dating A Japanese Girl
What It's Like Dating A Japanese Guy
1. Although "super-deformed" is generally considered analogous to "chibi," I think it's more semantically useful to define "super-deformed" literally and "chibi" as a sub-category.
July 08, 2015
I'm amused when neo-conservatives are criticized for running around the world imposing "American-style democracy" on foreign peoples. It's a policy memorably articulated by Rudyard Kipling about the long-forgotten Philippine-American War.
Take up the White Man's burden, No tawdry rule of kings,
But toil of serf and sweeper, The tale of common things.
The ports ye shall not enter, The roads ye shall not tread,
Go mark them with your living, And mark them with your dead.
In September 1898, anticipating Colin Powell's "Pottery Barn rule" by a century, Kipling wrote to Theodore Roosevelt:
America has gone and stuck a pickaxe into the foundations of a rotten house and she is morally bound to build the house over again from the foundations or have it fall about her ears.
I agree with most critiques of neo-conservative adventurism, and hew to the Prime Directive in this regard (though preferring Captain Kirk's interpretation to Captain Picard's: sometimes you do have to send the Marines to the Shores of Tripoli).
The Prime Directive is not just a set of rules. It is a philosophy, and a very correct one. History has proven again and again that whenever mankind interferes with a less developed civilization, no matter how well intentioned that interference may be, the results are invariably disastrous.
The problem with the "American-style democracy" jibe is that no neo-conservative has ever imposed "American-style democracy" on anybody. The American political system is uniquely a product of our own history, geography, and demographics.
Bottom line: the Rube Goldberg machine called the United States is too weird to impose on anybody anywhere else. Rather, what neo-conservatives have been doing is running around the world imposing European-style parliamentary democracies.
All the more troubling, these parliamentary democracies tend to be modeled on unitary states with hyper-strong central governments and little shared sovereignty or "local rule." Japan, France, and Great Britain are three notable examples.
If any political system was going to be imposed on anybody, countries like Afghanistan and Iraq would have been better off with an "Articles of Confederation" framework that made the provinces fairly independent and got them on board first.
Functioning provinces first, nation-building second. After all, learning from our mistakes with the Articles of Confederation gave us version 2.0, the current U.S. Constitution.
Even then, the anti-federalists didn't lose the ideological battle until after the Civil War. Then over the next century, the political pendulum swung too far in the other direction. As it did in Japan.
The Meiji Restoration in 1868 upset 250 years of fairly strong local rule, abruptly centralizing power without the necessary checks and balances. The temptation is understandable: to rule by decree and to right wrongs "because we know best."
Because, you know, those provincials in the provinces are just too provincial to get with the times (exactly the same attitude that brought down the Tokugawa shogunate).
Alas, without the (implicit or explicit) consent of the governed, governing ends up a game of Whac-A-Mole. The people forever out of power may decide to shoot the people in power. Except that the people with the most guns are usually the military.
That was Japan during the 1930s. Creating "facts on the ground" that couldn't be undone by feckless politicians, middle-ranked army officers in Japan and China launched coups and started their own wars. In most cases, the government caved.
Wrote Robert Heinlein, "The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire."
In the end, it's not an election or a constitution that makes the difference. It's the widely-understood rules of the game and everybody's willingness to play by them. Common law becomes the rule of law by first being common.
The United States started with Jeffersonian republicanism before moving to Hamiltonian federalism. The rule of law predated the U.S. Constitution. Key elements of the Bill of Rights had already been written into state constitutions.
Before relying on--and yielding sovereignty to--the big, people must build trust in the small. They have to "trust, but verify." Otherwise, even the most perfect democratic system will never work, no matter how, by, or on whom it is imposed.
July 02, 2015
Kimi ni Todoke
As a result, even reaching the borderlines of the personality disorder spectrum in Japan--the poster child here being hikikomori--requires diving deep into Asperger syndrome territory, well past the point at which an American helicopter parent would have carted the kid off to a shrink.
To the average introvert, though, Japanese society is pretty much organized the way society ought to be, hence the nerd appeal: it's not some wayward planet Captain Kirk needs to save from itself.
(Though NHK did feel the need to create an online course for elementary school students that explains how to carry on a constructive conversation and communicate with your teacher. It's a pretty good series, frankly.)
Surveys of Japanese high school and college students reveal little interest in abandoning the traditional hierarchical social structure. Despite all the attendant dysfunctions, it's too convenient a way to relate to people without getting too forward or personal all at once (if ever).
A new word had to be invented to describe speaking colloquially with one's peers as equals: tamego (タメ語). Versus using the traditional honorifics: keigo (敬語). Nevertheless, keigo remains the universal default, even among the "younger set."
The great turning point in every Japanese romance is when the main characters start using tamego with each other.
Because of the reversed ratios on this side of the Pacific, the American extrovert's primary (if only) exposure to introverts is television. Principally Aspergery characters like Sheldon on Big Bang Theory, who aren't only introverted but socially maladaptive in a variety of humorous ways.
Granted, it is easier to "show, don't tell" when you're dealing with showy material. By the same token, the extroverted protagonist is easier to write for than somebody comfortable living inside his own head (without relying on copious voice-overs).
Extroverts aren't hard to find on Japanese television for the same reason. They're especially useful for jump-starting conflicts and propelling plots forward (see: tsundere), especially when obvious conflicts go unresolved because of the lack of definitive action or clear communication.
And, yes, the lack of definitive action or clear communication can make Japanese romances way more annoying than American ones. But when the protagonists really are introverts, also more believable (which doesn't always mean more entertaining).
The quintessential showcase is Kimi ni Todoke ("From Me to You"), the hugely popular manga by Karuho Shiina. Serialized since 2006, it's been made in a light novel series, an anime series, and a live-action film (with Mikako Tabe). Here we are presented with a mirror held up to the national teen psyche.
The premise appears entirely predictable at first: Sawako, the quietest girl in class, falls for Shota, the most popular guy.
Except that Shota is not the typical BMOC extrovert (one of those shows up in the second season). If Sawako can be described as far more shy than introverted, Shota is perhaps more introverted but markedly less shy. Shyness and introversion are certainly not synonyms!
The most introverted person in the series is Ryu, Shota's best friend. He's also not shy but has a gregariousness rating of approximately zero. He is the strong, silent type. (In the first season, Chizuru and Ryu are also the more interesting couple, a problem I'll address in a future post.)
Sawako definitely is shy. Worse, she looks like "Sadako," the devilish main character in Koji Suzuki's famous horror trilogy. Everybody calls her "Sadako" and deems her bad luck to be around. Exacerbated by her extremely reserved personality, this pretty much shuts down her social life.
Important point: that isn't something she's wrung her hands over (until now). Introverts don't. They shrug and carry on.
Sawako was comfortably living in her own little world until, like Ken Takakura in The Yellow Handkerchief, she's befriended by a happy-go-lucky pair of extroverts (extroverted according to Japanese standards). Ayane and Chizuru, in turn, connect her to Shota, who, it turns out, already has a thing for her.
(While this reliable plot device is amusing enough in fiction, in real life it often arouses the kind of emotions that would frighten Hannibal Lecter.)
But since Shota is pretty introverted too (though of the more normal sort), he's not going to broach the subject with someone he knows isn't going to broach it either. As I mentioned, this can get annoying fast. And I'll warn you: it drives the plot of practically the entire second season.
This is the underlying flaw in the teen soap opera: you have to keep breaking up the couple so they can get back together. For a long-running series, I would prefer something akin to the timeline of Clannad, that follows the main characters out of their teenage years into their early twenties.
(These problems might also have been mitigated if, as Kate puts it, Sawako and Shota didn't have so much time to "sit and around and get angsty," and got themselves a part-time job or serious hobby.)
|A troublesome extrovert.|
What ultimately saves the series (more in the first season than the second), is that romance is not the constant focus of attention. Rather, the story is about how extending her circle of friends to two or three more people not only expands her world but theirs as well.
Sawako isn't "troubled" or "damaged" or harboring deep psychological secrets. She is only less than fully functional in her inability to "read" people, but even that becomes a kind of superpower. Not reacting predictably to ulterior motives has the comical result of defanging the mean girls.
For an introvert to be an outlier in a Japanese melodrama, she has to be a true outlier. So Sawako is odd even by Japanese standards, but not so odd that millions of Japanese don't identify with her.
If you're looking for a Harlequin plot with extroverts confessing their undying love and making public displays of affection, you're not going to get it (prepare for the exact opposite). What you will get instead is a gentle, goodhearted tale about quiet people becoming better at who they already are.
Kimi ni Todoke (Hulu CR VIZ)
Useful Japanese stereotypes
Understanding Japanese women
June 29, 2015
The first line of Justice Scalia's dissenting opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges (gay marriage) sums up my thoughts about both "momentous" Supreme Court decisions last week: "The substance of today's decree is not of immense personal importance to me."
My libertarian instincts lead me likewise to shrug. As far as the state is concerned, marriage is a legal contract; what religions wish to make of it is up to them. In any case, almost all of the damage done to "marriage as an institution" comes from the misbehavior of the heterosexual majority.
On the other hand, Obamacare is about as far from a libertarian solution as can be imagined. But as George Will points out, conservatives are reaping what they sowed: "Their decades of populist praise of judicial deference to the political branches has borne this sour fruit."
And so Pournelle's "Iron Law of Bureaucracy" kicks in with a vengeance.
In any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Second, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization.
As a sign of things to come, a third Supreme Court decision is eerily germane. In Horne v. Department of Agriculture, the Court struck down the insane actions of the National Raisin Reserve (a real government agency), that props up commodity prices by "seizing" (stealing) crops grown by farmers.
The Agricultural Marketing Agreement Act of 1937 authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to promulgate "marketing orders" to help maintain stable markets for particular agricultural products. The marketing order for raisins requires growers in certain years to give a percentage of their crop to the Government, free of charge.
Farmers aren't exactly innocent lambs here. Thanks to equally stupid laws dating back to the same New Deal era, rent-seeking by all parties is rife within the agricultural economy.
Decade after decade, farm bills are debated and "reformed," an Orwellian term that means paying off the relevant constituencies (like Arizona cotton growers) and endlessly toying at the fringes, until things get so out of whack that the courts finally weigh in on the side of common sense (maybe).
It only takes three-quarters of a century. Or longer. Equally dreadful aspects of New Deal agricultural policy are merrily humming along (like paying farmers to grow cotton in the desert).
An obvious one is getting rid of employer-sponsored plans. Your employer doesn't dictate the terms of your auto or home insurance. Like FICA payments, a company's only responsibility should be depositing withholdings in the right bucket. That alone would eliminate religious objections to mandated coverage.
The one legislative error underlying all others is trying to do too much at once (fearing the chance won't come around again), and ending up writing laws so complex and opaque that they have to "pass it to find out how it works." Did Nancy Pelosi know she was paraphrasing a political cartoon from 1947?
Opponents to Obamacare and gay marriage shouldn't make the same mistake. Mark Shields is exactly right that the Supreme Court has done the Republicans candidates "an enormous political favor." Democrats now fully own Obamacare, while establishment Republicans have been shooting blanks on alternatives.
And when it comes to gay marriage, Republicans are demonstrating themselves to be empty of actual political principles. They're the ones who federalized marriage in the first place. Remember DOMA? That was back when everybody was gung-ho in favor of "traditional marriage."
At this point, Republican candidates risk self-destructing in order to garner a few primary wins. The best thing they could do for the cause is shut up about it until after November 2016.
June 25, 2015
The teen manga artist
Despite the manga market in Japan cooling off largely due to the inevitable demographic shifts, publishers are still actively recruiting new talent. This has produced a YA genre unique to Japan that centers around the teenage manga artist.
The genre falls into two general categories: 1) the amateur/self-published (dojinshi) manga artist, often a member of a high school or college manga club; 2) a teenager earning a living as a manga artist.
In the former category are Comic Party and Genshiken. In both cases, the goal is getting a booth at the Comiket comic fair (or its equivalent), the world's biggest dojinshi convention.
A few of the more talented club members may parlay this into a career in the future, but that's not the point of the story. As Kate points out, the setting has the important function of giving the characters something to do.
The problem of providing genre romantic characters with a difference can often be solved by simply giving the main characters jobs, and then remembering what those jobs are.
This is literally the case for the teenagers in the latter category. They often even live alone (second item). This isn't unusual in Japan, where a high school student can enroll in an "escalator school" away from home, or whose parents are working abroad.
In anime and manga about making manga, "the teenager as working artist" breaks down into several sub-categories:
- As in Ef–A Tale of Memories, being a manga artist is simply one aspect of a person's character and a source of conflict as such.
- Though more commonly, the main character being a manga artist comprises the whole plot device.
- As an added twist, a guy is writing a romance manga or a teen girl is writing for a sexually explicit imprint (like Cheese).
Everything I've read says that Bakuman is the best series about growing up to become a manga artist. The story follows two ninth grade boys who are striving to break into the business, with Moritaka Mashiro as the artist and Akito Takagi as the writer.
Media Blasters had picked up the anime but subsequently abandoned the license. The manga series is published by VIZ Media.
Otherwise, the best of the rest is Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun. Nozaki Umetaro is a hunky high school student who, unbeknownst to most of his classmates, draws a popular romance manga for a girl's magazine.
Producing two chapters a month leaves him desperate for new material. And help. Established manga artists employ a small staff to help meet the always pressing deadlines. Nozaki resorts to roping his classmates into those chores, including Chiyo.
Because of an understandable misunderstanding, the first time he broaches the subject, she thinks he's asking her on a date. Instead she finds herself learning how to do beta (that means filling in designated areas with solid black).
Monthly Girls' Nozaki-kun confirms that "giving your characters something to do is always more interesting than letting them sit and around and get angsty." Nozaki has something to do, a place to be, and Chiyo a non-awkward reason for being there.
The monomaniacal Nozaki is the perfect straight man, navigating a sea of absurdity without straining belief. The series is good-natured, not too sit-com stupid (a trap Comic Party falls into at times), and honestly very funny.
The genre doesn't stop with high school. Yasuko and Kenji (a live-action comedy not available in the U.S.) has the leader of a biker gang abandoning his old life and becoming a manga artist to support his kid sister when their parents die.
Mangirl (an unfortunate-sounding portmanteau of "manga" and "girl") is about just that, a very silly and very short (less than five minutes per episode) but surprisingly smart show about four OLs launching a manga magazine.
The people making these anime are following the adage of writing what they know best, so the added bonus is that you will learn a good deal about the manga industry in the process (including dealing with odd editors and eccentric artists).
Incidentally, the best series about the anime industry right now (said by industry insiders to border on documentary accuracy) is Shirobako. It's also about working adults, though they started out in a high school anime club.
June 22, 2015
The future of TV
In "7 Deadly Sins: Where Hollywood is Wrong about the Future of TV," Liam Boluk tackles the past, present, and future of commercial television in the context of rising competition from over-the-top (OTT) services. By the time the networks are "ready" to fully embrace OTT, he argues, they'll have already been supplanted.
In terms of minutes viewed, at its current pace, Netflix "will become the most popular video provider in the US by the end of 2015," making it "bigger than two of the four major US broadcasters and twice as large as the largest cable network." Hulu and Amazon are larger than half of traditional cable offerings and growing.
Boluk nails down exactly where the impetus for "cord cutting" comes from; i.e., abandoning cable TV for OTT:
Since 2005 alone, the average pay TV household has more than doubled the number of channels it receives (to around 200), while the number of channels they actually watch has increased by only one (from 16.5 to 17.5).
It'd be interesting to analyze how much overlap there is in those 17.5 channels.
ESPN recently freaked out when Verizon announced the creation of à la carte TV packages that didn't include ESPN by default. ESPN had leveraged its popularity into requiring that its channels be part of the basic cable TV package, raking in seven bucks from every cable TV subscriber (this doesn't even sound legal to me).
Its reaction suggests ESPN fears that, given the choice, far more viewers can live without its content than in the good old days, when people got cable just to get ESPN (or rather, ESPN had the only original programming on cable).
Cable TV has definitely developed a featuritis problem: it's selling the sparkle of 200 channels, 90 percent of which is ultimately ignored. The gamble--that paid off up till now--was that by the time the consumer realized this, the cable bill was just another utility. Shrug and pay it.
But no longer. And another reason is a disruptor that nobody saw coming.
Sports was the original reality television. For a time it seemed that, like game shows in the 1950s, cheaply produced "scripted reality" shows were going to solve the networks' money flow problems. And before that, 24 hour news was going to dominate everything.
Really, that's what the "experts" said.
Now, Al Jazeera's half-billion dollar cable buy has crashed and burned. CNN runs a distant second to Fox News, neck-in-neck with MSNBC, which is pulling the lowest ratings in a decade. In Marge Simpson's words, "The story was first reported on CNN. Then the real news started reporting it all over the world."
"Reality TV" has certainly kept production costs low. But then came the "AMC Effect." AMC was a "stable, if unambitious Tier 2 cable network" that suddenly raced to the head of the pack with a series of audacious, one-hour original dramas, debuting Mad Men in 2007 and Breaking Bad in 2008.
AMC now has the most-watched scripted series across broadcast, basic cable and premium cable, The Walking Dead. As one might expect, this success has prompted all networks to view originals as essential to driving awareness, building a brand, retaining users and generating profits.
To be sure, football remains the perennial ratings winner, but it's a finite resource. The networks have to anchor their schedules with a franchise like NCIS, that still tops the broadcast television ratings after 12 seasons.
The curious paradox about "premium" content providers is how little original content they actually provide, compared to the hours that over-the-air (OTA) networks have to fill. In part, this is because every cable channel feeds at the same subscription fee trough as ESPN. All that matters is getting into the subscription package.
So how many hit shows do you need to maximize ROI? As it turns out, two highly-rated shows that draw the same audience may be less valuable than two lesser-rated shows that draw completely different audiences.
Many of today's original series are being cancelled not because they aren't good enough or because there's too much out there, but because the industry's business models and metrics haven't been updated to the on-demand, non-linear era. Until that changes, cancellation rates will only get worse.
Golf has been proving this point for decades. Professional golf fills the weekend afternoon airwaves during the summer, earning lousy rating in absolute terms (aside from a handful of marquee events). But golf is popular among a particular demographic that certain advertisers want very badly to reach.
This points to another downstream effect: the long-term impact on the whole ratings system.
The old approach was to poll households to find out who was watching what. But streaming providers know exactly who is watching what. The same way Amazon generates internal sales data superior to any New York Times bestseller list, OTT will ultimately disintermediate the whole Nielsen rating system.
Alas, without a big build-out of "last mile" infrastructure, OTT will have a hard time beating cable in terms of signal quality. And that might not matter. It's just as Clay Christensen predicted: "A low-end product doesn't need to be as good as a high-end one to drive it out of a market."
Here, though, the pressure comes from both the high and low end. Free over-the-air delivers the best HDTV signal. Content providers that are also ISPs can't improve bandwidth without making OTT all the more attractive, and they can't not improve ISP service with Google waiting in the wings.
Except that Google isn't exactly galloping into the ISP business (I wish they would at least trot a few miles north from Provo). For the time being, Comcast has a nice deal going, maximizing income from content and Internet services. Nothing drastic is likely to happen as long as the money keeps gushing in.
Even in the face of cord-cutting fears, regulatory uncertainty and increasing resistance to its unpopular merger proposal with Time Warner Cable Inc. [since abandoned], Comcast has delivered one blockbuster quarter after another, often blowing past analysts’ estimates.
Cable Internet services have incredible profit margins (meaning they incredibly overcharge). Robert Cringely speculates that cable ISPs might even welcome being "forced" to shed the heavy costs of providing content in favor of providing only bits, which would eventually turn every local ISP into a de facto CDN.
My prediction is that, in the near future, the last quarter century of cable programming will prove to have been a slowly growing bubble. Squeezed by OTA and OTT, cable will have to go à la carte. The number of channels viewers are willing to outright pay for will collapse.
Unless content providers can keep subscription costs low enough that customers don't worry about the bill. The easiest way to do that is to slash the number of offerings and leave the long tail to OTT. To paraphrase Hemingway, when the paradigm does shift, it's likely to be gradually at first and then all at once.
June 18, 2015
The Showa drama
The Showa drama is a staple of narrative fiction in Japan, especially movies and television. According to the "era name" dating system (or nengou), the Showa period is named for the reign of Emperor Hirohito (1926-1989).
The era name of his son Akihito is Heisei, so Showa 64 and Heisei 1 both refer to 1989. Confusing? You bet! Historical references prior to the Meiji period often include the Gregorian year in parentheses because it's confusing to Japanese too.
|In Carnation, Itoko has to work hard to save her precious sewing machine from getting recycled.|
Political events such as the "February 26 Incident" are noted in passing (if at all) and the war itself is shown from the point of view of a middle-class housewife: coping with draconian rationing while watching the young conscripts go off to war and come home in boxes.
And in series like Hanako and Anne and Massan (the former because Hanako was an English translator, the latter because Ellie was a British national), fending off the loathed Kempeitai, the Gestapo-like police force.
The Great Tokyo Earthquake in 1923 and the firebombing of Tokyo in March of 1945 frame the Showa drama as metaphorical turning points.
The genre remains as popular as Edo period (1603-1868) samurai dramas. With every milestone (this being the 70th year since the war's end), it is increasingly steeped in nostalgia. Of the ten Asadora serials broadcast on NHK since 2010, seven have been Showa dramas.
Including the last two: Hanako and Anne and Massan. Hayao Miyazaki's The Wind Rises is in many respects a very conventional Showa drama.
The more upbeat "Happy Days" version of the Showa drama is prefaced by the Occupation and ends in 1964 with the Shinkansen and the Tokyo Olympics. Ume-chan Sensei belong in this latter category, as does Goro Miyazaki's From up on Poppy Hill.
There is probably a no more sepia-steeped example than Always: Sunset on Third Street. Literally, in this case, as you can tell from the title.
Always tells the story of a working-class neighborhood in Tokyo, focusing on Ryunosuke Chagawa, a struggling novelist, and Norifumi Suzuki, an auto mechanic who can't resist buying the latest gadget: a refrigerator and B&W TV in the first film, a color TV by the third.
Yasujiro Ozu's slice-of-life family dramas from the 1950s and early 1960s make for an interesting comparison. The only nostalgia on display in Ozu's postwar films is for those few remaining remnants of a world destroyed by the war and now rapidly fading away.
Ozu spends little time looking backwards and instead focuses his attention on the world around him. Not knowing what was going to happen hence, Japan in the 1950s was a less than reassuring time. For all anybody knew, it was going to be the Taisho period all over again.
In 1953, Donald Keene visited Kyoto as a graduate student, at one point attending an economics conference sponsored by the Institute for Pacific Affairs. He observed that the Japanese attendees were uniformly "convinced that Japan's future was dismal."
The general impressions of the conference, at least to an outsider like myself, were of resignation on the part of the Japanese and friendly but unhelpful attempts by non-Japanese to cheer them. I could not detect anything positive arising from the discussions.
None of them could imagine that three decades of double-digit economic growth were right around the corner, that would turn Japan into an industrial powerhouse. They wouldn't have to wait long.
His later films are suffused with a bemused wonder at the new world blossoming around him. Ozu delights in framing old, worn, wooden architecture in facades of glistening glass and steel; characters leave one scene in traditional kimono and enter the next in suits and skirts.
People move from old businesses to modern office buildings, from old houses to concrete apartment blocks. The glowing technicolor turns them into photo spreads out of National Geographic, preserving a point in time as it really was rather than how it is now remembered.
Still, Showa nostalgia is more than a trick of memory. Japan went on a 30-year winning streak, temporarily tripped up only by the oil shocks of the early 1970s. It became the second largest economy in the world and not a few "big thinkers" predicted it would soon pass the U.S.
Then the bubble burst. For the next two decades, everything that could go wrong did: a stock market crash, two devastating earthquakes, a nuclear meltdown, birth rates below replacement and a declining population that shows no sigh of leveling out anytime soon.
Except when that declining workforce is factored into the equation (GDP-per-worker), the Japanese economy is doing rather well. Gee, now it's only the third biggest in the world. Per-capita GDP in 2014 is over three times that in 1964. Japan leads the world in life expectancy.
Last September at TEDx Kyoto, Jesper Koll enthusiastically made the forward-looking argument:
Which isn't to say that the good old days weren't, just that they weren't quite as good as we like to remember, and the present day isn't quite as bad as we like to pretend.
June 15, 2015
Utopia wasn't built in a day
At the heart of every Edenic green dream is an obliviousness to the necessity of time and the demands of scale. A similar flaw shows up in near-future science fiction. Any razzle-dazzle infrastructure predicted to be ubiquitous a quarter-century from now has to be in the permitting process now.
When referencing the Space Race, remember that the chief architect of the Saturn V booster was Wernher von Braun, who'd launched 5200 V-2 liquid-fuel rockets during the 1940s. His designs were in large part based on Robert Goddard's groundbreaking research in the 1920s.
Japan Railways and its predecessors had started buying up rights-of-way for the Shinkansen thirty years before it debuted in 1964 (the war having put the original plans on hold). The route itself followed the centuries-old Tokaido Road.
These things take time. Unlike Jean-Luc Picard, no modern, democratic government can "Make it so" by merely ordering it. Even authoritarian regimes are finding it tough these days to rule by decree.
California is still a democracy. A messy one. The LA Times recently reported: "Finding a route into the Los Angeles Basin for the California bullet train is proving far more difficult than it seemed a year ago, as opposition is surging in wealthy and working-class communities alike."
Phase 1 of California High-Speed Rail project is supposed to be completed by 2029. Chances of Phase 1 getting done on time: zero. Chances of it never being finished: high. Discussing the various obstacles to the routes currently under debate, Steve Sailer concludes:
Theoretically, High Speed Rail could follow the existing tracks west through Simi Valley to Santa Barbara--I've taken the slow train to Santa Barbara. But nobody can conceive of the zillionaires of Santa Barbara allowing High Speed Rail to roar through Montecito, so that idea never comes up.
Even if we could nationalize all the beautiful back yards and ocean front vistas keeping such projects at bay, there's still the problem of actually building the thing. Or as Elon Musk would prefer, a whole bunch of things, explains Will Boisvert in "The Grid Will Not Be Disrupted."
Does all the messianic talk of battery-powered "disruption" and solar triumphalism stack up? Hardly. For all their ballyhooed price reductions, Tesla batteries are still too unreliable and expensive to come even within hyping distance of neither a reliable power supply, nor an off-grid revolution.
To get down to brass tacks:
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For that much money, Boisvert points out, you could build enough AP1000 nuclear power plants to completely decarbonize Germany's electrical supply. Germany presently gets 75 percent of its electrical power from fossil fuel sources. That's measurably higher than the U.S. (67 percent).
France gets eight (8!) percent of its electrical power from fossil fuels. Nuclear accounts for 77 percent.
Before Fukushima, Japan generated 30 percent of its electrical power from nuclear; it's now close to zero, the difference being made up by oil, gas, and coal. Unlike Germany, Japan intends to restart its nuclear plants. Like Germany, in the meantime, it's increasingly relying on coal.
We've been building steam-turbine generators since 1884. They generate terawatts of reliable power and run 24/7 for years. But "the falling price of wind and solar generators has distracted us from the external costs of trying to shape [wind and solar] into an energy source we can count on."
As I said: these things take time. Oh, I can well imagine renewables becoming "affordable" in the near future because of bounteous subsidies (not that India and China care; heck, if I were them, I'd sign any treaty put in front of me and keep burning coal).
Except subsidies don't change the laws of physics. All those wind and photovoltaic farms will require an equally large number of base load power plants (if not nuclear, then burning fossil fuels well into the next century) to mitigate the storage problems. Which we'll merrily pretend don't exist.
The carbon equation won't change one iota, but at the very least we can all feel better about ourselves.
June 11, 2015
The sunk cost advantage
Thanks to the digital revolution, the business models of anime and manga distribution are converging.
Manga magazines in Japan function as loss leaders. Publishers use cheaply-printed magazines to "audition" series and artists. If successful, a manga series will be compiled into higher-quality paperback editions. From there, the cream of the crop become source material for anime, live-action television, and movies.
This explains why manga dominates the ebook market in Japan. Since publishers already have to electronically typeset any manga that makes it into the magazines, they can epublish everything in their backlists rather than try and winnow out the winners.
Unlike text-based ebooks, which originate with XHTML files (that are tricky to convert from typesetting files; it's easier to go back to the Word files), visual novels originate with PDF or image files, making ebook creation a far simpler process.
Anime series require more money, more people, and more time, but they eventually have to run a similar gauntlet.
Anime series (and movies) are produced with the backing of "production committees" (that often include the studio's "competitors"). Most are shopped to the networks using "brokered programming" (or "time buy") syndication agreements: they buy the air time and sell the advertising spots themselves.
The goal is to generate publicity among the fan base and then make an actual profit on DVD/Blu-ray sales and merchandising.
Anime series that get the DVD go-ahead get "cleaned up" in post-post production (TV series being cranked out at a pell-mell pace). The "cleaning up" includes what Steven Den Beste calls "Buy the Blu-ray!" scenes, gratuitous nudity obscured for broadcast television (fans know it when they see it).
With the exception of breakout hits and network-owned series, the studio (and the its financial backers) will be looking for any revenue stream to add to the bottom line. This makes the up-front licensing fees for simulcasting (over 40 titles on Crunchyroll) another plus.
Of course, simulcasting means that subtitling has to be done in-house before the broadcast date, rather than farmed out to the U.S. distributor at some future date. Which means that, like manga, almost all of the streaming costs will have been sunk by the broadcast date.
Thus the appeal of a distribution channel that can't rebound to hurt home-market sales, namely streaming video (and government export assistance programs don't hurt). The appeal is so great that Justin Sevakis fears we're seeing a repeat of the DVD anime boom and bust in the mid-2000s.
There is so much anime being released right now that Hulu has stopped taking everything they're being offered--old shows are being purged if nobody is watching them, and some new shows are being rejected if Hulu's anime team deems them unlikely to find an audience. They just can't handle that much content. We have too much anime, and there's simply no way for anybody to keep up.
The obvious downside is that irrational exuberance will again drive supply up and demand down and licensing fees over the edge. Expectations will collide with cold hard reality as they do in any marketing bubble.
This time around, though, there are no physical returns for publishers to worry about. Licensing fees can be adjusted on the fly. A title can be eliminated from inventory with the press of a button. As Sevakis puts it, "There simply aren't as many ways [as before] for the anime publishers to eat dirt."
And this time around, Japanese businesses may finally get that whole "Cool Japan" thing right.
June 06, 2015
Along with Mamoru Hosoda, Makoto Shinkai comes closest to capturing the cinematic "look and feel" of Studio Ghibli (Shinkai cites Castle in the Sky as his favorite anime). However, I think Hosoda hews much closer to Miyazaki's (and John Lasseter's) emphasis on story driven by plot and character.
Shinkai waxes moodier than I usually care for, emphasizing affect over effect. But, boy, can he capture moods! His visual palette is stunning, exquisite, and deeply evocative. Voices of a Distant Star is less a film than a narrative poem. (It's also the best version of Ender's Game that isn't Ender's Game.)
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The excruciatingly gorgeous 5 Centimeters per Second vividly captures (especially in the last scene) a very real moment of self-realization. You want honest emotions? Like, man, I'm grokking it totally. But I'm not sure I'd call it "entertaining." Not beyond the dazzling cinematography.
In other words, 5 Centimeters per Second may be the most beautiful work of literary fiction ever created.
One exception in the collection is Children Who Chase Lost Voices. This retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice (Izanagi and Izanami) visually merges the worlds of Totoro and Princess Mononoke in a young adult adventure through the underworld. Death and loss is still the subject, but less meditatively.
Mono no a'wa're is Shinkai's specialty, referring to the classical Japanese aesthetic concept of the beauty that can be found in loss and in the transitory nature of things, "a gentle sadness (or wistfulness) at their passing as well as a longer, deeper gentle sadness about this state being the reality of life."
A'wa're isn't about being nihilistic or deliberately depressing. It's the simple recognition that nothing lasts forever, and if you know where to look there's beauty in that too, so it doesn't have to completely bum you out.
Shinkai's oeuvre truly comes together in Garden of Words, a story told in images that suffuse the senses like a Monet exhibition. No cinematic rain has ever felt wetter. Though here Shinkai does drive toward a specific resolution that pays off in the final frames (stick all the way through the credits).
Senri Oe's 1988 hit single, "Rain," inspired the screenplay. In the movie it's performed by Motohiro Hata.
In Garden of Words, Shinkai has given a well-established romance subgenre (in Japan) a poignant twist. Once you realize that, the film is worth watching again to see how he advances the plot without showing his hand, and how many subtle touches come alive with the additional context.
Netflix still carries The Place Promised in Our Early Days in its dwindling DVD catalog. All of the titles are available at Amazon in one form or another. She and Her Cat is included as an extra on the Voices of a Distant Star DVD.
• She and Her Cat (short; cats)
• Voices of a Distant Star (short; science fiction)
• The Place Promised in Our Early Days (science fiction)
• 5 Centimeters per Second (contemporary)
• Children Who Chase Lost Voices (fantasy)
• The Garden of Words (short; contemporary)
June 04, 2015
The "single dad" is a television drama and sitcom character that defines its own genre. Jim O'Kane has a whole website devoted to the subject, and has identified "a hundred sixty occasions of single dads on American television, spanning the years 1952 to the present."
There are plenty of single moms as well (Gilmore Girls, Buffy, Blue Bloods, Bones, Star Trek: TNG, to name a few). The difference is, a single mom is expected to already grasp the basics of child rearing. This pushes the vector of the drama in a different direction.
By contrast, simply presuming his beginnings in a "traditional" family with "traditional" gender roles presents the single dad with a built-in learning curve (regardless of his competence in every other aspect of his life). We're more willing to buy the "dumb dad" premise.
The movie Kramer vs. Kramer (1979) leverages this motif to the hilt.
One exception that springs to mind is Dr. Camille Saroyan in Bones (although it's only an occasional side story). Her adopted daughter was the orphaned child of an ex-boyfriend. So in her case, the "dumb mom" premise works too (despite her being a brilliant doctor).
Or because she's a brilliant doctor. It's not just about the irony, but the higher probability of overthinking ordinary problems and coming up with unconventional (and thus more entertaining) solutions.
This particular narrative structure has seen a recent upsurge in Japanese melodramas. There are plenty of "traditional" single moms and dads on Japanese television too. For example, the Satome and Tendo families in Ranma ½ (though the Tendo sisters rule the roost).
But I'm thinking more along the lines of the Bones model: a young urban professional who ends up with a child he didn't know about and/or may not be related to.
• Yotsuba&! [sic] is a manga series by Kiyohiko Azuma, now in its twelfth year. Mr. Koiwai adopted Yotsuba abroad (the details are scant). The stories focus around her daily adventures in Japan. Think of Yotsuba as a kindred spirit of Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes.
An English translation of the manga is available from Yen Press.
• Marumo's Rules is a 2011 Fuji TV series. Mamoru Takagi adopts the twin children of his best friend when he suddenly dies of cancer. The plot description in Wikipedia sums up the whole genre:
Together with the help of his landlord and the landlord's daughter, Mamoru [nicknamed "Marumo"] manages to take care of the twins. They face many challenges, with Marumo struggling to balance his time between his work and parental responsibilities.
A cute narrative device is that when Marumo discusses his problems with the family dog, the dog talks back.
(No English versions available.)
• My Girl is a manga series by Sahara Mizu, made into a TV Asahi series in 2009 starring Masaki Aiba of the mega-boy band Arashi. (That's not a diss: frankly, the members of Arashi are better actors than they are singers, and they're not terrible singers.)
Attending the funeral of his ex-girlfriend (who'd been living abroad), Masamune Kazama discovers that not only did she have a child, but she had his child, who now really is his child. What follows is a how-to/day-in-the-life melodrama that defines the next series too.
(No English versions available.)
Daikichi's grandfather had a child with his live-in maid. Daikichi only finds this out at his grandfather's funeral. "If the old man was still alive," he grumbles, "I'd give him a high five." He points out to his mother, "That'd make her your sister." She retorts, "And your aunt."
Nobody wants to take responsibility for Rin, the five-year-old girl. Finally (if only out of disgust with the rest of them) Daikichi takes her home. He soon decides to make the arrangement permanent.
Bunny Drop is a sweet, unadorned drama that avoids most of the stereotypical melodramatic devices. Like My Girl, it succeeds by making a virtue of ordinariness and by featuring protagonists who are believably decent human beings striving to do the right thing.
However clueless Daikichi may be at first, he doesn't stay dumb, and grows quite insightful into the strange, topsy-turvy life Rin has led, while cheerfully saying goodbye to his "me-time" and his climb up the corporate ladder.
The anime (based on the first three volumes of the manga; English translation available from Yen Press) is drawn in a pencil-on-watercolor style that gives it a subdued picture book quality. I found it quite pleasant and entirely appropriate to the subject matter.
The English-subtitled anime is available on Hulu and Crunchyroll.
The Japanese government actually has a "Minister of State for Measures for the Declining Birthrate." If government agencies were ever that creative, I could imagine them commissioning television series like these to encourage young men to take up the reins of fatherhood.
Unfortunately, regardless of the good intentions in the regard, it doesn't seem to be working (in Japan or every other country with the same problem).
June 01, 2015
In the long run . . .
. . . we're all dead, as John Maynard Keynes famously observed. And by "we," I mean "everybody." When the Sun enters its red giant phase, this planet and everything on it will be vaporized.
Don't panic: that won't happen for 7.5 billion years. The problem is, the Sun is a fusion furnace and it's slowly but certainly running out of its primary fuel, hydrogen. As it does, the core shrinks a little and heats up a little.
In turn, the Earth's orbit widens a little. It all balances out--until it doesn't. Solar luminosity has been growing about 10 percent every billion years. But once helium fusion commences, the Sun will get way too hot way too fast.
|Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.|
Life will get uncomfortably warm long before that, in only a few hundred million years. Ironically, what will probably kill us first is the lack of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
That's right. Too little carbon dioxide. As plate tectonics slows down and the Sun heats up, continental erosion and ocean evaporation will accelerate carbonate formation, locking away more and more carbon dioxide.
So as the Sun slowly brightens, carbon dioxide is sequestered into limestone. Some 600 to 800 million years from now, atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations should fall below 10 parts per million, a threshold where plants can no longer photosynthesize. This process might wipe out plants and the animals that depend on them.
Including us. Not to mention that no more green plants means no more oxygen. So forget about breathing. But hey, we've got a half-billion years to go! For once, we can definitely call it somebody's else's problem.