April 04, 2020

Last name first

On March 30, NHK World's foreign-language services and websites reverted to the traditional format for Japanese names. This follows a policy adopted six months ago by the Japanese government to prefer the surname-first style in Latin script documents.

The surname-last name order for Japanese names in Latin script came into fashion during the Meiji era, when Japan aligned itself with the West. After 150 years, the Japanese government decided it wasn't its job to do the orthographic flip-flopping anymore.

Japan is actually catching up to the rest of Asia in this regard, as surname-first in Latin script publications has long been standard practice for Chinese and Korean names. Chinese President Xi Jinping, for example. And South Korean President Moon Jae-in. But not Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo would like that to change. This update to the NHK World style guide is one small step.

Incidentally, when names originally written in Latin script are transliterated into katakana, the surname order is preserved. So "Brad Pitt" is still "Buraddo Pitto" (ブラッド・ピット). Following the cultural conventions of the source material is a good rule. Though this rule can cause confusion.

Hosts and anchors with Japanese names who were not born in Japan or are not Japanese citizens may stick with the surname-last format. On domestic NHK broadcasts, such names would be written in katakana, not kanji, making the distinction clear. But that clue gets lost on NHK World.

So some Japanese names on NHK World are surname-first while others are surname-last, leaving it up to the viewer to guess why.

In my own writing, I'm all over the map. Accustomed to rendering historical names surname-first, that's what I did in Serpent of Time. In the contemporary Fox & Wolf, I reverted to surname-last, as I do in the Boy Detectives Club novels.

It comes down to trying to anticipate what the reader expects, and western readers generally expect surname-last. Then again, it might not be a bad idea to start changing those expectations.

A related style conundrum are long and double vowels. In Serpent of Time and Fox & Wolf, I used Hepburn romanization. In the Boy Detectives Club novels, I don't bother. In the Twelve Kingdoms, I transliterate the vowels as they would be written in hiragana, which is my linguistic preference.

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March 27, 2020

The rising ebook in Japan

For a country with such a post-modern reputation, Japan loves paper, especially paper books and paper money. The ¥10,000 note, the equivalent of a $100 bill, is used and accepted everywhere.

Cash in circulation in Japan amounts to over 20 percent of GDP, significantly higher than the United States (8.3 percent), China (9.5 percent), or the Eurozone (10.7 percent).

Recent trends suggest that Japanese may be embracing electronic publishing faster than they are embracing electronic money. The ebook in Japan gained significant momentum in 2019.

According to the All Japan Magazine and Book Publisher's and Editor's Association, while print sales fell for the fifteenth straight year, sales of digital manga shot up 29.5 percent. Digital book publishing rose 8.7 percent. The entire digital market was up 23.9 percent. The overall publishing market even saw a small increase.

Physical video media also took a hit, with the Japan Video Software Association reporting that the market for physical media declined almost 11 percent from 2019 to 2019. Blu-Ray sales fell one percent while DVD sales were down 20 percent.

Like the ebook, Japan is also embracing the convenience and lower costs of streaming. Netflix, Hulu (wholly owned in Japan by Nippon TV), and Amazon Prime are making their presence known in a big way. Even NHK is jumping on the bandwagon, and will launch a domestic live streaming service in April.

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March 19, 2020

dLibrary Japan (content)

As promised back in September 2019, dLibrary Japan is building its catalog at an impressive rate, adding several new titles a week. The lack of content is no longer an issue. Whether you stick with it will depend on what you make of their curated selection so far and on your willingness to watch mostly non-localized content.

Two big reasons to sign up for dLibrary Japan are NHK's two flagship series, the weekly Taiga historical drama and the daily Asadora serial. It'd be nice if they showed up on a predictably timetable after their domestic runs, but the licensing windows are all over the map. Check the "End Date" before getting too invested.

dLibrary Japan has a good selection of six recent Taiga series, including three of the most interesting woman-centered stories you'll find anywhere. And they are subtitled!

Go follows the three nieces of the warlord Oda Nobunaga as they play a major role in shaping the end of the Warring States period, two of them marrying into clans on opposite sides of the conflict.

Atsuhime examines the life of Tenshoin, the adopted daughter of the province lord of Satsuma. Hoping to become the power behind the throne, he arranged a marriage between her and Tokugawa Iesada, the third-to-last shogun.

Yae's Sakura is about a markswoman who fought on the side of the shogunate during the Boshin War that launched the Meiji Restoration. Her firearm of choice was a Spencer repeating rifle.

And then for a view of the events depicted in Atsuhime and Yae's Sakura from the perspective of Japan's Alexander Hamilton, Ryomaden follows the life of Sakamoto Ryoma, who, like Hamilton, tragically died a violent death before his time.

Asadora serials include Ume-chan Sensei, about a girl who attends medical school and becomes a doctor during the Occupation. Toto Nee-chan is a biopic about Shizuko Ohashi (1920–2013), who in 1948 co-founded Notebook for Living, a home improvement magazine still in print.

Though Oshin was the most-watched television program in Japanese history, its Gothic Perils of Pauline plot leaves me disinclined to slog through it. During the 1980s (it debuted in 1983), Oshin became a synonym for perseverance in the face of neverending hostility and opposition.

The cheerfully upbeat Toto Nee-chan is more my speed, and it's been nice to revive my old TV Japan habit of watching a fifteen-minute Asadora episode every night.

Along with the Taiga and Asadora dramas, the scripted content includes family and food dramas, and an eclectic collection of police procedurals and medical dramas, such as the preternaturally cute Aoi Miyazaki playing a teenage super-sleuth in Mobile Detective and Ryoko Yonekura channeling Gregory House in Doctor X.

Mobile Detective is worth watching simply as a reminder of what "cutting edge" smart phone technology was like a mere fifteen years ago.

dLibrary Japan has the first three seasons of Midnight Diner, an ensemble series that takes place at an all-night hole-in-the wall restaurant (Netflix has seasons 4 and 5). And speaking of food dramas, dLibrary Japan has six seasons of Solitary Gourmet, pretty much the salaryman version of Wakakozake.

On a quirkier note is Room Laundering (think "money laundering"), which arises out of Japanese superstitions about renting an apartment in which the previous occupant died. Miko's job is to move in, figure out why the ghost haunting the place is hanging around, and get it to move on. The real estate version of Ghost Whisperer.

For whatever reason it was shot in a 21:9 aspect ratio. I really don't see the point of that (I don't see the point of shooting anything in 21:9 except as a special effect).

There are a handful of documentaries and talk shows, such as Matsuko no Shiranai Sekai ("The World Unknown To Matsuko"), and the Wildlife and Great Nature documentary series from NHK. Plus a cute travel show in which Tetsuro Degawa rides a electric scooter until the battery is dead and then bums a charge from the locals.

In the movie category, dLibrary Japan has the entire Tsuribaka Nisshi ("Diary of a Fishing Nut") franchise. Starring the delightful character actor Toshiyuki Nishida, this film series follows the adventures of a salaryman at a construction company who will concoct any excuse to go fishing. And still manages to save the day.

The handful of anime titles on dLibrary Japan are aimed at kids, such as Anpanman, a long-running kid's franchise (1500 episodes and counting) hugely popular in Japan and practically nowhere else. (Tim Lyu explains why.)

So far, there's more than enough to keep me interested. If dLibrary Japan keeps adding new programming at the current rate, it will become the unquestioned home of live-action Japanese television in North America. Though I'm afraid it won't be able to significantly expand beyond the TV Japan and Nippon TV audiences without more localization.

Related links

dLibrary Japan (background)
dLibrary Japan (user experience)
dLibrary Japan
dLibrary Japan Roku app
NHK World
TV Japan

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March 12, 2020

dLibrary Japan (user experience)

dLibrary Japan has been a work in process since it launched and still is. But, hey, that only means there's lots of room to grow! And it's improving at a reassuring pace.

To start with, the picture is great. dLibrary Japan streams HD video, much better quality than I ever had with Dish. The Roku app is snappy and easy to navigate. Though Roku replay button doesn't work, the "skip forward/back" implementation of FF and rewind works better than the typical VCR-style controls.

For example, HIDIVE uses the standard 2x/4x/8x/16x/32x FF/rewind UI, but especially with longer videos, its 32x isn't nearly fast enough. Also unlike HIDIVE, the dLibrary Japan login page has a "remember me" checkbox. Unfortunately, like HIDIVE, it doesn't remember you even when it's checked.

The home page borrows from the Netflix interface (a streaming standard of sorts) though it's a rudimentary implementation. There are a half dozen genre categories but no search function. Seasons from the same series often aren't grouped together. The queue can be bookmarked but not the landing pages for shows.

The Roku app employs a "Windows 8" design approach, with big blocky icons. The catalog can be searched from the app, giving the app better discoverability than the website. The biggest missing feature is the lack of a viewing history or any way to keep track of your progress in a series from the app or website queue.

In order to automatically queue up episodes in order, you have to turn on Auto Play in Settings and launch episodes from Continue Watching. It's a workaround that works well enough most of the time, but these history and queue issues are currently the Roku app's most annoying bugs.

Though with apps like Netflix suffering from feature overload, there is something refreshing about the sheer simplicity of the interface. In any case, along with better progress tracking in the app and a search function on the website, the genre list needs more subcategories, such as for the Taiga and Asadora dramas.

Considering how much the NHK World app has improved, with the VOD catalog and program guide now accessible from the app, I expect dLibrary Japan to keep pace as well. Perhaps NHK Cosmomedia can take the lessons learned from NHK World and dLibrary Japan and create a streaming triple play with TV Japan.

Related links

dLibrary Japan (background)
dLibrary Japan (content)
dLibrary Japan
dLibrary Japan Roku app
NHK World
TV Japan

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March 05, 2020

dLibrary Japan (background)

Long after politicians stopped worrying about Japan as an economic threat (and started worrying about China instead), Japanese popular culture is gaining an increasing mind share around the world, including in China. And yet getting access to Japanese live-action entertainment remains an uphill climb in North America.

Unlike anime, its own genre category on streaming sites such as Hulu, Tubi, and Netflix, Jdrama hasn't found a significant audience outside of Asia. Netflix has ten times as many Korean live-action dramas as Japanese live-actions dramas. DirecTV offers just three Japanese channels and over a dozen Korean channels.

Demographics has a lot to do with this. Korean-Americans (1.8 million) outnumber Japanese-Americans (1.4 million). Korean immigration peaked in the 1980s while Japanese immigration peaked at the end of the 19th century. The large home market for Japanese studios also lessens the need to compete abroad with Hollywood.

Japanese dramas and "unscripted" content (news, talk, and reality shows) are more popular across Asia, where Fuji TV distributes through Alibaba. Hulu/Japan is wholly owned by Nippon TV (the highest-rated network in Japan) and reaches 19 Asian markets.

The Big Three (Crunchyroll, Funimation, HIDIVE) keep their anime offerings up-to-date, and simulcast new series every season. But when it comes to live-action titles, "new" means released in the last decade. Over the past year, Crunchyroll has aggressively pruned its live-action catalog (once the largest) to two dozen titles.

Netflix is the only streaming service actively increasing the number of localized non-anime listings. Alas, little of the content on its Japanese service (like all of the Tora-san movies) is available in North America, where most of the live-action series are "Netflix Originals" rather than content from the domestic networks.

As a result, the only legal way to stay up-to-date with Jdrama has been TV Japan (via Comcast and DirecTV) and Nippon TV (via DirecTV). TV Japan carries a curated selection of shows from NHK and the commercial networks, scheduling episodes soon after being broadcast and some within a few hours. News is carried live.

It can do this because, aside from Cool Japan, sumo, and one nightly news program, TV Japan (and Nippon TV) localize almost none of the content. In language acquisition terms, TV Japan and Nippon TV are "immersive." You experience the content the same way you would in Japan (unfortunately sans most of the domestic commercials).

dLibrary Japan now offers that experience as a streaming option.

If you are serious about learning Japanese, a necessary step is immersing yourself in a wide variety of Japanese programming (including Radio Japan). If culture is your primary interest, NHK World is an accessible guide (and includes news and sumo). It's free, mostly in English, and along with streaming, broadcasts OTA in many markets.

NHK World even carries the occasional scripted show, like Home Sweet Tokyo, an amusing educational sitcom about an Englishman who moves to Tokyo with his family to live with his widowed father-in-law.

You can (and should) watch a lot of subtitled anime. But for a true immersion experience and access to a largest catalog of live-action Japanese television available to audiences in North America, the only legal streaming solution is dLibrary Japan from NHK Cosmomedia (which also distributes TV Japan and NHK World).

When it first debuted, dLibrary Japan was full of promise but little substance. Its catalog was threadbare and it had none of the major apps. But at the end of September 2019, dLibrary Japan gave its home page a much needed makeover and announced that "New programs will be available every week from October!"

It has followed through with that promise. Along with the Google Play and Apple TV apps, dLibrary Japan added Roku support at the end of January 2020. Now they're getting serious.

At $9.99/month, dLibrary Japan is a dollar more than Netflix's lowest cost tier and two dollars more than Crunchyroll, both of which have bigger catalogs (by orders of magnitude), so I count it as a "premium" provider.

But let's compare and contrast the streaming services. I paid $41 (total) a month for TV Japan from Dish. When TV Japan left Dish for Comcast and DirecTV, the cost for the most basic international package including TV Japan almost doubled. That's when I cut the cord. Here's what I'm paying now.

Netflix $8.99/month $107.88/year
Crunchyroll $7.99/month $79.99/year
Funimation $5.99/month $59.99/year
HIDIVE $4.99/month $47.99/year
dLibrary Japan $9.99/month $119.88/year
NHK World free

The yearly total comes to $34.64/month ($37.95 month-to-month). A ginormous amount of content for six bucks less than what I paid for TV Japan on Dish, and a third the price of the full Japanese package (TV Japan, Nippon TV, NECO movie channel) from DirecTV. That's the big difference that streaming can make.

Related links

dLibrary Japan (user experience)
dLibrary Japan (content)
dLibrary Japan
dLibrary Japan Roku app
NHK World Roku app
Nippon TV and NECO

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February 27, 2020

Dragon Pilot

Based on the manga created by Toshinao Aoki and Studio Bones, the animation in Dragon Pilot brings to mind the comic strip art of Bill Watterson. The premise of Dragon Pilot as well is the crazy kind of gross but hilarious and yet clever idea that Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes would come up with.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the world (and most Japanese), a select few of Japan's military aircraft, including an F-15J and an F-2 (Mitsubishi's made-in-Japan version of the F-16), are dragons disguised to look like fighter jets.

Hisone Amakasu is a rookie airman at the Japan Air Self-Defense Force Gifu Air Base. One day out of the blue she learns she has passed a "qualification" (she wasn't aware of) and is summarily transferred to a huge hanger way off in the corner of the base that no one seems to know about—except for an odd old woman who pushes a food cart around the base.

When Hisone finally finds the hanger, she walks in and is confronted by a huge dragon (she later names "Masotan") that promptly eats her.

The ground crew is delighted. It's been a while since a pilot passed muster with this particular OTF (an "Organic Transformed Flyer," as the military labels them). You see, the pilot doesn't ride atop the dragon like a horse. The dragon swallows the pilot, who "flies" the dragon from its guts. And when the flight is over, regurgitates her back out.

And, yes, the pilots have to wear special flight suits to keep from getting digested.

Needless to say, the dragon has a lot of discretion about who gets swallowed, and some, like Masotan, can get picky. The dragons are perceptive about the personalities of their pilots. They can even pick up mechanical issues with the real F-15Js they fly with (via the heads-up display in the helmets the pilots wear). But they don't talk.

It's eat or don't eat. Once they've formed an attachment, the one thing that really gives a dragon an upset stomach is his pilot forming a romantic relationship with another human being (which reminds me a similar plot device in My Zhime). No surprise, then, that the girls who make the best "D-Pilots" are not very socially adept.

For all its inherent silliness, Dragon Pilot raises fascinating questions about choice and free will. Hisone got something she didn't know she wanted. Nao wants something she can't get. Elle got what she didn't want instead of what she did. Moriyama gave up what she wanted and walked away to happily make another life for herself.

As Hisone tells Okonogi, a member of her ground crew and also, by family lineage (not something he had a lot of choice about either), a Shinto priest, "It's always best when the things you like and the things decided for you are in agreement."

That religious angle is no small matter. One of the old gods of Japan is a whale-sized monster, literally the size of a small island. It briefly comes out of hibernation every seventy-four years. The job of the dragon pilots is to escort it to a new resting place before it goes all Godzilla on Japan, and put it to bed with an ancient Shinto ritual.

The old school ritual required one of the miko attendants to stay behind in the "belly of the whale," so to speak. As far as Hisone is concerned, that is very much not okay. As it turns out, the food cart lady is the last living member of her squadron from the last time, when her reaction was the same as Hisone's.

In Calvin and Hobbes style, Hisone figures out an unlikely solution. It's a credit to the writing that the series manages to take these serious turns—and turn back again—without spoiling the comedic mood created earlier or making light of the dramatic decisions that Hisone faces (but be sure to stick through the final closing credits).

Masotan ultimately gets a character arc too, which suggests that perhaps the dragons will figure out how to compromise on the whole personal boundaries thing, and not force their pilots into the kind of all-or-nothing choice that Moriyama was left with. We have every reason to hope that the dragons will mature alongside their pilots.

Dragon Pilot can be streamed on Netflix.

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February 20, 2020

Navigating Netflix

Especially during the high-demand time slots, HIDIVE struggles the most of my "big three," even failing to launch the app. Though if the app does load successfully, there usually aren't any problems playing a video.

Netflix always launches in a jiffy. Except quite randomly (more often on weekends), navigating the app or playing a video slows to a herky-jerky crawl. Then a reboot later, it runs fine. Hard to say what's going on, though Netflix could stand to pare back on the bells and whistles, like the auto-play previews (which can now be turned off).

Speaking of HIDIVE, there are many similarities between the "pop-down" windows for the Netflix and HIDIVE online catalogs, though the Netflix interface is slicker and more feature packed. The Netflix play screen stays clean when paused, something I wish HIDIVE would copy. Netflix and HIDIVE even append localization credits similarly.

I prefer to watch the credits, so on the Netflix website, go to Account > Playback Settings and uncheck the Autoplay box. Unfortunately, this setting doesn't discriminate between the original show credits and the localization credits (that can go on and on). So it's nice to still be able to skip past them.

With such a massive amount of content, discovery on Netflix is a mixed bag. Compared to the terrifically useful genre list on the DVD site, the streaming genre list is a skeleton outline. There is an "anime" category and a "Kdrama" category but not a "Jdrama" category. Spanish is the only language category.

Netflix indexes the whole site so keyword searches are powerful, though often to the point of being useless without more selectivity. Searching "Japanese" returns everything containing that keyword. More importantly, searching "Japanese" displays links to the relevant Japanese-language categories at the top of the results page.


I just wish these subcategories could be accessed from the pull-down genre list in each global category. But a quite neat feature of the Netflix search engine is that it stores the metadata for titles not in its catalog and often returns hits that are pretty close matches to the genre and subject matter of the title not found.

If you want to search the Netflix catalog without signing onto Netflix, third-party sites such as Flixable and Reelgood are worth a look.

Like Crunchyroll, Netflix renders its own subtitles, which are more readable and customizable (Japanese is an option) than the default hardware-based closed captions. And the good old DVD-style (or Crunchyroll-style) queue is still there on the website. Go to Account > My Profile > Order in My List and select Manual Ordering.

Related posts

Netflix switch
The Netflix fox
Netflix in Japanese
Death of the doctrine
The streaming chronicles

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February 13, 2020

Godzilla

The 1954 production of Godzilla, directed by Ishiro Honda, has a good deal in common with Bram Stoker's Dracula, published in 1897. Both are remembered today in terms of the sequels and spin-offs that followed, in the process spawning new genres that have almost nothing to do with the original productions.

In Dracula, the Scooby Gang of vampire hunters led by Van Helsing avail themselves of the latest weaponry and communications technology to defeat Count Dracula. In Godzilla, a team of scientists led by paleontologist Kyohei Yamane and troubled young chemist Daisuke Serizawa must defend Japan against this nuclear natural disaster.

Meanwhile, Emiko Yamane wants to break off her engagement to Serizawa so she can marry her true love, salvage ship operator Hideto Ogata. Given Serizawa's mad scientist personality, this is a understandable decision, and these shifting relationships figure into an important plot point (that has nothing to do with anybody fighting over a girl).

It will be Serizawa who provides the scientific solution that saves the day, not battling monsters or superhero antics.

Dracula and Godzilla are works of contemporary science fiction that would fit well into the oeuvre of Michael Crichton. The two titular antagonists are, in Buffy terms, the Big Bad. As Buffy fans well know, being the Big Bad is a supporting role whose ultimate purpose is to get dusted. That's exactly what happens to Dracula and Godzilla.

So if you want to bring them back for an encore, well, something fundamental will have to change. Making the Big Bad the main attraction completely changes the nature and focus of the fundamental conflict. For starters, a way larger-than-life character stomping all over the scenery in movie after movie is going to upstage the rest of the cast.

As the series progressed and Godzilla grew larger and larger than life, more overpowered Big Bads had to be invented to keep the over-the-top conflicts in proportion. This is unfortunately true of most superhero movies these days. Godzilla set the standard for the Big Bad modus operandi of massive urban vandalism.

The bigger story problem is that, having already reached the pinnacle of badness, the Big Bad has no place to go dramatically, which can't help but reveal the ridiculousness of the whole conceit. A common solution, as in the Dracula genre, is to hang a lampshade on the character and purposely play to the stereotypes with the requisite ironic nods.

Or while playing to the stereotypes, cast the Big Bad as an antihero, the enemy you know being preferable to the worse Big Bads you don't (yet). With a decent screenplay and a compelling character arc, a Big Bad can be transformed into an unreliable ally, as with Spike on Buffy. This is generally the direction Godzilla sequels ended up going.

Less a friend of the human race than an enemy of the all other monsters invading its territory, with not very much in the motivation department aside from sheer destructiveness.

Ishiro Honda's Godzilla soon spawned the tokusatsu (special effects) and kaiju (giant monster) genres. Famously featuring the guy in a rubber suit wrecking scale models of Japanese cities, this deliberately silly and self-referential approach was less concerned with dramatic depth and more about at getting everybody in on the joke.

The first Godzilla, by contrast, is a classic work of film noir, employing black and white cinematography suffused with light and shadow, along with rudimentary but effective mattes and composites, to create a spooky atmosphere of literally looming horror. Godzilla is a keenly-felt menace that most of the time is out of reach or out of sight.

The city-destroying rampage doesn't even commence until an hour in. Leaving a trail of destruction in its wake, Godzilla is more a force of nature, like a typhoon or an earthquake or a tsunami. Or a squadron of B-29s. The focus is less about the Big Bad than on how the affected human beings react to it. And how they conquer it with human ingenuity.

Related posts

Dracula
The big bad
Too super for their own good

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February 06, 2020

Netflix in Japanese

Netflix has around 200 Japanese language titles (and counting), mostly anime, some live-action, along with additional content related to Japan in terms of subject matter, setting, or cast.

Although investors blanch at Netflix's content acquisition burn rate, as a subscriber, I certainly appreciate how often new Japanese content shows up in the catalog.

Crunchyroll in particular acquires so much content every season that you have to study the descriptions and early reviews to see which ones you want to follow. Netflix, on the other hand, adds a new Japanese title every week or so. Its curated approach makes me curious to see what caught its attention.

Though I'll still head over to ANN and Crunchyroll to check out the reviews. One unfortunate turn taken by Netflix was nixing user reviews, a prime factor in what makes Crunchyroll a stand-out site. Though I get that moderating such a huge catalog in multiple languages wouldn't survive a cost-benefit analysis.

While Netflix still has fewer anime titles than HIDIVE, smallest anime site of the Big Three, it is actively creating and acquiring live-action content too, and may soon have the largest VOD catalog of localized live-action Jdramas. dLibrary Japan has the most live-action titles, though very few of them are localized.

By establishing "comprehensive business alliances" with studios like Production I.G and BONES, Netflix avoids carriage and licensing disputes while giving its partners greater creative control than broadcasting regulations in Japan allow. Just as importantly, it can localize the content everywhere it does business.

Notes Kotaro Yoshikawa, VP of distribution and licensing at TMS Entertainment, another one of Netflix's Japanese production partners, "Netflix is producing dubbed versions in several languages and subtitles in more than 20 languages, with a release to around 200 countries in one go, which we couldn't do."

One of those countries is, of course, Japan, meaning that Japanese language titles on Netflix often include Japanese closed captions. It's a feature offered by no other similar service, not even TV Japan or NHK World. This unique language learning resource alone places Netflix in a category of its own.

Related posts

Netflix switch
The Netflix fox
Navigating Netflix
Death of the doctrine
The streaming chronicles

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January 30, 2020

No Guns Life

One of the things that anime consistently does well is take an outrageous premise and play it straight but not too seriously. Girls und Panzer posits that high schools engage in war games as an extracurricular activity using real WWII-era tanks. High School Fleet takes the whole concept up a notch with actual warships.

In the case of No Guns Life, the main character is a gun. Or, rather, a big guy with a gun for a head.

No, really.

Back during the last world war, soldiers known as "Extended" were cybernetically enhanced with specific battlefield capabilities. In Inui's case, those enhancement are impossible to ignore. His head was replaced by a revolver. And, yes, his appearance weirds out people who don't know him too. He's a literal "gun for hire."

And yet it works so well the weirdness soon feels right at home.

Although No Guns Life could be easily retconned into the Ghost in the Shell universe and shares several plot points with the Arise series, it is far more a homage to hard-boiled Golden Age noir classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep and Detective Bureau 2-3.

"Resolver" Juzo Inui (perfectly voiced by Junichi Suwabe) is a cyberpunk version of Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlowe, the wry and weary PI. In a dark and gritty world of wise guys and dangerous dames and cops who shoot first and ask questions later, however he shows his cynical side to the world, he'll do the right thing in the end.

Inui's specialty is handling the cases of the Extended. Inui himself is an "Over-Extended," a rare breed of soldier enhanced with deadly weaponry. Besides the gun in his head (which paradoxically requires a third party to fire), he has another embedded in his right hand. His body has accelerated regenerative powers when injured.

One downside of all these enhancements is that he has to chain-smoke a special brand of cigarette to keep his synapses firing in the right order. (Because smoking is what hard-boiled PIs in Golden Age noir films do.)

He needs those synapses working to stay a step ahead of the heavies hired by Berühren Corporation, the biggest supplier of "enhancements," while keeping on good terms with the yakuza-run black market and the State Security Bureau. The latter is run by Olivier Vandeberme, his Lauren Bacall, who sends Inui jobs on the sly.

When she's not busting his chops for breaking the myriad of laws governing the Extended.

Berühren Corporation will do pretty much anything to keep a competitive edge, including experimenting on its own employees and their children. One day a robot shows up in Inui's office with a kid in tow. It turns out that it's the kid who has the robot in tow, and he hires Inui to keep him out of Berühren's clutches.

The kid, Tetsuro Arahabaki, has enhancements that let him to hack into the "sub-brain" of any Extended, making him a valuable property that Berühren wants back now. In a convoluted storyline worthy of Raymond Chandler, Inui finds himself dealing with warring parties above and below the table, each with their own deadly agenda.

Amidst the rampaging robots and shoot-'em-up action sequences, No Guns Life sticks to its pulp fiction roots with intriguing mysteries, a PI willing to pull out the stops to solve the case, and a cast of eccentric side characters to provide the comic relief (when Inui himself isn't cracking wise through a haze of smoke).

I noted above that No Guns Life lives in a similar story universe as Arise and especially the Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell. As such, it's a good guide to what Hollywood gets wrong about the genre, namely the inability to acknowledge its own outrageousness and that pervasive and gloomy air of self-importance.

(Speaking of which, the Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell seems to have relied entirely on Mamoru Oshii's adaptation, which is far more somber than the original manga or the excellent Stand Alone Complex series. The success of Deadpool, by contrast, is certainly due to its gleeful treatment of the material.)

Even though Inui ends up exploring his own past through the cases, they are not about him. The client comes first. The mystery must be solved. And so the season ends with an hugely enjoyable riff on the Golden Age trope of the troubled young heiress that Inui wraps up the just way you'd image Philip Marlowe would.

If Philip Marlowe was a cyborg in a trench coat with a big revolver for a head.

At this point, we've got our Scooby Gang running on all cylinders. Along with "cyborg whisperer" Tetsuro, there's Mary, a cyborg doctor who's set up shop next door, and a wayward droid known as "The Hands." But the story has only gotten started. Thankfully, No Guns Life will return with a two-cour second season starting in April.

Related links

No Guns Life
Arise (NF Fun)
Girls und Panzer
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January 23, 2020

The Netflix fox

It's hard to think of another media company that has been so consistently ahead of the technological curve as Netflix. Founded in 1997, less than two decades later, Netflix went from tech startup to putting its biggest competitor out of business. And then having almost completely cornered the market, it abruptly pivoted to the nascent video-on-demand model.

By 2011, CEO Reed Hastings was chomping at the bit to spin off the mail order DVD business and focus on streaming (partnering on the hardware side with a company called Roku). This first attempt was met with howls of protest. Though quickly walked back, Hastings didn't abandon the goal. I didn't see it at the time (which is why I'm not CEO of a big media company). But as my brother pointed out, "However screwed up NetFlix is, the networks and movie studios are worse."

Well, at least I was right about the value of maintaining the Netflix DVD brand even while the mail order business entered a slow (yet profitable) decline. In fact, Netflix continues to tout it on the streaming side.

On the DVD side, Netflix focused its shrinking attention on common-denominator bestsellers, understandable given its shrinking audience (the backlist is slowly shrinking too as damaged DVDs are not replaced, but it's so big it can shrink for a long time). I've also come to realize, however, that I have little interest in most of what Hollywood has to offer. And when I do, a one-off rental from Amazon Prime or buying the DVD will do.

I tried Hulu and wasn't that impressed. Hulu struck me as designed for the "like cable only different" audience. So I figured it was time to give the Netflix streaming service a spin around the block. I was already a Netflix DVD subscriber.

As it turns out, something interesting happened to Netflix in the meantime. The long tail lives!

Today Netflix is the world's biggest streaming service, with 160 million subscribers and a truly worldwide reach. Netflix has thus far shared the streaming space with competitors like Hulu and Amazon. But Hollywood has awakened to the streaming challenge. Disney+ debuted in late 2019 and WarnerMedia will introduce HBO Max later this year, each service bringing along enormous catalogs of content.

This is where Netflix's global footprint creates the unexpected twist. It's a business, after all, and would like to produce a lineup of fat-tailed hits everywhere it has a presence. So in Japan, Netflix produces dramas and reality series that would be competitive on any other Japanese network, and outbids its competitors abroad for production rights to series like Violet Evergarden from Kyoto Animation.

Chris Anderson was right all along. Netflix is still in the long-tail business.

If all Netflix did was produce fat-tail hits in every market it operates in, the end result would still look like a bunch of long tails to everybody else. Which is why hand-wringing business analyses about competition from Hollywood behemoths like Disney and WarnerMedia largely misses the point—unless Netflix makes the mistake of thinking that it is in competition with these Hollywood behemoths too.

According to Japanese mythology, the more tails a fox has, the more powerful it is. Anderson's model does need a bit of revising. Rather than relying on one big long tail, Netflix has built a business based on a whole bunch of tails for completely different audiences. Netflix has essentially become a global version of MHz Networks (which will abandon its broadcast network and transition to a streaming-only platform this March).

Netflix and MHz—now that'd make for an interesting partnership.

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January 16, 2020

Death of the doctrine

Like the VHS that preceded it, the DVD rental model was based on the "first-sale doctrine." The first-sale doctrine is a legal principle governing the rights that govern the distribution of intellectual property.

After the initial transfer of ownership of a legal copy of a copyrighted work, the first-sale doctrine exhausts copyright holder's right to control how ownership of that copy can be disposed of. For this reason, this doctrine is also referred to as the "exhaustion rule."

The first-sale doctrine applies to physical media. To things. Once Netflix (or your local library) purchases a DVD like Bohemian Rhapsody, it can rent it to whomever it wants and thereafter doesn't owe 20th Century Fox a dime (other than respecting a general restriction for personal use).

But the bits and bytes of streaming media are licensed, not sold, with conditions eternally attached. Like prices, windowing, and exclusives.

Right now, the only way to rent Bohemian Rhapsody on Amazon is to bundle it with HBO. Those terms are dictated by 20th Century Fox. The double-edged sword of digital delivery means publishers can use all that real-time rental data to dynamically price content and pick and choose the distributors.

The ability to extract value from the entire distribution chain is why everybody in the media and software space is jumping on the subscription-based licensing bandwagon. At the right point on the cost/content curve, it makes sense. But what that point is depends on the personal tastes of the viewer.

For me, Crunchyroll, HIDIVE, and Netflix are the best ways to get the most programming for the least amount of money. I've got years of content at my fingertips for a nominal monthly fee.

But subscriptions can also turn into something of a subtle con, with the low recurring fees hiding the long-term cumulative costs. And then the sunk cost fallacy kicks in, leading us to attribute more value to a service we feel compelled to use (having already paid for it).

The old cable model is poorly structured to adapt to individual choices. Much better if, having paid for a service, it continues to offer a surplus of content you want to watch at a price you are happy to pay. In many specialized video-on-demand niches, that is exactly what streaming provides.

And so that is where the long tail lives today.

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January 09, 2020

Netflix switch

When the DVD rent-by-mail business took off twenty years ago, I signed on with Greencine (since defunct) to feed my anime and Japanese movie habit. But Netflix caught up fast. A new processing center in Salt Lake City shortening the turnaround time convinced me to switch. We've been together almost fifteen years.

Netflix has since closed the Salt Lake City center. The single-day turnarounds now take three or four. To give credit where it's due, Netflix uses the "Informed Delivery" service, which (if everything works) notifies Netflix when the envelope is scanned into the USPS system so Netflix can send out the next one.

With my grandfathered one-out, two-a-month plan ($4.99/month or $2.50 a disc), Netflix's DVD service was so cheap the money almost didn't matter. Still, my "Active" queue kept shrinking while my "Saved" queue kept growing (until Netflix zapped most of the "Saved" titles from the catalog).

I'm mostly talking about the more obscure GKids anime releases and old classics. My theory is that Netflix tracks how many times a title appears in the "Saved" queues of its customers and only acquires it when it hits a certain threshold.

Netflix has abandoned the DVD "long tail" for new titles and isn't acquiring anything but bestsellers anymore. Mirai was popular enough but most anime movies obviously aren't. Although Netflix is actively acquiring anime series and feature films on the streaming side, its DVD business doesn't know they exist.

So I looked more closely at Amazon Prime Video and was surprised at how many of the titles in my "Saved" queue were in its catalog. Granted, prices for older titles range from $2.99 to $3.99 but that's a small price to pay for instant gratification and zero commitment.

There are movies on the Criterion Channel I'd like to see too, but not enough of them to justify $10.99/month, even using the subscribe–binge–quit approach. It'd be nice if the Criterion Channel did one-time rentals too. In other words, the original Blockbuster Video model. What's old is new again.

Indeed, I'm a bit puzzled that Netflix, responsible for putting Blockbuster out of business, doesn't offer the option, say, a kind of interlibrary loan arrangement with providers like Criterion and MHz. That's what Amazon is doing with Prime Video (and, no, you don't have to join Amazon Prime to use Prime Video).

Though once rental costs approach the four dollar mark, I'll think seriously about buying the DVD or simply won't bother. Back when Netflix first jumped on the streaming bandwagon, I was a regular Luddite about the whole thing. But Netflix has since acquired enough Japanese content to pique my interest.

So after shipping more than 800 Netflix DVDs back and forth through the good old-fashioned mail, the time has finally come to bid physical media (mostly) goodbye.

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January 02, 2020

Violet Evergarden

Kyoto Animation's gorgeously animated Violet Evergarden, based on the light novels by Kana Akatsuki, begins with a premise I didn't expect, then takes off in a different direction from that, and finally ends up in a pleasantly familiar place, albeit with an unusual main character.


The story takes place in an alternate universe Leiden (Holland) shortly after the end of a Great War. As revealed in brief flashbacks, Violet Evergarden was a kind of Wonder Woman during the conflict, a teenage super-soldier paired with her own handler, Major Gilbert Bougainvillea.

Although a strategic victory, their last mission leaves Violet without her arms and Major Bougainvillea missing in action and presumed dead. Discharged and fitted with artificial limbs, Violet is handed over to Gilbert's friend and commanding officer, Claudia Hodgins.

The first episode resembles the early chapters of Anne of Green Gables, as Claudia tries to get one of Gilbert's relatives to take in this odd and socially maladroit girl. Like Marilla, Claudia concludes that he is in a better position to look after Violet's interests than anybody else.

Also retired from the military, Claudia runs the CH Postal Company, a secretarial service that makes the most of the word processor of the day, the typewriter. This brought to mind the classic British sit-com As Times Goes By, in which Jean Pargetter (Judi Dench) runs a typing agency.

CH Postal Company also has a "Sandy," a competent and attractive senior employee, Cattleya Baudelaire.

But the CH Postal Company's real forte is not simply transcribing but composing correspondence for its clients. This line of business struck another note of familiarity.

In the NHK drama Tsubaki Stationery Store, when her grandmother dies, Hatoko (Mikako Tabe) inherits her stationery store. The store never sold much actual stationery. Rather, her grandmother wrote letters for people who had something important to say but didn't know how to say it.

For Hatoko, estranged from her grandmother in the years before her death, picking up where she left off results in an emotional struggle that constitutes the core of the drama.

The demands of such a job present a seemingly insurmountably high hurdle for Violet, not because of her prosthetic hands, with which she can type faster than any of the other "Auto Memory Dolls" (as the typists are known). But because of her complete lack of emotional intelligence.

She is basically a female version of Data from Star Trek. She is wont to interpret language literally. Common circumlocutions confuse her. She reflexively salutes her superiors and answers "Ryoukai" to casual requests (the military equivalent of "Aye aye, sir").

It's no surprise that her first attempt to communicate a client's intentions—and not her literal words—ends badly. So why does she insist on pursuing an occupation she is manifestly unqualified for? Because of Gilbert's last words to her, the words of the most important person in her world.

"I love you." And she has no idea what that means. (Yeah, I know, cue Foreigner.)

At this point, director Taichi Ishidate extracts the story from the stalemate with some narrative slight of hand. He basically hits the fast forward button and levels her up to experienced Auto Memory Doll mode in one episode.

Utterly implausible from a mental health point of view. But Ishidate is correct that letting Violet "find herself" through work, by getting her out of the house and going on adventures, is infinitely more interesting than her spending the next half dozen episodes in psychoanalysis.

Sort of the same way Danny on Blue Bloods never stops working cases even when he's ordered to see a shrink.

Violet gets a Wonder Woman moment when she takes an assignment in the country of her old enemy and runs into a gang of insurrectionists out to scuttle the peace talks. (It's hard to miss echoes of the climatic scene in the original Ghost in the Shell.) But she's not going back to that life.

Her character arc thus takes her from a soulless war machine to a soulful Kwai Chang Caine with killer secretarial skills. Sort of as if Sandy in As Time Goes By had previously worked for Judi Dench when Judi Dench was M in the James Bond films.

I reminded of Kate's observation that Dean Cain's Clark Kent in Lois & Clark is his default self (in Japanese, his honne). Superman is the costume (his tatemae). Similarly, Violet Evergarden is about a superhero shedding the costume and finding her real "normal" self.

As noted, the setting is an alternate universe early 20th century Europe. The orthography is not recognizably Roman. The typewriters resemble the vintage manual I grew up with (before the Model D and the QX-10). Violet's artificial arms are more sophisticated than any modern prosthetic.

That along with the anachronistic fashions that pop up here and there lend Violet Evergarden a subtle steam punk ambiance that brings to mind the worlds of Katsuhiro Otomo's Steamboy and Hayao Miyazaki's Porco Rosso. It's a world with a lot of room for growth.

So far, the series has spun off an OVA and two films, the second of which (delayed by the fire) will be released in April 2020.

Violet Evergarden can be streamed on Netflix.

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