November 28, 2019

Traveling by ear in Japan

Train culture in Japan is so ubiquitous, so deeply entrenched, and so widely embraced that every time a line opens up or closes down, a new model of Shinkansen debuts or an old one goes out of production, a swarm of reporters show up and the fans turn out in force.

There is a whole genre of reality show on Japanese television that simply involves the host (and a couple of friends) hopping on a train and going somewhere. Japan Railway Journey is a good example. Episodes can be streamed (in English) at NHK World.

You can famously set your watch by a train's arrival time in Japan. But the engineering goes beyond the mechanical and reaches right into your head. CityLab describes the psychology behind what you hear over the loudspeakers.

Also known as departure or train melodies, hassha tunes are brief, calming and distinct; their aim is to notify commuters of a train's imminent departure without inducing anxiety. To that end, most melodies are composed to an optimal length of seven seconds, owing to research showing that shorter-duration melodies work best at reducing passenger stress and rushing incidents, as well as taking into account the time needed for a train to arrive and depart.

Thanks to the Internet, you don't have to go to Japan to hear them. The Sound of Station website has collected arrival/departure announcements from around the country, in some (not all) cases accompanied by the aforementioned hassha tunes.

You don't need to understand Japanese to navigate the site. Just click away. But to narrow it down a bit, here are the Japan Railway stations. Japan National Railway was split up and privatized in 1987 like Ma Bell but the distinction remains.

And here are the private railway stations (more hassha tunes in use here).

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November 21, 2019

Nippon TV and NECO

A commenter contributed a comprehensive overview of the Nippon TV and NECO International channels to the (Almost) Live Japanese TV post. I thought it deserved a post of its own. The press release linked to below also makes me wonder if AT&T Now plans to expand its international offerings in the future.

According to this press release, Nippon TV is supposed to be available via IPTV and OTT (though some programs won't be available).

The press release mentions DirectNow as an AT&T OTT service, and that DirecTV subscribers can live stream TV through the Apple or Android app. I wonder if they are referring to either of these services when they mentioned the availability of OTT and IPTV services? In any case, at the moment, Nippon TV isn't available to live stream from the app and isn't available via AT&T TV (DirecTV Now's new name) either. So perhaps this will be a future goal for Nippon TV?

Anyhow, I have DirecTV and I'm subscribed to all the Japanese channels. Comparatively, Nippon TV and NECO International have less variety in their programming than TV Japan. Both of the newer channels still have a "work in progress" feel to them. So possibly their programming mix may change over time.

Once in a blue moon, TV Japan programs will have English subtitles, English dubbed audio available, or shows featuring people who speak in English. However Nippon TV and NECO International are solely in Japanese with no subtitles or alternative audio options.

At the moment, NECO International plays nothing but classic Nikkatsu movies. It's like the Japanese version of Turner Classic Movies. However the channel's mascot is a bright orange cat dressed like a rapper. Seems like an odd mascot to have for a classic channel. So it seems like they'll add some modern movies eventually. In fact, today they showed Bamy, a 2017 Japanese indie Horror movie, the most modern movie they've shown thus far.

As for Nippon TV, it mostly shows dramas and variety shows. No news, no documentaries, no music shows, no sports (though eventually it's going to broadcast Yomiuri Giants games), no anime and no talk shows.

About eleven dramas series run each week. Every month features two simulcast dramas. Right now the featured simulcast drama are If Talking Paid and Nippon Noir. Most of Nippon TV's dramas shown are fairly new, around 2018–2019, with a few dated ones (older than 2017) mixed in. Dramas also include Hulu Japan exclusives and some WOWOW versions. After the last episode of a drama has aired two to three times, it is replaced on the schedule with another drama. So that the lineup doesn't go stale.

The variety shows are Tokuson Life Hacks, The Quest, Matsuko in the Room, Matsuko Roid, two Arashi shows (Ninosan and Must be Arashi), season 16 of Gochi Dinner is on You, Shot, Monday Night Light Show, Celebrity Confessions to Ariyoshi, and some other talento/celebrity driven variety shows. Over the course a week, about eleven to thirteen variety shows run on the channel.

Nippon TV and NECO International repeat programming but it isn't done in an annoying way. It seems as if it is done in way to reach every US time zone. This gives many the opportunity to catch up on a show they missed.

I'm happy with all of the channels. These new channels complement, rather than replace TV Japan. At least one new Nippon TV drama still simulcasts on TV Japan per month. This month it's Our Dearest Sakura, which is only on TV Japan at the moment. However The Quest (variety show) and Shoten (comedy show) air simultaneously on TV Japan and Nippon TV. However I think each channel airs different seasons.

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November 14, 2019

Streaming the big three (the user experience)

My "big three" are the three streaming services that feature localized Japanese content, almost entirely anime, front and center. To start with, subscription rates roughly reflect overall market share and the number of titles in their catalogs.

Crunchyroll  $7.99/month  $79.99/year  

By comparison, Netflix's basic SD plan is $8.99/month ($12.99/month for HD). Hulu with no ads is $11.99/month. HBO Max will debut at $14.99/month.

I'll be discussing how they well the big three run on the Roku Express platform (3900X and 3030R), together with their browser-based queuing systems. So keep in mind that I'm only reviewing what I use, not the capabilities of these services on all the available devices.

When everything is working the way it should, Crunchyroll delivers the best video experience on the Roku. Alas, its bigness has caused load balancing problems in the past, resulting in forced resolution downgrades, which rendered it basically unwatchable. In the words of Yogi Berra, "No one goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

I only observed this during live streams or same-day updates to popular series, and I haven't found myself in that situation of late. In any case, if AT&T intends to replace its satellite service with streaming, it had better be able to handle the traffic.

HIDIVE occasionally encounters similar problems that have resulted in a hard crash of the Roku app. Even under normal conditions, HIDIVE has a video quality glitch where it can take a minute for a stream to ratchet up to the correct resolution. The same thing happens when using the Roku Replay function.

Again, this is most apparent under high load conditions. The HIDIVE Roku app otherwise runs well, despite having only been released this year. HIDIVE does have some irksome design issues (not technically bugs). For example, having to log into the website every time you reopen the browser. Crunchyroll and Funimation time you out after a week or so.

On HIDIVE, you can create up to three profiles per account. But the app is missing a line of code that says, "If there's only one profile, don't ask to select a profile." The result is a useless extra click every time you access the app. This bug was fixed on the website.

HIDIVE and Funimation mostly use closed captions instead of true subtitles. Crunchyroll encodes each language-specific stream with its own set of pre-rendered subtitles or dub track. Pre-rendered subtitles look and display better, and don't randomly switch the language settings between episodes, which the Funimation Roku app does far too often.

This happens occasionally with HIDIVE too, though on HIDIVE this glitch seems to be tied to the encoding of specific videos.

The Crunchyroll approach can get confusing because each encoding is treated as a separate title. You have to be sure to queue up the right one or the Roku app can end up spinning its wheels and never playing the video, probably because of a DRM or language setting conflict.

Another downside is the occasional cryptic message: "Sorry, due to licensing limitations, videos are unavailable in your region." In most cases, it simply means that one of the video streams (usually Russian) is not licensed for North America, not that all the videos are unavailable in the North American market.

Crunchyroll has the best browser-based queuing system. The Crunchyroll queue reminds me of the Netflix queue (using "Manual Ordering") and that's a good thing. It's just the queue and a recent history list, with an absolute URL that can be bookmarked. You can add, remove, play, and organize titles using "send to top" and drag-and-drop.

You can only add and remove titles from the HIDIVE queue, and it does that well enough. But HIDIVE generates the queue dynamically on the home page, where it plays hide and seek amidst the promotional material. The Funimation queue has its own page, except it is slow to load and often delivers you to a cluttered landing page instead of the queue.

C'mon guys, could you please just copy Crunchyroll? Or Netflix?

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November 07, 2019

Streaming the big three (comparing content)

Crunchyroll is the biggest kid on the block, with the most content in every category. The most titles, the most user comments, most user reviews (both in terms of quantity and quality), wide-ranging forums, and a blog. Like Amazon, when it comes to discoverability, it's worth checking Crunchyroll even if you're going to watch someplace else.

HIDIVE recently took steps to catch up in terms of user-generated content by partnering with MyAnimeList and integrating the MyAnimeList rating system into its listings. Funimation has a decent review section for most titles. Funimation and HIDIVE use their blogs to announce new titles, while Crunchyroll actively covers the whole industry, making it a daily read.

HIDIVE offers a bit more granularity in its search filters than Crunchyroll, though you have to remember to apply the filters in a stepwise left-to-right fashion. And you can only search on titles. Funimation has a useless filter option once you drill down to the genre categories, useless because you can only select the genre categories you're already in.

Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HIDIVE acquire all the content they can afford, so practically any anime worth watching makes it to the North American market. Crunchyroll wins the quantity race with its emphasis on subs. Funimation and HIDIVE compete in the dub space. In many recent cases, Funimation ended up with the dub and Crunchyroll with the sub.

Right now, I have the most saved shows (bookmarked or in my queue) in Crunchyroll, followed by HIDIVE (lots of classics), with Funimation trailing in third place. To be sure, Funimation has must-see titles like Hyouka, Robotics;Notes, Assassination Classroom, Spice and Wolf, and Snow White with the Red Hair, so it's not easily passed over.

The recent consolidation of Sony-owned Aniplex of America (and its subsidiaries) under the Funimation banner should expand and extend the Funimation anime catalog.

With the smallest catalog of the three, HIDIVE leverages its relationship with Sentai Filmworks to give its catalog the look and feel of a curated library. This "quality not quantity" approach includes many of my favorite Kyoto Animation franchises, such as Clannad, Beyond the Boundary, Tamako Market, and K-On.

As noted previously, licensing and content sharing deals are as fluid as the tide in this business, so Funimation ended up with earlier Kyoto Animation titles like Full Metal Panic, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Kanon.

HIDIVE also has Strawberry Marshmallow, Makoto Shinkai's Garden of Words and the outstanding Patlabor franchise, including the three full-length movies, that are less mecha movies than traditional police procedurals. Patlabor WXIII deserves mention in the psychological horror and monster movie genres as well.

The geopolitical anachronisms (and magneto-optical drives) notwithstanding, the original Patlabor series (especially the first season) holds up well. Thanks to being originally mastered on film, it looks great after thirty years.

Sentai Holdings, HIDIVE's parent company, recently garnered a $30 million investment from the Cool Japan Fund, a public-private partnership the Japanese government uses to promote cultural outreach. This support should help to cement Sentai's unique status as an independent licensor of Japanese anime not owned by a big multinational.

Crunchyroll has the biggest live-action catalog of the three but is systematically letting its licenses lapse (sadly including outstanding series like Antiquarian Bookshop, Hero, and Galileo), and now has only a few more titles than Funimation. If you're an Ultraman fan, Crunchyroll still has five full series.

Most of Funimation's live-action content are movies (which adds up to fewer hours of actual content). Four Japanese titles worthy of attention are Shinobi, Goemon, Assassination Classroom, and Space Battleship Yamato.

HIDIVE has the most eclectic lineup, ranging from two seasons of an AKB 48 reality show to Lone Wolf & Cub and Samurai Punisher from the 1970s and a Godzilla flick from the 1980s. For the older tokusatsu demographic, two series, two movies, and a special from the samey but enjoyable (in measured doses) Garo franchise.

Then there's the misleadingly titled 100 Sights of Ancient Cities, which is about traditional Japanese arts and crafts. Tabiaruki from Iwate is the kind of travel show you'd expect to find on NHK World. I'm a little puzzled about how HIDIVE ended up with these titles but they do make for a nice change of pace.

Of course, you don't subscribe to these services for the live-action offerings. It's all about the anime. Thankfully, the big three don't make you buy a pig in a poke. You can search their catalogs without subscribing and bookmark the URLs for shows. Funimation and Crunchyroll have "free" ad-supported options and HIDIVE has selected "free" episodes.

In any case, the subscriptions are reasonably priced. On an annualized basis, you can get all three anime services for the cost of HBO Max. Or maybe you'll just get HBO Max (that will include Crunchyroll). I'm sure that's what AT&T is hoping. Oh, and toss in HIDIVE too. It's the best value buy and has an impressive backlist of oldies but goodies.

Related posts

Streaming the big three (a little background)
The streaming chronicles

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October 31, 2019

Streaming the big three (a little background)

That's Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HIDIVE. The biggest streaming services—Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, to name three—all have substantial anime libraries, demonstrating the mainstream acceptability anime has garnered in the last decade or so. But at my "big three," Japanese content (mostly anime) makes up 99 percent of their offerings (the remainder going to a handful of Chinese and Korean productions).

Crunchyroll was acquired by WarnerMedia in 2018. It has exclusive access to Kadokawa titles and is a majority owner of distributor Viz Media Europe (along with the Hitotsubashi Group).

Funimation has been in the anime localization and distribution business since 1994 and is now owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment. It has a content sharing arrangement with Hulu.

HIDIVE was independently incorporated from the assets of Anime Network Online, and remains the exclusive streaming distributor of select titles from Sentai Filmworks and Section23.

How the big three compete in what nevertheless remains a niche market shines a spotlight on the evolution of the streaming business. Netflix in particular made its mark as a one-stop shop, a repository of what Chris Anderson christened a "long tail" library of everything for everybody. But especially in streaming, both upstarts and veteran Hollywood movers and shakers are challenging the one-stop shop model.

Netflix again becomes the case in point, with WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal taking back the rights to Friends and The Office. Half of Netflix's most-viewed content is owned by Disney, which is launching its own streaming service. Hence all the billions going to in-house productions. As Justin Fox observed back in 2015, everybody wants to be HBO these days, including former long tail poster child Netflix.

On the other hand, former Amazon Studios strategist Matthew Ball argues that the market can only fragment so far before that fragmentation becomes self-destructive to the aims of the content providers.

There's an ongoing balancing act going between content providers, who want to drive the most viewers to their branded sites, and production companies, who want the most eyes watching their shows. That tension doesn't go away even when the site and the production company are the same entity. As Netflix illustrates, we've entered a shaking out period.

Each of the big three has exclusives with distributors and content developers, so the only way to (legally) access most anime in the North America market is to subscribe to all three. But they also have to maintain deep enough catalogs to make a subscription worth the bother. That means shared content on top of content sharing deals. Though the deal making can have curious consequences.

If you end up on a title page at Crunchyroll with no videos attached, well, that's what happens when media businesses get divorced (though I appreciate that Crunchyroll preserves the stubs).

And just to make things that much more interesting, Crunchyroll is joining the lineup of HBO Max, the new streaming service from AT&T (which owns HBO and WarnerMedia). All well and good, but this raises questions about the future of VRV (which is anchored by Crunchyroll) and its content sharing deal with HIDIVE. Oh, if you're curious about what happened to Friends—it ended up on HBO Max.

As has the Ghibli Studios catalog. If nothing else, AT&T has deep pockets.

Netflix and Amazon (annoyingly) continue to acquire anime exclusives to entice subscribers to buy into the rest of their offerings. Hulu has a "first look" content-sharing deal with Funimation. But with Amazon divesting itself of Anime Strike (some of whose assets were acquired by HIDIVE), at least in North American, the anime streaming universe seems to have comfortably divided itself among the big three.

I have no idea where this business is going in the long term, especially with AT&T (which owns DirecTV) publicly proclaiming its preference for streaming over satellite distribution. We're in the middle of a sea change and the channel is crowded with many tiny schooners and fleets of huge tankers all trying to grab the least-obstructed course to an open sea of media consumers.

Related posts

Streaming the big three (comparing content)
The streaming chronicles

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October 24, 2019

Emperor Naruhito becomes Emperor (again)

On Tuesday (Japan time), Naruhito was formally enthroned as the 126th emperor of Japan. He succeeded to the position back on May 1, a day after his father abdicated. As with the gap between elections and inaugurations in the United States, it takes a while to get all the ceremonial ducks in a row.

The question of a female emperor aside (more a 19th century issue), the Imperial Household Agency sinks the roots of these ceremonies as deep as they will go. Forget about the Middle Ages. The accession regalia is based on the best known historical recreations of Heian era (794–1185) court dress.

Empress Masako and her female attendants wore juunihitoe, a twelve-layer robe (the literal meaning of the word) quite different from a kimono. The emperor wore a ryuei-no-kanmuri headpiece and a sokutai.

Unlike kimono, yukata, haori and hakama, which are still worn today (you can probably see all four while watching a sumo tournament), you'll only encounter juunihitoe and sokutai on these rare formal occasions and in historical dramas.

Shinto serves the same approximate function in these ceremonies as the Church of England does in the coronation of British monarchs. The Imperial Household Agency maintains a pro forma separation of church and state by organizing the "private" religion rites independent of the "public" enthronement.

It's all the same taxpayer money and civil servants, of course, but like the rites and rituals themselves, there is a great deal to be said for going through the motions.

The substance of the enthronement mostly came down to Emperor Naruhito accepting the job offer. Here is the official translation by the Imperial Household Agency.

I have hereby succeeded to the Throne pursuant to the Constitution of Japan and the Special Measures Law on the Imperial House Law. When I think about the important responsibility I have assumed, I am filled with a sense of solemnity.

Looking back, His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus, since acceding to the Throne, performed each of his duties in earnest for more than thirty years, while praying for world peace and the happiness of the people, and at all times sharing in the joys and sorrows of the people. He showed profound compassion through his own bearing. I would like to express my heartfelt respect and appreciation of the comportment shown by His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people of Japan.

In acceding to the Throne, I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus and bear in mind the path trodden by past emperors, and will devote myself to self-improvement. I also swear that I will act according to the Constitution and fulfill my responsibility as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people of Japan, while always turning my thoughts to the people and standing with them. I sincerely pray for the happiness of the people and the further development of the nation as well as the peace of the world.

Emperor Naruhito is following his father's example of keeping these things short and to the point. Inaugural and State of the Union stemwinders should have a timer that cuts the mic after twenty minutes. No such speech need be any longer than Abraham Lincoln's nonpareil Second Inaugural Address.

Related posts

Happy Reiwa 1!
The last year of Heisei
The name of the new era

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October 17, 2019

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (more covers)

The first two volumes of Shirogane no Oka, Kuro no Tsuki ("Hills of Silver Ruins, a Black Moon") are now in bookstores (in Japan). Shinchosha has published the cover art for volumes III and IV, which go on sale November 9. Akihiro Yamada created the covers and illustrations. (Click images to enlarge.)

「白銀の墟玄の月」第三巻 ISBN 978-4101240640

「白銀の墟玄の月」第四巻 ISBN 978-4101240657

The books are available online at Amazon/Japan, Honto, and Rakuten.

Related posts

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (title)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (covers)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (publication date)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (Happy New Year!)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (it's official!)
Squared (lined) paper

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October 10, 2019


Everybody loves a triumphant underdog. The problem is when the only way for the underdog to end up top dog is to make the bad guys dumber than dirt and the good guys the luckiest in the universe. In other words, the ending of the supremely silly Avatar. And to be honest, the ending of Star Wars dances right on the line.

The suspension of disbelief can only be suspended so far before some semblance of reality must intervene.

Pit the primitive against the modern in head-to-head battlefield combat and the noble savage will—sooner or later, rightly or wrongly, and no matter how noble—get its military butt kicked. As Kate says about the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, "Yeah, sure, Winnie the Pooh versus lasers. My vote is on the lasers."

In The Last Samurai, Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise do an ironically good job of turning the ruling military class of a defeated dictatorship into underdogs. "Movies can manipulate you to root for just about anyone, anytime," observes David Edelstein. Though Zwick and Cruise do deserve credit for demonstrating why bringing a knife to a gunfight is a bad idea.

Oda Nobunaga figured this out back in 1575 at the Battle of Nagashino, where he deployed arquebusiers in staggered ranks and cut the attacking Takeda cavalry to shreds.

There was no way Saigo Takamori ("Katsumoto" in the The Last Samurai) was going to prevail in the ill-fated Satsuma Rebellion. The soldiers mowing down Katsumoto and his troops were in fact "the good guys," representing the ninety percent of the population finally allowed to fight for a share of the rights and privileges once granted only to a small elite.

The Last Samurai could also be titled, "What the ending of Avatar would really look like."

And that's pretty much what happens in Gate too. Only this time we get to cheer overwhelming military superiority right from the start, with no need to rationalize the backward prerogatives of a decaying feudal order. Besides, they started it.

On a perfectly normal summer day, a sort of Stargate portal opens in the middle of downtown Tokyo. A Roman-era army pours through, accompanied by an "air force" of flying dragons. Chaos ensues. The bewildered Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) finally get their act together and send in a couple of gunships. Invasion over.

Not wanting to turn Tokyo into a battleground, the JSDF sets up a fortified base on the other side of the Gate. The "Special Region" happens to be smack dab in the middle of an empire ruled by Emperor Molt Sol Augustus (there are reasons for the Roman resemblances). The emperor orders his forces to expel the interlopers. They attack and get wiped out. Repeatedly.

However replete the Special Region is with magicians, elves, dragons, and super-powered demigoddesses, as Arthur C. Clarke pointed out, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

A dramatic illustration of this occurs when a mercenary army attacks a walled city lightly defended by a JSDF recon patrol. They call in an air strike (cue Ride of the Valkyries and a bunch of Apocalypse Now allusions). Just as the mercenaries breach the gates, an AH-1 Cobra hovers inside the walls and does a one-eighty with its Gatling gun, bringing the attack to an abrupt halt.

As it turns out, Emperor Augustus isn't that stupid either. He is cynically using the "invasion" by the JSDF to hobble the military strength of any "allies" that might threaten his reign. His "allies" are aren't happy about being turned into cannon fodder. When a patrol tracks down a badly wounded King Duran of Elbe, he knows who the enemy is, and it isn't them.

The futility of armed conflict leads to an uneasy peace. The story at this point resembles the 1853–1867 Bakumatsu period in Japan, during which both the shogunate and its domestic enemies came to realize that the "Expel the barbarians!" (sonno joi) call to arms was a military impossibility and they had to find ways to deal with the situation politically.

So the diplomatic corps are sent in to negotiate an armistice. Their guide and on-the-ground expert is Yoji Itami. Able to adapt on the fly to unusual situations and get along with the locals, the watchword in the Special Region soon becomes: "What would Itami do?"

Yet Yoji Itami is at heart a die-hard otaku who candidly admits the only reason he works is to support his hobby. A running joke throughout the series is that, unknown to practically everybody, the lackadaisical Itami is actually a highly qualified special forces graduate with little interest in climbing the ranks. Nevertheless, despite his slacker attitude, he can't help rising to every occasion.

He was on a shopping trip to the Ginza when the Gate first opened. Keeping his wits about him, he saved hundred of civilians, thus unwittingly gaining hero status. He is promoted and given command of a recon patrol in the Special Region.

Another running joke is how closely the Special Region resembles the isekai genre otaku are so enamored of. Itami and his sergeant pass the time wondering what stereotypical otherworldly creatures they're going to meet next.

During their first patrol, they encounter their most formidable foe, a Godzilla-sized fire dragon. They manage to drive it off with RPGs (not kill it). Along the way, they rescue Tuka Luna Marceau (an elf), Lelei La Lelena (a magician), and Rory Mercury (a demigoddess with a fondness for goth). These three form the core of Itami's Scooby Gang.

Meanwhile, Molt Sol Augustus finds himself caught between the peace faction, led by Imperial Princess Piña Co Lada, and the war faction, led by Imperial Prince Zorzal.

The hotheaded Zorzal is not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, and his slave, Tyuule (defeated queen of the Warrior Bunny Tribe), makes herself Iago to his Othello, goading him into conflict with the JSDF in hopes that he will destroy himself. Palace coups, embassies under siege, and that pesky fire dragon keep Lieutenant Itami a busy man.

In the middle of all this, the Scooby Gang gets dispatched back to Japan to report to the Diet about What in the World is Going on There. This is the least satisfying arc in the series. While it's fun meeting Itami's ex, the political confrontations are ham-handed and the accompanying Spy vs. Spy antics do nothing to further the plot.

Back in the Special Region, King Duran having granted them passage through his territory, Itami gets approval to put together a small team and go after the fire dragon. This arc reminds me of WWII actioners like Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen, where everybody but the leads (the Scooby Gang, in this case) gets taken out before the mission is complete.

After a little nick-of-time assistance from a pair of F-4EJ fighter jets, Itami circles his squad around to the capital to rescue Princess Piña Co Lada and Emperor Augustus from the machinations of Prince Zorza. The series concludes with a massive airborne operation.

As you have probably gathered from the names of the characters, we're not asked to take any of this very seriously. Despite the high body count, Gate definitely belongs in the "War is hell but a lot of fun to watch" category. One thing Gate does take seriously are the military details. There is plenty for military otaku to geek out about.

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution prohibits the armed forces of Japan from engaging in offensive action outside their borders, restrictions Prime Minister Abe would like to amend. For the time being, the JSDF confines itself to peacekeeping missions, disaster relief, and chasing off the Russian patrol planes and Chinese patrol boats that "stray" into Japan's territorial waters.

The full name of the series is Gate: Thus the JSDF Fought. I do not doubt that it was born in part out of a desire to see the JSDF strut their stuff on a larger stage.

Related links

Gate (CR HD)
No way to wage a war
Dances with Samurai
Mononoke vs. Avatar

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October 03, 2019

(Almost) Live Japanese TV

As I've discussed in previous posts, back in early 2018, TV Japan (née NHK Cosmomedia) abandoned Dish and made DirecTV its exclusive satellite provider. But with the price of an a la carte subscription from DirecTV or Xfinity almost doubling from $40/month to over $70/month, I decided it was time to "cut the cord" and go over-the-top at a fraction of the cost. Seriously, Crunchyroll + Funimation + HIDIVE = less than $20/month.

The old-school content delivery model has since gotten turned on its head. Just three years after buying DirecTV, AT&T doesn't want to be in the satellite business anymore. "We've launched our last satellite," John Donovan, CEO of AT&T Communications, stated in November 2018. AT&T chairman Randall Stephenson chimed in that AT&T was essentially "done" with satellites, and was "investing very aggressively" in OTT distribution.

The DirecTV NOW streaming service has already been re-branded as AT&T TV NOW (not to be confused with AT&T TV). Nobody would be surprised at this point if AT&T sold its satellite business to Dish. A lot has change since a proposed acquisition of DirecTV was shot down by the FCC in 2002. Dish would gain a subscriber base competitive with cable. And I would enjoy the irony of TV Japan leaving Dish only to end up back on Dish.

NHK Cosmomedia depends on satellite service to reach a worldwide market outside of North America and to provide programming to its legacy customers and hotels that cater to Japanese businessmen and tourists. To be sure, NHK Cosmomedia has diversified its distribution network, with TV Japan available on Xfinity nationwide. But cable television faces the same competition from streaming (though Internet-only is a profitable business).

This is hardly news to NHK Cosmomedia. NHK World has streaming apps for Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Roku. Two years ago, NHK Cosmomedia launched dLibrary Japan, essentially a VOD service for TV Japan. But it has slow-walked the roll-out, and I mean at a turtle's pace. Aside from its web-based player, Chromecast came out a year ago and Apple TV is the most recent addition. Those apps constitute less than 20 percent of the market.

Both apps have been poorly received, the biggest complaint being the lack of content. If you're going to charge $10/month, you'd better be at least in the same programming universe as services like Hulu, Netflix, and Crunchyroll that charge less.

NHK Cosmomedia is naturally predisposed to favor its satellite and cable subscribers. And seems to be proceeding as cautiously as possible while waiting for another shoe to drop somewhere. A classic case of what Clayton Christensen calls the "Innovator's Dilemma," according to which companies put too much emphasis on the current business model and fail to anticipate or adopt new technologies to meet future needs.

Though AT&T may be trying too hard to adopt new technologies to meet future needs and has ended up aimlessly flailing around instead.

Though perhaps NHK Cosmomedia saw the writing on the wall and are using the roll-out to collect data about the technology and the user base, in anticipation of adding TV Japan to the platform. TV Japan targets exactly the kind of niche market that streaming was made for. Should the moment arrive that NHK Cosmomedia can't figure out where AT&T is headed next, streaming is one way to take a good deal of uncertainty out of the equation.

After all, NHK Cosmomedia already has NHK World, a proven live-television streaming platform. At the end of September, dLibrary Japan gave its home page a much needed makeover and announced that "New programs will be available every week from October!" so maybe they are finally getting serious. Though "serious" to me means a Roku app. So not yet serious enough.

For the time being, though, DirecTV provides the most almost-live television options to the Japanese language viewer, with a premium package that includes TV Japan, Nippon TV, and the NECO movie channel. That bundle costs $45/month plus a required "basic" package plus a boatload of taxes and fees. The whole thing would quickly add up to a cool grand a year.

Again, Crunchyroll + Funimation + HIDIVE = less than $20/month. Total.

Were money no object, the DirecTV package would be a no-brainer. But it is, so now I'm wondering whether AT&T can really back up all the big claims its executives are making about making DirecTV content available through a streaming set-top box. Then again, Nippon TV (the biggest television network in Japan) already owns Hulu/Japan. It may be the best positioned Japanese content provider to break out on the streaming front.

Related posts

Nippon TV and NECO
Japanese media update
The streaming chronicles

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September 26, 2019

Telling the how-to story

A common criticism of Hollywood is that it cares more about what sells in China than what sells in middle America. That Hollywood can sell its wares in China at all is a testament to the universality of storytelling and the structured approach to the craft that Hollywood has polished to a shine.

At the same time, what makes universality equally interesting are the exceptions that are not so universal. Here I'm thinking about a unique interplay between subject matter and genre, quite apart from cultural specificity, that has no real equivalent in Hollywood when it comes to narrative fiction.

Call this one the "how-to" genre.

In the non-fiction space, there is no lack of DIY and "how-to" programming in the North American market. PBS Create does nothing else 24/7. But while there is often an element of DIY in scripted television shows coming out of Hollywood, it's hard to think of an example where it is the single defining element.

The setting of any series will dictates a certain amount of expository material, as will the occupations of the characters. At the very least, in the name of verisimilitude, a show that, for example, takes place in a radio station (NewsRadio, WKRP in Cincinnati, Frasier) must necessary provide some insights into broadcasting.

In Home Improvement and Last Man Standing, Tim Allen comes close, epitomizing a "how-to" man working in "how-to" businesses.

On Japanese television, and specifically anime, "how to" is not only a defining element but often the entire point. The hugely popular "gourmet drama" pays the kind of attention to the nuts and bolts of cooking otherwise only found in reality shows and the occasional feature-length Hollywood production.

It is certainly a defining element in the ever-popular sports genre, appealing to its audience with a focus how to play the game better.

Thus the protagonist in a mainstream sports drama commonly starts off with a great deal of promise but an Achilles heel that must be overcome. Tsurune begins with our protagonist suffering from a bad case of the yips in the form of target panic. Big Windup features a pitcher with incredible control but no speed.

Especially in baseball series, multiple episodes can be devoted to a single game, with the granularity of the narrative resolving to a pitch-by-pitch analysis.

Then there is the "oddball sports" category, which features sports or games the audience may be familiar with but probably doesn't know a lot about. Again, an excuse to work a great deal of exposition into the narrative.

Examples include Chihayafuru (karuta), Saki (mahjong ), Hikaru no Go (go), Tsurune (archery), and March Comes in like a Lion (shogi). The latter gained particular resonance when real-life Sota Fujii turned professional at the age of 14 (youngest ever). These sports-related series do also generate a great deal of melodrama.

And finally we come to the "how-to" genre distilled down to its essence.

The Japanese fascination with "how-to" is fully on display in what I call the "Cute girls doing interesting things in a cute way" genre. The typical approach is to have the protagonist get interested in a somewhat obscure activity, discover that her friends are interested in it too (or recruits them), and plunges in.

The result are slice-of-life stories, often with little actual drama and only the rudimentary scaffolding of a plot, but with great attention given to the specific details of the activity. Recent examples include Encouragement of Climb (hiking), Laid-Back Camp (camping), and Long Riders (bicycle touring).

Even the shamelessly silly and purposely low-brow Bakuon!! explores the world of motorcycling in considerable technical detail.

The result is part how-to guide and part promotional video in a surprisingly entertaining format. And who knows? Maybe viewers here and there will be convinced to put down their phones and venture into the great outdoors. (Along with a great many DIY aficionados, I'll settle for watching the great outdoors on television.)

Related links

Bakuon!! (CR HD)
Big Windup (CR Fun)
Chihayafuru (CR HD)
Encouragement of Climb
Laid-Back Camp
Long Riders (CR HD)
March Comes in like a Lion
Tsurune (CR HD)

Food fiction
Cute girls doing interesting things

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September 19, 2019

Red hair and redheads

In her translation of Anne of Green Gables, Muraoka Hanako titled the novel Akage no Anne (「赤毛のアン」). The kanji ke (毛) can refer to fur, wool, down, as well as hair, while kami (髪) specifically means the hair of the head. So a strand of hair on your head is kami no ke (髪の毛).

Anime characters aside, actual human red hair (of the scarlet variety) is very rare in Japan. So while common hair colors like black (黒髪) and white (白髪) use kami, the ke (毛) in akage sets it apart from the norm.

The popularity of Akage no Anne after its publication in 1952 was such that subsequent translations have followed suit, and akage (赤毛) has come to mean "redhead" and all its related synonyms.

By comparison, the manga and anime Snow White with the Red Hair (「赤髪の白雪姫」) uses akagami. The association of akage (赤毛) with Anne Shirley is so pervasive that Sorata Akizuki (or her publisher) likely wished to avoid any confusion between the two literary redheads.

Related posts

Hanako and Anne
Mary Sue to the rescue
Snow White with the Red Hair

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September 12, 2019

The orphan's saga

Anne of Green Gables has been a perennial bestseller in Japan ever since the publication of the first translation by Hanako Muraoka in 1952.

The character of the spunky orphan (or a girl who becomes a "social orphan" when she sets off alone for the big city) has long been beloved in Japan. NHK built an entire franchise around the concept, with the Asadora morning melodrama now entering its sixth decade.

When it comes to cheerful and resourceful optimism in the face of punishing circumstances, Tohru from Fruits Basket is every bit Anne's equal. She needs to be when she ends up the only "normal" person in a household whose members are the actual animals of the Chinese zodiac.

The orphaned Takashi in Natsume's Book of Names (a guy for a change) has the ability to see the spiritual beings that haunt the Japanese countryside. Like Anne, he was fortunate enough to finally end up with adoptive parents who truly care for him.

The far less fortunate Chise in The Ancient Magus Bride has the same abilities as Takashi (a common trope). She was orphaned when her mother committed suicide and blamed her in the process. Little wonder she's a borderline basketcase when we first meet her.

In a twist on Beauty and the Beast, the Beauty (Chise) is saved by the Beast (the monstrous Elias Ainsworth). Although Elias isn't exactly a rock of stability either. He's not even human, to start with.

Speaking of borderline basketcases, Rei in March Comes in Like a Lion is a shogi prodigy orphaned when the rest of his family is killed in an automobile accident. He turns pro in large part to get away from his screwed up adoptive family.

Rei is saved (psychologically) by an eccentric family of three orphaned sisters (mom died, father ran off) and their grandfather. And by the wealthy Harunobu, another shogi child prodigy who adopts Rei as his best friend. Harunobu is sort of an orphan himself, being raised mostly by his butler.

And then there's Motoko Kusangai from Ghost in the Shell, who can be counted on to be resourceful in the face of punishing circumstances, though not necessarily very cheerful about it. In any case, she can count on her "family" from Section 9 to watch her back.

Related links

Fruits Basket (CR Fun)
Natsume's Book of Friends
The Ancient Magus Bride
March Comes in like a Lion
Ghost in the Shell: Arise

Hanako and Anne
Anne illustrated
The drama of the PCB

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September 05, 2019

"Anne" illustrated

Mangaka Chica Umino, best known for Honey and Clover and March Comes in Like a Lion, created the cover art for Shueisha's new translations of the first three books in the Anne of Green Gables series.

"Red-Haired Anne" (Anne of Green Gables)

For her original translation published in 1952, Hanako Muraoka chose the title Akage no Anne (「赤毛のアン」). Due to the book's immense popularity, translations since have stuck with it.

"Anne's Adolescence" (Anne of Avonlea)

The kanji for "adolescence" is seishun (青春), literally "green spring." In this context, the word takes on an aura of classical romanticism tinged with sentimentality, the "blossom of youth."

"Anne in Love" (Anne of the Island)

Though now a century old, Anne of the Island reads very much like a contemporary shojo manga, right down to the emphasis on competitive academic performance.

Related links

Honey and Clover
March Comes in Like a Lion

The orphan's saga
Hanako and Anne

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September 02, 2019

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (covers)

Inaugurating the 40-day run-up to the October 12 launch of Shirogane no Oka, Kuro no Tsuki ("Hills of Silver Ruins, a Black Moon"), Shinchosha published the covers for the first two volumes and went live with a redesign of the official Twelve Kingdoms website. Akihiro Yamada created the covers and illustrations.

The Twelve Kingdoms Twitter account is @12koku_shincho (in Japanese).

「白銀の墟玄の月」第一巻  ISBN 978-4101240626

「白銀の墟玄の月」第二巻  ISBN 978-4101240633

The books are available online at Amazon/JapanHonto, and Rakuten.

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