February 24, 2024

Big Gold Bullion (excerpt)

Chapter 1

A Night of Terror

Sixth grader Fujio Miyase was home alone.

The house sat on a lonely hill in Ogikubo, to the northwest of Tokyo proper. Fujio’s uncle designed and built the house. But he died with no wife or children so Fujio’s father inherited the place. The Miyase family moved in the year before and had lived there ever since.

Fujio’s uncle was an eccentric man, to say the least. A confirmed bachelor, he had no social life to speak of. When not antique hunting, he holed up in the big house, a house constructed in an odd and outmoded style that mirrored the mind of the architect himself.

Altogether, it was a twelve room, two-story, western-style structure with concrete as the primary building material. The shape of the red tile roof only added to the already curious appearance of the place, lending it the aura of a castle. Unusual in that day and age, the rectangular chimneys of the coal-burning fireplaces poked haphazardly here and there through the roof, giving it an even more peculiar look.

The floorplan of the house was equally unconventional. The hallways twisted and turned much like a maze. The rooms themselves were furnished with fine pieces of furniture and objets d’art that reflected the tastes of Fujio’s antiques-loving uncle.

Of all the rooms, the spacious downstairs parlor, filled floor to ceiling with valuable works of art, bore more than a passing resemblance to an exhibition hall in a museum. Masterpieces by European artists lined the walls. Among the furnishings were handmade tables and chairs by noted craftsmen that had been custom ordered from abroad, along with ornamental cabinets and Persian rugs. Every last one of these items was an incomparable luxury of the most exacting quality.

Fujio had just turned in for the night.

With his father away on business, he was the only member of the family at home, and thus had the house-sitting chores to himself. To be sure, the maids and the houseboy occupied rooms in one of the far-flung wings. But as the hired help, their presence hardly provided the same sense of security as when Fujio’s father was on the premises.

Fujio’s kind and gentle mother had died four years before. The Miyase family currently consisted of Fujio’s father and himself.

The hour that evening in spring grew late, past ten according to the table clock next to Fujio’s pillow. On any other day, he would have dozed off already. But he was having difficulty falling asleep that night. Even though it wasn’t cold outside, a shiver ran down his spine. He couldn’t help feeling a bit forlorn and even a little afraid of the dark.

Such feelings should be quite beyond the pale for a boy of his age. He was in the sixth grade, after all. But no matter how brave a front he put on, as he timidly trained his ears on the sounds outside the window, his spirits inevitably failed him.

He shouldn’t have read that book before getting into bed, a western novel featuring a formidable and frightening thief. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t put the illustrations of that unearthly brigand out of his mind. Merely imagining that such a dreadful outlaw might come sneaking in through the window at any moment was enough to make his blood run cold.

The window overlooked a large yard and a dense grove of trees. The thick curtains made it impossible for Fujio to see outside the window. Perhaps even now, a suspicious shadow was lurking beneath those trees and creeping closer to the house. With such scary thoughts haunting his mind, Fujio curled up beneath the blankets.

The big house felt like an abandoned building, the silence interrupted only by the ticking of the second hand of the clock on the nightstand next to the bed. The clock took on an eerie presence. With all his senses concentrated on that rhythmic melody, Fujio began to feel like it was talking to him.

Fujio did his best to fall asleep. No matter how many times and how tightly he closed his eyes, his mind remained awake and alert and filled with all manner of thoughts.

“Ah, I remember now. That part in the book where the terrifying letter from the thief appears out of nowhere in the middle of a locked room. The girl in the story was asleep in bed like me. And then, out of the blue, a fluttering sheet of paper landed on the blanket next to her pillow.”

Fujio couldn’t help wondering if the same thing was going to happen to him too. The thought made him shiver. Was it just his imagination or did he sense a subtle shift in the air, as if something was dancing down from the ceiling?

“Don’t be silly,” he scolded himself. “As if something like that could happen here!” Hoping all the more to mock his own fears, Fujio abruptly opened his eyes. “Oh, look!” he laughed, doing his best to convince himself. “There’s nothing falling on me at all!”

No sooner had he focused his attention on the ceiling than an alarming sight had him smothering a startled shout.

The scene from that book was playing out before his very eyes! As Fujio lay there on the bed, a white sheet of paper drifted in lazy circles from the ceiling. He wondered at first if he was dreaming. Here was the exact same thing he was thinking about. Could events so strange and unsettling really be taking place?

What was happening at that moment wasn’t a dream or an illusion. A faint draft caught the sheet of paper and sent it swooping over his face before dropping softly onto the blankets.

Fujio reflexively recoiled and froze for a long moment. He stared at the piece of paper. But confronted by such an eerie series of events, he could not relax until he’d confirmed for himself the exact nature of what was going on.

“It certainly can’t be an extortion letter like in the story.”

Simply voicing the thought aloud scared him so much he broke out in a cold sweat. Except the more he avoided such thoughts, the worse his fears became. Gritting his teeth in resolve, he reached out from beneath the blanket and grabbed hold of the paper. Bringing it beneath the glow of the nightstand lamp, he realized it bore a message written with a pencil or some other similar writing instrument.

Fujio didn’t want to read it, too scared to find out what it had to say. But as if possessing a will of their own, his eyes traversed the columns of characters. Before he knew it, he had digested the sentences and comprehended the letter’s contents. And having done so, his face grew a shade paler.

An altogether reasonable reaction, considering the threatening message it contained.

Dear Fujio,

No matter what happens next, do not leave your bed until morning. Do not raise your voice. Close your eyes and go back to sleep. Raise a fuss and there is no telling what punishments might await you. If you find these instructions frightening, practice a little patience and you will remain safe and sound. Again, to be perfectly clear, if you value your life, stay right where you are.

Reading those words so startled Fujio that his mind went blank for a moment. When his nerves finally calmed down, more unsettling questions popped into his head about the creepy contents of the message.

“What does this even mean? Why is it so important for me to stay put right here? If I don’t, then something bad is going to happen. What are these awful consequences I am being threatened with? All that aside, where did this letter come from anyway? There aren’t any gaps or holes in the ceiling. I wonder if the window is shut and secured.”

Turning these thoughts over in his mind, he suddenly became aware of a cold draft blowing through the room.

“Oh. The window must be open.”

He turned his attention toward the window. As soon as Fujio glanced at the thick curtains, his big brown eyes opened so wide they practically popped out of his head. His features contorted almost on the verge of tears.

Wasn’t that the muzzle of a pistol jutting from between the curtains and aimed straight at him? And weren’t those the tips of a pair of big shoes peeking out from beneath the hem of the long curtains?

The bad guy. The bad guy snuck in through the window, hid behind the curtains, and now threatened Fujio to stop him from raising any alarm bells. That same bad guy must have tossed the letter at him.

The bad guy muffled his breath, kept his mouth shut, and didn’t budge an inch. Fujio couldn’t make out his face or frame either. Only the pistol, the slight swell in the curtains left by his body, and the tips of his shoes.

Not being able to make out his features made his presence all the more intimidating. Fujio would have preferred having a concrete idea of who this man was. Without the slightest inkling about his true form, Fujio was left to imagine a monster too frightening for words, sporting a visage that would surely chill him to the core.

In the story he’d been reading, the young woman threatened by the villain was so scared, her teeth chattered with fear. When Fujio read that, he had to wonder if anything similar ever happened in real life. But now he totally understood the feeling. He was shaking so much that his teeth really did rattle. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t clamp his mouth shut.

Fujio regretfully could do nothing but retreat beneath the blankets and not budge an inch. He did not consider disobeying the villain’s orders and crying for help or bolting from the room. Doing so would bring his life to an end with a flash of fire from the muzzle of the gun.

He shared the bedroom with his father. He could see his father’s empty bed on the other side of the room. There was a button next to the bed that would ring a bell to summon the houseboy or a maid. He only had to dash two or three yards and press it to call for help.

And yet Fujio couldn’t get close enough to that button to ring the bell. To do so, he’d first have to get off the bed and cross the floor. As soon as he took the first step, the villain was sure to open fire.

Eyes shut, heart in his mouth, and trembling all over, Fujio soon heard strange noises from somewhere in the house—the kind of rumbling sounds made by dragging a table or chair across the floor, the sound of something hitting the walls, the sense of people walking about.

“Oh, those are coming from the parlor, aren’t they? The thief must have snuck into the parlor and is stealing all the paintings and furniture.”

The bedroom shared a wall with the resplendent parlor. As described above, the room contained a rich miscellany of beautiful artwork and furniture and other ornate objects. Any thief who targeted the house would certainly do so with an eye on those luxurious paintings and fine home furnishings.

The ruckus on the other side of the wall grew louder, as if the invaders were undertaking a major cleaning or moving operation. The rooms for the houseboy and maid were at the far end of the house, and Fujio had a gun trained on him, so they must not be too concerned about being noticed. They stomped around like they were ransacking an abandoned building.

The volume of noise they were raising suggested two or three men at the minimum, and they weren’t going to stop with the paintings and other masterpieces. They intended to cart off anything of any value, down to and including the tables and the chairs and the rugs they were walking on. The thieves must have a big truck waiting right outside the gate.

Given all that was going on, Fujio couldn’t help feeling sorry for his father. But however anxious and worried he was, there was nothing he could do. The menacing gunman glaring at him in uncanny silence made sure he couldn’t leave the room, not with that pistol trained on him from behind the curtains.

Chapter 2

Strange and Bizarre

Ah, what a long night it was. Fujio felt like an entire month had passed. The cumulative effect of everything that happened pushed his emotions beyond ordinary dread and apprehension. His mind and body grew so numb that he feared he might collapse into a state of stupefaction.

Throughout the night, the mysterious man brandishing the pistol did not move from behind the curtains. With all of his attention focused on the weapon, the unfortunate Fujio could not get a wink of sleep.

The new day finally dawned. A faint white glow filled the room. The sound of the milkman driving his delivery truck down the road out front reached Fujio’s ears, along with the hails of the natto seller, carrying tubs of fermented soybeans on a bamboo pole hoisted over his shoulders.

“What a relief! Morning at last! The thieves must have carted off every last thing in the parlor. If only I wasn’t such a little kid! I couldn’t do a single thing to stop them!”

Such regrets were indeed regrettable but Fujio couldn’t help feeling relieved. Until he turned his attention to the window. Ah, with a persistence that could only be described as perverse in the extreme, that brazen and vindictive villain had not budged. Pistol leveled, shoes poking out from beneath the curtains, he stood there in silence.

Fujio froze, then once again scrunched down beneath the covers.

What was this intruder attempting to accomplish? The accomplices that raised such a commotion in the adjoining parlor had long since fled the premises. Why had he alone remained behind?

The world outside grew brighter. A faint band of white shone into the room through the gap between the top of the curtains and the ceiling. Due to the thick fabric of the curtains and the shade from the trees outside, the translucent silhouette of the villain remained indistinct, the bulk of his presence making itself known by the swell in the pleats of the curtain.

The clock on the nightstand read ten minutes before six o’clock. It was about time for Kitamura to arrive to wake up Fujio. Kitamura was a college student who worked on the Miyase estate as the houseboy.

The brisk pace of footsteps from the hallway told him they must belong to Kitamura. Except more than a sense of relief, Fujio felt a sudden surge of anxiety.

If Kitamura burst into the room, the shadow behind the curtain would hardly keep standing there like a statue. Fujio had to hope the man would make a run for it but couldn’t rule out the possibility he’d aim the gun at Kitamura and pull the trigger. An infinitely worse outcome.

These thoughts had him on pins and needles.

Knowing none of this, the houseboy arrived at the door to Fujio’s room, knocked, and bustled inside without waiting for a reply.

“Kitamura, stop!” Fujio cried out. In hopes of staving off a tragic turn of events, he completely forgot about his own predicament. “You can’t come in here!”

“Eh? What’s wrong?” said the startled Kitamura. Standing in the doorway, his sharp eyes at once spotted the figure behind the curtains. “Hoh. Who’s that over there?”

Far from fleeing the scene, Kitamura bolted toward the villain. Fujio had good reason to fear for Kitamura’s safety. Kitamura thought nothing of putting himself in the line of fire, focusing only on the threat to Fujio’s welfare.

“Kitamura, watch out!”

Fujio jumped out of bed and grabbed Kitamura’s hand from behind and tried to pull him to a halt. Paying the menacing barrel of the gun no mind, the determined Kitamura charged forward. This brave young man held a first dan black belt in judo. He was not without skills when it came to hand-to-hand fighting.

“Hey, you got nothing to say for yourself?” roared the enraged Kitamura. “Do you think you can just waltz in here and rob the place? Think I’m gonna let you make a clean getaway, huh?”

Showing the same spirit as those famous guard dogs of Tosa Prefecture, Kitamura reached out and grabbed hold of the curtains.

“Careful! That man has a gun!”

Fujio held his breath, sure a gunshot would be the next sound he heard, followed by Kitamura falling to the ground, his body gushing blood, his final breaths silently escaping from his lungs.

But instead of the report from a gun, what followed was a sharp crunching sound as Kitamura barreled through the curtains and collided with the window and tumbled to the floor.

For a moment, having no idea what had just happened, Kitamura and Fujio looked around the room with wide eyes. Gathering their wits about them at last, they took in the torn edges of the curtains, ripped apart in all the confusion. And then the gun dangling back and forth at the end of a length of twine. And lastly, the large pair of shoes lying askew beneath the bottom hem of the curtains.

Taking in the scene, Fujio’s face flushed red with indignation. He’d been paralyzed with fear the whole night long by a gun hanging from a piece of rope and an empty pair of shoes. The simple facts of the matter were unbearably embarrassing.

Kitamura said, “What’s going on? Just a pair of shoes? I would have sworn a guy was standing there. Sure had me fooled! Fujio-chan, are you playing a prank on me?”

Kitamura scowled at Fujio. He’d nicked himself during his headlong plunge into the curtains and stuck his finger in his mouth.

“I wasn’t playing a trick on anybody! There really was a thief here!”

His face flushed, a wretched look in his eyes, Fujio recounted the events of the previous night.

“Really? You’re saying they were even moving the furniture around in the parlor?”

“They were! They raised a big racket in the process! They must have hauled every last item out of there!”

“Well, then. We’ll see for ourselves. C’mon, Fujio-chan, let’s go.”

With Kitamura dressed in his workaday university garb and Fujio still in his pajamas, they dashed down the dimly lit hallway to the parlor.

The big engraved parlor doors opened to the right and left. The doors were closed at the moment. Quailing at the thought of opening those doors, the boys exchanged a long look. Finally, Kitamura made up his mind. He quietly cracked open the doors and peeked into the room. After a couple of quick glances, he turned to Fujio with a startled look on his face.

“Hey, Fujio-chan. Are you sure you weren’t just having a bad dream last night?”

“What are you talking about? I heard them as clear as day! Why the funny expression?”

“Hmm, stranger still. Well, take a look for yourself. Shouldn’t you check to see if anything is missing from the parlor?”

“Oh, you’re right.”

The two of them rushed into the parlor, drew back the curtains, and examined the room.

The only strange thing about the room was how normal it looked. The oil paintings hanging on the wall, the vases on the display shelf over the fireplace, the silver table clock, the tables and chairs—everything was lined up and as neatly arranged as always. The carpets showed no wear and tear nor was there any evidence of the windows being forcibly opened.

Fujio was completely taken aback. All that hubbub suggested everything inside the room getting boxed up and shipped away. That nothing in the room appeared to have been moved at all made Fujio feel like he’d been fooled by a fox.

Perhaps the thieves hadn’t targeted the parlor at all but had focused their efforts on another room. The two of them inspected the house room by room and found nothing out of order. They returned to the parlor and slumped into a pair of armchairs. Now even more perplexed than before, all they could do was sit there and exchange baffled expressions.

“There’s no way this was just a dream,” Fujio said. “Look at the note that ended up on my bed. I didn’t imagine it. Here is solid evidence that a bunch of bad guys snuck into the house last night.”

Realizing that it might become useful evidence of the crime at a later date, Fujio had placed the threatening letter in the pocket of his pajamas. Now he took it out and showed it to Kitamura.

“You’re right. That’s why I can’t help thinking how strange this is. Something out of the ordinary happened last night, the kind of inexplicable event you read about in detective novels. A most mysterious case at that.”

Fujio folded his arms and muttered to himself, “You know, I’ve been mulling this idea over for a while. Speaking of cases, it’s exactly the kind of crime that only a great detective like Kogoro Akechi could hope to solve.”

Fujio was familiar with the name of the famed detective and had some personal knowledge of him as well.

Well, then, Gentle Reader. What might be the meaning of these inexplicable events, that more resemble a ghost story than a crime? There can be no doubt that a large number of thieves broke into the house. And yet not a single item went missing. It strains belief that a band of criminals would go to so much effort for no reward. Perhaps something precious was indeed carried off and Fujio and Kitamura had simply overlooked it. If so, it must be an irreplaceable painting or sculpture with an importance and value that neither one of them could begin to imagine.


Read the rest

Paperback
Kindle
Smashwords
Apple Books
Google Play
Nook
Kobo

Labels: , , , , , ,

February 21, 2024

Big Gold Bullion

During the last days of the Shogunate, the paranoid patriarch of the Miyase clan, once one of the five wealthiest men in old Edo, sold all of his possessions, bought a hoard of precious metals, and buried the stash somewhere far beyond the borders of Tokyo.

The hiding place of what came to be known in family lore as the "Big Gold Bullion" was entrusted to Fujio Miyase's equally eccentric uncle. But succumbing to a sudden illness, the only clue he left behind was a secret message with no decryption key.

Now it is up to Detective Kogoro Akechi and Yoshio Kobayashi, his able young assistant, to crack the code and recover the treasure before small army of cutthroat villains gets there first. They are going to have a fight literally worth millions on their hands.

Paperback
Kindle
Smashwords
Apple Books
Google Play
Nook
Kobo
Read an excerpt

The Boy Detectives Club

The Phantom Doctor
Big Gold Bullion
The Bronze Devil
The Space Alien


Big Gold Bullion was the last Boy Detectives Club novel published before the war. The series resumed a decade later with The Bronze Devil in 1949, after which Edogawa wrote an average of two installments a year until 1962.

This time around, the Fiend with Twenty Faces is still in the slammer after getting arrested at the end of The Phantom Doctor. The Fiend would also have to bide his time for a ten long years before returning in The Bronze Devil.

Labels: , , , , , , ,

February 17, 2024

The end of TV Japan

Based on pretty good evidence, namely that TV Japan had disappeared from the international lineups of every single cable and satellite service in North America, I concluded that NHK Cosmomedia had pulled the plug on its TV Japan contracts. It also followed that the reason the TV Japan website hadn't been updated was because it was going away by April 2024.

Well, now it is official. TV Japan will expire in six weeks.

After more than three decades of broadcasting Japanese television programming to audiences across North America, we regret to inform you that TV JAPAN will cease its broadcast on March 31 [and] will no longer be accessible [as a cable or satellite service] as of April 1, 2024.

And what will replace it? Jme TV, of course.

With Jme, you'll have access to live NHK news, the latest dramas, popular movies, and much more—all conveniently accessible on internet-connected devices. With Jme, you’ll have the flexibility to enjoy your favorite Japanese programs from the comfort of your home or on the go.

I also speculated that the current Jme TV website may be a placeholder. After all, the TV Japan URL is going to be available pretty soon. A simple redirect would take care of that. But we'll find out in April. Morbid curiosity remains my main motivation now. If NHK Cosmomedia persists with the TV Japan pricing model, that's when my subscription ends as well.

Related posts

Jme TV
Whither TV Japan
Jme TV (grumpy old man edition)

Labels: , , , , , ,

February 14, 2024

Jme TV (grumpy old man edition)

The Jme TV website has been live for a month. It remains a work in progress. The layout is bare bones. Site navigation barely exists. A Roku player is "coming soon." But rest assured that "We are planning to add new features from April," which suggests the current website may simply be a placeholder.

To give credit where it is due, you can now bookmark shows in your browser and you don't get logged out every time you close the browser tab.

Still, it wouldn't hurt to fix the UI problems, such as a useless banner that takes up half of the home page. The oversized genre icons that belong in a menu. Get rid of horizontal scrolling. NHK World Japan has a list-based program guide. Viki has a grid-based program guide. Both are so much better. Pick one.

I really cannot overemphasize how badly designed the Jme TV website is and how difficult it would be to scale in its current configuration. Again, I have to hope it is only a placeholder and something better will emerge in April.

In Japan, everything starts in April, from the school year to the corporate fiscal year. Except for the NHK Taiga drama. It starts in January. Speaking of which, new episodes of the Taiga drama are being added every week. Along with other recent TV Japan content, the catalog no longer feels so threadbare.

Although it's akin to filling a swimming pool with a squirt gun.

My theory for the premature rollout is that NHK Cosmomedia went ahead and pulled the plug on its TV Japan cable contracts and has to fill that hole by April 2024 with something. They should have followed the herd and called the new site TV Japan Plus or NHK World Plus and reused what they had on hand.

As a previous dLibrary Japan subscriber, I signed up for $9.99/month. That $9.99/month price lasts three months and then skyrockets to $25/month, which makes this a three-month experiment. Nothing NHK Cosmomedia has put on the table so far is worth $9.99/month, let alone 2.5 times that.

Once upon a time, TV Japan had a monopoly on live-action Japanese content and could charge whatever the market could bear. That didn't mean we liked it. As one Reddit commenter puts it, "$25/month for mostly NHK through an already overpriced cable package was one of the larger ripoffs in my life."

Taken together, there is plenty of Japanese content on Viki ($5.99/month), Netflix ($6.99/month), and Crunchyroll ($7.99/month) I could be watching instead. All three don't add up to $25/month and I don't subscribe to all three at the same time. And that's not counting NHK World Japan (free) and Tubi (free).

The only criteria Tubi appears to follow when licensing Japanese content is that it's cheap and available. It's an approach that delivers a lot of dreck, but at the same time, often yields pleasant surprises, like the Edo period Detective Dobu television series from 1991. I just wish Tubi would make it easier to find.

If NHK Cosmomedia had any sense, it'd make the site free until it becomes fully functional and then copy Rakuten Viki's pricing plan, starting at $5.99/month.

It could offer a premium tier to those who want to watch live broadcasts and real-time news (though NHK's domestic news programs are free on the NHK World Premium website).

Anyway, we'll find out in April if there is any there there. I have to admit, morbid curiosity is my main motivation now. Like, you can't sign up for TV Japan using the information on the TV Japan website. It points you to providers who have removed TV Japan from their lineups. But that page hasn't been taken down.

This is the same page that states, "The price of TV Japan is about $15/month." That has never been true and yet it's been posted there for a year. One cynical explanation is that it doesn't matter because it's all going away in April. Another is that the left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.

Oh, and to answer a previous question, the name "is derived from the hope that Jme can help bridge Japan (J) and (me)." At least the URL is easier to remember.

Related posts

Whither TV Japan
dLibrary Japan (big upgrade in the works)

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

February 12, 2024

Rakuten Viki sale

Rakuten Viki is offering a limited-time 30 percent off sale on all Viki Pass plans. That works out to $3.50/month for the annual basic plan. The code for monthly plans is LUNARNEWYEAR30. The code for annual plans is YEAROFTHEDRAGON30.

This offer must be redeemed by February 22, 2024.

Labels: , , , ,

February 10, 2024

Whither TV Japan

NHK Cosmomedia once had a near monopsony and monopoly when it came to the cable and satellite TV markets in North America. Nippon TV briefly forayed into the business on DirecTV while cable providers only offered TV Japan.

As a result, NHK Cosmomedia became the primary buyer and distributor of live-action content from Fuji TV, Nippon TV, TBS, TV Asahi, TV Tokyo, and Wowow, with NHK World Japan relying largely on JIB TV.

Unlike anime, few other platforms have demonstrated a great desire to compete in this space. Even Rakuten Viki and Netflix focus most of their programming efforts in Asian on Kdrama. Japanese content is more of a side gig.

Which is why TV Japan has been able to levy a $25/month premium for the past three decades. By contrast, Kokowa, the Korean equivalent of TV Japan, charges $6.99/month for its streaming service (also available on Xfinity X1).

Nevertheless, I grudgingly paid the price when TV Japan was on DISH and the grand total came to $42/month. When TV Japan left DISH and went to DirecTV and Xfinity, the overhead almost doubled the total into no way territory.

By then, more affordable options had become available. Crunchyroll offers a vast library of anime for $7.99/month. You can stream NHK's domestic newscasts and Japan's commercial news services post their live feeds to YouTube. NHK World Japan is free.

In the meantime, streaming has been eating away at traditional cable TV like a hungry great white shark. As Luke Bouma sums up the bad news,

In just the first half of 2023, cable TV companies lost over 2,748,000 TV subscribers. All together, cable TV companies are losing about 15,000 subscribers every single day in 2023. If this trend continues, cable TV companies will lose over 4 million subscribers in 2023.

As things turned out, in 2023, Comcast alone lost over 2,036,000 TV subscribers and another 38,676 Internet customers to 5G home Internet and fiber.
As bad as things are for Comcast, the decline of traditional cable TV presents an existential threat to niche entertainment products like TV Japan.

This demographic reality first struck home in Europe, where NHK's home satellite service (JSTV) shut down on October 31, 2023, citing a decline in subscribers. In its domestic market, NHK merged BS1 and BS Premium into NHK BS on December 1, 2023.

Things that can't go on forever won't. The question is how long forever is. In this case, it may have already happened. A commenter points out that TV Japan is no longer in the international channel lineups on the Xfinity and DirecTV websites.

Indeed, while the TV Japan website still lists Xfinity as a provider, if you navigate to the international channels on DISH, Xfinity, Optimum, and DirecTV, the Japanese option is gone. TV Japan is also not available on any of the live TV streaming services.

Spectrum will formally bid TV Japan goodbye at the end of March.

TV Japan and TV Japan HD on channels 1500 and 2587 will cease programming and will no longer be available on the Spectrum TV lineup after March 31.

The obvious conclusion is that, after over three decades on satellite and cable, NHK Cosmomedia is abandoning traditional linear TV as the content delivery vehicle for TV Japan in North America, with a target date of April 1, 2024.

If so, NHK World Japan likely has a lot to do with the decision. NHK Cosmomedia launched NHK World Japan in 1998 and has since transformed it into a free livestreaming, video-on-demand, and (in some areas) over-the-air service.

So it has been there and done that and should know the ropes. Although since TV Japan only broadcasts the news and some sporting events live, it may not need to livestream at all.

In any case, this would explain why Jme TV is charging $25/month for new sign-ups. Because that's been the cost of a TV Japan subscription since time immemorial. Then why not host TV Japan on the TV Japan website? We should find out in April.

But let me wildly speculate. The first Jme TV signup email that NHK Cosmomedia sent out by accident suggested a tiered subscription model. What we could be getting in April is a livestream link to TV Japan.
The way the old dLibrary Japan website had a link in the masthead to NHK World Japan. I'm thinking something like that.

Related links

NHK World (Japanese)
NHK World (English)
TV Japan
News from Japan
Jme TV
Japan's phantom content boom

Labels: , , , , , ,

February 07, 2024

Tales of the Quest

Ah, the Quest! The sight of noble knights setting forth on heroic tasks to win the hand of the fair princess stirs any heart. Here are the medieval heroes who once donned clanking suits of armor to fence, joust, and battle fire-breathing dragons for honor and acclaim.

That is, until the tasks got too messy, too inconvenient, too strange. And the armor way too heavy. To be sure, talent and determination still count. But the Quest just as often becomes a tool of trade and diplomacy, with fortunes and royal reputations weighing in the balance.

Immerse yourself in chronicles of desperate princes, strong-willed princesses, and romantic beasts. This fourth installment in the Roesia series pulls together new and previously published stories of questing daring-do updated for a more modern age.

Amidst all the politics and game playing, can true love still triumph? Therein lies quite the tale.

Tales of the Quest is book four in the Roesia series (though it mostly takes place outside the borders of the Kingdom of Roesia).

Paperback
Kindle
Smashwords
Apple Books
Google Play
Nook
Kobo
Read an excerpt

The Roesia Series

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

Labels: , , , , , ,

February 03, 2024

The za

As a general rule, Japanese speakers who acquired only Japanese as their first language will have difficulty pronouncing consonant clusters.

With the exception of stopped consonants and the /n/ phoneme, Japanese phonology expects every consonant to be followed by a vowel. For example, the /ts/ consonant cluster is common but is always followed by /u/. Since "fruit" is pronounced /furuutsu/ in Japanese, we get the cute transliterated English title of Fruits Basket.

The /th/ phonemes /ð/ and /θ/ don't exist, so a word like "the" is pronounced /za/ (and sometimes /ji/). As such, /za/ has come to occupy its own weird sociolinguistic dimension as a repurposed cognate.

Peter Backhaus digs into the unique ways Japanese have come to use /za/ (ザ) in The Japan Times.

One of its chief functions is to spotlight some sort of prototypicality in the word it is paired up with.

Take the phrase ザ・月曜日 (za getsuyōbi, "the" Monday). When someone says this to you, they do not simply want to inform you about the day of the week. What this means is it's one of those miserable, most Monday-like Monday mornings that really have it in for you. Think sick kids, torrential rainfalls, train delays, etc.

Another example from my own collection of ザ cases: A Japanese friend who had just changed jobs complained to me that the new work environment was really ザ・会社 (za kaisha, "the" company). Which was to say it was full of red tape, opaque procedures, cemented hierarchies and everything else one commonly associates with the unpleasant aspects of corporate life.

The stereotyping capacities of ザ also come to the fore when pigeonholing people. ザ・お嬢様 (za o-jōsama, "The" Miss Princess), for instance, can be used to characterize someone who's perceived as excessively posh, and ザ・サラリーマン (za sararīman, "the" salaryman) is for people who are, well, extraordinarily ordinarily salaryman-like.

But ザ also does a great job in extracting positive stereotypes.

Two examples from [linguist Ayako] Kajiwara's data are ザ・トマト (za tomato, "the" tomato) and ザ・和食 (za washoku, "the" Japanese cuisine). The first one designates a particularly "tomatoic" specimen of the fruit, in terms of color, taste, juiciness, what have you, while the second evokes a textbook example of a classic Japanese meal. The washoku that out-washokus all others.

As Backhaus concludes, "there is nothing the Japanese language can't swallow when eating its way through the English language."

Labels: , ,

January 27, 2024

Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah

To save a young woman from a band of marauding students, Lord Simon bespelled her into the walls of his house, powerful magic he later discovers he cannot undo.

Determined to free her from this prison of wood and stone, Lord Simon consorts with grave robbers and physicians, politicians and priests, twisting the arms of the powerful and the profane in every profession. As his reputation and his house crumble around him, his obsession to save a woman long thought dead threatens to drive him mad.

The third installment in the Roesia series, Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah encompasses the events in Richard: The Ethics of Affection and Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation.

Paperback
Kindle
Smashwords
Apple Books
Google Play
Nook
Kobo
Read an excerpt

The Roesia Series

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

Labels: , , , , , , ,

January 24, 2024

Reframing the mainframe plot

I've ranted about this before, but the mainframe-as-antagonist (commanding an army of dumb terminal minions) was a well-worn meme sixty years ago when Captain Kirk was outwitting IBM System/360 lookalikes on a regular basis. It's so overdone by now you can't stick a fork in it. It's mush.

And yet Hollywood keeps serving it up. Because we keep chomping it down.

Conquering the galaxy since the 1950s.

Even the ending of Edge of Tomorrow (without a computer network in sight) is straight out of The Phantom Menace. And straight out of Oblivion, the previous Tom Cruise SF post-apocalyptic, blow-up-the-alien-mainframe actioner.

Making it an organic mainframe is a slight improvement but just as dumb. The whole "hive mind" thing needs to go too.

Speaking of organic mainframes, Star Wars fell back on the Evil Emperor trope, a linchpin apparently holding the whole universe together by his lonesome. How is never explained, but all the good guys have to do is knock out this one bad guy and peace and prosperity is restored to the galaxy.

Well, after they deal with the truly killer mainframe that is the Death Star. The whole Star Wars franchise ended up being about destroying Death Stars, each one a more ludicrous violation of the laws of physics than the last. Again, what long term problems this solves is never made clear.

Does the mail start arriving on time now? Does the tax code suddenly become more comprehensible? And what happens to the unemployment rate when all those Death Star jobs get instantaneously terminated? Imagine the size of the catering contract for just one of those behemoths.

Of course, destroying a single machine in a single place and winning the war everywhere makes for easy denouements. But if the Earth is ever attacked by malevolent aliens who know how to implement autonomous distributed network technology, we are so screwed.

That aside, though, what do the aliens hope to accomplish by attacking Earth? Or attacking any inhabited planet? (Besides giving the director an excuse to restage the Battle of Britain or the Invasion of Normandy.)

If they wanted to wipe out the humans along with the infrastructure—the whole objective of the Independence Day aliens—there'd be no need to get anywhere near the planet's surface, as Heinlein pointed out back in 1966 with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. An asteroid makes for a handy ICBM.

There are lots of big asteroids out there.

Another reason is, they want our water. But there is plenty water elsewhere, that is not at the bottom of a deep gravity well. Europa, for starters.

Then there's the "To Serve Man" plot device. But homo sapiens is a lousy food and energy source (The Matrix is dumber than dirt in this regard). That's why so few people get eaten by sharks (surprisingly few!).

Besides, a blown-up country is a huge resource sink. Hence the Marshall Plan. By 1950, SCAP was already regretting Article 9 in the 1947 Japanese Constitution (forbidding war) and was revving up Japanese industry to support the Korean War, which was just what the economy needed.

In The Phantom Menace, Lucas tosses the politics of trade into the picture, but without explaining what is being traded, why, or how. The result is a blur of handwaving when it comes to the story because there are no underlying rational reasons for anything that happens.

The economic model of the Star Wars universe makes no more sense than the socialist utopianism of Star Trek, which finally gave us the robber baron Ferengi to make things interesting.

Still, Lucas was onto something. The unequal treaties imposed on Japan and China by the U.S. and European powers in the mid-19th century led to the Boxer Rebellion in China and propelled Japan into a regional arms race in order to even the scales. Lots of dramatic conflict there.

The thing is, China and Japan had stuff the foreign powers wanted, stuff as trivial (to our modern eyes) as tea. But like spice in Dune, there were underlying economic causes behind the conflicts. And at the time, a bad trade deal was a better deal for both sides than smash and grab.

And so we're back to the Lebensraum ("living space") ideology promulgated by Germany in the 1930s. (The Nazi bad guy connection certainly doesn't hurt.) The Japanese equivalent was used to justify the annexation of Korea and Manchuria.

Both Germany and Japan were doing rather well at expanding their territories (employing their own "unequal treaty" tactics) before they started actually invading their neighbors, after which everything went downhill fast.

So we'll assume our invading aliens are smart enough not to turn the whole thing into a scorched-earth shooting war. The problem is how to make that interesting.

A good place to start is Ryomaden, which describes the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century, the shock to the system, the unequal treaties, the escalating civil strife, finally resolved by a quickly-concluded civil war that launched Japan on a burning quest to surpass the west.

If gunboat melodrama is what you want, (bad) diplomacy seems pretty good at supplying the necessary Sturm und Drang motivations. Kudos to Guardians of the Galaxy on this score.

The problem is the time frame required by real politics. Summing up two decades of geopolitics in two hours would be tough. I suppose it really is simpler to just have Tom Cruise blow up the mainframe.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

January 20, 2024

Dunbar Woods

Glimmeridge, the mystical home of a clan of Fairlies, lies deep in Dunbar Woods, hidden behind an invisible Veil. As Watcher or guard for his clan, Tam uses his magical Watchfire to protect his family and keep tabs on the Humans who live near the woods.

One fateful night, Tam's sister, the clan Storyteller, forsakes the clan when she elopes. Their mother, the cold and powerful Queen Morna, accuses Tam of negligence and threatens to throw him into the dark and mysterious Pit. To avoid this terrifying punishment, he makes a rash bargain: he will convince a human girl to take his sister's place as Storyteller.

Tam chooses Keely Ellingsen, a high school student who loves the woods and loves writing stories. Keely considers herself an ordinary teenager burdened with chores and homework. But Tam's friendship, her dreams of success, and a family secret draw Keely to Fairlie culture and the prospect of becoming a Storyteller.

Tam's growing affection for Keely and her family obligations complicate their relationship. While she ponders the best course for her future, he struggles between his clan's strict rules and Keely's human ingenuity. Together, they confront the darkness that lurks at the edges of the Fairlie world.

Paperback
Kindle
Smashwords
Apple Books
Google Play
Nook
Kobo
Read an excerpt

Labels: , , , , , , ,

January 17, 2024

Galápagos entertainment

Returning to the story about the international rise of Japan's domestic entertainment industry in The Hollywood Reporter, the article also touches upon the unique way IP rights are handled in Japan, which I think deserves additional attention. It is an example of what has come to be referred to in Japanese business lingo as the "Galápagos syndrome."
The term was coined to describe Japan's homegrown 3G mobile phones, that emerged "like the endemic species that Darwin encountered on the Galápagos Islands, fantastically evolved and divergent from their mainland cousins." And now refers to the development of goods "in relative isolation from the rest of the world because of a focus on the local market."

That "focus on the local market" is key.

I think the same metaphor can be applied to popular culture in Japan. It's what made anime both familiar to kids who grew up watching cartoons such as Jonny Quest and Spider-Man and also so unique. But like those 3G mobile phones, other forms of entertainment, especially live-action television, have evolved completely out of sync with Hollywood expectations.

One reason for this is that Japan's economy is large enough to comfortably sustain both the production and consumption side of the equation. Add to that Japan's isolationist past during the Edo period, which even today is not seen as a bad thing. A Japanese business with an established home market needs a compelling reason to look elsewhere.

And then there's the unique way IP rights are handled in Japan.

The Writers Guild of America made a lot of noise about the rights of content creators during its extended strike. In Japan, with nothing like the bargaining power of the WGA, writers retain rights to their own IPs in ways that WGA members can only dream of.

At the same time, an aspiring mangaka can only dream of making the guaranteed minimums that a working screenwriter is paid in Hollywood. A mangaka with a syndicated series won't earn a living wage unless and until that series is successful enough to justify the publication of a tankoubon edition. Until then, it is sink or swim.

Netflix likes to say that it doesn't impose its production approach on foreign content industries, but rather finds compromise modes of dealmaking, development and production that take into account prevailing local practices. In Tokyo, however, the company undoubtedly has had to bend far further to the Japanese way of doing things than elsewhere, adapting to local realities such as the strong control manga creators often retain over their IP even after licensing agreements and the outsized industry power of Japan's notoriously fickle talent agencies.

Those notoriously fickle talent agencies resemble the old Hollywood studio system that ruled the roost until 1948, when it succumbed to an antitrust ruling by the Supreme Court.

Like the Hollywood studio system, Japan's talent agencies take it upon themselves to recruit new talent and sort the wheat from the chaff. They have traditionally exerted enormous control over all aspects of the domestic entertainment industry, including dictating which of their stars will be cast in a show. As Mark Schilling analogizes the system,

Talent agencies control their talent much in the way the feudal lords controlled the samurai in their clans, supporting their livelihoods in return for absolute fealty.

Unsurprisingly, as the ugly demise of the biggest and baddest talent agency of them all, Johnny & Associates, made clear, absolute power corrupts absolutely. And yet despite the horrible publicity, the influence of the talent agency system on the live-action side of television production in Japan remains undiminished.

The constraints under which Jdrama is produced is another example of the Galápagos syndrome, a big reason I remain dubious about Jdrama finding the same kind of overseas market as manga and anime and Kdrama.

Manga publishers perform a similar function, soliciting content from across the country and vigorously testing that content in the first-run print syndication market. But they do so at an arm's length. Your audition is a PDF file or an over-the transom manuscript. Moreover, there are dozens of self-publishing platforms (doujinshi) and numerous online options.

As noted above, starting out, even the majors (Shueisha, Kodansha, Shogakukan) won't pay you enough to live on, but they let more feet in the door. I like to compare the system to Minor League Baseball. Every mangaka starts out down in the Rookie leagues and aspires to make it to Triple-A and then to the Majors (also known as Weekly Shonen Jump).

If and when that happens, like an up and coming baseball star, the mangaka rises to the top with a proven track record. Unhampered by the talent agency system, there is nothing holding back a mangaka's publisher from actively exploring all of the available licensing opportunities, both at home and abroad.

Related posts

Whither TV Japan
Galápagos entertainment
Japan's phantom content boom

Labels: , , , , ,

January 13, 2024

Jme TV (Oops!)

So this email arrived in my inbox encouraging me to sign up for a new Jdrama VOD service called JME.

Having never heard of it before, my first reaction was to wonder how it got my email address. The obvious sources were TV Japan or dLibrary Japan. I did a trademark search and, yes, NHK Cosmomedia registered the JME logo. But despite touting Roku support in the email, there wasn't a JME app on the Roku website.

And the dLibrary Japan website placeholder hadn't changed. Was this the relaunch of dLibrary Japan? That question was answered by a totally not unexpected second email from NHK Cosmomedia three hours later that basically said, "Um, you know that email you just got? Please ignore it and don't click on any of the links."

In a few days, we will notify you via email about the launch of the new video streaming service "Jme," replacing dLibrary Japan. Please stay tuned for this email, as it will contain a special promotion code for exclusive viewing at a discounted rate.

And then three hours after that, dLibrary Japan sent the same email. Apology accepted!

Good to know that JME is a legit NHK Cosmomedia website and it is intended as the replacement for dLibrary Japan. In fact, NHK Cosmomedia registered the JME logo in June 2023 and announced the suspension of dLibrary Japan in September. It's sort of reassuring that the project has been on the back burner for that long.

I still have questions. To start with, what does JME even stand for?

Labels: , , , , , ,

January 10, 2024

Japan's phantom content boom

The Hollywood Reporter has an interesting story about the international rise of Japan's domestic entertainment industry. Anime is a given and Kdrama is all the rage these days, but the market for made-in-Japan live-action productions (produced in Japan or based on Japanese content) is seeing (we're told) a renaissance. Japan is "on the precipice of a content boom."
"There has never been more global curiosity and love for Japanese culture, and with that interest, there is so much potential for Japan's entertainment industry to regain momentum," says Netflix's Minyoung Kim, who was based in South Korea and now works out of Tokyo.

The live-action remake of One Piece is a recent example. Netflix hopes to duplicate that success with a big-budget live-action adaptation of another manga and anime classic, Yu Yu Hakusho.

One telling statistic is that live-action productions in Japan have typically been budgeted at around $250,000/episode. To put that in context, what an episode of Star Trek cost sixty years ago. Comparable Hollywood budgets start at ten times that amount. So spending only five times as much is bargain basement.

Thus it comes as no surprise that

the live-action series space is the area of Japanese entertainment where the surging investment from big foreign streamers is changing production standards most and where insiders say there is the biggest potential for a reinvigorating shake-up.

Of course, the potential will always be there. For now, though, the appeal of Jdrama outside Asia remains so low that any improvement at all in the overall numbers can end up looking far more impressive than it actually is. Frankly, I'm not convinced that what the The Hollywood Reporter is describing will amount to a positive long-term trend in content acquisition.

Streamers like Netflix and Amazon, in a Red Queen race to to fill the bottomless pits of their catalogs, are simply grabbing the low-hanging fruit. But take note of what they are not doing—namely licensing shows already in production for Japan's domestic broadcast television audience.

Cultural mismatches between the tastes of the domestic audience and the overseas audience may be impossible to overcome at scale. Kdrama, like anime, was a fit right out of the box, and so could iteratively build on that foundation. More supply equaled more demand. Except there has never been any organic demand for live-action Japanese television in the first place.

As a case in point, variety and infotainment shows make up the majority of the broadcast schedule in Japan. Yet other than sifting through the catalogs and picking and choosing odd and interesting titles here and there, nobody has figured out how to "capitalize on the category anywhere near to the extent to which it already dominates traditional TV in the country."

Add to that the gatekeeping function of Japan's powerful talent agencies. Outside the news divisions, practically any human being appearing on Japanese television has been vetted, approved, and booked by a talent agency. Their primary interest is the domestic market and the advertising revenue it generates. Markets outside Asia are not an immediate concern.

Which is why I expect this "boom" to eventually regress to the mean. Japan may well become home to thriving overseas production facilities, but as cogs in the Hollywood offshoring and outsourcing machine, not deep wells of backlist material just waiting to be localized for North American distribution.

Related posts

Whither TV Japan
Galápagos entertainment
Japan's phantom content boom

Labels: , , , , , , ,