December 30, 2010

What the market will bear

Thinking some more about how Arashi and AKB48 came to dominate Japan's top-10 CD singles list for 2010.

A big clue is CD singles. One reason for this fluke is the cartel carved out by Japan's biggest music producers and talent agencies, whose iron-fisted discipline must turn the RIAA green with envy. They charge two to three times for CDs and DVDs as in the U.S. In Japan, a "CD single" means two or three tracks and the karaoke versions for around $15.

We're talking agency pricing with a vengeance. Laws originally formulated to protect (absurdly) small retailers now pretty much screw over the entire population.

Plus the policing of every other aspect of distribution, limiting album previews on Amazon, limiting digital downloads to DRM-controlled iTunes, and limiting access within iTunes. iTunes subscribers outside Japan do not have access to J-Pop tracks. You have to buy a yen gift card or create an account with a Japanese mailing address.

You don't have to jump through these hoops to buy physical CDs at Japanese online stores. Your U.S. credit card will work just fine at BK1 and Amazon-Japan. But EMI is the only major label that allows Amazon-Japan to sell downloadable MP3s.

If you don't read Japanese, then your best option are export sites like CD Japan and YesAsia. Buying an album like Arashi's Time through Amazon-US will cost you a staggering $50. Through CD-Japan it's still a whopping $30.

There's a weekly program on TV Japan called J-Melo, basically VH1 for the international J-Pop audience. Last year, the hostess ranked requests and fan mail from outside Japan, and cheerfully proclaimed that the show has the most fans in the Philippines.

The relationship between Japan and the Philippines is similar to that between the U.S. and Mexico. Most foreign nurses in Japan comes from the Philippines. How many J-Pop fans in the Philippines are willing to plop down $30-$50 on a music CD? Um, none?

Number three on the list is the U.S. A few more than none, but not many.

In other words, a show like J-Melo is entirely predicated, with a wink and a nod, on piracy and reimportation (if a licensed version is even available). The Hong Kong and Korean versions of Time (that "will not be shipped to Japan") are priced at a more reasonable $15.

(So if you're buying J-Pop more or less legitimately, first check YesAsia and look for the "Click to see other editions" links.)

This perversely makes sense. If the only available products outside Japan are de facto illegal, or illegal in Japan, then it's easy to simply ban all reimportation.

Licensed anime sold in the U.S. costs a third as much as in Japan, causing heartburn for Japanese licensors, who have moved to stifle reimportation (because it's cheaper for otaku just to buy region-free DVD players). Delusory attempts to sell dub-only rights in the U.S. or to set MSRPs the same as in Japan have failed.

If anything, bundled season editions have gotten cheaper in the U.S. (and that's the only reason I've bought several recently). Yes, Virginia, if you care about market share, there are limits to what the market will bear.

What's forcing anime producers to change tactics again is digital television and piracy--enterprising pirates who record broadcasts, and translate and subtitle them way ahead of the authorized distributors.

Hollywood, to give it credit, repackages U.S. television series (gobbled up in Japan) as fast as it can, and does much of the localizing up front. They're all realizing that if they don't provide the streams, somebody else will. Just as the RIAA eventually figured out that DRM was a dead end.

For all its faults, the RIAA does its best to monetize its IP however it can. In contrast, when it comes to exporting Japanese cultural content, huge multinational corporations like Sony still find themselves caught in the classic prisoner's dilemma, and so are distressingly content to instead remain big fish in a small pond.

Related posts

Pop chart domination
Content is king

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December 27, 2010

Pop chart domination

In a pop culture fluke, a girl group (AKB48) and an aging boy band (Arashi) completely dominated Japan's 2010 top-10 CD singles list, with the former taking four places, and the latter claiming six.

AKB48 is such a dazzling Ziegfeldian execution of theater and marketing I recommend reading the Wikipedia article here. Otherwise, all I can say about it is that it's yet another manufactured girl group from Japan's idol factories, a bunch of very cute but replaceable girls prancing and lip-syncing their way to instant but short-lived stardom.

The culture of cute is alive and well in Japan.

Arashi has been at work for a decade and has recently branched out all over the place. The music is perfectly okay--friendly, inoffensive, easy-easy-listening and occasionally harmonizing pop. Arashi's recent success seems more a product of sheer perseverance and the non-musical talents of its members, combined with its nice-boy-next-door image.

(Japan's previously reigning boy band, SMAP, lost a lot of good will and valuable endorsements last year when band member Tsuyoshi Kusanagi was arrested for wandering around a Tokyo park drunk as a skunk and stark naked.)

Kazunari Ninomiya (center) had a supporting role in Letters from Iwo Jima, and I've seen him in two television series. He's a seriously good actor. I'm looking forward to seeing Masaki Aiba in My Girl (I quite like the manga), about an engineer who discovers he's a father when his ex-girlfriend dies unexpectedly. Arashi did the theme song.

Arashi does a lot of theme songs. I like this "There's an app for that" attitude. If you can do X, and there's a big demand for X, then go ahead and do a lot of X! Laugh all the way to the bank! After all, the typical pop star in Japan has the longevity of an NFL lineman. So sock away those acorns for the long winter nights of eventual obscurity to come.

There's a whole sub-genre of manga and TV melodramas about a teenage girl in a group like AKB48 who ages out of the role after two or three years with no education, no real talent (other than her looks), and no realistic job prospects.

Related posts

Baseball according to Drucker (6)

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December 23, 2010

Demon City libertarianism

The most interesting things about Yashakiden arise out of the nature of the city itself. Two of them include a supporting character and an innovative riff on an old political philosophy--more popular in movies than in real life (watching The Road Warrior is one thing; living it quite another)--that sneaks in the back door through the setting.

Hideyuki Kikuchi's Demon City Blues series posits that the "Demon Quake" physically and metaphysically severed Shinjuku from the rest of Japan. The only access is via bridges and gates (Dance in the Vampire Bund owes a lot to Kikuchi for this conceit). As a result, Shinjuku exists as a semi-autonomous city-state within greater Tokyo.

Now, manga and anime writers riff on this theme a lot, whenever they need an excuse to disrupt the social order, and stipulate, for example, that everybody runs around Tokyo packing serious heat. Two good representative anime series are Burst Angel and Witchblade.

But Kikuchi doesn't simply present an anarchic, libertarian society and move on. Through the character of the Mayor Kajiwara, he presents the pragmatic politics underpinning it. Not anything-goes alone, but with checks and balances that make a dangerous life worth the dare. I would seriously like to see Kajiwara in his own series, a kind of Demon City West Wing.

Here are a few illustrative excerpts:

Volume 1

In the beginning, when the whole vampire "issue" first arose, a petition was delivered to the ward government by two thousand signers. It read: "We defend the right of every kind of being (including the supernatural) to live in this city to the best of his or her abilities."

The decisive judgment of the ward authorities to let them in and sell this abandoned city block to the vampires as a "special housing project" would long be remembered by its inhabitants.

But if the vampires ever came to threaten the "normal" lives of the city's other's residents, they were also allowed to take retaliatory measures "to the best of their abilities." If the truce was ever broken, two hundred wooden stakes pounded into two hundred chests at noon would ring down the curtain in half an hour.

A city where life was lived and death was dealt without regrets--that was Demon City.

Volume 2

Kajiwara answered without even the twitch of an eyebrow. His chair was his throne. And he was the mayor of Demon City.

"I don't know what your superiors are thinking, but Demon City is home to living human beings, living in whatever manner they see fit. I'd be the last one to deny that we might have a few oddballs among us. But as long as they reside here, we count them as residents. Let me hasten to say that I'm not drawing lines in the sand here. There are plenty of individuals here without papers, valid ID cards, or passports. Perhaps even more of them than us. Those who acknowledge the rights of people like them--no, let's call them living beings--to be here are none other than their fellow burghers. I rather take pride in that."

Volume 3

A long moment of silence followed. The Welfare Minister said, "Mr. Mayor--you do know there are vampires--"

"I know, I know." Kajiwara nodded his head emphatically. "Everybody in this city knows. I would like to tell you I know all about their characters, their abilities, all aspects of their lives. But that would be a lie. This government collects no such information."

"How irresponsible!" The Cabinet Secretary thumped his fist on the table. "I cannot believe what I am hearing! You are the highest executive in this city. Isn't it your job to find out what these monsters are made of, and where they're headed next? Should that ignorance lead to the death of one innocent citizen, it would be unforgivable."

"Excuse me, but in the ward where you live, are there not murderers living among the citizenry? Do the mayor and the authorities comprehend the personalities and the predilections of the victims and the perpetrators with anything approaching absolute certainty?"

"They're human beings."

"I am taking about the citizenry," Kajiwara said crisply. "I don't know about anybody else, but here in Shinjuku, a citizen can be something other than a human being. Well, that's this foul and accursed place for you. Submit a change-of-residence registration, and with the consent of the ward council any living thing may call himself a citizen. To tell the truth, the consent of the ward council is not technically required. We don't assert the authority to refuse entry. Aside from a mailing address and the census information, it's none of the ward's business anyway."

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December 20, 2010

The static hero

The story structure of Yashakiden (I'm finishing the translation of volume 3) reminds me of The Hidden Fortress, the Kurosawa samurai actioner that helped to inspire Star Wars.

The Hidden Fortress was for Kurosawa a commercial effort (movie studios do have to turn a profit). He would reportedly arrive at work every morning, present his protagonists with a seemingly intractable situation, and charge his writing staff with getting them out of it.

The result is quite enjoyable, but believe it or not, Lucas actually improved on it (the last time that would ever happen) by giving Han Solo a compelling character arc.

In The Hidden Fortress, General Makabe (the great Toshiro Mifune) is pretty much cool, smart and heroic, like a 1950's superhero who is ultimately unaffected by the consequences of his daring-do, and who might catch a bad case of cooties hanging around girls too much.

Series television used to avoid character arcs, with the protagonist resetting at the end of each episode. Think of the original Star Trek and even TNG. And while too much character arc produces soppy melodrama, none results in plots summed up as, "And then a bunch of stuff happens."

Which is fine for a ninety-minute actioner. But what the hero does should affect him, hence the tried and true rule of fiction writing that the main character is the person who changes the most. (In Star Wars, this means the main characters are Darth Vader and Han Solo.)

Actually, I'd argue that Star Trek has what I'd call a "steady state" character spiral, a relationship between the three leads that grows and matures as the actors and writers settle into their roles. So might the Setsura/Mephisto pairing in Yashakiden, but at this point I can't tell.

For now, Setsura is an impassive superhero of the old school, a kind of aloof and detached Peter Parker taking arms against an uninvited sea of troubles. As in The Hidden Fortress, these conflicts present themselves as an obstacle course, which he will eventually and inevitably overcome.

At the end of volume 3, he does dispatch a vampire in a very clever way. But most of the fun for me is generated by the supporting characters.

To start with, the sidekicks, including the wily mayor of Shinjuku, an animatronic doll with a soul, a wisecracking crow (a direct descendant of Poe's raven), and a fat witch who will only save you if it pays well.

Then the victims, some of whom have very compelling mini-arcs of their own before getting bumped off like the red-shirts on Star Trek (don't get too attached to them). Lastly, the villains. Hideyuki Kikuchi has done an excellent job making the bad guys as fascinating as they are bad.

Through Kikuchi's best character of all is the setting itself, Demon City Shinjuku. More about that later.

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December 16, 2010


In another installment in my occasional "eye of the beholder" series, I tackle teeth. When I was first in Japan thirty years ago, there was a whole class of models willing to unabashedly put their yaeba (八重歯), or overlapping canines, on public display.

Quoting Wikipedia-Japan, "the retarded growth of the upper palate or delayed loss of the baby teeth" causes the upper canines to overlap the incisors.

Modern othordontics is slowly eating away at the phenomenon, though yaega (yaeba + "girl") continue to be quite popular in some quarters. They're clearly discernible in this photograph of Princess Masako.

And (of course) there's a whole website devoted just to yaega.

Related posts

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December 13, 2010

Set Apart

Haibane Renmei by Yoshitoshi ABe, directed by Tomokazu Tokoro, 2002.

Set Apart by Daniel Cronquist, WinePress Publishing, 2009 (ISBN 978-1414112565).

In a small town in a mid-20th century Eastern European country is the "Old Home," an orphanage whose residents are known as Haibane, or "gray wings." The Haibane are born from cocoons with no memories of their previous lives. They sprout flightless wings on their backs and wear glowing halos over their heads.

The story begins with the "birth" of the newest member, Rakka, and follows her life at the orphanage as she tries to remember who she is and what she is doing there. Couched as a modern fable—never digressing to explain itself—Haibane Renmei is an deeply moving study of character and personal redemption.

In his short monograph (running 80 numbered pages), Set Apart, Daniel Cronquist describes Haibane Renmei as "the most Christian anime I have ever seen. [It] has more spiritual truth in it than most American media." His book is an episode by episode analysis of the series from a Christian perspective.

Cronquist is not forcing an unwarranted religious interpretation onto the art. According to its writer and creator Yoshitoshi ABe [sic], Haibane Renmei "is not a story about any specific religion; but it is, nonetheless, a religious story" inspired by his own salvific experiences.

Though Cronquist approaches the subject from an Protestant perspective, nothing in his analysis should raise hackles in a Mormon audience. In fact, the elements of Haibane Renmei that Cronquist admits "exists outside of canonical theology" would likely be considered even less objectionable by Mormons.

Mormons should also be comfortable applying concepts such as the "veil of forgetfulness" and "spirit prison" (though I suspect ABe was thinking more of Catholic purgatory), and the "probationary state" (Alma 12:24) to key plot points.

As the Catholic Encyclopedia defines it: 

Purgatory (Lat., "purgare", to make clean, to purify): in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God's grace, are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.

Cronquist expands on the unique metaphor ABe has devised to answer (we assume, though the symbolism is well-nigh perfect) the challenge in John 3:4, "How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother's womb, and be born?" The Haibane are "reborn" fully formed from their cocoons.

They are all children or young adults (lending support to a Catholic gloss). They live for an indeterminate amount of time and then vanish as mysteriously as they arrived.

The Haibane work alongside humans, living in the world but not of it. They amass no material goods for they can take nothing with them. Instead, "theirs is a world of spiritual growth—a second chance to move beyond what brought them there." Or as it says in Alma, "a space granted unto man in which he might repent."

Once the Haibane have come to terms with the sins that are keeping them grounded, they are are essentially "twinkled" in a "day of flight."

Cronquist's exegesis is clear, concise and insightful. Set Apart is organized as a lesson plan with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. It could easily serve as the textbook for a BYU religion course. Frankly, it'd be a lot more substantive than most of the required religion courses I took at BYU.

When it comes to Christian allegory that succeeds as art and metaphor, with Haibane Renmei Yoshitoshi ABe capably rises to the standard set by C.S. Lewis.

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December 09, 2010

Baseball according to Drucker (5)

「もし高校野球の女子マネージャーがドラッカーの『マネジメント』を読んだら」 ("What if the Girl Manager of a High School Baseball Team read Drucker's Management?")  topped Japan's bestseller charts for 2010. (Hey, and I spotted it way back in March). No big surprise, then, that NHK has it slated as a ten part anime series. I have no idea when or if the book or the anime will reach the U.S., but you can read the introduction and first chapter here.

Related posts

Baseball according to Drucker (1)
Baseball according to Drucker (2)
Baseball according to Drucker (3)
Baseball according to Drucker (4)
Baseball according to Drucker (6)

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December 06, 2010

The magic door

I previously mentioned the delightful romantic dramedy I'll Still Love You in Ten Years.

To summarize: imagine that Leonard Hofstadter and Penny (but make her a young editorial assistant) from Big Bang Theory get married. She de-geekifies him, he becomes rich and famous, they end up loathing each other. So he borrows his old professor's time machine and goes back to when they first met in order to break up the relationship.

(Incidentally, I identify completely. This is exactly how geeky introverts think.)

The restrained NHK style gets it exactly right, pushing the physical relationship off to the side and focusing on what makes people fall in love despite themselves, without getting too full of its philosophical self. Ten years ago, it would have made a great Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle. As a stage play, it'd be a nice answer to Saturday's Warrior.

There's only one small special effect in the whole series--a 1000 yen coin from 2020 disappears when the disrupted timeline is restored. We never see the actual time machine. We're only shown a small theoretical prototype in the professor's lab. It's simply stipulated that the time machine exists.

In other words, it's a magic door. That's all we need.

The "magic door" approach comes from an episode on Red Dwarf where the crew discovers a "space-time portal" that will permit them to travel back in time in order to warn themselves of the disaster that will befall them a few weeks hence.

"What is it?" Cat wants to know.

Lister offers up the typical technobabble explanations of it being a "interstellar dimensional space-time continuum" or whatnot. But with every explanation, Cat only gets more confused and keeps repeating, "But what is it?"

Finally Lister says, "It's a magic door."

And Cat says, "Oh, a magic door! Why didn't anyone say so!"

Call it the Goldilocks problem in science fiction and fantasy: explaining too much or explaining too little. Fantasy with pretensions to "hard SF" often succumbs to the former (Star Trek). A good example of the latter is Jin, an otherwise excellent time travel drama from Tokyo Broadcasting System.

Dr. Jin Minakata (Takao Osawa) is a 21st century surgeon who gets caught in a "time slip" (as it's called in Japanese) and saves the life of Saki's (Haruka Ayase, on the left) brother before fully realizing where he is, and before realizing that he has just done something thought utterly impossible back then.

(Incidentally, Osawa and Ayase also pair up in Ichi, a pretty good Zatoichi spin-off, with Ayase playing against type as the blind-but-lethal swordswoman.)

Following the iron-clad rule that time travelers must travel to interesting times and immediately meet interesting people, as soon as he figures out he's in 1860's Edo (Tokyo), he promptly runs into Sakamoto Ryoma (exuberantly played by Seiyou Uchino, Rika's time-traveling husband from I'll Still Love You in Ten Years).

The episodic conflicts involve Dr. Minakata figuring out how to use his skills with mid-19th century technology. Though Japan had yet to go through its industrial revolution, it still had some of the best specialty steel, silk and ceramics makers in the world. So Minakata could have many of his surgical instruments custom made.

He next sets out to invent penicillin. Granted, the most drastic improvements in health over the past two centuries came from public sanitation. But the Edo government was about to collapse, so a major public works project wasn't in the cards. It's a clever choice, as is having a soy sauce factory handle the mass production.

Although the plots have to be manhandled a bit to set up the medical case for each episode, they're well-researched (at least I found them convincing) and completely fascinating. It makes for a good basic course in pharmacology and emergency medicine. I'd like to see what Dr. House could do in a Civil War-era hospital with 21st century knowledge.

The series conflict involves Minakata's 21st century fiancee, who is in a coma after an operation he convinced her to undergo. He has a photograph of the two of them, taken at her bedside. As he begins to treat one particular patient (the geisha on the right, who's the splitting image of his fiance), the photograph begins to change.

In time, his fiance appears to return to health. And then starts to disappear. Minakata concludes that if he cures his patient, a series of cause and effect will cause her to vanish from history. Add to this his knowledge that Ryoma was assassinated in 1867. Does he act in the present or preserve the future he knows?

It's an interesting set of conflicts and dramatically very well done. There's only one problem with the series: there's no magic door.

A magic door is vaguely implied in the pilot episode. But later, what was implied doesn't seem to exist. The premise gets shuffled off stage with a bunch of literary handwaves and pretty cinematic flourishes and a WTF metaphor about a fetus in a bottle that never made any sense (I don't think it made any sense to the director either).

Maybe Minakata hit his head and he's the one in the coma. Maybe he's not a man dreaming he's a butterfly, but a butterfly dreaming he's a man. Whatever. However clever it looks on paper, this "We're too good for concrete fantasy" business gets my goat. My magical realism better have magic. If here be dragons, I expect real dragons.

Though in this case I suspect they're trying to keep all their options open by not committing to any one plot device. Unfortunately, when it comes to the integrity of a narrative, that kind of halfheartedness never serves storytelling well.

The series is good enough that you can answer their hand wave with one of your own and keep watching. But lacking a physical hook on which to hang the premise--an earthquake, say, or an errant MRI machine--despite the satisfying conclusion, the protagonist's lack of other options detracts from the dramatic impact.

Perhaps the manga on which the television series was based handles it differently. And because most series television in Japan consists of a dozen episodes and that's it (or a dozen episodes a year, very frustrating with ongoing series), it's possible they could come back for a season two (and TBS has just announced there will be).

But they'd still have to come up with a magic door.

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December 02, 2010

POD your rough drafts

I have no desire to replace my decade-old HP inkjet printer. It works fine. I use it about once a month. But not for big jobs. Factor the cost of a ream of paper and a new inkjet cartridge into the fuss and bother of keeping the paper tray filled, and the dollars start to add up.

So as long as time isn't of the essence, Lulu is easier. Especially if you intend to mail the printed manuscript to somebody. Lulu will do that too. The only additional feature I'd ask for is a checkbox that says, "Use the title page as the front cover."

Amazon's CreateSpace does POD, but it channels everything toward self-publishing, and makes you buy a proof before doing anything else. For self-publishing, it's much cheaper than Lulu, but a waste if all you want is a rough draft.

You'd think that Kinkos would specialize in this kind of thing. If it does, I can't find it. Kinko's "Internet printing" options are business-oriented and pricey. When will copy centers start advertising "Espresso Book Machine on the premises"?

It'd be cool if you could send a PDF to any copy center in the country and have the printout held there for pick-up.

Though the days of this technology are numbered too. Documents I used to print and file I now print-to-PDF and back up. For longer work, creating a quick & dirty ebook--using Word RMR, for example--obviates the need for paper. I no longer print galleys for myself.

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December 01, 2010

Zip download errors

As described here, Internet Explorer can download ZIP files incorrectly (it essentially ends up compressing the file twice and corrupting it). This problem does not occur with Firefox.

This WinZip help guide recommends unchecking the IE HTTP 1.1 settings (Internet Options > Advanced) and clearing the IE Temporary Internet Files (Internet Options > General > Delete). I've confirmed that it works using XP SP2 and IE 8.

I've also made the Twelve Kingdoms zip files available via another service.

Shadow of the Moon
A Thousand Leagues of Wind
The Shore in Twilight
Dreaming of Paradise

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