March 31, 2014

Full stream ahead

Manga and anime in the U.S. had a thriving fan base long before they were commercially viable. With an already established market, and since their IP was getting pirated anyway, Japanese publishers made the rational decision to license it.

The market for physical media—manga and DVDs—maxed out about ten years ago. Then the bubble burst, driving several established importers/distributors out of business. And yet the demand for content was still there and the licensors were still licensing.

So the sensible solution was streaming, with a side business in printed books and discs. Crunchyroll delivers many anime episodes a week after they air in Japan, beating the pirates to the punch. (Unsurprisingly, Crunchyroll was a pirate site before it went legit.)

Mid-list genre novels and live-action television dramas from Japan have never made that break. With no existing market to feed, Japanese media companies couldn't be bothered to try and create one. (Or they tried once and now are twice shy.)

NHK's year-long Taiga dramas and morning serials are often licensed throughout Asia. But to this date, never in the U.S., even though recent series like Ryomaden, Go, and Atsuhime have accessible storylines and attractive lead characters.

Korean television dramas, by contrast, can be found in abundance. The Japanese section of Netflix has a boatload of anime and only a handful of television series. The Korean section has over 100 live-action television series.

Despite the fact that South Korea has half the population of Japan and a third its GDP. This isn't a supply problem. But how can there be a demand when hardly anybody knows the supply exists, or thinks it consists primarily of gonzo game shows?

As an ethnic group, Korean-Americans (1,822,000) outnumber Japanese-Americans (1,411,000). I suspect the bigger reason is that Korean broadcasters (and the South Korean government) have more realistic expectations about the size of the market.

At Anime News Network, Justin Sevakis explains that anime continues to thrive because

License fees have fallen to a point where they are relatively reasonably priced, and an American publisher can reasonably be expected to buy the rights to a show, produce subtitles (or occasionally a dub), put it on sale, and make a decent profit.

Given its microscopic fan base, the cost of simply subtitling a Japanese live-action dramas would wipe out the profit margin for a series.

Korean television content is also more likely to be distributed with a second-generation demographic in mind, while TV Japan is directed primarily at an expatriate audience. This makes it hard to create a home-grown audience

There are plans in the works to create more export-friendly Japan channels. And NHK is slowly building a fledgling distribution network based on its news and infotainment programs.

Drama-wise, NHK has to put something good out there to start the word-of-mouth going. Such an effort would dovetail with the government's "Cool Japan" initiative, launched in 2010 with the goal of creating a profitable overseas market for Japanese culture.

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March 27, 2014

Poseidon of the East (12)

A viceroy or governor general (太守) is a "regal official who runs a country, colony, or city province (or state) in the name of and as representative of the monarch."

The "third eye" is a "mystical concept referring to a speculative invisible eye which provides perception beyond ordinary sight . . . the gate that leads to inner realms and spaces of higher consciousness."

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March 24, 2014

Dancing girls

In his review of An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America by Joseph Bottum, David Goldman agrees with the Bottum that "today's secular liberals are the direct descendants of the past century's Puritans and Protestants."

The big difference is, these "post-Protestants" now define

good and evil not primarily in terms of personal behavior but as states of mind about the social condition. Sin, in other words, appears as a social fact, and the redeemed personality becomes confident of its own salvation by being aware of that fact.

Note that salvation is achieved by "being aware of that fact" (and feeling bad about it), not doing anything constructive other than loudly protesting (forget about the beam in your own eye, the problem is the mote in the other guy's). Oh, and pinning scarlet letters on the sinners.

As if purposely written to illustrate this thesis, one Randa Jarrar has penned a comically aggrieved screed in Salon ("whose usual stock in trade is exotic identity-based grievances," as James Taranto puts it). To whit:

Whether they know it or not, white women who practice belly dance are engaging in [cultural] appropriation.

Frankly, were the author describing "cultural appropriation" done badly, I could have ginned up some sympathy for the argument. But judging from the comments, there comes a point at which the Inquisition has burned one witch too many, even in this sanctuary of self-righteousness.

I certainly won't hesitate to saddle up my high horse when confronted with corny depictions of Japanese culture in U.S. media (and corny depictions of American culture in Japanese media). Though the proper human reaction, as Peter Payne confesses, is to laugh at it.

Once I was watching an episode of Alias with my [Japanese] wife, and there was a horrid scene in which some female spy went to "Japan" (which appeared to be shot in a sushi restaurant about ten minutes from West Hollywood), painted her face white like a "geisha" and proceeded to extract information from her target despite not knowing his language. I was livid that in the 21st century TV producers couldn't even come close to getting basic imagery right, but my wife was enthralled with it, laughing at each new hilarious plot twist.

And why not? After all, Japan has been "appropriating" foreign culture for the past two thousand years, beginning with Chinese religion, architecture, food, language (kanji), and political philosophy.

During the early Meiji period (1868-1912), while preaching "Western technology, Japanese spirit," Japan's ruling class went on a culture borrowing binge that earned it mockery from both Japanese conservatives and western commentators.

And yet some things not only stuck but became deeply ingrained, like the waishatsu or white dress shirt. The English morning coat became the preferred formal wear for politicians. Western-style wedding gowns, along with the Christian ceremony, are becoming well-nigh ubiquitous.

But getting back to dancing girls, one of Japan's most successful themed resorts is Spa Resort Hawaiians, started in an effort to save the local economy after the Joban coal mine in Northern Japan shut down. The story is dramatized in the cute movie Hula Girls (click to enlarge).

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.

In another cute kid's film, I Wish, the mom and grandma quite incidentally belong to the local hula dancing club (it has nothing to do with the plot). Over the past quarter-century, hula dancing has become a popular club activity for women in Japan.

But turnabout is fair play too, and infotainment shows in Japan love featuring foreigners (the more "foreign" the better) who have embraced and even perfected some uniquely Japanese aspect of their culture.

Such as Egyptian Abdelrahman Shalan (Oosuna-arashi), the first professional sumo wrestler from the African continent and a rising star. His wonderful sumo name is "Great Sandstorm" (大砂嵐). It's no surprise to any Japan watcher that he is immensely popular in Japan.

The "pyramid" illustrates the ranks in professional sumo.

To be sure, the sport has become accustomed to non-Japanese sumo champions. Over the past decade (at six tournaments a year), only two championships went to native Japanese. One was won by an Estonian, one by a Bulgarian, and the rest by Mongolians.

Related posts

Jonah Goldberg, Calvinism, Genre Literature, and Anthropology
Apocalypse not now

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March 20, 2014

Poseidon of the East (11)

The most similar contemporary political position that fits Atsuyu's position is Chief Cabinet Secretary, so I formally refer to him as the Chief Rikkan Secretary.

In Japanese politics, the chief cabinet secretary functions as the prime minister's chief of staff, though he is probably best known to the Japanese public as the government's press secretary.

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March 17, 2014


In what will surely be a case study in a future edition of Clayton Christensen's The Innovator's Dilemma, Netflix out-innovated and out-marketed Blockbuster--in 2000 it could have acquired Netflix for a paltry $50 million--into bankruptcy.

Dish Networks scooped up the remains, only to dump the brick & mortar stores and the DVD-by-mail rental service two years later, leaving a few dozen franchise-owned stores still in operation.

But then something ironic happened: Netflix so thoroughly followed Clayton Christensen's advice "to kill its own business" that it actually did it.

I have to wonder now if Blockbuster had seen the writing on the wall even a year or two earlier it could have maneuvered itself to occupy the same retail space that Netflix is now abandoning and that Redbox quickly pounced on.

As Matthew Yglesias points out, quoting Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos, Netflix has since set out to "become HBO before HBO became them."

The thing is, I'm not interested in subscribing to "HBOflix." With few exceptions, I don't watch serials dribbled out in weekly installments (cable or broadcast), especially the kind of programming that wins HBO and its kin all that high brow praise.

"Free preview weekends" only make me wonder why people are so willing to pay so much for satellite/cable "premium" content. Though you sure can't argue with the business model, not as long as people are shelling out $200/year to watch one or two shows.

I originally subscribed to Netflix because of its anime library, but it's all but stopped buying anime DVDs and streams only a fraction of those. Dozens of titles are listed in its catalog with no availability listed for streaming or discs.

If you haven't subscribed, you have to use third-party sites to find out what streaming titles are available. As far as anime goes, the results do not impress. Netflix is playing these bait and switch games while it figures out how to keep the licensors at bay.

And keep itself from being throttled out of business.

Deliberately welding itself to the old cable model gives HBO all the bandwidth it needs. Netflix ironically finds itself at the mercy of the same Internet providers who look to HBO as their bread and butter.

Sure enough, according to the Wall Street Journal, Netflix is paying Comcast for preferred access to its networks. Verizon wants a piece of that pie too. If Verizon gets a slice, every ISP in the country is going to want to slap on a cover charge.

But as XKCD illustrates here, the old-fashioned sneakernet has enormous bandwidth. Some of us were happy to put up with the equally enormous ping times, and Redbox has gone about picking all the low-hanging fruit.

There are a handful of companies that specialize in renting anime discs. But without Netflix's next-day distribution network, the sneakernet ping times do become intolerable.

The only options left are buying the discs (I do having a growing library) and getting a Roku. Both Hulu and Crunchyroll keep their anime catalogs well-stocked and up to date. And searching through them doesn't require you to sign up for anything.

With backing from Disney and News Corp., Hulu shouldn't have to worry about getting throttled. For now, though, Amazon and Netflix are outmarketing Hulu, making Netflix's decision to out-HBO HBO perhaps the better business decision.

But not better for the anime consumer. Once I get to the bottom of my current queue, I'll be through with Netflix.

Related posts

Full stream ahead
Netflix flak

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March 13, 2014

Poseidon of the East (10)

In Japanese, the two Rokutas are differentiated using kanji (六太) for the kirin and hiragana (ろくた) for the youma. I'll use SMALL CAPS when referring to the latter.

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March 10, 2014

The name of the noun

Asks Juliet at the beginning of perhaps Shakespeare's most famous and familiar soliloquy, "O Romeo, Romeo! wherefore art thou Romeo?" She means, "Why must your name be Romeo Montague?" and goes on to pose the following semantic argument:

What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot,
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
What's in a name? that which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.

Ah, if only it were so, Juliet. But I'm afraid you and xkcd are only half-right (click to enlarge):

In narrative fiction and poetry, the right words--even words that only sound right--form the foundation of verisimilitude, ringing the right bells without striking the wrong notes. In technical writing, the necessity should be obvious.

As Mark Twain put it, "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug." In the mind's eye (or rather, nose) a rose by any other name can smell awful.

Of course, there is that the trendy, post-modern notion that "naming things" is a bourgeois tool of "oppression." Except that coming up with words for stuff, Kate points out, is deeply rooted in human nature. It's what we have descended larynxes for.

My reactions to such blather are similar to those about soccer: the species spent the last million years evolving big brains and opposable thumbs and some numbskull goes and invents a sport that instead requires hitting things with your bare head?

Besides, any creative writer will tell you that coming up with the right names for characters alone is half the battle. The rest of the nouns make up the other half, as Billy Crystal patiently explains in Throw Mama from the Train:

Mrs Hazeltine, when you're writing a novel that takes place on a submarine, it's not a bad idea to know the name of the instrument that the captain speaks through.

A few good nouns can carry a lot of narrative weight. Watching One Piece, I am struck by how well the translators come up with both the logical and wacky English equivalents to the original Japanese. A small sampling from the Water 7 arc includes:

• The main transportion to Water 7 is the Sea Train, Puffing Tom.
• The train conductor named Kokoro and her granddaughter, Chimney.
• Iceberg, the mayor of Water 7.
• The Galley-La shipbuilding company.
• A mysterious government agency called CP9, and their base of operation, Enies Lobby.
• CP9 is after the blueprints to Pluton, a secret weapon—
• —believed to be in the custody of the gonzo shipwright, Cutty Flam.

Another classic example is Rutger Hauer's "Tears in rain" soliloquy from Blade Runner (largely improvised by Hauer himself):

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. Time to die.

Even devoid of context, without any additional meaning attached to them, the nouns sound right, the mere act of speaking making them real in the imagination. And, yes, it really helps that Rutger Hauer is saying them.

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March 06, 2014

Poseidon of the East (9)

The nyokai (女怪) is the guardian born shortly before the kirin and destined to watch over him.

When the capital of Japan was moved to Kyoto in the late 8th century, the streets were laid out in a grid pattern.

Incidentally, so were the blocks in Salt Lake City. The thinking of city planners 1000 years apart reveals curious similarities, such as housing the seat of government at the north end of the city and the wide streets. The streets in Salt Lake City were wide enough for a wagon and team of oxen to turn around.

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March 03, 2014

Batteries included

Practically everything's rechargeable these days, including things that no one would ever imagine being "rechargeable" a generation or two ago, like books. But sometimes an old-fashioned alkaline battery is just better.

I replaced my old battery-powered beard trimmer with a rechargeable model and soon saw the benefit of batteries. When it runs down, it takes a least an hour to charge it, and it'll run right down again if not charged for at least half a day.

And then there's the plugs, adapters, and wires--that's the problem with laptops too.

So when I wanted to save time and money in the old shaving cream and razor blade routine (the admittedly fantastic Gillette Fusion blades I was using cost a small fortune), I settled on the Philips Norelco PQ208 Travel Electric Razor.

Despite its size and cost, this twelve-dollar unit has a solid--even rugged--heft and feel to it. It has only two heads and no settings other than on and off and yet does the job admirable. But the most amazing thing about it is the battery life.

Granted, I only use it to shave my neck a couple of times a week, and the motor has noticeably slowed in the last two weeks, but after two months I'm still on the original pair of batteries. This is the Energizer Bunny of electric razors.

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