May 28, 2015


One of the more common live-action "dramas" (dorama) genres on Japanese television is the "slice-of-life" melodrama, packaged in a nine to twelve episode (or so) standalone series.

These are little teleplays about "normal" people dealing with a big emotional crisis. The adjective "big" in this context is purely relative, as nobody a stone's throw away would be aware that anything was amiss (aside from the radioactive waves of angst).

All deeply felt, of course. Very "true to life." Very "heartfelt." Very "meaningful." Very "dramatic." But, I'm afraid, not very entertaining. Put another way, contemporary literary fiction is alive and well on Japanese television (that's not a compliment).

It's known in the Japanese entertainment industry as the "trendy drama" (as opposed to "traditional" episodic genre television: crime, medical, law, and samurai dramas. The "trendy drama" is

a style of drama writing that originated in Japan during the late 1980's [that] focused on contemporary issues young Japanese were faced with everyday, such as love, family problems, and other social issues.

The target audience for the "trendy" drama has aged with the rest of the population, evolving a variety of sub-genres: the big business reorg; the big vote facing the small town council; the big divorce (again, "big" meaning not really).

I confess to harboring biases, as I generally avoid serials (as opposed to one-story-at-a-time series). The abbreviated format of anime and Asadora make them more watchable. A little nudging into the more traditional genre categories can help too.

Second To Last Love, for example, turns into a rom-com about two forty-to-fifty somethings who start out in May/September romances and end up with each other. I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper pushes all the standard cliches over the top and mutates into suburban horror.

I'm Home is a quiet psychological thriller about a businessman who's nearly killed in a gas explosion and wakes up having forgotten the last several years of his life. As he struggles to recover his memory, he discovers that he used to be a real jerk.

Importantly, I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper and I'm Home don't simply take a single story and chop it into a dozen segments; each episode comes to a resolution in a stair-step fashion.

Alas, the "trendy" treatment wrecks most good genre stories. Start with a murder mystery with enough plot to last maybe ninety minutes and stretch out to twelve hours? Boring doesn't begin to describe the experience. I stopped watching 24 after the first season too.

Or take Flowers for Algernon (it's gone from science fiction to literary fiction in fifty years) and turn what was originally a short story into ten fifty-minute episodes. Now you can stay bummed out for almost three months!

This approach is defended as "realistic." Which is also not a compliment. When it comes to narrative fiction, T.S. Eliot was right about "too much reality" being too much to bear. The real world is what I live in every day; calling it "fiction" doesn't turn it into entertainment.

The big attraction for the studios is that dorama are inexpensive to produce. Sets are simple, locations are everywhere, and the wardrobe could easily be whatever the actors wore to work. Thanks to digital video, most of the cinematography can be done in-camera.

(The technology really is a game-changer. A recent PBS documentary on the Father Brown series emphasized several times how "low budget" it is, implying low-six figures, but you'd never know from looking at it.)

I can see an artistic precedence in understated post-war Yasujiro Ozu films like The End of Summer and An Autumn Afternoon. Except that Ozu really does do slice-of-life, without a pile of concocted conflict plopped into the center of the script.

Ozu also spares us the buckets of angst, the inevitable big realization and the inevitable big resolve (again, "big" being relative). Watching Ozu, I'm often reminded of Dragnet, and how Jack Webb had actors read off cue cards or a teleprompter.

To save rehearsal time. And also to keep actors from "acting." Okay, that's a little extreme, but I get where Webb is coming from. The problem is obvious in bad dubs: too much acting. Too much emoting. Too much drama. Just too much.

Too much "reality" kills verisimilitude far faster than undisguised fantasy. Raymond Chandler had the right solution: "When in doubt, have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand."

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May 25, 2015

Never found in translation

Despite Japan being one of the top book publishing and book consuming countries in the world, a translation database maintained by the University of Rochester lists only nineteen English translations of Japanese novels published in the U.S. in 2014 (not including manga).

That number strikes me as both too low and depressingly small in any case. Between 2007 and 2013, I translated nine light novels for Digital Manga and completed six fan-translations (titles, not volumes). That'd make me more than five percent of the entire market.

The compiled data (cited in the Wall Street Journal) is freely available from the University of Rochester's "Three Percent" website, which explains itself thusly:

Three Percent was named after the oft-cited statistic that only 3 percent of books published in the U.S. are translations. By collecting as many catalogs as we can and asking publishers directly, we've managed to come up with a fairly accurate record of the books published in translation since January 1st, 2008.

I split out the publisher entries for Japan going back to 2010 (before that they only list percentages of the total). They have titles from Vertical and Viz Media, both established manga and light novel publishers. But nothing from Yen Press or Digital Manga or TokyoPop.

And Yen Press is a Hachette imprint. I'd bet the database is one guy scraping data together from wherever. Wikipedia seems a better source, but it's incomplete too. Alas, even if "all the rest" matched the "Three Percent" database, we're still barely into double digits.

Viz Media published 10 titles in 2010 and none in 2014; Vertical peaked at 6 in 2012 and fell to 1 in 2014.

This is what I experienced first-hand: a tiny "light novel" bubble that has since popped, with TokyoPop catching (and causing) a lot of the fallout, including the loss of the "Twelve Kingdoms" licenses. Digital Manga isn't currently active in the light novel market.

Yen Press and Vertical are. Yen Press has acquired licenses for manga and anime tie-ins such as A Certain Magical Index and Sword Art Online. But for all of these companies (even Japanese-owned), novels are an afterthought at best; it's manga that keeps the lights on.

As the Wall Street Journal reports, the Japanese government is attempting (once again) to address the problem. The "Cool Japan" concept has been around since 2002, a belated reaction to the belated realization that anime and manga abroad were really popular abroad.

And yet government-directed efforts have been so halfhearted as to be practically invisible. South Korea spends six times as much as Japan on similar programs. But with the 2020 Olympics right around the corner, politicians and bureaucrats are getting serious once again.

Japan's government is paying to have Japanese-language nonfiction books translated into English . . . The move is one of several nontraditional public-relations steps by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's administration . . . as it engages in a public relations battle with China and South Korea.

So what's the connection to the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP) "initiated in 2002 by the Japanese Government Agency for Cultural Affairs"? No idea. Either multiple bureaucracies duplicating each other's efforts or multiple manifestations of the same project.

The "Japan Library" (the name of the imprint) has a goal of publishing 100 books by 2020. Selected by "outside experts" and avoiding works "with an overt political message," the books will be distributed free to libraries and sold at cost on Amazon. I'm looking forward to it.

I only hope that while skirting "overt political messages," they also skirt literary snobbery and include some popular genre titles in the mix. In the meantime, though, AmazonCrossing has become the most prolific publisher of translations in the U.S.

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May 21, 2015

No pilot on board

Scripted Japanese television series (as opposed to "reality," news, and infotainment shows) don't follow the "pilot" approach.

In Hollywood, that means "auditioning" a series by filming a "first episode" (which may not be the first or even shown). If the pilot is picked up, more episodes will be ordered. If those episodes get good ratings, the series will be picked up for a year (20-24 episodes, half that for cable).

The broadcast and cable networks juggle upwards of 300 pilots every year (see a list here), and pick up less than a quarter. At two to three million dollars an episode, it is egregiously expensive. But this is a billion-dollar business and Hollywood is the dominant player in a worldwide market.

Japan isn't. And shows no signs of wanting to be.

Oh, it pats itself on the back when happy accidents happen (Akira Kurosawa, Studio Ghibli, anime). But outside a handful of its (friendlier) Asian neighbors, Japan's industry leaders haven't traditionally treated media like cars and electronics. Pirates created the overseas markets for anime and manga in the first place.

As a result, sites like Hulu list many more live-action Korean dramas than Japanese. The streaming model is changing that, along with SoftBank's purchase of DramaFever and Rakuten's purchase of Viki, both distributors of Asian television programming (still mostly Korean but expanding their catalogs).

Not to mention that Amazon-Japan is already a major retailer and Netflix is launching its service in Japan this fall.

Japan's terrestrial broadcasters and satellite channels and theaters already carry every Hollywood production worth seeing. Having ceded that ground, Japanese television studios instead choose to compete in those niches that Hollywood can't or won't bother to enter.

Speaking specifically of the gaming market, Nippon Ichi CEO Sohei Niikawa adheres to a similar strategy:

The overseas market is key. It's not something we can turn our backs to. However, I think it's a bad idea to create products targeted for the West. Even if Japanese people try their best to make a game that feels Western, there's no way they'd outclass actual Westerners doing that. I could probably count on one hand the number of Japanese people who'd even have a chance. I know we can't, so our only choice is to make titles that hardcore Japanese fans go for, then bring them out overseas as a purely made-in-Japan product.

Sure, there's plenty of the same only different on Japanese TV: police procedurals and medical dramas but with Japanese actors, Japanese culture and Japanese sensibilities. Add to that samurai dramas. Slice-of-life melodramas. The whole swath of (badly stereotyped) reality television. And lots of anime.

The big bonus is that declining to compete head-to-head with Hollywood productions means not having to run up the budget.

When Samuel L. Jackson signed on to produce and star in Afro Samurai (bringing to the table first-run U.S. distribution rights), he secured a budget of $1 million per episode, a truly head-spinning amount of money in Japan, but par for the course in Hollywood.

An average anime episode costs between $100,000 and $300,000. Star Trek had a budget of $250,000/episode in 1967! (Adjusted for inflation, that comes to around $1.5 to $2 million, so television production costs in Hollywood haven't changed very much in the past half century.)

As a rough estimate, Japanese live-action dramas are made for a half to a third of the base production costs of their Hollywood counterparts. Start by paying everybody "above the line" the equivalent of "scale." This does mean that the best television actors in Japan are constantly working.

And they don't do pilots. Well, a lot of anime series are based on manga and live-action series are based on anime, manga, and "light novels." So producers have a good idea going in of how popular a series should be.

Once a series gets greenlit, the full slate of 11 to 13 episodes (sometimes half-slates of 5 or 6) goes into production and will be aired in full. This constitutes a "series" or cour (クール), a backformation from the French cours. With a handful of exceptions, this is consistent across the industry.

(Exceptions include NHK's year-long Taiga historical drama, the 15-minute Asadora dramas that run six days a week for six months, and popular anime like One Piece and Sazae-san that have run weekly for decades. The police procedural Aibo is produced in 19-episode seasons.)

On the air since 1969.
More often than not, a single "series" (cour) comprises the entire run of the show. However, popular shows (especially with low marginal costs) can go into "auto-renew" mode. The samurai actioner Mito Komon ran 1227 episodes, cycling five actors through the lead role.

One odd effect is that because of the short runs, popular performers like Masaharu Fukuyama will have already booked their schedules around the shooting. As a result, the two Galileo series were made several years apart. Ditto Takuya Kimura and the two Hero series.

In the meantime, Fukuyama made two Galileo theatrical movies and appeared briefly in a third spinoff.

At the opposite extreme, very popular shows such as I'm Mita, Your Housekeeper and Madoka Magica each ran a single series (so far). The producer of the former flatly stated there would be no more series. It's hard to imagine that in Hollywood.

Japanese television can be compared to the U.S. cable networks, producing episodic shows in half-seasons, with a wide mix of first and second-tier writers and actors, and third-tier budgets. It makes me wonder if there might be something to buying whole "mini-seasons" of shows.

Netflix has previously acquired the balance of shows from network series that were canceled mid-season, or produced an abbreviated season of a canceled show, as with Arrested Development. Yahoo is taking over Community from NBC for a 13-episode run.

In the case of Tina Fey's Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Netflix bought the entire 13-episode run when NBC didn't pick it up. I expect to see these arrangements get more formalized, with streaming services competing for second refusal rights or becoming a "farm team" system.

Under such a system, any television program that reaches the pilot stage would be considered good enough to be guaranteed an audience somewhere.

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May 18, 2015

Revealing words

Writers have reasons to be wary of technology. Ann Althouse points to an Amazon review of Fifty Shades of Grey that, thanks to the Kindle's search function, reveals the author's writerly peccadilloes:

Characters roll their eyes 41 times, Ana bites her lip 35 times, Christian's lips "quirk up" 16 times, Christian "cocks his head to one side" 17 times, characters "purse" their lips 15 times, and characters raise their eyebrows a whopping 50 times. Add to that 80 references to Ana's anthropomorphic "subconscious" (which also rolls its eyes and purses its lips, by the way), 58 references to Ana's "inner goddess," and 92 repetitions of Ana saying some form of "oh crap" (which, depending on the severity of the circumstances, can be intensified to "holy crap," "double crap," or the ultimate "triple crap").

But technology giveth even as it taketh away. Writers can now defend themselves against embarrassing lexical exposés with a wide range of free online word frequency counters (like here). But it's the phrase counters (like here, here, and here) that really reveal the flaws.

The free Primitive Word Counter is a standalone Windows program that does basic text analysis. (Keep in mind that it's so primitive it doesn't understand apostrophes or smart quotes.) Textanz ($39.95) is a little less "primitive," with more tools and supported text formats.

And then there's WordStat, which will set you back a whopping $3,795. Heck, for that much, it should write the novel, edit and publish it, and attend the signing events.

Danger, Will Robinson! A very real problem with these tools is that seeing your writing so dispassionately deconstructed can make you overly self-conscious, like listening to a recording of your voice. Not all repetition is bad. It won Hemingway a Nobel Prize, after all.

One of the biggest mistakes beginning fiction writers make is trying to come up with different ways to say "said." (See rule #3.)

A few phrases duplicated in an 80,000 word novel won't be noticed. Your attempts to eliminate them might be. One thing I discovered back when I was producing educational videos was the extent to which people don't see--until it's pointed out to them--continuity problems.

I'm talking about the obvious stuff, like a prop changing color in the middle of a scene. A fascinating psychological question is what makes us notice some continuity problems and ignore others. Of course, once pointed out, you can't not see it.

With those caveats in mind, these tools do a good job of uncovering rhetorical tics, overused adverbs, and inconsistent usages. But with the curtain drawn back on your creative subconscious, you'll have to consciously learn what to ignore.

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May 14, 2015

Anime's streaming solution

In Japan, physical media still rules the market. Resale price maintenance rules notwithstanding, paperback books cost about the same as in the U.S. and are better made. The page-turning part of the market remains highly competitive.

But physical electronic media? Here we find the kind of cartel that would make a Robber Baron proud. As a result, expect to pay two to three times or more in Japan for CDs, DVDs and Blu-ray discs.

CDs still account for 85 percent of album sales in Japan. As Monty Python would put it: Not dead yet! Clay Christensen be damned, the market will not be disrupted!

DRM-free MP3s are scarce on Amazon-Japan. But the times are a-changing, with entertainment behemoths like Sony gravitating to the walled garden of iTunes and its own proprietary formats. The Kindle is gaining ground with DRM ebooks that support right-to-left Unicode text.

The anime business is unique among IP exports in that it has a relatively large market in the U.S. Almost all anime DVDs sold in the U.S. preserve the original Japanese audio track (Appleseed: Alpha didn't). This leads to fears of reimportation.

The U.S. and Japan share the same Blu-ray region code, and region-free DVD players are ubiquitous outside the U.S.

Like the pharmaceutical business in the U.S., high prices at home support low prices abroad. Japanese distributors have at times tried pricing titles the same as in Japan. Most of the time: "Mr. Supply, meet Mr. Demand, and some very pissed-off fans."

In the case of Puella Magi Madoka Magica, though, the Japanese studio and distributors have held firm. A DVD "complete collection" that would usually go for $30-$40 dollars on Amazon is instead priced at $150. The "special edition" is twice that.

They are husbanding their hundred-million dollar franchise as a scarce resource, spacing out the spin-offs (such as Puella Magi Tart Magica, featuring Joan of Arc) rather than saturating the market.

They're certainly losing foreign sales, but I doubt those add up to more than a handful of percentage points. If they can sustain interest in the franchise, they can mine gold for decades.

To compare within the magical girl genre: Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha has so far produced three series, three theatrical releases, with a fourth series in the works. Pretty Cure has racked up twelve series and eleven theatrical releases.

But then why is Madoka Magica available on Yahoo View and Crunchyroll for free? Because streaming really does change everything, without causing undue harm to the "traditional" economic model in the home market.

The other variable in this equation is HDTV. HDTV means that pirates can record a perfect version of a program off-the-air. But they still have to subtitle it and move it onto download sites (and not get nabbed by the DMCA in the process).

By creating a subtitled version in-house and simulcasting it to U.S. distributors, Japanese animation studios get a jump on the pirates and collect licensing fees and ad dollars to boot. Justin Sevakis sums up the effects on piracy in only a few years:

It used to be that fans who wanted to keep up with the current shows on Japanese TV were utterly dependent on fansubs, but thanks to legitimate streaming, most fans don't bother with torrents anymore. Pirate traffic is way, way down.

Regional restrictions are easier with streaming, including locking out anonymous proxies. And capturing (lower-resolution) streaming video in real time is just too big of a pain for most people to bother with. But beware, IP owners, of restricting access just because it's easy:

Most downloaders, I'm guessing, live in countries where legal streams aren't yet available.

Granted, this is the new "long-tail" economy, with revenue not so much streaming in as accumulating in drips and drabs. Internet advertising remains a work in progress (the biggest beneficiary being Google). Low income, yes, but coupled with low costs and low risks.

Hulu and Crunchyroll also offer subscriptions (for set-top box access on Hulu; for set-top box, simulcast, HD, and commercial-free access on Crunchyroll). Crunchyroll reportedly has 400,000 paid subscribers, the kind of numbers that can generate "real money."

"Most of which goes right back to the industry," says Crunchyroll CEO Kun Gao. And that industry is gearing up for more, what with Netflix's entry into the Japanese market and SoftBank's purchase of DramaFever (a distributor of international streaming content).

Streaming works for the same reason book publishers are now keeping an iron grip on their still-producing back-lists. Over the entire span of the copyright, a mid-list book that brings in, say, a mere $1000 a year in ebook royalties will rake in more of that "real money."

Which is a good reason for writers to hold on tight to those rights instead. Because nothing goes out of print anymore. As Mark Coker analogizes it, "the income stream from a [self-published] ebook is akin to an annuity, and specifically a variable annuity."

Thanks to the scalability and efficiency of online retailing, the digital bits and bytes that comprise your ebook can happily occupy an online retailer's shelf forever if you let it. Your book is immortal. You always have another day to find your next readers. You harvest your income over time as the book sells.

That may well soon become true of all published media, if it isn't already.

Related posts

The streaming chronicles
Family Gekijyo
Sink or stream
Crunchy Fun and the Yahoos

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May 11, 2015

Welcome to the Machine

The most interesting theological discourses on television these days come from a series that ostensibly has nothing to do with religion: Person of Interest.

With the battle now fully engaged between the Machine and Samaritan (echoing C.S. Lewis's contention that the Earth is, in fact, "enemy territory"), the one remaining challenge is providing John Greer (aka Decima, played by John Nolan, Jonathan Nolan's uncle) an underlying motivation that matches those of the rest of the cast.

The problem, as Kate points out, is that "the abstract nature of belief" makes "religion difficult to write about," even when couched in equally abstract metaphors.

In order for Martin Luther to argue against indulgences (a practical reality), he has to believe in something far more abstract (that the soul cannot buy its way into heaven or out of accountability). In order for Joseph Smith to argue against infant baptism (another practical reality), he has to believe that Adam and Eve's Fall from God's presence did not entail a fall into sin.

A "bigger worldview lies behind most theological arguments," and that's what often goes missing in the mundane scramble after plot. But it has to surface sometime, else the plot will end up chasing its own tail. At the end of season four, we do catch a compelling glimpse.

A skeptical Control confronts Decima in what can be analogized to the conflict between the Confucianists and the Hobbesian legalists of the Qin Dynasty. Confucians focused on the primacy of ethics and a virtuous ruler, while legalists believed that the whims of any ruler could be subsumed by the objective machine of the law.

Or in the case of Person of Interest, the algorithm. Outside a shrinking number of crumbling Marxist states, the most familiar implementations of legalism are Sharia and the Mosaic Law.

Under legalism, we have the right to do nothing, except for a finite subset of actions the state allows. By contrast, to assert that rights are inalienable" and "god-given" means that we have the right to do anything, except for a finite subset of actions the state deems to be crimes. And even then, we are "presumed innocent."

Legalists see only chaos in such expansive views of liberty. Like Hobbes, they argue that "[T]he purpose of the commonwealth is peace, and the sovereign has the right to do whatever he thinks necessary for the preserving of peace and security and prevention of discord."

In the tension between these two perspectives, we find the foundations of Christian theology as reflected in Milton (or The Pearl of Great Price), which casts the War in Heaven as a conflict between a Hobbesian view of life (man must be forced back into heaven) and one in which man has free will (and can only return via grace).

Wherefore, because that Satan rebelled against me, and sought to destroy the agency of man, which I, the Lord God, had given him, and also, that I should give unto him mine own power; by the power of mine Only Begotten, I caused that he should be cast down;

And he became Satan, yea, even the devil, the father of all lies, to deceive and to blind men, and to lead them captive at his will, even as many as would not hearken unto my voice.

The Machine is the "still small voice," while Samaritan is the enlightened despot. But in dramatic terms, while "justice" and "redemption" can be pursued forever (which is why we'll never run out of police procedurals), it's impossible to square Samaritan's objectives with reality. The world is too analog to "take over."

Every quest for world domination suffers the same fate: This too shall pass away. Entropy always wins in the end (perfectly symbolized by the fates of self-made enlightened despots like Elias and Dominic).

I can imagine Samaritan being oblivious to its own mortality, while John Greer is not. Hence his mission. The Machine knows its limitations, hence Root's procurement of the mysterious bulletproof attache case for reasons none of them understands at the time.

I think Jonathan Nolan is getting a better idea of what makes his machines tick. In the season four finale, Greer does a good job of articulating why the threat of filling the streets with stormtroopers was a diversion all along. He comes quite close to paraphrasing the legalist approach to pragmatic governance:

  • The ruler exists to monopolize authority in order to prevent its abuse by feudal magnates [or federal bureaucrats].
  • Special tactics or "secrets" should be taken by the ruler to ensure that others do gain not control of the state. Withdraw[ing] from affairs except to manage the course of ministers, the ruler . . . obscures his motivations. By these means, no one can subvert the state through sycophancy, but may only try to advance [within it] by heeding orders.
  • The ruler uses the legal system to control the state; if the law is applied effectively, even a weak ruler will be strong.

The question is whether the show can avoid going down the Terminator rabbit hole. That seems the only way Hollywood knows how to resolve conflicts involving sentient machines: "Robots take over the world!" Samaritan will have to take over something quite different. "Robots take over the government!" won't do either.

Jonathan Nolan has created the most ingenious cyber thriller on television (the mesh network episode was one of the smartest ever). He's resorted to both "conspiracy mode" and "Dr. Evil mode" that I worried about here, but has managed to keep pulling the rabbit out of the hat so far.

The best solution can probably be found in how churches and states have sorted themselves out of the past two millennia. Greer could argue, for example, that for all its notoriety, the Spanish Inquisition was a much less gruesome affair than the Thirty Years' War, and that his way will bring more "souls" to "salvation."

On a side note [spoiler alert], Nolan exercises the tightest cast control in the business. He pulled a "Scully" with Sarah Shahi (for the same reason as Gillian Anderson). Like Scully, they've kept Sameen  alive, so I presume she'll be back. Camryn Manheim as Control ended up in dire straits, but I presume she'll be back too.

Enrico Colantoni is not so dead he can't come back. I liked Winston Duke as Dominic (another great bad guy from Nolan), but he's pretty dead. Martine (Cara Buono) is pretty dead too (after turning into the Terminatrix there for a while). Meanwhile, the Machine is in a literal box, reduced to a ghost in a shell.

Which means that, as things stand right now, we're back to the original cast size. You see, Joss Whedon, it can be done!

Oh, and the theme music for the penultimate scene of season four was recorded in 1975, but sounds like it was commissioned for this episode.

Related posts

The Difficulty of Writing About Religion
The Two Hands of Person of Interest, Season 3
Person of Interest
The IT enemy is us

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May 07, 2015

Pop culture Shinto

Shinto grew organically in Japan, inventing itself and its mythologies along the way. The first references appeared in the eighth century. In the official histories, the Imperial Court traced its ancestry back to Emperor Jimmu, a descendant of the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Jimmu is said to have ascended to the throne in 660 BC. Emperor Sujin, who purportedly reigned from 97 BC to 30 BC, is the first Japanese emperor believed to not be complete fabrication. But the genealogies aren't considered trustworthy until the fifth century.

The "mists of time" can be awfully useful when it comes to the "evidence of things not seen." Sure, you can't prove any of it happened. But you can't prove it didn't! What the heck, it doesn't hurt to play along. As Wikipedia explains,

Shinto does not actually require professing faith to be a believer or a practitioner thus a person who practices any manner of Shinto rituals may be so counted, and as such it is difficult to query for exact figures based on self-identification of belief within Japan.

When the queries are done, the number of believers always add up to significantly greater than the total population. Japanese don't see religious affiliation or belief or even "atheism" as a zero-sum game. Why believe in just one? Cover your bases! Accept Pascal's Wager for all the gods!

Shinto in genre fiction typically has about the same relationship to its theological roots as a Marvel Thor flick has to Norse mythology. It's more about the ballpark verisimilitude, and as source material for compelling superheroes and cool characters.

This makes Shinto a deep well that manga and anime can draw from time and again, with little fear of offending anybody no matter how wild a tangent the story takes from the religion's theological roots.

The live-action Onmyoji, for example, casts the real Heian period court diviner Abe no Seimei (921-1005) as a superhero exorcist. Similar historical settings and tropes show up in anime like Otogi Zoshi.

Outside Japan, the Studio Ghibli classics Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, and the lesser-known Pom Poko are the best-known explorations of Shinto metaphysics. While opaque to western viewers, most of the religious references would be familiar to Japanese audiences.

Shinto is more commonly known for the miko (shrine maiden) and the ever-popular inari (fox god). Shrine of the Morning Mist casts the miko as superheroes. In the more subdued Gingitsune, the daughter of a Shinto priest has inherited her mother's "spirit sight."

The inari and its kin are recurring characters in Japanese fairy tales, often transforming into human form. Thus a little supernatural matchmaking will get you a romantic comedy. The best-known rom-com pairing is Rumiko Takahashi's Inuyasha. Inuyasha is a half-demon inugami (dog god).

Unlike the semi-divine inari, the ranks of the inugami and shikigami are populated by the ghosts and goblins of Japanese mythology. They, in turn, are ruled over by the kami, which loosely translates as "the gods," whose job it is to keep the divine rabble in line.

Those gods can turn up in the most unlikely places.

Kamichu! begins with a junior high school student in a small fishing village in Hiroshima. Yurie wakes up one morning to discover she's turned into a minor Shinto deity. Rather than causing great alarm, she's treated more like "hometown girl makes good."

The focus instead is how Yurie comes to terms with her "godhood" with the help of her friends and family, and, in turn, keeps the local shikigami in line.

This brings to mind comparisons with Bruce Almighty, except that Bruce Almighty is monotheistic while Kamichu! is unapologetically polytheistic. The gods of Shinto aren't omnipresent or omnipotent or monotheistic or even worth worshiping sometimes.

In Noragami, Yato is a Shinto god (with a dark past) in need of a shrine, which means amassing followers by doing "good deeds." In other words, this god's charitable acts are entirely self-serving. Well, a bad boy with a good heart is a character arc that practically writes itself.

Shinto-based genre fiction tends to be more devil-may-care than the more "serious" Buddhism. Shinto does have a sober side, name in the connection to State Shinto.

State Shinto was abolished in 1945. It effects still persist in the politically sensitive symbol of Yasukuni Shrine and the Shinto temples and accession rites tied to the Imperial Household (much the same way the Church of England is to the throne in the United Kingdom).

A "bamboo curtain" of church/state separation is usually tactfully drawn between the political and sectarian function, but now and then it slips in curious ways, such as when a politician makes an "official" to a shrine. Prime Minster Abe has avoided Yasukuni but has visited Ise.

Princess Noriko (the emperor's grandniece) married the eldest son of the head priest of the Izumo Taisha grand shrine. This sort of thing is treated with a degree of deference unimaginable by Japan's tabloid press on any other subject.

In these specific church/state contexts, Shinto becomes a subject actually more off-limits than Buddhism. Royalty in Japan are a low key bunch to start with, and the very imperious Imperial Household Agency makes Buckingham Palace look like the cast of Monty Python.

As the Christian Science Monitor put it a while back:

The most secretive agency in Japan is not its intelligence organization. It is the Imperial Household Agency . . . . The agency tightly controls the flow of information about Japan's monarchy, not only to the public but to the rest of the government.

The Imperial Household Agency has gone so far as to close down archaeological digs that might possible put past historical events in the "wrong" light (such as revealing that early emperors were the descendants of Korean princes fleeing civil wars on the peninsula).

The fanatical right (still fighting WWII in spirit) doesn't give a fig about theology as long as you leave the modern-day emperors (and their origins) out of it. Steer clear of that minefield and the sky's the limit. Shinto can be as weird and goofy as you want it to be.

Related posts

Pop culture Catholicism
Pop culture Buddhism
Anime genre horror
Ghostbusting in Japan

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May 04, 2015

A movie's money's worth

Megan McArdle wonders if Hollywood finances will be unraveled by the "unbundling" going on in cable offerings. Arguing that they may well be, she points out that Hollywood movies are "incredibly expensive to make," and that cable television is a big source of operating profits.

Gone Girl, without a massive cast, exotic foreign shooting locations or blockbuster special effects, ran to about $60 million. That doesn't include marketing budgets or the overhead of running a studio, just the production cost of the movie. And, obviously, if you like big-budget, special-effects-driven Hollywood spectaculars, things start north of $100 million and just keep heading up from there.

Except that Hollywood spends that much money on movies because it can, not because it has to (and because when properly managed, a successful Hollywood movie generates a lot of cash flow without ever technically turning a profit, which makes the accountants happy).

In the process of panning Invictus, Bill Simmons damns Eastwood with this faint praise that's more revealing about Hollywood economics:

Eastwood bangs out expensive movies under budget and ahead of schedule. Doesn't shoot a ton of takes, doesn't drift from the script, doesn't waste afternoons waiting for the sun to set just right, stuff like that. He's the most efficient director working today.

Princess Kaguya (directed by Isao Takahata) is Japan's most expensive animated film to date, costing (wait for it) $50 million. In Japan, Frozen (budget: $150 million) now ranks second in all-time box office, right behind Spirited Away (budget: $20 million).

In the day-in-the-life documentary about Studio Ghibli, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, Hayao Miyazaki and Toshio Suzuki grumble at length about Takahata's inability bring in projects on schedule and under budget. They're kindred spirits to Clint Eastwood.

McArdle points out that "technology enables directors to spend vast fortunes on special effects," but again, only because they can. Compare Appleseed (2004) and Appleseed: Alpha (2014) to see how far motion capture animation has come in ten years, at a budget of $10 million for the former and barely twice that for the latter.

By comparison, television series in Japan are budgeted at about a tenth of their Hollywood counterparts, so the Appleseed XIII (2013) TV series looks like the 2004 Appleseed movie. In ten years, I'm confident it will look more like Appleseed: Alpha.

Over a decade ago, I couldn't tell the digital background mattes from reality in the moderately low budget remake of Samurai Resurrection (2003) until I watched the "making of" segment. The same goes for the extremely low budget Raise the Castle! (2009).

It's one of the most unintentionally meta films ever, a movie about a guy who can't build a real castle and so constructs one out of cardboard, made by a director who can't afford to build scale sets and so makes them out of cardboard in the local high school gym.

Aside from campy special effects that are supposed to look campy, I didn't notice most of the digital mattes. That's how sophisticated desktop editing software has become.

Japanese studios are increasingly turning to digital 3D and motion capture to make live-action versions of manga and anime. It won't be long before you will have to look very hard to tell the difference (in technical terms) between a Pacific Rim and a Patlabor.

The entire Patlabor: Next Generation series (a total of 7 hours in 8 parts) is budgeted at (wait for it) $20 million. Pacific Rim (2 hours) cost $190 million.

But what will ultimately make Patlabor: Next Generation worth watching is the quality of the storytelling. Once you have reached a certain level of technical proficiency, a better story is going to beat the crap out of better production values every time.

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