November 24, 2016

"Ghost in the Shell" trailer

Yes, another movie I won't be seeing for a while.

Okay, I'll get to the trailer. But first this silly whining about Scarlett Johansson not being "Japanese." Silly because she's playing an android whose only "human" component is her brain, and has swapped "shells" more than once. Besides, phenotypic racial characteristics in manga and anime are highly malleable, to say the least.

It's true that casting Japanese as Japanese in Hollywood is a perennial problem. But in Hollywood, everything's ultimately about the box office, which also points to a perennial supply and demand problem.

As an Asian-American ethnic group, Japanese (1.3 million) lag behind Korean (1.7 million), Vietnamese (1.73 million), Indian (3.18 million), Filipino (3.41 million), and Chinese (3.79 million).

Except for the cream of the crop (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese actor with any kind of talent can get more and better work in Japan (and won't have to speak English). The reverse is true too, which is why (with rare exceptions) "Americans" in Japanese productions are so often played by Europeans who "look" the part.

So while Star Trek creates roles for Japanese actors, aside from George Takei, it has a hard time finding Japanese actors to play them. Thus we have Rosalind Chao in Next Generation (who doesn't look Japanese) and Linda Park in Enterprise (who more or less does) and John Cho in Star Trek (close enough).

I always wondered why they just didn't make Linda Park's character Korean. It's not like there was any continuity to preserve.

In any case, the setting of Ghost in the Shell is postmodern and post-mini-apocalyptic, taking place in a Japan that, like Los Angeles in Blade Runner, has become a polyglot tossed-salad of Asian cultures. So it's hard to hung up about the specifics of national identity.

Anyway, who's to say Johansson isn't Japanese? How many people know that Dean Cain (Lois & Clark) is a quarter-Japanese? (I didn't until I looked it up.) Risa Stegmayer (American father, Japanese mother), co-host of NHK's Cool Japan, doesn't look especially Japanese, especially seated next to the very Japanese Shoji Kokami.

Meanwhile, the very Japanese Hiroshi Abe plays a Roman architect in the Thermae Romae movies.

This anecdote by Peter Payne (who lives in Japan, where he runs an online store for otaku) is a good antidote to this plague of third-party offense-taking:

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.

It's always a good idea to make sure that those on whose behalf you are getting offended would actually get offended by what you think would offend them. Because they might not have the slightest idea what you are talking about. (See also here.)

As far as that goes, the great Takeshi Kitano plays Aramaki in the movie, which I do consider inspired casting.

But enough with that, back to the trailer.

Based on this small sample, it looks like the movie is using material from Masamune Shirow's manga (the girl-on-girl stuff), Mamoru Oshii's animated film (the opening sequences are an exact match), and the second season of Stand Alone Complex (directed by Kenji Kamiyama), in which the Major gets some hefty "shell" repair.

The live-action version also draws its existential moodiness from Oshii. Like Blade Runner, Oshii's versions are more psychological thrillers, far "heavier" than the manga. The same shift in tone can be seen comparing the Patlabor anime series to Oshii's Patlabor feature films.

Stand Alone Complex is a straightforward cybernetic police procedural.

Like Sherlock Holmes, Major Kusanagi has adapted to the needs of the director, the story, and the medium. Shirow's Kusanagi is a futuristic take on a Connery-era "Jane Bond." Oshii's is closer to Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty from Blade Runner, while Kamiyama's approximates Mark Harmon's Gibbs in NCIS.

Explaining why he broke with Oshii's interpretation, Stand Alone Complex director Kenji Kamiyama quipped, "The first episode would be the final one!" People would get bored of watching a character search for her identity for half a year."

So far, I rank Stand Alone Complex and Solid State Society as the best of the bunch (the Tachikoma robots being no small reason why). Like The X-Files, the Stand Alone Complex seasons are tied together by season-long arcs, interspersed with science fiction stories that work well on their own.

But we'll have to wait a while to see where Hollywood's live-action version ranks in the franchise.

Ghost in the Shell (manga) 1989–1990
Ghost in the Shell (theatrical release) 1995
Innocence (theatrical release) 2004
Stand Alone Complex (TV anime series) 2002–2006
Solid State Society (movie in the SAC arc) 2006
Arise (OVA series) 2013
New Movie (movie in the Arise arc) 2013
Ghost in the Shell (theatrical release) 2017

Related posts

The Shirow franchises (1)
The Shirow franchises (2)
Back to the social welfare future
Haafu and half

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November 17, 2016

"Your Name" (not a review)

Yes, it's time to discuss movies I haven't seen yet! (And anime series I have.) But the subject fascinates me, so I can't resist talking about the film, though without speaking to its artistic merits. (Since it is a Makoto Shinkai film, I can promise you that it will look gorgeous.)

Until this year, Makoto Shinkai's oeuvre could be described as the "anime art house masterpiece." In my opinion, his only successful long-form film was Children Who Chase Lost Voices (also titled "Journey to Agartha"), based on the Izanagi and Izanami (Orpheus and Eurydice) myth.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days and 5 Centimeters per Second certainly took us somewhere, but I'm not certain where, and I'm not convinced he knew either (though it was awfully pretty getting there).

His extraordinary skills as a cinematographer have never been in doubt. But Shinkai's talents as an auteur (wearing the producer, writer, and director hats) truly leap off the screen in his short work: She and Her Cat, Voices of a Distant Star, and The Garden of Words.

Rather, I still believe that it is Mamoru Hosoda's talent for accessible storytelling and his firm grasp of the structured cinematic narrative that places him more in the tradition of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.

Until this year, that is. The caveat is necessary because over the summer (2016), Makoto Shinkai's latest animated film rocketed into the stratosphere, earning over $190 million in its home market (which is about a third the size of the U.S. market).

Your Name is currently the seventh highest-grossing film ever in Japan. The only animated films to earn more are Frozen and Studio Ghibli productions. The box office is strong enough that it is certain to reach second place at the $200 million mark.

(Among all movies ever released in Japan, Spirited Away occupies the top spot with almost $300 million, followed by Titanic, Frozen, and the first Harry Potter film. Then comes Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke.)

Of course, the big question is why.

As with Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Shinkai seems to do his best in the big-budget category when he's got another producer looking over his shoulder. In Your Name, he does everything but produce. It might be a good idea for him to keep on not producing his films.

Joe Konrath believes that artistic success has a lot to do with creating a deep backlist, working hard, and then counting on plain old luck. Makoto Shinkai put in the hours and built a fan base and an impressive catalog of work.

And then everything clicked: right place, right time, right subject matter.

Certainly the story he tells has a lot to do with it. The BBC does a pretty good job explaining "Why the story of body-swapping teenagers has gripped Japan."

The body-swapping plot device is hardly a unique one. The modern genre goes back to Vice Versa: A Lesson to Fathers, a 1882 comic novel by Thomas Anstey Guthrie, and brought up to date with Freaky Friday in 1972. Disney has made and remade movies based on the book three times.

A better comparison is the anime Kokoro Connect, in which the seemingly random body-swapping (which turns out to be under the control of a "higher" power), also "touches on universal themes such as coming of age, adolescence, and the struggle to assert your identity in a confusing world."

Shinkai himself credits a poem by Ono no Komachi, one of the two Komachi poems that also inspired my novel, The Path of Dreams (the translation here is by Jane Hirshfield from The Ink Dark Moon):

Did he appear
       because I fell asleep
       thinking of him?
If only I'd known I was dreaming
I never would have wakened

In the Freaky Friday films and its descendants, the body-swapping plot device is played for laughs. There are humorous moment in Kokoro Connect, but as with Your Name, it is not primarily a comedy. For Shinkai, not primarily a comedy means there are still comedic elements.

To be sure, Shinkai doesn't make depressing films. But "upbeat" is not usually the word used to describe them. "Contemplative" and "introspective" might be more accurate adjectives, with an emphasis on interior melodrama.

Mamoru Hosoda has always been able to leaven the pathos with humor, while Shinkai can be fairly criticized for an often unrelentingly earnest approach. His lighter touch in Your Name undoubtedly accounts for its appeal, even while addressing a solemn subject.

The story's real-world antecedent, which he candidly admits to, is the Tohoku tsunami, that in March 2011 killed almost 16,000 people. In Your Name, Shinkai provides the necessary psychological distance by making the disaster a more exotic and less disastrous meteor strike.

But it is still a disaster whose worst aspect could have been avoided with the proper information. Hence the "time slip" denouement (knowing how a story ends ahead of time doesn't bother me).

Which prompts me to hypothesize that the focus of attention on the "body-swapping" business perhaps misses the point. This is far more about transmigration of the soul. In Kokoro Connect, these transmigrations are simply happening in real time without death getting in the way.

That makes it more of a reincarnation story, which brings to mind the quite similar ending in Angel Beats. Theologically, what we find here is a salvific view of reincarnation, that portrays rebirth as integral to the moral evolution of the individual, a second chance to get things right.

"To die with a peaceful mind will stimulate a virtuous seed and a fortunate rebirth." This is the theme of Angel Beats.

The consciousness in the newly born being is neither identical to nor entirely different from that in the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream. Transmigration is influenced by a being's past karma.

By placing this "fortunate rebirth" in the context of the survival of an entire community, as opposed to the tribulations of a bunch of angsty teenagers, Shinkai has greatly expanded the scope and reach of the genre, and formed it into a national touchstone.

Your Name is slated for an Oscar-qualifying run in the U.S. this fall. In any case, it is unlikely to gross even a tenth of its Japanese box office. Spirited Away pulled in $10 million, and, sadly, that's actually a respectable amount for a Japanese film.

Spirited Away presented an otherworldly cosmology to audiences used to fairy tales filtered through the Disney lens. Critical opinion aside, it will be interesting to see how well the transcendental message of Your Name communicates across cultures.

Related links

Makoto Shinkai
Mamoru Hosoda
Voices of a Distant Star
Angel Beats! (Yahoo CR)
Kokoro Connect (CR)

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November 10, 2016

Crunchy Fun and the Yahoos

As Dave Barry would say, it'd make a great name for a band.

A few months after applying Jack Welch's "Rank-and-Yank" model to its anime offerings, Hulu still has a ton of anime in its catalog. But like Netflix and Amazon, Hulu wants to turn itself into HBO, and so has dumped its "free" advertising-sponsored model.

That's not quite the right metaphor. Netflix wants to be HBO. Hulu wants to be Comcast. And with its recent deals with Disney and Fox, it's getting there.

I rather like the Hulu model (aside from it succumbing to the inexplicable compulsion to mess with a perfectly fine interface until it's useless), and I believe that streaming services are the future. I just don't want to pay for all of them. It's the new old periodical paradox.

Hence the attraction of a one-stop shop like Hulu as a DVR-in-the-cloud. It would certainly be cheaper than adding a DVR option to my Dish subscription. And a whole lot cheaper than the typical cable package. I plan on cutting the cord before getting the cord.

I could similarly rationalize signing up for Amazon Prime mostly for the free shipping option.

I've maintained my DVD Netflix subscription for the occasional new movie and old television series I missed. It's DVR-by-mail. (Never underestimate the bandwidth of the regular mail.) I have Dish to get TV Japan, an a la carte subscription.

Speaking of a la carte, Crunchyroll is an all-anime provider (with some Korean offerings). And no ads with a reasonably-priced subscription. The only hitch here is that while there's a lot of overlap, Hulu and Netflix and Amazon and Anime Network still have their own exclusives.

Thankfully, that list of exclusives just became smaller.

Funimation (the biggest anime distributor in the U.S. market) and Crunchyroll realized there was nothing to gain by fragmenting the market further and partnered up. Especially when Amazon and Netflix can dig some change out of the couch cushions and outbid them any day of the week.

In 2015, Netflix spent almost $5 billion on programming, Amazon a little more than half that. CBS spent $5.7 billion on television programming, while the Disney (ABC) and NBC media groups spent $12 and $10 billion respectively. A big chunk of that still goes to scripted shows.

(To give credit where it's due, Netflix is streaming the live-action series Midnight Diner. A live-action series! Hulu abandoned its live-action Japanese series.)

Crunchyroll has 20 million users registered though its "free" portal, and has also done a licensing deal with manga publishing powerhouse Kadokawa, which itself bought a controlling interest in Yen Press and partnered with Hachette.

Crunchyroll is capitalized at less than half a billion (by the Chernin Group and AT&T) and has one percent of Netflix's paid subscriber numbers. It's had to rely on strategic alliances rather than deep pockets, and pours its resources into a single market segment with a die-hard user base.

Funimation will still distribute to the rest. With Crunchroll, Funimation is essentially creating a "factory outlet" with a focus on the die-hard fans. Funimation will concentrate on dubs, Crunchyroll on subs and real-time streaming.

The only remaining problem is walled-garden exclusivity. The bite for me was that Netflix runs out of Hikaru no Go DVDs at episode 45, right in the middle of the big competition. And only Hulu had the whole series.

But all is not lost! Hulu handed its whole "free" ad-driven service to Yahoo. The service is called View. I'd swear they didn't even move it off the Hulu servers, just slapped on the Yahoo logo and updated the DNS addresses.

The Yahoo interface is rudimentary at best. If they've got a queue, I can't find it. But I will say this for Hulu: unlike Crunchyroll, its ad engine was pretty darn good and that's what Yahoo is using (again, Crunchyroll is worth a subscription to get rid of the annoying ads).

If Yahoo is serious about making View work, it could turn itself into the syndicated subchannel of streaming. Not a bad direction for the directionless Yahoo to go. In other words, a streaming channel that consolidates all of your favorite reruns on a single ad-supported site.

The goal, after all, is to wring every last licensing penny out of every last piece of IP. Streaming is probably the best way to do that. All Yahoo has to do now is make its service actually user-friendly. Which I fear may prove to be a bridge too far for Yahoo.

But at least I can watch Hulu exclusives like Matoi on Yahoo View, so we may have the makings of a working solution here for us penny-pinchers.

Related posts

Netflix switch
Sink or stream
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November 03, 2016

The accidental standard (2)

When Gary Kildall was interviewed for the third issue of PC Magazine (Jun/Jul 1982), the future of the PC operating system was very much up in the air. The tech press was hedging its bets. CP/M was still the most popular microcomputer OS. (In the mid-1980s, I was using a Kaypro II running CP/M.) Apple, as always, lived in its own proprietary world.

It only took a year for that uncertainty to fall away and things to gel. IBM made the microcomputer respectable and Microsoft made developing applications for other operating systems unnecessary. But they still had to be individually tweaked to account for each manufacturer's BIOS chip and hardware specs.

In November 1982, Compaq debuted a personal computer with a reverse-engineered BIOS, making it truly "IBM-compatible." Eighteen months later, Phoenix Technologies produced its own 100-percent IBM-compatible BIOS chips and sold them to anyone willing to pay the licensing fee (that additionally indemnified its customers from getting sued by IBM for IP infringement).

Microsoft was already selling MS-DOS to all takers and IBM "lookalikes" were flooding the market. But now the era of the 100 percent compatible IBM "clone" had arrived. The market solidified. In the August 1983 issues of PC Magazine, Todd Katz asked, "Is CP/M Dead?"

Naturally, Digital Research product manager Kevin Wandryk didn't think so.

Even if we do lose this marketplace and it goes totally to Microsoft, this is only Round Two. There is the 68000, the Intel 8286 and 8386 [80286 and 80386], the National Semiconductor 16032, and we have a leading edge at the present time in the operating system development in each of those areas. We certainly won't be blindsided again.

They wouldn't be blindsided because the 1970s and its tossed salad of 8-bit CPUs was over. Apple would go with the 68000. Microsoft and IBM and Intel would stick with MS-DOS and the x86 platform. Nobody was pining for alternatives. Katz saw the writing on the wall. His answer: "CP/M-86 is worse than dead, it is irrelevant."

In the October 1983 issue of PC Magazine, Compaq chairman Benjamin Rosen prophetically predicted that three players would remain in the market: "Those adhering to [the IBM PC] standard and those named Apple" and everybody else.

What came to be known as the "Wintel" standard (Windows + Intel) mattered so much that even the "IBM" part faded to insignificance. Compaq upped the game in 1987 with the Deskpro 386, the first PC to run on the 32-bit Intel 80386 chip. An IBM-compatible that was more "compatible" than an IBM PC forced IBM to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

IBM decided to lead, attempting to reassert sovereignty over the PC world with OS/2. OS/2 and the proprietary Micro Channel bus would lock users into the IBM ecosystem. In its struggle for market share, OS/2 was touted as "a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows," and that was the whole problem. Everybody was happy using DOS and Windows.

The same way nobody had wanted or needed CP/M-86 once MS-DOS had established itself among vendors and users, nobody wanted or needed yet another x86 OS standard. And Microsoft, who had developed OS/2 with IBM, quickly decided that it didn't either.

IBM and Microsoft broke up in 1990. Microsoft said it was sorry with a billion dollar alimony payment. Back in 1988, Microsoft had hired VMS architect Dave Cutler (another connection between DEC and Microsoft) to create NT, its multitasking "protected mode" OS. By the release of Windows XP in 2001, NT had turned into "a better Windows than Windows" that was still Windows.

In 1995, IBM was spending almost a billion dollars a year on OS/2 with "no possible profit or widespread adoption." Warp 4, released in 1996, was the last version of OS/2 distributed by IBM. Now managed by Serenity Systems, it lingers on in embedded environments like automated teller machines. In 2005, IBM sold its entire personal computer division to Lenovo.

Microsoft has never forgotten that lesson, only abandoning native 16-bit MS-DOS (DOS!!!) compatibility with the shift to 64-bit processing. I still use an old WordPerfect DOS dictionary app on my Windows XP machine, and all my 32-bit Windows 95 apps run just fine.

Well, Microsoft did forget it temporarily with Windows 8, when it pretended to be Apple. Apple, remember, had pulled the rug out from under its user and developer base at least three times: switching from MOS Technology 6502 to Motorola 68000 to PowerPC to Intel x86 CPUs.

Microsoft only messed with the interface of Windows and was forced to beat a hasty retreat. Though let's not forget that Windows still owns 90 percent of the (albeit shrinking) desktop/laptop market.

Microsoft getting ahead of itself with Windows 8 was a consequence of
it getting behind the curve with the Windows Phone. And that takes us way back to the beginning and Digital Research's late arrival to the PC party with CP/M-86.

CP/M (like DOS 1.0) wasn't a "standard," but Digital Research was open to customizing the operating system for every 8-bit CPU that came down the pike in the 1970s. The resulting fragmentation and version control problems meant that computers in the same product line often weren't compatible with each other, to say nothing of competing platforms.

Along with Palm and Blackberry, Microsoft was an early player in the mobile OS market, developing Windows CE since 1996. Like Digital Research, it had gotten good at customizing Windows CE for each vendor in a heterogeneous hardware market.

As Digital Research was by IBM and MS-DOS, Microsoft was blindsided by the iPhone, build on a single hardware platform with a new interface. Then Google made Android the DOS of the smartphone, licensing it to all comers. Google could have cribbed from Microsoft's famous mission statement: "A smartphone in every pocket all running Android software."

Back in 1983 and 1984, industry prognosticators were predicting that, any day now, MS-DOS would be superseded by Digital Research's CP/M-86, or Xenix (Microsoft's version of UNIX), or PC/IX (IBM's version of UNIX). A few years later, OS/2 and Micro Channel were going to dominate for sure.

But the IBM PC had set the standard and the PC world didn't need or want another one. Not even IBM could alter the ultimate direction of its own creation. This explains Microsoft's draconian efforts to get old fuddy-duddy hold-outs (like me) onto Windows 10: fragmentation and loss of version control is death.

The evolution of the PC made clear that the consumer market has room for two operating system (Windows and Mac), with the third (Linux) ending up a couple of sigma out on the long tail. The same thing happened with Android and iOS in remarkably similar proportions, this time with Windows Phone ending up with single digits of market share.

Unlike Digital Research, Microsoft has the resources to stay in the race. It plans to focus its Windows Phone efforts on enterprise customers while "betting on a technology leap in a few years with a paradigm shift." Which I take to mean: when Continuum and a Surface phone become practical realities (and Apple loses interest in the desktop OS).

Considering how much the computer industry has changed in the past 35 years, I won't be surprised at all if and when a new "accidental standard" takes over in a flash.

Related posts

The accidental standard (1)
The grandfathers of DOS
The future that wasn't
MS-DOS at 30
The cover

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