October 31, 2019

Streaming the big three (a little background)

That's Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HIDIVE. The biggest streaming services—Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, to name three—all have substantial anime libraries, demonstrating the mainstream acceptability anime has garnered in the last decade or so. But at my "big three," Japanese content (mostly anime) makes up 99 percent of their offerings (the remainder going to a handful of Chinese and Korean productions).

Crunchyroll was acquired by WarnerMedia in 2018. It has exclusive access to Kadokawa titles and is a majority owner of distributor Viz Media Europe (along with the Hitotsubashi Group).

Funimation has been in the anime localization and distribution business since 1994 and is now owned by Sony Pictures Entertainment. It has a content sharing arrangement with Hulu.

HIDIVE was independently incorporated from the assets of Anime Network Online, and remains the exclusive streaming distributor of select titles from Sentai Filmworks and Section23.

How the big three compete in what nevertheless remains a niche market shines a spotlight on the evolution of the streaming business. Netflix in particular made its mark as a one-stop shop, a repository of what Chris Anderson christened a "long tail" library of everything for everybody. But especially in streaming, both upstarts and veteran Hollywood movers and shakers are challenging the one-stop shop model.

Netflix again becomes the case in point, with WarnerMedia and NBCUniversal taking back the rights to Friends and The Office. Half of Netflix's most-viewed content is owned by Disney, which is launching its own streaming service. Hence all the billions going to in-house productions. As Justin Fox observed back in 2015, everybody wants to be HBO these days, including former long tail poster child Netflix.

On the other hand, former Amazon Studios strategist Matthew Ball argues that the market can only fragment so far before that fragmentation becomes self-destructive to the aims of the content providers.

There's an ongoing balancing act going between content providers, who want to drive the most viewers to their branded sites, and production companies, who want the most eyes watching their shows. That tension doesn't go away even when the site and the production company are the same entity. As Netflix illustrates, we've entered a shaking out period.

Each of the big three has exclusives with distributors and content developers, so the only way to (legally) access most anime in the North America market is to subscribe to all three. But they also have to maintain deep enough catalogs to make a subscription worth the bother. That means shared content on top of content sharing deals. Though the deal making can have curious consequences.

If you end up on a title page at Crunchyroll with no videos attached, well, that's what happens when media businesses get divorced (though I appreciate that Crunchyroll preserves the stubs).

And just to make things that much more interesting, Crunchyroll is joining the lineup of HBO Max, the new streaming service from AT&T (which owns HBO and WarnerMedia). All well and good, but this raises questions about the future of VRV (which is anchored by Crunchyroll) and its content sharing deal with HIDIVE. Oh, if you're curious about what happened to Friends—it ended up on HBO Max.

As has the Ghibli Studios catalog. If nothing else, AT&T has deep pockets.

Netflix and Amazon (annoyingly) continue to acquire anime exclusives to entice subscribers to buy into the rest of their offerings. Hulu has a "first look" content-sharing deal with Funimation. But with Amazon divesting itself of Anime Strike (some of whose assets were acquired by HIDIVE), at least in North American, the anime streaming universe seems to have comfortably divided itself among the big three.

I have no idea where this business is going in the long term, especially with AT&T (which owns DirecTV) publicly proclaiming its preference for streaming over satellite distribution. We're in the middle of a sea change and the channel is crowded with many tiny schooners and fleets of huge tankers all trying to grab the least-obstructed course to an open sea of media consumers.

Related posts

Streaming the big three (comparing content)
Streaming the big three (the user experience)
The streaming chronicles

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

October 24, 2019

Emperor Naruhito becomes Emperor (again)

On Tuesday (Japan time), Naruhito was formally enthroned as the 126th emperor of Japan. He succeeded to the position back on May 1, a day after his father abdicated. As with the gap between elections and inaugurations in the United States, it takes a while to get all the ceremonial ducks in a row.

The question of a female emperor aside (more a 19th century issue), the Imperial Household Agency sinks the roots of these ceremonies as deep as they will go. Forget about the Middle Ages. The accession regalia is based on the best known historical recreations of Heian era (794–1185) court dress.

Empress Masako and her female attendants wore juunihitoe, a twelve-layer robe (the literal meaning of the word) quite different from a kimono. The emperor wore a ryuei-no-kanmuri headpiece and a sokutai.

Unlike kimono, yukata, haori and hakama, which are still worn today (you can probably see all four while watching a sumo tournament), you'll only encounter juunihitoe and sokutai on these rare formal occasions and in historical dramas.

Shinto serves the same approximate function in these ceremonies as the Church of England does in the coronation of British monarchs. The Imperial Household Agency maintains a pro forma separation of church and state by organizing the "private" religion rites independent of the "public" enthronement.

It's all the same taxpayer money and civil servants, of course, but like the rites and rituals themselves, there is a great deal to be said for going through the motions.

The substance of the enthronement mostly came down to Emperor Naruhito accepting the job offer. Here is the official translation by the Imperial Household Agency.

I have hereby succeeded to the Throne pursuant to the Constitution of Japan and the Special Measures Law on the Imperial House Law. When I think about the important responsibility I have assumed, I am filled with a sense of solemnity.

Looking back, His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus, since acceding to the Throne, performed each of his duties in earnest for more than thirty years, while praying for world peace and the happiness of the people, and at all times sharing in the joys and sorrows of the people. He showed profound compassion through his own bearing. I would like to express my heartfelt respect and appreciation of the comportment shown by His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people of Japan.

In acceding to the Throne, I swear that I will reflect deeply on the course followed by His Majesty the Emperor Emeritus and bear in mind the path trodden by past emperors, and will devote myself to self-improvement. I also swear that I will act according to the Constitution and fulfill my responsibility as the symbol of the State and of the unity of the people of Japan, while always turning my thoughts to the people and standing with them. I sincerely pray for the happiness of the people and the further development of the nation as well as the peace of the world.

Emperor Naruhito is following his father's example of keeping these things short and to the point. Inaugural and State of the Union stemwinders should have a timer that cuts the mic after twenty minutes. No such speech need be any longer than Abraham Lincoln's nonpareil Second Inaugural Address.

Related posts

Happy Reiwa 1!
The last year of Heisei
The name of the new era

Labels: , , , , , , ,

October 17, 2019

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (more covers)

The first two volumes of Shirogane no Oka, Kuro no Tsuki ("Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon") are now in bookstores (in Japan). Shinchosha has published the cover art for volumes III and IV, which go on sale November 9. Akihiro Yamada created the covers and illustrations. (Click images to enlarge.)

「白銀の墟玄の月」第三巻 ISBN 978-4101240640

「白銀の墟玄の月」第四巻 ISBN 978-4101240657

The books are available online at Amazon/Japan, Honto, and Rakuten.

Related posts

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (title)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (covers)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (publication date)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (Happy New Year!)
New Twelve Kingdoms novel (it's official!)
Squared (lined) paper

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

October 10, 2019


Everybody loves a triumphant underdog. The problem is when the only way for the underdog to end up top dog is to make the bad guys dumber than dirt and the good guys the luckiest in the universe. In other words, the ending of the supremely silly Avatar. And to be honest, the ending of Star Wars dances right on the line.

The suspension of disbelief can only be suspended so far before some semblance of reality must intervene.

Pit the primitive against the modern in head-to-head battlefield combat and the noble savage will—sooner or later, rightly or wrongly, and no matter how noble—get its military butt kicked. As Kate says about the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, "Yeah, sure, Winnie the Pooh versus lasers. My vote is on the lasers."

In The Last Samurai, Edward Zwick and Tom Cruise do an ironically good job of turning the ruling military class of a defeated dictatorship into underdogs. "Movies can manipulate you to root for just about anyone, anytime," observes David Edelstein. Though Zwick and Cruise do deserve credit for demonstrating why bringing a knife to a gunfight is a bad idea.

Oda Nobunaga figured this out back in 1575 at the Battle of Nagashino, where he deployed arquebusiers in staggered ranks and cut the attacking Takeda cavalry to shreds.

There was no way Saigo Takamori ("Katsumoto" in the The Last Samurai) was going to prevail in the ill-fated Satsuma Rebellion. The soldiers mowing down Katsumoto and his troops were in fact "the good guys," representing the ninety percent of the population finally allowed to fight for a share of the rights and privileges once granted only to a small elite.

The Last Samurai could also be titled, "What the ending of Avatar would really look like."

And that's pretty much what happens in Gate too. Only this time we get to cheer overwhelming military superiority right from the start, with no need to rationalize the backward prerogatives of a decaying feudal order. Besides, they started it.

On a perfectly normal summer day, a sort of Stargate portal opens in the middle of downtown Tokyo. A Roman-era army pours through, accompanied by an "air force" of flying dragons. Chaos ensues. The bewildered Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) finally get their act together and send in a couple of gunships. Invasion over.

Not wanting to turn Tokyo into a battleground, the JSDF sets up a fortified base on the other side of the Gate. The "Special Region" happens to be smack dab in the middle of an empire ruled by Emperor Molt Sol Augustus (there are reasons for the Roman resemblances). The emperor orders his forces to expel the interlopers. They attack and get wiped out. Repeatedly.

However replete the Special Region is with magicians, elves, dragons, and super-powered demigoddesses, as Arthur C. Clarke pointed out, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

A dramatic illustration of this occurs when a mercenary army attacks a walled city lightly defended by a JSDF recon patrol. They call in an air strike (cue Ride of the Valkyries and a bunch of Apocalypse Now allusions). Just as the mercenaries breach the gates, an AH-1 Cobra hovers inside the walls and does a one-eighty with its Gatling gun, bringing the attack to an abrupt halt.

As it turns out, Emperor Augustus isn't that stupid either. He is cynically using the "invasion" by the JSDF to hobble the military strength of any "allies" that might threaten his reign. His "allies" are aren't happy about being turned into cannon fodder. When a patrol tracks down a badly wounded King Duran of Elbe, he knows who the enemy is, and it isn't them.

The futility of armed conflict leads to an uneasy peace. The story at this point resembles the 1853–1867 Bakumatsu period in Japan, during which both the shogunate and its domestic enemies came to realize that the "Expel the barbarians!" (sonno joi) call to arms was a military impossibility and they had to find ways to deal with the situation politically.

So the diplomatic corps are sent in to negotiate an armistice. Their guide and on-the-ground expert is Yoji Itami. Able to adapt on the fly to unusual situations and get along with the locals, the watchword in the Special Region soon becomes: "What would Itami do?"

Yet Yoji Itami is at heart a die-hard otaku who candidly admits the only reason he works is to support his hobby. A running joke throughout the series is that, unknown to practically everybody, the lackadaisical Itami is actually a highly qualified special forces graduate with little interest in climbing the ranks. Nevertheless, despite his slacker attitude, he can't help rising to every occasion.

He was on a shopping trip to the Ginza when the Gate first opened. Keeping his wits about him, he saved hundred of civilians, thus unwittingly gaining hero status. He is promoted and given command of a recon patrol in the Special Region.

Another running joke is how closely the Special Region resembles the isekai genre otaku are so enamored of. Itami and his sergeant pass the time wondering what stereotypical otherworldly creatures they're going to meet next.

During their first patrol, they encounter their most formidable foe, a Godzilla-sized fire dragon. They manage to drive it off with RPGs (not kill it). Along the way, they rescue Tuka Luna Marceau (an elf), Lelei La Lelena (a magician), and Rory Mercury (a demigoddess with a fondness for goth). These three form the core of Itami's Scooby Gang.

Meanwhile, Molt Sol Augustus finds himself caught between the peace faction, led by Imperial Princess Piña Co Lada, and the war faction, led by Imperial Prince Zorzal.

The hotheaded Zorzal is not nearly as smart as he thinks he is, and his slave, Tyuule (defeated queen of the Warrior Bunny Tribe), makes herself Iago to his Othello, goading him into conflict with the JSDF in hopes that he will destroy himself. Palace coups, embassies under siege, and that pesky fire dragon keep Lieutenant Itami a busy man.

In the middle of all this, the Scooby Gang returns to Japan to report to the Diet about What in the World is Going on There. This is the least satisfying arc in the series. While it's fun meeting Itami's ex, the political confrontations are ham-handed and the accompanying Spy vs. Spy antics do nothing to further the plot.

Back in the Special Region, King Duran having granted them passage through his territory, Itami gets approval to put together a small team and go after the fire dragon. This arc reminds me of WWII actioners like Where Eagles Dare and The Dirty Dozen, where everybody but the leads (the Scooby Gang, in this case) gets taken out before the mission is complete.

After a little nick-of-time assistance from a pair of F-4EJ fighter jets, Itami circles his squad around to the capital to rescue Princess Piña Co Lada and Emperor Augustus from the machinations of Prince Zorza. The series concludes with a massive airborne operation.

As you have probably gathered from the names of the characters, we're not asked to take any of this very seriously. Despite the high body count, Gate definitely belongs in the "War is hell but a lot of fun to watch" category. One thing Gate does take seriously are the military details. There is plenty for military otaku to geek out about.

Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution prohibits the armed forces of Japan from engaging in offensive action outside their borders, restrictions Prime Minister Abe would like to amend. For the time being, the JSDF confines itself to peacekeeping missions, disaster relief, and chasing off the Russian patrol planes and Chinese patrol boats that "stray" into Japan's territorial waters.

The full name of the series is Gate: Thus the JSDF Fought. I do not doubt that it was born in part out of a desire to see the JSDF strut their stuff on a larger stage.

Related links

Gate (CR HD)
No way to wage a war
Dances with Samurai
Mononoke vs. Avatar

Labels: , , , , ,

October 03, 2019

(Almost) Live Japanese TV

As I've discussed in previous posts, back in early 2018, TV Japan (née NHK Cosmomedia) abandoned Dish and made DirecTV its exclusive satellite provider. But with the price of an a la carte subscription from DirecTV or Xfinity almost doubling from $40/month to over $70/month, I decided it was time to "cut the cord" and go over-the-top at a fraction of the cost. Seriously, Crunchyroll + Funimation + HIDIVE = less than $20/month.

The old-school content delivery model has since gotten turned on its head. Just three years after buying DirecTV, AT&T doesn't want to be in the satellite business anymore. "We've launched our last satellite," John Donovan, CEO of AT&T Communications, stated in November 2018. AT&T chairman Randall Stephenson chimed in that AT&T was essentially "done" with satellites, and was "investing very aggressively" in OTT distribution.

The DirecTV NOW streaming service has already been re-branded as AT&T TV NOW (not to be confused with AT&T TV). Nobody would be surprised at this point if AT&T sold its satellite business to Dish. A lot has change since a proposed acquisition of DirecTV was shot down by the FCC in 2002. Dish would gain a subscriber base competitive with cable. And I would enjoy the irony of TV Japan leaving Dish only to end up back on Dish.

NHK Cosmomedia depends on satellite service to reach a worldwide market outside of North America and to provide programming to its legacy customers and hotels that cater to Japanese businessmen and tourists. To be sure, NHK Cosmomedia has diversified its distribution network, with TV Japan available on Xfinity nationwide. But cable television faces the same competition from streaming (though Internet-only is a profitable business).

This is hardly news to NHK Cosmomedia. NHK World has streaming apps for Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV, and Roku. Two years ago, NHK Cosmomedia launched dLibrary Japan, essentially a VOD service for TV Japan. But it has slow-walked the roll-out, and I mean at a turtle's pace. Aside from its web-based player, Chromecast came out a year ago and Apple TV is the most recent addition. Those apps constitute less than 20 percent of the market.

Both apps have been poorly received, the biggest complaint being the lack of content. If you're going to charge $10/month, you'd better be at least in the same programming universe as services like Hulu, Netflix, and Crunchyroll that charge less.

NHK Cosmomedia is naturally predisposed to favor its satellite and cable subscribers. And seems to be proceeding as cautiously as possible while waiting for another shoe to drop somewhere. A classic case of what Clayton Christensen calls the "Innovator's Dilemma," according to which companies put too much emphasis on the current business model and fail to anticipate or adopt new technologies to meet future needs.

Though AT&T may be trying too hard to adopt new technologies to meet future needs and has ended up aimlessly flailing around instead.

Though perhaps NHK Cosmomedia saw the writing on the wall and are using the roll-out to collect data about the technology and the user base, in anticipation of adding TV Japan to the platform. TV Japan targets exactly the kind of niche market that streaming was made for. Should the moment arrive that NHK Cosmomedia can't figure out where AT&T is headed next, streaming is one way to take a good deal of uncertainty out of the equation.

After all, NHK Cosmomedia already has NHK World, a proven live-television streaming platform. At the end of September, dLibrary Japan gave its home page a much needed makeover and announced that "New programs will be available every week from October!" so maybe they are finally getting serious. Though "serious" to me means a Roku app. So not yet serious enough.

For the time being, though, DirecTV provides the most almost-live television options to the Japanese language viewer, with a premium package that includes TV Japan, Nippon TV, and the NECO movie channel. That bundle costs $45/month plus a required "basic" package plus a boatload of taxes and fees. The whole thing would quickly add up to a cool grand a year.

Again, Crunchyroll + Funimation + HIDIVE = $21/month. Total.

Were money no object, the DirecTV package would be a no-brainer. But it is, so now I'm wondering whether AT&T can really back up all the big claims its executives are making about making DirecTV content available through a streaming set-top box. Then again, Nippon TV (the biggest television network in Japan) already owns Hulu/Japan. It may be the best positioned Japanese content provider to break out on the streaming front.

Related posts

dLibrary Japan
Nippon TV and NECO
Japanese media update
The streaming chronicles

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,