November 28, 2019

Traveling by ear in Japan

Train culture in Japan is so ubiquitous, so deeply entrenched, and so widely embraced that every time a line opens up or closes down, a new model of Shinkansen debuts or an old one goes out of production, a swarm of reporters show up and the fans turn out in force.

There is a whole genre of reality show on Japanese television that simply involves the host (and a couple of friends) hopping on a train and going somewhere. Japan Railway Journey is a good example. Episodes can be streamed (in English) at NHK World.

You can famously set your watch by a train's arrival time in Japan. But the engineering goes beyond the mechanical and reaches right into your head. CityLab describes the psychology behind what you hear over the loudspeakers.

Also known as departure or train melodies, hassha tunes are brief, calming and distinct; their aim is to notify commuters of a train's imminent departure without inducing anxiety. To that end, most melodies are composed to an optimal length of seven seconds, owing to research showing that shorter-duration melodies work best at reducing passenger stress and rushing incidents, as well as taking into account the time needed for a train to arrive and depart.

Thanks to the Internet, you don't have to go to Japan to hear them. The Sound of Station website has collected arrival/departure announcements from around the country, in some (not all) cases accompanied by the aforementioned hassha tunes.

You don't need to understand Japanese to navigate the site. Just click away. But to narrow it down a bit, here are the Japan Railway stations. Japan National Railway was split up and privatized in 1987 like Ma Bell but the distinction remains.

And here are the private railway stations (more hassha tunes in use here).

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November 21, 2019

Nippon TV and NECO

A commenter contributed a comprehensive overview of the Nippon TV and NECO International channels to the (Almost) Live Japanese TV post. It deserved a post of its own. The press release linked to below also makes me wonder if AT&T Now plans to expand its international offerings in the future.

According to this press release, Nippon TV is supposed to be available via IPTV and OTT (though some programs won't be available).

The press release mentions DirectNow as an AT&T OTT service, and that DirecTV subscribers can live stream TV through the Apple or Android app. I wonder if they are referring to either of these services when they mentioned the availability of OTT and IPTV services? In any case, at the moment, Nippon TV isn't available to live stream from the app and isn't available via AT&T TV (DirecTV Now's new name) either. So perhaps this will be a future goal for Nippon TV?

Anyhow, I have DirecTV and I'm subscribed to all the Japanese channels. Comparatively, Nippon TV and NECO International have less variety in their programming than TV Japan. Both of the newer channels still have a "work in progress" feel to them. So possibly their programming mix may change over time.

Once in a blue moon, TV Japan programs will have English subtitles, English dubbed audio available, or shows featuring people who speak in English. However Nippon TV and NECO International are solely in Japanese with no subtitles or alternative audio options.

At the moment, NECO International plays nothing but classic Nikkatsu movies. It's like the Japanese version of Turner Classic Movies. However the channel's mascot is a bright orange cat dressed like a rapper. Seems like an odd mascot to have for a classic channel. So it seems like they'll add some modern movies eventually. In fact, today they showed Bamy, a 2017 Japanese indie Horror movie, the most modern movie they've shown thus far.

As for Nippon TV, it mostly shows dramas and variety shows. No news, no documentaries, no music shows, no sports (though eventually it's going to broadcast Yomiuri Giants games), no anime and no talk shows.

About eleven dramas series run each week. Every month features two simulcast dramas. Right now the featured simulcast drama are If Talking Paid and Nippon Noir. Most of Nippon TV's dramas shown are fairly new, around 2018–2019, with a few dated ones (older than 2017) mixed in. Dramas also include Hulu Japan exclusives and some WOWOW versions. After the last episode of a drama has aired two to three times, it is replaced on the schedule with another drama. So that the lineup doesn't go stale.

The variety shows are Tokuson Life Hacks, The Quest, Matsuko in the Room, Matsuko Roid, two Arashi shows (Ninosan and Must be Arashi), season 16 of Gochi Dinner is on You, Shot, Monday Night Light Show, Celebrity Confessions to Ariyoshi, and some other talento/celebrity driven variety shows. Over the course a week, about eleven to thirteen variety shows run on the channel.

Nippon TV and NECO International repeat programming but it isn't done in an annoying way. It seems as if it is done in way to reach every US time zone. This gives many the opportunity to catch up on a show they missed.

I'm happy with all of the channels. These new channels complement, rather than replace TV Japan. At least one new Nippon TV drama still simulcasts on TV Japan per month. This month it's Our Dearest Sakura, which is only on TV Japan at the moment. However The Quest (variety show) and Shoten (comedy show) air simultaneously on TV Japan and Nippon TV. However I think each channel airs different seasons.

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November 14, 2019

Streaming the big three (the user experience)

My "big three" are the three streaming services that feature localized Japanese content, almost entirely anime, front and center. To start with, subscription rates roughly reflect overall market share and the number of titles in their catalogs.

Crunchyroll  $7.99/month  $79.99/year  

By comparison, Netflix's basic SD plan is $8.99/month ($12.99/month for HD). Hulu with no ads is $11.99/month. HBO Max will debut at $14.99/month.

I'll be discussing how they well the big three run on the Roku Express platform (3900X and 3030R), together with their browser-based queuing systems. So keep in mind that I'm only reviewing what I use, not the capabilities of these services on all the available devices.

When everything is working the way it should, Crunchyroll delivers the best video experience on the Roku. Alas, its bigness has caused load balancing problems in the past, resulting in forced resolution downgrades, which rendered it basically unwatchable. In the words of Yogi Berra, "No one goes there anymore. It's too crowded."

I only observed this during live streams or same-day updates to popular series, and I haven't found myself in that situation of late. In any case, if AT&T intends to replace its satellite service with streaming, it had better be able to handle the traffic.

HIDIVE occasionally encounters similar problems that have resulted in a hard crash of the Roku app. Even under normal conditions, HIDIVE has a video quality glitch where it can take a minute for a stream to ratchet up to the correct resolution. The same thing happens when using the Roku Replay function.

Again, this is most apparent under high load conditions. The HIDIVE Roku app otherwise runs well, despite having only been released this year. HIDIVE does have some irksome design issues (not technically bugs). For example, having to log into the website every time you reopen the browser. Crunchyroll and Funimation time you out after a week or so.

On HIDIVE, you can create up to three profiles per account. But the app is missing a line of code that says, "If there's only one profile, don't ask to select a profile." The result is a useless extra click every time you access the app. This bug was fixed on the website.

HIDIVE and Funimation mostly use closed captions instead of true subtitles. Crunchyroll encodes each language-specific stream with its own set of pre-rendered subtitles or dub track. Pre-rendered subtitles look and display better, and don't randomly switch the language settings between episodes, which the Funimation Roku app does far too often.

This happens occasionally with HIDIVE too, though on HIDIVE this glitch seems to be tied to the encoding of specific videos.

The Crunchyroll approach can get confusing because each encoding is treated as a separate title. You have to be sure to queue up the right one or the Roku app can end up spinning its wheels and never playing the video, probably because of a DRM or language setting conflict.

Another downside is the occasional cryptic message: "Sorry, due to licensing limitations, videos are unavailable in your region." In most cases, it simply means that one of the video streams (usually Russian) is not licensed for North America, not that all the videos are unavailable in the North American market.

Crunchyroll has the best browser-based queuing system. The Crunchyroll queue reminds me of the Netflix queue (using "Manual Ordering") and that's a good thing. It's just the queue and a recent history list, with an absolute URL that can be bookmarked. You can add, remove, play, and organize titles using "send to top" and drag-and-drop.

You can only add and remove titles from the HIDIVE queue, and it does that well enough. But HIDIVE generates the queue dynamically on the home page, where it plays hide and seek amidst the promotional material. The Funimation queue has its own page, except it is slow to load and often delivers you to a cluttered landing page instead of the queue.

C'mon guys, could you please just copy Crunchyroll? Or Netflix?

Related posts

Streaming the big three (a little background)
Streaming the big three (comparing content)
The streaming chronicles

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November 07, 2019

Streaming the big three (comparing content)

Crunchyroll is the biggest kid on the block, with the most content in every category. The most titles, the most user comments, most user reviews (both in terms of quantity and quality), wide-ranging forums, and a blog. Like Amazon, when it comes to discoverability, it's worth checking Crunchyroll even if you're going to watch someplace else.

HIDIVE recently took steps to catch up in terms of user-generated content by partnering with MyAnimeList and integrating the MyAnimeList rating system into its listings. Funimation has a decent review section for most titles. Funimation and HIDIVE use their blogs to announce new titles, while Crunchyroll actively covers the whole industry, making it a daily read.

HIDIVE offers a bit more granularity in its search filters than Crunchyroll, though you have to remember to apply the filters in a stepwise left-to-right fashion. And you can only search on titles. Funimation has a useless filter option once you drill down to the genre categories, useless because you can only select the genre categories you're already in.

Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HIDIVE acquire all the content they can afford, so practically any anime worth watching makes it to the North American market. Crunchyroll wins the quantity race with its emphasis on subs. Funimation and HIDIVE compete in the dub space. In many recent cases, Funimation ended up with the dub and Crunchyroll with the sub.

Right now, I have the most saved shows (bookmarked or in my queue) in Crunchyroll, followed by HIDIVE (lots of classics), with Funimation trailing in third place. To be sure, Funimation has must-see titles like Hyouka, Robotics;Notes, Assassination Classroom, Spice and Wolf, and Snow White with the Red Hair, so it's not easily passed over.

The recent consolidation of Sony-owned Aniplex of America (and its subsidiaries) under the Funimation banner should expand and extend the Funimation anime catalog.

With the smallest catalog of the three, HIDIVE leverages its relationship with Sentai Filmworks to give its catalog the look and feel of a curated library. This "quality not quantity" approach includes many of my favorite Kyoto Animation franchises, such as Clannad, Beyond the Boundary, Tamako Market, and K-On.

As noted previously, licensing and content sharing deals are as fluid as the tide in this business, so Funimation ended up with earlier Kyoto Animation titles like Full Metal Panic, The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya, and Kanon.

HIDIVE also has Strawberry Marshmallow, Makoto Shinkai's Garden of Words and the outstanding Patlabor franchise, including the three full-length movies, that are less mecha movies than traditional police procedurals. Patlabor WXIII deserves mention in the psychological horror and monster movie genres as well.

The geopolitical anachronisms (and magneto-optical drives) notwithstanding, the original Patlabor series (especially the first season) holds up well. Thanks to being originally mastered on film, it looks great after thirty years.

Sentai Holdings, HIDIVE's parent company, recently garnered a $30 million investment from the Cool Japan Fund, a public-private partnership the Japanese government uses to promote cultural outreach. This support should help to cement Sentai's unique status as an independent licensor of Japanese anime not owned by a big multinational.

Crunchyroll has the biggest live-action catalog of the three but is systematically letting its licenses lapse (sadly including outstanding series like Antiquarian Bookshop, Hero, and Galileo), and now has only a few more titles than Funimation. If you're an Ultraman fan, Crunchyroll still has five full series.

Most of Funimation's live-action content are movies (which adds up to fewer hours of actual content). Four Japanese titles worthy of attention are Shinobi, Goemon, Assassination Classroom, and Space Battleship Yamato.

HIDIVE has the most eclectic lineup, ranging from two seasons of an AKB 48 reality show to Lone Wolf & Cub and Samurai Punisher from the 1970s and a Godzilla flick from the 1980s. For the older tokusatsu demographic, two series, two movies, and a special from the samey but enjoyable (in measured doses) Garo franchise.

Then there's the misleadingly titled 100 Sights of Ancient Cities, which is about traditional Japanese arts and crafts. Tabiaruki from Iwate is the kind of travel show you'd expect to find on NHK World. I'm a little puzzled about how HIDIVE ended up with these titles but they do make for a nice change of pace.

Of course, you don't subscribe to these services for the live-action offerings. It's all about the anime. Thankfully, the big three don't make you buy a pig in a poke. You can search their catalogs without subscribing and bookmark the URLs for shows. Funimation and Crunchyroll have "free" ad-supported options and HIDIVE has selected "free" episodes.

In any case, the subscriptions are reasonably priced. On an annualized basis, you can get all three anime services for the cost of HBO Max. Or maybe you'll just get HBO Max (that will include Crunchyroll). I'm sure that's what AT&T is hoping. Oh, and toss in HIDIVE too. It's the best value buy and has an impressive backlist of oldies but goodies.

Related posts

Streaming the big three (a little background)
Streaming the big three (the user experience)
The streaming chronicles

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