January 30, 2020

No Guns Life

One of the things that anime consistently does well is take an outrageous premise and play it straight but not too seriously. Girls und Panzer posits that high schools engage in war games as an extracurricular activity using real WWII-era tanks. High School Fleet takes the whole concept up a notch with actual warships.

In the case of No Guns Life, the main character is a gun. Or, rather, a big guy with a gun for a head.

No, really.

Back during the last world war, soldiers known as "Extended" were cybernetically enhanced with specific battlefield capabilities. In Inui's case, those enhancement are impossible to ignore. His head was replaced by a revolver. And, yes, his appearance weirds out people who don't know him too. He's a literal "gun for hire."

And yet it works so well the weirdness soon feels right at home.

Although No Guns Life could be easily retconned into the Ghost in the Shell universe and shares several plot points with the Arise series, it is far more a homage to hard-boiled Golden Age noir classics like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep and Detective Bureau 2-3.

"Resolver" Juzo Inui (perfectly voiced by Junichi Suwabe) is a cyberpunk version of Humphrey Bogart's Philip Marlowe, the wry and weary PI. In a dark and gritty world of wise guys and dangerous dames and cops who shoot first and ask questions later, however he shows his cynical side to the world, he'll do the right thing in the end.

Inui's specialty is handling the cases of the Extended. Inui himself is an "Over-Extended," a rare breed of soldier enhanced with deadly weaponry. Besides the gun in his head (which paradoxically requires a third party to fire), he has another embedded in his right hand. His body has accelerated regenerative powers when injured.

One downside of all these enhancements is that he has to chain-smoke a special brand of cigarette to keep his synapses firing in the right order. (Because smoking is what hard-boiled PIs in Golden Age noir films do.)

He needs those synapses working to stay a step ahead of the heavies hired by Berühren Corporation, the biggest supplier of "enhancements," while keeping on good terms with the yakuza-run black market and the State Security Bureau. The latter is run by Olivier Vandeberme, his Lauren Bacall, who sends Inui jobs on the sly.

When she's not busting his chops for breaking the myriad of laws governing the Extended.

Berühren Corporation will do pretty much anything to keep a competitive edge, including experimenting on its own employees and their children. One day a robot shows up in Inui's office with a kid in tow. It turns out that it's the kid who has the robot in tow, and he hires Inui to keep him out of Berühren's clutches.

The kid, Tetsuro Arahabaki, has enhancements that let him to hack into the "sub-brain" of any Extended, making him a valuable property that Berühren wants back now. In a convoluted storyline worthy of Raymond Chandler, Inui finds himself dealing with warring parties above and below the table, each with their own deadly agenda.

Amidst the rampaging robots and shoot-'em-up action sequences, No Guns Life sticks to its pulp fiction roots with intriguing mysteries, a PI willing to pull out the stops to solve the case, and a cast of eccentric side characters to provide the comic relief (when Inui himself isn't cracking wise through a haze of smoke).

I noted above that No Guns Life lives in a similar story universe as Arise and especially the Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell. As such, it's a good guide to what Hollywood gets wrong about the genre, namely the inability to acknowledge its own outrageousness and that pervasive and gloomy air of self-importance.

(Speaking of which, the Hollywood version of Ghost in the Shell seems to have relied entirely on Mamoru Oshii's adaptation, which is far more somber than the original manga or the excellent Stand Alone Complex series. The success of Deadpool, by contrast, is certainly due to its gleeful treatment of the material.)

Even though Inui ends up exploring his own past through the cases, they are not about him. The client comes first. The mystery must be solved. And so the season ends with an hugely enjoyable riff on the Golden Age trope of the troubled young heiress that Inui wraps up the just way you'd image Philip Marlowe would.

If Philip Marlowe was a cyborg in a trench coat with a big revolver for a head.

At this point, we've got our Scooby Gang running on all cylinders. Along with "cyborg whisperer" Tetsuro, there's Mary, a cyborg doctor who's set up shop next door, and a wayward droid known as "The Hands." But the story has only gotten started. Thankfully, No Guns Life will return with a two-cour second season starting in April.

Related links

No Guns Life
Arise (NF Fun)
Girls und Panzer
Detective Bureau 2-3

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January 23, 2020

The Netflix fox

It's hard to think of another media company that has been so consistently ahead of the technological curve as Netflix. Founded in 1997, less than two decades later, Netflix went from tech startup to putting its biggest competitor out of business. And then having almost completely cornered the market, it abruptly pivoted to the nascent video-on-demand model.

By 2011, CEO Reed Hastings was chomping at the bit to spin off the mail order DVD business and focus on streaming (partnering on the hardware side with a company called Roku). This first attempt was met with howls of protest. Though quickly walked back, Hastings didn't abandon the goal. I didn't see it at the time (which is why I'm not CEO of a big media company). But as my brother pointed out, "However screwed up NetFlix is, the networks and movie studios are worse."

Well, at least I was right about the value of maintaining the Netflix DVD brand even while the mail order business entered a slow (yet profitable) decline. In fact, Netflix continues to tout it on the streaming side.

On the DVD side, Netflix focused its shrinking attention on common-denominator bestsellers, understandable given its shrinking audience (the backlist is slowly shrinking too as damaged DVDs are not replaced, but it's so big it can shrink for a long time). I've also come to realize, however, that I have little interest in most of what Hollywood has to offer. And when I do, a one-off rental from Amazon Prime or buying the DVD will do.

I tried Hulu and wasn't that impressed. Hulu struck me as designed for the "like cable only different" audience. So I figured it was time to give the Netflix streaming service a spin around the block. I was already a Netflix DVD subscriber.

As it turns out, something interesting happened to Netflix in the meantime. The long tail lives!

Today Netflix is the world's biggest streaming service, with 160 million subscribers and a truly worldwide reach. Netflix has thus far shared the streaming space with competitors like Hulu and Amazon. But Hollywood has awakened to the streaming challenge. Disney+ debuted in late 2019 and WarnerMedia will introduce HBO Max later this year, each service bringing along enormous catalogs of content.

This is where Netflix's global footprint creates the unexpected twist. It's a business, after all, and would like to produce a lineup of fat-tailed hits everywhere it has a presence. So in Japan, Netflix produces dramas and reality series that would be competitive on any other Japanese network, and outbids its competitors abroad for production rights to series like Violet Evergarden from Kyoto Animation.

Chris Anderson was right all along. Netflix is still in the long-tail business.

If all Netflix did was produce fat-tail hits in every market it operates in, the end result would still look like a bunch of long tails to everybody else. Which is why hand-wringing business analyses about competition from Hollywood behemoths like Disney and WarnerMedia largely misses the point—unless Netflix makes the mistake of thinking that it is in competition with these Hollywood behemoths too.

According to Japanese mythology, the more tails a fox has, the more powerful it is. Anderson's model does need a bit of revising. Rather than relying on one big long tail, Netflix has built a business based on a whole bunch of tails for completely different audiences. Netflix has essentially become a global version of MHz Networks (which will abandon its broadcast network and transition to a streaming-only platform this March).

Netflix and MHz—now that'd make for an interesting partnership.

Related posts

Netflix switch
Hey, watch this!
Navigating Netflix
Netflix in Japanese
Death of the doctrine
The streaming chronicles
Streaming according to Pareto

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January 16, 2020

Death of the doctrine

Like the VHS that preceded it, the DVD rental model was based on the "first-sale doctrine." The first-sale doctrine is a legal principle governing the rights that govern the distribution of intellectual property.

After the initial transfer of ownership of a legal copy of a copyrighted work, the first-sale doctrine exhausts copyright holder's right to control how ownership of that copy can be disposed of. For this reason, this doctrine is also referred to as the "exhaustion rule."

The first-sale doctrine applies to physical media. To things. Once Netflix (or your local library) purchases a DVD like Bohemian Rhapsody, it can rent it to whomever it wants and thereafter doesn't owe 20th Century Fox a dime (other than respecting a general restriction for personal use).

But the bits and bytes of streaming media are licensed, not sold, with conditions eternally attached. Like prices, windowing, and exclusives.

Right now, the only way to rent Bohemian Rhapsody on Amazon is to bundle it with HBO. Those terms are dictated by 20th Century Fox. The double-edged sword of digital delivery means publishers can use all that real-time rental data to dynamically price content and pick and choose the distributors.

The ability to extract value from the entire distribution chain is why everybody in the media and software space is jumping on the subscription-based licensing bandwagon. At the right point on the cost/content curve, it makes sense. But what that point is depends on the personal tastes of the viewer.

For me, Crunchyroll, HIDIVE, and Netflix are the best ways to get the most programming for the least amount of money. I've got years of content at my fingertips for a nominal monthly fee.

But subscriptions can also turn into something of a subtle con, with the low recurring fees hiding the long-term cumulative costs. And then the sunk cost fallacy kicks in, leading us to attribute more value to a service we feel compelled to use (having already paid for it).

The old cable model is poorly structured to adapt to individual choices. Much better if, having paid for a service, it continues to offer a surplus of content you want to watch at a price you are happy to pay. In many specialized video-on-demand niches, that is exactly what streaming provides.

And so that is where the long tail lives today.

Related posts

Netflix switch
The Netflix fox
Navigating Netflix
Netflix in Japanese
The streaming chronicles

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January 09, 2020

Netflix switch

When the DVD rent-by-mail business took off twenty years ago, I signed on with Greencine (since defunct) to feed my anime and Japanese movie habit. But Netflix caught up fast. A new processing center in Salt Lake City shortening the turnaround time convinced me to switch. We've been together almost fifteen years.

Netflix has since closed the Salt Lake City center. The single-day turnarounds now take three or four. To give credit where it's due, Netflix uses the "Informed Delivery" service, which (if everything works) notifies Netflix when the envelope is scanned into the USPS system so Netflix can send out the next one.

With my grandfathered one-out, two-a-month plan ($4.99/month or $2.50 a disc), Netflix's DVD service was so cheap the money almost didn't matter. Still, my "Active" queue kept shrinking while my "Saved" queue kept growing (until Netflix zapped most of the "Saved" titles from the catalog).

I'm mostly talking about the more obscure GKids anime releases and old classics. My theory is that Netflix tracks how many times a title appears in the "Saved" queues of its customers and only acquires it when it hits a certain threshold.

Netflix has abandoned the DVD "long tail" for new titles and isn't acquiring anything but bestsellers anymore. Mirai was popular enough but most anime movies obviously aren't. Although Netflix is actively acquiring anime series and feature films on the streaming side, its DVD business doesn't know they exist.

So I looked more closely at Amazon Prime Video and was surprised at how many of the titles in my "Saved" queue were in its catalog. Granted, prices for older titles range from $2.99 to $3.99 but that's a small price to pay for instant gratification and zero commitment.

There are movies on the Criterion Channel I'd like to see too, but not enough of them to justify $10.99/month, even using the subscribe–binge–quit approach. It'd be nice if the Criterion Channel did one-time rentals too. In other words, the original Blockbuster Video model. What's old is new again.

Indeed, I'm a bit puzzled that Netflix, responsible for putting Blockbuster out of business, doesn't offer the option, say, a kind of interlibrary loan arrangement with providers like Criterion and MHz. That's what Amazon is doing with Prime Video (and, no, you don't have to join Amazon Prime to use Prime Video).

Though once rental costs approach the four dollar mark, I'll think seriously about buying the DVD or simply won't bother. Back when Netflix first jumped on the streaming bandwagon, I was a regular Luddite about the whole thing. But Netflix has since acquired enough Japanese content to pique my interest.

So after shipping more than 800 Netflix DVDs back and forth through the good old-fashioned mail, the time has finally come to bid physical media (mostly) goodbye.

Related posts

Hey, watch this!
Netflix in Japanese
Death of the doctrine
The streaming chronicles
Streaming according to Pareto

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