February 27, 2020

Dragon Pilot

Based on the manga created by Toshinao Aoki and Studio Bones, the animation in Dragon Pilot brings to mind the comic strip art of Bill Watterson. The premise of Dragon Pilot as well is the crazy kind of gross but hilarious and yet clever idea that Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes would come up with.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the world (and most Japanese), a select few of Japan's military aircraft, including an F-15J and an F-2 (Mitsubishi's made-in-Japan version of the F-16), are dragons disguised to look like fighter jets.

Hisone Amakasu is a rookie airman at the Japan Air Self-Defense Force Gifu Air Base. One day out of the blue she learns she has passed a "qualification" (she wasn't aware of) and is summarily transferred to a huge hanger way off in the corner of the base that no one seems to know about—except for an odd old woman who pushes a food cart around the base.

When Hisone finally finds the hanger, she walks in and is confronted by a huge dragon (she later names "Masotan") that promptly eats her.

The ground crew is delighted. It's been a while since a pilot passed muster with this particular OTF (an "Organic Transformed Flyer," as the military labels them). You see, the pilot doesn't ride atop the dragon like a horse. The dragon swallows the pilot, who "flies" the dragon from its guts. And when the flight is over, regurgitates her back out.

And, yes, the pilots have to wear special flight suits to keep from getting digested.

Needless to say, the dragon has a lot of discretion about who gets swallowed, and some, like Masotan, can get picky. The dragons are perceptive about the personalities of their pilots. They can even pick up mechanical issues with the real F-15Js they fly with (via the heads-up display in the helmets the pilots wear). But they don't talk.

It's eat or don't eat. Once they've formed an attachment, the one thing that really gives a dragon an upset stomach is his pilot forming a romantic relationship with another human being (which reminds me a similar plot device in My Zhime). No surprise, then, that the girls who make the best "D-Pilots" are not very socially adept.

For all its inherent silliness, Dragon Pilot raises fascinating questions about choice and free will. Hisone got something she didn't know she wanted. Nao wants something she can't get. Elle got what she didn't want instead of what she did. Moriyama gave up what she wanted and walked away to happily make another life for herself.

As Hisone tells Okonogi, a member of her ground crew and also, by family lineage (not something he had a lot of choice about either), a Shinto priest, "It's always best when the things you like and the things decided for you are in agreement."

That religious angle is no small matter. One of the old gods of Japan is a whale-sized monster, literally the size of a small island. It briefly comes out of hibernation every seventy-four years. The job of the dragon pilots is to escort it to a new resting place before it goes all Godzilla on Japan, and put it to bed with an ancient Shinto ritual.

The old school ritual required one of the miko attendants to stay behind in the "belly of the whale," so to speak. As far as Hisone is concerned, that is very much not okay. As it turns out, the food cart lady is the last living member of her squadron from the last time, when her reaction was the same as Hisone's.

In Calvin and Hobbes style, Hisone figures out an unlikely solution. It's a credit to the writing that the series manages to take these serious turns—and turn back again—without spoiling the comedic mood created earlier or making light of the dramatic decisions that Hisone faces (but be sure to stick through the final closing credits).

Masotan ultimately gets a character arc too, which suggests that perhaps the dragons will figure out how to compromise on the whole personal boundaries thing, and not force their pilots into the kind of all-or-nothing choice that Moriyama was left with. We have every reason to hope that the dragons will mature alongside their pilots.

Dragon Pilot can be streamed on Netflix.

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February 20, 2020

Navigating Netflix

Especially during the high-demand time slots, HIDIVE struggles the most of my "big three," even failing to launch the app. Though if the app does load successfully, there usually aren't any problems playing a video.

Netflix always launches in a jiffy. Except quite randomly (more often on weekends), navigating the app or playing a video slows to a herky-jerky crawl. Then a reboot later, it runs fine. Hard to say what's going on, though Netflix could stand to pare back on the bells and whistles, like the auto-play previews (which can now be turned off).

Speaking of HIDIVE, there are many similarities between the "pop-down" windows for the Netflix and HIDIVE online catalogs, though the Netflix interface is slicker and more feature packed. The Netflix play screen stays clean when paused, something I wish HIDIVE would copy. Netflix and HIDIVE even append localization credits similarly.

I prefer to watch the credits, so on the Netflix website, go to Account > Playback Settings and uncheck the Autoplay box. Unfortunately, this setting doesn't discriminate between the original show credits and the localization credits (that can go on and on). So it's nice to still be able to skip past them.

With such a massive amount of content, discovery on Netflix is a mixed bag. Compared to the terrifically useful genre list on the DVD site, the streaming genre list is a skeleton outline. There is an "anime" category and a "Kdrama" category but not a "Jdrama" category. Spanish is the only language category.

Netflix indexes the whole site so keyword searches are powerful, though often to the point of being useless without more selectivity. Searching "Japanese" returns everything containing that keyword. More importantly, searching "Japanese" displays links to the relevant Japanese-language categories at the top of the results page.

I just wish these subcategories could be accessed from the pull-down genre list in each global category. But a quite neat feature of the Netflix search engine is that it stores the metadata for titles not in its catalog and often returns hits that are pretty close matches to the genre and subject matter of the title not found.

If you want to search the Netflix catalog without signing onto Netflix, third-party sites such as Flixable and Reelgood are worth a look.

Like Crunchyroll, Netflix renders its own subtitles, which are more readable and customizable (Japanese is an option) than the default hardware-based closed captions. And the good old DVD-style (or Crunchyroll-style) queue is still there on the website. Go to Account > My Profile > Order in My List and select Manual Ordering.

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February 13, 2020


The 1954 production of Godzilla, directed by Ishiro Honda, has a good deal in common with Bram Stoker's Dracula, published in 1897. Both are remembered today in terms of the sequels and spin-offs that followed, in the process spawning new genres that have almost nothing to do with the original productions.

In Dracula, the Scooby Gang of vampire hunters led by Van Helsing avail themselves of the latest weaponry and communications technology to defeat Count Dracula. In Godzilla, a team of scientists led by paleontologist Kyohei Yamane and troubled young chemist Daisuke Serizawa must defend Japan against this nuclear natural disaster.

Meanwhile, Emiko Yamane wants to break off her engagement to Serizawa so she can marry her true love, salvage ship operator Hideto Ogata. Given Serizawa's mad scientist personality, this is a understandable decision, and these shifting relationships figure into an important plot point (that has nothing to do with anybody fighting over a girl).

It will be Serizawa who provides the scientific solution that saves the day, not battling monsters or superhero antics.

Dracula and Godzilla are works of contemporary science fiction that would fit well into the oeuvre of Michael Crichton. The two titular antagonists are, in Buffy terms, the Big Bad. As Buffy fans well know, being the Big Bad is a supporting role whose ultimate purpose is to get dusted. That's exactly what happens to Dracula and Godzilla.

So if you want to bring them back for an encore, well, something fundamental will have to change. Making the Big Bad the main attraction completely changes the nature and focus of the fundamental conflict. For starters, a way larger-than-life character stomping all over the scenery in movie after movie is going to upstage the rest of the cast.

As the series progressed and Godzilla grew larger and larger than life, more overpowered Big Bads had to be invented to keep the over-the-top conflicts in proportion. This is unfortunately true of most superhero movies these days. Godzilla set the standard for the Big Bad modus operandi of massive urban vandalism.

The bigger story problem is that, having already reached the pinnacle of badness, the Big Bad has no place to go dramatically, which can't help but reveal the ridiculousness of the whole conceit. A common solution, as in the Dracula genre, is to hang a lampshade on the character and purposely play to the stereotypes with the requisite ironic nods.

Or while playing to the stereotypes, cast the Big Bad as an antihero, the enemy you know being preferable to the worse Big Bads you don't (yet). With a decent screenplay and a compelling character arc, a Big Bad can be transformed into an unreliable ally, as with Spike on Buffy. This is generally the direction Godzilla sequels ended up going.

Less a friend of the human race than an enemy of the all other monsters invading its territory, with not very much in the motivation department aside from sheer destructiveness.

Ishiro Honda's Godzilla soon spawned the tokusatsu (special effects) and kaiju (giant monster) genres. Famously featuring the guy in a rubber suit wrecking scale models of Japanese cities, this deliberately silly and self-referential approach was less concerned with dramatic depth and more about at getting everybody in on the joke.

The first Godzilla, by contrast, is a classic work of film noir, employing black and white cinematography suffused with light and shadow, along with rudimentary but effective mattes and composites, to create a spooky atmosphere of literally looming horror. Godzilla is a keenly-felt menace that most of the time is out of reach or out of sight.

The city-destroying rampage doesn't even commence until an hour in. Leaving a trail of destruction in its wake, Godzilla is more a force of nature, like a typhoon or an earthquake or a tsunami. Or a squadron of B-29s. The focus is less about the Big Bad than on how the affected human beings react to it. And how they conquer it with human ingenuity.

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February 06, 2020

Netflix in Japanese

Netflix has around 200 Japanese language titles (and counting), mostly anime, some live-action, along with additional content related to Japan in terms of subject matter, setting, or cast.

Although investors blanch at Netflix's content acquisition burn rate, as a subscriber, I certainly appreciate how often new Japanese content shows up in the catalog.

Crunchyroll in particular acquires so much content every season that you have to study the descriptions and early reviews to see which ones you want to follow. Netflix, on the other hand, adds a new Japanese title every week or so. Its curated approach makes me curious to see what caught its attention.

Though I'll still head over to ANN and Crunchyroll to check out the reviews. One unfortunate turn taken by Netflix was nixing user reviews, a prime factor in what makes Crunchyroll a stand-out site. Though I get that moderating such a huge catalog in multiple languages wouldn't survive a cost-benefit analysis.

While Netflix still has fewer anime titles than HIDIVE, smallest anime site of the Big Three, it is actively creating and acquiring live-action content too, and may soon have the largest VOD catalog of localized live-action Jdramas. dLibrary Japan has the most live-action titles, though very few of them are localized.

By establishing "comprehensive business alliances" with studios like Production I.G and BONES, Netflix avoids carriage and licensing disputes while giving its partners greater creative control than broadcasting regulations in Japan allow. Just as importantly, it can localize the content everywhere it does business.

Notes Kotaro Yoshikawa, VP of distribution and licensing at TMS Entertainment, another one of Netflix's Japanese production partners, "Netflix is producing dubbed versions in several languages and subtitles in more than 20 languages, with a release to around 200 countries in one go, which we couldn't do."

One of those countries is, of course, Japan, meaning that Japanese language titles on Netflix often include Japanese closed captions. It's a feature offered by no other similar service, not even TV Japan or NHK World. This unique language learning resource alone places Netflix in a category of its own.

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