August 31, 2021

Last storehouse standing

Chapter 10 of The Space Alien (which takes place in 1953) has the following description of a neighborhood in Setagaya ward in the southwest corner of Tokyo:

Less than a mile from Ichiro's house, a concrete storehouse stood alone in the middle of a field. During the war, air raids had destroyed all of the wood-frame houses on the block.

The genesis of these fireproof residential storehouses goes back three centuries.

The Great Meireki Fire (named after the imperial era or gengo) in 1657 destroyed over sixty percent of Edo (now Tokyo) proper and killed upwards of 100,000 people. Halfway around the world and less than a decade later, the Great Fire of London wreaked an equal amount of physical damage.

(Click image to enlarge.)

These two cities responded in quite different ways to these similar disasters. In the latter case, a concerted effort was made to prevent further conflagrations.

The revamped zoning laws and building codes of London specified wider streets and deeper setbacks, and opened access to the wharves along the Thames. Perhaps most importantly, brick and stone were required in the construction of new buildings, resulting in thicker walls and heavier framing.

Famed architect Christopher Wren distinguished himself during this period, rebuilding fifty-two churches along with many secular buildings in London.

These building requirements raised the cost of housing and slowed the overall growth of London, but were effective at preventing further similar disasters until the air raids of the Blitz.

During the rebuilding of Edo, city planners moved the larger estates and many shrines and temples to the outskirts of the city, opening access to the rivers and widening the main thoroughfares. However, in almost every other respect, they took a completely opposite approach to fire prevention.

In short, the point wasn't to prevent fires but to slow fires down and give people time to escape. Fire was treated as a natural disaster, like earthquakes, tsunamis, and typhoons. Survival mattered, not, as George Carlin famously phrased it, saving your "stuff." A very Zen philosophy.

The result of this policy was that, on average, an Edokko could expect his house to burn down at least once during his lifetime. In 1806, the haiku poet Issa Kobayashi wrote of a fire in the Shitaya district where he was living at the time (courtesy David Lanoue, edited for syllable count):

Everything has burned
down to and including the
blameless mosquitoes

Firefighters in Edo (the true action heroes of the era) took pretty much the same approach as hotshot crews in the United States today. The lightweight wood frame row houses that were home to the majority of Edo's population were a key part of the strategy.

When the fire alarms rang, firefighters first collapsed the flimsy row houses in the path of the flames. The "floor" formed by the roof tiles created a firebreak. The row houses were inexpensive to rebuild, and neighborhood mutual insurance organizations covered the costs.

A wealthy family might keep an entire house on layaway at a lumberyard, like the one depicted (at the bottom right) in Hokusai's "Lumberyard on the Takekawa in Honjo." As an inside joke, Hokusai put his publisher's name on the placard.

(Click image to enlarge.)

These firefighting techniques successfully limited widespread loss of life without holding back the economic and population growth of Edo, that by the 18th century was the biggest city in the world. Nevertheless, the frequency of the fires themselves was not significantly curtailed until the twentieth century.

As Edward Seidensticker recounts in Low City, High City,

In a space of fifteen years, from early into middle Meiji, certain parts of Nihombashi were three times destroyed by fire. Much of what remained of the Tokugawa castle burned in 1873, and so the emperor spent more than a third of his reign in the Tokugawa mansion where the Akasaka Palace now stands. There were Yoshiwara fires in 1871, 1873, 1891, and 1911, and of course in 1923.

The devastation of the Great Meireki Fire was not equaled until the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake and the 1945 firebombing of Tokyo at the end of World War II. In both of these cases, fires broke out everywhere all at once, rendering traditional firefighting techniques ineffectual.

To be sure, Buddhist beliefs in the effervescence of life notwithstanding, the denizens of Edo weren't entirely nonchalant about the loss of their "stuff."

Residents of the row houses dug root cellars beneath their apartments, where they could stash their valuables during a fire. Landowners built a stone storehouse in a corner of the property away from the main house. These Edo period storehouses can still be found scattered throughout Japan.

In the NHK serial drama Warotenka, the Fujioka family returns to Osaka at the end of the war to find that only the wrought iron front gate and the storehouse survived the air raids. So they move into the storehouse until they can scrape together enough materials to rebuild the main house.

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August 28, 2021

Hills of Silver Ruins (2/26)

I've posted chapter 26 (book 2) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon.

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August 21, 2021

And then there was one

Okay, two.

Sony's Funimation Global Group finalized its acquisition of Crunchyroll from AT&T. In the North American market, that reduces the trio of Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HIDIVE to HIDIVE and whatever brand name emerges from the merger. All we know from Funimation is that they intend to "create a unified anime subscription experience."

It will certainly be more convenient to access both catalogs at once with a single website and app (hopefully using the embedded subtitles model employed by Crunchyroll and Netflix), though the apps and websites are currently so different, I'll be curious to see how they pull it off.

But the real question for anime fans is what will happen to HIDIVE and its parent company, Sentai Holdings. As of January 2020, HIDIVE had 300,000 paid subscribers. Crunchyroll has 5 million. The merger with Funimation will double that. That's one heck of a Pareto distribution.

In 2019, Sentai got a $30 million cash infusion from the Cool Japan fund, peanuts compared to Sony's $10 billion net profit in 2021. The U.S. Justice Department raised antitrust concerns when the acquisition was announced, so Sony might refrain from taking over the entire anime streaming world simply to avoid raising all those legal hackles.

Although it kind of already has.

Unlike specialized streaming services and other content providers, the Sony group blankets the entire anime sector: Aniplex is a production company; Sony Interactive Entertainment sells PlayStation; Animax Broadcast Japan is the country's largest fee-based anime channel; and Funimation is the biggest Japanese anime distributor in the U.S. Meanwhile, Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) has an exclusive label for anime songs.

According to the Otaku Entrepreneur, Sony now owns 86 percent of the market. A staggering 92 percent if you toss in Aniplex of America. Like Microsoft and Apple at the end of the 1990s, when Microsoft grabbed 97 percent of the PC market, it is in Sony's self-interest to at least keep the appearance of competition alive amongst the pure-play streaming providers.

One of HIDIVE's saving graces may be that Sony's domestic competitors in Japan won't want to pad Sony's bottom line and so may turn to providers like HIDIVE and Netflix. I think Netflix should do a content-sharing deal with HIDIVE. Or buy Sentai outright. Netflix has a good batting average with original anime content, and its catalog of licensed anime titles is top notch.

Together with HIDIVE, Netflix could become the Apple of anime. A smaller market share, but curated and high end, with an app that (almost) always just works.

For the time being, though, I am a spectator to these events, having unsubscribed from Crunchyroll, Funimation, and HIDIVE. Netflix, Tubi, and dLibrary Japan alone provide me with more content than I have the time to watch. But the more anime Netflix can acquire the better.

Related posts

Tubi update
Streaming Japanese
dLibrary Japan update

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August 17, 2021

dLibrary Japan update

NHK Cosmomedia operates NHK World, NHK World Premium (TV Japan in North America), and dLibrary Japan.

NHK World has free streaming apps and is available over-the-air in some markets (UEN-TV in Utah). dLibrary Japan is a subscription streaming service. TV Japan is live television available only as a premium from DirecTV and most cable providers.

I didn't follow TV Japan to DirecTV when NHK Cosmomedia dumped Dish and the price of an à la carte subscription almost doubled (Xfinity is no better). Especially when I found I could subscribe to the big three anime streaming services and Netflix and dLibrary Japan for less.

In the meantime, dLibrary Japan improved its app and catalog, so much so that I've dropped the big three and still get more anime than I have time to watch from Netflix and Tubi. Funimation acquired Crunchyroll from AT&T and AT&T spun off DirecTV to private equity firm TPG while remaining the majority owner.

In one of those comically understated corporate press releases, AT&T admitted that "It's fair to say that some aspects of the [DirecTV acquisition] have not played out as we had planned, such as pay TV households in the US declining at a faster pace across the industry than anticipated back in 2014."

"Not playing out as we planned" means "we took a $15.5 billion impairment on the business in 4Q20."

A boutique content provider like NHK Cosmomedia illustrates the problem in miniature, as it tries to embrace new technologies while not drawing customers away from its premium live television business that launched in 1991. The hospitality industry is one of NHK's biggest international customers and satellite is often the only way to serve them.

But North America is a big market too, and that delivery model is dying on the vine. Elon Musk may soon deliver the coup de grâce with his low-orbit satellite Internet service.

To give NHK credit where it's due, it's been doing a good job hedging its bets, steadily building out its streaming catalogs and providing decent apps. The rudimentary dLibrary Japan Roku app does what it has to do well enough. It does inexplicably lock up once in a blue moon (losing horizontal sync like an old tube TV), but is fine after a reboot.

NHK Cosmomedia has also added content like the monthly Kiyo in Kyoto from powerhouse anime studio J.C. Staff to the (free) NHK World lineup.

The one curious disappointment with dLibrary Japan has been NHK's flagship Asadora and Taiga dramas. dLibrary Japan had a respectable lineup when the service launched, and I expected that they'd continue to get series a year or so after running on NHK and TV Japan. But that hasn't happened.

By the end of August, they'll all be gone from the service.

On the bright side, Aibou ("Partners") is finally on dLibrary Japan. It's one the best police procedurals in the genre, now in its eighteenth season. Yutaka Mizutani plays Detective Ukyo Sugishita as a mix of the persistent inquisitiveness of Peter Falk's Columbo and the fastidiousness of Jeremy Brett's Sherlock Holmes.

The only caveat is that they're starting with seasons one, eight, eleven, fourteen, and eighteen. I guess the idea is to give us a one-season sampler of each of Detective Sugishita's partners.

Yasufumi Terawaki as Kaoru Kameyama, Sugishita's Watson, left the show after seven seasons. Mitsuhiro Oikawa and Hiroki Narimiya stepped in for three seasons each before Takashi Sorimachi took over the role in 2015 and I think created a character that truly filled Kaoru Kameyama's shoes. I've got to hope they'll get around to filling in the gaps.

The scripts were solid from the start, so it's fun to see a young Yasufumi Terawaki in a rough-around-the-edges season one in all its 4:3 SD glory. Most of the supporting cast was already in place, like Kazuhisa Kawahara playing an ornery Lestrade, Seiji Rokkaku as the CSI guy, and veteran character actor Ittoku Kishibe in the Mycroft Holmes role.

Also on dLibrary Japan, Ittoku Kishibe is great as the managing partner of a big law firm in 99.9, a police procedural about a team of eccentric criminal defense lawyers.

dLibrary Japan has a good deal of high quality content. Its biggest weakness in the North American market is that most of the television series aren't subtitled (most of the movies are), though I've noticed that more and more now have machine-translated subtitles (which are useful though of questionable quality).

dLibrary Japan licenses shows for a year or so, and thus has no backlist to speak of, but acquires new titles at a steady clip.

dLibrary Japan's only real competition in live-action scripted television is Rakuten Viki. Unlike dLibrary Japan, subtitling is standard. The programming on Rakuten Viki tends to target a teen to twenty-something audience, while dLibrary Japan appears aimed at an ex-pat forty-plus demographic.

Pretty much the same difference between the domestic audiences for NHK and its commercial competitors in general. Unlike public broadcasters like PBS and the BBC, NHK strives to be about as artistically cutting edge as a butter knife (though it prides itself in its technological prowess).

Related posts

Tubi (update 1)
(Almost) Live Japanese TV
dLibrary Japan (another update)

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August 14, 2021

Hills of Silver Ruins (2/25)

I've posted chapter 25 (book 2) of Hills of Silver Ruins, a Pitch Black Moon. Chapter 26 should be ready in two weeks.

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August 07, 2021

Hills of Silver Ruins (2/24)

The Shashi (射士) is in charge of public security at the provincial level. The Shishi (司士) handles personal security. Their boss is the Taiei (太衛). The Daiboku (大僕) and his men work under them as the bodyguards of the province lord, who is the Taiho in this case.

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August 03, 2021

Tubi (update 1)

Tubi is an ad-supported streaming site with one of the best (least annoying) ad engines in the business. It has a sizable anime catalog and the keyword search feature is fast. The Roku app works without a hitch.

Except when it doesn't. On a rather random basis, when I queue up a video and press play, the app crashes hard.

I picture a guy scurrying down to a dark vault, switching on a dim incandescent bulb, and pulling out a VHS tape with the title scribbled on the label with a Magic Marker.

He brushes off the cobwebs and loads it into the machine, powers the VCR on and off a couple of times, and gives it a good hard whack. After that, everything works fine. Weird. Maybe it's just a Roku thing.

The content is all over the place. Subbed and dubbed, old and new, real gems, timeless classics, and junk they got on the cheap. Nothing is sorted. Simply identifying new titles turns into a scavenger hunt.

The subtitled version of Penguin Highway, for example, is tagged "Western, Comedy, Romance (1934)." The thumbnail graphic for Black Jack says "English subbed" but it's a dub. That kind of thing.

At least anime has its own category. Live-action Japanese titles on Tubi are lumped under "Foreign Language," most of which aren't Japanese. A handful are worth finding (though it'll take patience finding them).

Recently acquired live-action titles include Akira Kurosawa's Drunken Angel (his first film featuring Toshiro Mifune), a half-dozen Gamera flicks (Daiei Film's same-only-different answer to Toho's Godzilla), along with a wide selection from the Ultraman and Super Sentai franchises.

And, hey, it's free. And having Fox as the parent company has paid off with licensing agreements with distributor Shout! Factory and anime giant Toei Animation. There are needles in the haystack and gold in them there hills.

Here are a few notable titles.

• Bakuman (the definitive guide to the manga business)
• The Case of Hana & Alice (a delightful rotoscoped anime)
• Cowboy Bebop (ignore the Netflix live-action version)
• The Devil is a Part Timer (at a fast-food joint)
• Galaxy Express 999 (the classic series)
• GeGeGe No Kitaro (the recent reboot)
• Lupin the Third (the first two seasons)
• Napping Princess (by GITS director Kenji Kamiyama)
• Onihei (an Edo period police procedural)
• Penguin Highway (geeky kid meets magical penguins)
• Summer Days with Coo (a kappa gets lost in suburbia)

Due to the lack of any rhyme or reason, when perusing the catalog, I recommend keeping ANN open in another tab so you can check the reviews.

Related posts

Tubi (update 2)
Kazuya Kosaka
Streaming Japanese

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