September 30, 2023

Anime(tion) domination

Fuji TV is home to three of the top five anime series in Japan. Even most anime fans outside Japan would be hard-pressed to name the top two.

The only surprise about One Piece, Sunday mornings at nine-thirty, is that it doesn't rank higher than fourth or fifth place. In second or third is Chibi Maruko-chan, Sunday evenings at six o'clock.

And finally in first place (by a wide margin), Sazae-san follows Chibi Maruko-chan at six-thirty. That is some serious animation domination for you.

At over 2,250 episodes, Sazae-san is officially the longest running animated television series on the planet. The manga by Machiko Hasegawa debuted in 1946 and ran until 1974. The anime has been on the air since 1969.

Though once considered quite liberal in its depiction of the role of women in society, the show avoids topical references and skirts the kind of changes brought on by technologies like smartphones. As the producers of Sazae-san have explained,

The appeal of this anime is that it depicts scenes of everyday life and universal relationships that can be found in any family. We have no plans in the future to incorporate events or items that would change them.

As a result, even episodes from 2023 will give you a good idea what suburban culture and architecture in Japan looked like fifty years ago.

During her lifetime, beyond short-lived radio and television dramas, Hasegawa refused to merchandize the show in any form, including home video. Amazon Prime Video alone has streaming rights to a select number of older episodes and only in Japan.

The manga Chibi Maruko-san by Momoko Sakura has been published since 1986. The anime first ran from 1990 to 1992, relaunched in 1995, and has been on the air ever since.

Chibi Maruko-san is similarly a Showa drama that revolves around a traditional nuclear family and a grandparent or two. It is also set vaguely in the 1970s, though like Sazae-san, makes no attempt to pin down a specific time period.

Again, in-show references are to the general culture and not to the zeitgeist then or now. In other words, both shows appeal to modern audiences by making no attempt to appeal to modern audiences. Well, make that modern Japanese audiences.

To date, the Sazae-san anime has not been licensed outside Japan and Chibi Maruko-chan in only a few countries, most notably Germany and India. As Brian Hanson explains this apparent failure of supply and demand,

[Sazae-san and Chibi Maruko-chan] don't look much like traditional anime and their stories couldn't be any further from the typical anime fare that sells well over here. Sazae-san is basically a distinctly Japanese family cartoon show, like a warmer, less-satirical version of The Simpsons. And Chibi Maruko-chan is sort of the same thing, except told from the point of view of a precocious little girl.

This creates a big mismatch in the marketing demographics outside Japan. These IPs are already so valuable in their home market that the rights holders have little to gain by shopping them to reluctant buyers for pennies on the dollar.

Unlike Machiko Hasegawa, Momoko Sakura was on board with marketing her creation in Japan, so Chibi Maruko-chan has its own website and merch. But only in Japanese.

Nippon Animation also decided that a big backlist has no promotional value just sitting there and made Chibi Maruko-chan available on YouTube. The official Chibi Maruko channel is home to a huge repository of promos and past episodes.

dLibrary Japan had one season of Chibi Maruko-chan, though there's no guarantee those shows will still be on the service when it returns next year after a planned hiatus.

As mentioned above, the only licensed distributor of Sazae-san in Japan is Amazon Prime Video. Of course, you can find bootleg episodes on YouTube.

Again, none of this content has been localized. Still, I think it's well worth familiarizing yourself with these touchstones of Japanese popular culture.

Related links

Chibi Maruko channel
Sazae-san (YouTube search)
The Showa drama
Popular anime you never heard of (probably)

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September 23, 2023

Kazuya Kosaka

One of the rewards of listening to the Gold(en oldies) on J1 Radio is hearing covers of songs you never expected. Flash back to the late 1950s and early 1960s when Japan's television stations were first going on the air. They licensed Hollywood productions to fill in the program schedules.

Westerns were a staple on American television at the time, and so the genre naturally became a staple on Japanese television. Rawhide was a big hit. During a February 1962 publicity tour, Clint Eastwood, Paul Brinegar, and Eric Fleming met the Japanese press at the Palace Hotel in Tokyo.

It was only a matter of time before Japanese musicians began performing Western music and rockabilly. Kazuya Kosaka & The Wagon Masters not only covered the hits but reinterpreted them as well.

Here's Kosaku's version of "Rawhide."

And his cover of "Jailhouse Rock."

Kazuya Kosaka (1935–1997) is better remembered today in Japan for his long career in movies and television.

There are also J1 Radio apps for Roku, Android, and iPhone.

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September 16, 2023

Classic Toei samurai shows

Abarenbo Shogun ("The Unfettered Shogun") ran for 831 episodes between 1978 and 2008, placing it third behind Zenigata Heiji and Mito Komon. Over a four-decade long run, Mito Komon reached a staggering 1,227 episodes, the record for a Japanese period drama.

Abarenbo Shogun and Mito Komon share the same premise: a high Tokugawa official dons a disguise and mingles among the commoners to deliver rough justice to the bad guys. As the title makes clear, in Abarenbo Shogun, the official is the shogun himself.

Ken Matsudaira played Tokugawa Yoshimune for the entire series while five actors took on the lead role as Tokugawa Mitsukuni on Mito Komon.

As governor of Mito, the maverick Mitsukuni laid the groundwork that eventually led to the domain playing a key role in the Meiji Restoration a hundred and fifty years later. The equally impressive Yoshimune is ranked among the best of the Tokugawa shoguns.

The first episode of Abarenbo Shogun introduces another historical character, the respected Ooka Tadasuke, who was appointed by Yoshimune. As an Edo period magistrate, he functioned as both the chief of police and the presiding judge.

The series has Yoshimune using the residence of an old firefighter friend as his base of operations. It's a perfect setup for an action-oriented police procedural. With decent scripts, acting, and directing, it's easy to see why it lasted so long.

The Toei Jidaigeki channel has the first two subtitled episodes of Abarenbo Shogun. The channel includes sample shows from other classic samurai series, including Sonny Chiba's Yagyu Abaretabi and Shadow Warriors.

In Shadow Warriors, Chiba is the laid-back owner of a bathhouse in Edo. But that's a cover for his real job as a secret agent for the shogunate. In each of the five seasons, he returns as a different descendent of the Iga ninja Hattori Hanzo, a role he reprised for Kill Bill.

Yagyu Abaretabi, by contrast, is a road movie. Chiba again plays a historical figure, Yagyu Jubei. His brother is an inspector on the famed Tokai Highway. Chiba and his band of ninjas tag along as his bodyguards. It's another great premise for an ongoing series.

The Toei Jidaigeki channel includes the 1972 remake of the acclaimed Kutsukake Tokijiro, an Edo period yakuza redemption drama. But also in the mix are several martial arts and tokusatsu series that put the low in low budget. Production quality is all over the place.

The first season of Shadow Warriors is on Tubi. The movie Uzumasa Limelight looks at the genre from the perspective of a sword stuntman who has difficulty finding work after spending his entire career on a period drama like Mito Komon.

Samurai dramas were once as dominate on Japanese television as Westerns were on American television. Incidentally, Rawhide (1959–1965), the series that made Clint Eastwood a star, was a big hit in Japan at the time.

Especially with Shadow Warriors, be forewarned that broadcast standards during the 1970s and 1980s in Japan were not as stringent as those in North America. On the other hand, "golden time" shows like Abarenbo Shogun and Mito Komon remained more family friendly.

Related links

Toei Jidaigeki channel
Uzumasa Limelight
Shadow Warriors

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September 09, 2023

The Dial Comes to Town

The best technical support video ever. I'm so ancient that I grew up with a dial telephone. And those massive telephone books. This was an era when AT&T owned the entire system from end to end, including the telephone. Touch-Tone (a registered trademark) debuted in November 1963.

The AT&T monopoly (also known as "Ma Bell," after Bell Telephone founded by Alexander Graham Bell) was broken up in 1984 into seven regional "Baby Bells." I was in college at the time, and one of the first manifestations of the break-up was the proliferation of cheap Touch-Tone phones.

Those wall-sized racks of electromechanical switches make the geek in me smile. Today, the equipment that filled entire buildings would fit into a small closet. But this was the cutting edge of computing in 1940. And why the invention of the transistor at Bell Labs in 1947 changed everything.

Not only has the dial telephone gone the way of the dinosaurs, but the landline (also known affectionately as "POTS" or "plain old telephone service") is fast on their heels. Today, only two percent of households in the United States rely solely on a hardwired connection to place a phone call.

The question going forward is how fast fiber will replace the now "traditional" coaxial cable connection. And when and if wireless will replace everything else.

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September 02, 2023

dLibrary Japan (big upgrade in the works)

A couple of months ago, I earned an Amazon gift card for participating in a lengthy survey from NHK Cosmomedia about the kind of content I would expect from a streaming service that resembled TV Japan. And how much I'd be willing to pay.

By next April, we should find out the results from that survey.

Changes are afoot at NHK Cosmomedia, which owns and operates (along with Japan International Broadcasting) dLibrary Japan, NHK World, and TV Japan (also known as NHK World Premium).

I've speculated about the possibilities before. Cable cutting is surely eating into TV Japan's subscriber base. The (free) NHK World streaming service already carries a considerable amount of localized NHK edutainment material, including the all-important sumo tournaments.

dLibrary Japan recently started streaming series after their first run on TV Japan and shows after they debuted in Japan. With sumo bouts covered by NHK World, the only programming on TV Japan I really miss are the Taiga and Asadora dramas, and live news from Japan (in Japanese).

NHK World streams news on the hour from its own bureaus, half of the day from New York, and all in English. But, frankly, a lot of the time, I get the feeling that the NHK World anchors think they're on CNN. News from North America often gets more airtime than anything to do with Japan.

dLibrary Japan could become the VOD library for TV Japan, including real-time news and commentary.

It's never had a backlist and only held onto content for a year or two. While services like Retrocrush specialize in classic anime, long-running series like Abarenbo Shogun remain unknown outside Japan. (You can watch Shadow Warriors and a couple of tokusatsu series on Tubi.)

NHK World is available via streaming, OTA, and VOD, so NHK Cosmomedia doesn't need to reinvent the wheel. Ideally, they'd integrate the services in a single app with paid and unpaid tiers. But easier said than done, which is why dLibrary Japan is going on hiatus for several months.

Though I suspect that NHK Cosmomedia's more immediate goal is to rebuild dLibrary Japan with the capacity for future expansion, which will take place at a later date. A Roku app that actually works would be a big step forward.

In any case, for now, dLibrary Japan stopped enrolling new customers on 9/1/2023 and won't post new content after 9/30/2023. The service will go offline on 10/31/2023.

Don't panic! The official press release (which has been updated several times since the original announcement) promises they will be back!

We are thrilled to announce the upcoming introduction of an upgraded streaming distribution service. This renewed service will bring you an even richer selection of Japanese content and improved performance, including the addition of NHK news viewing. To make way for these enhancements, the current dLibrary Japan service will be suspended.

Well, I do like that bit about the news. All we know at this juncture is that the new service will launch "within fiscal year 2023." In Japan, that means before the end of March 2024. They won't need five months to update the apps and servers, so other stuff must be going on behind the scenes too.

I am very curious find out what sort of "upgraded streaming distribution service" NHK Cosmomedia has in store.

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