January 27, 2024

Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah

To save a young woman from a band of marauding students, Lord Simon bespelled her into the walls of his house, powerful magic he later discovers he cannot undo.

Determined to free her from this prison of wood and stone, Lord Simon consorts with grave robbers and physicians, politicians and priests, twisting the arms of the powerful and the profane in every profession. As his reputation and his house crumble around him, his obsession to save a woman long thought dead threatens to drive him mad.

The third installment in the Roesia series, Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah encompasses the events in Richard: The Ethics of Affection and Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation.

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The Roesia Series

Tales of the Quest
Lord Simon: The Dispossession of Hannah
Richard: The Ethics of Affection
Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation

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January 24, 2024

Reframing the mainframe plot

I've ranted about this before, but the mainframe-as-antagonist (commanding an army of dumb terminal minions) was a well-worn meme sixty years ago when Captain Kirk was outwitting IBM System/360 lookalikes on a regular basis. It's so overdone by now you can't stick a fork in it. It's mush.

And yet Hollywood keeps serving it up. Because we keep chomping it down.

Conquering the galaxy since the 1950s.

Even the ending of Edge of Tomorrow (without a computer network in sight) is straight out of The Phantom Menace. And straight out of Oblivion, the previous Tom Cruise SF post-apocalyptic, blow-up-the-alien-mainframe actioner.

Making it an organic mainframe is a slight improvement but just as dumb. The whole "hive mind" thing needs to go too.

Speaking of organic mainframes, Star Wars fell back on the Evil Emperor trope, a linchpin apparently holding the whole universe together by his lonesome. How is never explained, but all the good guys have to do is knock out this one bad guy and peace and prosperity is restored to the galaxy.

Well, after they deal with the truly killer mainframe that is the Death Star. The whole Star Wars franchise ended up being about destroying Death Stars, each one a more ludicrous violation of the laws of physics than the last. Again, what long term problems this solves is never made clear.

Does the mail start arriving on time now? Does the tax code suddenly become more comprehensible? And what happens to the unemployment rate when all those Death Star jobs get instantaneously terminated? Imagine the size of the catering contract for just one of those behemoths.

Of course, destroying a single machine in a single place and winning the war everywhere makes for easy denouements. But if the Earth is ever attacked by malevolent aliens who know how to implement autonomous distributed network technology, we are so screwed.

That aside, though, what do the aliens hope to accomplish by attacking Earth? Or attacking any inhabited planet? (Besides giving the director an excuse to restage the Battle of Britain or the Invasion of Normandy.)

If they wanted to wipe out the humans along with the infrastructure—the whole objective of the Independence Day aliens—there'd be no need to get anywhere near the planet's surface, as Heinlein pointed out back in 1966 with The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. An asteroid makes for a handy ICBM.

There are lots of big asteroids out there.

Another reason is, they want our water. But there is plenty water elsewhere, that is not at the bottom of a deep gravity well. Europa, for starters.

Then there's the "To Serve Man" plot device. But homo sapiens is a lousy food and energy source (The Matrix is dumber than dirt in this regard). That's why so few people get eaten by sharks (surprisingly few!).

Besides, a blown-up country is a huge resource sink. Hence the Marshall Plan. By 1950, SCAP was already regretting Article 9 in the 1947 Japanese Constitution (forbidding war) and was revving up Japanese industry to support the Korean War, which was just what the economy needed.

In The Phantom Menace, Lucas tosses the politics of trade into the picture, but without explaining what is being traded, why, or how. The result is a blur of handwaving when it comes to the story because there are no underlying rational reasons for anything that happens.

The economic model of the Star Wars universe makes no more sense than the socialist utopianism of Star Trek, which finally gave us the robber baron Ferengi to make things interesting.

Still, Lucas was onto something. The unequal treaties imposed on Japan and China by the U.S. and European powers in the mid-19th century led to the Boxer Rebellion in China and propelled Japan into a regional arms race in order to even the scales. Lots of dramatic conflict there.

The thing is, China and Japan had stuff the foreign powers wanted, stuff as trivial (to our modern eyes) as tea. But like spice in Dune, there were underlying economic causes behind the conflicts. And at the time, a bad trade deal was a better deal for both sides than smash and grab.

And so we're back to the Lebensraum ("living space") ideology promulgated by Germany in the 1930s. (The Nazi bad guy connection certainly doesn't hurt.) The Japanese equivalent was used to justify the annexation of Korea and Manchuria.

Both Germany and Japan were doing rather well at expanding their territories (employing their own "unequal treaty" tactics) before they started actually invading their neighbors, after which everything went downhill fast.

So we'll assume our invading aliens are smart enough not to turn the whole thing into a scorched-earth shooting war. The problem is how to make that interesting.

A good place to start is Ryomaden, which describes the opening of Japan in the mid-19th century, the shock to the system, the unequal treaties, the escalating civil strife, finally resolved by a quickly-concluded civil war that launched Japan on a burning quest to surpass the west.

If gunboat melodrama is what you want, (bad) diplomacy seems pretty good at supplying the necessary Sturm und Drang motivations. Kudos to Guardians of the Galaxy on this score.

The problem is the time frame required by real politics. Summing up two decades of geopolitics in two hours would be tough. I suppose it really is simpler to just have Tom Cruise blow up the mainframe.

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January 20, 2024

Dunbar Woods

Glimmeridge, the mystical home of a clan of Fairlies, lies deep in Dunbar Woods, hidden behind an invisible Veil. As Watcher or guard for his clan, Tam uses his magical Watchfire to protect his family and keep tabs on the Humans who live near the woods.

One fateful night, Tam's sister, the clan Storyteller, forsakes the clan when she elopes. Their mother, the cold and powerful Queen Morna, accuses Tam of negligence and threatens to throw him into the dark and mysterious Pit. To avoid this terrifying punishment, he makes a rash bargain: he will convince a human girl to take his sister's place as Storyteller.

Tam chooses Keely Ellingsen, a high school student who loves the woods and loves writing stories. Keely considers herself an ordinary teenager burdened with chores and homework. But Tam's friendship, her dreams of success, and a family secret draw Keely to Fairlie culture and the prospect of becoming a Storyteller.

Tam's growing affection for Keely and her family obligations complicate their relationship. While she ponders the best course for her future, he struggles between his clan's strict rules and Keely's human ingenuity. Together, they confront the darkness that lurks at the edges of the Fairlie world.

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January 17, 2024

Galápagos entertainment

Returning to the story about the international rise of Japan's domestic entertainment industry in The Hollywood Reporter, the article also touches upon the unique way IP rights are handled in Japan, which I think deserves additional attention. It is an example of what has come to be referred to in Japanese business lingo as the "Galápagos syndrome."
The term was coined to describe Japan's homegrown 3G mobile phones, that emerged "like the endemic species that Darwin encountered on the Galápagos Islands, fantastically evolved and divergent from their mainland cousins." And now refers to the development of goods "in relative isolation from the rest of the world because of a focus on the local market."

That "focus on the local market" is key.

I think the same metaphor can be applied to popular culture in Japan. It's what made anime both familiar to kids who grew up watching cartoons such as Jonny Quest and Spider-Man and also so unique. But like those 3G mobile phones, other forms of entertainment, especially live-action television, have evolved completely out of sync with Hollywood expectations.

One reason for this is that Japan's economy is large enough to comfortably sustain both the production and consumption side of the equation. Add to that Japan's isolationist past during the Edo period, which even today is not seen as a bad thing. A Japanese business with an established home market needs a compelling reason to look elsewhere.

And then there's the unique way IP rights are handled in Japan.

The Writers Guild of America made a lot of noise about the rights of content creators during its extended strike. In Japan, with nothing like the bargaining power of the WGA, writers retain rights to their own IPs in ways that WGA members can only dream of.

At the same time, an aspiring mangaka can only dream of making the guaranteed minimums that a working screenwriter is paid in Hollywood. A mangaka with a syndicated series won't earn a living wage unless and until that series is successful enough to justify the publication of a tankoubon edition. Until then, it is sink or swim.

Netflix likes to say that it doesn't impose its production approach on foreign content industries, but rather finds compromise modes of dealmaking, development and production that take into account prevailing local practices. In Tokyo, however, the company undoubtedly has had to bend far further to the Japanese way of doing things than elsewhere, adapting to local realities such as the strong control manga creators often retain over their IP even after licensing agreements and the outsized industry power of Japan's notoriously fickle talent agencies.

Those notoriously fickle talent agencies resemble the old Hollywood studio system that ruled the roost until 1948, when it succumbed to an antitrust ruling by the Supreme Court.

Like the Hollywood studio system, Japan's talent agencies take it upon themselves to recruit new talent and sort the wheat from the chaff. They have traditionally exerted enormous control over all aspects of the domestic entertainment industry, including dictating which of their stars will be cast in a show. As Mark Schilling analogizes the system,

Talent agencies control their talent much in the way the feudal lords controlled the samurai in their clans, supporting their livelihoods in return for absolute fealty.

Unsurprisingly, as the ugly demise of the biggest and baddest talent agency of them all, Johnny & Associates, made clear, absolute power corrupts absolutely. And yet despite the horrible publicity, the influence of the talent agency system on the live-action side of television production in Japan remains undiminished.

The constraints under which Jdrama is produced is another example of the Galápagos syndrome, a big reason I remain dubious about Jdrama finding the same kind of overseas market as manga and anime and Kdrama.

Manga publishers perform a similar function, soliciting content from across the country and vigorously testing that content in the first-run print syndication market. But they do so at an arm's length. Your audition is a PDF file or an over-the transom manuscript. Moreover, there are dozens of self-publishing platforms (doujinshi) and numerous online options.

As noted above, starting out, even the majors (Shueisha, Kodansha, Shogakukan) won't pay you enough to live on, but they let more feet in the door. I like to compare the system to Minor League Baseball. Every mangaka starts out down in the Rookie leagues and aspires to make it to Triple-A and then to the Majors (also known as Weekly Shonen Jump).

If and when that happens, like an up and coming baseball star, the mangaka rises to the top with a proven track record. Unhampered by the talent agency system, there is nothing holding back a mangaka's publisher from actively exploring all of the available licensing opportunities, both at home and abroad.

Related posts

Whither TV Japan
Galápagos entertainment
Japan's phantom content boom

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January 13, 2024

Jme TV (Oops!)

So this email arrived in my inbox encouraging me to sign up for a new Jdrama VOD service called JME.

Having never heard of it before, my first reaction was to wonder how it got my email address. The obvious sources were TV Japan or dLibrary Japan. I did a trademark search and, yes, NHK Cosmomedia registered the JME logo. But despite touting Roku support in the email, there wasn't a JME app on the Roku website.

And the dLibrary Japan website placeholder hadn't changed. Was this the relaunch of dLibrary Japan? That question was answered by a totally not unexpected second email from NHK Cosmomedia three hours later that basically said, "Um, you know that email you just got? Please ignore it and don't click on any of the links."

In a few days, we will notify you via email about the launch of the new video streaming service "Jme," replacing dLibrary Japan. Please stay tuned for this email, as it will contain a special promotion code for exclusive viewing at a discounted rate.

And then three hours after that, dLibrary Japan sent the same email. Apology accepted!

Good to know that JME is a legit NHK Cosmomedia website and it is intended as the replacement for dLibrary Japan. In fact, NHK Cosmomedia registered the JME logo in June 2023 and announced the suspension of dLibrary Japan in September. It's sort of reassuring that the project has been on the back burner for that long.

I still have questions. To start with, what does JME even stand for?

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January 10, 2024

Japan's phantom content boom

The Hollywood Reporter has an interesting story about the international rise of Japan's domestic entertainment industry. Anime is a given and Kdrama is all the rage these days, but the market for made-in-Japan live-action productions (produced in Japan or based on Japanese content) is seeing (we're told) a renaissance. Japan is "on the precipice of a content boom."
"There has never been more global curiosity and love for Japanese culture, and with that interest, there is so much potential for Japan's entertainment industry to regain momentum," says Netflix's Minyoung Kim, who was based in South Korea and now works out of Tokyo.

The live-action remake of One Piece is a recent example. Netflix hopes to duplicate that success with a big-budget live-action adaptation of another manga and anime classic, Yu Yu Hakusho.

One telling statistic is that live-action productions in Japan have typically been budgeted at around $250,000/episode. To put that in context, what an episode of Star Trek cost sixty years ago. Comparable Hollywood budgets start at ten times that amount. So spending only five times as much is bargain basement.

Thus it comes as no surprise that

the live-action series space is the area of Japanese entertainment where the surging investment from big foreign streamers is changing production standards most and where insiders say there is the biggest potential for a reinvigorating shake-up.

Of course, the potential will always be there. For now, though, the appeal of Jdrama outside Asia remains so low that any improvement at all in the overall numbers can end up looking far more impressive than it actually is. Frankly, I'm not convinced that what the The Hollywood Reporter is describing will amount to a positive long-term trend in content acquisition.

Streamers like Netflix and Amazon, in a Red Queen race to to fill the bottomless pits of their catalogs, are simply grabbing the low-hanging fruit. But take note of what they are not doing—namely licensing shows already in production for Japan's domestic broadcast television audience.

Cultural mismatches between the tastes of the domestic audience and the overseas audience may be impossible to overcome at scale. Kdrama, like anime, was a fit right out of the box, and so could iteratively build on that foundation. More supply equaled more demand. Except there has never been any organic demand for live-action Japanese television in the first place.

As a case in point, variety and infotainment shows make up the majority of the broadcast schedule in Japan. Yet other than sifting through the catalogs and picking and choosing odd and interesting titles here and there, nobody has figured out how to "capitalize on the category anywhere near to the extent to which it already dominates traditional TV in the country."

Add to that the gatekeeping function of Japan's powerful talent agencies. Outside the news divisions, practically any human being appearing on Japanese television has been vetted, approved, and booked by a talent agency. Their primary interest is the domestic market and the advertising revenue it generates. Markets outside Asia are not an immediate concern.

Which is why I expect this "boom" to eventually regress to the mean. Japan may well become home to thriving overseas production facilities, but as cogs in the Hollywood offshoring and outsourcing machine, not deep wells of backlist material just waiting to be localized for North American distribution.

Related posts

Whither TV Japan
Galápagos entertainment
Japan's phantom content boom

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January 03, 2024

Mr. B Speaks!

First published in 1740, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, the story of a maid who marries way up, was scandalous in its time. For those familiar with its profound influence on the romance genre, it continues to be scandalous now, though for quite different reasons.

Unfortunately, the book is largely forgotten outside of academia. Fortunately, Katherine Woodbury has read it so you don't have to!

As she did with A Man of Few Words, Fitzwilliam Darcy's version of the critical events in Pride and Prejudice, Katherine has again taken a classic novel written from a woman's point of view and flipped the narrative around to the man's.

This time, though, with a postmodern twist.

In a world where characters from novels can be put on trial for their literary crimes, Mr. B, the famously redeemed rake of Pamela, must defend his actions before a panel of skeptical literary scholars. Can he salvage his good name and win back his wife?

Step into the courtroom and judge for yourself!

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The Gentleman and the Rake is the omnibus edition of Mr. B Speaks! and A Man of Few Words.

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