March 30, 2024

Angel Beats

Jun Maeda turned the visual novel game studio Key VisualArts into a synonym for true-to-life melodramas infused with a large dollop of magical realism. In Angel Beats, his latest anime series, he skips right past the realism and goes straight for the magical. Or rather, straight for the eschatological.

In the first scene, Yuzuru Otonashi wakes up in the afterlife and promptly gets killed again. He doesn't die because he's already dead. Which is a good thing, because he's fallen in with a gang of like-minded teenagers who have decided they do not want to "go gentle into that good night," and have armed themselves accordingly.

That means fighting Angel, who's gotten very good at killing them in turn (getting killed here is like a painful time-out in the penalty box). Angel's ungentle job it is to see that they do go gentle into that good night. And that means being good students instead of a bunch of delinquents.

You see, Angel is the student council president. Purgatory is a Japanese high school. And Angel has appointed herself Charon, the ferryman.

Refreshingly, these rebels really are a bunch of delinquents, and despite all the scheming by Yuri, their bad girl leader, they're not good at being bad. Otonashi admits he would have joined whatever group approached him first. All they know is the current status quo, so that is what they defend—to their repeated deaths.

Though following Jun Maeda's reliable formula, this is executed with a good deal of dark humor that at times is quite funny.

Helped along by the fact that Angel isn't a mindless antagonist, and this hapless gang—who admit they don't really know what they're rebelling against (to quote Marlon Brando: "Whaddya got?")—aren't necessarily the protagonists. Because the only true enemy is the self.

Yeah, I know, that's about as trite as truisms get, but stick with it. It pays off.

There's an element of The Matrix here. The red pill students know they're dead but alive in an unreal world, while the blue pill students remain completely oblivious. Except here Maeda fills in the gaps that The Matrix misses, by giving all parties compelling, even moral, reasons for their opposing choices.


Though in substance and message, Angel Beats! reminds me more of Haibane Renmei, Yoshitoshi ABe's subtle and sublime meditation on grace and redemption. ABe's protagonist is Rakka, who is reborn into an afterlife that resembles a semi-rural village in mid-20th century Eastern Europe.

In the pastoral world of Haibane Renmei, there is no god to rail against, no highway to heaven, no sign posts pointing the way. Their only job is to live out their afterlives in the community while "working out their salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).

While Haibane Renmei is quiet and meditative, Angel Beats! is loud and obvious. It's the garage band version, with the volume turned up to eleven. Literally, as one of the gang's tools of subversion is a student rock band that stages illegal concerts to distract Angel's minions during their ammo resupply raids.


Angel Beats! also has a distinctly Buddhist slant. ABe created a purposely Catholic version of purgatory for Haibane Renmei. In Angel Beats! Christian salvation isn't in the cards. Whether you move onto the next world is purely a product of self-realization or satori, and only you can hold yourself back.

On this score, Joseph Smith would agree.

For our words will condemn us, yea, all our works will condemn us; we shall not be found spotless; and our thoughts will also condemn us; and in this awful state we shall not dare to look up to our God; and we would fain be glad if we could command the rocks and the mountains to fall upon us to hide us from his presence (Alma 12:14).

Everybody in this purgatory is terrified of resurrecting the memories of who they were before they died, and instead are obsessed with what could have been versus what actually was. As Socrates said, "The unexamined life is not worth living." So the dead stay dead until they face that examination directly.

Still, it wouldn't hurt if someone could figure out these eschatalogical truths first and then point the way to everybody else. Eventually joining forces, that is what Angel and Otonashi end up striving to do, until the only job left to them is to save themselves.

Related posts

The catechism of Angel Beats!
Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry
Set Apart
Angel Beats! (Crunchyroll)

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March 27, 2024

That's Edutainment!

"Is Japanese Television a Tool for Establishing Social Order?" asks Erik Luebs. Yes, but he mostly avoids the sort of academic navel-gazing you'd expect from a thesis question like that (until the last paragraph), and instead wonders aloud what can be read into the television habits of the average Japanese.

Japanese and Americans watch about the same amount of television. Except the slow penetration of cable in Japan means that for half of the population, their viewing choices are confined to a handful of networks. Japan's "Golden Age" of television hasn't ended, which makes those habit easier to generalize.

Luebs compares at the top-rated television shows in the United States and Japan for the week of May 4, 2015 (the article was published on June 11, 2015).

Despite the data being almost a decade old, NCIS is still on the air, and according to The Hollywood Reporter, as of December 2023, "only 44 percent of households in Japan have at least one subscription video service," compared to 86 percent in the United States. So I think the comparison is still relevant.

NCIS (crime drama)
The Big Bang Theory (sitcom)
NCIS: New Orleans (crime drama)
Dancing with the Stars (contest/dancing)
The Voice (contest/singing)

Mare (family drama about cooking),
Shoten (sketch comedy)
Pittan Kokan (variety/talk show)
Jinsei ga Kawaru (variety/talk show)
Himitsu no Kenmin (variety/talk show)

To clarify: Shoten resembles a haiku version of the original Whose Line Is It Anyway? The host sets up a scenario and feeds lines to the (seated) panelists, who improvise responses with an emphasis on verbal wordplay. It's a clever and entertaining show, and has been on the air since 1966.


Neither is the variety/talk show strictly analogous to its American counterpart. There are celebrity-of-the-day chat shows (NHK's Studio Park, for example), but these are not that. They are "talk" shows in that people talk, and "variety" shows in that a variety of topics are discussed. But the topics take precedence.

These celebrity panels chat and share anecdotes about various topics—tear-jerking stories about family reconciliation, first loves, travel, and maybe the most popular topic: food. Their chats are interspersed with short documentaries and dramatizations, in which the viewer can watch each celebrity's emotional reaction to the content through a "picture in picture" embedded at the side of the screen.

Despite the reputation Japanese reality shows have earned overseas for being weird, wacky, and dumb, these programs can get pretty brainy on the edutainment scale. I think Luebs is onto something when he observes that the reality television format popular in North America is far more fictional.

These [Hollywood productions] are not concerned with attempting to directly address the identities and concerns of the viewer. Rather, they are a playful engagement of thoughts and ideas in which we, the viewer, interact within a fictional world. They are a form of escapism.

The Hollywood version of reality television has been increasingly infiltrating the airwaves in Japan (thanks in no small part to Netflix), but the well-nigh ubiquitous home grown version still follows the formula described above, with experts educating the tarento, who function as stand-ins for the viewer.

A tarento ("talent") is a professional TV personality. To be sure, a tarento may be an actor or singer or Nobel laureate but is a tarento when acting as such. His job is to always have something witty or insightful to say, regardless of the subject. For the viewer, explains Luebs, they become real-life Walter Mittys:

Popular Japanese television looks inwards, into its own society. The variety TV show concept is based on the viewer personally relating to specific individuals who represent various tropes of Japanese-ness. Whether intentional or not, watching these celebrities chat with one another serves as an instructional guide for what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in society. They give the viewer a clue into how to participate in any number of conversations, and how to react in any number of situations. These programs are just as much a form of entertainment as they are a framework for establishing social order.

My only caveat here is that I read "social order" in the most benign sense: lessons on how to play the game of life (specifically ordinary Japanese life).


Still, Luebs can't help slewing back to the comfortable confines of scholarly cant. No, he concludes, it's not "indoctrination," but "without the cultural synergy created by diversity, homogeneous cultural ideas are refined and concentrated, and the TV is the medium that projects these values onto the individual."

As if these cultural ideas didn't exist before television, and only sprang into being around 1950 in the smoke-filled room of a producer's office.

I think it more likely that this hallowed "diversity" in mass media instead reinforces our individual silos: with cable and streaming, we only have to watch what we want to see. But old-school Japanese broadcasters must attract the largest audience possible. They do that by giving the audience what it wants.

Or at least by not broadcasting what the audience doesn't want to see.

If anything is being projected onto the individual, well, the individual is holding up a mirror reflecting it right back at the set. This is readily apparent to somebody who prefers the Japanese approach to "reality" to the American brand.

An awful lot of travel shows on Japanese television focus on traveling in Japan. And then there are the travel shows about going to foreign countries in order to find a Japanese person living there, an ongoing attempt to address the mystery of why any Japanese would choose to live anywhere but in Japan.

But note that the host and audience are always impressed, even awed, by these daring explorers of the World Outside Japan. They serve as proxies for the audience, not cautionary tales. It's not that complicated. All you have to do is stipulate a more introverted and nerdier population and it all makes sense.

They're doing it so we don't have to. For that, I thank them very much.

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March 23, 2024

Jme TV (NHK World Premium)

In its announcement for the Jme TV streaming service, NHK Cosmomedia said that "We are planning to add new features [starting in] April." The Roku app arrived at the beginning of March, though it is little more than a remake of the dLibrary Japan app it replaced.

The big new feature is the addition of NHK World Premium as a replacement for TV Japan.

The rollout actually began on March 19. March 20 was the official start date for transitioning legacy TV Japan customers to the new service, with a 30-day free trial period tossed in for current Jme TV and TV Japan subscribers. So I'll stick around for at least another month.

The only noticeable change to Jme is the addition of the three (grossly oversized) buttons pictured above.

Jme Select
NHK World Premium
NHK World Japan

Jme Select is the existing VOD service (the button only plays promos). The NHK World Japan button simply mirrors the live stream available at the NHK World Japan website. I guess the advantage of this bundle is that you don't need to install the NHK World Japan app too.

The NHK World Premium content is the same live stream used in Europe since NHK shut down its European satellite service (JSTV) at the end of October 2023.

A Schedule link has been added to the Jme website and app, though the program guides at the NHK World Japan and NHK World Premium websites are easier to follow. For the latter, plug in your time zone at the top and you're good to go.

I am baffled why NHK Cosmomedia didn't repurpose the NHK World Premium website since the programming is the same. The NHK World Japan and NHK World Premium sites are better designed and far more functional. The Jme website and app have the same lousy user interface.

I have to hope that once everything is up and running, NHK Cosmomedia will rebuild the TV Japan website as the new home page. Though at the current prices, I won't be sticking around to use it in any case.

NHK Cosmomedia grandfathered in a two-tiered subscription plan for dLibrary Japan subscribers, with the VOD tier at $15/month. I might have been tempted at the original $9.99/month rate. That temptation evaporates at $15/month. At $25/month, I don't have to give it a second thought.

So I'm gone after the trial period ends. But I'll still give it a month and a half to see how the whole thing works. The video quality so far is certainly satisfactory.

Related posts

Jme TV
NHK World Japan program schedule
NHK World Premium program schedule

Whither TV Japan
The end of TV Japan
Jme TV (grumpy old man edition)

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March 20, 2024

The show business panda

This Wikipedia article about the tarento (タレント) and talent agency system in Japan includes a smart quote by the gaijin tarento (外人タレント) David Spector about what it means to be in the entertainment business. It means you are getting paid to entertain.
I'm doing things like the lowest bozo, circus kind of stuff. But it doesn't bother me at all. Foreigners on television [in Japan] are often compared to pandas because they're cuddly, you can have fun with them, throw them a marshmallow, and that's about it. You don't get involved any deeper than that. But since I'm making half a million dollars a year, I'm very happy to be a panda.
This strikes me as a healthy attitude to have about being a celebrity in general. And perhaps the kind of variety talk shows that earn David Spector a generous living aren't quite as silly as they might seem. Erik Luebs argues that beyond the entertainment value, variety talk shows in Japan serve utilitarian ends.
Whether intentional or not, watching these celebrities chat with one another serves as an instructional guide for what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in society. They give the viewer a clue into how to participate in any number of conversations, and how to react in any number of situations. These programs are just as much a form of entertainment as they are a framework for establishing social order.
My only caveat here is that I read "social order" in the most benign sense: lessons on how to play the game of living an ordinary Japanese life.

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March 16, 2024

Big Gold Bullion

During the last days of the Shogunate, the paranoid patriarch of the Miyase clan, once one of the five wealthiest men in old Edo, sold all of his possessions, bought a hoard of precious metals, and buried the stash somewhere far beyond the borders of Tokyo.

The hiding place of what came to be known in family lore as the "Big Gold Bullion" was entrusted to Fujio Miyase's equally eccentric uncle. But succumbing to a sudden illness, the only clue he left behind was a secret message with no decryption key.

Now it is up to Detective Kogoro Akechi and Yoshio Kobayashi, his able young assistant, to crack the code and recover the treasure before small army of cutthroat villains gets there first. They are going to have a fight literally worth millions on their hands.

The Kindle and paperback editions can be purchased at Amazon worldwide. The ePub format is available at Apple Books, Google Play, Rakuten Kobo, B & N Nook, Smashwords and many other ebook retailers.

Kindle
Paperback
ePub
Read an excerpt

The Boy Detectives Club

The Phantom Doctor
Big Gold Bullion
The Bronze Devil
The Space Alien


Big Gold Bullion was the last Boy Detectives Club novel published before the war. The series resumed a decade later with The Bronze Devil in 1949, after which Edogawa wrote an average of two installments a year until 1962.

This time around, the Fiend with Twenty Faces is still in the slammer after getting arrested at the end of The Phantom Doctor. The Fiend would also have to bide his time for a ten long years before returning in The Bronze Devil.

Family names follow Western convention, the surname given last. Long vowels have been shortened to a single character with no diacritics.

Visit Peaks Island Press for more information about the series and the author.

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March 13, 2024

The Space Alien

The year is 1953. The Korean War is winding down. The Cold War is heating up. The United States detonated the first hydrogen bomb the year before. Godzilla will stomp into the theaters a year later. UFOs are making appearances all over the world. And in Ranpo Edogawa's latest novel, flying saucers zoom across the skies of Tokyo.

A day after that alarming incident, a woodsman stumbles out of the forest and reports the landing of an alien spacecraft in the mountains southwest of Tokyo. A month later, Ichiro Hirano's neighbor goes missing. And then reappears as abruptly as he vanished, claiming he was kidnapped by a mysterious winged lizard creature.

That same lizard creature is now stalking Ichiro's own sister. Where did the space aliens come from? What do they hope to accomplish? These are the kind of questions that only master sleuth Kogoro Akechi and the Boy Detectives Club can hope to answer.

The Kindle and paperback editions can be purchased at Amazon worldwide. The ePub format is available at Apple Books, Google Play, Rakuten Kobo, B & N Nook, Smashwords and many other ebook retailers.

Kindle
Paperback
ePub
Read an excerpt

The Boy Detectives Club

The Phantom Doctor
Big Gold Bullion
The Bronze Devil
The Space Alien


The Space Alien takes place in the year following the end of the Occupation (1945–1952). Stark reminders of the war remained, such as a concrete storehouse standing alone in a city block that was once home to a neighborhood of wood-frame houses.

Rice paddies could still be found throughout Setagaya Ward, located in the southwest corner of Tokyo proper. No longer "sparsely populated," this mostly residential ward has since grown to a population of nine-hundred thousand, the largest in the city.

Family names follow Western convention, the surname given last. Long vowels have been shortened to a single character with no diacritics.

Check out Kate's interview with me about the translation process (also here, here, and here).

Visit Peaks Island Press for more information about the series and the author.

Related posts

The magic mirror
Last storehouse standing

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March 06, 2024

The Bronze Devil

A thief is on the loose in Tokyo, a smash and grab artist that targets high-end jewelry stores and steals only rare and valuable watches and timepieces. The identity of the burglar is no mystery. It's a metal robot, dubbed the "Bronze Devil" by the press.

Now it has set its sights on the estate of Ryunosuke Tezuka and the "Royal Luminous Watch." The police know the Bronze Devil's next victim because the robot brazenly told them the time and the place.

Except with its magical ability to appear and disappear out of nowhere, the police are powerless to stop one theft after the other. That can only mean it's time to put master sleuth Kogoro Akechi and the Boy Detectives Club on the case.

The Kindle and paperback editions can be purchased at Amazon worldwide. The ePub format is available at Apple Books, Google Play, Rakuten Kobo, B & N Nook, Smashwords and many other ebook retailers.

Kindle
Paperback
ePub
Read an excerpt

The Boy Detectives Club

The Phantom Doctor
Big Gold Bullion
The Bronze Devil
The Space Alien


Ranpo Edogawa's first Boy Detectives Club novel since 1939 features the debut of the "Street Gang Irregulars," a motley crew of war orphans inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle's Baker Street Irregulars. Against such a formidable foe, these clever kids will have their work cut out for them.

But let there be no doubt that Edogawa's new and improved crime-fighting crew will come through in the end.

Family names follow Western convention, the surname given last. Long vowels have been shortened to a single character with no diacritics.

Check out Kate's interview with me about the translation process (also here, here, and here).

Visit Peaks Island Press for more information about the series and the author.

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