June 22, 2024

Serpent of Time

The last princess of Japan's doomed Southern Court, Fujiwara Ryo has an offer she can't refuse: a marriage proposal from her archenemy. As the shogun's royal prisoner, she could live a comfortable life in a gilded cage. But Ryo isn't the kind of girl to take the easy way out, so refuse it she does. Not long thereafter, a failed revolt against the shogunate puts a price on her head and her spurned fiancé hot on her heels.

Ryo escapes with Sen, her loyal lady-in-waiting. Atop sacred Mt. Koya, Sen's uncle summons the mighty Kala Sarpa. If all goes as planned, the "Serpent of Time" will transport Ryo safely out of the shogun's reach. Except Kala Sarpa bears a grudge of its own against the Fujiwara clan and seizes the chance to even the scales. Their fates fully entwined, Ryo will have to travel back to the past to save her future.

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.

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Names follow Japanese convention, the surname given first. Romanization is according to modified Hepburn. Long vowels (such as /ou/) and double vowels (such as /oo/) are indicated by a macron or circumflex. Long and double vowels are held for two syllable counts.

It was common in medieval Japan for members of the aristocracy to refer to each other by their given names plus an honorific. When a shogunate retained power for any length of time, the proliferation of the same surname would otherwise become hopelessly confusing.

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June 19, 2024

My Happy Marriage

Starting perhaps with the Sakura Wars franchise, the two decades from the end of the Russo-Japanese War through the Taisho era (1905–1926) have come to encompass Japan's steampunk period.

Also known as the Taisho Democracy, a flowering of democratic ideals leading to a short-lived parliamentary system, it is the setting for My Happy Marriage, Otome Youkai Zakuro, Demon Slayer, Golden Kamuy, Taisho Otome Fairy Tale, Taisho Baseball Girls, and many others.

My Happy Marriage and Otome Youkai Zakuro also share a similar premise. Though the modern age is upon them, they still live in a demon-haunted world and those demons have to be dealt with.

In My Happy Marriage, Kiyoka Kudou is the stoic leader of the Special Anti-Grotesquerie Unit, while in Otome Youkai Zakuro, Kei Agemaki is the stoic second lieutenant in the Ministry of Spirits.

Kudou's team pacifies rampaging youkai while Agemaki (aided by two fellow officers and three youkai allies) is tasked with dispatching the worst of the lot while reaching negotiated settlements with the rest.

Though as the title suggests, My Happy Marriage primarily concerns itself with the relationship between Kudou and Miyo Saimori and the complications that ensue. As a result, he ends up spending more of his time fighting other human magic wielders than actual youkai.

Miyo Saimori is the Japanese Cinderella in this story and Kudou is her prince charming, except he is not at all charming when they first meet. He's more like Fitzwilliam Darcy on a bad day and his reputation precedes him.

Even during the Taisho era, the aristocracy used marriage to conduct business and politics. Kudou, for one, is tired of the gold diggers and opportunists showing up on his doorstep and assumes the worst of Miyo as well. Once he realizes that all she wants is to be nowhere near her stepmother and stepsister, he begins to warm to her presence.

I was wary at first about My Happy Marriage for fear of being drenched in Miyo's misery. But the worst of it is over by the end of episode one, with the evil step-people making a return visit in episode five.

Convinced that Miyo had no supernatural powers, Miyo's father was eager at first to get rid of her and was surprised when Kudou accepted. A little genealogical research later, it becomes apparent that Miyo is a descendant of the powerful Usuba bloodline on her mother's side. Even if she has no powers now, they are likely to manifest later.

So now they want her back. But in the meantime, Kudou has grown quite fond of her. He is not about to give up this diamond in the rough without a fight. You really don't want to get Kudou mad and have him go all Hulk Smash! on you.

A big difference with Otome Youkai Zakuro is that we don't actually see Kudou doing his job until the second half. In the first half of the series, he's got his hands full dealing with his in-laws. In the second half, Miyo's connection to the Usuba clan has caught the attention of the powers that be, who fear she will upset the status quo.

My Happy Marriage concludes with the Taisho emperor (Yoshihito in our world) going off the rails (which he did in our world too) and Takaihito (Hirohito) stepping in as regent. Miyo is safe and the situation has stabilized for the time being. But hardly permanently. So a second season is in the works.

My Happy Marriage is streaming on Netflix.

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June 15, 2024

Silver Spoon

Since her adventures in Coin, Donna Howard has become an established investigator of relics and antiques, with the help of deceased historical people only she can see. This time around, her investigation takes her to Salem, Massachusetts, where she delves into the town's haunted history and the modern world of antique hunting.

Her research into the provenance of a silver spoon leads Donna to a stash of unexpectedly valuable junk in an old man's basement, an old man whose death Donna begins to suspect was less than "accidental." Along with opportunistic antiquers, she must also contend with a possible murder, a possible possession, and a possible boyfriend.

Because nothing can make the dead past and the living present more precarious than the unpredictable complexities of human relationships.

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.

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Donna Howard Mysteries

Coin
Silver Spoon
Apron
Clasp

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June 12, 2024

Anime reassessed (culture matters)

Why do western audiences like anime? One reason is precisely because anime doesn't pander to western audiences. Or rather, anime in general does not make a concerted effort to appeal to modern audiences outside Japan.

The Critical Drinker deserves the credit for turning that expression into a pejorative. To be sure, every trendy social and political movement eventually shows up in Japanese popular culture (often reusing the same English terminology). But in almost every case, it is an ephemeral surf that leaves the deeper societal currents undisturbed.

Dating back at least 2500 years, Confucianism is the common cultural cornerstone of the Sinosphere. In particular, China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam share a worldview with deep roots in Confucianism. Especially in South Korea, that worldview "shapes the moral system, the way of life, social relations between old and young, high culture, and much of the legal system."

It's easy to spot an almost identical postmodern veneer around the developed world and assume that all such societies are essentially the same. But no matter how contemporary a society may appear on the surface, the bedrock culture remains. If only for the sake of verisimilitude, it must constitute an inextricable part of any story being told in that context.

The payoff is that understanding and respecting the immutable nature of the culture makes for a reliable source of tension and conflict and narrative depth.

Challenging traditional values is one thing. Eliminating them entirely is quite another. That's what China did during the Cultural Revolution. The result was the wholesale destruction of an entire generation. It comes as no surprise that those very same communists are now hawking the ancient cultural heritage and Confucian teachings they once vilified.

China learned the hard way the value of Chesterton's Fence.

Granted, aside from a handful of trending topics and popular political slogans, most people would have a hard time identifying what those cultural values are. But they do recognize their absence. Like a living organism deprived of a necessary nutrient, even if that absence goes unnoticed at first, its loss will inevitably exact a toll.

Regardless of the genre, anime is deeply rooted in Japanese culture. Even when seemingly lost in translation, it shores up the story being told. From the hierarchal language to the education system, to food, fashion, architecture, and a myriad of other customs that are centuries old and very much alive.

A great example of this is Dragon Pilot, that starts at a modern JSDF air force base, and then tosses dragons, miko (Shinto shrine maidens), and ancient religious rites into the mix. Dragon Pilot introduces the shrine maidens in the last third of the story, while Otaku Elf takes place entirely in the shrine maiden genre.

The Japanese title for the latter is Edomae Elf and Elda has been hanging around Takamimi Shrine since the dawn of the Edo period. More recently in the early twentieth century, the Taisho period has become the go-to setting for Japan's fantasy steam punk era, as in My Happy Marriage and Demon Slayer.
In an interview posted on Anime News Network, My Happy Marriage director Takehiro Kubota was asked if he was concerned about how viewers outside Japan would enjoy and interpret the anime.

"Not really," was his reassuring answer.

In fact, I never imagined that it would be seen so widely in so many different countries, so I was grateful when I heard that it had been watched by so many people overseas and had such a positive response. Perhaps due to Miyo's uniquely Japanese character? It's somewhat hard to express the nuance, but Miyo is a quite modest person who clearly doesn't wear her heart on her sleeve. I found it very interesting that her character was accepted in other cultures where being able to assert one's own opinion is a highly valued character trait.
A big part of what draws western audiences to anime is precisely because it is not made for western audiences. The aesthetics of anime create an additional level of remove that paradoxically makes reality all the more real. So as it turns out, then, I do like the isekai genre very much, because watching anime takes me on a voyage to another world.

Related posts

Anime reassessed (pacing matters)
Anime reassessed (culture matters)
Anime reassessed (numbers matter)

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June 08, 2024

Anime reassessed (numbers matter)

In my previous post on the subject, as an explanation for why Jdrama trails so far behind anime in the international marketplace, I theorized that Jdrama has difficulty syncing the amount of story available with the amount of time available over the typical run of a television series.

I will now try applying Ockham's razor to the question, which broadly holds that the simplest theory is usually the best.

Sturgeon's law states that 90 percent of everything is crap. Statisticians call this phenomenon the Pareto principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. In this case, 20 percent of the entertainment produced represents the 80 percent of the entertainment that's worth watching. The obvious solution, it would seem, is to just produce that 20 percent to start with.

The problem, as screenwriter William Goldman famously described Hollywood, is that "Nobody knows anything."
The smartest people in the room can rarely predict what that 20 percent will be ahead of time.

Even when the majority of consumers of a product agree about what is objectively good, that consensus is not necessarily synonymous with what they all like or what they are all willing to pay for. Once you start dividing the entertainment pie into mediums, audiences, and genres, the slices that appeal to any one person are going to end up being pretty thin.

When it comes to anime, I generally avoid isekai and anything that involves people getting trapped inside video games. Battle shonen like Jujutsu Kaisen test my patience too. In other words, I steer clear of many of the most popular genres (though I did enjoy Reborn as a Vending Machine and Chainsaw Man, that flipped a bunch of worn out formulas on their heads).

And yet, even taking those genres off the table, there are enough titles left over every season that I still have to whittle down the list of new shows I want to watch. With distributors like Crunchyroll and Netflix buying everything that the anime industry puts out, the pie keeps growing and growing and those thin genre slices start getting pretty big all on their own.

As Miles Atherton points out, the anime pie is now so large that, with the exception of children's television, more anime series are produced every year than all of the animated television programs in the rest of the world combined.

The expanding audience encourages distributors to buy more content, and anime producers in Japan to make more content, and more talent to enter the field, which increases the odds that the audience will find something to keep them watching. It's the virtuous circle of art and commerce that rewards more with more. Also known as the Matthew effect.

Kdrama is now in the same place.

At this rate, unless a major player like Netflix begins buying content like crazy, I don't see Jdrama expanding outside a few streaming niches.

If Edo period dramas are your thing, Samurai vs Ninja has a whole website just for you. Rakuten Viki focuses on romance, but even Viki (a Japanese company) acquires ten times as much Kdrama as Jdrama. Jme TV is the only active player licensing content across the board. But it localizes almost nothing in its catalog, which places a hard cap on future growth.

In the meantime, anime keeps going from strength to strength if only on the strength of numbers alone.

Related posts

Anime reassessed (pacing matters)
Anime reassessed (culture matters)
Anime reassessed (numbers matter)

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June 05, 2024

Anime reassessed (pacing matters)

I let my Netflix, Crunchyroll, and HIDIVE subscriptions expire earlier this year and spent the last six months mostly watching live-action Jdrama on Rakuten Viki, Tubi, and Jme TV.

And the result of this little experiment? Far and away, anime remains my preferred medium for scripted entertainment.

It's not just me.

As Miles Atherton reports on Anime News Network, according to recent data released by Netflix, in terms of total hours viewed, anime not only overperforms in its category overall but makes up almost 80 percent of all Japanese language content viewed.

Starting with deep wells of proven source material, the inherent constraints of anime production sufficiently discipline the process (no anime studio has the resources to crank out a $200 million CGI flop) so that when everything comes together, a watchable work of art is the result on a reasonably regular basis.

Good stories told well.

To start with, this isn't about production values. HD video technology has leveled the playing field in that regard. Rather, the underlying problems come down to how the stories are structured, paced, and told.

Many hour-long Jdrama episodes should be thirty minutes shorter. (So should most movies.) I usually skip anime compilation films but doing the opposite works better. Editing Demon Slayer: Mugen Train into seven episodes improved on the movie. When it comes to single arc stories, a runtime longer than that just drags everything out.

A half-hour live-action show like Kamen Rider: Zero-One is thirty episodes too long. Past a certain point, filling the available time results in mindless repetition. I made it to the end of Kamen Rider: Kuuga solely on the strength of Joe Odagiri's performance and a supporting cast that created a great Scooby Gang.

Incidentally, comparing Kamen Rider: Kuuga (2001) and Kamen Rider: Zero-One (2020) illustrates how extraordinarily far budget CGI has progressed in the past two decades.

Yet despite the superior production values of the latter, the acting and dialogue elevate the former, even with its near-fatal plot holes and running a full two seasons (that's one season too many).

When Hollywood is running on all cylinders, it gets episodic television exactly right, with standalone episodes loosely linked by season-long dramatic arcs running in the background. So Fuyuhiko Takahori has the cause and effect backwards. The common point of failure is stretching a single story over more episodes than are required to tell it.

There are writers who have mastered the formula. 99.9 Criminal Lawyer and Unnatural both run standalone episodes against background narrative arcs that pay off reasonably well. Three Star Bar in Nishi Ogikubo tells a complete story in six half-hour standalone episodes and completes a satisfying series-long arc.

But more often than not, you feel like you're stuck on a hamster wheel, spinning around and around and going nowhere. Anime is not immune to the problem. Demon Slayer and Jujutsu Kaisen spend too long on the hamster wheel (a rut the battle shonen genre easily falls into) while Frieren jumps off before overstaying its welcome.

This is why I prefer the slice-of-life genre. Challenges are taken on episode by episode, with an emphasis on the character arcs. In Komi Can't Communicate, Komi struggling toward her goal and Tadano simply being a genuinely good person (harder to depict than it sounds) make the story compelling.

Likewise, in the plot-heavy My Happy Marriage (Cinderella in early 20th century Japan), I find myself more interested in Miyo's self-actualization (that tired term actually applies here) than the tangled web of political machinations.

Interesting characters create interesting stories, not the other way around. In Jdrama romances especially, the realization slowly dawns that, aside from the sturm und drang of the romance itself, these are really boring people. That and a smattering of common sense would fix most of their issues.

Both the abstract nature of anime as an artistic medium and the physical constraints of the production process make it easier to align the story to the viewing time in ways that are both more concrete and rewarding to the viewer.

Related posts

Anime reassessed (pacing matters)
Anime reassessed (culture matters)
Anime reassessed (numbers matter)

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June 01, 2024

Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation

Aubrey St. Clair awakens in a locked room, having barely survived a misguided enchantment that turned her into a cat. Kidnapped by unprincipled magicians and exploited by ruthless politicians, her only recourse is to literally claw her way to safety.

Safe in body but not in soul, Aubrey is forced to confront the slippery memories of her own bespellment. Is forgetfulness really the best defense?

In her hunt for the truth, Aubrey is aided by a cool-headed police officer. His interest in her, however, may be more than merely professional. But how much more? It slowly begins to dawn on her that perhaps the most powerful spell of all is love.

Aubrey is the first book in the Roesia series. Roesia is a Victorian world where magic is real and spells and potions are the focus of academic study. Although sharing characters and events, the books can be read as standalone stories.

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.

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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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