January 19, 2017

Regular Joe

Japanese are enthusiastic borrowers of English vocabulary. And if you are a girl, that includes English/European names. Off the top of my head:


Pretty much any name that conforms the rules of Japanese phonology can be transliterated directly (often with kanji equivalents), but popular names for boys are harder to come by. While June/Jun is quite popular, John/Jan/Jon is rare.

Dan and Benji/Ben qualify, though the latter is avoided because ben is also the kanji for bathroom.

Eugene/Yuujin passes muster. And if you're Russian, Yuri/Yuri/Yuri (a boy's and a girl's name in Japanese). Hence the anime Yuri on Ice, which has the titular character competing against a Russian skater with the same name.

The most recognizable boy's name in this category is probably Ken, as in the actors Ken Takakura and Ken Watanabe.

And then there's good old Joe.

Joe (Jou or Jō) is pronounced the same in Japanese and is a not-uncommon boy's name. The spelling "Joe" is often preferred by actors and artists who lived or are popular overseas, such as Joe Odagiri (小田切譲) and Joe Hisaishi (久石譲).

Joe Odagiri (above) studied at Fresno State. He reminds me a bit of of a young Robert Downey Jr. The Bug Master ("Mushi-shi") and Shinobi: Heart Under Blade are available from Netflix. If you're lucky, you might run across a showing of The Great Passage.

Joe Hisaishi is the stage name (derived from Quincy Jones) of the musician Mamoru Fujisawa. He composed the soundtracks for all of Hayao Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli films. And way over at the Quentin Tarantino end of the entertainment spectrum, for several Beat Takeshi films.

Odagiri and Hisaishi use the same kanji (譲) for their first name, which means "modesty."

Probably the most famous "Joe" in Japanese popular culture is Joe Yabuki, from the classic boxing series Ashita no Joe. The kanji for his name (丈) means "stout-hearted."

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January 12, 2017

Moore's law illustrated (II)

From PC Magazine in the early 1980s. Remember, these are kilo-bytes, one K being equal to 1024 bytes.

At the above prices, adjusted for inflation, 4 GB (giga-bytes) of RAM in 1982 would cost 22 million dollars and the memory card would be bigger than a regulation basketball court. Today 4 GB costs twenty bucks and is about the size of your thumb. Moore's law in action.

Thanks to giant magnetoresistance technology (GMR), which won its inventors the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics, the price/performance curve of hard disks has been no less staggering (also called Kryder's law).

Back in 1982, a 5 MB (mega-bytes) hard disk cost $1995. Accounting for inflation, $1995 compounds to $4975 in 2016 dollars. By comparison, a 500 GB hard disk today goes for one percent of the price, holds 100,000 times as much data, and is at least 1000 times faster.

As slow as those old 8088 and 80286 CPUs were, they often weren't slow enough. Back in the day, a figure you always checked on a computer's spec sheet was its wait states. That is, how long the CPU just sat there twiddling its thumbs waiting for other stuff to get done.

Related posts

Moore's law illustrated (I)
The accidental standard
MS-DOS at 30

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January 05, 2017

Holidays and Hanabi

If you want a job that cleans up on days off, work for the state department in a foreign country. When I was living in Osaka and confronted with the headache of filing taxes in the U.S. as well, I had to keep in mind that the American consulate was closed on U.S. and Japanese holidays.

Christmas isn't an "official" holiday in Japan. But it certainly is celebrated. It's turned into the U.S. equivalent of Valentine's Day, an excuse for couples to get all gooey over each other. In Japan, only guys get feted on Valentine's Day; White Day for girls is celebrated a month later.

(As you might imagine, guys get the better of the deal.)

Just about every holiday and local festival in Japan is accompanied by fireworks. Hanabi (花火) literally means "flower" + "fire."

Except on New Year's. At midnight on December 31, Buddhist temples ring their gong-like bells 108 times. If you're a real devotee, you get up early to watch the first dawn of the year (hatsuhinode). And then dress up in a kimono and visit the local Shinto shrine (hatsumoude).

Anything worth doing is worth doing en masse.

Meanwhile, nengajou, the equivalent of the Christmas card, are delivered on New Year's day in a coordinated burst of postal activity.

Japan has strict fireworks regulations for personal use. That's why sparklers are such a big deal in anime. There's a whole home-grown sparkler culture. Not like Utah, where July 4th and the 24th (Pioneer Day) sound like the climax of a Marvel superhero movie (fighter jets included).

But when it comes to official gunpowder-powered light shows, fireworks festivals aren't just bigger in Japan. They're huuuge. Especially during O-Bon, which is held in July or August (depending on the region's adoption of the Gregorian calendar). And Tanabata (July 7).

Local summer festivals and celebrations (compare to Pioneer Day in Utah and the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York and the Tournament of Roses parade in LA) put on big and elaborate parades followed by big and elaborate fireworks displays.

There are also regional fireworks festivals. Dancing, drumming, and float competitions (that can turn into demolition derbies) have been going on for centuries. And amusement parks and hot springs resorts that, like Disneyland, do it for the publicity and entertainment value.

For a little virtual touring, here's a "how-to" guide and a list of the major festivals.

The Tokushima Awa Odori festival gets national television coverage and has become a huge tourist attraction. You can find lots of videos on YouTube.

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December 31, 2016

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (still not yet)

On December 28, Shinchosha published an update on its Twelve Kingdoms website (and also to Fuyumi Ono's Twitter feed). Last year, Shinchosha announced that Fuyumi Ono was working on the next installment in the Twelve Kingdoms series, due out the summer of 2016.

That deadline came and went. Now at the end of 2016, Shinchosha has apologized that they had "nothing new to announce this year." But don't worry. A Twelve Kingdoms novel is still in works. However, "Ono Sensei's spell of ill health has dragged on a bit longer" than expected.

Shinchosha regrets not providing any concrete details and implores Ono Sensei's readers to bear with them a little while longer. They will continue to press forward, grateful for everyone's continuing support in the New Year.

Here is my translation of the recent update.

There are only four days left in 2016. Alas, having not made any new announcements this year, we have caused you a good deal of anxiety.

Ono Sensei is hard at work on her new novel. However, her spell of ill health has lingered a little while longer. In the face of your high expectations, we apologize for not being able to provide a firm publication date.

We are most grateful for your understanding and ask you to grant us a bit more time.

The film adaptation of Zan'e (『残穢』) was released in 2016. We hope to provide fresh details about The Twelve Kingdoms in 2017. Once we have a better grasp of the situation, we will first let you know on this website.

The staff of Shinchosha is pressing forward as one in order to make 2017 as wonderful as possible. We humbly request and appreciate your continuing support, and wish you all the best in the coming New Year.

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December 29, 2016

Any good excuse for a holiday

Think you deserve a little more time off? Feast Days were a big thing back in medieval times, basically holidays for your favorite saints and noted Biblical events. And there were a lot of them. Alas, only a few, like Easter and St. Patrick's day, are remembered and celebrated today.

The feast of Saint Crispian was memorialized by Shakespeare in Henry V. The battle of Agincourt took place on 25 October 1415, which coincided with the feast of the Crispin and Crispinian, the patron saints of "cobblers, curriers, tanners, and leather workers."

Rallying the troops, Shakespeare has King Henry pay homage to what had turned out to be very much a "working holiday."

This day is call'd the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam'd,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.

Secular governments do the same thing today in a different guise. Hence "World Plumbing Day" (that was March 11, 2012, so you missed your chance to celebrate). In fact, the resolutions identifying these modern feast days for our modern saints and their causes are no less ubiquitous.

The record so far is held by the The 99th Congress (1985-86), that cranked out 275 (!) of these day/week/month/year resolutions, accounting for almost 40 percent (!!) of the "lawmaking" performed. Why? Well, opines Senate Historian Donald Ritchie,

There's also some political benefit to the members. [The resolutions] show that they have been paying attention to good causes in their districts that their constituents are concerned about.

A big waste of time, countered some killjoys, and 104th Congress (1995-96) officially stepped on the brakes, trimming the resolution-making business a good 90 percent. By the 112th Congress, though, they were back in business, with 156 passed.

That's just Congress. Though somewhat more measured in their application, presidential proclamations have typically had more staying power. Though why not make them all paid holidays? Toss in the special "week" and "month" commemorations and we'd never have to work again!

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December 22, 2016

Feeling what you hear

As I discussed last week, Popular Mechanics recently explained "Why You Can't Remember What Modern Movies Sound Like." My first reaction to the implicit challenge in that question was that I can sure remember what Chihayafuru sounds like.

I'm not just referring to an anime's opening (OP) and ending (ED) themes, though they are integral to the anime soundscape. The job of the OP and ED isn't just to keep your attention during the credit roll. They are key elements in marketing and promoting both the artist and the anime.

And perhaps most importantly, the OP establishes a mood and ambience that can fine-tune the genre before the story even starts. Think of how the Law & Order theme, together with the famous "doink-doink/thunk-thunk" sound effect, ties the whole franchise together.

In the Non Non Biyori OP, "Nanairo Biyori," Nano Ripe sounds just like Kotori Koiwai, the voice actor who plays Renge. Renge is a kind of Calvin & Hobbes character whose off-the-wall approach to life establishes the goofy yet endearing tone of the series.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum is Kalafina's dark and gothic "Magia" for Puella Magi Madoka Magica. The message is clear: this is not going to be just another cute magical girl anime.

And as far as ending themes go, Katsu Hoshi's arrangement of "The Rose" that closes out Only Yesterday revisits Bette Midler's Grammy-winning song (performed by Harumi Miyako) with a heartfelt interpretation quite apart from its original use in the 1979 Hollywood movie.

It's a perfect ending with the perfect musical accompaniment.

Chihayafuru does have a memorable OP ("Youthful" by 99RadioService), and an OP you like listening to is a nice reward when you're binge-watching a series. But when I say I remember what Chihayafuru sounds like, I mean the actual soundtrack.

First of all, though I'm sure the whole thing is rendered digitally, composer Kousuke Yamashita goes for a traditional classical orchestral sound (it's getting hard to tell the difference). Second, he develops a simple theme that comes to represent the entire emotional spectrum of the series.

Now, themes can go wrong. "The same only different" is the goal, not endless repetition.

Hikaru no Go suffers a bit from this. The "competition" theme is played on an electric guitar fed through a harmonizer with some backing percussion. That's not the problem. The problem is that the exact same riff is simply repeated in every big scene with no variation.

I suspect this was a budget thing, as it's a fairly low budget production (still a great story!). But it gets samey after a while, not evocative. (The matches of veteran players get more classical-sounding tracks, which are more effective.)

However, when done right, that "same only different" can really bury itself inside your brain. In a good way! The classic James Bond theme is a good example of a musical theme fully integrated into the cinematic narrative and all the more effective because of its familiarity.

Consider the first four notes of Beethoven's 5th symphony. Or the five notes from Close Encounters that John Williams builds into the soundtrack. For Chihayafuru, Yamashita starts with five notes too. By the time he was done, I was feeling like one of Pavlov's rats.

In a good way!

These five notes, revisited in hints, whispers, and variations, with different arrangements and instrumentation, trigger our brains to automatically recall the emotional cues we've already associated with them and prepare the brain for more of the same.

(The soundtrack is available from CDJapan.)

Yes, this is "cheating," as Patrick Doyle's score to Kenneth Branagh's Henry V was described by one critic.

Except movies are all about manipulating the senses. The question is whether we enjoy being fooled or end up feeling conned. Every time we hit the play button, we are giving the director the same challenge Penn & Teller make every week to their magical contestants: Fool Us!

A good movie soundtrack is a magic wand that makes the fooling all the more enjoyable.

Related posts

Hearing what you see
Puella Magi Madoka Magica

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December 15, 2016

Hearing what you see

Over at Popular Mechanics, Avery Thompson explains "Why You Can't Remember What Modern Movies Sound Like." Or rather, he presents the following arguments from the "Every Frame a Painting" blog and Dan Golding.

The former begins with man-on-the-street interviews, asking if anybody can hum a few bars from Star Wars. Everybody can. But what about the theme from any blockbuster Marvel movie made in the last decade?

Nobody can.

The culprit in this case is the "temp track." While a movie is being edited and the music is still being composed, the director uses excerpts from
existing compositions, often movie soundtracks, as stand-ins for what he expects the final product to sound like. Then he tells the composer: "I want it to sound like this only different."

When The Simpsons sets out to parody a musical but doesn't want to pay the royalties, the composer (usually Alf Clausen) will arrange melodies that are different enough legally while still being completely recognizable.

Similarly, many temp tracks end up sounding like the finished version. And some careless directors even forget about the "different" part and end up using the original temp track "by mistake." Either way, the result is an utter lack of originality.

Then again, counters Dan Golding, maybe not. Artists borrow from each other all the time. Or as Picasso (and Steve Jobs) put it, "Great artists steal." For Star Wars, John Williams borrowed from classical composers like Holst and the scores from old Hollywood westerns. Golding instead points to non-linear editing as the root cause.

Instead of a composition composed for an entire cinematic work, soundtracks can be created and performed digitally, and inserted in discrete units: five seconds here, ten seconds there. The soundtrack thus becomes another sound effect, creating mood and ambience with orchestrated sound, not telling a story through melody.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Then again, memorable movie soundtracks that spring to my mind do often predate the fully digitized non-linear era that came of age in the mid-1990s. Along with Star Wars (1977) by John Williams, Patrick Doyle's Henry V (1989) and Last of the Mohicans (1992) by Randy Edelman and Trevor Jones.

Chariots of Fire (1981) and Blade Runner (1982) by Vangelis were unique in being mostly digital scores that mostly predated non-linear editing.

On the other hand, the music in the original Star Trek television series is, well, "noisy." And it was orchestrated the old-fashioned way. Yes, the opening theme is timeless, but the stuff in the middle is often too loud and intrusive, manipulative and simply redundant.

Given the choice, I'll take the minimalist mood-shaping approach, music that creates ambience without encouraging you to pick up a baton or choreograph a marching band, even it means composers aren't using all the emotional arrows in their musical quivers.

Producers have concluded that if they're not making a musical or doing the American Graffiti thing, where the movie accompanies the soundtrack, less is more. And most of the time, they're right.

But that sorely lessens the chance of a composer and director coming up with the perfect combination that hits you right in the emotional solar plexus. As with Patrick Doyle's score, slowly building beneath Kenneth Branagh's Saint Crispian's Day speech, the right movie music has the power to raise a scene to a state of transcendence.

And speaking of borrowing from the classics, here is Bill Pullman's "Saint Crispian on the Fourth of July" speech from Independence Day. You won't remember the music but it heightens the impact of the words without overpowering them.

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December 08, 2016

Interview with a translator

My sister Kate interviewed me for her Romance & Manga blog. As I explain in the interview, I was a "professional" translator for only about seven years, and was pretty much in perpetual starving artist mode.

I'm the PGA golfer who realizes he's never going to rank above 70 and figures he might as well save it up for the senior tour. And get a "real" job. Number 70 on the PGA tour makes around $12,000 a year. It's a move up or move out kind of thing.

For now, translation is "one of those hobbies that takes over your life." But being an otaku, that's the whole point. In any case, this is the kind of give and take forces you articulate stuff you often just think about.

Like blogging, it's thinking out loud, pontificating on a digital street corner, and it was a lot of fun.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV

Or start with Part IV and scroll down.

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December 01, 2016

Earthquakes and the JMA

The Japan Meteorological Agency classifies earthquakes in absolute (Richter scale) and relative terms. This provides the public with practical information, especially when the epicenter often isn't directly below the locations most affected (click image for full size).

So the 7.4 magnitude (later revised .1 upward) earthquake the Monday before last rated at worst a "5-" in actual effect ("seismic intensity") on land.

The earthquake struck at 5:59 AM (Japan time). That meant the 6:00 AM news (2:00 PM MST) was immediately interrupted by "earthquake coverage," which follows a pretty standard format.

No talking heads (at first), no reporters babbling into the camera with no idea  what is going on. The screen switched to a live feed from Onohama harbor in Iwaki, Fukushima, closest to the epicenter. Pertinent information is relayed via on-screen text or audio.

At 6:02 came a tsunami warning, worst-case at three meters. Not disastrous, but enough to be concerned about.

The audio at this point turned, well, excitable. I imagine the poor guy had just gotten to work and hastily swallowed a liter of coffee. Pretty much: "Flee for your lives!" The red-highlighted text on the screen said the same thing. With explanation points.

Recalling that 16,000 people died from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami, this concern is understandable. (The 7.4 magnitude mainshock this time has since been categorized as an aftershock to the 2011 Tohoku earthquake.)

The fishermen certainly weren't taking any chances. As I said, the live feed was from Onohama harbor. It was fascinating to watch all the fishing boats rev up and head out to sea. In twenty minutes, the harbor was empty. Very impressive.

I do wonder about the "crying wolf" problem.

As it turned out, the deepest tsunami was five feet in one location and was more of a tidal surge. Most everywhere else along the coast, it was a foot to eighteen inches. One small boat capsized and nets drying on the docks got washed into the harbor.

But nobody is questioning the "better safe than sorry" policy, and certainly not in Tohoku.

Along with its early warning system, the JMA provides public data on earthquakes. Whenever NHK flashes a warning, I go to the JMA Earthquake Information site (Japanese/English). As you will see, earthquakes are a fact of life in Japan. (Click on a date in the left-hand column for details.)

As illustrated above, the colored round dots indicate the relative magnitude. Clicking on the map (such as here) lets you zoom in.

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November 24, 2016

"Ghost in the Shell" trailer

Yes, another movie I won't be seeing for a while.

Okay, I'll get to the trailer. But first this silly whining about Scarlett Johansson not being "Japanese." Silly because she's playing an android whose only "human" component is her brain, and has swapped "shells" more than once. Besides, phenotypic racial characteristics in manga and anime are highly malleable, to say the least.

It's true that casting Japanese as Japanese in Hollywood is a perennial problem. But in Hollywood, everything's ultimately about the box office, which also points to a perennial supply and demand problem.

As an Asian-American ethnic group, Japanese (1.3 million) lag behind Korean (1.7 million), Vietnamese (1.73 million), Indian (3.18 million), Filipino (3.41 million), and Chinese (3.79 million).

Except for the cream of the crop (Ken Watanabe), a Japanese actor with any kind of talent can get more and better work in Japan (and won't have to speak English). The reverse is true too, which is why (with rare exceptions) "Americans" in Japanese productions are so often played by Europeans who "look" the part.

So while Star Trek creates roles for Japanese actors, aside from George Takei, it has a hard time finding Japanese actors to play them. Thus we have Rosalind Chao in Next Generation (who doesn't look Japanese) and Linda Park in Enterprise (who more or less does) and John Cho in Star Trek (close enough).

I always wondered why they just didn't make Linda Park's character Korean. It's not like there was any continuity to preserve.

In any case, the setting of Ghost in the Shell is postmodern and post-mini-apocalyptic, taking place in a Japan that, like Los Angeles in Blade Runner, has become a polyglot tossed-salad of Asian cultures. So it's hard to hung up about the specifics of national identity.

Anyway, who's to say Johansson isn't Japanese? How many people know that Dean Cain (Lois & Clark) is a quarter-Japanese? (I didn't until I looked it up.) Risa Stegmayer (American father, Japanese mother), co-host of NHK's Cool Japan, doesn't look especially Japanese, especially seated next to the very Japanese Shoji Kokami.

Meanwhile, the very Japanese Hiroshi Abe plays a Roman architect in the Thermae Romae movies.

This anecdote by Peter Payne (who lives in Japan, where he runs an online store for otaku) is a good antidote to this plague of third-party offense-taking:

Once I was watching an episode of Alias with my [Japanese] wife, and there was a horrid scene in which some female spy went to "Japan" (which appeared to be shot in a sushi restaurant about ten minutes from West Hollywood), painted her face white like a "geisha" and proceeded to extract information from her target despite not knowing his language. I was livid that in the 21st century TV producers couldn't even come close to getting basic imagery right, but my wife was enthralled with it, laughing at each new hilarious plot twist.

It's always a good idea to make sure that those on whose behalf you are getting offended would actually get offended by what you think would offend them. Because they might not have the slightest idea what you are talking about.

As far as that goes, the great Takeshi Kitano plays Aramaki in the movie, which I do consider inspired casting.

But enough with that, back to the trailer.

Based on this small sample, it looks like the movie is using material from Masamune Shirow's manga (the girl-on-girl stuff), Mamoru Oshii's animated film (the opening sequences are an exact match), and the second season of Stand Alone Complex (directed by Kenji Kamiyama), in which the Major gets some hefty "shell" repair.

The live-action version also draws its existential moodiness from Oshii. Like Blade Runner, Oshii's versions are more psychological thrillers, far "heavier" than the manga. The same shift in tone can be seen comparing the Patlabor anime series to Oshii's Patlabor feature films.

Stand Alone Complex is a straightforward cybernetic police procedural.

Like Sherlock Holmes, Major Kusanagi has adapted to the needs of the director, the story, and the medium. Shirow's Kusanagi is a futuristic take on a Connery-era "Jane Bond." Oshii's is closer to Rutger Hauer's Roy Batty from Blade Runner, while Kamiyama's approximates Mark Harmon's Gibbs in NCIS.

Explaining why he broke with Oshii's interpretation, Stand Alone Complex director Kenji Kamiyama quipped, "The first episode would be the final one!" People would get bored of watching a character search for her identity for half a year."

So far, I rank Stand Alone Complex and Solid State Society as the best of the bunch (the Tachikoma robots being no small reason why). Like The X-Files, the Stand Alone Complex seasons are tied together by season-long arcs, interspersed with science fiction stories that work well on their own.

But we'll have to wait a while to see where Hollywood's live-action version ranks in the franchise.

Ghost in the Shell (manga) 1989–1990
Ghost in the Shell (theatrical release) 1995
Innocence (theatrical release) 2004
Stand Alone Complex (TV anime series) 2002–2006
Solid State Society (movie in the SAC arc) 2006
Arise (OVA series) 2013
New Movie (movie in the Arise arc) 2013
Ghost in the Shell (theatrical release) 2017

And while we're on the subject, the Ghost in the Shell "Special Edition" DVD is for sale at Amazon for ten bucks.

Related posts

The Shirow franchises (1)
The Shirow franchises (2)
Back to the social welfare future
Haafu and half

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November 17, 2016

"Your Name" (not a review)

Yes, it's time to discuss movies I haven't seen yet! (And anime series I have.) But the subject fascinates me, so I can't resist talking about the film, though without speaking to its artistic merits. (Since it is a Makoto Shinkai film, I can promise you that it will look gorgeous.)

Until this year, Makoto Shinkai's oeuvre could be described as the "anime art house masterpiece." In my opinion, his only successful long-form film was Children Who Chase Lost Voices (also titled "Journey to Agartha"), based on the Izanagi and Izanami (Orpheus and Eurydice) myth.

The Place Promised in Our Early Days and 5 Centimeters per Second certainly took us somewhere, but I'm not certain where, and I'm not convinced he knew either (though it was awfully pretty getting there).

His extraordinary skills as a cinematographer have never been in doubt. But Shinkai's talents as an auteur (wearing the producer, writer, and director hats) truly leap off the screen in his short work: She and Her Cat, Voices of a Distant Star, and The Garden of Words.

Rather, I still believe that it is Mamoru Hosoda's talent for accessible storytelling and his firm grasp of the structured cinematic narrative that places him more in the tradition of the legendary Hayao Miyazaki.

Until this year, that is. The caveat is necessary because over the summer (2016), Makoto Shinkai's latest animated film rocketed into the stratosphere, earning over $190 million in its home market (which is about a third the size of the U.S. market).

Your Name is currently the seventh highest-grossing film ever in Japan. The only animated films to earn more are Frozen and Studio Ghibli productions. The box office is strong enough that it is certain to reach second place at the $200 million mark.

(Among all movies ever released in Japan, Spirited Away occupies the top spot with almost $300 million, followed by Titanic, Frozen, and the first Harry Potter film. Then comes Howl's Moving Castle and Princess Mononoke.)

Of course, the big question is why.

As with Children Who Chase Lost Voices, Shinkai seems to do his best in the big-budget category when he's got another producer looking over his shoulder. In Your Name, he does everything but produce. It might be a good idea for him to keep on not producing his films.

Joe Konrath believes that artistic success has a lot to do with creating a deep backlist, working hard, and then counting on plain old luck. Makoto Shinkai put in the hours and built a fan base and an impressive catalog of work.

And then everything clicked: right place, right time, right subject matter.

Certainly the story he tells has a lot to do with it. The BBC does a pretty good job explaining "Why the story of body-swapping teenagers has gripped Japan."

The body-swapping plot device is hardly a unique one. The modern genre goes back to Vice Versa: A Lesson to Fathers, a 1882 comic novel by Thomas Anstey Guthrie, and brought up to date with Freaky Friday in 1972. Disney has made and remade movies based on the book three times.

A better comparison is the anime Kokoro Connect, in which the seemingly random body-swapping (which turns out to be under the control of a "higher" power), also "touches on universal themes such as coming of age, adolescence, and the struggle to assert your identity in a confusing world."

Shinkai himself credits a poem by Ono no Komachi, one of the two Komachi poems that also inspired my novel, The Path of Dreams (the translation here is by Jane Hirshfield from The Ink Dark Moon):

Did he appear
       because I fell asleep
       thinking of him?
If only I'd known I was dreaming
I never would have wakened

In the Freaky Friday films and its descendants, the body-swapping plot device is played for laughs. There are humorous moment in Kokoro Connect, but as with Your Name, it is not primarily a comedy. For Shinkai, not primarily a comedy means there are still comedic elements.

To be sure, Shinkai doesn't make depressing films. But "upbeat" is not usually the word used to describe them. "Contemplative" and "introspective" might be more accurate adjectives, with an emphasis on interior melodrama.

Mamoru Hosoda has always been able to leaven the pathos with humor, while Shinkai can be fairly criticized for an often unrelentingly earnest approach. His lighter touch in Your Name undoubtedly accounts for its appeal, even while addressing a solemn subject.

The story's real-world antecedent, which he candidly admits to, is the Tohoku tsunami, that in March 2011 killed almost 16,000 people. In Your Name, Shinkai provides the necessary psychological distance by making the disaster a more exotic and less disastrous meteor strike.

But it is still a disaster whose worst aspect could have been avoided with the proper information. Hence the "time slip" denouement (knowing how a story ends ahead of time doesn't bother me).

Which prompts me to hypothesize that the focus of attention on the "body-swapping" business perhaps misses the point. This is far more about transmigration of the soul. In Kokoro Connect, these transmigrations are simply happening in real time without death getting in the way.

That makes it more of a reincarnation story, which brings to mind the quite similar ending in Angel Beats. Theologically, what we find here is a salvific view of reincarnation, that portrays rebirth as integral to the moral evolution of the individual, a second chance to get things right.

"To die with a peaceful mind will stimulate a virtuous seed and a fortunate rebirth." This is the theme of Angel Beats.

The consciousness in the newly born being is neither identical to nor entirely different from that in the deceased but the two form a causal continuum or stream. Transmigration is influenced by a being's past karma.

By placing this "fortunate rebirth" in the context of the survival of an entire community, as opposed to the tribulations of a bunch of angsty teenagers, Shinkai has greatly expanded the scope and reach of the genre, and formed it into a national touchstone.

Your Name is slated for an Oscar-qualifying run in the U.S. this fall. In any case, it is unlikely to gross even a tenth of its Japanese box office. Spirited Away pulled in $10 million, and, sadly, that's actually a respectable amount for a Japanese film.

Spirited Away presented an otherworldly cosmology to audiences used to fairy tales filtered through the Disney lens. Critical opinion aside, it will be interesting to see how well the transcendental message of Your Name communicates across cultures.

Related links

Makoto Shinkai
Mamoru Hosoda
Voices of a Distant Star
Angel Beats! (Yahoo CR)
Kokoro Connect (CR)

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November 10, 2016

Crunchy Fun and the Yahoos

As Dave Barry would say, it'd make a great name for a band.

A few months after applying Jack Welch's "Rank-and-Yank" model to its anime offerings, Hulu still has a ton of anime in its catalog. But like Netflix and Amazon, Hulu wants to turn itself into HBO, and so has dumped its "free" advertising-sponsored model.

That's not quite the right metaphor. Netflix wants to be HBO. Hulu wants to be Comcast. And with its recent deals with Disney and Fox, it's getting there.

I rather like the Hulu model (aside from it succumbing to the inexplicable compulsion to mess with a perfectly fine interface until it's useless), and I believe that streaming services are the future. I just don't want to pay for all of them. It's the new old periodical paradox.

Hence the attraction of a one-stop shop like Hulu as a DVR-in-the-cloud. It would certainly be cheaper than adding a DVR option to my DISH subscription. And a whole lot cheaper than the typical cable package. I plan on cutting the cord before getting the cord.

I could similarly rationalize signing up for Amazon Prime mostly for the free shipping option.

I've maintained my DVD Netflix subscription for the occasional new movie and old television series I missed. It's DVR-by-mail. (Never underestimate the bandwidth of the regular mail.) I have DISH to get TV Japan, an a la carte subscription.

Speaking of a la carte, Crunchyroll is an all-anime provider (with some Korean offerings). And no ads with a reasonably-priced subscription. The only hitch here is that while there's a lot of overlap, Hulu and Netflix and Amazon and Anime Network still have their own exclusives.

Thankfully, that list of exclusives just became smaller.

Funimation (the biggest anime distributor in the U.S. market) and Crunchyroll realized there was nothing to gain by fragmenting the market further and partnered up. Especially when Amazon and Netflix can dig some change out of the couch cushions and outbid them any day of the week.

In 2015, Netflix spent almost $5 billion on programming, Amazon a little more than half that. CBS spent $5.7 billion on television programming, while the Disney (ABC) and NBC media groups spent $12 and $10 billion respectively. A big chunk of that still goes to scripted shows.

(To give credit where it's due, Netflix is streaming the live-action series Midnight Diner. A live-action series! Hulu abandoned its live-action Japanese series.)

Crunchyroll has 20 million users registered though its "free" portal, and has also done a licensing deal with manga publishing powerhouse Kadokawa, which itself bought a controlling interest in Yen Press and partnered with Hachette.

Crunchyroll is capitalized at less than half a billion (by the Chernin Group and AT&T) and has one percent of Netflix's paid subscriber numbers. It's had to rely on strategic alliances rather than deep pockets, and pours its resources into a single market segment with a die-hard user base.

Funimation will still distribute to the rest. With Crunchroll, Funimation is essentially creating a "factory outlet" with a focus on the die-hard fans. Funimation will concentrate on dubs, Crunchyroll on subs and real-time streaming.

The only remaining problem is walled-garden exclusivity. The bite for me was that Netflix runs out of Hikaru no Go DVDs at episode 45, right in the middle of the big competition. And only Hulu had the whole series.

But all is not lost! Hulu handed its whole "free" ad-driven service to Yahoo. The service is called View. I'd swear they didn't even move it off the Hulu servers, just slapped on the Yahoo logo and updated the DNS addresses.

The Yahoo interface is rudimentary at best. If they've got a queue, I can't find it. But I will say this for Hulu: unlike Crunchyroll, its ad engine was pretty darn good and that's what Yahoo is using (again, Crunchyroll is worth a subscription to get rid of the annoying ads).

If Yahoo is serious about making View work, it could turn itself into the syndicated subchannel of streaming. Not a bad direction for the directionless Yahoo to go. In other words, a streaming channel that consolidates all of your favorite reruns on a single ad-supported site.

The goal, after all, is to wring every last licensing penny out of every last piece of IP. Streaming is probably the best way to do that. All Yahoo has to do now is make its service actually user-friendly. Which I fear may prove to be a bridge too far for Yahoo.

But at least I can watch Hulu exclusives like Matoi on Yahoo View, so we may have the makings of a working solution here for us penny-pinchers.

Related links

Yahoo View
The streaming scythe
Anime's streaming solution

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November 03, 2016

The accidental standard (2)

When Gary Kildall was interviewed for the third issue of PC Magazine (Jun/Jul 1982), the future of the PC operating system was very much up in the air. The tech press was hedging its bets. CP/M was still the most popular microcomputer OS. (In the mid-1980s, I was using a Kaypro II running CP/M.) Apple, as always, lived in its own proprietary world.

It only took a year for that uncertainty to fall away and things to gel. IBM made the microcomputer respectable and Microsoft made developing applications for other operating systems unnecessary. But they still had to be individually tweaked to account for each manufacturer's BIOS chip and hardware specs.

In November 1982, Compaq debuted a personal computer with a reverse-engineered BIOS, making it truly "IBM-compatible." Eighteen months later, Phoenix Technologies produced its own 100-percent IBM-compatible BIOS chips and sold them to anyone willing to pay the licensing fee (that additionally indemnified its customers from getting sued by IBM for IP infringement).

Microsoft was already selling MS-DOS to all takers and IBM "lookalikes" were flooding the market. But now the era of the 100 percent compatible IBM "clone" had arrived. The market solidified. In the August 1983 issues of PC Magazine, Todd Katz asked, "Is CP/M Dead?"

Naturally, Digital Research product manager Kevin Wandryk didn't think so.

Even if we do lose this marketplace and it goes totally to Microsoft, this is only Round Two. There is the 68000, the Intel 8286 and 8386 [80286 and 80386], the National Semiconductor 16032, and we have a leading edge at the present time in the operating system development in each of those areas. We certainly won't be blindsided again.

They wouldn't be blindsided because the 1970s and its tossed salad of 8-bit CPUs was over. Apple would go with the 68000. Microsoft and IBM and Intel would stick with MS-DOS and the x86 platform. Nobody was pining for alternatives. Katz saw the writing on the wall. His answer: "CP/M-86 is worse than dead, it is irrelevant."

In the October 1983 issue of PC Magazine, Compaq chairman Benjamin Rosen prophetically predicted that three players would remain in the market: "Those adhering to [the IBM PC] standard and those named Apple" and everybody else.

What came to be known as the "Wintel" standard (Windows + Intel) mattered so much that even the "IBM" part faded to insignificance. Compaq upped the game in 1987 with the Deskpro 386, the first PC to run on the 32-bit Intel 80386 chip. An IBM-compatible that was more "compatible" than an IBM PC forced IBM to lead, follow, or get out of the way.

IBM decided to lead, attempting to reassert sovereignty over the PC world with OS/2. OS/2 and the proprietary Micro Channel bus would lock users into the IBM ecosystem. In its struggle for market share, OS/2 was touted as "a better DOS than DOS and a better Windows than Windows," and that was the whole problem. Everybody was happy using DOS and Windows.

The same way nobody had wanted or needed CP/M-86 once MS-DOS had established itself among vendors and users, nobody wanted or needed yet another x86 OS standard. And Microsoft, who had developed OS/2 with IBM, quickly decided that it didn't either.

IBM and Microsoft broke up in 1990. Microsoft said it was sorry with a billion dollar alimony payment. Back in 1988, Microsoft had hired VMS architect Dave Cutler (another connection between DEC and Microsoft) to create NT, its multitasking "protected mode" OS. By the release of Windows XP in 2001, NT had turned into "a better Windows than Windows" that was still Windows.

Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
In 1995, IBM was spending almost a billion dollars a year on OS/2 with "no possible profit or widespread adoption." Warp 4, released in 1996, was the last version of OS/2 distributed by IBM. Now managed by Serenity Systems, it lingers on in embedded environments like automated teller machines. In 2005, IBM sold its entire personal computer division to Lenovo.

Microsoft has never forgotten that lesson, only abandoning native 16-bit MS-DOS (DOS!!!) compatibility with the shift to 64-bit processing. I still use an old WordPerfect DOS dictionary app on my Windows XP machine, and all my 32-bit Windows 95 apps run just fine.

Well, Microsoft did forget it temporarily with Windows 8, when it pretended to be Apple. Apple, remember, had pulled the rug out from under its user and developer base at least three times: switching from MOS Technology 6502 to Motorola 68000 to PowerPC to Intel x86 CPUs.

Microsoft only messed with the interface of Windows and was forced to beat a hasty retreat. Though let's not forget that Windows still owns 90 percent of the (albeit shrinking) desktop/laptop market.

Microsoft getting ahead of itself with Windows 8 was a consequence of
it getting behind the curve with the Windows Phone. And that takes us way back to the beginning and Digital Research's late arrival to the PC party with CP/M-86.

CP/M (like DOS 1.0) wasn't a "standard," but Digital Research was open to customizing the operating system for every 8-bit CPU that came down the pike in the 1970s. The resulting fragmentation and version control problems meant that computers in the same product line often weren't compatible with each other, to say nothing of competing platforms.

Along with Palm and Blackberry, Microsoft was an early player in the mobile OS market, developing Windows CE since 1996. Like Digital Research, it had gotten good at customizing Windows CE for each vendor in a heterogeneous hardware market.

As Digital Research was by IBM and MS-DOS, Microsoft was blindsided by the iPhone, build on a single hardware platform with a new interface. Then Google made Android the DOS of the smartphone, licensing it to all comers. Google could have cribbed from Microsoft's famous mission statement: "A smartphone in every pocket all running Android software."

Back in 1983 and 1984, industry prognosticators were predicting that, any day now, MS-DOS would be superseded by Digital Research's CP/M-86, or Xenix (Microsoft's version of UNIX), or PC/IX (IBM's version of UNIX). A few years later, OS/2 and Micro Channel were going to dominate for sure.

But the IBM PC had set the standard and the PC world didn't need or want another one. Not even IBM could alter the ultimate direction of its own creation. This explains Microsoft's draconian efforts to get old fuddy-duddy hold-outs (like me) onto Windows 10: fragmentation and loss of version control is death.

The evolution of the PC made clear that the consumer market has room for two operating system (Windows and Mac), with the third (Linux) ending up a couple of sigma out on the long tail. The same thing happened with Android and iOS in remarkably similar proportions, this time with Windows Phone ending up with single digits of market share.

Unlike Digital Research, Microsoft has the resources to stay in the race. It plans to focus its Windows Phone efforts on enterprise customers while "betting on a technology leap in a few years with a paradigm shift." Which I take to mean: when Continuum and a Surface phone become practical realities (and Apple loses interest in the desktop OS).

Considering how much the computer industry has changed in the past 35 years, I won't be surprised at all if and when a new "accidental standard" takes over in a flash.

Related posts

The accidental standard (1)
The grandfathers of DOS
MS-DOS at 30
The cover

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October 27, 2016

New Twelve Kingdoms novel (not yet)

Software rarely ships on time. Or it ships on time instead of being delayed six months to fix all the bugs. The same thing applies to the bits and bytes that make up a novel. Everything is software these days.

In other words, the next installment of the Twelve Kingdoms series was supposed to debut this summer. It didn't, and that's understandable.

Fuyumi Ono isn't quite in George R.R. Martin territory. This year has seen re-releases of her light novel Seventeen Springs and the Shiki manga series, plus a new volume in the Ghost Hunt manga series.

And the publisher is still indicating that a new Twelve Kingdoms novel is on the publishing schedule. Shinchosha's Twelve Kingdoms home page includes what clearly appears to be a place-keeper for a new entry.

Right-to-left, the list starts with The Demon Child and ends with "Epic new novel." Specifically, kaki-oroshi (書下ろし) means "a newly written, previously unpublished work."

Albeit with no delivery date. Ah, it takes a lot of patience to be patient.

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