Friday, July 15, 2011

Video Killed the Video Star: Anime Music Videos Leave Gamification Vaccume


How AMVs became the bad cholesterol of anime fandom.

The Anime Music Video (AMV), was once a potent and significant component of American otaku community development and enabler of social mobility within the various strata of fandom. It has since devolved into the Toxoplasma Gondii of Anime fandom everywhere, spreading to everything, and accomplishing nothing.

Kill all the hyoomans!

Technological realities once kept the supply of AMVs down to a low stream of relatively few per year for two reasons. First, the editing skill, available anime video library, and hardware needed to actually complete an AMV used to be quite significant and unattainable for many otaku. Such limitations included age, financial reach, and most importantly, talent. This resulted in the AMV being a time consuming effort, undertaken by the few individuals who were confident enough in their abilities and resources to produce a proper AMV. Second, once made, AMV distribution was extraordinarily limited to basically the convention circuit, and a few clubs that managed to get a copy of AMV competition reels or talk Duane Johnson into making a copy of his collection on VHS. They were rare and they were unique, making the level of "otaku bragging points" they carried pretty high on the totem pole.

The AMV is still a part of otaku culture, but this art form has gone from something of high-value, to the lowest possible level of filler activity on par with fanfic writing. Sure you might find one out there that only slightly sucks ...maybe (talkin about fanfics here), but there are millions of poorly written fanfic linguistic vomitbags being churned out by high school freshmen who've got a boner for Gurren Lagann. Neotakus who are just starting to attend conventions since the day after youtube was invented will never experience the dynamic that the AMV formerly played in the social hierarchy of otaku culture.

Lets list the factors which caused this transition. While it's tempting to just write "The Internet" for every single reason behind the downfall of the AMV as a tool of gamification, we're going to try to be a bit more specific.

The 5 Reasons AMVs are Dead*:

#5) Linkin Park: There is no single demarcation line where AMVs definitively became the bad cholesterol of anime fandom, but that year where literally every other submission in the Otakon AMV contest was Linkin Park set to "anyfuckinganimeever" comes painfully close. The viewing was painful, the premises were crap, and it got so bad so fast, that within 2 years the Linkin Park AMV had degenerated into a fucking parody of itself.

What no one realized at the time, was that the rage virus was out of the monkey, and AMVs now became the battleground of emo Weaboo who brought the product of their own "deep" introversion to the anime fandom scene despite the fact that no one asked them to. Look, every generation goes through its "they just don't get me" phase, but what's unforgivable about the post-internet emOtaku crowd is that they shoved that into the AMV contest to the point where we actually hurt our asses waiting for all that shit to be over so we could watch the 5 funny ones at the end of the contest screening.

There's a part of one of the AMV Hell collections (I think) that is 10 Linkin Park songs set to Evangelion over about 30 seconds, but I can't find it. Just use your imagination.

Proper criticism at the time (2003-04): I know you feel a certain way you little emo bastard, but why can't you just read manga while blasting the music they play at Hot Topic? Don't shit into the pool of AMVs out there. You're seriously ruining this for everyone, junior.

#4) Self Esteem: The Mr. Rogers effect of injecting "you're super special and awesome" levels of self esteem by helicopter parents into their precious snowflakes, has had some devistating effects. In terms of AMVs it has allowed some of the crappiest shit to exist by rendering their makers immune to self-criticism and the ability to feel shame and disgust when they step up to the public stage with a work that is painfully sub-par. Perfectionism has taken a back seat to a self centered mentality of throwing out absolute garbage just to prove to others how big a fan of Ouran High School Host Club you are. This is in and of itself a gamification behavior, but has a muted effect due to other factors coming up on this list.

The day youtube dropped 5 star rating for thumbs up or down style was the day we lost our last chance, and past the event-horizon of fail.

AMVs stopped being special when some shithead decided that leaving the subtitles in the final edit was OK. If the subtitles are anywhere in the AMV, you suck - redo it! If there's a DIVX or TV station bug in the corner that comes and goes, you suck - redo it! If you start the video by matching up things litteraly with the song and then stop doing that half way through, you suck - redo it! Failure needs to be accessible early and often, for it leads to self-correction, discipline, and a productive sense of determination. Sadly this isn't happening in America because since 1975, the youth of America have always been told the lie that 100% of what they do/say/think has some sort of value in objective reality. Spoiler alert: That's bullshit.

There's a reason that amateurs aren't allowed to drive F1 cars, there's a reason that NASA rejects 99% of their applicants, and there's a reason why your AMV sucks and shouldn't see the light of day (but apparently you haven't heard it yet).

This should not exist. It should have been taken down in shame, and the person who made it should have bettered themselves with practice until they could produce something that could stand on par with what an AMV should be. Yet the comments are full of "omg! you put a character I like in there so therefore this is totally awesome! squeeee!!!!!" This is why we can't have nice things.

Proper criticism at the time (2008-Yesterday): You suck, and here a list of things you did wrong as certified by experts in video editing, rolled up inside a huge bag of shame! Yes, I know you got a whole bunch of thumbs up on youtube, but those are from 12 year olds who just happen to like Deathnote & Nickelback.

#3) "Fuck you, Japan!": No matter what happens, Japanese studios and publishers always seem to retain a fundamental lack of market understanding no matter how many times it's explained to them that things like AMVs are not piracy and that shutting them down will do nothing to protect their sales, and only generate a wedge effect, further de-humanizing themselves in the faces of American fans making them look like "faceless corporations" making lots of money and doing what they will in the face of customer input (like Apple).

In no way can AMVs really have any tangible negative effect on anime titles and brands. They are helpful indicators of brand strength, and help grow the market for a title as well as energize current customers. They don't displace sales, they don't replace the original program, no one is going to not buy K-ON because there's a 3 minute music video with a little sexual innuendo on youtube out there instead.

So what's the problem? Well, if you watched that AMV, you might notice that there were 35 different anime titles in there. How much you wanna bet that they are all from legit DVD purchases or downloads and not a single one was pirated at all? Yeah...

Studios seeing an AMV don't see a marketing tool for high-intensity and high-context customer engagement with gamification dynamics... they see a fucking bootleg of their title that someone illegally downloaded and just happened to use an an AMV! Horrible over-reaching analogy: If your child died in an accident and I downloaded their genetic code and cloned my own version using a rented uterus, it wouldn't really matter to you if you never found out. But if I kept making videos of my clone of your dead kid and shoving them in your face, you're not gonna approach things very rationally. Same thing is happening here to a lesser extreme; You're just shoving the fact that you stole their license right into the face of the writers, animators, artists, sound engeneers, directors, and office workers who make anime for a living. They're not going to see past that, and therefore continue to be hostile to AMVs.

Proper criticism at the time (1999): Gentlemen, thank you for joining me at the first international Japanese animation global marketing conference. I'm glad to see every anime studio and distribution label represented here. Now, let me tell you about multi-platform viral marketing strategies...

#2) Digital Everything: AMVs were once like hot-rod cars. People worked hard on them, stuck in very unique aspects that no one else would have access to, and then the would take them someplace where they could show them off to other people who would be impressed with their work. Otaku points would abound if you could find footage of an anime that almost no one had ever seen before, or a JPop song that was currently burning up the charts. Using multiple titles in a rapid fire mode was a pretty awesome thing to do, because it meant that this person has lots of anime and knows where to find these scenes. Almost nothing screamed "I'm more Otaku than you" louder and to more people than a top-tier AMV. The best example of this, forever and all time, has got to be Duane Johnson's "Dare to be Stupid" AMV, which at this point is pushing 15 years. Think about that.

This had incredible value, because lots of this footage wasn't easy to find at the time. It didn't even matter if you had/have no idea what those titles are, the song ties everything together in a literal sense so you don't miss out on the enjoyment factor. The elusiveness of all of the different anime titles in there, combined with the quality of the editing meant that this was worth some crazy otaku points back when there was no way your stupid ass was ever going to get a copy of this AMV for yourself.

No longer is that the case. While the digital revolution did basically create the separate but related creative forms of the"Overdub" and the "Mashup," which have as much if not more entertainment value, the damage done to AMVs was severe and irreparable. AMVs lost their ability to add value to social fandom the day a few mouse clicks could conjure up any footage of any anime almost instantly. To top it all off, it would already be encoded in a digital video form, ready to go for whatever low-end editing software you had. The result?

Somehow underwhelming.

Or just total shit.

Proper criticism at the time (2001): "Can" "Should" ...Any questions?

#1) The Fucking Internet: In this context I simply mean that it's now far too easy to just sit down wherever you are whip out a smartphone and have access to enough AMVs to litteraly occupy every second of every day for-fraking-ever... instantly. Watching AMVs was once something only available to convention attendees, and even then only for 90 minutes or so. They were so valuable that in the 1990's I would enter the Otakon AMV contest just to get copies of the other entries (they were always good though, my last was in 2002). We'd show them on the Anime Crash CCTVs every now and then to a packed house, and that was because these things were rare pieces of Otaku fandom. You'd never fill an anime store (let alone convention) these days by announcing you were going to show a few AMVs, because you could watch the same thing at home in your undies while doing 3 other things online at the same time.

Over-abundance via saturated distribution has caused just about every problem there is with the decline of the AMV. Some things should not be available to 11 year olds, and the internet enables them into producing total crap. Even enabling an entire generation of retards who can't tell which songs aren't actually by Weird Al Yancovic. Nice AMV but it's not Weird Al. Not that one either. No, not that other one, I don't care if it "sounds" like him. Really? Weird Al's own website says that's not his! And so on and so forth. The unreliability of the internet mixed with the notion that your opinions somehow have value (from #4) have combined to create a fan that literally thinks that their retarded tumor-baby of an AMV they've created from an anime they like and Windows Movie Maker is something other than a sickening creation deserving of only contempt. Contempt that you've wasted everyone's time on this crap.

The result of commoditized AMVs made possible only via the internet (nothing else could do it) has had two major effects:
A) AMVs are now not only abundant but tremendously accessible. Searching AMV libraries by theme, character, song, series, artist, etc, has become so easy, that the need to seek them out at conventions is no longer prevelant.
B) Development A has caused the value of the AMV as it pertains to the social structure of the American Otaku market market to deflate, leaving a vaccume in sources for "Otaku-points."

Proper criticism at the time (1998-99): WE'RE DOOOOOMED!

AMVs and Gamification.

I truly believe that the explosion in cosplay that has come to dominate Otaku convention culture over the past 5-10 years, was (in part) a result of the "points" vacuum created by the hyper-commoditization of the AMV. Otaku Wee'Bos could no longer tangibly rise further in the fandom hierarchy via the creation or possession of AMVs, because they were everywhere and anyone could make one at that point. This left the option of creating a costume better than those of the other schlubs as one of the few viable means to earn slight elevations in the pecking order.

Anime fans often socially interact in ways in which establish a hierarchy where rank is based on possession of items, fandom knowledge, important contacts, or other things with limited access. That means everyone is trying to out-fan each other a lot of the time (not always). I assign the term "Gamification" to this dynamic, but that's not really accurate, as "Gamification" is a more structured group activity where the channels of upward mobility are top-down designed and implemented by a central authority which engages in pull-marketing (think FourSquare). In the otaku social space, these channels of upward mobility and rules of engagement have developed organically, and therefore are also subject to intense fluctuations, so when you win you really win, but you also run the risk of a ton of worthless currency, such as AMVs.

As noted, AMVs formerly held a position of high value currency but are now pretty much worthless in that grand scheme of things:

For clarification: Rare means that the overall supply is a low ratio of AMVs to Otaku, where as and Limited Access means that there are only a few channels which can deliver AMVs to Otaku, regardless of how many AMVs there are. The rest other categories should be obvious. Such qualities made the possession and creation of AMVs a source of otaku fan authority, and the more you had, the more points you earned. Bring an AMV reel to an anime club meeting and you were god (or close).

But, the need to engage in the social activity and the gamification that such activity still entails, means that something must step up to fill that need. There have always been extreme sources of otaku legitimization; Industry Job, Published Artist, Voice Actor, Big Retailer, etc, but these opportunities are simply too few to contribute to the larger mass of regular otaku consumers (many of which are just too young for any of that) and fill the gap that AMVs have left with their devaluation. Enter cosplay:

AMV scores a little differently against Cosplay here. Rather than having all X marks, because this table of comparison is for a convention setting, where an obscure title is still worth something and where there's always an air of competition in almost everything.
In this case, Limited access means that (unless you're Danny Choo) you don't cosplay to work on the train every day, and in order for your cosplay to satisfy your own motivational needs (and thereby create intangible value), the cosplayer requires an audience. There are two kinds of audiences, passive and the engaged. An example of a Passive audience would be passers by at the Yoyogi Park entrance off of Harajuku, who were not planning on seeing any cosplayers but, there they are. Reactions can range from mild interest to recalcitrant hostility if their path to the train is blocked... or some d-bag is dressed up like a Nazi. Then there are the engaged audiences such as those at anime conventions, who have planned to see cosplay activities and competitions. Both of these audience types create value for the cosplayer, but the engaged types are more likely to provide a kind of legitimization of hierarchy when it comes to where the cosplayer fits into the rest of the otaku universe by being better or worse than average.

To that effect, I would very much like to see something like a major and indisputable source of cosplay criticism. Not constructive criticism, mean criticism. A fountain of shameful, hateful, negative sentiment, washing away the unwarranted self-confidence that enables cos-tards with terrible costumes the ability to leave the house. The collateral damage they cause with poorly made hallway-clogging inspirations for eye-bleach must be called out as harmful by the otaku public, forcing these morons to better their attempts at cosplay before stepping out in public to inflict their lack of talent on the rest of us. This will help cosplay retain a position of being something that gives those otaku who excel at it, a higher standing in the fandom, and remain a viable gamification activity. You ever see a "bad" Japanese cosplay? No. Know why? Because the Japanese still have shame, and if they suck, they don't want other people to see that. While Cosplay Hell does exist, it really needs to create a standardized rubric of cosplay fail, then feed it into the internet hate machine engines and take a more active role in discouraging every lumpy pumpkin who likes Read or Die from going to a con in some god-awful rendition of whatever character and ruin cosplay for everyone... making it worthless and spreading it everywhere... ya know, like what happened to AMVs.

Self esteem. It's a bad thing.

Final note: Discourse continues in the comments, opposing and supporting views are welcome. Comments are moderated because I get lots of spam (check out this entry to see what happens when comment mod is off). That's the only reason for moderation, real comments will be approved as quickly as possible.

* (added July 18); Well now that the internet and everyone has seen this and taken it the wrong way, I obviously have some explaining to do. I go into this down in the comments, but just in case you weren't in the mood to slog though another wall of words, "Dead" in this case was the wrong term (high-context, which only makes sense to me, because I don't get other people to read these things before they go up). I only mean "Dead" in terms of AMVs as a high-return source of competitive gamification "points" in the otaku socual fanscape. So it's only in terms of the ability to produce a fandom silo-breaking gamification value that AMVs have fallen tremendously. The enjoyment value isn't the same as gamification value, since while gamification value exists and has a specific dynamic, it (usually) does not produce as much motivation to so something as the enjoyment value which is also very real, but just not the same thing. AMVs still produce a significant quantity of enjoyment value for participants and viewers, but inadequately articulated the way that is separate from the organic competitive gamification behavior that exists in anime fandom (or almost any fandom for that matter). Therefore "dead" is more like "dry well" or "vestigial feature" or "Zimbabwe dollar" but only specifically as the gamification mechanisms are concerned, AMVs are still fun to watch and do provide a sense of satisfaction when finished.

To go even further, "Gamification" isn't even the 100% correct term here, but that's addressed in Section 2 "AMVs and Gamification" paragraph 2.


Friday, July 8, 2011

Oh, Canada: Canadian authorities charge American with Obscenity over drawn material

If you've been reading this blog with any regularity you might remember that coverage of international incidents which ridiculous steps backwards in terms of freedom of expression and then hi-jack criminal justice systems to exact a punishment, violating all kinds of common sense and (in many cases) their own legal limitations which define what the law can and can't do. Now this kind of censorship with criminal penalties thing happens on a very regular basis in places like China, Iran, Myanmar, Saudi Arabia, and so on, which has sadly led to a general malaise dragging down any motivation to actually care about what is the status-quo for these countries. But when Canada does something like that, the "red flags" should go up.


Before we get into the rest of the article, a bit of nomenclature clarification.
For the purposes of this piece:
"American" = USA "Canadian" = Canada
Please see the footnote at the end of this post for further explanation.

Canada. A country that is definitely more awesome than non-awesome, but still has committed a few acts of a special brand of stupid when it comes to touting the protection of "freedom" and "human rights" while clearly violating the hell out of them at the same time. They may not be very high profile, but Canada actually has their own actual thought-police who can actually put you in actual jail for saying or writing things that they deem worthy of criminal punishment. Canada's history as a country only very recently untethered from European colonial bonds, could be responsible for its adopting the very European style policies of banning and criminalizing unpopular speech under the guise of protecting human rights often leaving said "right-violating speech" so ill defined, that it is only by the whims of the political flavor-of-the-month that violations are prosecuted or ignored. In America, freedom of speech and press is almost bullet-proof thanks to a huge pile of Supreme Court decisions like National Socialist Party of America v. Village of Skokie, Cohen v. California, New York Times v. Sullivan, and the hot off-the grill Brown v. EMA. These decisions are Judicial applications of American Constitutional protections, roadsigns to local/state/and fed levels of legislative government guiding them as to what they can and can't regulate. These roadsigns don't exist in Canada because Canada has a different system of government and history, and path of legal development, which is normal because Canada is a whole separate country. But, the unfortunate result is a group of Commissioners who get together and decide if something you said hurt someone else's feelings, and if it did, they can send you to jail... because fuck you, that's why. I've been wanting to poo-poo on the CHRC for years, but could never connect to a theme that this blog covers... until now, mwa hahahaha!

Most people don't end up caring about this when it happens, because most of the people who end up on the business end of this misguided criminalization of speech are racist homophobic right-wing fucktards who most of the world would love to see get stomped in the nuts with golf shoes and left for dead. This is why I don't like calling out as bullshit these Human Rights Commissions that dole out criminal penalties for offending someone's sensibilities, since it often comes with inclusive labeling: That by criticizing these entities, such criticism is an ipso-facto defense of the distasteful actions and positions of the "offender." It's easier to let these racist/bigoted/crazy/whatever people get hung out to dry, even when the mechanism used to do so is antithetical to constitutional guarantees. But, it's from here where the dangerous infection spreads to places it shouldn't, because if you can reduce Section 2 to tissue paper when you don't like the potential protection it gives to batshit Ann Coulter or Geert-Wingnut-Wilders, then you can pretty much turn it into play-dough for anything; like a guy at an airport who may or may not have a drawing on his computer that you don't like.

That's where we start to get specific - with the recent case of an "American" being held at a border crossing, searched, then arrested and charged with the possession and importation of child pornography, now being defended by the CBLFD. It's been reported by the CBLFD and Publishers Weekly. The story also goes on to mention that there are no photographic images involved in this case, they are all created via artistic mechanism. But the reports are vague in a number of ways. One indicates that the "American" had printed images adorning the outside of his computer, prompting the agent to examine the content of the hard drive, while another makes it seem as if the digital devices were looked into as part of a customs inspection. There is no information about which border crossing this happened at, or where this person is now. There are 2 main issues for legal contention here:

1) The search: A warrant was obtained, which would seem to indicate that it was needed in order to access files on this person's digital devices.  But being an international border they don't really need one, they can search whatever they want.  Customs inspection areas are not the same as just walking down the street, and if they want to look in your bag or search digital content they can. What is a problem however, is the digital lengths that searches can go before The Canadian Constitution's Section 8 functions as a barrier to such a search (like access to a cloud server that is located in Brazil and not crossing the border at all). Quite the recipe for a mess.

2) The content itself: OK so, what did they really find? Who fucking knows...  but every source states that what was found was artistically created, and not photographically generated. Now, courts should really know that the difference between a photograph and an artistic representation of something is significant and very real difference indeed. I've gone into this at-length before talking about the Christopher Handley case and the (then) ongoing Schwarzenegger v EMA case (both in the USA), so I don't need to go on at length here. Simply stated, there is a difference, one is criminal and the other is not. It doesn't matter what you think of it, it doesn't matter if you like it, it doesn't matter if you're "offended," the drawn art-function-produced version is not a crime because of that difference.

UPDATE: We now know it was something that most reasonable people would consider innocuous and not a cartoon portrayal of children. That chibi Kama Sutra thing... yeah that.  See the image here. Contains mild cartoon humping.  Who looks at that and says "oh yeah, totally child pornography"?

Many courts in the world have given a tangible value to that difference, and the value that produces in differentiating real photographs from other deceptions of events. Otherwise this image would be prohibited for violating the myriad of "camera in the courtroom" regulations. But it doesn't because because a drawing is not a photo. Endoffuckingstory!

The real photo of whatever the hell this is? It's just too intense man!
Seriously, what the hell is going on here?

Point #2 up there, Content Regulation, gets us back to the "thought-police" notions of the state deciding what subject matter in media is permissible, making this an impossible decision in this case, as the images themselves have not violated the human rights of minors nor are they the product of a criminal activity. The Ottawa Citizen weighed in on June 29th, 2011 noting that:
"This puts the courts in the bizarre position of determining what is a work of art. Citizens cannot hope to know in advance what the law really forbids, and whether the judge will share their opinion of what is art."

Hey touchy Canadians, ....where is Ottawa again?  Yeah.. shut up.  So the fact is, that such a broad spectrum of interpretation and different judgments could be reached, it goes to the extreme point where no two instances are ever going to be alike. Combine that with a wholly subjective need such a judgment would have to draw on to define "what is art," and the American sensibility is to error on the side of caution, call it free speech, and let the rest of the world call you a messed up weirdo for liking it. But what about Canada? Canadian sensibilities in general may fall into the same vein, but without the same history and legal traditions that Americans have, those Canadian feelings may have less quantitative examples to resonate with, and reaching the same decision will depend more on the qualitative conclusions of common sense.  Again, this is normal because Canada is a completely separate country, but it does seem to clash with Canadian values.  With a lack of bullet-proof style case law to be applied, the notions of common sense fall on the emotional whims of Canadian judges who are participants (or at least silent collaborators) in the limitation of free speech (oops) I mean free expression... because that's totally different:
"Freedom of speech is an American concept, so I don't give it any value. It's not my job to give value to an American concept."
-Dean Steacy, Canadian Human Rights Commission
(Quote from Wikipedia, but it seems legit).
Obviously, this American Idiot whoever he is, is facing an actual court and not going before the CHRC, and definitely not going to be judged by the person responsible for the above quote. But that doesn't matter because I want to talk more about it. The fact that the CHRC even exists as a real government agency, populated by unelected officials, and able to expound sentiments all with the complicit support of Canadian Jurisprudence, means that there's a high chance this guy is totally fucking screwed unless some drastic change happens in this case. The depth of the power afforded the CRHC to criminalize unpopular speech speaks volumes about a Canadian willingness to forgo absolute protections of expression in favor of the more invasive knee-jerk European style approach. If I were in this guy's position, I'd be picking out apartments in Argentina right now.

In the dozens of times I've crossed the US/Canada border, I have only ever encountered a problem once. It was almost Christmas in Dec of 1999, (the day after the arrest of Ahmed Ressam), at 3:45AM on the Rainbow Bridge in an unregistered Honda Civic being driven by an immigrant Philippino with no Green Card while I sat in the back next to a guy from Pakistan named Mohammad and we were both wearing military surplus... yeah that went about as well as you'd expect it to.  After this manga mess though, I will think twice about going to Canada at all the next time it comes up (no, not really but I might just leave my laptop at home). ...Tim Hortons in America just isn't anywhere near as good as Canada so that's worth the trip alone.

Good Stuff.

Is it fair to assume Canada is going to convict this guy and slam another nail in the coffin of free speech expression in the "offended" age based on the blatantly overbearing antithesis of said free expression; the CHRC? No, no it's not. But I already had to apologize to the whole fucking world for Bush getting reelected in 2004, so fuck off.  Canadians can't poo-poo on the USA for all that stuff and then tell me I can give a little back.

And before anyone wants to get wise and mention that Section 13(1) of that Hate Speech code went belly-up in 2009, the other shoe hasn't dropped (the Royal Canadian Thought Police still exist).

In the case of Ryan Matheson, Canadian authorities have dropped all charges. 

American/America terminology:

I know people get hung up on this, but let me 'splain something to you using hypothetical role-play (This conversation is totally made up and totally didn't happen to me, a Canadian, and some guy from Brazil while staying in Okazaki Japan back in 2002... totally):

American: Blah blah blah, American agricultural policy regarding exports blah blah.
Canadian: Ahem, ya'know... "America" is two whole continents, not just one country...
Brazilian: Yeah.
American: So... you want me to start calling you both "American" now too?
Canadian & Brazilian: No.
American: Oh... you mean you have come up with a more useful term that we can all use do denote citizens of The American States United. Wow, it's a good thing you did that, since that's been an issue for well over a century, you must have had to really think about that hard because we've all been waiting for this word, don't make us wait any longer...
Canadian: Um...
Brazilian: ...Either of you know when the night-clubs open?

So as far as this post goes, that's how the terminology is, and don't leave comments that parrot the above "hypothetical" conversation if you don't want to be called American too, or if you don't have an alternative word to fix this situation.

Friday, July 1, 2011

What You’re Missing: Shiko Funjatta

A review of the live-action film シコふんじゃった! -or- Sumo Do, Sumo Don't.

The Japanese title sounds like "Shiko-fun-jatta"...which is a linguistic in-joke that someone thought was best approximated by the hideous English title "Sumo Do, Sumo Don't" translation. Yes it's kind of horrible, and no, you can't think of anything better. Seriously, what else can you call it. When you realize that a translator's job is to get a point across without necessarily literally translating every word verbatim one can only throw up your hands and take it as it is. Ok so now that that's out of the way, we can get down to business.

This award-winning comedy film from 1992, directed by Masayuki Suo (famous for his later work "Shall we Dance") features actor Masahiro Motoki, actress Misa Shimizu (also of Shall we Dance), and the gaijin Robert Hoffman, who almost never speaks any lines and has never been in anything else before or since as far as I can tell. It also prominently features Japanese actor and comedian Naoto Takenaka, who anime fans might recognize as the voice of Shiki from One-Piece, and from appearing in various advertisements that dot the subways and train stations of Japan.

He's on the left there.
Remember kids, the best financial advice always comes from Japanese comedians.

The film follows the story about a floundering college sumo team and student Shuhei Yamamoto (Motoki), forced into the position of joining the team or failing to graduate on time, missing out on the job that awaits him. The rest of the rag-tag Sumo team has more or less joined it of their own will, but they have also brought along their own baggage. Shuhei has never wrestled before, foriegn student George Smiley is consistently disqualified for refusing to properly wear his mawashi, and team captain Aoki Tomio (Takenaka) talks a big game, but due to nervousness he suffers from psychosomatic irritable bowel syndrome forcing him to forfeit every match he's in with a frantic dash for the toilet.

Needless to say, the film is full of lighthearted human drama and interactions reaching an emotional crescendo in the form of a sumo tournament. Love is found, personal daemons are conquered, and everyone grows better from the experience. I don't really want to give away what happens, but I can assure you that the Hollywood formula blandness where every loose end is tied up with as much audience focus group pleasing-points as possible, has not contaminated this very Japanese cinematic masterpiece.

If you have seen the film PingPong, you're in for a slightly similar ride, but Shiko Funjatta doesn't tell the story of a meteoric rise of someone in a world full of intense people being intense about a sport as does Ping Pong. It is actually a bit better at drawing in the audience, with the "fish out of water" quality of the main character jumping feet-first into the world of Sumo, creating an extra foothold that the audience can latch on to in order to get more involved in the world created here.

Finally, unlike the previous film we looked at (Happy Flight), this title is perfect for practicing those Japanese language skills and is a great study aid, since the dialogue is very similar to things that normal people say in every-day situations, where as Happy Flight has a bit more technical terminology particular to the world of aviation. If you are studying/learning Japanese, give this one a try without subtitles and see what happens.

Sumo Do Sumo Don't

The Japanese Region 2 NTSC DVD version does not have subtitles in any language other than Japanese but it's easy enough to follow, and again, the added Japanese subtitling makes this a great language study-aid. It's available at CD Japan for ...well about what Japanese usually DVDs cost. Book-Off might have it as well for quite a lot less.

DVD label Madman Entertainment released a Region 4 PAL DVD version (Australia) which is still available for sale online and does indeed have English subtitles.

Happy hunting.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Garage Kit Renaissance: MakerBot opens a window into otaku merchandise

A look at the Good Bad & Ugly of Santa Claus Machines in the anime landscape;

Properties too obscure to justify any mass-production merchandise are now the potential cash cow of a new global market

MakerBot (recently featured on The Colbert Report) isn't the first Santa Claus Machine to exist out there in the great big world, but with its high level of public accessibility (the low price and small size) and its support via the Thingiverse community of design, it is the first device of its kind to seriously exploit avenues of application that go far beyond engineering; applications like character goods and branded merchandise. Where once it would have been 99 different kinds of impossible for a small company to make a 1/10 statue of an obscure manga or anime character, you yourself as a consumer now have the ability to make it right in your own living room with the likes of MakerBot. Anime and manga characters and properties too obscure to justify any mass production of merchandise are now the potential cash cow of a new global market for Japanese pop-culture goods, with no in-process time, and no costly global distribution network, served only by software and JIT end-user manufacturing.

Anyone who has followed this blog knows I usually come down on the side of rights-holders when it comes to technology that can be used to proliferate media. But that doesn't mean I am touting MakerBot as some destroyer of worlds for the Japanese animation and Asian pop-culture character goods and branded merchandise market. This development has some great potential for forwarding the progress of fandom while contributing to the health of creative companies as well (how often does THAT happen?).

The Good:
D&D applications aside, you can't tell me that as an anime fan you never wanted to see figures made of characters which you like, but Kaiyodo never made them because the only people in the world who would buy them were you and 2 other guys. This has been a major imbalance in the otaku world for a while; Anime otaku demand some of the highest quality and detail in the figures they purchase, but that has pushed production costs through the roof, ensuring that companies would take very careful studies of how many they could expect to sell before jumping into production thereby choosing only the highest of high-profile character licenses. The result was a limited market with low profitability, and the subsequent evolution of the Garage Kit. G-Kits were an interesting thing, and one could easily tell if you were getting a real licensed production or a bootleg knockoff made in some shady Hong Kong warehouse somewhere. I still have a bunch of my old G-kits, and their appeal was that you not only had access to characters that were relatively rare, but the customization levels started with painting options and progressed (via skill level) to changing poses with acetylene torches, sanding, or pinning on other parts. Their availability was limited, they were tough to track down and if you were going to make them from scratch involved some nasty chemicals.

Characters from different universes can now be put together in ways never before possible outside of a professional sculpting studio

Like digital video opened a new universe of fan-subbing, MakerBot is going to change otaku culture on a quantum level. Now, you can get hyper-creative with not only the design of any figure, but also in terms of characters crossing intellectual property lines. Characters from different universes can now be put together in ways never before possible outside a professional sculpting studio. Ranma in a StarFleet uniform? Not a problem. Vegeta punching out Spider-Man? Easy peasy. The mechs from Macross and Gundam having dirty dirty robot sex? Hell, that's probably half rendered by now. The creativity offered by this design software will allow for unique character goods to be made by the end-user, who will have a willingness to pay if it means they can get exactly what they want. Part of the fun with G-kits was also that you could paint them differently from their original designs (unlike PVC), and one of the best ever was a one of a kind setup we sold at Anime Crash, which consisted of 2 of the same Rei Ayanami figures (16 inches, standing, original white plugsuit w/ longinus spear) where one was painted normal and the other was painted photo-negative. It was awesome and the set sold for $1,000.

See, someone actually already thought of that... don't click on it.

Characters that would have been too costly to manufacture merchandise out of due to limited demand can now have digital blueprints made and sold to key consumers on a global scale, allowing them to purchase and then manufacture what they want. The overhead for a company selling these would stop at the fixed costs of design, with no variable costs what so ever. Even brick & mortar retailers can stop worrying about inventory issues for these pieces, when they can simply create products on-demand without ever dealing with over-stock and the associated shipping and storage costs. "Limited Edition" and "Sold Out" in terms of these figures and other types of merchandise will become terminology of the past.

The flurry of change doesn't stop with just animation and comic properties becoming more available as figures, but will also effect independent artists and creators who will now have access to a global market for their figures by skipping the cost-prohibitive stages of production and distribution, going straight from design to sale. As this technology develops and machines which can produce multi-color products become more prevalent (they exist from other technology companies but are very expensive), many of the barriers to entry which existed in the character-goods/figure/merch market will cease to exist. Waste and the cost of doing business will no longer keep creative artworks from being made available to the public. Just think of the money to be saved on shipping alone.

What would have been one single unique figure now millions of potential pieces

The Bad:
Just like with Garage Kits it's a nebulous area when it comes to what this means for intellectual property rights. Sculpting a figure of your favorite character out of whatever material yourself, and putting it on your shelf doesn't technically violate a copyright, but that won't stop a company from interpreting that as a lost sale and hating you for it. This was never a problem because the time effort and skill to do this were only possessed by so few people that it didn't dent their customer base. With this new technology, we're getting closer to that event horizon tipping point. Although to properly design a dynamic character figure as a digital blueprint for the MakerBot would still take an insane amount of skill and time, the current dynamics of technology make things much more impacting. What would have been one single unique figure for the garage kit maker upon finishing is now millions of potential pieces in the new digital form thanks to the ability to transfer/copy files across the globe in seconds. A one time sale of an anime garage kit for $3,000 at an auction somewhere... companies don't bat an eye. But a MakerBot design of that same figure that's downloaded 1,000,000 times across the globe over 6 months? That's a big deal, and the rights holder is going to feel screwed.

Hypothetical situation to help you better understand how this is straight up bootlegging: You take one of these things to an anime convention and start producing made-to-order figures or merchandise (cups, rings, toilet paper holder, whatever) featuring popular characters. Congratulations, you're breaking all kinds of copyright law and are gonna get sued. The Artist Alley operates in a quasi legal space due to selling things at very low volume and combining original characters into their offerings. Here's another way to think about it: If you had some OEM factory make a bunch of Pokemon figures and then hauled them somewhere and sold them, you'd be a bootlegger. The fact that now the factory is in some little box on a table filling single orders doesn't change that. Small retailers who live day by day, and who can barely make their rent payments are going to abuse the hell out of this, and stopping them from the outside is going to be quite difficult.

Now, combine this issue with the possibility that these devices will proliferate to something like 1 in 20 American households (less than Netflix proliferation), and you're dealing with another huge problem all together: Software piracy. Think about it, the utopian era of zero inventory and no shipping costs for retailers is going to rely on the ability of patent and copyright holders to control who gets the digital blueprints that these machines use to make stuff. Without an airtight iTunes-style network where these designs can be properly sold, licensed, and distributed by their owners and monetized accordingly, the internet is going to become a free-for-all where protected IP would stand no chance. Need a specific tool made right now which is patented by not-you? Just torrent that design and no one will ever know. Maybe you're a Ctrl+Alt+Del fan (really?); Just download that design for that awesome figure in that awesome action-pose that some fan made and put on the internet, and you'll have a great product based off of characters that will never send even a fraction of a penny to their original creators.

Her baby dun got bootlegged down to Peru.

the easier you make the legitimate distribution channel... the more people will gladly become paying customers

Moderate DRM, first mover advantages, and proprietary software/materials are going to be useful tools and strategies to combat this problem, but the number-one way to limit this kind of potential IP anarchy is to set up very strong barriers of convenience. What's that you ask? Netflix and iTunes work because going and torrenting that shit is too much trouble for enough people, and the result is that a stable customer base is created. Constantly changing code, or requiring that these machines use cloud computing to function properly is only one side of the coin. The more important side is; the easier you make the legitimate distribution channel to use compared to any alternative, the more people will gladly become paying customers.

The Ugly:

Yeah, weirdos who get a boner for a blow-hole are still out there

So you've come up with a 3D design that is of a 4 breasted Sailor Moon performing fellatio on a Totoro while he gives a rim-job to Inu Yasha and Sasuke as they kiss each other... the furry version! Oh, those furries... you almost forgot about them in all this mess didn't you? Yeah, weirdos who get a boner for a blow-hole are still out there, and they have enough cash and enough computer skills to make something like that a reality. So think of every possible pop-culture piece you could make with this thing, -and- now come to terms with the fact that there will be an X-rated furry version made out of literally everything you just thought up, where Kirk is like, an Ocelot or something. This is section is going to trudge into some nasty territory for marketing people looking to protect their brands as well as enter the arena of establishing real legal precedents in American law.

From a marketing standpoint, if you work for Ghibli and come across something like the above mentioned, you're going to want to smash it into the machine that made it, and then smash that machine over the head of the freak who designed it. But, unless this person is selling/distributing that piece/it's design or charging others to come see it, there is no legal recourse in the USA that you can realistically expect to take. If he carved the thing out of wood or made it as a sand-castle or ice-sculpture it wouldn't break the law, so without legislation specifically regulating the use of "replication machinery" (a term that has yet to be legally defined) there's nothing a rights-holder could legally do. The only legal issues in such a case would be in regards to distribution of obscene material if that raunchy sand-castle was in full view of the general public. But I'm pretty sure the Skunk-Fuckers* wouldn't be quick to display that kind of thing in their front window. ...hopefully. (* Link is not to actual skunk fucking or the fucking of skunks).

Laws applying to this machine and its capabilities in terms of subject matter are likely to be ineffective even if they are drafted into legislation, as the obstacles to making them realistically enforceable, are A) If the US constitution protects your ability to make anything you want from a block of wood with a chisel, then it also protects the same ability to do so via plastic and this machine, and B) it would require a government agency to monitor what you make on these things in your own home, bringing up some Supreme Court level privacy issues (well, any few that are left thanks to George W. Obama's extension of the Patriot Act).

Now, imagine something worse. The kind of stuff that would go far beyond what got Christopher Handley into trouble. I've always had a problem with the notion that drawn, sculpted, or otherwise fictitious depiction of something illegal is the same as a photo or video of the actual thing happening itself. So if someone uses this machine to make some pretty nasty stuff, we might see more court cases involving the notion of art as protected speech.

The fact of the matter is, that once some weirdo gets a hold of this thing, we're bound to see some crazy fucked up shit at some point. But the same thing happened with the internet, and even with Rule 34, the world didn't end. The kinds of people who are going to make the nasty stuff are probably not going to have that many people over to see it. They're gonna be messed up anyway with or without this machine, so let's just take it as a side-effect that is bound to happen.

The proliferation of MakerBot and machines like it is going to happen and that's that. If anyone should freak out about it, it's Wal-Mart, everyone in China, and UPS. Like any emerging technology, it's going to take use by early adopters to determine how it will develop as a part of modern life. I want one myself, just so I can make my own personalized coasters and poker chips.

the Japanese company doesn't see a whole lot of $5 sales where none existed before, they see a whole lot of $25 losses

I worry about Japanese companies accepting this as a viable channel for the global sale of character goods. They're not going to. They tend to measure loss in such a way as to simply create unrealistic pictures of how markets operate. If, for example; "Character A" has a figure out there in stores and that figure sells for $30, and "Character B" doesn't have a figure because B isn't very popular, but then this machine comes along and the digital blueprints for figure B sell for $5 each; the Japanese company doesn't see a whole bunch of $5 sales where none existed before, they see a whole lot of $25 losses because that's what the price difference was. Never mind the fact that Character B was never going to get a figure otherwise, or that the sales are profit-generating since there was no overhead... it's going to be felt as a loss, no matter how loudly the math says otherwise. Video and book publishers have a tendency to see one torrent or download as one lost DVD sale, and miss out on other opportunities because the square peg of their product marketing doesn't fit into the little round holes of niche markets (though sometimes this is out of their control due to the high costs of reaching those smaller markets). Changing the thought process of the right decision makers could prove to be a very tough task.

There is an episode of Oedo Rocket where the characters find out that a play they put on has been surreptitiously recorded and posted to a youtube-type website. It's an anime inside joke and they feel a sense of loss and violation, and to an extent that's totally justified; people who didn't buy a ticket are seeing this and all that. But what escapes this mentality, is that now people who never could have possibly bought a ticket due to geographic distance now have access to this material -- and a portion of that group will be willing to buy it as a product. While that youtube example can't show an effective example of this monetizing process, the MakerBot is probably the closest thing yet to making that an achievable business model.

I'm working on the proforma now, so if anyone is interested in a micro venture-cap raise for an idea involving this (my idea, it's awesome), let me know.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Failure to Deliver: Duke Nukem Forever PR debacle hilights the rift between industry and fans.

When companies are out of touch: In PR, you're not supposed to get what you pay for.

All out of bubblegum.

The saga of Duke Nukem Forever is a tragedy. If it had simply never been made, and remained an unreachable dream composed of the collective musings of what might have been, it would have been a beautiful tragedy. However the fact that the game was actually made, released, and has invaded the imaginary notions of what Duke Nukem Forever would be. Notions that had built up for over a decade, makes it an ugly spectacle. A crime against nature, a product that was taken too far by someone who was not stopped in time, and now flails around the market place grasping at any source of revenue with its deformed limbs.We all remember that sinking feeling we got when we first saw JarJar show up in Star Wars I-III, and the disappointment of Axel's Chinese Democracy. Like those over-awaited things, Duke Nukem Forever had an impossible task before it, a task that wasn't always impossible, but had become so via circumstances created by egomaniacal managers who chose their own subjective reality over real reality, and were too rich and insulated to be told otherwise by outside observers. A perfect situation to trap the game in development hell for a long enough time for our imaginations to conjure up something so fantastical (or maybe fan-testical) as to be unrealistic in terms of being realistically achievable. It could do nothing but fail as a game to live up to expectations, and yet chose to go ahead and fail anyway.

If you spent a serious portion of your life actually working on Duke Nukem Forever, this realization may cause some distress. The main nucleus of this distress, is that a negative (or at the very least lackluster) reaction of independent media, grassroots ratings, and consumer communities, creates an intense sense of loss. Loss (or even potential loss) is one of the bigger psychological factors in motivation (see; organizational behavior), and it tends to be amplified when the object of that loss is partially intangible, which leads to overestimation of what is actually the subject of such loss. But you accept that in the media business. You know that the mystical intersecting point of pleasing "all of the people all of the time" is like some quantum dimension which only exists on the pages of theoretical calculations and therefore it is unattainable. You know and accept this risk as part of what makes PR and the creative entertainment industry function.

Invasion of the finance majors:

Colleges are churning out brand new business majors even as Lehman Bros. and Bear Sterns vomit the old ones back into the job market. They have to go somewhere. When you realize that these people might be finance majors, the nonsensical behavior of PR firm The Redner Group all of a sudden becomes very clear. Thanks to "consultant addiction" all American businesses have come to see even the most skilled labor as disposable, corp. structure is constantly reformulated for short-term gains, and non-core activities are outsourced to an infinitely expanded professional service market where the "invisible hand of the market" keeps prices low, and employee turnover dangerously high. Although for all I know Redner Group is just 3 guys in a closet in Santa Monica.

Here we have a firm that does PR, and like most modern service firms, is probably dysfunctional from on over-concentration on maximizing short-term goals. The Redner Group sees their activity not as traditional PR, but as something closer to investment banking. They work hard and expend resources, and expect a positive return on that investment. They approach their task as if they were a customer, doing nothing more than buying exposure designed to increase unit sales and brand awareness (and brand equity can be monetized with the right kind of powerpoint presentation). The Redner Group spent money paying its employees and maintaining a distribution database and network for early review copies of Duke Nukem Forever. They don't see this activity as PR, subject to intangible market mechanics and the basics of journalism, but rather they see their efforts as a creation of a financial instrument, backed by a formula based on the resulting discount rate from their activities producing a specific IRR coming from expected unit sales as a function of exposure & reviews. To put it over-explicitly; In the mind of The Redner Group, they are a paying customer of video game media, and they expect specific results which further their goals.

irr can get complicated.

Sidestepping for the moment that this is the wrong way to approach PR; The Redner Group's reaction is normal for an entity with such a mind-set when confronted with such a situation. To add general context: If you went to an auto shop to have your muffler fixed, and they did a shitty job, you wouldn't go back there for an oil change - not as an act of retaliation (that's what lawyers are for), but simply because you want a certain thing and they didn't provide it when you paid them. This is how The Redner Group has approached their function as a 3rd party provider of PR for an entertainment product. This is a terrible thing to do, and it's exactly how you lose clients. Generating press doesn't work like that because game reviewers and other media are not service providers. The implied obligation to help sales of the game was simply a function of The Redner Group's imagination. The twitter threats they issued are unmistakable evidence that there was a fundamental failure to realize that. The implication of entitlement from investment is so apparent here, that it can send no other message that The Redner Group sees media entities and grassroots gaming communities as nothing more than vending machines for advertising metrics. They put in their dollar and pushed the button, but when the wrong item came out, they felt cheated... they felt a sense of loss, and reacted emotionally. The crux of the matter is not that they shouldn't have acted emotionally, it is that they should never have felt that sense of loss in the first place.

Ironically, 2K Games (the company with the most to "lose" in a situation such as this, because of the emotional connection to a lot of hard work that went into making the thing) has not fallen into such a mental trap. This is most likely because games are their business, and they are well aware of how the market works, including the things you should and should not do. I do hope 2K's decision to drop The Redner Group is a permanent one. Old dogs, new tricks, yada yada ...they won't learn. But that leaves the "outsourcing" problem to deal with. A company like 2K Games hiring a full-time PR staff is kind of wasteful when you use those "consultant addiction" formulas of figuring out how much it ends up costing per release. But when you go out and hire outside firms to promote your releases, you risk losing out on access to loyal workers who have built up substantial experience into an arsenal of tacit skills that are simply non-transferable to just anyone.

The solution is that creative companies like 2K and others, need to create the executive position of "Product-Ronin." Kind of a Product Manager on steroids that goes into total immersion at the 3rd party facility. This is one very experienced person who physically supervises and contributes to operations that are outsourced to 3rd party service providers. 1 marketing person from 2K who knows the game industry well, could have stopped this mess before it happened. 1 pro who knows the anime market in the US could have stopped many a terrible dub before it ever got made. 1 person with an alternative perspective could have pointed out that the artistic subtlety in your design goes away when you put this ad on a giant billboard outside:

Oh, no one's gonna have a problem with that image... it's so edgy.

The job of the Product Ronin, is to frequently leave the confines of the home offices and immerse themselves in whatever major 3rd party services that the company is using, and use their tacit-skill set and experience to stop stupid shit from happening. Creative media and entertainment companies need to create this position, and fill it with a trusted, long-time, well compensated employee. Smart service companies will accommodate them and benefit from the experience and knowledge they create there, which they can use to better serve their clients and manage their operations. Dumb ones will think they do a good enough job already.

On a completely different subject; the fading away of Duke Nukem can be seen as kind of a metaphor for the "old world" of male dominated misogynist type gaming dying out and a new global game world where things are quite different. Go talk about that if thinking about turning a brand equity formula into something that produces IRR gives you a headache. ...I know it does with me.


Housekeeping Items:
#1) New Format: As you can see, we're including pull-quotes here and that will be the standard from now on. Additionally, some older articles may be retro-fitted with them, as to lessen the tl;dr factor. If you don't know what tl;dr means, then you fail the internet.

#2) Friday is the new Monday. Posts will now go up on Fridays. Their frequency is still being decided between weekly and bi-weekly.

#3) The final post of each month will be a review of something (except this month where it will probably be July 1). The subject of the review may range from film & television, to video games, books, food & drink, or even special events and travel venues. This is open to suggestions.

#4) This blog has always been link-free and anything here can be reproduced in whole or in part in any non-commercial entity.

#5) I haz a twitter. @The_Angry_Otaku

That's all... for now.


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Where do we go from here: Manga consumption in a paperless world.


Omens, Portents, Forewarnings. Never are they understood objectively until after the fact. Such are the oddities and anomalies that are being observed in the development of the evolution of paperless media products. From novels to fine art, technology makes physical distribution a nonexistent entity in a market where consumption occurs via network service. As pointed out in a recent article in Forbes Magazine, the constraints of capital are now quick to lose almost all stature as barriers to entry into “publishing” as we know it. As with many historical examples, resistance to change by the large incumbents force younger more nimble companies to spearhead their own initiatives, making little progress in terms of effecting macro changes. A small label like Media Blasters could never hope to spearhead a new format such as Blu-Ray but could reap the benefits of such an option being available.

While a fan at the NBA Finals may feel very connected to the game as they sit in their ring-side seats, the reality is that their presence makes no difference to the outcome, because if it did, they themselves would be on the court, directly participating. Such is the case with manga in the USA. All the whining and bellyaching about how the “industry” is run by “old men” being the problem, fail to take this into account.

These new formats, as emergent technology, are currently generating dictionaries worth of new contract law terminology and changing the very structure of binding agreements in licensing. To expect Manga to take the lead in such efforts is seriously overestimating the ability of licensors and publishers like Vertical to literally lead a multi billion dollar industry by the nose with their initiatives. Impossible and foolish come to mind when thinking of it that way. Small airlines don't build their own airports, pro-golfers don't build golf courses, tire companies don't build roads. Publishing companies (smaller ones at least ) cant be expected to create dominant proprietary formats for digital media consumption... do they have a whole lab in the back that we didn't notice until now? Nor can these companies be reasonably expected to take what is a substantial risk in paying for a license of a digital format which may or may not generate revenue, while at the same time taking time and money away from their current print format (people can't work on 2 things at once).

The effect on revenue that scanlations have is devastating, and if you think it’s not, you don’t know how this works. The cost of the license itself or even (proper) localization is huge, and that license being stolen by the scanlators, who take that property and put it into the market means that recouping the staggeringly expensive process of putting out a printed manga and distributing it for sell-through revenue at net terms, becomes impossible.

Enter the Kindle or some iPad/Droid app or whatever is going to become dominant, and you have the magical cure for sell-through for struggling publishers. Retailers hate this, because they take advantage of returns to the point where they would gladly put a label out of business if it means they can gain any points in the next quarter. The accounting difference between inventory and in-process inventory is huge for a retailer. So, if publishers never had to print another page again and continue business as usual, they would see it as the best thing since Gutenberg.

There’s a snag there. Did you catch it? “Business as usual.” These formats require new legal contract terminology, half of which doesn’t exist yet, channels and accepted formats that have yet to materialize, and a new set of barriers to entry. That last one is important, since all you have to do is look at youtube, podcasts, or deviantart to realize what would happen to publishing if there were no barriers to entry. Look how hard it is to wade through the seas of truly terrible productions to find ones that have not only genuine talent behind them, but (more importantly) the resources to be consistent, on-time, and well presented. A publishing marketplace where there is no macro-flow of customers towards legitimate works means that the shittiest fanfic abominations would stand at equal level with professional works by professional writers in terms of market presence and availability. Barriers to entry in the media entertainment business keep out a vast amount of crap that would otherwise choke the channels of product awareness and necessary marketing. There's a reason FurNation Press never got it's SKUs into Barnes & Noble (or Diamond for that matter)... so do you really want to have to look at 5 deranged versions of Halo where everyone is a gay ocelot before you get to something by the next Neil Gaiman? With no financial risk what so ever, anyone can publish anything, which is not really a good thing.

In order to jump the last chasm of adoption, these new products and formats must be one thing over all else. More convenient than any alternative, including whatever is happening now. Look at the electric car: Even if electricity was free and the range was the same, the 30 minute charge time vs/ a 90 second fill-up time for a gas engine creates such a Reverse Value Ratio (yes RVR is a real formula), that people still would not adopt electric cars because... seriously, fuck 30 minutes.

There are always multiple ways around this issue. If you can’t speed up the time, electric cars could partner with every free commercial parking space around, so that the 30 min charge now happens when you’re at Wal-Mart or wherever and so you don’t notice that 30 min because it’s no longer a dedicated use of time (ie “they were gonna be parked there anyway” so no big deal). We’re close to finding the necessary “anyway” for manga.

This is a good sign:

From the Sandvine Global Internet Phenomena Report for Spring 2011 (p 6), you can see that Netflix (a single media company) is producing a bigger footprint than torrenting anything. Although the true total average difference is 1%, the fact that this even is happening is a pinhole snapshot of this tenant of Consumer Behavior ringing true. The path of least resistance is going to be a legit commercial one, and that’s going to win the day if it can continue increasing the convenience factor. Netflix is dependable, faster, easier, and an acceptable cost (they have higher than break even WTP). That’s not true for every consumer in America, but it’s true for enough people to get that company into the positive side of market equilibrium.

It shows that it's not all about getting it "for free" ...rather it's about getting it "easy" - which is not (always) the same. Additionally, with the high amount of intense social gamification behavior indicative of the manga/anime market, it's also about getting it "first." This "path of least resistance" in marketing goes for any kind of business, and the different degrees on the scale of decision making are unique to each market. The American manga market is indeed a unique mix of ingredients that make up these "tipping point" degrees between consumption via torrent or consumption via service. Those specifics will have to wait for another time.

And before anyone wants to get technical about “BitTorrent” nomenclature:
That’s on p. 12

Mobile access is another big indicator. I like to look at the Baltic States and Scandinavia for wireless usage info, but I don’t have that handy so here is South America:
Sandvine p 12

That bump in Sept 2010 is probably a result of the ruckus over the Chilean miners, but real-time entertainment and web-browsing can get mashed together when you think about marketing factors that have to do with the possibility of consuming manga (legally) via wireless device. This means that as a dominant format emerges, and non-paper manga is available at a reasonable cost to access, digital device manga will be a viable product, even if the rate of piracy through scanlation remains the same as it is now. The disappearance of physical media will drop the costs of doing business to a level where publishers will actually be able to operate properly, despite the damage done by piracy. This is currently how big publishers and big Hollywood have been able to stay around despite piracy (and terrible titles); make enough successful properties to carry the others. But that type of arbitrage activity in today’s media markets which still require manufacture and distribution of physical products (books, DVDs) requires levels of capital well out of reach for the few remaining US manga publishers.

This means the charge for digital media is going to be led by bigger players like Comcast, NCAA, WSJ, AOL-HUFFPO, Fox News, NY Times, and other companies that fart more money in a day than a company like Funimation sees in a decade. So until these channels solidify, being in the manga business in the USA isn’t exactly a peachy place to be. Despite a rosy looking future in terms of generalities, we’re still a ways away from being able to pop the cork on the Champaign. Right now, the publishing industry is about to enter a state where it will look like a lava-lamp in a paint mixer. Things are going to get shaken up and it will take a while for elements to separate and form the shapes of this segment of the new media horizon. Manga will be there. Paper won’t.

Make no mistake, from otaku demographics to creative tastes, there are still many factors that I have not addressed, but they aren't here because we're looking at the big picture of publishing as a business, to which manga is only a small part of... and you've had to read too many words already.


Monday, May 30, 2011

What You’re Missing: Happy Flight Review

Welcome to a new segment where The Angry Otaku features “things Japanese” that aren’t necessarily anime. Way back when I was still a little bitty Otaku, when the internet consisted of BBSs accessed via 2400 baud, and VHS was king, I was in the early stages of anime fandom so to speak. There in those stages, there’s always a period where a fan is in the “if it’s not anime, I don’t care” mode of media consumption. Kaiju, martial arts, chambara, drama, name it, if it was live action, I didn’t care.

Fortunately I was able to grow out of that, and it is in the hopes of widening the range of Japanese popular entertainment consumed by AmerOtakus, that this new monthly segment was created. Look for "What You're Missing" on the last Monday of every month here... at least until I get tired of doing it.

Happy Flight

Whole movie.

A great “gateway” production for anime fans that are not too open to live action, Happy Flight is a 2008 comedy from director Shinobu Yaguchi, known to American Otaku audiences through titles like Water Boys and Swing Girls. The film follows the inner workings of both airplane and airport, revolving around All Nippon Airways flight 1980, a 747 going from Japan to Hawaii.

Opening with quick introductions of the various characters through a montage where we bounce around locations like a ball in a pinball machine, the film quickly sets the overall lighthearted tone through scenes featuring some intra-company rivalry between cabin crew and ground staff, as well as the trepidations our main characters feel as they enter their first day on new assignments for ANA. On board the flight, the film doubles character juxtaposition by pairing the two “fish out of water” main characters off of their supervisors, who have tough reputations and come off as strict, stoic, and humorless. First with the newly promoted pilot Kazuhiro Suzuki (Seiichi Tanabe) being evaluated on his first flight as Captain by the extremely serious and deadpan evaluator Captain Harada (Saburo Tokito), and second with the enthusiastic new flight attendant Etsuko Saito (Haruka Ayase), whose excitement soon fades after a prompt chewing out by her new boss, the notoriously strict Reiko Yamazaki (Shinobu Terajima). However their confidence and ability to work under pressure are soon put to the test, when ANA flight 1980 encounters serious problems after takeoff. Needing to return to Japan, the plane turns around only to face a vicious typhoon which stands between the now crippled plane and the safety of the runway.

Happy Flight dedicates quite a bit of itself to the people of often overlooked airport supporting functions. From trainee mechanics, to air traffic controllers, from the ticket agents, to the guy who keeps birds away from the runway, the film introduces you to each one as their humanity emerges in the course of their stressful jobs. These are that types of characters who often get a one dimensional treatment in other films, but in Happy Flight, the receive a well-deserved second dimension. Although some may argue that doing so creates the unintended consequence of making three-dimensional characters into two-dimensional ones, the film itself is not hurt by this. But unlike other movies featuring airplanes, Happy Flight doesn’t need three-dimensional characters, as it doesn’t take itself too seriously like Flight Plan, nor does it aim to be the campy schlock of Airplane. The film sits in the perfect balance between funny and still believable, and works perfectly with the character depth it reaches, because each group of characters operates within their own bubble. The pilots never interact with the mechanics, who go through a desperate search through the hangar on their own time to ensure that flight 1980 is not suffering from what could be a fatal engine problem. The airport ground staff, led by the "calm under pressure" Masaharu Takahashi (played by veteran actor Ittoku Kishibe), go through the stressful ordeal of guiding a 747 to a safe runway in the middle of a typhoon, but never even see the flight attendants who must keep the passengers safe and calm during the same ordeal. In this way, the film sets up an orbital matrix of character groups, completely separated from each other but all revolving around the same central nucleus, in this case the critically wounded ANA flight 1980.

The Japanese work ethic is very into principles of knowledge-creation management, and in this feel-good film, there are plenty of examples of how the junior staff have their confidence boosted through hands-on experience under the watchful guidance of their more seasoned supervisors. There are a lot of hidden meanings and social constructs present in Happy Flight which are nowhere to be found in American cinema, and the active knowledge creation each character goes through is the perhaps the strongest one of these.

American anime fans will quickly feel right at home watching this movie, as the cast and direction amplify the types of humor and emotional situations often reserved for comedic titles. Love, loss, goofy sidekicks, deadpan personalities in tense situations, and even a few physical gags, are all pleasantly spaced throughout this relatively short (100min) romp thought a day in the life of a Japanese airport in crisis-mode. Anime fans will also recognize some cast members like Seiichi Tanabe who has voiced characters in Tramps Like Us and Twin Spica and has played Issei Tomine in the Drops of God adaptation. Also from Japanese TV, comedian Kami Hiraiwa and actress Tomoko Tabata team up to form the very “Pinky & The Brain” style team of ANA ticket agents.

Pinky, are you pondering what I'm pondering?
I think so Brain, but last time we ran out of baggage claim stickers and dolphin tranquilizers way too early.

Happy Flight has been accused of being corporate propaganda since it’s about an ANA flight and ANA staff who do ANA things in a movie made by ANA (did I mention ANA?). But for an American this just isn’t as true as it seems. Yes, the airline and all the characters come in a positive light, but it is still a very imperfect human one. The trappings, foibles, and emotional nuances that make us all real and all different are not hidden from the audience for fear of “hurting the brand.” Rather, they are shown directly to the audience as a vital part of each and every character, adding a very high degree of believability to the film. The fact that such a movie would never ever be made by the likes of guitar-breaking United, dog-killing Delta, or suck in your gut Southwest, is not lost on American audiences in the least. The genuine way that ANA portrays a much higher work ethic among its staff is a great and refreshing reminder to Americans that at one time, that kind of thing was possible and just might be possible again, and leave you with a smile on your face (at least until the next time the functionally retarded high school drop out from the TSA confiscates your diet Dr. Pepper and steals your watch, while fondling your balls).

Finally, because of recent events involving US Air 1545 (The Hudson River bird-strike landing) and the unfortunate fate of Air France 447 (freezing of the pitot tubes), this film will actually be easier to follow and better appreciated, as now most audiences will be familiar with the perils that the characters in the film face, from hearing about real life examples.

Happy Flight does a great job in porting over the type of theatrical mechanics present in most anime, to a live action medium without the need for heavy visual effects a-la Cutie Honey or Scott Pilgrim. Anime Conventions: this one should be on your video schedule if it isn't already.

You can find a subtitled copy of Happy Flight on, although I have no idea how legit that copy is (might be the Hong Kong release). The region 2 Japanese copies tend to be very pricey, with the Blue Ray special edition topping out at 72,000 yen which at today’s crappy exchange rate is about a million dollars US. This is a movie that you don’t need on Blue Ray though (there aren't any major effects which would benefit from it). The regular region-2 editions are (somewhat) cheaper, but it should be noted that some of them do not include English Subtitles. Give Bookoff a try if you are near one of their locations and bring your “must have” list, because they will probably have other things you want as well.

Oh, and of course you can always watch it at your seat if you’re on an ANA flight.

Helpful hints: What to look for on Japanese DVD labeling:
(Now this applies to anime as well) When shopping for Japanese market DVDs, most of the time it’s on the internet, where the various subtitle info and other specs are listed in a language that you can read. However, in the event you are browsing at a store in person (Kinokunia or Book Off for example), and you turn over the DVD case only to be met with a whole bunch of Kanji you can’t read, here is what to look for: The word is “Jimaku” 字幕 (じまく)“subtitles.” Now that’s half what you need to know, with the other half being “Eigo” 英語 which is (say it with me now) “English.” The reason this is important, is that often Japanese DVDs will have Japanese subtitles only, so just looking for字幕 without determining the language, can get you a DVD with nice crisp Japanese or Chinese subtitles and a look of confused disappointment across the faces of your friends. Let’s look at some examples:

Here’s the back of the Japanese release of Kill Bill (why the Japanese version? Because it’s not censored by the MPAA like the American release is). As you can see, there’s a pictogram that indicates 2 tracks of available subtitles. Let’s have a closer look:

Ok that top line is 日本語字幕; which is “Japanese Subtitles”, and I’ll bet you can guess what that second one is; 英語字幕 “English Subtitles” indeed. This doesn’t seem weird until you realize that the movie itself is in English and so they’re subtitling what the actors are already saying.

But moving on, just remember when buying Japanese DVDs, you want to look for “英語字幕” on the back, if you want to be sure you will be enjoying English subs. As for linguistic accuracy, some releases are better than others, with bigger budget larger releases more likely to offer this feature over smaller releases. Additionally, if you're looking at the back info and notice that the word "English" and "Subtitles" are spelled out just like that in Roman lettering, then there are significant chances are you are looking at a Hong Kong release.

Finally, a word on Region Coding. If you don't have a region-free player, then none of this matters to you anyway. I've owned one for so long, that when I bring DVDs to other people's houses I completely forget that they may not be able to play them. Buying a region free player is totally worth it, I have a Pioneer DV444 from, and it still works great after 10 years. The ability to watch any DVD I want, skipping the retarded FBI warning and being able to go straight to the menu without having to endure trailer after trailer is something I enjoy taking for granted, and so will you. You don't have to go for expensive options either. Chinese manufactures often spit out some no-name brands that aren't region locked and don't button-disable. Monitor some tech forums for when these hit your local Best Buy and you can pick one up for $40 or so.

Happy hunting.