Monday, May 16, 2011

Summer Wars: It’s the audience’s fault.


I really hate how I can go to a forum on ANN or Kotaku, and hear all kinds of bitching about the evil “industry” and its “profit.” Profitability has become a dirty word these days, and not without just cause, but this is just overkill. Since the days of the Ford Pinto and even further back, the “profitable” bottom line has been synonymous with cold uncaring indifference to the human tolls that business operations have, and anyone who now will forever hate the letters B and P, will know what it feels like to have that trigger go off.

But there’s another side to “profitability,” and that is one which sustains a functioning economy. Without profit, manga doesn’t get printed, anime doesn’t get animated, and doesn’t pay UPS to drive a DVD to your house after you click a button or two. One of the main targets of criticism that the quest for “Profitability” in entertainment media has always had, is the one painting it as a cause of a corruptible influence when an already established story is expanding into other mediums. For example, in the new “Star Trek” movie, the Engine Room looks like a friggin cornmeal warehouse and not like what every Star Trek fan knows a starship engine room should look like. Why? Because “Star Trek Fans” aren’t a large enough movie-going audience to cater to at the expense of 80% of the audience who only knows 2 things about Star Trek and they’re both “Beam me up Scotty!” Rather than make the set authentic, thereby creating alienation within most of the audience members (and making the poor Star Trek-literate guy have to deal with all the “what’s that thing?” questions whispered to him), the filmmakers went with a backdrop that would effectively convey the feeling of “Engine Room” to 99% of the audience. For the uber-fans (10% of the people in the theater), this was awful and hurtful, but for the rest of the audience (90% of the people in the theater) and to the movie studio, it was a good move to make.

So otaku-nerds, let us not react in anger at changes in continuity or blatant contradictions and anachronisms which occur to us, for in the end it is for profitability, and without such things, none of this is going to get made.

Why am I bringing any of this up? Well, I finally got around to watching Summer Wars. When I was living in Tokyo, I was in so much work up to my eyeballs and money was so tight thanks to a shitty dollar (yes, living in Tokyo and getting paid in USD. It sucked), that I didn’t have time to check it out when it opened, despite the fact I wanted to. I did manage to catch Redline there though when it opened. Sweet.

Watching Summer Wars, there were a number of things that bothered me a bit. It’s a great movie, and I love how (like almost all anime features) it doesn’t feel it needs to spell everything out to a stupid American audience which must have an IQ of 12 like Hollywood productions. Younger anime fans who have tried to watch anime films with their parents know what this can lead to. Endless interjections of “What’s that?” “Who’s that?” “Why are they doing that thing?” “What do they mean by ...?” Don’t you just sometimes want to yell at the person that you haven’t seen the movie either and you don’t have a secret set of headphones where more things are being explained to you and not them, so could they please just shut the fuck up and watch?!. Anyway, Summer Wars is nice. It makes you follow the story without spoon-feeding it to the audience, escalates emotional commitment, and pays off with a great big finish. The problem is that there are certain times when that process is interrupted and you are jerked out of the movie by something a bit too hard to accept... but only for that 10% of the audience who can see what the problem is in the first place. Everyone else is enjoying the movie, but you can only mostly enjoy it, because something’s bothering you that isn’t being addressed. Why not? For the sake of that 90% of the audience who aren’t bothered by it, that's why not. That's how you make a profitable movie. No matter how wide or narrow your target audience is, there is always a threshold for the lowest common denominator, and a need to meet it in order to make your money back. So it's not good to dwell on thole outlying things that don't need to be listed.

But I'm going to list those issues here anyway.

Kenji the Herbivore: This is just an opinion more than the rest of these issues, but fucking seriously, the Herbivore Male is sending Japan to hell in a handcart faster than anything else. There’s cute ineptitude, and then there’s “I’m an a-social idiot who wouldn’t know what to do with a girl if she landed naked right on my...” let’s stop there, I’m sure you get the idea. I have to believe that the whole indecisive-male in the face of blatant girl-interest grew out of a backlash from the 1980’s “cool guy” as an otaku audience was never going to be cool enough to actually actively attract girls. Since then the “I don’t know what to do with an interested girl” character has been a staple of harem programs like Tenchi Muyo. The thing about Tenchi the character, is that he always (more or less) puts himself into a socially awkward sexual dead-possum mode to avoid hurting the feelings of the other competing girls and not because he was totally inept. It was always the notion that he’d piss one girl off by going for the other, which kept that kind of behavior at least mostly believable. When there are no competing love/humping interests, for a guy to act like that is only cute for the initial character introductions. If his balls don’t drop for the whole movie, you just want to punch him.

Why this doesn't matter:
But this personality archetype has become so ingrained into anime, that it would actually throw audiences off if Kenji both liked math AND was good with the ladies. If that were the case, he would have seemed too perfect, or perhaps may have been hiding sinister motives.

...He's just waiting for Sasami to leave the room.

Social Media Spaces: So somehow Norad, JR, Heart Monitors, and who knows what else have all allowed OZ (the furry wet dream version of facebook) access to systems that are guarded at the highest level? WTF? I know, the intro mentioned that defense agencies, big businesses, and all kinds of other major entities have established presences on OZ, but actually causing a threat to these entities through that presence is like thinking that by hacking into you are somehow going to gain access to strategic missile command. And don’t give me that “the hacked accounts from NORAD used the same passwords for OZ as they do for their sensitive systems” bullshit, because ...really? Really? Is that so easy to believe because that kind of thing happens now all the time where people with access to defense grids can use the same password for their fucking Twitter as they can for super-secret-classified-network? No matter how bad-ass this AI is, it’s not going to gain anything special by taking over some weirdo future version of Second Life.

Why this doesn't matter:
But “War Games” the sequel isn’t what this movie was about, that extra dimension would just be extraneous and take away from the more important character development.

“Hacking”: Ok so Kazuma is some gaming bad-ass, and takes on a computer program in an online fighting game. They start to fight and you hear... tappity tap tap... The whole. Fucking. Time. Ever play Street Fighter? Ever play Street Fighter but typing shit? What the fuck, is he writing brand new code right there for the command “kick now” or something? This is a result of lots of Hollywood dribble, where whenever anyone does anything with a computer ever, you hear keyboard typing at an inhuman pace, even though the applications where text editing would actually have any effect don’t work like that... ever.

Why this doesn't matter:
 But the audience needs to know this is some very important computer stuff happening on the interwebs, so Kazuma holding a console-style controller is out, even though it would be a more accurate portrayal of what’s going on. Let’s also not forget that a vast amount of web interaction in Japan (way more than the USA) happens via hand-held mobile device, where tapping on buttons must happen for everything, so it’s not a huge deal for most Japanese audiences. Kazuma is Hacking the GPS system? Oh that’s totally normal... they have trucked in a supercomputer that is running... an online fighting game program... which is being programmed in real time by a 13 year old... it’s ok, it’s “computer stuff.”


Low Earth Orbit vs Outer Space: So the Arawashi orbital satellite (remember "orbital") is a probe that is supposed to slam into a comet or something so researchers can study it. Comets are far away, even when they show up in our neighborhood. If a comet came by earth so close as to be able to be impacted by an earth orbiting satellite (an area where there are lots and lots of other satellites doing other things), then this would be a fucking earth shattering event. We’re talking close enough to cause a serious scare that it could hit earth and cause an ELE. Now, since the film opens with normal people in their normal lives and no riots in the streets, we have to assume that whatever comet/asteroid thing that the Arawashi was supposed to hit, it was far enough away from earth as to not make the entire human race collectively wet themselves... you know... fucking outer space! what is Arawashi doing hanging out in orbit? Remember Deep Impact ? (No, not the movie, the actual NASA probe. I'll give you a hint: No you don’t remember it and neither does 90% of the audience). It took 7 months to get from Earth, to where this comet was, by flying on a rocket... then the impactor itself took 5 days to hit the thing AFTER it was launched at it... FROM SPACE! This Arawashi thing should already be on a trajectory to slam into this interplanetary body very far away at uber-speeds and no amount of AI is going to be able to turn it around. Even if it could, there’s no way in hell it would be using GPS as a targeting reference because A) It’s above the GPS sats in space, and B) Why the fuck-shit-hell would a piece of space equipment designed to hit another object in space be equipped with GPS targeting sensors, OR atmospheric navigational hardware (wings & fins). These things would only be effective for hitting something on EARTH! It’s not a fucking j-dam!

Why this doesn't matter:
But the average audience member is only going to be aware of “smart bomb video” circa Gulf War part 1, and the very scientific principle of “big thing go boom.” So taking time to explain how we get around these problems isn't worth it.

E = mc2: Ok so something the size of a school bus is heading towards the earth faster than a ballistic missile and you manage to get it to miss the mark by... what did that look like, maybe 300 feet? I don’t know what the actual mass of that thing was, but it was made to be a high velocity impact device. Let’s look at Deep Impact again, and remember that the thing that slammed into the comet weighed (on earth) 816lbs (370kg) and was traveling at 10kps. It was a little bigger than washing machine, and the explosion released energy equivalent to 5 tons of TNT. That's 5 Bunker Busters (or 5 Pepcons) going off all at once. The impactor in the movie looks considerably bigger than that. Something that size traveling at speeds like that is going make the impact entire area look like Tunguska... MOAB level power being unleashed by this thing is not a stretch by any means.

Why this doesn't matter:
The audience has no idea what Tunguska was, is, or what it means, and they don't care, because the movie shows that they all had a close call and saved the day in the end by working together as a family in unison (Spoiler Alert; that bit you just read). So the filmmakers didn’t need to bother explaining how something that big wouldn't blast that entire mountain into dust.

Hi, it's just me, 1 ton yield here, yeah, there are 20 of us, and we all wanna come in at once... you can't stop us by the way.

North Koreans: There are stories of how errant weather satellites have come within a hair of starting World War 3 because they flew over the north pole when Russian missile command hadn’t had their morning coffee yet and scared the pants off of everyone there. Something falling out of the sky from space heading straight at Northern Japan is going to look like one thing: North Korean Missile Attack. I don’t care what systems are or aren’t under the control of “Love Machine,” it’s almost impossible to suspend belief that some missile shaped tungsten death-rod the size of a bus heading for Japan isn’t going to have missile bases in North Korea, South Korea, China, Russia, and any US subs that happen to be in the area, totally losing their shit over this. I honestly think this might be weighing in the back of the minds of a higher portion of the audience in Japanese theaters, more than the other points I've brought up, due to the recent scares that happened there form thsi sort of thing (during the height of the N. Korean missile tests, there were Patriot Missile launchers set up across the street from my apartment... you know, just in case).

Why the NorKos don't matter:
But since this scene comes at a crescendo of such high cinematic intensity, the audience doesn't notice the problematic potential. It would be like trying to pay attention to a candle in the middle of a forest fire.

It was either this or 99 Red Balloons.

These are all necessary problems. What I mean by that, is that if any of them were addressed or compensated for withinthe film, it would have been just a case of spending time and money to animate needless sequences which would explain technical things that didn’t need explaining because the audience doesn't care. It would take away resources that the film had put to much better use in the story telling. Fixing or addressing these issues would in no way make this movie any better, and in fact would probably detract form it. In short, fixing these issues would have actually made the film worse, not better.

Where we run into actual trouble is when American audiences get a hold of it. Am I saying Americans are smarter than Japanese? Fuk the hell no. What I am saying is that this film is going to end up being followed by a smaller, niche-type audience in the US, as opposed to a wide general audience as in Japan. The American audience is going to be a pinhole-lense concentration of the top of pyramid fans (the ones who are really into this "annie-may" stuff), representing only a small fraction of any movie going audiences as a whole. Further exacerbating the problem, is that this concentration that gravitates towards anime in the USA, tends to contain the demographic clusters that are going to be much more literate in the types of scientific dynamics that these problems grow out of (science, computing, etc), and so a larger portion of the American audience is going to find trouble suspending disbelief to the degree that this movie is 100% enjoyable.

 But this movie also addresses this problem as well; by not giving a crap what non-Japanese audiences think of it (seriously, do you really think they had a strategy session where the American market came up and had any effect on the treatment, characters, or overall tone, or even the marketing of this film? ...I’ve been in meetings like this, and the answer is no). The reasons these little holes go unaddressed here, are because this film is trying to appeal to a general audience, or in other words; be profitable. Not "buy a new Bentley for every day of the week" profitable, but more along the lines of "let's pay our staff a living wage, and invest what's left in the the next movie project" kind of profitable. Fans should not have a problem with this.

The film is incredible. It’s an involving story that does what cinematic anime has often been best at, and that’s produce a strong character driven series of events peppered with elements that are just too impractical to use in live action. No matter how you slice it, to try and recreate the scenes in OZ with live action and green screen would just produce something reminiscent of a bad Next Generation episode, where we’re trapped in a character’s mind or something. The film did a great job at being genuinely entertaining, and is a perfect gateway film for anime-ignorant family members (let them watch the dub if they want...). The best part is, that any nitpicky problems you have with it, can be placed at the feet of the lesser intellects in the general audience, and are totally not a result of you and your lack of social skills. Totally.



Anonymous said...

You could be right, but I took these problems in a different way: it seemed to me that the movie was marketed toward family audiences. Not only did it appeal to males and females, but to kids and adults alike. We as adults generally dismiss kiddy elements and inconsistencies (though I admit that almost everything you mentioned irked me as well).

As for Tenchi, I agree with you. Tenchi was never an anti-social, unrealistic, dumb character. He was portrayed as not having a lot to him, but even so, he's so much more of a solid character than many of these protagonists (maybe toned-down Shinji clones?).

The Angry Otaku said...

I don't think your conclusion is actually different from mine. The marketing in Japan when this was coming out was definitely present in the family segment. I think that goes to the original point that the wider the audience you can appeal to, the better the film will perform, and the family category is a significant chunk of a potential audience. And then much of the people in the family segment aren't going to be sucked out of the experience by these more technical or trivial issues mentioned here, either because of age, or because of lifestyle (most parents don't spend long hours on social networks or computing, so those anachronisms are not going to be visible to them either).

As for the bumbling male archetype, it's become so embedded into anime so deeply, that to not have it in anything, would be too jarring... it would be like making Han Solo a vegetarian.'d just be too distracted by that to find the character believable. I'm not really happy with that type of character in anime, but it seems to be continuing in that direction... But if that's what the bulk of the audience wants, that's what they're gonna get.

Gwyn said...

You make some really interesting observations about Summer Wars. I saw it in Tokyo, along with Redline, last year, and while Redline was mostly empty even on opening day, Summer Wars was absolutely packed. You are 100% correct - certain things were left unexplained so the film could better appeal to a mainstrem/family audience. And I have never seen a non-Ghibli theatrical anime recieve the sort of attention that Summer Wars did. It was definately a refreshing change.
As for different audiences viewing the film differently - and the fact that no consideration at all was given to international markets/audiences is par for the course in Japan - I have found that US viewers tend to view movies and anime in general far more ...whats the word I'm lookng for?...technically (?) than Japanese viewers tend to. Personally I am usually fine with suspending my disbelief for most movies and it is always an expat US friend who brings me back down to earth by picking out all the holes in what we just watched. Maybe its just the folks I roll with but I always presumed it was a cultural thing.

The Angry Otaku said...

I just got a spam comment in Hebrew... LOL Kosher SPAM! ...sigh.

Re: Gwyn, Thanks for that insight into the theater attendance. That's a nice bit of causality there (in terms of marketing strategies at the very least). Where was this, Tokyo?

And yes, point #2 about American fans having a different behavioral pattern in terms of treating media a certain way; A) That's true and B) I mention that it's most likely because the audience size for anime in the USA is small and in no way exemplifies what you could call a "mass" or "general" audience, and so that results in a concentration of audience members which might have the tendency to use more explicit standards in viewing cinema and so this would produce a higher proportion of audience members who can't suspend belief. These films don't really have to care about that, because pleasing these fans in a foriegn market is not something necessary to their business plan for success.

The Angry Otaku said...

arg... meant to ask where was this, IN Tokyo? Like what part and all that.

Gwyn said...

No worries. Yes it was Tokyo - either in Ginza or Ikebukuro from memory (I see any theatrical I can at the cinema so it tends to blur after a while).
There was also a fair bit of coverage on tv talkshows (primetime as opposed to akiba tv at 1am on a Saturday night) and even a few commercials on the JR Yamanote line. Unfortunately, when the DVD/Blu was initially released it was, for some unfathomnable reason, aimed purely at hardcore anime fans - hence the 10,000yen pricetag. Pricing it lower (like Ghibli movies) couldve opened it up to even greater mainstream coverage - was a terrible marketing decision imo.

The Angry Otaku said...

I definitely did see the train marketing (Tokyo Metro & Toei) and the stuff on TV too. I remember finally getting some free time and then realizing that it more or less came and went a few weeks earlier.

OOOOO *cringe*!! It always drives me nuts when people bring DVD prices up and complain about how high they are... In Japan you have a bit of room because in comparison to the US, they are higher...but;

Well the 10,000 yen SRP on the DVD makes a lot on sense if you know how the home media business works, because it's designed to keep it out of certain channels. A large footprint in retail channels can be the kiss of death for a company's budget when you realize that these things operate on sell-through. We would turn down Wal-Mart and Best Buy all the time, because they would order too many copies, and when 50,000 go out and 25,000 come back, you've just gone into debt. If you don't want those 25,000 to come back, you lower the SRP to below cost, and you've still gone into debt. If the SRP is too high for those channels in the first place, then you are never exposed to that kind of scenario, which can be truly fatal to any company that is not the size of Warner or Universal.

It's hard for a lot of otaku to come to terms that these prices are indeed a result of market equilibrium, and for prices to go down (without being the result of financial loss or other hurt to the animation studio), that for every 1 committed buyer out there, they are going to have to convince 10 other people to buy the thing too. Not a likely scenario. All too often the otaku never think about or even realize the extremely destructive (fatal in some cases) potential of a production run of DVDs which sells through 50% or less. A year of making 100,000 DVDs and only selling through 50,000 is going to mean millions of dollars in the red. "Better to sell out than to have too much" isn't a greedy motto, but a legitimate survival strategy, especially when the retail channels like Tower of HMV are more than happy to deliberately order more than they expect to sell, so they can return the excess for a rolling credit which they can apply to upcoming SKUs.

They took the conservative route in this one and honestly you can't blame them. Besides, a week later the thing is gonna be at BookOff for half of that price anyway.

Gwyn said...

Yes, the business model used here definately justifies (or at least tries to) what often seem like outrages prices to those outside of Japan. As I'm sure you know, recouping all production costs, manufacture, distribution, AND projected profit for all parties involved is all calculated on the Japan market alone - foreign markets have always been considered the proverbial icing on the cake and are not taken into account unless the production in question is an co-dev/international one. While this approach seemed unfair to Japanese fans during the US anime boom earlier in the decade, the subsequent collapse of said boom has proven it to be the correct one imo. The upshot of all this is, naturally that niche Japanese product made for a certain niche within the already niche otaku segment results in lower unit sales and much higher cost for consumers/fans.

Gwyn said...

In the case of Summer Wars I had hoped (possibly 'fantisized' is the more appropriate word) that the larger mindshare that the show was getting due to more mainstream promotion and success might have meant this business model could have been calculated on a larger consumer base and therefore resulted in a lower price point for the show. This could, in turn, get more regular/non-hardcore consumers interested and so on. At the very least I was expecting the standard 6800yen pricepoint. The 10,000yen initial release surprised even me - and this is coming from someone who sometimes buys local Japanese bluray releases of anime volume by volume - ie, I am no stranger to having to put my money where my fandom is. Or perhaps these are the same thing?