Games to Grunts

To San Francisco, where eigoMANGA, the typographically confusing content provider, has announced to the world that they will be doing their bit to support the troops by giving away 5,000 copies of Vanguard Princess. It’s not entirely clear to me whether these games, or rather, the freebie download codes for them, will be actually sent to soldiers on active service, since they are being dispatched via Games to Grunts, an organisation that describes itself as a Veteran Support Ecosystem. But whatever: either battle-hardened men (and women) fighting for their lives in a desert, or possibly old soldiers who like watching big-eyed girls punch each other, will now have something to distract them.

This is, by no means the first time that a company in the Japanese contents field has decided to do something for the military, although in the past people have been rather less brazen about it. Back in the days of the Gulf War, Kiseki Films used to send copies of their new releases out to the soldiers in the field, mainly because many of the staff at Kiseki used to be military men. Their marketing director, for example, once told me he used to drive a tank, although they took away the keys after he parked it on top of a captain’s car.

Manga Entertainment were similarly keen to “do something for the troops”, and would send crates of VHS tapes out to the Gulf, where they presumably entertained, disgusted or otherwise mystified bases full of squaddies desperate to know what happened in episode three of Magic Knight Rayearth.

In neither case, to the best of my knowledge, did either company ever try to make marketing capital out of it. It was a simple act of unsung charity, the sole evidence of which today is me telling you this. Although there was an odd coda several years later, when a handwritten letter arrived from a man in Baghdad, who revealed that some of the Manga Entertainment releases had been copied and re-copied so many times, that the anime fans of Iraq were very keen to buy legal copies, as the requisitioned pirate editions they’d been watching were almost unintelligible.

Perhaps I am wrong, but it’s difficult to imagine that people who’ve been in a dug-out for six weeks dodging ISIS will have much of an interest in “ten girls with unique fighting skills” or using the story mode to “navigate the adventures of a Vanguard Princess.” But maybe eigoMANGA would like to send a copy to the US Army’s Commander-in-Chief…? I bet he’d tweet all sorts of fun things about it.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #179, 2020.

Ultra Scam

It looks like Christmas came early for Tsuburaya Productions, after the Los Angeles Court of Appeal ruled in the company’s favour in the first week of December 2019. The studio that most famously gave the world the Spandex-clad superhero Ultraman has been locked in a legal battle for twenty-three years with Sompote Saengduenchai, a Thai director who claimed that the late Noboru Tsuburaya, son of studio founder Eiji, had sold him the rights to exploit Ultraman outside Japan.

The judgement affirms a ruling already made in 2017, that the contract Sompote has been waving around since 1996, and claims to have signed in 1976, doesn’t have Noboru Tsuburaya’s real signature on it, and even if it did, makes several suspicious errors regarding the names of Tsuburaya properties. Sompote, meanwhile, has behaved with entertaining evasiveness, refusing to provide the original of the passport that, he claims, “proves” he was in Japan in 1976, and being hand-wavingly vague about what exactly Tsuburaya is supposed to have received in return for this deal.

While all this has been going on, Sompote’s company Chaiyo has not only been making its own Ultraman movies, but also selling merchandising deals and even licensing the rights for US DVD releases with reputable companies. The battle has been fought not only in Thai courts, which ruled in Sompote’s favour in 2009, but also in China, which found the whole thing so confusing that Beijing courts ordered the setting up of an Ultraman Copyright Study Group, and finally swung in Tsuburaya’s favour when it was brought to America.

The mystery remains – did Sompote really travel to Japan in 1976 and somehow secure an international rights deal from Noboru Tsuburaya, a deal which conveniently went unmentioned by anyone, Sompote included, until after Tsuburaya was dead? Or is he lying? Or did he meet someone who claimed to be Tsuburaya, who proceeded to sell him the Japanese TV equivalent of London Bridge? If so, that would make Sompote the victim, and the entire, prolonged shambles merely the fall-out from a scammer blagging a few free lunches.

You might think it all unlikely, but Sompote wouldn’t be the first. I know of one prominent Captain Harlock fan who spent several happy hours getting drunk in a Tokyo bar with a “Mr Matsumoto”, unaware that the real Leiji Matsumoto had given up waiting for him in the hotel lobby and gone home after 45 minutes.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #196, 2020.

 

Arcade Fire

Unsurprisingly, gaming arcades have been on the wane in Japan since their peak in 1986 of 26,000 sites. Thereafter, consoles took arcade games into the home, and miniaturisation took gaming onto your phone. Feeding dozens of 100-yen pieces into a Starblade machine, essentially buying one’s way through difficult levels, as your correspondent once did in Osaka for much of 1992, started to look like a silly option when you could own the thing outright and play it in your lounge.

These days, there are only 4,000 registered arcades in Japan, along with another 9,000 sites too small to count, having less than fifty machines. But with the closure of Anata no Warehouse, a five-storey grunge palace in Kawasaki, modelled on the Walled City of Kowloon, it seems that something has dealt a killing blow to the old gaming palaces.

The culprit is a simple 2% increase in consumption tax (Japan’s VAT). That puts up the cost of the average manga magazine by 0.0006p, hardly anything to write home about, you might think. But Japan’s arcade sector has been struggling for years to maintain its “one-coin” slot machine charges. Whereas the average slot machine in the UK takes pound coins, the nearest equivalent in Japan is the 100-yen piece, which is only worth 71p. Under the old 8% tax, 8 yen of that was already going to the tax man; since 1st October, that now goes up to 10 yen. Or in British terms, Japanese arcade games are only bringing home 63p per play. The next coin up is the 500-yen piece, which would mean each play would cost £3.58.

Put it another way: the arcade sites in Japan have declined not only because of new technologies and habits, but because the games are still charging 1986 prices! The consumption tax is liable to wipe out what little profits were left for suppliers, and is sure to lead to many more giving up the ghost. Anata no Warehouse is probably only the first to shut down.

I wonder, though, whether this will affect pachinko quite so much. Japan’s frightfully dull ball-bearing games are in a class of their own, often seem to be a cover for money-laundering anyway, and feature under-the-counter prizes that can be downgraded at will by site owners. So I expect that pachinko will continue to endure, as it bafflingly has for decades, even as the nature of the 100-yen coin leads to a shake-out in more everyday arcade games.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of Japan. This article first appeared in NEO #195, 2019.

The End of Saturday Morning

“Certain non-Japanese producers, post-Pokémon, were indeed actively reverse-engineering its success, asking what it was that made anime special and attempting to implement that – I know this because I was paid a lot of money to tell them… [O’Melia] focusses on some interesting areas within reception studies, particularly regarding the hybridity of global broadcasting. She notes that, like British television in days past, Japanese television has exerted a recognisable impact on American broadcasting, contrary to many scare-mongering claims that American media are being hurled at the world on one-way tickets.”

Over at All the Anime, I review Gina O’Melia’s account of the time that American children’s television began turning Japanese.

Netflix Nations

“Lobato details in depth with the panoply of widgets, laws and infrastructures required to put an episode of, say, Evangelion on your television, and the degree to which such provisions tie up local bandwidth in different countries. He details Netflix’s cunningly low-tech Open Connect service, which puts an actual, physical box into the server farms of 1,000 Internet Service Providers around the world, so that Netflix users can go direct to a particular machine for their content. In other words, it is ‘a private network built on top of the public internet.'”

Over at All the Anime, I review Ramon Lobato’s Netflix Nations.

Shunted to Saturday

As noted by the Asahi Shinbun, anime passed a grim milestone in September when its last two representative serials faded from primetime. Doraemon and Crayon Shin-chan, once heavy-hitters of the early evening schedule, are now pulling audience shares that struggle to hit 7%, which has caused them to be shunted aside this October. They will now air on Saturdays, leaving the primetime weekday slot for, I don’t know, inane panel shows and something about a cat that drives trains.

The news sits at the nexus of a whole bunch of metadata and statistics, tied up in part with technological shifts and the changing demographics of Japan. Time was, when the average Japanese nuclear family had two school-age kids who needed to be distracted on the single television in the lounge. Now, they are more likely to have just one child, halving the number of hours a TV is liable to be turned to children’s entertainment. And that notional Japanese child, certainly by his or her teenage years, is liable to have a TV and/or a computer screen, and a video-compatible phone.

And while this is probably a tad academic and nerdy, even for NEO, I feel obliged to point out that primetime is still keeping animation companies busy – there are logos and idents, eye-catches and adverts, a vast number of which not only require animation, but pay substantially better second-per-second than a 22-minute cartoon. We should also remember that the anime that you enjoy – your Death Note and your Ghost in the Shell and the like, have never been part of primetime. Most of the shows that score high with a foreign audience tend to air in Japan late at night, in the graveyard slot, when nobody is watching. The otaku audience has not been served by primetime since the last century.

So don’t cry for the “loss” of anime from primetime. This is an accountant’s decision, to do with who is liable to be watching at those hours, and what advertising space is most lucratively sold for them. I was sitting in the departure lounge at Narita airport last month, and the primetime adverts that assailed me were for writing a will, retirement homes, and a commercial for Tokyo Gas. Then again, the latter featured pop star Kyoko Fukada, dressed as devil-girl Lum and singing a pastiche of the Urusei Yatsura theme song. Anime isn’t gone just yet.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #194, 2019.