The Hawking Index

We live in an age with unparalleled potential for big data. I nearly wrote “access to big data”, but in fact, a lot of that information is proprietary and only shared within the corporations that own it. Most notoriously, Amazon was able to use Kindle data to work out not only who was buying what, but who was actually reading it. The company was able to announce that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was the least-finished book of recent times, abandoned partway by 55% of the people who paid to read it.

The mathematician Jordan Ellenberg proposed a “Hawking Index”, named for the author of the much-bought, little-read Brief History of Time, listing all the books that failed to get any reader love. It was one of those jokey news items that closed out the day, and little has been heard of it since.

But that big data is still churning. When the online streaming giants started up, there was a veritable scramble for content. Companies sitting on a reasonable backlist of anime found themselves offloading digital rights by volume, because what mattered to the early-bird marketers wasn’t quality, it was quantity. Join our service, they would proclaim, because we have five hundred anime titles! Of course, most of those titles would be stuff like King of Bandits Jing, which nobody really watched, and which had previously only monetised when the warehouse storing the DVDs was burned down during the London riots and the owners got to claim on the insurance.

But that didn’t matter. Never mind the quality, feel the width… until you fast forward a couple of years, and companies like Netflix know exactly what people watch and what they don’t. They know now that nobody is actually impressed by King of Bandits Jing, and see no reason to hang onto it. They’ll just keep Attack on Titan, thank you.

But now Netflix is even dropping their blue-chip titles. Remember: Netflix is a channel, not an archive. Quite controversially, last month it even dropped Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because Netflix is no longer in the old-show game. It wants to make new shows. Good news for new anime that Netflix is prepared to commission, but bad news for anime companies that evaded due diligence for a few years. And bad news for you, if you wanted to watch a less-loved show and didn’t bother to buy the DVD.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #164, 2017.

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Prime Directive

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Starting with this season’s Kabaneri of the Iron Fortress, new shows from the highly-regarded Noitamina late-night slot on Japanese television will only be streamed abroad on Amazon Prime. Some fans are angry because that closes the window that previously might have allowed them to see it for free from another supplier.

But it doesn’t seem to bother the UK’s anime companies. “Streaming from another large platform can only be a positive thing,” comments Andrew Partridge of Anime Limited. “I heard naysayers flapping when Netflix came along, too. The truth of the matter is that the Amazons and Netflixes of this world are the terrestrial TV we never really had.”

In the years before NEO, anime TV shows weren’t on TV in the UK. Japanese cartoons were written off as glorified toy commercials or unsuitably violent, and fans sourced them from the video trade instead. In the last decade, anime has undergone a quiet revolution in streaming and simulcasts, but I don’t think fandom likes to feel that it’s being “handled”, even though enclosing intellectual properties is the way that any broadcaster builds its brand. SKY TV initially sold itself as the place where you could watch The Simpsons. Sporting channels snatch exclusive access to Your Team versus Their Team. If you gave me the mission of seizing the high ground in anime, Noitamina would be the first thing I went for, because it’s come to be associated with quality. If you were previously the sole gatekeeper to Noitamina, you would have had Erased, Psycho Pass, and Terror in Resonance, Nodame Cantabile and Eden of the East. But so what? You still wouldn’t have had Attack on Titan or Ghost in the Shell.

Fans love the idea of getting their own, tailor-made anime-streaming “channel”. But they hate it when they discover it Doesn’t Have All The Things. So it’s not just one monthly payment, it’s two, it’s three… When Battery starts running in July, you won’t be able to preview it for free on Crunchyroll. But if you really want to see it, it will still be right there, if you pay the annual fee, on Amazon Prime. That’s what’s making a lot of fans twitch. When Funimation or Viewster subscriptions cost no more than a once-monthly Happy Meal, they feel negligible. But Prime’s £79 a year doesn’t feel like £7 a month, even though it is. Or another £5.99 a month for Prime Video, if you prefer.

Of course, down the line, these shows will continue to come out on disc anyway. Which is where the real cleverness lies, because if you’ve already paid for Amazon Prime, it’s pretty obvious where you’re going to buy your Blu-ray. They’ll get to take your money twice.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Anime: A History. This article first appeared in NEO #150, 2016.

“The Half of What I Saw…”

Marco-Polo-NetflixNot even Marco Polo was able to edit his own life into an all-encompassing narrative. On his deathbed, surrounded by his weeping daughters and his long-serving manservant Suleiman, he was entreated by Venetian priests to admit he had made up many of the tall-sounding tales of his travel. The holy fathers were worried that “Marco of the million lies” would go to hell if he did not finally confess that he had made up his stories of a black rock that would burn, of oil that came out of the ground, of giant sea creatures and Chinese gods. His last words were a fitting epitaph: “I have not told the half of what I saw.”

Dozens of writers have grappled with the way to best tell his story. Luckily for me, I only had to write a biography, which begins with his birth and ends with his death. For the writer of fiction, there are myriad temptations. I’ve toyed with a one-act play, in which Marco and his collaborator Rustichello pace the floor of their opulent but confining house arrest, arguing over the best way to set his knowledge down on paper. Marco is all about facts and descriptions, a tedious village-by-village account of the way east; Rustichello, a former troubadour and Crusader, wants stories of derring-do and fortean curiosities, and in one sense, it’s Rustichello’s Marco that survived through the ages.

You could plump for Italo Calvino’s method, concentrating on the relationship between Marco and his patron, Khubilai Khan, as the aging monarch demands stories of Marco’s adventures. But what of the roads less travelled? What of Marco on his homeward route, escorting the mysterious Princess Kokachin to her doomed wedding, and plunged into local conflict in Persia and befriending his Muslim counterpart, Rashid al-Din? What of Marco the official in China under the Mongols, dealing with intrigues, crimes and murders in a nation under military occupation? And what temptations there are to the historical screenwriter to edge gently out of evidence and into reasonable speculation – what if we ignored the evidence that Marco never saw Japan for himself, and inserted him into the Mongol fleet that suffered the consequences of the first Kamikaze.

cc030914j021f15.jpg_1328648940The new Netflix series tries and largely succeeds to have it all, opening with a prolonged throne-room scene in which Marco shows off his knowledge of Uyghur and Mongol, and in which the Polo family’s failure to keep their promises to the Khan lead to the effective handing over of Marco as collateral to save their trading contracts. But there are nods and foreshadowings, even in those opening few minutes, of the direction that John Fusco intends to take. Khubilai’s beloved wife Chabi, a Christian, stands at his side in her distinctive head-dress. An official called Ahmad is pointedly referenced, ahead of the downfall known to all readers of Marco Polo’s Travels. A lissom figure on the sidelines appears to be Princess Kokachin, thought by some to have been the woman who stole Marco’s heart, even as he was forced to convey her to her new husband. And then the credits begin, awash with impressionistic Chinese inks that create simulacra of his tallest tales – figures and creatures that may, or may not, only exist on paper or in his mind, even as the music soars and hints at Game-of-Thrones-y intrigues and Marco’s endless, infectious sense of wonder at the sights of the Far East.

Jonathan Clements is the author of Marco Polo (US/UK) and A Brief History of Khubilai Khan (US/UK). Marco Polo, the TV series, begins on Netflix on 12th December.