October 29, 2015

That's Edutainment!


"Is Japanese Television a Tool for Establishing Social Order?" asks Erik Luebs. Yes, but he mostly avoids the sort of academic navel-gazing you'd expect from a thesis question like that (until the last paragraph), and instead wonders aloud what can be read into the television habits of the average Japanese.

American and Japanese watch about the same amount of television. Except the slow penetration of cable in Japan means that for half of the population, their viewing choices are confined to a handful of networks. Japan's "Golden Age" of television hasn't ended, which makes those habit easier to generalize.

Luebs looks at the top-rated television shows in the U.S. and Japan from May 2015.

NCIS (crime drama)
The Big Bang Theory (sit-com)
NCIS: New Orleans (crime drama)
Dancing with the Stars (contest/dancing)
The Voice (contest/singing)

Ma're (family drama about cooking),
Shoten (sketch comedy)
Pittan Kokan (variety/talk show)
Jinsei ga Kawaru (variety/talk show)
Himitsu no Kenmin (variety/talk show)

To clarify: Shoten resembles a haiku version of the original Whose Line Is It Anyway? The host sets up a scenario and feeds lines to the (seated) panelists, who improvise responses with an emphasis on verbal wordplay. A clever and entertaining show, it's been on the air since 1966.


And neither is the "variety/talk show" analogous to its American counterpart. There are "celebrity-of-the-day" chat shows (NHK's Studio Park, for example), but these are not that. They are "talk" shows in that people talk, and "variety" shows in that a variety of topics are discussed. But the topics take precedence.

These celebrity panels chat and share anecdotes about various topics--tear-jerking stories about family reconciliation, first loves, travel, and maybe the most popular topic: food. Their chats are interspersed with short documentaries and dramatizations, in which the viewer can watch each celebrity's emotional reaction to the content through a "picture in picture" embedded at the side of the screen.

Some of these shows get pretty brainy on the edutainment scale, a good way to catch up on the latest pop science. The formula remains as described above, with experts educating the tarento. (Strip away the entertainment factor and you end up with Today's Close Up, NHK's version of Nightline.)

A tarento ("talent") is a professional TV personality. To be sure, a tarento may be an actor or singer or scholar, but is a tarento when acting as such. His job is to always have something clever or insightful to say, regardless of the subject. For the viewer, explains Luebs, they become real-life Walter Mittys:

Popular Japanese television looks inwards, into its own society. The variety TV show concept is based on the viewer personally relating to specific individuals who represent various tropes of Japanese-ness. Whether intentional or not, watching these celebrities chat with one another serves as an instructional guide for what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior in society. They give the viewer a clue into how to participate in any number of conversations, and how to react in any number of situations. These programs are just as much a form of entertainment as they are a framework for establishing social order.

This is spot on, though I read "social order" in the most benign sense: lessons on how to play the game of life (specifically: Japanese life).


But Luebs can't help slewing back to the comfortable confines of scholarly cant. No, he concludes, it's not "indoctrination," but "without the cultural synergy created by diversity, homogeneous cultural ideas are refined and concentrated, and the TV is the medium that projects these values onto the individual."

As if these cultural ideas didn't exist before television, and only sprang into being around 1950 in the smoke-filled room of a producer's office.

I think it more likely that this hallowed "diversity" in mass media instead reinforces our individual silos: with 250 cable channels, we only have to watch what we want to see. But old-school Japanese broadcasters must attract the largest audience possible. They do that by giving the audience what it wants.

Or at least by not showing what the audience doesn't want to see.

If anything is being projected onto the individual, well, the individual is holding up a mirror reflecting it right back at the set. This is readily apparent to somebody who prefers the Japanese approach to "reality" to the American brand.

An awful lot of travel shows on Japanese television focus on traveling in Japan, and then there are the travel shows about going to foreign countries . . . in order to find a Japanese person living there. (An attempt to address the mystery of why any Japanese would choose to live anywhere but in Japan.)

But note that the host and audience are always impressed, even awed, by these daring explorers of the World Outside Japan. They serve as proxies for the audience, not cautionary tales. It's not that complicated. All you have to do is stipulate a more introverted and nerdier population and it all makes sense.

They're doing it so we don't have to. Thank you very much.

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October 22, 2015

Robot on the Road


Well, if you saw Ex Machina and are looking for some low-brow humor to cleanse the palate of all that high-brow pomposity, you'd have a hard time doing better than Robot on the Road.

This gorgeously drawn short also has a robot (obviously) with low and ulterior motives, and generous amounts of gratuitous nudity. But veteran animator Hiroyuki Okiura makes no bones about writing and directing what is basically a ten-minute long dirty joke.


Being up front about what you're up to and not pretending the subject matter is more than what it is always makes for better art. Robot on the Road is funnier (on purpose) and orders of magnitude more clever than the hundred long minutes of Ex Machina.

Writing a "good" dirty joke (or, for that matter, any run-of-the-mill episode in any run-of-the-mill police procedural) takes more talent that wallowing in the manipulative angst of unlikable people and their meaningless lives.

You can watch it here. (The second button from the bottom left turns on the subtitles; the button that says "Skip" skips the longish introduction.) One other thing: the subtitles don't reflect it, but the robot speaks bad Japanese with a worse American accent.


The website also has a slideshow of Okiura's enchanting production art designs, a rather jarring contrast with the juvenile nature of the story being told.

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October 15, 2015

Ghost in the Belle


Impressive special effects
on a small budget.
Worrying about existential threats from "strong A.I." is the latest fad among bored intellectuals, with Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, Elon Musk (among others) voicing "concerns" about a future robot uprising. Or something (it's not entirely clear, just that they're "concerned").

But before going to DEFCON 1 on the "A.I. panic of 2015," Erik Sofge would first like to see "any indication that artificial superintelligence is a tangible threat." So he posed the question to Yoshua Bengio, head of the Machine Learning Laboratory at the University of Montreal. Bengio doesn't see much of a threat either.

Most people do not realize how primitive the systems we build are, and unfortunately many journalists (and some scientists) propagate a fear of A.I. which is completely out of proportion with reality. We would be baffled if we could build machines that would have the intelligence of a mouse in the near future, but we are far even from that.

Alex Garland doesn't share these "concerns" either. If anything, the director and writer of Ex Machina seems to anticipate the day when every nerd will have a fully functioning sex robot in his closet. Not exactly a terrifying prospect (except for Japanese demographers).

So Ex Machina isn't another silly Terminator clone. But it is a very silly movie, and its silliness is largely a product of taking itself so danged seriously. And yet not seriously enough.

The role of science in science fiction is relative to the technical aspirations of the story. Other than stipulating the existence of spaceships, there doesn't need to be a whole lot of actual science in space opera. Even the "mainstream" of the genre demands little more than a nod to the current state of the art.

But make the science the primary focus--enter the realm of "hard" science fiction--and you have to color within the lines. The Second Law of Thermodynamics is no longer a suggestion, and the standard shifts from "vaguely not impossible" to one brilliant mind away from realization.

In Ex Machina, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) is supposedly that brilliant mind. The CEO of search engine giant Bluebook (i.e., Google), he's the amalgamation of Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Larry Ellison (and inexplicably, Sylvester Stallone).

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), one of his star programmers, has "won" a "weekend with the boss" contest. When he ends up at Nathan's estate in the wilds of Alaska, it seems he's really there to conduct a Turing test on the comely Ava (Alicia Vikander), Nathan's latest android.

A machine that passes a Turning test can carry on an unconstrained dialogue without its human interrogator realizing it's a machine. Nathan recruits Caleb because he needs an "objective" evaluator to make the assessment, but misleads Caleb at first about what truly is being assessed.

Which isn't all that difficult, as Caleb's "test" consists of vacuous conversations that could have been scripted by a machine. More likely, the writer simply isn't as smart as his characters. Caleb comes across as a dweeb on his first date; Nathan is a boorish football jock who likes to hit stuff.

Least convincing casting ever.

What if the whole thing's a Mechanical Turk? If the hardware's that good, it'd be easy to pull off. Where's a Voight-Kampff machine when you need one? Hmm, might this android be as nuts as the guy who built her? Once my suspension of disbelief began to fray, there was nothing to stop it from unraveling all the way.

Now, to start with, Ava is mechanically beyond anything anybody's invented, and her "brain" is more than a bit of a leap. Still, given the proper context, that leap could be made. No surprise that the leap not easily made depends on the Second Law of Thermodynamics, pop sci-fi's biggest stumbling block.

Caleb's first question to Nathan wouldn't have anything to do with her A.I. Rather, what kind of servos does she use? What kind of batteries does she have?

Human nature is such that we tend to judge the internal consistency of a plot, especially in fantasy and science fiction, not so differently than a criminal trial: the prosecution can't cross-examine on excluded evidence unless the defense brings it up on direct. Unmentioned, we happily exclude great swaths of the real world.

Ghost in the Shell begins by positing that non-sentient androids are already ubiquitous. So that takes the subjects of mobility and functional capability off the table.

Fine. Except that Garland introduces the subject into the script. Now it's fair game. The first mention is quite smart, when Ava reveals to Nathan that she gets her power through inductive charging. That's real technology.

But the only reason inductive charging is brought up is because Ava knows she can kill the main power feeds by triggering a "power surge." This idiotic technobabble is the same dumb plot device that has shown up in caper flicks for decades: kill the power and the security systems fail. (Die Hard did it in 1988, okay? Stop it.)

And it's paired with another one just as old and creaky: genius coder reprograms a security system (at the source code level) that he's never seen before. And super-paranoid Nathan doesn't encrypt or do check-sums on any of his super-duper top-secret software.

Oh, and inductive charging would severely limit Ava's range. Without a supply of the most advanced battery technology imaginable, Ava is permanently confined to the house. So why confine Ava to her room as well? We're at least a hundred miles from civilization. There's nowhere else for her to go.

Seriously. The androids want to be free? Set them free. That'd be a million times more interesting than this script. Tossing Caleb into a Survivorman episode with Ava would be the ultimate test of intelligence. It'd be truly hilarious if they both got all bitchy and whiny. Now that'd be human.

In any case, the equivalent of an electronic dog collar or an OnStar system would take care of things quite efficiently. Your super-intelligent robot can't have less sophisticated electronics than cars have had for years. ("Kyoko" aside, the rest of Nathan's androids are turned off, so they can be turned off.)

Hmm, so at what point did Nathan regret not implementing Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics?

Both Caleb and Nathan use the same metaphor: the pretty assistant who distracts the audience while the magician palms the card. Garland deploys a harem of naked girls to distract the audience from a pretty standard femme fatale plot, that relies on the smart people catching a bad case of the stupids.

I'm reminded of Freeze Me, another exploitation thriller that got to thinking it was an art house movie and subsequently drained all the smartness out of it. Garland likewise wants us to root for a sociopath (surrounded by dunces) with an hour of life expectancy. I cared about none of them.

There are better versions of this story. Ghost in the Shell is about a self-realized A.I. that frees itself from the constraints of its makers. As the shell isn't what makes Ava "human," Caleb could simply smuggle out the A.I. in a drive array. The season five climax of Person of Interest did exactly that.

But more on theme is Let the Right One In (the 2008 Swedish version directed by Tomas Alfredson).

Eli is a vampire--permanently a young teenager--who has to periodically recruit a new Renfield to stay alive. The vampire element grounds the plot in that fundamental thermodynamic equation: the constant flow of energy in and out. She's dependent and yet must maintain the upper hand, which keeps her constantly on her toes.

This tension is what's utterly missing from Ex Machina.

Borrowing from Let the Right One In, I see Ava striding up to the helicopter, Caleb trudging behind her with a big rucksack full of battery packs slung over his shoulder. That balancing act between the machine and the human, that necessary mutual addiction, is a much better model of the real world.

Related posts

Freeze Me
Person of Interest
Robot on the Road
Appleseed: Ex Machina
They don't act that way in real life

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October 08, 2015

Eat, drink, and be merry


I previously discussed the cooking show (fiction and non-fiction) on Japanese television. With all that food getting cinematically prepared, the law of gastronomic thermodynamics dictates that there should also be a whole genre of entertainment dedicated to the consumption of food. And, yes, there is.

To be sure, this television species belongs to the entertainment genus of "watching other people having a good time" and "people doing interesting stuff so I don't have to." The particular advantage of the eating show is that this is an activity that everybody can participate in.

Now, unlike Phil Rosenthal in PBS's I'll Have What Phil's Having, everybody can't go flying around the world in order to sample the best and the most exotic (without a reservation or worrying about the bill). But decent approximations are not out of reach, nor is international travel these days.

A Few Great Bakeries, also from PBS, stays closer to home and well within the budget of the average viewer. PBS has a whole suite of shows along the same lines. But getting back to Phil Rosenthal, the first episode in Tokyo struck me as pretty much identical to the Japanese version of the same genre.

Rosenthal does visit two exclusive restaurants that would have the rest of us waiting for weeks on waiting lists and then forking over most of a paycheck to cover the bill. But the rest were open to anybody who knew where to go to find them and could squeeze in at the counter.

I don't drink or go to bars but one of my favorite shows on NHK is The World's Most Inaccessible Bars. In this case, "inaccessible" doesn't mean a rope line and a burly bouncer only letting the "right" people in. Rather, these are pubs and diners off the beaten path, down an alley and around the back.


Solidly working and middle class establishments, one of the attractions of the show is virtually hanging out with the regulars. The food and drink is only part of what keeps them coming back.

The World's Most Inaccessible Bars employs the same narrative approach as Somewhere Street, with no presenter, only a pair of narrators/commentators and a first-person camera (with plenty of cutaways).

However, most eating shows on Japanese television belong to the closely-related entertainment genus, "Watching B-list celebrities do interesting things." And some of them can be pretty dang interesting.

The typical focus of attention are food, hot springs (the onsen is a positive obsession), temples and historical sites, often tied together with a train ride on some quaint old line from point A to point B. This program description does a good job of describing the entirety of the genre:

Actress Sayaka Isoyama is starring in a new travel program coming soon to LaLa TV. Sayaka Isoyama's One Cup of Bliss Women's Journey will feature Isoyama visiting various locations in Japan and enjoying their local cuisine and specialty alcohol.

Of course, it's no surprise to find anime venturing into the same thematic territory. Wakakozake gives us Murasaki Wakako, a 26-year-old OL whose "favorite thing to do for relaxation is to go off by herself after work and go to various places to eat and drink, even if she's never been there before."


In live-action drama, Hanasaki Mai Speaks Out is a clever police procedural about two bank examiners with a knack for uncovering financial improprieties and bringing down the high and mighty. (Hanasaki's inability to bite her tongue when confronting greedy ne'er-do-wells explains the title).

Since their jobs have them traveling to banks hither and yon, she and her fellow accountant always have a restaurant guide in hand. Once the call of justice has been answered, they're on the prowl for new places to eat. That is, when they're not hanging out at the pub Hanasaki's father runs.

They may have to audit to live but they definitely "live to eat."

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October 01, 2015

Hungry for entertainment


Cooking shows have been a staple of "edutainment" programming since the television was invented. They anchor PBS weekends (I'm partial to America's Test Kitchen). During the week, it can seem at times that Chef Gordon Ramsay is responsible for half of Fox's prime time lineup.


On cable in particular, the cooking competition reality show traces back to the gonzo Japanese cooking sensation, Iron Chef. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. NHK loads up their weekday daytime broadcast schedule with cooking and handicraft shows, not just the weekends.

Impressively, all this cooking is done with pots, woks, and frying pans. Plus a computer-controlled rice cooker and a supercharged toaster oven. Few Japanese can afford the kitchen that comes even with an average apartment in the U.S. It's not the money, it's the power and space.

(The above article about rice cookers points out that while traditional Japanese electronics firms like Sony have ceded ground to their Korean and Chinese counterparts, makers of "white goods" appliances are booming.)

The kitchen counter in a typical Japanese apartment is designed to accommodate a compact cook-top, not an oven. With smaller cupboards and refrigerators too, daily shopping remains the common custom.

The "traditional" housewife role is still popular and accepted in Japan, meaning there's a mid-day audience. And an audience for NHK's family-oriented morning soap opera, the perennially popular Asadora melodrama. Five out of the last ten were about food.


TeppanThe heroine revives her grandmother's okonomiyaki restaurant.
OhisamaThe heroine marries into a family that runs a soba restaurant.
Gochiso-san   The heroine masters traditional Japanese cooking in the tumultuous 1930s and 1940s.
MassanThe hero and heroine found Japan's first whiskey distillery.
Ma'reThe heroine (from the sticks) becomes a pâtissier.

Japan has a thriving food culture. Note how food figures into the plot of Spirited Away, as Chihiro watches her gluttonous parents turn into pigs. But there are anime series that are all about food and practically nothing else.


Here's a sampling of anime series (with links):

     • Gourmet Girl Graffiti (Hulu CR)

Her grandmother's passing leaves Ryo Machiko not only living alone but without an appetite. This quickly changes when her cousin Kirin moves to town, giving her somebody to cook for, which she does with a passion.

Gourmet Girl Graffiti is about as art-house porny as food porn gets. Unlike Tampopo (1985), Juzo Itami's classic food flick comedy, there's no actual sex or nudity. Gourmet Girl Graffiti just makes eating good food look hilariously indecent.

     • Food Wars! (Hulu CR)

With the family diner shutting its doors, Souma's dad enrolls him in a cut-throat (almost literally) culinary school. The food/sex nexus in Food Wars! makes Gourmet Girl Graffiti appear downright subtle. It's basically Tampopo with Animal House sensibilities: dumb jokes and gratuitous everything. Oh, and lots of stuff about food.

     • Silver Spoon (Hulu CR)

At first, attending Oezo Agricultural High School was a good excuse for Yugo Hachiken to run away the stifling academic pressures at his preparatory school back in Sapporo. But now, like it or not, he's going to discover where food really comes from ("Don't eat the eggs!").

Along with all the farming and agricultural material, there's a nice lesson here about the difference between real-world "knowledge" and a book-acquired "education."

     • Ben-To (Hulu)

Reaching for a half-priced bento at the supermarket, Yo Sato finds himself in the middle of a full-blown brawl. As it turns out, the only way to get a decent cheap bento in this town is to fight for it. To keep himself fed, Yo joins the "Half-Priced Food Lovers Club."

A bento is a traditional box lunch, a source of often exquisite fare at bargain prices. A home-made bento (in a lacquerware box) is a sure sign of motherly love or a very attentive girlfriend.

Ben-to combines the food genre with the "flight club" genre (the -to is a play on the kanji for "combat"). In the fight club genre, the wildest reasons imaginable are concocted for kids to beat the snot out of each other (the wackiest fight club anime of them all being Ikki Tousen).

Ben-To takes a Looney Tunes approach to the violence, in which everybody gets better by next week. The shows are pretty samey as far as the threadbare plots go, but each episode features a different premium bento as the ultimate objective.

No list would be complete without Anpanman, in which all the characters are food and the superhero is literally an edible jelly doughnut (anpan). Yes, you can eat him in an emergency. The anime has been running since 1988 and is now at over 1200 episodes.

Anpanman's arch-enemy is Baikinman ("Bacteria-man"), which I've always thought is a bit ironic since the fungus koji (Aspergillus oryzae) is such an important part of Japanese cuisine. Whenever he gets predictably beaten, he shouts, "Bye-baikin!"

In prime time, it seems that half of the shows on the science-oriented Tameshite Gatten and the business-oriented The Professionals are about food. The Worker's Lunches investigates what people with unusual jobs have for lunch.

There's no shortage of live-action gurume dorama (gourmet TV dramas): The Emperor's Cook, Akko's Lunches, A Problematic Restaurant, Midnight Bakery, and Bookshelf Restaurant, to name a few recent shows off the top of my head.

So it comes as no surprise that in 2014, Tokyo could again boast having the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.

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