Rabbit Ears

by Justin Sevakis,

I went to a friend's band's concert last night. It was a Wednesday, and they didn't go on until nearly midnight. It was fun to see them play, but halfway through their set I sat off to the side, head-in-hands, wanting desperately to go home and crawl into bed.

I don't know when I stopped being a night owl and started being the sort of annoying jerk that gets up at 5:45 am to go to the gym, but I don't like it. Can't I just be awake 24/7? I'd get so much more done.

Jimmy asks:

I few months ago (maybe a year), I remember reading about Toei releasing their very own streaming channel. This had me excited because it was a way for me to legally watch three of my favorite franchises that don't get licenced or simulcast, those being Precure, Super Sentai and Kamen Rider. Has there been any further word on this? Why is there no outlet for those franchises other than Fansubs? Am I even remembering this right?

You are, for the most part. Back in September of 2013, Toei Pictures (NOT Toei Animation -- they're separate companies, and anime wasn't a part of this venture) launched an internet TV network called the Toei Japan Channel in the US. At the time, the press releases emphasized tokusatsu (special effects) superhero shows like Kamen Rider and the Super Sentai franchise. It was a linear pay-TV channel that was only available via MyGlobeTV, a subscription internet TV network aimed at people living in foreign countries where they couldn't find local programming. The channel was EXTREMELY short-lived, as MyGlobeTV's parent company GlobeCast (a global broadcast and satellite services company owned by Orange) pulled the plug on the service at the end of the year. Meaning, it only lasted only 3 months!

According to the (very limited) initial PR for the channel, their plan was to initially target Japanese expatriates living in the US, and then after a year, start subtitling the shows and grow beyond that very small niche audience. Obviously that never happened. I have no idea if they ever tried to pitch the network to cable and satellite service operators, but if they had, I'm sure they would have found very, very little interest. Cable operators are notoriously conservative when it comes to launching new linear independent channels with niche audiences. Hence, why no anime channel has ever made much of a dent in that direction.

Nik asks:

Osamu Tezuka and Shotaro Ishinomori are two of my favorite manga/anime creators. My favorite aspect of their works is the "retro" and "rounded" look of the characters. Properties like Cyborg 009, Kikaider, and Astro Boy are extremely appealing to me in an aesthetic sense. The "look" of those shows/manga are what initially drew me to them. Here in Japan, my Japanese friends seem to agree. From what I can tell, many Japanese anime fans like the "old" look from these creators. Unfortunately, the above named franchises have never had much widespread success outside of Japan. Even the reboots don't gain any traction. Many armchair anime critics say that foreigners just "hate old looking stuff." What do you think are the reason(s) that such revered and "classic" looking works have thrived in Japan but floundered elsewhere?

Those armchair critics are right. While some of Tezuka's better-known works got mainstream traction in the US back in the 60s (Astro Boy, Kimba the White Lion), that was aimed at a general kid's audience, and the "look" of the characters, which hearkened back to Disney and Max Fleischer cartoons of the 1920s and 30s, simply registered in people's minds as children's entertainment. It wasn't trying to be cool, and wasn't. And few people knew it was Japanese in origin, so while people enjoyed it and it was a common pop culture memory for people that grew up back then, its appeal was very different than what would come later.

Americans at large didn't get introduced to harder-edged, mature anime for a long time after that. We had the very occasional TV series like Battle of the Planets (Gatchaman), Star Blazers (Yamato) and Robotech (Macross/Southern Cross/Mospeda), the current fan base is still an extension of the 90s boom in anime that happened after Akira was released. For years most fans came to anime looking for edgy, violent, possibly sexy entertainment. Then Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and finally Pokémon came and acted as a gateway drug for kids, while movie buffs and parents discovered Studio Ghibli movies, giving anime cultural cred.

If you step back (way, way back) and try to see how the concept of "anime" is defined to Americans at large, you'll find a wide smattering of opinions: some people still think of pervy stuff from panty shots to hentai, some think Pokémon, and a lot of people think of Ghibli, or giant robot shows from the 80s. But if you look to the younger audiences that drive anime fandom, you'll note a common thread. Tweens look for anime because it doesn't insult their intelligence as much as hyper-sanitized American "kids" fare -- characters die, bleed, cry, and go through rough patches. The characters are cool and attractive and inspiring. Their struggles are familiar, and kids who are starting to mature can relate to their struggles. Naruto didn't just strike a chord because it was (initially) entertaining. Kids wanted to BE Naruto. (Or Sasuke. Or Sakura.)

That part of why people become anime fans is extremely important, because it's a large part of what makes for a hit. We don't just watch these characters passively, we self-insert; their adventures become our dreams. And, subconsciously, we reach for the shows that match who we want to be and what we want for ourselves. Younger fans want to get out and explore the world, be stronger, and get respect (and look good doing it). Older fans want to relive their youth. The vast majority of the big hits in the Western anime scene -- from Sword Art Online to Sailor Moon -- are appealing in this way. You can tell a lot about someone's hopes and dreams by what anime they're into. There are other reasons to love anime, of course, and not every show that everybody loves is a self-insertion fantasy, but... well, cosplay was largely popularized by anime fans.

Which brings us back to Tezuka and Ishinomori stuff, with it's throwback characters and old fashioned, slightly more sanitized storylines. They simply aren't cool looking, in an aspirational way. I wouldn't say that newer adaptations ALWAYS bomb in the West; the Black Jack OAVs did fairly well back in the day, and Metropolis did quite well. But without the lure of nostalgia that these properties have in Japan, they're harder to sell and must stand on their own merits. And frankly, many of them have kind of sucked. (Most of the reviews I've heard of 009 Re:Cyborg are pretty bleak.) Old stuff can be great, and many of them are classics that really deserve to be revisited by more people, but if they don't offer the very thing that fans are looking for in a show, they're simply never going to give them a shot.

Terry asks:

Why do characters still use flip phones in anime? Is to be 'true' to the original material? Or to avoid product placement? Or is it legacy? My assumption is that drawing a smart phone is easier. So why are they so common? I know more recent shows have been switching to smart phones though.

In March 2014, the Japan Cabinet Office released a study of Japanese households and what percentage of them own what. According to the survey, 93.2% of Japanese households own a cell phone. 54.7% own a smartphone, and 73.7% own "something other than a smartphone," which I'm assuming means a feature phone. (Those are both percentages of the total population, not of cell phone owners, by the way.) There's quite a bit of overlap there, so obviously that means there are households where Dad gets an iPhone or a Samsung Galaxy or something (possibly as a work phone), while the kids get stuck with the old flip phones. Data plans for smartphones are also pricey -- roughly on par with those of the US.

Anime is usually about teenagers, and teenagers don't have that much money, so it makes sense that feature phones would still figure more prominently in anime than modern smartphones. Also, dramatically speaking, the motion of flipping open or slapping shut the halves of a flip phone, and the resulting "thwack" sound (many Japanese brands also make a very distinctive "click") makes for an interesting moment directorially: such a moment could be animated any number of ways to give the character body language that helps convey the emotion of the scene. Much like dropping and stomping a cigarette used to.

Before you cry for the poor Japanese kids that can only get a feature phone, Japanese feature phones are nowhere near as useless as the American ones. Before iPhones came out, there were countless articles bemoaning how much cooler their phones were than ours: they often had large, gorgeous screens and great cameras for their time, could get special low-resolution versions of local TV broadcasts (using a technology called 1seg), could make payments via a secure chip, and were designed to send emails as easily as text messages. Japanese language also adapted to numeric keypad entry way, way better than Western languages did. Commuter culture meant that people spent a lot more time on their phones killing time, so huge chunks of the Japanese language web are accessible from the crappy little web browser.

There were attempts to bring some of those Japanese cell phones to US shores back in the 2000s, but many of the things that made them cool just didn't work outside of Japan, leading the press to give the market the nickname of "Galapagos Synrdrome," after the island filled with strange evolutionary offshoots that couldn't exist outside of a unique island's ecosystem. These days, of course, they're on the decline, and most people buying new phones are opting for smartphones. But feature phones are cheap, their batteries last forever, they're discreet, and the very young and very old can operate them easily. As with many old technologies, I expect that Japan will be one of the last countries to give them up.

Justin (another Justin) asks:

I recently took a look at this subscription channel on the U.S. Cable service AT&T U-verse. It was called TV Japan and it's a 24/7 Japanese culture channel run by NHK. Weekly, I can watch anime such as One Piece, Detective Conan, Kuroko's Basketball, and Anpanman. Anyway, I saw an episode of One Piece during the Enies Lobby arc and the episode had subtitles that I swore were identical to FUNimation's own. Up to this point I have never heard of companies in the U.S. (Like Viz Media or Funimation) giving subtitles to Japanese broadcasters or anything like what I just saw on TV Japan. So does this actually happen, and if it does is it more common than I think?

This happens all the time. There are several international broadcasters aimed at Japanese audiences living abroad (and/or their families), just as there are Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, and virtually every other language. These channels are typically available via satellite services like Dish Network, or cable services like AT&T U-Verse. Some come with basic service, while others require you to subscribe to a specialty package.

TV Japan is the market leader for Japanese programming in the US. A premium channel (it's supposed to be $25 per month, but that varies), it's operated by NHK Cosmomedia America out of New York City, and carried on DISH and U-Verse as well as in a few hundred hotels and on JAL, ANA and American Airlines. They mostly air news and talk programming, but they run a handful of anime as well -- currently just the shows you mentioned, plus Chibi Maruko-chan. They air programming with English subtitles, when they're available.

When a network like this wants to air an anime program, they'll typically go to the Japanese licensor and ask to license broadcast rights. If those rights are already tied up with an American publisher, the licensor will give them a call and see if something can be arranged. Since TV Japan is a network aimed at Japanese expatriates and travellers, it's not typically a huge deal for American publishers to work around it. And since those publishers are often the ones tasked with creating an approved subtitle script (which then becomes the property of the licensor), that's the version that the broadcaster will probably get.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.

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