Category Archives: japan

cellphone fiction in japan

japcellnovel.jpg Peter Brantley points to an interesting WSJ piece (free) on the explosion of Japanese cellphone fiction. These are works, often the length of novels, composed specifically for consumption via the phone’s tiny screen. In some cases, they are even written on the phone. Stories are written in terse, unadorned language, in chunks crafted specifically to fit on a single mobile screen. Dialog is favored heavily over narrative description, and from the short excerpts I’ve read, the aim seems to be to conjure cinematic imagery with the greatest economy of words. The WSJ reproduces this passage from Satomi Nakamura’s “To Love You Again”:

Kin Kon Kan Kon (sound of school bell ringing)
The school bell rang
“Sigh. We’re missing class”
She said with an annoyed expression.

This novel clocks in at 200 pages, and was written entirely with Nakamura’s thumb!
About seven years ago, some of these works started making their way into print, initially through self-publishing websites like Maho i-Land. But the popularity of mobile novels soon caught the attention of mainstream publishers and numerous titles have been made into bona fide hits in print, some selling into the millions, with film adaptations, the whole bit.
But if any industry lesson can be taken from this mini case study of Japanese cellphone fic, it’s not the potential for crossover into print, but that emergent electronic literary forms will most likely find their economic model in services and subscriptions rather than in the sale of copies. The WSJ article suggests that the mobile lit genre exploded in Japan in no small part due to recent changes in service options from cellular providers.

About three years ago, phone companies began offering high-speed mobile Internet and affordable flat-rate plans for transmitting data. Users could then access the Internet as much as they wanted to for less than $50 a month.
The now-bustling Maho i-Land has six million members, and the number of mobile novels on its site has jumped, to more than a million today from about 300,000 before the flat-rate plans cut phone bills in half. According to industrywide data cited by Japan’s largest cellphone operator NTT DoCoMo Inc., sales from mobile-book and comic-book services are expected to more than double, to more than $200 million from about $90 million last year.

This would suggest that at least part of the reason cellphone novels haven’t taken off here in the States is the comparatively impoverished service we get from our mobile providers, and the often extortionist rates we pay. True, the mobile lit genre was already a phenomenon there before the rejiggering of service plans, which suggests there were preexisting cultural conditions that led to the emergence of the form: readers’ already well developed appetites for serial comics perhaps, or the peculiar intensity of keitai fetishism. In other words, improved telcom services in the States wouldn’t necessarily translate into a proliferation of cellphone novels, but other mobile media services would undoubtedly start to flourish. Broadband internet access is also pathetically slow in the US compared to countries in Europe and East Asia – ?the Japanese get service eight to 30 times faster than what we get over here. What other new media forms are being stifled by the crappiness of our connections?

from the real to the virtual and back again

In 2004, as the Matrix Ping Pong video link bounced its way from inbox to inbox, people where amused by the re-creation of a ping pong match with Matrix style special effects, using people instead of computer technology. Viewers were amazed at the elaborate costumes, only to be topped by even more amazing choregraphy. Perspective changes and camera angles are reproduced. Influences of Matrix 360 camera spinning and earlier Cantonese martial arts films are pervasive. Part of its success was the evident work and planning that was required to design and execute the scene. The idea of simulating the simulated was both ingenious and topical. However media criticism aside, it’s just a pleasure to watch.

The clip comes from a popular Japanese television show Kasou Taishou, where contestants performs skits before a panel of judges. These skits often involve re-creating camera work and special effects of film. That same year, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe of the UK pop band Pet Shop Boys release the video for the song “Flamboyant.” In the video, a (stereo)typical Japanese corporate employee is seen struggling to design a skit for the show. Interspersed in the video are mock Japanese ads starring Tennant and Lowe. Two years later, they take the idea one step further recently their their new video, for “I’m with Stupid.” In it, Matt Lucas and David Walliamsthe stars of the British comic skit series “Little Britian” to replicate PBS videos “Go West” and “Can You Forgive Her.” The result is a bizarre re-intereption of the CGI intensive PBS videos.

When I first started on this post, I was going to try to say that these examples are a “reaction” to the increasing virtual parts of lives. However, my thinking has shifted towards this reading this phenomenon as the process of “reflection” that has a long traditional in cultural production. As our lives are becoming increasingly virtual, synthetic, and digital, our analogue lives reflect back the new digital nature of what we experience. Like a house of mirrors, people are reflecting back what they see. These mirrors, as found in the amusement parks, distort the original image, bending and stretching people’s reflection, but not beyond recognition. The participants on Kasou Taishou started copying the images from the Matrix, which itself is a reflection or new interpretation of the fight choreography of Cantonese martial arts films. Pet Shop Boys first merely replay their reflection (with splices of fake Japanese commerical staring themselves.) Things get much more interesting when Tennant and Lowe realize that the truly interesting part of the Flamboyant video was re-creating the digital with the analogue, while adding their own personal distortion through a distinctly British comedic lens.
Advances in telecommunication and media production technology have blown open the opportunity to create and share these types of cultural call and response we are witnessing. The history of parody is a prime example of this, a traditional cultural dialogue through media artifacts. I’m not all surprised, in this case, that Japan is playing a role here. In that, I have always been both fascinated and amazed by the observed way that Japanese culture seems to balance the respect of tradition with the advancement of modernity, especially with technology. Although, I realize that distance and language barriers may mask the tensions between these cultural forces. Part of the balance is achieved by taking the old and infusing it into the new rather than completely reject the old. Further, in the case of the real simulating the virtual, the diversity of modes of creation and distribution is extremely telling. Traditional roles are blurred. The one-to-many versus many-to-many broadcast models, East v. West cultural dominance, corporate v. independent media and pro/am production distinctions are being rendered meaningless. The end result is a far richer landscape of cultural production.

some thoughts on katamari damacy:everything bad is good for you, part 3.5

Responding to Bob’s “games provide much more than a cognitive workout”
Growing up in the 80s, video games were much less sophisticated and probably less effective as a matrix for training consumption. TV performed that role. I remember watching on Nickelodeon competitions between children in a toy store in which each contestant had 60, or 120 seconds to fill a shopping cart with as many toys as they possibly could. The winner — whoever had managed to grab the most — got to keep the contents of their cart. The physical challenge of the game was obvious. You could even argue that it presented a cognitive challenge insofar as you had to strategize the most effective pattern through the aisles, balancing the desirability of toys with their geometric propensity to fly off the shelves quickly. But did that excuse the game ethically?
I’ve played a bit of Katamari lately and have enjoyed it. It’s a world charged with static electricity, everything sticks. Each object has been lovingly rendered in its peculiarity and stubbornness. If your katamari picks up something long and narrow, say, a #2 pencil, and attaches to it in such a way that it sticks out far from the clump, it will impede your movement. Each time the pencil hits the ground, you have to kind of pole vault the entire ball. It’s not hard to see how the game trains visual puzzle-solving skills, sensitivity to shape, spatial relationships (at least virtual ones), etc.
That being said, I agree with Bob and Rylish that there is an internal economy at work here that teaches children to be consumers. A deep acquisition anxiety runs through the game, bringing to mind another Japanese pop phenom: Pokémon. Pokémon (called “Pocket Monsters” in Japan) always struck me as particularly insidious, far more predatory than anything I grew up with, because its whole narrative universe is based on consumption. “Collect ’em all” is not just the marketing slogan for spinoff products, but the very essence of the game itself. The advertising is totally integrated with the story. Here’s Wikipedia (not a bad source for things like this) on how it works:

“The Pokémon games are role-playing games with a strategy element which allow players to catch, collect, and train pets with various abilities, and battle them against each other to build their strength and evolve them into more powerful Pokémon. Pokémon battles are based on the non-lethal Eastern sport of fighting insects, but the Pokémon never bleed or die, only faint. The game’s catchphrase used to be “Gotta catch ’em all!”, although now it is no longer officially used.”

Similarly, the Katamari backstory involves the lord of the universe getting drunk one night and shattering the solar system. Each level of the game is the reassembly of a star or planet. If you succeed, a heavenly body is restored to the firmament.
After an hour playing Katamari, having traversed a number of wildly imaginative landscapes (and having absorbed a soundtrack that can only be described as Japanese chipmunks on nitrous) I re-enter the actual world in a mildly fevered state. The cardinal rule in the game is that to succeed I must devour as much as possible. No time is afforded to savor the strange, psychedelic topography, to examine the wonderful array of objects (everything from thumbtacks to blue whales) scattered about in my path. Each stage is a terrain that must be gobbled up, emptied. A throbbing orb of light in the upper left corner of the screen, set within concentric rings representing target diameters, measures my progress toward the goal: a katamari “n” meters in size. The clock in the upper right corner pressures me to keep rolling.
Video games today may not be as blatant as the consumerist spectacle of the Nickelodeon game, and they may provide richly textured worlds posing greater problem-solving challenges than any electronic media that has preceded them. But it seems to me that many of them do not differ ideologically from that shopping cart contest.

games provide much more than a cognitive workout:everything bad is good for you, pt 3

games may be helping to raise raw IQ scores, but much more importantly they also also reinforce the dominant culture’s norms of material rewards and consumerism and one of the most interesting games of the past year, katamari damacy, praised for being both witty and non-violent, basically rewards players for consuming as much material goods possible.
katamaridamacy1.jpg the following is slightly edited analysis of the game by rylish moeller, an english prof who is very active on the techrhet listserv.

katamari damacy is an extraordinarily interesting game. the game’s lead designer had as one of his top goals to “make a game that would appeal to people who have become disillusioned with recent games and rekindle their passion.” for more, read the game’s postmortem in the december 2004 issue of gamedeveloper. my point is that most games support models of consumerism and monopoly capital through internal economies (collecting stuff, money, power-ups, etc.), gameplay (viewing objects and people as consumables as in katamari), and even at meta-levels such as this one where the lead developer wishes to rekindle lost passion for consuming (er, playing) games. while this doesn’t really surprise me, i am surprised that when we discuss what we learn by playing games, we are not (often) discussing these very interesting, ideological issues that stem from the very social relationships and cultures of production that engender the games in the first place, those that we willingly subject ourselves to as we play.
but katamari is an interesting game to discuss since it calls issues like consumerism and environmentalism to the foreground in a very overt sort of way. in another revealing comment, the game’s developer (keita takahashi) hopes that this game will motivate other developers to “create something new, without focusing on the bottom line for once.” so, we cannot really discuss games and learning and literacy without spending some time grounding that conversation in the economic and cultural environments which drive game production. my worry is not that games are too complicated or too violent or too masculine or too racist but that they are these things in order to perpetuate consumerism.

note: the point of this is not to trash katamari damacy or games in general, but rather to point out that while IQ is possibly being raised, other perhaps more significant lessons are being learned as well.

an ipod for text

When I ride the subway, I see a mix of paper and plastic. Invariably several passengers are lost in their ipods (there must be a higher ipod-per-square-meter concentration in New York than anywhere else). One or two are playing a video game of some kind. Many just sit quietly with their thoughts. A few are conversing. More than a few are reading. The subway is enormously literate. A book, a magazine, The Times, The Post, The Daily News, AM New York, Metro, or just the ads that blanket the car interior. I may spend a lot of time online at home or at work, but on the subway, out in the city, paper is going strong.
Before long, they’ll be watching television on the subway too, seeing as the latest ipod now plays video. But rewind to Monday, when David Carr wrote in the NY Times about another kind of ipod — one that would totally change the way people read newspapers. He suggests that to bounce back from these troubled times (sagging print circulation, no reliable business model for their websites), newspapers need a new gadget to appear on the market: a light-weight, highly portable device, easy on the eyes, easy on the batteries, that uploads articles from the web so you can read them anywhere. An ipod for text.
This raises an important question: is it all just a matter of the reading device? Once there are sufficient advances in display technology, and a hot new gadget to incorporate them, will we see a rapid, decisive shift away from paper toward portable electronic text, just as we have witnessed a widespread migration to digital music and digital photography? Carr points to a recent study that found that in every age bracket below 65, a majority of reading is already now done online. This is mostly desktop reading, stationary reading. But if the greater part of the population is already sold on web-based reading, perhaps it’s not too techno-deterministic to suppose that an ipod-like device would in fact bring sweeping change for portable reading, at least periodicals.
But the thing is, online reading is quite different from print reading. There’s a lot of hopping around, a lot of digression. Any new hardware that would seek to tempt people to convert from paper would have to be able to surf the web. With mobile web, and wireless networks spreading, people would expect nothing less (even the new Sony PSP portable gaming device has a web browser). But is there a good way to read online text when you’re offline? Should we be concerned with this? Until wi-fi is ubiquitous and we’re online all the time (a frightening thought), the answer is yes.
We’re talking about a device that you plug into your computer that automatically pulls articles from pre-selected sources, presumably via RSS feeds. This is more or less how podcasting works. But for this to have an appeal with text, it will have to go further. What if in addition to uploading new articles in your feed list, it also pulled every document that those articles linked to, so you could click through to referenced sites just as you would if you were online?
It would be a bounded hypertext system. You could do all the hopping around you like within the cosmos of that day’s feeds, and not beyond — you would have the feeling of the network without actually being hooked in. Text does not take up a lot of hard drive space, and with the way flash memory is advancing, building a device with this capacity would not be hard to achieve. Of course, uploading link upon link could lead down an infinite paper trail. So a limit could be imposed, say, a 15-step cap — a limit that few are likely to brush up against.
So where does the money come in? If you want an ipod for text, you’re going to need an itunes for text. The “portable, bounded hypertext RSS reader” (they’d have to come up with a catchier name –the tpod, or some such techno-cuteness) would be keyed in to a subscription service. It would not be publication-specific, because then you’d have to tediously sign up with dozens of sites, and no reasonable person would do this.
So newspapers, magazines, blogs, whoever, will sign licensing agreements with the tpod folks and get their corresponding slice of the profits based on the success of their feeds. There’s a site called KeepMedia that is experimenting with such a model on the web, though not with any specific device in mind (and it only includes mainstream media, no blogs). That would be the next step. Premium papers like the Times or The Washington Post might become the HBOs and Showtimes of this text-ripping scheme — pay a little extra and you get the entire electronic edition uploaded daily to your tpod.
sony librie.jpg As for the device, well, the Sony Librie has had reasonable success in Japan and will soon be released in the States. The Librie is incredibly light and uses an “e-ink” display that is reflective like paper (i.e. it can be read in bright sunlight), and can run through 10,000 page views on four triple-A batteries.
The disadvantages: it’s only black-and-white and has no internet connectivity. It also doesn’t seem to be geared for pulling syndicated text. Bob brought one back from Japan. It’s nice and light, and the e-ink screen is surprisingly sharp. But all in all, it’s not quite there yet.
There’s always the do-it-yourself approach. The Voyager Company in Japan has developed a program called T-Time (the image at the top is from their site) that helps you drag and drop text from the web into an elegant ebook format configureable for a wide range of mobile devices: phones, PDAs, ipods, handheld video games, camcorders, you name it. This demo (in Japanese, but you’ll get the idea) demonstrates how it works.
Presumably, you would also read novels on your text pod. I personally would be loathe to give up paper here, unless it was a novel that had to be read electronically because it was multimedia, or networked, or something like that. But for syndicated text — periodicals, serials, essays — I can definitely see the appeal of this theoretical device. I think it’s something people would use.