Thursday, February 23, 2017

Review: Power-Up: How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, by Chris Kohler

Indianapolis, IN: Bradygames, 2004, pp. 312.

Chris Kohler's book, as the title promises, is concerned with the revolution wrought by Japanese video game makers between the 1970s and the 1990s, in which Nintendo and its most famous titles (from Donkey Kong to Pokemon) loomed so large. The subject is complex enough that, rather than attempting to offer a relatively linear history of the field, the book goes through it subject by subject, generally with good results. Kohler displays a robust interest in the formal aspects of the games--their appearance, structure, modes of play and storytelling--and explains these incisively, both in cases of specific, earlier pioneering games, and the larger history of the form. This extends to minute analysis of classics from Donkey Kong to the original Final Fantasy with the aid of numerous screen captures arranged in flow chart-like fashion, affording not just something of a lesson in the Poetics of Video Gaming, but enabling us to look at these old games with fresh eyes.

In doing justice to his subject matter Kohler's discussion extends well beyond gaming to its interconnections with manga, anime, pop music and other corners of Japanese pop culture--which did so much to make Japanese video games what they were. The creative stars were not techies, but had interests and backgrounds in the visual arts and storytelling media (like manga), as was the case with Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani; Donkey Kong, Mario and Zelda creator Shigeru Miyamoto; and Dragon Quest creator Yuji Horii. And this was crucial to the contributions that they did make to their field--the appealing characters, narratives, visuals, music and gameplay experience, and the associated techniques and refinements (like cinematic cut scenes) that lifted the genre above the minimalist sports and shooting games that defined the early, more narrowly programmer-driven history of the field. This extends even to glances at intriguing but oft-overlooked games like Miyamoto's RPG Mother, and Fumito Ueda's ICO. There is also a good deal of material on how the product had to be translated and localized for sale in foreign markets.

It might be added that Kohler's book contains enough material on the history of the business to be interesting as a recounting of the development of the information technology sector--the more so for how different this recounting is from the Silicon Valley mythology to which discussion of the American gaming industry (all too predictably) conforms. Start-ups by computer programmers (like INIS) do have their part in the story. However, the businesses that played the central role were established companies in other fields that took a chance on the new sector (Nintendo, for example, was an almost century-old manufacturer of playing cards), and the stars of the story, artists that they were, Company Men, rather than entrepreneurs striking out on their own.

Moreover, while Kohler's book has undoubtedly dated in its coverage of a relatively fast-changing field, much of what it says still seems relevant--in particular, Nintendo's accent on sheer fun (which in the years since held the Wii in good stead, relative to the high cost and hardcore gaming orientation of other consoles). Additionally, the timing of Power-Up's release--in the early 2000s--is still recent enough to provide a certain amount of perspective on the major changes in gaming since then, namely the decline of the standing of Japanese firms relative to Western ones in the field; the claims that Nintendo may have gone from cutting-edge to backward-looking; and the possibility that this is just part of a still larger story, specifically the transition of gaming away from consoles to online and mobile devices.

That said, it could be argued that, important as Nintendo is in this story, the discussion may be a bit too Nintendo-centric. (Despite some very real successes, Sega, for example, does not even rate an index listing here.1) It should also be remembered that while Kohler is generally knowledgeable about and respectful of the culture of which he is writing, this is nonetheless an American book for an American market. Anyone looking for much discussion of the reception for Japanese games in any foreign market but the U.S. would have to look elsewhere. On some occasions, he also approaches his subject through American stereotypes about the two countries (e.g. conformist, stifling Japan vs. everybody-chases-their-dreams America), as when he recounts the career of Pokemon creator Satoshi Tajiri, declaring that
had Japanese societal norms had their way, Pokemon would never have been born, its creator not given the freedom to follow his own path . . . he wouldn't go on to college, but spent two years at a technical school. His father got him a job as an electrical technician. He refused to take it.
The expectation that one go on to college and take the workaday job rather than devote oneself to a creative career is hardly some foreign exoticism, but similarly the norm in America (where parents are also apt to be far from pleased to hear their kid tell them they mean to be an artist rather than go for the practical degree and the steady eight-to-six).

There are also instances in which the presentation of his information could have been improved. Despite the distinctly American view, Kohler does not always provide the clarifying notes that an American audience would expect. (The Super Mario Brothers 2 discussed in his overview of that series is not the one we recall in North America--and that fact only gets proper acknowledgment in a much later chapter.) Additionally, there are sometimes listings of information within the main text of a chapter that might have been better reserved for tables or appendices--as with a seven page listing of releases of soundtracks of the music of the Final Fantasy game franchise.

However, these are comparative quibbles in regard to a book that I, for one, found to be well worth my while all these years later, a continued relevance reflected in Kohler's releasing an updated and expanded edition of the book in 2016 (24 pages longer, according to its page on Amazon). You can read about it here.

1. Sega's Master system, after all, was the closest thing Nintendo had to a rival in the 8-bit era, and its Genesis console virtually on par as competitor in the 16-bit era, while later consoles met with varying degrees of success up to the Dreamcast. Additionally Sega produced one of the few video game characters that can be compared with Mario as a pop culture icon, Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

A Fragment on Fan Writing

In researching Star Wars in Context I was time and again surprised to find that answers to many fairly obvious questions about the Star Wars franchise--even discussion of those questions--were awfully scarce on the web. Some of it was even nonexistent.

For example, "everyone" knows that George Lucas based Star Wars on Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress to a considerable degree. Indeed, in a typically shallow and pointless display of erudition, Ted Mosby even dropped this little factoid on Stella while sitting her down for her first viewing of the movie on How I Met Your Mother.

Yet, just how did one film inspire the other? And not less important, what are the significant differences? Actual discussion of the connections and parallels between one film and the other, even of the most superficial kind, is actually quite elusive for a Googler--and for anyone in general.

This was not a problem for me because I had plenty of my own to say about that; and anyway, to the extent that I was saying something others weren't, well, that said to me that writing the book wasn't so pointless as I'd feared.

All the same, why is this kind of thing so often the case?

Simply put, it's a lot easier to serve up generalizations than home in on the finer details, easier to offer impressions than analysis, easier to assert than to really explain--and while generalizations, impressions and assertions are not necessarily uninformative or unhelpful (some of them actually are informative and helpful), we could generally do with a whole lot more detail, analysis and explanation than we are getting in our online chatter.1

It probably doesn't help that the comparative few capable of doing better--who have the grasp of the history and technique of the medium they want to write about, who really know something about film and actually see films like Hidden Fortress (black and white, subtitles, etc.) so that they understand them and can communicate that understanding--rarely (not never, but rarely) write about films like Star Wars. And when they bother, they rarely take the same trouble that they do with more "serious" subjects.

And so a Mosby can get away with such a pointless display of erudition as dropping the name of Kurosawa's film--pointless because I'm not sure what significance this could have had for Stella in the scene, unless she was familiar with the other film, and it was some sort of cinematic touchstone for her, and we were never given reason to think that she was; and because making too much of the connection has doubtless confused the issue for many.

Review: Britain's War Machine: Weapons, Resources and Experts in the Second World War, by David Edgerton

New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, pp. 445.

In his book Warfare State, David Edgerton made the case that British historiography has tended to overlook the fact of a military-industrial complex as a massive presence in the country's life at mid-century, distorting understandings of matters like government support for industry and science, and the welfare state that gets far more attention.

Edgerton followed up this study with a book concentrating on the British warfare state in the World War II period, Britain's war machine.

Rather than a comprehensive history of Britain's war effort, the book focuses on particular aspects of that effort, and makes a number of contentions, among the most important the following:

* Far from being finished as an economic power by Victorian decline, World War I and Depression, Britain remained a considerable economic power in the 1930s, a central element of which was its still being a considerable industrial power. Moreover, that industrial base was not just a matter of strength in old, "declining" sectors like coal, iron, steel and shipbuilding, but also the emergence of major British players in the new high-tech sectors; while in contrast with the derisory view of British productivity, the country was actually quite up-to-date in this respect--often superior to Germany, and in respects on a level with the U.S..

* British technological prowess extended beyond the civilian sphere to the military. Moreover, military innovation was not, as is often imagined, largely a matter of civilians (e.g. inspired individual outsiders) who had to fight against conservative authorities. Rather there was a vast military establishment actively initiating programs seen through by state scientists. Indeed, even those thought of as outsiders fighting the establishment, like jet engine pioneer Frank Whittle, were often insiders--Whittle "an air force officer" sent to Cambridge by his service which then seconded him to a company set up specifically to develop his idea. If anything, British decisionmakers may have been too quick to place their faith in technical fixes for the problems they faced. That we think otherwise is due to the civilian academics having been in a better position to tell their story.

* More generally, Britain translated its considerable economic, industrial, technological strength into commensurate military strength. Far from being disarmed, Britain had the world's largest navy, a first-rank air force with an unmatched bombing arm and defensive radar system, and the world's most thoroughly mechanized and motorized army through the interwar period. Reflecting the strength of its military-industrial base, it was also the world's largest arms exporter of the interwar years--while this base was massively expanded in the years of rearmament, beginning at the relatively early date of 1935 (the same time as Germany's rearmament from a much weaker position and smaller economic base).

* To the extent that Britain was bent on appeasement during the 1930s, it was not a matter of an anti-military left, but a pro-military right which rearmed while conciliating Hitler, even as the normally more pacifistic left sought a harder line in dealings with him.

* When Britain did finally enter the fight, the initial expectation was not one of a hopeless conflict, but that its superior wealth and techno-industrial capability, in contact with the larger world's resources by way of the sea, gave it confidence of eventual victory. This is not belied but affirmed by the manner in which Britain went to war: partnering with continental allies backed up by a British contingent, while relying on its naval and economic instrument to bring the aggressor to heel.

* This confidence was not extirpated by the fall of France, in part because of Britain's considerable resources; and in part because at the time Britain never considered itself alone, even in the June 1940-June 1941 period--having as it did an empire covering a quarter of the world, the backing of exiled governments which brought over significant assets (like Norway's huge fleet of merchant ships), and access to the production and resources of the Americas. (The most that could be said was that it was the only great power directly engaging the Nazis.)

* Rather than a period of national unity (or leftist triumph) which unprecedentedly brought Labor into government, and the Left more generally, the war was largely an affair of the conservative political Establishment and its military-industrial complex.

* When the war ended, Britain--validating the optimism about its ability to win its war--was less damaged than is widely appreciated. Certainly it suffered far less loss of blood and treasure than its continental counterparts, even at the height of the war. (In the 1940-1943 period when the U-boat war was raging, Britain, despite the U-boats, actually managed to get by fairly well by enlarging domestic production and making more effective use of its shipping.) Rather its position relative to the rest of the world was diminished mainly by the extraordinary rebound of the U.S. from the Depression, combined with the decision of the U.S. to remain engaged in Eurasian and world affairs in the way it had opted not to be after World War I.

I see little room for argument with many of these claims. As Edgerton argues, Britain did remain a substantial economic, industrial and military power that went into the war very well-armed rather than unprepared, thanks in part to an inventive and highly productive military-industrial complex. Appeasement was more a reflection of the will of the right than the left, and the country then went to war not under the anti-Hitler left but an essentially Establishment regime. Utilizing its traditional military approach, there was wide expectation that the country would see the war through to victory with its allies (Britain was never alone even after the fall of France), the country was never more than a long way from being broken by the U-boat attacks, and its economic-military capacity came out of the war less diminished in absolute terms than in relative ones, thanks to the extraordinary American growth of the 1930s.

Indeed, to the extent that Edgerton sets the record straight on the "While Britain Slept" image of a country that could have avoided the war but for its failure to rearm; on the actuality and weight of a military-industrial complex in British political life; on just who was really promoting appeasement; on the consistency in Britain's pattern of war-making; and on the real limits of the Left's influence and accomplishments in this era; he does the historiography a considerable service. To a lesser extent, one may say the same for his putting the British experience during the war into perspective. (Others had it far, far worse.)

However, his study also has its weaknesses. His characterization of the strategic situation is particularly flawed. While he compares how Britain and Germany stacked up against one another, in the 1930s that was far from the only relevant balance of power. For British planners, the concern was Britain and Germany in Europe, Britain and Italy in the Mediterranean, and Japan in the Far East, with the nightmare scenario Britain having to fight all three at the same time--as was actually the case by December 1941.1

Still more significant is his often superficial treatment of the macroeconomic picture, and the way that side of the situation evolved during the conflict. Edgerton seems to me correct about the country's large, sophisticated military-industrial complex--but slights the important matter of the rest of the industrial base. As it happens, he actually makes favorable comparison of the arms factories with the coal mines, cotton mills and civilian shipyards that he himself notes had received little investment since the early 1920s--but avoids drawing the conclusion about that lack of investment. Equally, he shows very little sense of nuance in discussing the country's newer, high-tech sectors, taking no interest in whether Britain's firms were world-class companies, or mere second-stringers unable to compete outside a protected home and sterling area market; for whether the British divisions of foreign firms were low-end assembly units putting together imported parts as a way of circumventing the tariff barrier, or genuine high-end production capacity testifying to and developing a broader and deeper British know-how.

Still less does the book consider what any or all of these facts meant for even the narrower question of the military-industrial complex, let alone the larger matter of financing the war. After all, a robust defense sector still needs metal products, machine tools and other goods not strictly in its line, so that a really first-class military-industrial capacity requires a first-class industrial capacity generally--and Britain's position was problematic there. To a very great degree the steel and the machine tools it needed to make its weapons had to be imported from the United States (and even the Germans), while many of the components of successes like the Supermarine Spitfire had to be imported also (the plane not just made with American tools, but packing American instruments and machine guns). And as it was ultimately the civilian economy that had to pay for such efforts, all of this meant that, coming on top of an already deteriorating export position, trade balance, balance of payments, the country's economy was under serious strain before the war even began (less severe than Germany's, but an unsustainable strain all the same).

The war, of course, made matters much worse--a fact again given short shrift in the book. The section of Chapter Three considering the matter is headed "SAVED BY THE U.S.A.?" with the question mark conspicuous and significant. He emphasizes that Britain paid its way up to that point in dollars and declares that "it was buying from the USA without heed to its longer-term economic needs . . . because it knew from the end of 1940 that U.S.-financed help was likely to be available for the future." However, there is no way to take this as anything but a slighting of the hard fact of British bankruptcy a year and a half into the war, when the country's hard currency reserve was down to nearly nothing while the conflict was far from won. There is also no conclusion other than that had it not been for America's turning on the money spigot, Britain would have had to make peace with the Axis powers in early 1941, a peace that would have left the Nazis dominant in Western Europe, and free to turn east, after which the Soviet Union really would have been alone. Still less does this refute the equally hard fact of Britain's weakened financial condition after the war, when it was dependent on massive U.S. backing (a billion-pound loan in 1946, support for its currency and outright bail-outs for decades, techno-military transfers like the nuclear submarine and Polaris missile), which at times came at high cost (like the painful post-war devaluation of sterling), despite which it consistently fell short of realizing its governments' schemes for reinvigorating its economy, expanding its welfare state or retaining its world political and military role.

All of this testified to a very real weakness on Britain's part, specifically the deficiency of its manufacturing sector when broadly approached, with all its economic consequences, not least for its ability to bear the stresses of war as well as not only the larger U.S., but as well as the country had done in the World War I era. The result is that what Edgerton really does in this part of the discussion is remind the reader that Britain had strengths as well as weaknesses, successes as well as failures in its economic life in the interwar era, and its economic effort during the war, rather than integrate the two to create a more satisfying whole. As a result Britain's War Machine works less well as a new history than a corrective to some of the conventional wisdom--needed as that may be.

1. This is, of course, the more important because of the implications of Japan's military victories for the endurance of Britain's south and east Asian empire--and that, in turn, for its standing as a world power.

Notes on Kirby Buckets Warped

I'm just as surprised as anyone to be writing about this show.

I was scarcely aware of the existence of Kirby Buckets until just a few weeks ago, and have as yet seen very little of it prior to the recent third season, which caught my attention because of how unusual it has been for broadcast television--the sharp shift of the show in genre and structure (the episodic tween sitcom about an aspiring cartoonist become a 13-episode story of interdimensional hopping, heavy on science fiction parody), and the unique airing schedule (the 13 episodes airing on 13 weekday mornings over three weeks).

Alas, the writing rarely rises above the level of the mildly amusing. In fact, the heavy reliance on gross-out humor reflects a certain laziness in its pursuit of its target demographic. All the same, the makers of the show actually do serve up an arc, rather than just tease the audience with the prospect of one--and manage to have some fun with the science fiction clichés they evoke. (Of course there's a post-apocalyptic dimension where the characters meet the Mad Max versions of the people they know; here they come complete with Australian accents.)

Additionally, the cast is a pleasant surprise, accomplishing a lot even when they have just a little to work with, with three of its members pleasant surprises. Suzi Barrett shows a good deal of comedic flair in the role of Kirby's mom, getting her fair share of laughs. Olivia Stuck somehow makes Kirby's sister-from-hell Dawn sympathetic (or at least, pitiable). And of course, improv master, veteran voice actor and "Simlish" cocreator Stephen Kearin's Principal Mitchell is a memorable mass of eccentricities sufficient to (almost) singlehandedly make the hackiest of shows watchable.

And so it went down to the finale (aired Thursday), which, to the creative team's credit, actually wrapped up a storyline, and in the process, offered the sense of a bigger tale ending as Kirby, Mitchell, Dawn and the rest closed one chapter in their lives and began another. However, whether all this will be enough to lead to a fourth season is a different matter. The show, poorly rated to begin with (one reason for the change, I suspect), has seen its viewership plunge to abysmal levels--under 200,000 if I read the numbers right, rather worse than the shows Disney XD so recently axed, Lab Rats: Elite Force and Gamer's Guide to Pretty Much Everything. Whether it will survive that will depend, I suppose, on whether viewership picks up during the reruns this weekend (and further airings of the show), whether the executives feel bothered by the way they are running out of live-action shows to put on the air--or the creators can sell them on another sharp shift of course. And maybe all of them together.

SFTV for the Younger Crowd: A Few Thoughts

When writing my article "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Television: Looking Back at SFTV the Long 1990s," (or revising it for reissue in my book After the New Wave) I specifically concentrated on North American-produced live-action television oriented toward adult audiences, leaving out animation, and children-oriented programming of both the animated and live-action varieties. This was partly because I'd seen very little of it since elementary school (certainly nowhere near enough to even think about writing anything comprehensive), but also because I didn't think that the scope I set for the article was overly narrow, and I didn't think that broadening it would have changed the picture it presented very much.

I'm still not sure that it would have. Given how long and how heavily science fiction's tropes have been mined, and how dependent the genre has become on Baroque handling of old concepts and inside jokes, TV aimed at a young audience seems an unlikely place for fresh ideas.

Still, in hindsight it does seem fair to note that fiction supposedly for children often isn't really that--fiction genuinely about children and their experiences, or at least engaging the way they really see the world. Rather it's just the same stuff written for the regular, "adult" audience, sanitized sufficiently to pass a more stringent censor. This isn't altogether new--the early versions of fairy tales children grow up were not the stuff of Disney films. Still, this seems to have become more conspicuous in recent years, partly as pop culture has gone increasingly metafictional. I remember, for example, an episode of Animaniacs that was an extended parody of Apocalypse Now (and even more obscure still, the making-of documentary Hearts of Darkness). Now on the Disney Channel they have a sitcom about a summer camp run by a family with the last name Swearengen, where one of the campers quotes Omar from The Wire ("You come at the king . . .") in an episode that is basically Scarface with candy and video games instead of the original product.

And as all this might suggest, I have noticed some relatively sophisticated genre content here and there. An obvious instance is Jimmy Neutron. That show can seem like merely another iteration on the century-and-a-half-old tradition of scrawny boy genius inventors.1 Still, it is notable for its consciously retro handling of that retro idea--Jimmy growing up in a household where everything from mom's hairdo to the design of the family television set looks like it came out of the '50s, in a town called, of all things, Retroville (complete with a Clark Gable lookalike for mayor).2 Steampunk has remained a genre of cult rather than real mass appeal--but Harvey Beaks included an eccentric steampunk enthusiast in its cast of characters, and served up an hour-long musical steampunk special.

Something of this has been evident in live-action programming as well. Television has been awash in superheroes for years--but Disney XD offered a more original take than most in developing a show about a hospital where they go when they need medical treatment and the two kids who stumble into it in Mighty Med. More recently the same channel's Kirby Buckets, for its third season, shifted from sitcom wackiness set (mostly) in the mundane, regular world, to a season-long, dimension-hopping adventure through alternate timelines.3 A good deal more tightly written than most of the season-length stories we get (arcs on American TV remain mostly about stringing audiences along), it actually is a story with a real beginning, middle and end, and the experiment has been all the more striking for its 13 episodes being aired in a mere three weeks (an exceptionally rare move for broadcast television).

Whatever else one may saw about it, very little of the comparable stuff pitched at grown-ups in prime time as of late has been as knowing or risky or innovative or audacious. (And when these shows are at their best, rarely as much fun.)

1. The original "Edisonade" was Edward Sylvester Ellis' 1868 dime novel The Huge Hunter; or The Steam Man of the Prairies.
2. While Ellis celebrated the young, lone amateur inventor, the red-brick universities and Land Grant colleges and Massachusetts Institute of Technology were promoting national science policies through their graduation of their first candidates, while scarcely a decade later Thomas Edison established the world's first big corporate lab.

Making Sense of B.O.

We hear all the time about the economics of filmmaking--that this movie cost this much, that it made that much. But a lot of the talk strikes me as far, far removed from even the best known realities of the business.

Movies cost far more than their production budgets--and their backers make less than their grosses at the box office. On the one hand, marketing and promotion budgets are much less often announced than production budgets, but are often as large. The result is that the producers of a $150 million movie may be thought to have spent twice that much when the distribution costs are taken into account.

Meanwhile, studios get maybe forty to fifty percent of the gross of a film.

This means that instead of a $150 million movie earning $200 million making a solid $50 million profit, it may have actually left the backers $200 million in the red--because they spent $300 million, and only got back $100 million, or even less.

Yet, it is worth remembering that film production and other costs are often offset from other sources--like product placement, and even government subsidy. (The makers of Thor 2 got a tax rebate worth some $30 million from the British government.) It is worth remembering, too, that domestic and foreign box office are not always clearly distinguished by commentators, and the foreign markets ever more important, particularly as key large markets (e.g. China) have become more affluent. (Warcraft made $47 million in the U.S., almost ten times as much globally--with about half the total gross earned in China alone.) At the same time, the box office is not the only source of revenue--there being video and TV rights, and merchandising, which can add mightily to the total, and so turn a flop into a moneymaker much more often than might be imagined, especially if one thinks in longer than "this-quarter, next-quarter" terms. (Hudson Hawk, the most notorious flop of the summer of '91, managed a profit five years after its release--but the point is that it did manage it.)

And all that is without getting into the creative bookkeeping in which studios have been known to engage regarding the costs, which remind all involved to take their cut of the gross, not the net, if they can. (Paramount's claims about the profitability of Forrest Gump were quite the story at the time.)

All this is a reminder that like many another industry, for all that we hear about, filmmaking is less transparent than it appears. It is also a reminder not to expect a streak of underperforming films--of sequels nobody asked for and which it turned out the public really didn't want--like 2016's rather long streak of them after the hit-packed spring (X-Men, Alice, the Turtles, Independence Day, etc.)--to have too much effect on how Hollywood does things. The sheer variety of ways of fraying costs, and of revenue streams to tap, as well as the lack of any other business model Hollywood might find remotely attractive given its bottom-line priorities and the reality of a film business that makes the high-concept blockbuster more than just an exercise in business cynicism, are likely to keep it at the present game for a long time to come.

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