Category Archives: Modern Visual Culture

Re: IDOLM@STER at Songs of Tokyo Festival 2020

Songs of Tokyo Festival is an annual1 special program from NHK World, as part of its Songs of Tokyo TV segment. Songs of Tokyo showcases Japanese music acts with translation and feedback from global fans. Now that its 2020 fest had the ON AIR moment last weekend, it is free on demand viewing online here. The VOD expires January 31, 2021.

While Songs of Tokyo and the associated festivals have been going on for some time, it’s always pretty wild to catch the artists on domestic TV that I had to fly to Japan to see. NHK World is commonly broadcasted as a community program in metro areas in the west, or as a freebie in world packages in bundled television services like cable. It’s weird to be able to see all that at 1080 broadcast resolution, where as the real-time web stream looks like, well, a piece of crap. I mean, it probably looks fine normally for NHK programs but these live shows have a lot of visuals going on, and there were just not enough bits. In fact the VOD has the same mushiness look, just much better than the stream.

For this 2020 edition of Songs of Tokyo Festival, instead of in-person audience, there are a bunch of people put on 2 big TV in the venue (NHK Hall), Zoom-style. They act more or less like your typical studio audience.

Enough leading up, I think it’s time to reflect on this 25-minute TV segment that I’ve watched 4 times already in about 48 hours. First of all, the visuals in the back is full blown Mai-Note production value. Fans of IM@S lives will know it well, but I think this is more cranked up than usual given the set is just a giant half-circle LCD wall.

The 15th Anniversary song survived the Coronavirus and we got a presentation of it at Songs of Tokyo Fest. It’s the first time everyone’s seen it performed. It’s not even performed by the original cast–but this is the kind of song that everyone will get to perform. Nandodemo Waraou is also the first IM@S group song with SideM, which means dudes and gals get to sing together, a first for the franchise.

It’s an hour-long TV program including Nana Mizuki, BanG Dream (Popipa, Roselia, RAS), and IM@S. So that they gave ~22 out of 48 minutes of the time to them is already pretty great. In usual JUNGO fashion, team IDOLM@STER’s performance is crammed with little things. Let’s try to unpack some.

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Streaming As Infringement

Some basic questions on streaming and internet and copyright can be found on this (oldish) video about Youtube. But it comes down to that if you created something, you have some rights in dictating how people use that thing when it creates a derivative work.

By derivative work I mean the legal version of this term, better explained by real lawyers. I remember sitting in a class about this stuff 15 years ago and it was already well-understood that the internet, as used by individuals back then, is a massive copyright-infringement machine. This is the understanding Congress got back in the ’90s when DMCA was codified. They weren’t wrong.

What is wrong, is that copyright is never meant as a thing that mediate the use of copyrightable material between companies and individuals. It was always a system that regulates different entities in the IP ecosystem. By entities I mean, like, schools, local governments, libraries, advocates for disabled people, movie studios, record labels, TV stations, movie theaters, manufacturers of home/personal electronics, artist unions, etc., and sure, internet companies should be included in that mix. But their users? That’s just not right nor should that be the case as it wasn’t ever intended to be like that.

When Twitch DMCA’d a bunch of streamers who make money from Twitch streaming, I have so little empathy for this, in that I both know what it’s like and I really have a hard time summoning some empathy. The Twitch economy is a community of people who provide content for folks in Twitch’s niche, and in exchange the streamers are the face of the “product” which folks pay to support and enjoy, while this company that made this economy possible profit by being in the middle. This is really no different than a TV station, but way hands-off and low-effort. Like, ever try producing a show? Twitch barely even does this. But they make more money than any streamer on their own platform. Twitch just dropped the ball here, clearly. They are suppose to bat for their users and streamers, but they dropped the ball at that middleman job.

Twitch’s business model liberates viewers to directly connect from content creatives, but it also liberates its responsibility. It’s the Silicon Valley Tech Startup thing to do. Moderation? Legal guidance? Being responsible to the greater community at large? What are those things?

Which is to say, copyright law and the framework we have today affects many different parties, as in types of industries that are completely different. When USA decided acid rain is not worth cheap steel, there was the will and the means to better regulate industries polluting into the air. It wasn’t the construction industry or the steel industries that thought it was the responsible thing to do. It was the rest of us getting pissed on knowing to not take no as an answer. It’s really the same with copyright law and in how we frame this discussion. In the 90s and 00s we said “wag the dog” in which companies like Disney and the recording industry trying to strengthen copyright law, not caring about the ripple impact it has on, say, tech (see: Oracle vs. Google, a copyright lawsuit that is so dumb that should just end). I mean, the recording industry is only a few hundred billion dollars big in the USA. For contrast, Tesla alone is bigger than all of the recording industry in the USA. (Tesla today, by itself, is bigger by market cap than the motion picture industry in the USA PLUS all of the recording industry in the USA.) Yet the lobbyists it hired to sway law in the 00s affected companies today that are 100x larger than it, like Youtube and Google.

Which is to say, the side effect of this is precisely that, game publishers are legally able to shut down any streamers who stream their games! Because let’s play (and similar) streams are derivative works. Sure, most of the stream would still be original, and people watch these streams less for the game and more for the interaction between the streamers and their environs, but some of the stream isn’t, and that taints everything. But it really shouldn’t come down to this–Youtube has a responsibility here. If it can bother to throw 100s of millions to their streamers and tubers, they can get copyright right for them too.

It’s the same LOL-ness when someone like Digibro makes more money than a room full of animators, years ago when the streaming thing was just starting. I mean, poopheads on Youtube make more money crapping on anime made by 50 or however many animators in Japan getting paid probably 1/10 as much as the streamer talking about the stream? It seems particularly grievous when these streamers only made it big because the community and fandom these anime and games have created. Today the same LOL occurs when Hololive vtubers monetize Shiny Color let’s plays. I don’t have any opinion on this now (or the Digibro thing) other than it is just how reality is ever more ironic than the might of our collective imagination.

I mean, think about it. If Gawr Gura and Hololive get $10000/day on superchats streaming some indie game that sold 10000 copies total, I feel those devs kinda morally deserves some of that chum bux. And even if Gura streams some game from a big name publisher, in entertainment biz, that still means Hololive needs to do the needful and pony up something and get permission. It feels fair. And just the fact that a popular person wants to play a video game or read a book or wear a t-shirt or use a purse, it doesn’t mean those brands or publishers owes it to the celebrity either. They could take it or leave it, as it’s their act that engaged things in the first place. There needs to be an agreement in place first.

More importantly, all this should have been taken cared of behind the scenes. That fans care about this juicy drama is fine, but it should have already been dealt with already. It is drama of a business that could have done a better job running itself.

I think there are a couple additional factors: Fair use. A lot of people don’t realize fair use isn’t really a thing outside of USA. There are other things in other countries that cover some of the same exceptions of fair use, but it’s uniquely American (in how grey-zoned and unpredictable in a court it could be). Plus, as the original copyleftists have manifested elsewhere, fair use is broken anyway, it’s not a compelling and long-term solution to any copyright woes.

Second, people really just want copyleft. But as people in the industry knows, it’s hard to sell something that can be freely (as in speech) distributed (shared). You want it to stop at the first level. There’s no real solution here without fixing some or adding some new law to change the current schemes.

Smart people have been at this and looked at various possible frameworks, both in terms of feasibility and in effectiveness. That’s why we have notions about compulsory licensing in music and the Library of Congress has some arbitrary power to make unlocking phones legal. I mean, why is unlocking phones a copyright things at all? To say the system is broken is to state the obvious. But the solution will require acid rain pissing on us to get pushed through Congress, is the scale we’re at now.

Flying Low With Ueshama

Over the years I’ve pondered on exactly how and why seiyuu artists do the major label thing. I understand it financially, but it isn’t exactly clear cut why that is a good deal for a large number of them–it seems like an advancement in career or at least an attempt at it, or as obligation to their fans and industry partners. As individual artists, they work with their managers and producers to come up with something that’s worth selling to the seiyuu’s existing and new audience. Some folks made it work, some didn’t, but even in the worst case these projects at still kind of interesting.

So, in comes Ueda Reina and her cute country songs. I’m going to just link to some music videos and briefly talk about what I think about this in general.

The 30,000-feet view is that anisong and seiyuu-idol as a music label business is basically churning people who are already primed as stage-quality performers (including actors, models and tarento generally–but the training for the latter 2 can vary a lot, affecting their readiness for it). Some popular TV personalities, cosplayers, and now youtubers can all get record label contracts and have a music biz–possibly on the side, or in the front. To take one example, Mizuki Nana is a mainstream musician working hard to still be a relevant seiyuu, as the exception to the norm. But outside of this type of exception and other exceptions, most are just trying to express artistically & tapping into the fandom built around their geinojin persona.

When it comes to voice, it’s hard to monetize people who love your voicework. Like, short of selling facetime, autographs and photos, there isn’t much else you can monetize from. The work product which is tied up totally separately from your voiceover contracts, the characters, stories, game and anime connected to that, is not yours to control, sell or otherwise directly profit from. It makes sense why some seiyuu agencies start idol groups and tropes, because it taps underutilized labor in this growing category of employment, as supply of seiyuu outstrips jobs available for them.

The 10,000 feet view is that different seiyuu artists go about it differently. I think it’s a fair criticism to say that a lot of musicians, especially western ones, have something more to draw from. It’s both the upbringing and the sample size. That while this is a nitpick, but diverse environments produce more diverse talents. Ueda Reina comes from the Toyama countryside and it’s a fresh breath of air for her to try to create something this way, even if it is at core something pretty close to who she is as an entertainment persona and as an individual. And even the ones that aren’t, do it in ways that brings out some originality crossed with, well, what the people want.

Give the people what they want is sometimes a winning formula, but not really that interesting if it’s all that you do. It’s understandable and it’s something everyone do to varying levels. In this case, though, it’s more like Ueshama wants to give you want she wants to give you, so you’ll gladly take it, or not. It’s a selfish but reasonable, and sustainable balance between something that is hardly marketable because it’s just so simply Ueda Reina, but also because that’s what some people want anyway.

Which is to say, when you connect the dots, a lot of seiyuu-idol artists pander to their core audience because they don’t have competitive offerings for the general audience. It’s like why Pixel 5 can be a very attractive phone is lost on the masses, to use a very orthogonal analogy. But what carries in a quality work of art is the conviction of the artist, and you can see it in the way Ueda behave consistently (or as the kids say, on brand).

Going down another level (1000 ft?), Ueda’s solo projects are just art projects. They can be fun, in the video which posts a bunch of fan-submitted flower pics.

It reminds me of her old Web Newtype column (for example) where she would do a photo shoot once every other week with the staff, usually at some low-key but stylish location–a cafe, an art exhibit, a park, etc. Each shoot had a color motif which she picked. At the end of the run, Newtype decided to make a photobook which can be customized by various images used in the column. It was a lot of work to do it, but I’m sure it’s rewarding for the fans who did.

In as much as it’s a business, it’s about engagement and ultimately, producing an artist. That’s where Ueda really leans on her orthogonal art branding here. Originally she was supposed to have her first solo concert in July, which was cancelled by Covid. But in conjunction with the original planning, they had various merch to go with it, including a whole set of artwork she drew in which fans can vote to select which will be made available for purchase. The results were 3 images available as canvassed artwork, and some sold as art for t-shirts or whatever. And then, there’s the Hana no Ame music video project mentioned earlier.

It’s not to say other artists don’t do this kind of arts and craft stuff–it’s actually not unusual. Like I said, engagement is a metric and this does drive that. But this is unique enough of a combination to be noteworthy. If Ueshama is going to be that art teacher persona, I guess there aren’t too many others in this same zone at least.

To close this out, let’s zoom in one more step. I think I’m going to wrap it up with this interview done as a promo for her latest single, which is used for the opening for Wandering Witch: The Journey of Elaina. Basically, some time after her last album, her manager got married and move away from Tokyo. Thanks to covid also, she wanted to see this friend/ex-coworker and couldn’t. Instead, she wrote the lyrics and performed the song with her (and her partner, who is another employee who met at work) in mind, making it cuter than usual. We’re way too close for aircraft metaphors at this point.

Practical Eventing Problems

With the new Walkure tour announced yesterday, I think one thing is clear is that as Japan (and other first-world nations) slowly emerges from pandemic-induced shutdowns and slowdowns, the US is going to be lagging these countries in international travel allowances.

By most metrics, the USA has done a below-average job as a first-world nation in dealing with the Coronavirus. Unfortunately the price to be paid from an eventing point of view is that international travel will resume slower for Americans going to and from other countries that have successfully reduced the spread and the number of infections.

Given most big character-franchise lives tend to announce events on a 3-to-6-month rolling basis, we might be clearing the initial hurdles in Japan with events rolling out early 2021. Will oversea tourism resume in Japan? Until this happens it would be quite hard to travel there to attend any events.

Maybe you can think that once a vaccine is available things will be better. I think that’s true generally, but it would be hard to know if this extends to how tourists are going to be let in. For one, it only seems responsible to do so after the vaccines are widely available and administered, and the timeline for that is likely as long as developing the vaccine in the first place.

Perhaps it is a backstop of sorts, regardless the challenge that lies between today and those goal posts. There is that postponed Tokyo Olympics, so I think things will come to a head early 2021. Of course, I don’t think athletes and their support crews will have trouble going to Japan, but I think Japan will be economically and politically pressured to allow tourism by this summer if things are playing out to the best case scenarios.

That means the domestic events from November onward until then will be blocked for a lot of oversea fans! And that is in a best-case basis. This is not even addressing the lack of Japanese guests in oversea events (read: US cons), which is a different ball of wax with different sets of risks.

Of course, Japan is not risk-free now, nor will they be in the coming months as more of their social distancing limits are lifted. I imagine until they also get widely vaccinated, leisure gatherings will be reduced. Venues are still limited to 50% capacity for now, so we’ll see in november if this means things are really spiking–and if full-blown events are really going to happen again soon.

Lapis Re:Lights Live

It’s seiyuu idol biz in the new decade. Lapis Re:Lights employs dance-focused seiyuu units sing for the multimedia project, launching with an anime with game in tow. Lapis Re:Lights also put on youtube their old lives from 2019.

The Venus Fort mini-live was really impressive because they were able to convey the dancing with the idol standards of an environment-controlled mall stage. But the “First solo live” thing was really doing not much for me. In any case, you can watch both in the video here.

I think a big limiter is the screen. The way that mix reality stuff works today require a compromise on viewing angle and fidelity. It is like, if you watch it from a distance, it looks pretty okay. But at the same time, it’s unclear how much value it adds versus a backdrop. Well, you can have both, but then both screens are a constraint on each other lest it’s just crazy disco lights and colors.

What is clear is the drawbacks of mixed reality performances where it’s literally “candy” on otherwise dance-focused performances. If you want to do mixed reality stuff, you kind of go this far, right?

The limitations, from my own experience:

  • Viewing angle: This one everyone knows. Ever been to a Hatsune Miku live and situate yourself beyond 45 degrees from center? 80 degrees? It’s not a good experience. This is mediated by being farther back, but you don’t see the image as clearly, and you already lose some clarity versus looking at an image without a double screen.
  • Clarity: Well, I mentioned it above, but if you perform behind a screen, people will see the screen and it just won’t be as vivid in terms of how the stage light reflect on the performer. It also depends on the opacity of the screen, and of course, if the projection is in front of the performer and blocking them.
  • Fewer seats closer to the stage: This is an impact of the viewing angle. If you have a simple theater stage and a trope of dancing idols (let’s say, 16 of them). They can move in formation and engage all across the front edge of the stage. People at the front can look around and they’ll get their eyes full of performers. The performers can engage all parts of the stage at all angles. But if you put them behind a screen, first of all, you won’t be able to fit as many people because graphics can’t layer more than you have screens (eg., performers in staggered formations won’t really benefit from the mixed reality stuff when they are behind others, even if they are still plainly visible). Second, viewing angle comes in play again. If your normal act is 2-3-4-5 folks dancing around around a focal point on stage, then only really the area right in the center-front will get a good view. If you are side-front, well, it’s going to be kind of funky seeing the graphics not line up with the dancing. That said, I think Lapis Re:Lights can work this in their routines, even if generally this style of performance performs “for a camera” so to speak.
  • Limitation on stage layout: It’ll be pretty hard to have layered stages, elevation changes and formations, etc, if you have a screen. Not that you can’t, but the screen loses a lot of value. Of course you won’t be able to fly in the venue, or ride a whale. Or more commonly, it doesn’t work well with a cart, or when the performers walk around the stage freestyle and appeal to the crowd. Well you could, but what good is the screen? Like, the MR stuff is really just icing on top of solid dance formations at that point. Certainly a live can have both MR and normal parts, so there’s that. It’s also possible to have a moving stage with a screen, but I don’t think we’re there yet.

I think the standard Love Live style dancing works well with this gimmick. It’s also kind of an odd thing because it works even better with staged camerawork, but you might as well just edit the video in that case? But in Lapis Re:Lights’s case, it puts the hard work on the dancing seiyuu. They may still be seiyuu dancing as characters, but they gotta do those milkshake while singing. So in that sense this is nothing really worth writing home about. It is what was always going to bring the customers to the yard in the first instance.

What I find amusing, looking at the anime, is that the light tricks are literally that. The impressive things about the performances in the anime were the stage arrangements and how the performers interacted with the stage, plus the performance itself. The SFX were just as gimmicky in the anime as it is in real life. What is amusing and impressive with the anime “orchestras” are the stage direction and the fancy stages themselves. Using projector mapping seems a bit cheap looking when there literally are lives with fancy stages?

Having watch these, I feel like the usual known suspects are naturally good. Matsuda Risae particularly was noteworthy because I’ve seen her twin Satsumi perform for Cinderella Girls for quite a while now, so it’s good to have this reference.