Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dead or Alive, You're In HD: Takashi Miike's D.O.A on Blu-ray

Holy crap, ladies and gents, it's been a while, hasn't it? I must apologize for dropping off the face of this little corner of overlong glorified shitposting I call the Kentai Blog, but in my defense, I've been serving an epic run of jury duty (which ended today - huzzah!), got promoted with a host of new responsibilities I was in the process of learning, and I'm currently trying to figure out if the rental unit I'm in is worth the price versus the massive pain-in-the-ass that comes with moving. (It's not.) In short, shit be cray-cray, and I literally don't have time or energy to do much of the long-winded but sincere nonsense I'd like to throw up here on a semi-regular basis.

But hey, let's do something I can do in my sleep and talk about Takashi MIIKE - more specifically about the bizarre lack of earlier Miike films on Blu-ray. That'll make for a short, rage inducing post... unless, maybe, there's something worth talking about?

"I am the director of love and freedom." - Takashi Miike, 2006,
in response to agreeing to be part of Mick Garris' Masters of Horror.

I must confess I'm at a bit of a loss as to how few Takashi Miike films have found their way to Blu-ray, especially here in North America. I know, I know, his heyday was without question that magical period from about 1998 to 2006, gaining noteriety with the Western world for his outlandish and gruesome, but almost always at least somewhat  satyrical excess-experiments like Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q, and  Yakuza Horror Theater Gozu. I love all of these films, but I'll admit I have a soft spot for his earlier movies as well, including the whimsical escapism of The Bird People in China, the mean-spirited excess of Fudoh: The New Generation, and the... well, the whatever the fuck it is you'd call MPD Psycho. If I had to go out on a limb and pick the last truly great Takashi Miike film, it'd probably be his "Oni El Topo" time and space rejecting tale of furious revenge, IZO, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find even somewhat more mainstream efforts - like Yatterman, and Yakuza: Like A Dragon - to be thoroughly amusing, even if they lack the same level of analogue unpredictability and fury that made me fall in love with his work so long ago.

Asia has been fairly kind with Miike films on Blu-ray since about 2006, Sukiyaki Western Django being the first title I can personally remember getting released in HD (though, of course, the extensive bonus features are only available on the limited edition R2 DVD). North America has been substantially less kind - a handful of titles like the legitimately unexpected Zebraman 2, the under-appreciated teenaged tough-guy ballad Crows Zero, a truncated version of 13 Assassins, and somehow,  Hara-Kiri 3D: Death of a Samurai, which remains perhaps the only film in his catalog I have absolutely zero interest in ever seeing. (Seriously, why did that happen? And when is America going to make an equally tasteless 3D remake of Kramer vs Kramer next?)

Perhaps not all hope is lost - after all, Arrow Video announced that their first "Arrow USA" title will be none other than Happiness of the Katakuris! - but it's the one bright spot in a sea of DVD-only releases for one of the most prolific and fascinating film makers of the last decade. A pity, really. Miike's output has grown increasingly more family-friendly and "mainstream" by Japanese standards, making it that much less appealing to international licensors to begin with, even if it raises his profile at home. Stuff like Ninja Kids! never had a prayer or getting much interest outside of Japan, to say nothing of films like For Love's Sake and God's Puzzle. Even his fittingly tongue in cheek adaptation of the Pheonix Wright: Ace Attorney handheld games have never had a US release, Yatterman got a subtitled DVD only several years after it was released via Discotek, and anyone interested in seeing his brutal Lesson of the Evil will have to import an English-friendly Hong Hong Blu-ray. Without a doubt, the biggest hurdle here is getting anyone interested enough to prepare new HD masters; many Miike films never even had proper 16:9 DVD presentations, and when Discotek was going through a run of Miike films they never actually released D. O. A - FINAL, not because they couldn't get the rights to it, but because there were no high-enough quality materials available!

Honestly, the only notable BD release of a Miike catalog title we've seen stateside was AUDITION, the 1999 fusion of middle aged romance and flesh-crawling horror that helped to put Miike on the map outside of Japan, and remains perhaps his most accomplished and beloved film from a "serious" critical perspective. I'd personally argue that Visitor QSukiyaki Western Django or Juvenile A: Big Bang Love were far more transgressive and "important" works, but Audition hit the sweet spot between arthouse polish and schlock-horror extravagance, so it's unsurprising that it's the film that ultimately gets all the affection that's less showered on by his notably more camp-heavy efforts. Besides, Visitor Q was shot on DV and it ain't going to look any better upscaled to 1080p than it already does on DVD.

The Shout Factory Blu-ray, unfortunately, wasn't very good; they were given access to a 35mm Internegative and carried out their own HD telecine, but didn't go out of their way to restore the film much from there. Dirt baked into the print is common, telecine judder occasionally borders towards the point of distraction, grain is heavier than it feels like it should despite middling compression keeping grain soft and clumpy, and perhaps most notably is the colors, which regularly veer far closer to the red and purple end of the spectrum than even prior DVD releases. Perhaps most notably, the Shout Factory BD is the only master I'm aware of that features cue marks at every reel change, suggesting prior DVD masters - such as the 16:9 PAL release by Tartan from about 12 or 13 years ago - were made from an fresh Interpositive, or at least were given more TLC during the telecine process, which wouldn't surprise me since Tartan released a shoddy looking disc the first time and then restored the film in a bid to convince consumers that they had, finally, found a basic set of standards. That said, the Blu-ray presentation remains the highest quality release out there, warts and all... it's just a shame that the only "classic" Miike film we've gotten to see in HD to this point was such a middling affair.

Ichi the Killer got a Blu-ray release. When I first saw it, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and assumed it was just a poor HD master. I've since come to the conclusion that it's actually an SD upscale, and can find literally nothing to refute this theory. This initial realization left me perhaps too critical of some of Media Blasters' legitimate (if regularly underwhelming) BD releases since, but... well, if Sirabella hadn't pulled a fast one on this, I probably wouldn't have been so quick to assume he'd done the same with Versus. I wish I could say the BD was the best presentation by default, but frankly, the Netherlands DVD has MORE DETAIL. As such I'd recommend the R1 DVD Special Edition for US buyers, used if possible, just because you shouldn't ever support trash of this magnitude.

It's with these exceptionally low expectations that a friend informed me that a German studio by the name of Mad Dimension (if I'm not mistaken, at least) had released Takashi Miike's clearly tongue-in-cheek "ultimate yakuza movie", D.O.A - DEAD OR ALIVE 犯罪者 in a Limited Edition BD + DVD Mediabook set. It includes German dubbing and subtitles, no English translations here, but the limitless power of The Internet means a few certain trackers are already hosting a custom English subtitled release for those who, like myself, don't speak a word of Deutsch beyond 'spaetzle' and 'schlampe'. So I spent the better part of a day getting my Nautical Freelance software in order - I've honestly been too goddamn busy to steal movies I already own, which feels like a weird thing to say - and, truth be told, expected a pretty crumby upscale of the 1999 Japanese Digibeta...

Instead, the results are - while still pretty far from perfect - substantially better than I dreamed they would be. This is clearly a new, High Definition transfer of pre-print 35mm elements, which very much mirror the various DVD releases we've all seen to date; Dark club interiors are often oppressively so thanks to poor original lighting, certain entire scenes (such as the final showdown, or the heavily blue scene in which the gangsters visit their mother's grave) remain heavily photochemically graded, as they always have been, Resolution is somewhat muted by the soft photography and less-than-ideal HD telecine, but there's an added level of depth and clarity over prior SD masters none the less, and the coarse grain (which we'll talk about) never has any serious compression issues or digital artifacts - like banding or edge ringing - to complain about. "Sparkle" - that is, minor spots and scuffs on the print - is moderate in volume, but not particularly distracting.

So far this is sounding pretty good, but there's two issues that are constantly present on very different sides of the divide. It may sound like one existing would contradict the other, but, hear me out...

The HD telecine is heavy on chroma noise, with Aikawa Show's gray suit constantly infected with a sort of buzzing swarm of green and red shimmering, as are the darkened backstage scenes set at the strip club. I have no idea what Telecine hardware was used, but I know the fuzzy-yet-coarse results of a less than optimal device when I see it; I won't point fingers or take any wild guesses, suffice to say that the film elements themselves appear to be in decent-enough shape, which puts the presence of gross, irregular chroma artifacts like we're seeing here solely on the Telecine hardware. To put this another way, don't you hate it when you're watching a 35mm print and all the dark scenes have weird, rainbow-colored grain? No, you don't, because that's not a thing on celluloid - or at least not one I've ever seen, not even at the New Beverly's Tuesday Grindhouse Double Features. It's simply a limitation on the telecine hardware when the scanner picks up low-lit material and can't quite find a bead on what the color information should be, at which point it manifests as seemingly random chromatic spittle. It's basically the same thing we saw in the Media Blasters HD release of Burial Ground, it's just dramatically less pronounced - and thank fuck for that.

But that's not all! Despite the whole film having a heavy noise structure covering the image, there has been some... interesting noise removal applied. I say "interesting" because I don't quite get what's going on here. Some scenes - such as the shots on the police station roof - have been blasted of anything resembling grain. Others look like they weren't processed at all. Darker areas tend to be left alone, but brighter spots of the scene - particularly anything green or blue, such as police uniforms - tend to have a total lack of harsh noise, at the cost of some temporal smearing. I won't lie, the noise is so sharp and funky looking that the DVNR'ed footage might actually look better than the raw telecine... but the DVNR is applied so infrequently and to such specific frequencies that at times you can see flesh tones and white shirts smeared while the rest of the screen is crawling with heavy, coarse analogue artifacts. A perfect example is the shot of the guy in the green jacket holding the sword; his forehead and shoulders are smoothed clean, while the rest of the frame is positively crawling with video noise. It just looks weird once you see those frequency cut-offs, and as the image as a whole is still crawling from neck to tail in coarse video noise, it didn't really "fix" anything, it just made the divide between the more-smeared scenes and the more-noisy scenes that much more obvious.

Why did they even bother applying DVNR strictly to high-frequencies? Was it a way to get some wayward frequencies to behave before encoding, or perhaps a way to even out skin tones during color correction? I couldn't tell you for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if that was the rational explanation. The transfer isn't ever unwatchable or cringe-worthy, but the inconsistent combination of smeared temporal areas on one scene and omnipresent video noise the next makes it hard to think of it as anything other than a wasted opportunity. Truth be told, I wouldn't be surprised if a consistently, and slightly less temporally-focused DVNR filter would have done  this rough 'round the edges some more favors than harm... then again, knowing me I'd have bitched about how waxy and soft the final results.

Do I recommend the transfer for the $30 it's selling for? Eh, it's a tough sell, but I've spent more for worse and I know it. Anyone who wants to get the original two disc set can find it HERE for about $30 before shipping - you'll have to speak either German or Japanese to get anything out of it, but if you're reading this site, I'm guessing you're also bright enough to use a software BD player that'll load external subtitles. It's not quite rocket science, after all.

I have little doubt that a 2K scan of the original negative would have yielded sharper, less gritty and more natural, filmic results, but in the interim the HD master we've got is - at worst - merely a B-/C+ affair. It's not an upscale, it's not inconsistent with prior DVD releases, and while it isn't great, it isn't a disaster, and as sad as that is, these days that's all I can hope for when it comes to a second-tier cult film from 15 years ago.

Here's hoping the even more outre sequels get the same - if not better! - treatment. And sooner, rather than later.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Playing With Toys: Wii U, Amiibo, And Pretentious Idiots

I know, I've been quiet for a while. Been busy with a lot of stupidity which includes my old Samsung LCD getting super funky on the ol' back-lighting, necessitating that I put that multi-year warranty to good use on a replacement. The good news is I'm finally going with a supposed "Near Reference" Plasma panel in the Samsung PN51F8500... right as the tech itself is being phased out in favor of the cheaper-to-produce, and even more prone to image-retention OLED. Smooth. The IR doesn't bother me nearly as much as the ABL, though, so I'm not certain if this is simply an adjustment period for me, or if I'm ready to throw in the towel and just buy a goddamn projector...

But hey, that means I can get back to vidyah that isn't LAN co-op! Not that I typically mind, you understand, but jeez has Saints Row IV been a glitchy mess. A damned fun one, at least, when it isn't randomly crashing or refusing to trigger the next story event. It's not like the PC won't get a lot of use soon anyway, what with MGSV: Ground Zeroes finally getting a Steam release, which means I'll waste 20 hours on a 2 hour campaign finding all 9 of the nigh-microscopic XOF patches to unlock a hidden mini-game that's literally an in-joke that'll only make sense to people who are familiar with the Sega CD game Snatcher. Remember Snatcher? No, I don't either, but a buddy of mine absolutely loves that. Which reminds me I really need to play Policenauts, too.

Anyway, let's talk about Nintendo for a little while. I had planned to do this at some point anyway, pushed it back to deal with real-life shenanigans, but when I saw someone saying something so stupid I felt the need to point out how amazingly wrong they are, that bumped this subject up in the queue. Sad that I have to shuffle my blogging plans around because of idiots, but such is life...

Recently, executive producer/writer behind Feminist Frequency - the now (in)famous business-slash-NPO-slash-charity  of Anita Sarkeesian's "Tropes vs Women in Video Games" YouTube series I've made my thoughts quite clear on - spoke about the thematic value of the most obvious Amiibo-supporting title, Super Smash Bros. For Wii U and 3DS (or "SM4SH", as I'd like to think of it). At the risk of misrepresenting anyone, I'll simply repost what he had to say, along with pearls of wisdom cast before the gaming swine by Polygon's Ben Kuchera:

On /v/, this is what we call "Going full McIntosh".
You'll have to figure out what Dubs are on your own.

Now, loathe as I am to consider myself a "critic" of anything in particular - much less the tenuous socio-political implications that video games have on the broader culture, I'm going to point out that attributing this mindset to SSB as a franchise is... kind of a stretch. Now yes, you could try to make the argument - but it holds even less weight then Kuchera arguing that Tetris is "political" in any particularly notable way. And the fact that the latter is a guy who's quite literally paid by a media corporation to have an opinion and understanding about video games is enough to drive me to the brink sometimes.

Before we even get to Super Smash Bros., let's talk about Korobeiniki - or "The Tetris Song", as it's more or less thought of anywhere that isn't  Russia. It's a 19th century folk song, and has lyrics not present in the 8-bit game in which a pair of peddlers talk prices on wares, but in a way that's totally a thinly veiled conversation about when they're going to drop their furs and pack their sausage for the winter. It predates the Russian Revolution by a half-century, and was likely chosen because it's a commonly known and royalty free tune, like Old McDonald or Amazing Grace or whatever. Calling it "Soviet Inspired" is factually wrong in this context because Soviet =/= Russian, from a broader historical perspective.

As for the "Theme" of Tetris? Kuchera, stick that back up your pretentious ass. It's a block-matching puzzle game. It's literally shuffling blocks from one side of the screen to the other - hell, it has less of a theme than Pac-Man! It's like arguing that Tic-Tac-Toe or Hangman has a deeper "theme" when it's literally just scribbles on a notepad played between bored classmates. Does Kick the Can or Duck Duck Goose have a theme? No. But it's still a game. The only "theme" to be found in Tetris is whatever theme the viewer chooses to place upon it themselves. It was created as a sort of mathematical version of Tennis by a guy who worked for the Soviet government as a computer programmer - nothing more, and nothing less.

Go ahead, Kuchera. Theme me.

Nowadays, with video games consistently aping big-budged Hollywood movies, it's easy to assume that everything means something: Grand Theft Auto is a smug satire of the thug life, both aggrandizing and shitting all over the notion of the "made man". Tomb Raider was reborn as a tale of violent self-discovery and empowerment through suffering. Metal Gear Solid explores the facade of patriotism through the eyes of paranoia and jaded apathy towards anything but personal ideals. Now tell me, friends, what the fuck does Candy Crush Saga "mean"? It means fuck your free time and punch your credit card number into Facebook, because that's not a stupid idea. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Tetris? That's just a cigar, folks. Yes, the fact that Americans were happy to consume a piece of Russian entertainment during the cold war is an interesting foot note, particularly in a market where stuff like "Rush'n Attack" was about the only representation of our Cold War enemies you'd typically see - but the game itself is so thoroughly simple and pure as an entertainment device - a "game" with no moral or purpose other than to amuse the player - that no level of self important douchebaggery is going to elevate it any further.

You want proof that the game itself has no actual political agenda? The iconic Church of Spilt Blood that appears on the title screen was never a part of the original 1984 game; that was actually added by US distributors Spectrum Holobyte for the IBM PC port, who thought that marketing it as "The Soviet Mind Game" was simply too bold an opportunity to pass up! American publishers found a way to make the game political, and that's far more fascinating than the fact that, derp, a Russian made game also has a Russian song playing on the title card. I bet those crazy red bastards even wrote the code notes with backward "R" that sounds like a "ja"...

If anything, the far more interesting story is the fact that the later-credited "co-designer" Vladimir Pokhilko, who formed his own Moscow based software company after the Iron Curtain fell, eventually crashed and burned his own business which drove him to such desperation he not only murdered his own family, but left the following note behind before killing himself:

I've been eaten alive.
- Vladimir

Just remember that I exist.
- The Devil.

So... yeah, you want to talk some crazy Tetris shit? It's out there, friends. Too bad Kuchera was too busy polishing his own e-peen over how damned clever it'd be to make connections that don't exist, instead of taking the five goddamn minutes it'd take anyone who knows how to fucking Wikipedia to come up with the far more interesting facts behind it.

I suppose I've shat on Kuchera's ignorance long enough. It's time to MOTHER FUCKING SMA--

Oh. Hey, 1998. You never call anymore...

Some of you may not know this, but the origins of this series actually came in the form Dragon King: The Fighting Game. HAL Laboratory creators SAKURAI Masahiro and IWATA Satoru spent their free time between other projects developing a prototype for a unique four-player sumo styled brawler, but the simple polygon structure of the N64's underpowered hardware left actual player characters kind of... underwhelming. Realizing a console-based fighting game needed some kind of hook, Sakurai suggested using Nintendo franchise regulars, and the game was released with both a low budget and little advertising. Basically, it was a fun little experiment that Nintendo thought was just finished enough to sell to the general public, though the higher-ups weren't quite sure why anyone would want to bodyslam Samus with Pikachu on top of Donkey Kong's house.

The game was what it was - a hobby of cobbled together assets that, somehow, gelled into a unique sumo-tournament... thing. The game became a massive hit solely through word of mouth. Realizing they had something unique on their hands, HAL Laboratory greenlit a sequel as a launch title for the Nintendo Game Cube, with Sakurai as the head of development. He's been watching over the franchise for 15 years now, getting as much love and hate for it as you can imagine, It does amuse me to no end that Sakurai's response to people complaining that their personal favorite characters wouldn't appear in the latest Smash game was "they're mostly children". Yep, Sakurai's response to Ridley fans hoping he'd be a playable reskin of Charizard was that they were babies. Have I mentioned how refreshing how it is that the majority of Japanese game developers seem to have absolutely zero fucks to give at any point?

Yes, the title is, technically, a fighting game* - but with the newest entry there's no actual story to pick apart. Zero over nothing. Old fans have their prior games to reference is they need to justify any of this nonsense, but the only narrative we're given in 2014 is "Nintendo mascots beat each other up, fight a pair of giant gloved hands, lather and repeat". The "conflict" doesn't mean anything because there's literally no context behind it. Why did Captain Falcon pommel Kirby into a bloody pulp? Is there some DEEPEST LORE connection between them that shows that Falcon's mother was eaten by the ravenous pink demon, and this conflict atop Final Destination will somehow quell the age-old vendetta he's been seething at for years, with his time as an F-Zero Champion being little more than a ruse to find a wormhole back to Dreamland?!

 No, because that would be stupid, even by Smash's non-canonical fuckin' around standards. Mind you, there is actually a story in this franchise - Subspace Emissary this, Tabuu that, blah blah blah - but the fact that neither the Wii U nor the 3DS version of the latest entry contained any reference to it proves it's inconsequential to the success of the game, and as the game's current sales are somewhere in the ballpark of 6.5 million copies, it would seem that gamers don't give a shit about the narrative either. No narrative in this context means no theme, either. Unless you want to argue that the unlockable Madoka Magica skins in Pangya Online somehow mean a simplistic moe golf game is actually about galactic entropy. (And if you really want to go down that road, let me make some popcorn first.)

Smash Bros. exists for the simple reason that Nintendo knows there's just enough nostalgia in the average gamer who grew up on Mario and Samus and Fox that the chance to play a low-time investment party game with other nostalgic young adults would basically give them a chance to print money.

The only "theme" being presented in Super Smash Bros. is that of raw, glorious capitalism. If there was any doubt, the very presence of the "Amiibo" toys should convince you otherwise. The competitive mode of the game consists of you, the player shuffling a small plastic toy around the game board, wagering more in-game money for additional rewards, and picking which other small plastic toys to fight next. I'm not exaggerating to make a point: That's the actual mechanic of the game. Shuffling small toys around on a game-board and gambling on your earnings. Honestly, the game couldn't be any more nakedly commercial in nature if it tried. "Violence solves conflicts?" Bitch, please. The only fleshed out theme Super Smash Brothers 4 has to offer is "Nintendo likes money. Please grab your ankles and prepare to have more of it sucked out of your wallet."

Costing $12.99 a piece, an Amiibo is a non-scale, 3" tall mini figurine with a microchip in the base. You tap the figure to the side of the Wii U's bizarre touchscreen controller, and it loads a custom version of that figure in the game. So, if you buy the little Mario, swiping it will give you access to a "Level 1 Figure Player". The FP is an AI that uses a move set you select, can use the power-ups you get from completing the main mission, and the more time you spent fighting either alongside or against it, the more the FP levels up - all the way to 50 - improving statistics and gaining new abilities all the while. Basically, the Amiibo plays as a memory card for a robotic friend you can either team up with, or beat the snot out of. It's a somewhat interesting use of the technology, and a bit less cruel in scope to the Skylanders or Disney Infinity toys, in which you literally have to buy the small plastic toy to unlock the full character in-game: Every single Smash character will, inevitably, have an Amiibo you can use to train and customize an AI version of them, but you don't actually need to buy the figure to play as said character - you just play it as the stock version, as you would in any prior entry. It's all just a bizarre way to extend the life of the game for people who happen to like Nintendo enough to buy mini-figures of the characters in the first place. It also lets you do 2-player co-op if you're such a sad sack you own a Wii U and no-one to play it with.

For reasons we'll discuss later, I picked up the Link Amiibo - not the stubby and adorable "Toon Link" from Wind Waker, but the more mature design based directly on Skyward Sword. God help me, I'm probably going to get more of them, but I started with the one figure that had confirmed unlockable content with a franchise game. I fear in the pit of my soul that this will become a pretty regular "thing" at one point or another, so if you happen to like a given franchise, you might want to consider picking them up for future use: Nintendo has straight up said that they intend to keep the most popular characters available at all times, but I'm sure the rights to Marth, Sonic and Mega Man will expire sooner or later, and it seems doubtful they'll bother keeping Animal Crossing or Xenoblade figures produced indefinitely.

It's dangerous to go alone!
You should probably buy a gun.

There's been much talk about the quality of the toy itself, and while I have to point out that almost none of the mass-produced figures look anywhere near as nice as the prototypes shown off at E3 2014, the toys are... still decent, I guess. For the price anyway. $13 will get you one about one blind-box toys these days, and in that context, the quality is more or less up to snuff: The sculpt is accurate but has a slightly flat, chunky look to it that's more reminiscent of the cheap toys I bought in the late 90s than the sharper, more nuanced sculpts you'll find from companies like Good Smile, Bandai and Neca today. Typically though, those toys will cost you anywhere from $30 ~ 70. If we stick to the obvious (and fair) comparison if blind-box trading figures made in Japan, it looks perfectly average - not incredible, and not bad. But most toys that come with a piece of ramune flavored candy don't have a microchip in them that'll unlock new content, so again, you're basically getting what you pay for here.

The overall design has some fundamental flaws: The soft PVC parts can lead to Link's sword being bent inward, like he's leaping into combat with a particularly angular dildo flopping all over the place, and while the prototype had a thin transparent rod of plastic to support his dynamic leaping pose, the actual figure has a transparent yellow brick jutting out from his knee, almost like he's been frozen taking a massive 8-bit piss all over himself. The "leaping" pose also looks a bit more like "stumbling" when you look at it dead-on, but at least they tried to make it interesting. Seams between the separate pieces are pretty obvious, and while my toy in particular didn't have any major issues, I do know that the machine-printed eyes can sometimes be juuuust a little off-center, producing a horrifying wall-eyed abomination far more disturbing than Dark Link could ever hope to be.

Keep in mind that I'm an asshole who firmly believes that most of the Play Arts Kai toys aren't worth the $100 they sell for. If you already know what a Nendoroid Puchi is, you're not going to be impressed. If you're not already one of those pricks who imports overpriced Japanese toys that cost two and three times as much as their comparable American counterparts, you'll probably think he looks perfectly fine. Even coming from a place of snobbish nerd eye rolling, I have to admit that the minor details - such as a small peek at Link's chain mail through the armpit of the tunic, the Hylian crest on his shield, and the airbrushed folds on his hat - look better than I expected them to. He's still not as sharp as the prototype, but the attention to detail is impressive enough for a mass-produced toy that costs less than a base for a generic "fire" or "crushed rocks" figure base for a Bandai S.H. FiguArts toy.

This is what a grown-up plastic toy looks like.
Too bad it's from Other M, but whatever...

No less important is the almost surprising level of chunky heft that the figure carries with it. See, I know I'm a 30 year old man who could, if he really wanted to, pay the $200 to get a "good" Link figure; that means I'm largely out of the target demographic for these toys, which was children. Not man-children like myself, but the kind of children you get into trouble for showing your penis to. Nintendo fans may often enough be written off as "Nintenyearolds", perpetual babies who continue to re-play the same franchises every 5 years on a new console with similar results, but the non-articulated PVC figure is just chunky and firm enough that I could hand this to a reasonably behaved 5 year old and not be terrified that he was going to crush it with his sticky little hand. Adult collectors who simply want high quality PVC figures of Little Mac and King Dedede might walk away disappointed, but this could well be many kids' first look at a fixed-pose Japanese style PVC figure, and with that in mind they're getting a pretty fair glimpse into what to expect, toy-wise. I've said this several times now, but I do consider Nintendo a toy maker rather than a "publisher" as I would a company like Square Enix or Ubisoft or what have you, and while I can't help but be let down slightly by the result compared to the superior prototypes, I admit they've given children - young and old, though I assume most of these are going towards 30 somethings who grew up with Mario and Samus - about as decent quality a stocking stuffer as we could have asked for.

These actually cost the same price in Japan, give or take the daily exchange rate, and as anyone who's bought anime and game merchandise over the years will tell you, the Japanese give you exactly what you pay for. You want a sexy looking Samus figure to tower over your adoable Amiibo? You're going to pay about $80, before shipping - well, more like $125 now that she's out of print. You want a poseable 1/6th scale Link with real cloth outfit and tons of accessories? $215 - if you were to get him for the full MSRP. I've long thought that Revoltech and Figma represent the sweet spot for me for most things - a fully articulated figure with tons of optional parts, clocking in at a not-quite 1/12th scale - but even then, the prices for those figures have been slowly creeping up closer and closer to the price of the larger, higher-quality, fixed pose PVC statues I oft adore, but can't justify the total cost for (much less the shelf space). The upcoming MGS2 style Solid Snake by Figma costs roughly $75 MSRP, and honestly, I don't know why: The rest of the toy lines I've been buying have already gone up by about 10-15%, but this is closer to a 35% increase. A licensing oddity, or a glimpse of things to come?

But anyway, only half the appeal of the Amiibo has anything to do with the toy itself. Within Smash Bros., the concept is kind of cool; it basically gives you a blank slate to customize a moveset and bonus stats using items collected in-game, and as you rank up and win matches with your little AI drone, they give you everything they win in the field as well. Neat, right? The toy lets you build a custom toadie, not unlike the "Pawn" system in Dragon's Dogma when you think about it.

How's it all work? Couldn't tell you. No, honestly, despite having bought Smash weeks ago I haven't had a chance to try out the Amiibo functionality. Just literally haven't had the time or energy to try, not with Ground Zeroes coming out on PC.

But I bought Link specifically for his HYRULE WARRIORS functionality, and that's - arguably - a far more noteworthy use of the tech anyway... and also, the use I fear is going to crop up in the future, to the point where I'm considering buying characters I'm less fond of just so a year from now I'm not
"forced" to over-pay for some stupid thing I want to unlock that I could have had for MSRP back when. But let's take a look, anyway:


Basically, the Amiibo here is a physical device to unlock new DLC - specifically, a new weapon for Link, in which you whip around like a maniac and grind moblins into a snortable rupee powder. While the game already has multiple characters, each weapon introduces an entirely new play style in any Dynasty Warriors game, and this is no exception, providing a moderately quick, but not overpowered mode of transportation designed to take out small clusters of enemies in no time. It's not quite as awkward as the Epona weapon from the first DLC pack, and it's a hell of a lot more fun than the Fairy Wand, but overall the new weapon is... amusing. Not game changing, not necessary or the Best Thing Ever, just a charming and fun little diversion if you happen to get sick of Link's OP as fuck 8-bit sword. It's not necessary in any way to feel like Hyrule Warriors was a complete experience, but it's a fun little bonus for Twilight Princess fans, and what is Hyrule Warriors if not the ultimate Legend of Zelda fanservice delivery system?

Part of me feels like I have to talk about Hyrule Warriors itself, since... well, that's the actual game. This is the add-on, and talking about hats without a discussion of Team Fortress 2 seems misguided, at best. At the same time, the game is such an absurd pastiche of two very specific franchises that I can't imagine anything I have to say would convince anyone to give it a shot one way or another: Either you are super into Hyrule Warriors, or you'll never get within twenty feet of it. Much like Re-Animator: The Musical or pork belly flavored ice cream, people that really, REALLY like both of the things on display are going to love it, and people who either dislike or aren't familiar with one (or both) of these things are just going to stare blankly, unsure what to make of it. The game system is a straight up clone of any given Dynasty Warriors, while the theme and universe on display is The Legend of Zelda. No more, and no less.

Dynasty Warriors games are a curious beast in that they plop you down on a massive map, square off areas that you have to conquer by destroying hundreds of opponents, and then drop bosses into the mix once you have a set number of blocks in the map on your side. You can build up meters for limited special moves that'll do massive damage, but you only have a few per match, so you have to pace yourself. Dodging, blocking and counter-attacking all have their ups and downs, and you have to shift how you play based on the enemies you're fighting, or the rules of the map at that time: It looks simple and perhaps a bit bland at first, but it's got enough variety that it never feels particularly boring or repetitive, unless you're re-playing a specific map over and over to get an "S" rank and unlock some specific goodies. Allies drop in once you've liberated key forts, but the AI is mostly useless; it's basically just you, and possibly a friend doing all the heavy lifting. Hyrule Warriors is one of the few games on the Wii U to use the gamepad screen for P1 and the TV for P2, so there's a unique, free-roam aspect that's more akin to playing a PC game in tandem over LAN rather than a classic "Split Screen" mode, as was the case on the Mobile Suit Gundam and Hokuto no Ken themed entries on the PS3. They're not the prettiest or the most polished games out there, but they're goddamn fun to grind at for an hour or two at a time, the aesthetics powering the less-than-stunning game engines are consistently very attractive, and the fact that most of these games have dozens of hours of content to unlock by re-playing maps under different conditions make them a hell of a bang for their buck. If you're into that sort of thing, of course.

The game quite literally mashes up stuff from every Zelda timeline out there with nary a concern for "Continuity": The core figures in every game have been given fresh new designs, and they come up with a universe-breaking excuse to feature characters from Twilight Princess, Ocarina of Time, and Skyward Sword in a way that almost makes sense. The story mode is pretty weak, but honestly, if you're playing a Dynasty Warriors game for the story you're probably new to the franchise anyway. They're simply massive, chaotic, and oddly cathartic grind-fests that offer new outfits and weapons for those who git gud, The myriad of cameos and throwbacks peppered throughout will delight fans well enough, but if you like Zelda games and don't care for Dynasty Warriors gameplay, you're going to be infuriated before things get too far in. Similarly, if you like Dynasty Warriors' mechanics but find Nintendo's take on Germanic Fantasy to be a bit dry or too silly to put any weight towards, odds are you won't really get why morons like me love the shit out of it to begin with. It's naked pandering, but it's done with care and finesse, so why fight it? If the game sounds amusing, just fucking buy it already. It had exactly one job - to be fun on some fundamental level for DW and LoZ fans alike - and it's done just that.

Here's why I love the game: Fishwife = Bestwife.
Don't let Lovecraft's racism against fish sway you otherwise!
(Also, don't let Lovecraft's racism in general sway you on anything.)

Wait, did I say "every" Zelda timeline? That's a lie. Majora's Mask characters and weapons are locked behind a DLC expansion, and the only references to Wind Waker is the presence of the titular wand, rather than any of the chibi-esque character designs featured in the beloved Game Cube game itself. There's also a distinct lack of representation from the Zelda handheld titles, which - while not my favorite entries -  have enough of a cult following I'm surprised they didn't work in a boss or two just for laughs. Tingle is absent as well, a surprising choice, but perhaps - much like the rest of Wind Waker - it was deemed too silly for the somewhat lean and angular visual style the new character designs were going for?

Anyway, the Spinner is an amusing aside, but it's a little disappointing that none of the other Legend of Zelda figures seem to do anything specific. Swiping Zelda or Sheik Amiibo figures - whom is, and this is a 15 year old spoiler incoming: Actually just Zelda disguised as a Middle Eastern Transexual Ninja** - will net you a new random weapon once a day worth 3 stars. Any other Amiibo will give you a weapon worth less than 3 stars. Anything below 4 stars is basically trash, so while I applaud them for doing something with the technology, it's a little disappointing all the same. It also uses the system's internal clock, allowing you to use each figure only once a day, so your plot to sit there for an entire weekend to get a hundred shit weapons and sell them for pocket change is probably far less useful than you'd hoped. I'm also told that the "Toon Link" figure will unlock the Spinner weapon, too, which is... surprising. Neat, even. Just a little odd.

Ganondorf's Amiibo isn't out yet, so I'm hoping we'll get at least one more new unlockable weapon in there before Koei-Tecmo are done making new downloadable shit for the game. It's done very well in the West for a Dynasty Warriors title (which usually tank outside of Japan anyway), but wasn't a smash hit in its home country, so I have no idea if Nintendo will try to milk one more sequel out of this or not. Nintendo's loss of traction after the Wii U failed to sell has given them a desperate mindset, willing to try anything to see what sticks, but I'm not sure if a moderately successful fanservice game is worth doing a sequel to in their eyes: For all the bitching people do about every Mario, Zelda, Metroid and Smash game being "the same exact thing", it's worth noting that Nintendo typically only creates one game per a system's life-cycle. There's literally been a new Assassins Creed every year the PS3 existed, but there was only one Metroid game on the Wii, only one (new) Zelda Game, and while even I admit that the "New! Super Mario Bros." franchise is getting to be a parody of the concept, there's still just one game on the Wii U, plus a massive DLC expansion that basically was a full-length sequel. There's enough Zelda fans out there to justify doing a sequel that focuses on Majora's Mask, Wind Waker and the various wacky handheld spinoffs - hell, Spirit Tracks was a game in which you build trains. Can you imagine summoning a goddamn train to pound Midna right in the-- wow. That sounded way more dirty than I'd intended. What I'm trying to say is I'd be down for a sequel. There's enough nonsense to pull a couple more fanservice clusterfucks out of it, and so long as they're as fun as this has, I'd have no complaints.

How was Veran not hidden in as a bonus character?
She's got the tits for it and everything...

In short, Amiibo are kinda' goofy and childish and not the best thing ever... but, at least they remind me that the Wii U is, at its core, a toy. Toys are meant to be played with, and Nintendo offering you bonuses for literally buying more toys is a charming level of honesty I wish Sony and Microsoft had the humility to acknowledge. The PS4 and the Xbox One have tried to convince the world that they're movie players and social media tools and "turbo-charged" computers that just happen to have a couple exclusive games. It's been a year, and at this point neither system has anything that twists my nipples hard enough to even consider it. Hell, I'd rather buy a Vita - at least that's become the universal dumping ground for Weeb bullshit. Unless you're a massive Halo fan and want to literally re-buy all four of the last games,

But the Wii U? Sure, it's still an Xbox 360 with an iPad bolted into the controller, but it's also been ramping up exclusives left and right with first and second party developers to produce the one thing a video game console should have: decent games. This year alone we've had regular franchise mainstays like Donkey Kong Country, Mario Kart and Smash Brothers, on top unexpected exclusives like Bayonetta 2, The Wonderful 101 and... well, I'm still mad that they aren't going to translate that awesome looking Fatal Frame sequel. But we did just get a new Shantae game, so it's clear God hasn't totally given up on us, even if Sonic Boom was a thing that happened.

It's officially 2015, and we're going to get a new "main" Zelda game, a new Starfox game, a new bizarro shooter in the form of Splatoon, and we're still waiting for more details on new exclusives like Xenosaga and Shin Megami Tensei x Fire Emblem, and lord knows what else going on in HAL Laboratory and the like, and I have no regrets.

Nintendo makes toys. Toys are fun. Discussing video games is fun, too, but not as fun as actually having decent stuff to play. At this point, Nintendo is delivering good stuff left and right, and if part of the deal to unlock everything in a game means I buy a cheap plastic toy, eh, I can live with that.

See that? Nintendo made me feel so good about video games I didn't have to talk about Hatred! Crazy, right? I figure that'll last a week...

*The 4P battles, unusual and simplified move-sets, elements of platforming, randomized stage-hazards and weapon items have long placed this outside the realm of "typical" fighting games. I'd argue it's a new genre entirely - "competitive party brawler", maybe? - but the fact that the franchise was balanced enough to allow from professional level competitive play means that it's examined in the same circles as Street Fighter, Guilty Gear, Mortal Kombat and other "traditional" 2P VS fighting games.

So yes, technically, SSB is a fighting game. The same way that, technically, Twilight is a horror franchise, Afro Samurai is an anime franchise, and Michael Jackson was black.

** Sheik is, by far, best Husband. Don't argue because you know you've already lost, particularly if we're talking OoT when there was magic involved giving Zelda an actual masculine body.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Burial Treasure: There's Still Time To Crowd Source BURIAL GROUNDS

Just a friendly reminder that 88 Films' have successfully funded their remaster of Zombi Holocaust for 7,500 pounds, and are trying to reach their stretch goal of 12,500 to restore the far superior BURIAL GROUNDS. They're currently at 11,808 pounds (or about $1,000 USD short) and there's 4 days left.

To put into perspective how goddamn hard I want the second goal to be reached, I donated 20 pounds early on for the initial campaign, and donated a second time this week in the hopes that we'll see the whole thing pass that threshold and get the second release finished. I've long thought that Zombi Holocaust was a pretty dull and disappointing experience, but I happen to think Burial Grounds is pretty goddamn awesome, a bizarre mash-up of 60s Spanish horror, 70s Italian erotica and some of the most charmingly terrible paper mache  monsters in cinematic history, with a soundtrack that's so off kilter I can't even decide what planet it's supposed to be from. I'd also remind you that the Media Blasters BD is such a mess it's missing frames at literally every single cut, while 88 Films is prepared to do a new scan of a vaulted, and complete, Interpositive.

Anyway, happy various holidays to all friends of the Kentai Blog. Probably won't be back until the New Year, but if any of you guys want to know what I want this year, I just want to see this goddamn flick get restored on Blu-ray. Plus if you kick in $40, you get a copy with an exclusive slipcover - so what's not to love?

UPDATE: We did it, boys and girls! New transfers for both ZOMBI HOLOCAUST and BURIAL GROUNDS are incoming for 2015!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

KITE Revisited: The Most Infuriating Failure of 2014

Remember when this was supposed to be a thing?
And how instead we got BOSTON LEGAL: MAGICAL GIRL SQUAD?
I'm not gonna' lie. I've got super mixed feelings about Umetsu's career as a whole.

First off, friends, I apologize for having been busy for the last several weeks. Job changes are part of it, my old TV dying is another, and the fact that the Christmas Season is full of video games for cheap  is only exacerbating the issue. Let's face it, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes got a surprisingly great PC release, and there's no way that ISN'T going to eat at least a dozen or three hours of the next two weeks. Heh, "hour long" game my ass...

Rest assured, I plan on doing a number of BD "reviews" in the near(...?) future. I did, after all, just get AnimEigo's Bubblegum Crisis Collection, and I fully plan on exploring both the strengths and weaknesses of FUNimation's new Cowboy Bebop set - there's a lot to talk about there, so we'll get to that sometime early next year. Merry Christmas and everything else in the meantime, folks. I know, it sucks to have to wait to explore what did and didn't go right on releases like that, but hey, I've only had a chance to play the new Smash Bros., like, twice. We'll get there eventually.

But seeing as how I did get my hands on easily the most controversially broken Blu-ray to come out in 2014, I find myself with no choice but to do something of a proper write-up on Media Blasters' much-delayed mess that is the "International" version of Yasuomi Umetsu's picaresque action masterpiece, KITE/カイト. I've discussed how I feel about the OVA itself, the various international edits and its very unique and prominent place in the realm of ero-anime (or "hentai", if you prefer) as experimental pulp at least once, so I'll be focusing exclusively on the technical merits of Media Blasters' new Blu-ray only this time.

This is one of the most frustrating releases I can remember, because it's almost incredible. The vast majority of footage was clearly pulled from a new, high quality scan of what John Sirabella himself claimed to be the original camera negative, and with the 35mm footage looking as sharp and natural as it does, I'm inclined to believe him. Occasional specs crop up here and there, but nothing is ever particularly distracting on the 35mm sourced sequences. The contrast is high and the black levels rock solid, making it one of the best looking transfers of a 90s OVA available in HD. Heck, the bulk of the footage looks even better than the suspicious grainless and gamma-boosted transfer given to the Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal BD import, which is one of the few older OVAs comparable to Kite on a lot of levels.

There's also an obvious comparison to make with Media Blasters' own Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend Blu-ray, which used a censored and well-worn 35mm theatrical print from the UK as the bulk of its source with some analogue SD footage to fill in the gaps. That release was an abomination, but it was almost consistently that way: The bulk of the footage looked heavily processed anyway, and while the results had obvious limitations there was at least a solid attempt to color-grade the SD upscale footage to match the rest of the new HD transfer. And since this was an actual 35mm print that was hacked up by the BBFC, there was a legitiamte excuse for the footage to have gone missing. Not, I must stress, that uncut prints didn't exist in the early 1990s and probably don't to this day... but that's neither here nor there, I suppose. Legend of the Overfiend was a middling 35mm transfer mixed with decently upscaled material, resulting in a disappointing release that - at the very least - tried to hide its still somewhat glaring flaws.

With Kite, the upscaled footage is not only exceptionally heinous - DVNRed into a smeared blob, not even a token attempt at color correction, aliased as hell, chock full of gross frame-blending artifacts and so on - but it's also frequent, and consistently on a full cut-for-cut basis. In other words, it never switches from 35mm to SD footage in the middle of a shot; this is typically how I myself work when I need to cobble different sources together, since getting framing and color and everything else to "Match" is next to impossible in the middle of a cut, but surprisingly easy when the camera cuts from one thing to another.

As for a potentially complete list of issues? That's what you guys really wanted, right? Well, here's what we've got. I can't promise it's 100% because trying to do this makes my heart sink, but hey, I'm trying! Goes without saying that I'm going to be floating Spoilers like a Game of Thrones book discussion sub, but good gravy, if you haven't seen Kite yet and you're somehow reading that, go fix that immediately!

Shots in BLACK are upscaled from SD sources, despite (presumably) being on the original negative in some capacity. This is the stuff that I honestly can't find any proper excuse to exist in the way that they do; in some cases, I'd rather they have compiled one usable frame from whatever film exists and just frozen it rather than switch to nigh-unwatchable, nearly VHS analogue garbage. But we've got so much more to discuss, I won't dwell on it.

Shots in RED are, for one reason or another, not on the camera negative and should be treated as "damned if you do, damned if you don't". We'll discuss these in detail, but the short of it is these were always going to be fucked in some capacity.

Shots in BLUE are... I'm not entirely what to call these. Basically, they're alternate shots that are pulled from the uncut camera negative, but that means they don't match the "International Version", which is what this Blu-ray is tyring to present. We'll discuss these in gory detail as needed. Basically, the footage is HD, but it's not the correct footage - not for the version of the OVA they're giving us, at least.

And as for the edits themselves, I'm trusting German censorship site Schnittberichte on the matter. If it's not entirely accurate... well, I'm done caring for now. Sorry, folks.

03:19 - The animated title sequence is upscaled. (10 seconds)

06:49 - Tracking shot of an escalator was trimmed down slightly in the International Version.
             It appears in its original length on the Blu-ray. (3 seconds longer) 

07:20 - In the International Version, Oburi passes by two people while on the escelator.
            On the Blu-ray/Uncut Version, he passes by three. (6 seconds longer)

16:28 - Young Sawa being molested by Akai has been slowed down to account for alternate takes.
             The missing alt. shot of adult Sawa is missing entirely.  (16 seconds, 3 cuts)

24:35 - The International version uses an alternate, forward-facing angle when Sawa is pushed.
             The Blu-ray uses the side-angle featured in the original OVA (episode 1) instead. (2 seconds)

24:40 - The grinning bodyguard falling to his doom was cut down slightly in the International Version.
             The Blu-ray plays the same length as the Uncut Version. (2 seconds longer)

25:19 - A young Sawa falls to her knees and begs Kanie to give her earings back. (1 second)

25:21 - Sawa stands up and begs for them back again. (2 seconds)

25:27 - Sawa hops up and tries to reach them as Kanie tosses them away. (2 seconds)

26:13 - The man shot by Sawa's exploding bullets twitches and bleeds out. (3 seconds)

26:57 - Sawa and the bodyguard fall from the skyscraper. (3 seconds)

27:12 - Sawa hangs on for dear life as the bodyguard shoots at her. (5 seconds)

27:35 - Sawa and the bodyguard freefall as he shoots upward at her. (4 seconds)

27:36 - Sawa and the bodyguard continue to fall from a different angle. (1 second)

27:38 - Sawa and the bodyguard slam through the bridge onto a car. (1 second)

27:39 - Sawa and the car fall through the bridge. (1 second)

27:50 - The truck falls through the street and explodes in the subway. (2 seconds)

28:15 - The explosion from the subway billows up into the street as Sawa goes flying. (2 seconds)

29:57 - Shot of "B. Willis" being interviewed through a two-way mirror. (4 seconds)

30:35 - Akai pulls his cigarette out of his mouth and beratws Sawa. (3 seconds)

30:57 - Akai tells Sawa she has another earring. (3 seconds)

31:36 - Sawa walks by a puddle. (6 seconds)

31:42 - Sawa waits to cross the street in the rain. (5 seconds)

33:00 - The shot of Akai reading a magazine has been looped/slowed down as Kanie speaks offscreen.
             The International Version has a shot of the "next" assassin in the background playing. (6 seconds)

34:59 - Subway car pulls into the station. (6 seconds)

35:24 - Subway car billows over with blue smoke. (1 second)

37:05 - The subway car explodes as people take cover. (2 seconds)

37:09 - The unnamed cop's head flings past the turnstile.  (2 seconds)

37:38 - Shot of Akai's shoes as he walks through the bathroom. (1 second)

38:01 - Show of Oburi's face as he chides Akai. (2 seconds)

38:13 - Oburi holds Akai at knife point as the lights flicker. (47 seconds, 6 cuts)

39:04 - Oburi runs out of the dark bathroom. (1 second)

39:06 - Oburi enters the hallway and turns around as he hears Akai. (1 second)

39:08 - Akai kicks Oburi while he's on the ground. (2 seconds)

39:11 - Akai kicks Oburi again. (1 second)

40:06 - Kanie shoots Sawa's gun out of her hand. Kanie chops her in the back of the neck. (2 seconds, 2 cuts)

40:26 - Freeze-frame and fade to black as Akai tells Sawa to thank him. (3 seconds)

40:29 - Kanie drags Oburi out the door. (1 second)

40:48 - Close-up of Akai explains that torture is his hobby. (7 seconds)

41:07 - Akai commends Sawa for standing up to him, same shot as before. (3 seconds)

42:53 - Slow pan down of the sewer with Sawa waiting in the shadows. (7 seconds)

43:10 - Sawa stands up. (4 seconds)

44:08 - Sawa unloads both pistols into Akai. Close up of her face, and him being shot. (3 seconds, 2 cuts)

45:25 - Sawa's cats wait for Oburi to return. (5 seconds)

So, by my current and - I admit, rough around the edges - count, that's about 2 minutes of upscaled footage that should, theoretically, have been on the OCN in one form or another. That's not including another 30 seconds or so of shots that wouldn't be on the negative anyway, but there's less than 3 minutes upscaled total, even at worst. Mind you, the Blu-ray only runs about 47 minutes...

The fact that these are all entire cuts missing - and that the entirety of the first episode was complete - leaves me to assume that there was damage to these particular scenes, but that they weren't "missing". If I had to guess, it would be that the footage was damaged - maybe frames were cut to use as promotional materials, maybe there was warping or massive scratches, who knows? At this point, Media Blasters and whatever uncredited film lab did the actual mastering work are the only people who have a clear idea of what these materials were. I can't claim to know better than anyone else, only theorize that with more judicious freeze-frames and maybe a few digital tricks, some of these seams could have been smoothed over better. Digital edits are annoying, we all know that, but they're nowhere near as bad as missing or upscaled footage.

Both the opening credits and the end credits have been re-generated at 1080p, in English. Considering the credits have always been video-generated kanji, I can't blame MB for doing this. The Green Bunny logo is also upscaled, because of course a Japanese cartoon porn distributor did that shit on interlaced video.

I'm going to call special attention to the scene that starts at 40:30 and ends at 41:35. Aside from the 10 seconds of upscaled footage exclusive to the "International" version, they loop two close-up shots of Sawa and Akai which, in the original version of the scene, only lasted about 15 seconds; the dialogue plays over a shot of Sawa and Akai in bed together in the Uncut Version missing entirely in the International Version. By the power of math, that means they re-used this footage about 3.5x times, but since it cuts back and fourth between Sawa and Akai, it's probably not quite as noticeable as it could have been.

Simply put, this scene looks weird, but not owning a copy of the International Version right now (seriously, why would I buy that?), I can't confirm one way or another how the edited version of the scene plays out; it is, however, bizarre watching not only the grain slow and freeze in place as they try to match Akai's dialogue, but you can see the same print damage - a small white scratch on Sawa's chin, and a black blob on Akai's shoulder - pop up again and again. Without a reference point on hand I can't tell if this is how the old, edited version was "supposed" to play out or not, but it looks like butt here either way thanks to the otherwise benign film scratches. Amusingly enough, random analogue noise might have made this scene look a bit less slapped-together otherwise.

There's also a handful of shots I can't really fault Media Blasters for not sourcing from the OCN, specifically because they don't exist on the OCN. The water effects on the puddle Sawa walks by are animated at 30fps, suggesting this was an edit done on video at the last minute. This is also true of the shot in which Sawa and the Bodyguard are free falling and he fires his pistol up towards her; the muzzle flashes are late-90s digital effects if I've ever seen them, and while it's difficult to say I wouldn't be surprised if the side of the blue building rushing up on the left was, too. Both episodes have video generated titles, too, so it's unsurprising to see that uprezzed for the Blu-ray. I can't think of anything else that looks like it was tweaked on video for the uncut version, but it may have something to do with the concurrent shots being upscaled immediately thereafter, too. Hard to really say without looking at the material and guessing what could have been done by duping a frame here or cutting a frame there. 30fps-to-24fps conversions are a bitch, and I can only fault Media Blasters so hard for any of them looking awful.

Similarly, there's a handful of "alternate" scenes that were animated specifically for the International Version, which - having been made two years after the fact, and presumably at the request of Media Blasters - were likely never stored with the original vaulted negatives. If this alternate footage has really disappeared, there isn't much that can be done now: Either you upscale the god-awful looking video masters, or you find wherever the 35mm materials for the "new" stuff was hidden away. There's also a handful of shots that were cut shorter by a second or two on the International Version for whatever reason; some of those play out the same length as they were created, and have been noted. I assume these were trimmed solely for pacing? I can say that the clearly-looped shot of Akai spacing out into his baseball magazine is to cover something of an unfortunate loss; in the original cut we see him sexually abusing a teenaged girl, and in the International Version we have a new shot entirely where the "third assassin" is playing with the presents he's brought for her.

So what, realistically, could Media Blasters have done in these scenarios? After all, the Rurouni Kenshin OVAs before this included upscaled SD footage, but... well, the SD footage was at least watchable by comparison, and since most of those scenes looked weird even on DVD, nobody expected the 30fps video effects to look pristine in HD anyway. By comparison, Media Blasters didn't even try to color correct everything to match; the title card should be red on black, and yet the uncorrected gamma and RGB leave the whole thing a gross, grubby dark green with a dark orange font on top. To try and fail is bad enough, but the upscaling on display here is so shockingly bad I'm not convinced they even tried.

Had it just been the title card and the handful of video edites sequences presented upscaled, I'd have been willing to give this a pass; they'd always look like shit, but what can you do? Under the circumstances of two minutes being upscaled when they should exist on the negatives, however, I wonder if this would have been the appropriate time to reach out to Umetsu and request that he oversee some drastic measures. No, really - for all the bullshit I've given John Sirabella and his company over the years, they have managed to cultivate a few notable business relationships, and in the case of the (utterly bizarre and disappointing, I admit...) KITE LIBERATOR Sirabella himself was the executive producer to Umetsu's sequel. Would it be unthinkable that he could have talked Umetsu into overseeing - or at the very least, approving - that these 2 minutes be re-animated from scratch? Yes, they would have looked weird and "off" from the rest of the film, even in they had tried to add some grain and blur filters to 'even out' the content the way Ghibli does to emulate 35, but if Media Blasters' insistence that the original camera negative is incomplete, I can't think of a more appropriate time to pull in a favor from a director who would likely be grateful that an American studio is putting in the efforts to preserve his work, while the Japanese studios that actually produced it seem to not care one way or another.

I'm okay with dated effects in films existing as they are. I'm not okay with the films themselves being incomplete, and licensors resorting to elements that were barely up to snuff for DVD. If your film elements are incomplete to the point where you can't release the whole movie, consider not going through with it. Literally nobody will be pleased with the results, and your sales are going to suck, regardless of what good intentions you had. In this case, the studio doing the restoration has the contacts and the incentive to do something to preserve the whole work in the best quality possible. I'm not saying Media Blasters should have re-animated the damaged footage, but... I'm not seeing any other better solutions here, either.

Well, there is one solution left:

To Media Blasters, and indeed any other licensor who's interested in taking this title further: Provide me with high quality footage of both the original NTSC Digibeta master of the "International Version" and the raw, complete scan of the "Uncut" Negative, and I'm just about willing, able, and crazy enough to restore this beautiful mess to the way it was meant to be seen. I love this film, and while I don't particularly love the Director's preferred version, if that's all we're going to get, it deserves to be re-created and restored to the best ability of the materials available. I'm not going to bother doing it just to amuse myself, because I don't care about the edited version: This wouldn't be for me. It would be for Umetsu. If you're ready to do this right, you guys can eMail me and we can discuss it from there. Check my profile, I'm not so hard to find.

Having watched the disc end to end, I'm left feeling exactly as I did when I first saw the screenshots: The Camera Negative sourced HD footage is incredible, the SD footage filling in the gaps is an abomination, and having finally sullied myself by watching at least a close approximation to the "Director's Edit", I find it to be a weaker film: Sawa appears to be willful and emotionally manipulative the whole way through without submitting to Akai's sexual abuse, and I maintain that for all the controversy that the "Cheese Pizza" inserts have caused over the years, none of them do quite as much to solidify the gruelling aesthetics as the two shots of a bloodied Oburi on the floor, being held at gunpoint; one in which he stares in shock at Sawa's abuse, and another in which he simply stares off into space, having accepted that nothing will ever change. Umetsu's most polished and expensive work is doubtlessly still Presence, a short in the Robot Carnival anthology about a man who creates a Cindi Lauper robot who falls in love with him, but Kite remains his most poignant, visceral and deeply affecting work. Castrating the literal pornographic sex scenes come with a loss in the bleak and hateful vibe that every part of the film is based around, and while I can understand Umetsu's preference on a thematic level I'm still no closer to agreeing with them.

If you can deal with 2 minutes of upscaled bullshit, the wrong alternate takes being used and this being the "R-15" cut, the Blu-ray's visuals are such a dramatic improvement over the DVD most of the time that it brings a damned tear to my eye. If you consider that a recommendation... well, that's as solid an opinion on such a flawed, bizarre and unfortunate release as I can sum up. The odds of any other studio releasing this title in a superior edition without being massive fans themselves seem slim to none, though perhaps some kind German licensor will go just crazy enough to re-cut this from the raw footage someday... not counting on it, mind you, but I'd so love to be wrong and see them do some absurdly expensive restoration of the uncut version, complete with as much of the trimmed footage as is possible to keep.

Alright, that's quite enough passive-aggressive fury over Media Blasters - how'd I do on my last Ground Zeroes run?

To think some assholes finish this entire game in 10 minutes... I can't tell if I fear or envy that level of autism. Ah, well. To the final two XOF patches!

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Zombi Holocaust Denial: Let's Help 88 Films Fix Media Blasters' Shoddy Work

Thai posters are glorious, in their own special way.

UK genre label 88 films has, up until now, mostly been a sort of "Bizarro" equivalent to US labels like Full Moon and Troma Films - releasing high quality encodes and bonus feature packed special editions of the same movies that the US branches crapped out in whatever quality they could manage. They're limited by the same materials as their US equivalents, but whoever is handling the materials clearly has a better grasp on it, and the results are a notable improvement for about the same price. They've moved on to doing a wider range of American cult movies - slasher flicks, in particular - and while I'm not the biggest fan of every title they've announced, I like these guys on principle. Plus, they're selling the original Toxic Avenger, Castle Freak and The Last Horror Film at cheaper prices than their North American equivalents; if you need a better excuse to support a region-free UK label, you may need to re-think your trashy movie priorities.

Their most recent announcement in particular is an interesting one: THEY WANT TO REMASTER ZOMBI HOLOCAUST. They're asking for 7,500 pounds ($11,786) to craft a new 2K scan from the camera negative, and if you pledge 20 pounds (or $39.28 with all shipping fees) you get a copy of the finished BD, complete with an exclusive slipcover for backers. They're up to a bit over one-third of their stated goal, and have admitted that if they fail, they'll default to using the same crumby Media Blasters produced master I bitched incessantly about when it was released a couple years ago. No, it wasn't an upscale as I'd initially guessed, but man was it crap all the same...

I'm trying to get people to see this not because I think Zombi Holocaust is a particularly good movie - frankly, this is all anyone should waste their time with more than once:

Can we please, please get a chewed-up grindhouse transfer as a bonus?
That was by far the best aspect on the BD release of JUST BEFORE DAWN...

There's about three minutes worth of really great one-liners and gore show pieces, but it's such a lazy and shallow imitation of substantially more worthwhile Italian genre fodder that you're really better off just having a double feature with Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 and Umberto Lenzi's Eaten Alive for a much better experience. Still, watching B-movies cannibalize their own trends is a fascinating little historical foot-note unto itself, and it's nice to see any studio willing to give it the white glove treatment, top shelf content or not.

I know 88 Films has done some great work, though I'm disappointed to admit I've yet to purchase any of them myself. This reminder - and the great prices on their own website - are tipping me into trying a few of their catalog entries, and you can bet I'll be grabbing that sweet exclusive slipcase for a movie I've always thought was pretty "meh". To be honest, I hope this does so amazingly well that they'll consider doing a similar project for BURIAL GROUNDS. I don't doubt the OCN for that is a bloody mess, but for a dull turd like this to get a new 2K scan and for a shambling, accidental masterpiece like that to remain in its current state would be utterly unforgivable. In a karmic sort of way, I mean.

Not sure what's up with Burial Grounds, but if you want to prove that there's a market for trashy good Italian exploitation, give them money. If you want to get properly mastered garbage cult movies, you have to prove there's money to be made in properly mastering them in the first place. Arrow Video has done some cool stuff using similar means - Happiness of the Katakuris and the Walerian Borowczyk films in particular - but those are the rare hybrid of B-movie schtick and high-brow symbolic transcendence that will always get curious support, if nothing else. Zombi Holocaust is another beast entirely... sort of a big slobbery Boxer to a batshit crazy Chinese Crested. If that makes any sense.

Buy this, too. Yes, I hate recommending Shout Factory titles unseen myself. But fucking hell, is that CRUEL JAWS? On Blu-ray?! How did-- when the fuck-- REALLY?!*

Goddamn it Cliff, I'm buying this even if it's a train wreck, even knowing that their upcoming "Special Edition" release of DOG SOLDIERS is a fucking upscale. So just skip that pile of ass and get this instead... and hope it's not a pile of ass.

Honestly, I wish I had one label left I trusted. Well, besides Arrow Video. I'm not sure what to make of 88 Films just yet, but I've certainly got my eye on 'em. We'll see, ladies and gents. We'll see.

* UPDATE: Ha! Apparently Shout Factory just now realized that CRUEL JAWS is chock full of footage "borrowed" from a certain Steven Spielberg franchise, and have pulled the plug on the release for fear of this release getting legally hate-fucked into oblivion. For those unaware, it's this very issue that's prevented the film from ever getting a legit DVD release up to this point outside of a few European releases from labels that had less than zero fucks to give, and it's long been figured that the film would either have to be dramatically re-cut, or someone would have to crap out a limited edition in the hopes that Universal would simply ignore it.

Thanks to hansolo for pointing out that Shout Factory finally did their research... after taking pre-orders. EXTERMINATORS IN THE YEAR 3000 is still coming out, for those who are more excited by middling post-nuke adventure movies than hilarious shark flicks. This is pretty far down on my list of post-nuke flicks I'd love to see in HD, but with the loss of CRUEL JAWS, I'll simply bide my time and see what reviews say about this now single-feature.