Friday, June 15, 2007

Ohata's Trooper Vision

Blue and Humans are one in the same, draining the life out of the planet until there's nothing left!

- Yuji

It's a fascinating, if somewhat unfair, experience watching what are called "fan edits" of films. Commonly they're done to try and restore what critics - and even fans - consider deeply flawed films that, with a little less insistence on the director's (or producer's) part, would have been a much better movie than what actually hit theaters or video. One of the more famous examples is Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Edit, in which a disgruntled Star Wars fan removed the most irritating aspects of this ill fated prequel (read; Jar Jar Binks) and just left the "good parts", in an attempt to... well, I'm not sure, really. Would someone watch the Phantom Edit over Lucas own Phantom Menace? There are certainly plenty of arguments to do so, but at the same time, a film is the product of a director's labor, and watching a film cut by someone who had no relation to the film what so ever can be an entirely different - though not always better - experience.

One such example would be the fan edit of The Big Boss, Bruce Lee's first film directed by Wei Lo. The reasons for doing it are actually fairly logical: there are several versions floating around with varying lengths, with some English prints running longer than some Mandarin versions. It's also worth pointing out that the feature - like virtually all 1970's Hong Kong films - was shot primarily in Cantonese, but dubbed into Mandarin to give the films more "credibility". Most Cantonese speakers find Mandarin to sound more... sophisticated, and it plays to a general Chinese audience as seeming more "authentic" that way. All the same, Bruce Lee didn't speak Mandarin on set. Also, the dock workers and prostitutes in the film were supposed to be from Thailand. So, what did the fan edit to? It took the Mandarin version, but gave Bruce Lee his Cantonese voice back, and also gave the Thai speakers their mother tongue once again. It also kept as much footage from all versions as was available.

Now, the trouble with this is pretty simple: the original Mandarin audio for The Big Boss has been lost, and so plenty of audio had to be cribbed from other sources. Also, the Cantonese dub was produced in the 1980's - over a decade after the premier - strictly to appeal to the emerging Hong Kong video market. This process gave the Cantonese version and entirely new (and in my opinion, better) soundtrack... so Bruce Lee's voice will be backed up with alternate musical cues*. While presenting the longest and most logical print of The Big Boss is commendable to everyone involved, watching the film in an amalgam of Chinese dialects and Thai isn't what the film-makers ever really intended. Arguing that Lee's voice was preserved is similarly bunk: Bruce Lee died about a decade before the Cantonese dub was made. Simply put, this edit is interesting... but not what anyone ever intended. If the point of preserving cinematic integrity is to present what the director completed and signed off on, how should we feel about fans trying like hell to fix what isn't really broken?

*It's possible that Lee's voice from the Cantonese dub was taken from a new 5.1 mix, in which case the vocal track was probably by itself in the center channel with the music in the left and right channels. I've sadly never been able to find this fan edit... I just found what it claimed to be fascinating. Other fan edits include making Peter Jackson's KING KONG black and white, mono, and covered in simulated film scratches. Considering the original King Kong is available in a pristine remaster, I... don't get that one. Beat-up film prints are a mere side-effect, not an intended look... unless we're talking about Grindhouse. And we aren't. I'm saving that expulsion of insanity for when I have the DVD on hand.

Making this even more interesting are instances where alternate edits were part of the plan. What I mean by this is something like George Romero's Dawn of the Dead. See, Dawn of the Dead was what you'd call an international co-production, a once common method of movie making in which a film would be filmed with the cooperation of several film studios spanning the globe. The reason this came to be was Romero was scrounging for funding to complete is zombie epic, and Night of the Living Dead was successful in Italy. Dario Argento, once a master of the giallo and now kind of a running joke who's insane daughter Asia has since taken his daring and controversial position, agreed to help fund the film... on the condition that Argento was allowed to re-edit the feature and slap his name over it.

While I've only seen Romero's "Final Director's Cut" - the version that was actually shown in US theaters - I've known of Dario Argento's Zombi for many years. While Romero reveled in a perverted and grim sense of humor, playing the film as a social commentary on the waste and selfishness of modern America, Argento decided that a gory action film with less jokes, less dialog, and more musical cues from his beloved techno band Goblin would turn Zombi into a European success. He was right. Not only did Zombi make a killing, but Lucio Fulci was hired to make a "sequel", a bunch of other film studios knocked the concept off... zombies were all the rage in the early 80's in Europe, with even "art" director Jean Rollins making a pair of zombie films, to say nothing of the later resurgance that "Zombi 2: Day of the Dead" would cause, with Fulci having killed off the enthusiasm for the genre single handedly in Zombi 3... at least until 28 Days Later would inadvertently bring zombies back. Anyhoo, the point here is that while Zombi wasn't really Romero's Dawn of the Dead, it was an alternate telling of the same story using the same footage. Having never seen Zombi for myself, I can't say for sure if it's "better"... but I've heard plenty of people say that the film plays better when it's less bloated.

For those who prefer Dawn of the Dead to be as bloated as humanly possible, there's always the 156 minute Ultimate Final Cut... but that's another story (and only dubbed in German).

I bring all this up to explain why I fell in love with BLUE GENDER: THE WARRIOR, and acknowledge that the film may, or may not, be the ultimate version of the Blue Gender franchise. Originally a 26 episode series directed by Masashi ABE (Tokko, Casshan: Robot Hunter, and... Magical Kanan?) released in 1999, Blue Gender was a TV series that played out as a dramatic Sci-Fi title set in 2031, where "Sleepers" - people who were cryogenetically frozen in 1999 after they came down with a maddening sickness known as Prophecy Syndrome - have become Earth's last hope against the Blue, constantly evolving giant insects who have reduced mankind's existence to almost nothing. Yuji, a young man who was accidentally awakened during transport to Second Earth, an orbiting space station used to plot mankind's last stand against the Blue invasion - is thrust in the middle of a war he doesn't understand, and is kept under watch by Marlene, a tough as nails fighter who's sworn her life to her duty of recovering the Sleeper at all costs.

With comparisons to Paul Verhoeven's Starship Troopers adaptation from 1997 being almost too obvious to mention, the differences start out as simple enough anime cliches - particularly the surviving humans fighting in powered mecha suits, the presence of transforming and gelatinous monsters, and the concept of rebirth and renewal amongst utter destruction - and become more and more important as the title goes on. The true purposes of the Sleepers, their fragile psyche's being tapped to turn them into heartless and unparalleled killing machines to put a stop to the Blue once and for all, is a far more scathing concept that the fascism that seeps from every self-aware pore of Paul's feature. The fact that Earth is already fucked adds a further lever of post apocalyptic sheen to the tale, in which even victory would be hollow, with Tokyo and New York having been covered in Blue hives, with even scattered villages of survivors deemed unworthy of being sent to Second Earth not standing so much as a chance against the might of the vagina-faced beasts who roam the once beautiful blue planet. But most important to Blue Gender is humanity. Yuji, awakening fresh to the brutal and structured remnants of his own world, starts the title off as a man willing to put his own life on the line to save people he sees himself in. Marlene, a woman who can be defined only as heartless, remembers that she's human at a crucial point in which her role is swapped with Yuji's. Their love, hidden beneath balled fists and mouth fulls of bug blood, lets them both learn something from one another... but what they learn may not be enough to save either of them in the end.

In 2001, Blue Gender was given a "Movie", a 98 minute feature comprised mostly of footage from the TV series, but with brand new animation and a completely new ending. While the TV series was directed by Abe, the movie was - oddly, in a sense - directed by OHATA Koichi (Genocyber, M.D. Geist, and Burst Angel). While Ohata served as a lead animator on the series, he knew Abe prior - after all, Abe served as producer on every episode of Genocyber after the first OVA. Often criticized as being a hack by critics in the US (and elsewhere), some of that criticism may be justifiable... but to write off his career entirely based on productions where he admits time and money meant an epic vision had to be scaled down to nothing is just plain unfair. Ohata continues to (slowly) move away from his gory machine filled epics, and has recently directed the sequel to Ikkitousen, and has - for reasons beyond me - been attached to direct a new You're Under Arrest anime. Blue Gender: The Warrior lets Ohata do much what Argento did with Dawn of the Dead, and create an entirely new experience from a feature that was already finished.

Having only seen 1 or 2 episodes of the TV series when it aired on US cable (edited and poorly dubbed) in 2003, I can't say if 'The Warrior' is better than the original TV version. It becomes clear that a lot of details are glossed over - character introductions are sparse, at best, and most importantly the full scale assault against the Blue plays as brief sequences that felt like they were meant to last for quite a while more than they did. Honestly, with the segmented and psycho-drama pace of Ohata's OVA's prior, this was easy to follow in comparison. The title is also absolutely full of violence, including eyeballs torn from people's faces, heads crushed with reckless abandon, and a seemingly non-stop torrent of gore focused on Blue that puts even Berserk's savage brutality to shame. In a sense, The Warrior is fast, well animated, gory, and focuses on people being pushed past their limit... it fits into Ohata's filmography perfectly, and I'm honestly bummed that I'm not yet more familiar with the TV series to know what additional material Ohata had animated. I... assume most of the torn out eyeballs were at his demand. Watch Genocyber if you don't believe me that the man has an eyeball destruction fetish.

The ending, however, is a fascinatingly fitting anti-climax. The TV series has a completely different ending (and, amazingly for the time period, graphic sex that I was expecting to see in the "Movie" edit but didn't). The ending isn't explained in detail (something Ohata seems very fond of anyway), and at first it felt like a cop-out. But with the quote at the top of this rambling in my mind, it fell into place, and the true importance of the Sleepers and the Blue made sense. I won't spoil it, I'll just wonder if anyone else gets the same vibe out of the ending that I did. It's entirely possible that, much like with M.D. Geist, the ending we see here is less the result of insane artistic vision and more the fact that Ohata's plans of grandeur tend to meet with the reality of the under-funded animation industry. Still, that didn't keep me from liking Evangelion's cry-for-help ending, and I'll be damned if I'll let that keep me from enjoying what - I'm willing to believe - was an attempt to be intelligent.

FUNimation deserves some props for this release... just some. The transfer seemed free of their usual massive pixelation, until the heavier gun battles came into play... it's one of the better FUNi transfers I've seen in the days before Afro Samurai, but it isn't perfect either. Both Japanese 2.0 and English 2.0 and 5.1 audio are included, but the performances in English are so pitiful and flat I didn't even bother to check if the 5.1 mix was any good. (Ironically, the included preview pimping the TV series makes the US voice actors - who prior had both played Trunks in Dragonball Z - a selling point!) It's presented in it's original 4:3 ratio from a composite master, and I'm sure that encoding differences aside the R2 doesn't look any different - despite being labeled a "movie" this was more a cheap direct to video release, and if a theatrical showing happened it would have been from a video source and on a media projector (there's an awful lot of video editing, making a "real" film print impossible). Sadly, selecting "Japanese audio/English subtitles" gave me Japanese dialog with English dubtitles, rather than proper subtitles... Media Player must be crazy. Actual subtitles are included as well. No features beyond FUNi propoganda are included, and there were 30-something chapters, which struck me as impressive. Both Japanese and English end credits are included as alternate angles... yet the Japanese version had English credits to start with. Yeah.

AIC has done a lot for us, from Ai no Kusabi to Fight!! Iczer One, and now this interesting gory Starship Troopers that finds it's own axe to grind when it bores of being overly derivative. This presentation, while perhaps not what the original director ever asked for, was pretty damned good all the same. It's far from what the director planned for the world to see, but Ohata's version of Blue Gender was all the same a violent, exciting and fascinating look of whatever the TV series may have been. And regardless of how good the TV series is, there's a 9 DVD set with both the movie and TV series that can be had for under $50 with a bit of searching. While I enjoyed this feature on it's own (and would have not knowing a thing about it), more than anything it's made me insanely curious to see more...

...and it's exactly this feeling that makes me upset and excited that good movies have to have more than 1 version available.

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