Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Bitchblade's Revenge! (B.S.)

And no, it stands for "Blogger Script". Not what you're thinking. Potty mouth.

Looking over the screencaps from last time, I honestly didn't think they looked that bad. It's hard to appreciate the weird blocking in smoke without seeing it in motion, so I thought... well, crap. Maybe I was too harsh on FUNimation's encode and just expected everything to look like shite when it was just about average. Yeah, maybe my years of being a grumpy bastard have just caught up with me and I'm seeing shit that isn't there.

Oh my fucking various Lovecraftian Gods.

What we have here is something I like to think of as "FUNi Syndrome". I don't need to point out compression artifacts because they're literally everywhere, covering poor Masane like some sort of digital bukkake. And unlike Bukkake I'm not getting hot over it, so this is just in poor taste without any added benefit. The whole image looks noisy, digital, and while I'm certain that a rip of the Japanese R2 recompressed to DivX would lack some definition and likely have some temporal smearing from noise reduction, it still wouldn't look this bad.

Also, her boobs are literally trying to smack her in the face. This might seem like ludicrous fanservice, but a friend of mine who sports DDs' says that running sucks because large boobs will, in fact, kick your ass if you aren't careful. Boobs are your friends... don't make them hurt you.

While this one lacks artifacts that grab hold of your wind pipe and don't let go until you're seeing stars, it does have a hell of a lot of noise in Masane's hair and skin - it's easier to see on the former, but still present on the latter. It doesn't make me spit coffee on my screen, but it still looks so busy and nasty, especially in motion. In short, this is one of the good shots from episode 3 and it still looks like it was tapped around the edges with an ugly stick.

Witchblade was so god-awful that I've actually been experimenting with FFDShow to noise reduce and then rescale the whole thing, hiding the artifacts before detailing the image. This is (mathematically speaking) the best way to do it, but running FFDShow requires a processor as strong as Thor, a video card worth more than my whole computer's parts combined and about a terrabyte of RAM to really run at full speed. I've already got the 3.4Ghz CPU, but the video card is a mere 256MB PCI based ATI affair that was really bought for its' capturing properties, which turned out to mostly be for naught. The RAM could be the issue, since my CPU almost never tops out at anywhere near 100%, but I dunno'... the whole thing has been incredibly vexing and takes up far, far too much of my time. Not that my time is worth much, but christ, I'd rather watch movies than watch them stutter as I try to find juuuuust the right level of noise reduction before my CPU starts to report that I need to step away from the mouse slowly, or it will shoot.

Anyway, I'll come back with a "real" post sometime later on. Work - the legit kind, even - has caught up with me, and even sitting here blogging and capping is time I should spend synching up German squib placement in which the ask one another, 'You're licensed to blow things up right?' 'Uh... the camera's rolling? Yes! Yes I am.'

P.S. in the B.S. (say what?): I managed to half-way calibrate my LCD monitor. See, the monitor itself is kinda'... well, it clips blacks like there's no tomorrow, so instead of seeing a nice fade from midnight blue to actual black I sort of have a big slab of oily goo that covers my screen. So I used the test patterns here and tweaked my video card to output a much brighter image than it's used to - I had to adjust the R/G/B levels individually, but not doing that makes everything look way too warm anyhow (damned 6500k and engineer's natural red push). This fixed the problem, and now everything looks as bright and natural as it would on some Pioneer KURO $5,000 plasma screen after a further $500 calibration by some THX certified type.

Okay, maybe it's not that awesome... but it still looks a hell of a lot better than it did 48 hours ago. This pleases me.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

All I see is, Video Guro, Video Ero, Video Guro...

I really hate to point fingers.

Okay, that's a lie. I LOVE to point fingers. But I hate to complain incessantly when I know that not a goddamn thing will be done about it. It's like taking a deaf guy to see a ventriloquist, it just feels like there's a far better use of your time. Still, they demand it from me, so a finger shall be pointed.

FUNimation, y'all suck.

Allow me to explain my position on FUNimation: a decade ago they were "the cocksuckers who killed Dragonball Z". Today, they're "the saints that saved One Piece"*. It's strange to think about how drastically Gen Fukunaga's company changed since the days he started an anime localization business because a relative working at Toei talked him into it, and they really have a couple spectacular things to speak of. Their packaging design is always top notch, they've given a 5.1 English dub to virtually every show they've touched in the last 5 years, their budget collections come in attractive and tasteful digipacks, their collector's boxes are often design masterpieces unto themselves (just look at Afro Samurai!), and while there will always be instances where Japanese extras and the like won't be available, they're quite good about including as many relevant special features as they can get their paws on. In practical terms, FUNimation is a predictable licensor with a very creative marketing team, and if it weren't for two little things they'd essentially be the perfect package.

*Of course, they are responsible for adding Seinfeld, pedophile, furry and cervix jokes into the once family-hour Crayon Shin-chan. I'd be more bitter about this if the FUNimation re-write didn't have moments of sheer tasteless brilliance. "To be a man you must have honor - honor and a peenis!"

One of these things is, naturally, "High Definition" widescreen Dragonball Z. I killed far too many brain cels and blood vessels in my eyes elsewhere, so I don't see the point in giving it a full blown featurette here. In short, Dragonball/Z/GT is a TV series shot in 4:3 fullscreen, yet FUNimation remastered the show from shoddy second generation film prints in 16:9 widescreen. They also used noise reduction to kill the heavy grain, which smeared out movement, and there was zero restoration work done on the film prints so they're littered with dirt, hairs, scratches and even torn frames to say nothing of their boosted contrast and saturation. In effect, the earlier DVDs made from 20 year old composite tape masters were higher quality simply because there was less print problems and you weren't missing 25% of the picture. FUNimation's HD Remaster of Dragonball Z is an atrocity the likes of which is comparable only to the biggest of video based fuck-ups, and anyone who can watch these sets without wincing in misery regularly is a mongoloid buffoon who doesn't deserve to own a DVD player.

Naturally, Dragonball Z box sets coming to roughly $1 an episode sell "like hotcakes", so FUNimation could have released them in a triangular aspect ratio dubbed only in Thai with Spanish subtitles and still made a killing.

But no, the real sin that FUNimation consistently inflicts upon their customers is god-fucking-awful video encodes. Now I know that I've never worked in a professional authoring capacity for a legitimate studio, but I've been learning the ins' and outs' of video production for quite some time now, and yes, I've created my own Frankenstein encodes from various sources for the good of Kentai Films patrons everywhere. I once told a FUNimation rep, point blank, that if they need additional help I am available. I also told them I could get better image quality from using the R2 DVD of any of their titles and TMPGEnc Plus. Neither was wholly an exaggeration. FUNimation has a problem, and it's evident on every single DVD they've released ever since 2001.

What we have here is a blatant example of what I'm talking about. I shouldn't even need to explain this one, and if you can't see the horrific blocking over every square inch of this shot than congratulations, you'll never, ever have to worry about spotting video erros. Some people just don't have "the eye" for it and that's cool... good christ, watching shit like this I wish I didn't.

How do you make an atrocity like this? The short 'n' sweet answer is "low video bitrates". DVDs have a bandwidth limit of 10.08 mbps, and use a variable bitrate for the video with fixed bitrates on the audio and subtitle files, plus a tiny bit of overhead for navigation - chapters and the like. In practical terms you can use a variable bitrate that dips as low as 2 mbps (or even less!) and as high as 9.8 mbps without exceeding your bandwidth, but that peak bitrate has to be lowered if you have a lot of audio tracks so you can stay below that 10.08mbps maximum. Most real world encodes don't go over 8, maybe 8.5 mbps, and frankly they don't need to. Any quality advantage you get after 8 just isn't realistically feasible, not if you want any audio with your video at the very least.

The average bitrate used by most studios - that includes anime specialty outfits alongside Hollywood hot shots - hovers between 5 and 7 mbps. Some material simply needs more bitrate to look acceptable. Grainy material is especially tricky, as is anything using a "shaky cam". Animation typically has large spaces filled with a single color and lots of repeat frames, which are easy to compress with a lower bitrate thananything else. It's perhaps unfair to say that animation contains no grain and little movement all the time - certainly there are plenty of titles that contain both - but I'm trying to be mathematical here. Mathematically simpler video can compress at low bitrates without... well, any of the shit we see up there.

How low is too low? Again, content is everything, but typically 5.5 to 6mbps seems to be "it", at least if the R1 anime studios are to be trusted on the matter. Japanese studios tend to use higher bitrates still, often in the 7 ranges, but they also tend to put 2 TV length episodes on a dual layer DVD, which even my videophile minded ass thinks is just a bit excessive. To my eyes, 6mbps is enough for most 2D animated material, and at 6mbps you're looking at something like 95 minutes on a single-layer DVD with a single 192kbps audio track. If you have longer material, or lots of surround tracks, you have to make adjustments. There's nothing "wrong" with 5.6 mbps versus 6, you just might find more problems during fast motion scenes or when heavy grain kicks in. Even then, if you're experiencing problems you could change the encoder profile or add a filter into the chain to try and fix it manually. There's a wealth of options one has to make video better, but most professionals are paid by the job, not by the effort... so, we wind up with something like this.

What you're looking at here is the sexalicious transformation from AMAHA Masane, klutzy and irrational single mother of one spunky as hell loli in a vaguely post-apocalyptic Tokyo setting, into Witchblade, the result of a symbiotic gauntlet which turns her into a blade and tentacle (mmm, naked bladed tentacle chick) covered necromaniac who's sole interest is in killing bio-mechanical weapons which in turn brings out an orgasmic satisfaction in her. Clearly the Japanese version of this "Top Cow" comic character is superior to anything Angelina Jolie's clone with some crusty stuff on her face ever had to offer, but let's not lose focus here: while this sequence lacks the obvious blocks of the last shot, it's still not pretty. There's a coat of what could be described as grain but isn't: it's compression noise, a side effect that's as much a problem of the encoder itself as it is the bitrate it's being fed.

FUNimation's encodes are almost universally noisy, and have edge enhancement - that thing where you see a thin white outline around a black "real" outline. It was created 50-odd years ago as a way to "sharpen" crappy NTSC signals, and worked into TVs via something called a notch filter. Well, FUNimation consistently gets lots of it on everything they release, and even the single title they endoded at a high bitrate, Afro Samurai, can't claim to lack it. The thing is, this noise is almost surely being added at the encode stage, and likely the encoder has a "dithering" function that simply hasn't been turned off. Dithering is a tricky way you can get rid of film grain via noise reduction and then put it back in at the encode to ensure that the grain looks just the way the DVD producers want it to. Tragically, if you use it on material that doesn't need it you're just making everything all... gross. Gonzo isn't one to use grain heavily unless it's in flashbacks or something else artistically sound, and when you see nasty noise like this on Bees Train shows, you know for a fact something's amiss. Some clueless fans have tried to shrug the noise in FUNimation encodes off as a side effect of the master, but if that's the case then why do the R2 releases always lack such problems? The two should be culled from the same master, after all.

The above doesn't look all that bad... 'till you look at Masane's face, anyway. Viewing this sucker in full screen reveals rather nasty blocking artifacts in the smoke in the background, and I have to say this looks so much worse in motion where you can literally see the blocks moving within the smoke (but not "with" the smoke, if you follow me). Of all things, these nasty patterns are likely the fault of a really poor quantize matrix - the thing that tells the MPEG encoder how to do its' job - and that proves that there's just a multitude of problems over at FUNimation's encoding ranch.

And yes, all the screencaps are lossless PNG, so they're 100% representative of what is on the DVD. Some people simply can't see these defects in motion and try to write them off as the bugs of post-processing on the part of the DVD player. Well, these were taken in Media Player Classic using Dscaler's MPEG-2 decoder, no resizing or filtering done at all. I assure you, I have better things to do with my time than post purposefully fux0red screenshots, and let it be said that it always burns my balls to see someone accused of doing just that if they try to show off the opening battle from the Fullmetal Alchemist movie. Decent flick, and man what a package FUNi through together for fans right down to that hardbox-book thing full of post cards, but I swear the first 10 minutes gives Demon Beast Invasion Vol. 1 a run for its' money as the single ugliest anime DVD on the planet.

So out with it: what bitrate is FUNimation using to get these noisy, blocky, generally poor results?

Peak bitrate: 6.9 mbps
Average bitrate: 4.0

Pathetic. Even with the "Alternate Angle" feature FUNimation uses as their de-facto encode style to include both Japanese and English credits and eye-catches, the bitrate is not only pathetically low, it doesn't even touch the peak's 8mbps max level! The disc only uses 6.83 GB of its' potential 7.9 gig maximum, so it's not as if the bitrate couldn't have been upped to 5.5 mbps without removing any of the special features or audio tracks, and all of these issues could have been avoided.

Now, I bring all this to light because FUNimation supposedly has a new DVD authoring guy. The last one they had, whoever the fuck he was, couldn't author his way out of a VCD. While I want to keep this unofficial blog somewhat confidential, I don't mind quoting an anime industry rep who, when I asked him about FUNi's encodes, noted "if I EVER released a DVD from Digibeta that looked that bad somebody would be fired on the spot". A shame his role in releasing commercial DVDs is more limited now than it used to be.

FUNimation, I'm not asking for every single DVD you release to be the next standard in my viewing entertainment experience. I'm just asking for the same level of competency and standards I'd expect to see from a fucking college intern who's never been allowed to touch an MPEG encoder before. If you don't know how to change the average bitrate setting from 4 to 5.5, find the manual. It's okay, really. These things are complicated. If you don't know how to turn any sharpening properties off in your system, find someone who does. The EE is only making the discs look worse, not sharper.

This one... doesn't really show off the defects in image, apart from having strong outlines which lead to EE, and also show that the very bottom line of the transfer appears to be forked in some weird way... as if someone is using CCE improperly?! I swear to christ, if they're using CCE SP (a typically noisy encoder in it's own right I'll admit) and are getting results this bad I fucking give up. The R1 anime industry really, really is run by chimpanzees on roller skates pushing wheel barrels full of money and smoking cigars.

That said, this last screencap does kinda' explain why I'm still buying the other 5 volumes, even if they look like pixelated chewed up ass. It's difficult for me to get up the excitement to actually buy anything FUNimation has the rights to, though, and had I not been given the gorgeous box set for X-mas I'm not convinced I've have bought it at all, either. Typically when I'm tempted to download something I can shrug it off and say "the DVD will look much better". I understand the basic principle of a capitalistic economy in which one exchanges money for goods and/or services, but when the free option of a video - the part of the product that's supposed to matter - literally looks better than the not-free option... well, what's my incentive here? Pretty packaging? Can't I just download cover scans, too? *Sigh*

It sucks having pity and a moral core.

These issues can't be "fixed" in any particularly useful way or else I'd be doing it already. Using noise reduction can smooth over some of the noise as seen in the second screenshot, but there isn't much you can do to get rid of the blocks short of trusting something like FFDShow's "Post processing" option, which I find smears out more detail than noise, even on fairly low settings. It's useful for DivX, but should really be kept very far away from DVD material. I will say that scaled up to 720p this disc looks just awful, and that's a damned shame. The show is a lot of fun in a "Devil Lady meets DBZ" sort of Gonzofied way, and even my wife liked it for the cute character designs and rampant misogyny even though all she could say on the matter was "Witchblade sucks" whilst I tried to ignore her long enough to watch the first episode some time ago. It's Gonzo at their unpretentious best, delivering an exciting and goofy rehash of crap we've seen done before. We just haven't seen it this juicy and jiggly, and I don't mind a rehash if it means I get more shiny ass cheeks and mechanical mutilation out of it.

So, there you have it: FUNimation, learn your business or you'll lose mine. Witchblade is the last FUNimation title I plan on buying until I can rest assured that the DivX download of the TV sourced fansub won't literally look just as good as the $30 a volume DVD.

Monday, January 21, 2008

SHIGURUI - Making You Smile Wide, Even If You Don't Want To

Gather 'round kiddies, it's time to hear about the best show of 2007 you probably never heard of.

SHIGURUI, initially a 1999-current seinen manga series penned by none other than YAMAGUCHI Takayuki, the twisted gurolicious freak responsible for none other than one of my all time favorite titles, KAKUGO NO SUSUME/APOCALYPSE ZERO. Anyone familiar with this - particularly the manga, but the anime to a large degree - knows that it's a no-holds barred perverted and brutal satire of "manly" titles like Fist of the North Star, Violence Jack, and Bio Boosted Armor Guyver. Yamaguchi's art started extremely rough, his work literally looking like something that would appear in Mad Magazine, but over time he developed his bug-eyed monsters and dripping slimy fluids into a warped and pleasing combination that's half way between the works of Toriyama Akira and Hino Hideshi. Yes, bug eyed gurolicious Dragonball is about as best I can explain Kakugo no Susume, and if you haven't seen the anime or read the manga... well, do the former at least. 4 out of 12 of the manga tankou volumes were released by Media Blasters' manga line before they dropped the title due to low sales. A damned shame, I say.

Based loosely on the samurai drama novel Suruga-jou Gozen Jiai written by NANJO Norio, Shigurui is a combination of several distinctly Japanese institutions, in particular the chanbara - that is slowly paced dramatic swordplay action films, like Yojimbo or the Lone Wolf and Cub series - as well as guro, or the form of literally turning the utterly grotesque into something fascinating and entertaining through the power of presenting it without flinching. One can argue that "guro" as we know it today is something of a modern tradition, but the Japanese film industry has been making incredibly artistic and disgusting films since at least Jigoku circa 1960, and bloody ukiyo-e paintings detailing the heroic slaughter of monsterous demons with little else to speak of date back to the early 19th century, at the latest. These two very polar opposite concepts, one a refined sense of aestheticism and the other an immature sensationalism, were combined in Yamaguchi's pages. Madhouse took notice, and with HAMAZAKI Hirotsugu (TeXhnolyze) as director, the 9 or so volumes that were finished at the time were adapted into a 12 episode TV series.

1629. Daimyo of Japan, TOKUGAWA Tadanaga, has slowly earned a reputation as a brutal psychopath. In due time his madness would lead to his own unofficial execution, but it was here that his sadism truly shocked the courts for the first time. Two swordsmen, the one-armed FUJIKI Gennosuke and the blind and lame IRAKO Seigen. If a swordfight between a pair of cripples wasn't in bad taste to begin with, Tokugawa takes it to the limit and orders that the match be fought not for exhibition with bokken (wooden swords), but real blades. Gennosuke is accompanied by a young woman named Mie, and Irako by an older nadesico by the name Iku. To the shock and horror of the crowd these two men, their bodies wretched and their wills determined, prepare for the match that will end one of their lives.

Seven years before the match destined to claim one of their lives we're re-introduced to Fujiki and Irako, and how they came to know one another for the first time. Fujiki is a respected student of IWAMOTO Kogan's own brand of beat down, Kogan-Ryuu, a martial art that uses both blades and bare hands to cripple and humiliate the opponent, but not kill them - well, most of the time not. Irako, the pretty-boy ladies man and sword swinger of mysterious origins, challenges the school's lead instructor to prove that the legendary Kogan-Ryuu is nothing but an overrated back-woods bag of tricks. When he's taught a lesson in humility, he changes his tune and begs to be taken in by the school so that he might become a better fighter, and in time represent the Kogan-Ryuu school himself.

The master of the school, IWAMOTO Kogan himself, is a senile old man who's mind slips in and out of being a shrieking lunatic and a cold, calculating bastard. Regardless, Fujiki does everything as ordered, loyal to the last. Having decided that his daughter Mie is at last is ripe to bear the Kogan-Ryuu heir. Deciding that either Fujiki or Irako will do the honor of raping his daughter before him, he's left with a tough choice... does he side with Fujiki, his ever loyal and noble student, or does he choose Irako, the womanizing wanderer who's aim is clearly to marry into the Kogan school and rise in power? In the end, he decides that Irako's clearly potent seed is the superior choice. Always the clever negotiator, Irako refuses to touch the lovely Mie until the two of them are wed, and with that even she has fallen in love with the dashing young rogue. All would have been well for Irako and Mie... if only he hadn't already romanced Mie's stepmother, Iku. Kogan is not a man to give up what's his, and he is most certainly not a man one should cross. The discovery of this affair sends the entire Kogan school into chaos, and in time, the master's madness and violence will spread to each and every member of the clan, and all who oppose it.

Shigurui has the unique uphill battle of appealing to non-chambara fans by taking its' sweet time. The very first episode has only brief moments of explicit violence. As the show continues, the entire mood changes, with violence, fierce swordplay, and even surrealism becoming more and more prevalent as madness and dissent spreads through the Kogan-Ryuu school. While early episodes are comparable enough to the restrained, subtle works of such directors as KUROSAWA Akira and "Beat" KITANO Takeshi, the later episodes are balls-to-the-wall crazy, recalling the over the top Pinky Violence works of ISHII Teruo and the out of control sadism one would expect from the most horrific MIIKE Takashi films. Classifying the title is almost impossible, but it is rather easy to draw parables between one other excellent, mature anime series of the last decade.

Without a doubt, the flashback structure, one-armed muscled hero, and gradual shift towards insanity that floors it all in the last act owes a lot to MIURA Kentaro's seminal BERSERK manga, which was also adapted into a TV series which tried to condence a lot of material in a comparatively small number of episodes, and - much like Berserk - this show's final episode is a hell of a spectacle, but it doesn't feel like the story has come to a logical or satisfying conclusion. Though I can't honestly say that's entirely true if we consider that, at face value, Berserk was the story of Guts and how Griffith, the man he admired and would march into Hell for, betrayed him and inadvertently turned him into the Black Swordsman we know in the first episode. While there's a lot in Berserk that isn't properly explored, the story between those two men is as complete as it needs to be. Shigurui's initial episode makes audiences expect that we're going to appreciate the rivalry between Fujiki and Irako, yet the TV series paints a literal conflict between a Dragon and Tiger - the very yin and yang of bushidou imagery - but these opponents are not Fujiki and Irako! In a sense it implies enough that we can draw our own conclusions as to what happened from there, and with the manga still ongoing it's entirely possible that we haven't seen the end of the animated franchise. It is frustrating, however, to think that with what both Fujiki and Irako have been through that we literally may never get to see these two titans cross non-wooden swords.

That said, there's a lot to love about the show, even if it isn't the ending. The characters are all reasonably believable and well enough defined that we grow to feel pity for them when the chips are down - even for Kogan, who even when he's not being a madman is such a reprehensible bastard that I was amazed to see even a single moment of joy from him. Perhaps even more impressive is the Kogan-Ryuu style itself, something that's literally a real-world version of FIST OF THE NORTH STAR's Hokuto Shinken. Unique sword grips to lengthen the reach of the wielder, hand to hand combat that permanently cripples the user in horribly disfiguring and permenantly damaging ways, sword blows specifically designed to cut only small parts - eyes, ears, even lips or a full lower jaw! - from the opponent to send the message to all onlookers what the true extend of the school's style is capable of.

I must point out that there appear to be two different versions of Shigurui kicking around, both a censored and an uncensored version of only the first episode. The likely reason is that there was a "preview" episode on 07/01, followed by the regular airing on 07/19. The title carries the "R-15" rating, which on Japanese satelite is quite literally the equivalent of an American NC-17 most of the time. I've included a comparison of the edited (b/w) footage overlaid on top of the uncensored version so that you can get an idea of what it was like. As the first episode is hardly a gore-fest (compared to later episodes at least!) the fogged intestines aren't the most damaging thing I could think of. I will say that I'm glad the title was uncensored during the regular broadcast though. Alongside GANTZ, I can't think of a title that would be worse off had the sex and violence been neutered to release a very mature and unique title to a younger, less discerning audience.

I haven't said a whole lot about the title, honestly. I haven't even begun to talk about the multitudes of disturbing sexual imagery, and the violence in the screencaps above are literally but a small taste of what to expect from the show proper. Of course, getting your hands on it is an adventure in and of itself. A-E/SAIZEN have done a fine job of translating the difficult period speech into English, though their fine work takes time, and so far only 10 of the 12 episodes have actually been fansubbed. The last 2 episodes may be available without a translation from l33t raws (I can't get the last sub-1% on episode 12 personally), or maybe you guys are better than I am at finding this stuff in Nico Nico Douga or Usenet or whatever it is you kids do to get your animuz on. Heck, it's probably up on YouTube and I just don't realize it. No matter, with any luck A-E/SAIZEN will get around to completing the last 2 episodes one of these days, and then we can sit on those fansubs until something better comes along. With the R1 industry in the painful looking slump that it's in* I don't expect to see what's effectively a title that would bore gorefiends and offend chanbara fans... Shigurui, while a spectacular show, is one that demands an attention span that lasts longer than one episode if you don't just happen to already dig the living crap out of sadistic Pinky Violence material to start with. And uh, with Panik House having specialized in Pinky Violence and then having folded in about a year... well, clearly you can see the market in the US for this kind of material just isn't quite "there".

Whatever the case, there's always R2 DVDs if you're crazy enough to go that route. 6 volumes, nearly $50 each, but you get PCM audio, unsurpassed insane high video bitrates, and some damn fine covers to boot. The show is actually still being released as of today, and fans can choose between buying the singles across 6 DVDs for $300, or buying the "Tiger" and "Dragon" limited edition box sets for... $300. Apart from the episodes being on fewer DVDs and the packages being different, I don't know if there's anything new to be had in the box sets. Considering I'm struggling to afford $20 DVDs I'm certainly in no danger of buying a pair of LE R2 sets with no subtitles, but hey, the more you know.

Simply because of the limited availability of the title it's not the easiest series to recommend, but anyone who genuinely has an appreciation for chambara/jidai geki, animation that's mature without being juvenile, or simply has a hard-on for unbiased extreme violence deserves to watch Shigurui from start to finish. It's a treat the likes of which we're only given once in a blue moon, and while explaining WHY the show is so damned good would only ruin the surprise for you guys, I can say that I think - weak ending aside - it's been the most shockingly satisfying TV series I've seen since at least Elfen Lied, if not something far older than that. Shiguri isn't a show for everyone, but for those with the patience (and stomach) to handle the polarizing first act, there's a wealth of savage beauty just waiting to creep out from under the soothing veneer of sunsets and chirping cicadas to cleave your face in twain and then leave it on a bridge fence post for all the world to gawk at.

*Expect a whole bunch of ADV layoffs in the near future, and we've already seen them drop ADVocates, NewType and The Anime Network within the last couple weeks. Keroro Gunsou might have been a very bad idea (nobody saw that coming from a mile away, right?), s'all I'm saying. And I always figured Bandai Entertainment would be the next of the "big" US studios to fall after Geneon collapsed like a black hole full of moe.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Crosshairs closing in on the Kill + Fan Service

Genocyber's menu design is officially done. I could be pretentious and act like the months it took to finish them made them something special, but hell, it didn't. The big issue is more that... well, there's very little "art" for it kicking around that's worth using. The best shot of Genocyber herself available is either a shitty 480x360 or whatever scan of a Cel CPM was given or taking a screencap from the visibly compressed LD->DVD copy I still have, so I went with the latter and just tried to photoshop the living shit out of pretty much everything. I may change one or two of the OST screencaps, but at this point the only thing to do is navigation.

Education time folks: I hate DVD menus. I mean, the building can be fun, but the button-ing sucks balls in shit. DVD was limited to 1996 technology, which means that while the menu can be either an MPEG-2 video stream or 16-bit BMP image file, the buttons - that is, the subpicture (same technology DVD uses for subtitles) - are a BMP still limited to 4 colors at any one time. What this means is you really have three colors, since one of them is going to be transparent, less you can't see that menu at all. So you need to be clever after that: do you outline the button and work in some anti-aliasing? Or would you rather have 2-colored buttons and no aliasing? Also, these buttons can change color when you actually select them. Or you can make them totally transparent, just to fuck with the audience. Anyway, thing is when you only have 4 colors to work with, you can't do anything horribly pretty or complex. And with only 720x480 to work with in NTSC discs those 4 colors are going to look really edgey when you're finished.

In short, I can't wait for Blu-Ray, if for no other reason that I could make menus technically more sexy than anything DVD is even remotely capable of. They can even go "beep!" and you can view them while the movie still plays. Badass. A shame I'll have to learn Java to make anything usable out of them. >.>

Here's a preview of the chapter and language menus, which I don't think I've pimped prior. If you squint on the chapter menus you'll see a horsie. No, I lie: you'll see the "cross hair" motif I'm using for the buttons. I'll highlight the scene title too (and those may change if I get frustrated enough with 'em), so should they look like utter shit I might just can them entirely. Dunno'. Genocyber has sort of been an epic of great ideas that looked like dookie when I finished with them, but I'm starting to feel like the goddamn things are coming together anyway. I'm probably wrong, but it'd be nice if I was right.

In other news, my DVD Recorder seems to have kicked the bucket, at least where DVD-RW are concerned. Everything I record I to to -RW so that I can cut footage as I like before burning it to a final DVD. (Plus I'd rather have no menus than the goofy things that my Sanyo hardware generates. Yuck.) Being 2 years old and a gift I doubt I have the receipt or warranty information anymore, and even if I do I doubt it'll amount to much, but I'll give a look in the closet later tonight just in case. This has served me well in capturing both VHS and LD in above-average quality for about 24 months now, and while I do hate how slow and clunky the combo unit is I can't say that I'll miss it if I can get a slimmer, more capable and sexy replacement for it. Preferably one that'll play PAL/non-Region 1 DVDs, but I won't hold my breath, particularly not on my budget. Sounds like I could probably buy a >$99 recorder and then patch it via firmware to be code free, which would be pretty awesome, but I never had any luck with the 30 pound monster DVD Recorder/VCR combo unit that recently chucked it's up. Frankly this could all be a sign for me to man-up and start capturing everything as raw NTSC video to an external HDD and then just AVISynth/CCE SP its' gloriously uncompressed ass from there, though having already had a delete-the-download party and still having less than 50 gigs left - a mere 20% of my current hard disk! - the cost of a new HDD would likely be more than the cost of a new DVD-RW machine. Mind I'm still curious to see if all that I've learned would create better results,

Oh hey, random thought: LDs store video as composite NTSC while VHS stores it as component NTSC, despite component masters and connections never having actually been used on analog tape formats. So you're better off connecting a VCR with an S-Video cable than you are an LD player, despite the LD transfer being better than the VHS every time. Weird, huh?

P.S. - Have the following bad ass MAHOU SHOUJO AI/SEXY MAGICAL GIRL image I found at random while finally unRARing the hell out of 3+ gigs worth of fap-magazines I torrented months ago and only read, like, 3 or 4 of. Don't get me wrong, Mahou Shoujo Ai, Jibriel, and Ikusa Otome Valkyrie manga are awesome beyond non-sexual reasoning, and I'm always glad to see something called a "Rape Girls In Glasses Anthology", but the fact that there was an Injuu Seisen ~ Twin Angels book was all I really needed to hear.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

MipSmooth is a wet nosed puppy

Really, there's nothing else as amazingly awesome as MipSmooth except for a chubby, fuzzy puppy that just wants to chew on your toes and whimper at you so it can go outside and make doodie.

I've never had a puppy. Sad, isn't it? But forget that and feast your vision-holes on the following comparison, since I'm doing this while (finally) finishing off the GENOCYBER menus. They're quite a bitch, and I find that multi-tasking helps me ignore how much I hate copypastaing the same template over and over and over again.

First off, forget the last script I was using on Angel Cop. Good as it looked, it was smoothing over a bit too much detail in the long shots, totally smooshing out stuff like windows in skyscrapers. In short, it was giving it that "Velveeta Effect" where the restoration has turned all fine detail into a nasty thick blob of wannabe cheese. It wasn't doing it too badly, lest I never would have bothered using it, but it was doing it just enough to piss me off, and I thought that, just maybe, I can do better.

And then I found MipSmooth.

Here we have the original frame from the R2. Horrible, isn't it? Take a look at all that nasty grain-looking noise on the chief's jacket, and all that nasty crap in the upper left-hand corner. Even the radio and map are just drowning in noise. See, this isn't film grain - not entirely, anyway - this is noise created at the NTSC video level, and is exactly what NR filters were created to destroy. Of course, the detail is hiding in that noise, so if you over-do it you lose precious detail along with the noise. This is what I THOUGHT I wasn't doing last time but, surprise, I was. On a small scale. But you guys know me, a small scale is enough to give me a fucking brain hemorrhage. So, the idea is to minimize all of this grainy nasty shit without making everything so soft that I actually end up losing anything important - say, the text on the map in the background. It may seem trivial, but the point of this restoration is to give Angel Cop more usable resolution. Which quickly becomes a moot point of the transfer is so soft that there's nothing in that resolution to actually be seen.

Now, what we have here is the same frame, same scaling via Lanczos and Telecide based progressive transfer as last time, but this time the noise reduction is being handled by MipSmooth instead of the relative detail-eating monster that is Deen. As you can see, the fine detail in the image - stuff like the text on the map and the pages on the books - is still as clear as it is on the original image. What I really love about this filter though, is the fact that it manages to de-noise without smoothing everything over. Compare the top left corner. While the R2 was crawling in harsh, gritty, nasty looking noise the new filtered version manages to look less gritty without becoming a big nasty blob lacking any detail whatsoever. Also, check out Taki's jacket. It's still noisy, but less so. This is exactly what I wanted and couldn't get with the half-dozen or so filters I played with, and the most amazing part was this was using a preset - AnimeHQ, for those interested - and I found that further tweaking only made things look worse.

MipSmooth is simply the best denoising filter I've been able to find. It does its' magic in a way that's strong enough to combat ugly MPEG-2 compression and horrific chroma noise, but light enough that it doesn't look like somebody smeared Vaseline on the camera lens. In short, it does exactly what noise reduction is supposed to do: combat redundant data without destroying the integrity of the original signal. The only problem I have now is the dot crawl - I've tried both BiFront and DeDot, and I can say I see absolutely no improvement - and once I find a filter that manages to actually... y'know, do something about it I think we'll have the first truly satisfactory Kentai Films DVD-R Restoration. I'm actually curious if the R2's were comb filtered, since while the dot-crawl is readily visible in virtually every shot the rainbows are pretty minimal. While BiFrost has done absolutely zilch for the dot crawl it has reduced the rainbows when I'm zoomed in to about 150%, and considering there's very little to speak of in the first place I guess it's doing exactly what it's supposed to after all.

Just a shame it isn't any better at it...

EDIT: D'oh! Forgot to show what it would look like if I wasn't filtering out the noise in any capacity:

There we go. As you can see, it's a massive improvement despite being a subtle change. I've tried moving the filter up to after the upscale, but I think that blurs out the detail too much. The last goddamn thing I want to do is just blur all the detail out of the image. That's Manga's job, not mine.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Happy Nude Year!

And I hope everybody had an awesome religious holiday of their own choosing while they were at it. You'll notice I've been awfully quiet, mostly because I've been on vacation with my inlaws for the season. I've tried to not be overly anti-social and spend all day on their laptop... but I haven't been very good at it, so I may as well fill you in on all the happy crap I've been up to, and plan to finish in the coming weeks and months.

Not only did I get the Hellraiser 20th Anniversary Edition, Inland Empire Limited Edition, Dark Side of the Moon, I'll be getting the Witchblade anime LE with the box and CD once FEDEX stops being 'tarded, and used some spare change to get both a Guns 'n' Roses best-of for the road trip the wife and I took, not to mention the new Golden Boy DVD. Mmm, pervy comedy on the cheap. I even have enough cash left over to get another disc or two, but what? The Evil Dead Ultimate Edition? The shiny-yet-cheap 4 disc edition of Blade Runner? Rob Zombie's Halloween? I wish I knew, but as I'm currently 90 miles from a Wal*Mart and when I get back home I can avoid sales tax, I don't mind waiting a little bit...

Consider the following Kentai's New Years Resolution.

ANGEL COP: With the extras, subtitles, dub tracks and literally everything but fixing the subtitles on the last episode done, the Kentai Films remaster will basically have different menus and new transfers compared to what a few of you have already seen. The release will be slightly better, and use 2 DVDs instead of 3, which is good for me. The only loss will be the 384kbps Dolby tracks on episodes 5-6, which will have to be re-encoded to 192kbps to fit on the discs with the English dub tracks. The other 4 episodes still sound fine, and using Soundforge I shouldn't get any notable loss in quality. And before anybody starts bitching about tinny underwater MP3 audio quality, if you want real high quality Angel Cop audio there's always the R2 box set with uncompressed PCM stereo. (And no, those wouldn't fit on a bootleg no matter what crazy voodo I tried to pull.)

GENOCYBER: Despite laziness having kicked in before the holidays, most of the work that needed to be done was, and with the Central Park Media DVD-ROM extras being a stand-alone program this means less work for me in the end. Basically I finish the menu navigation, take more screencaps for the OST, figure out where to hide a certain easter egg (yeah, you know the one) and... hells yeah. I'm still considering doing a remastered edition of episodes 2-3 eventually, since even using a cheap stand alone DVD recorder I wind up with better quality than the CPM DVD, but as the interest in Genocyber on DVD is likely half a dozen guys who want to wank to the guts and eyeballs, it's a question of interest versus effort.

Oh wait... I restored all of Angel Cop. I'm doing it wrong.

KURUTTA BUTOAKI: The "mystery" title I brought up a while ago. A pinky violence film (of sorts), SATO Hisayasu's 1989 gay murder porno ranks as perhaps the strangest entry of his career. Yes, even stranger than "Man, Woman, Dog" and "Love + Zero = Infinity", if such a thing is even imaginable. It was released on VHS eons ago under the title 'MUSCLE', and I'll be using this translation for the Kentai DVD, fixing it up where need be. The new release will be based on the Japanese R2, but much like the R2 of EAT THE SCHOOLGIRL (Whoops! Will I be doing that film someday? Well, somebody has to try translating it instead of making it all up like Japan Shock did.), it... looks like crap. Non-anamorphic, dot crawl, ghosting, grainy 16mm source, heavy edge enhancement... it's about as bad as NTSC can get. Still, it's far better quality than a VHS with burned in subtitles and no trailer, and as the film has a certain obsession with a title that Kentai Films did prior, I'll see what I can do about chucking on a "secret" extra that fans of the film should dig. 'Course that means I need to spend another 10 Euros, but that isn't so bad...

I've been pulling my hair out actually getting my copy of the flick, but it's finally mine, so once the authoring on Genocyber is done I'll be timing it all up. (Whoo!) Considering how small and... peniless, the anime market seems to be these days, I might be smarter focusing on fucked up vintage Japanese films anyway.

There's plenty more I'd love to do after the above are finished, but not only do I have something to do for the legit label that keeps me afloat (cripes, it's only been a year... they're early.) to "fix up" as soon as I get home, but clearly nobody's going to give me a proper master to time the subtitles to. As such I'll have another mis-timed disc that I'll be embarassed over, and as usual, it won't be my fault. Awesome.


On the upside, this gives me more time to focus on my illegitimate endeavours. It's dawned on me for the first time that HYPER SHINOBI ANIME: SHADOW has literally never been translated into English. That's right, Porno-Lesbian-Ninja-Scroll 2 doesn't even have fansubs available, and remains a literally untapped gore-fest. Good lord, where have I been?

I'll stop being antisocial for now. But remember, I'll be back, and hopefully better than ever, pumping out English friendly releases of classic anime and cult films left and right!

...not that being more productive than all of 2007 would be particularly difficult to accomplish.

P.S. - Looks like there's going to be a BEOWULF DIRECTOR'S CUT later this year on DVD, Blu-Ray and HD DVD. So, we get CG penis and offal after all? Sweet!