Sunday, December 28, 2008

Capture Me If You Can

Ain't she cute? Don't be fooled... she's a whore.

Bought this. Installed it. Started getting really decent video, but the audio was, in a word, creamed shite on toast. Decided to unplug it, check the cables, put it back in and try my luck anew.

I couldn't even get it to synch with the source video after that. Neither could my wife. I literally think it exploded the second time I tried to use it. This is the last time I buy a device called a "jellyfish" by the guys who sold it to me on the recipt.

For one thing, it's dawned on me that wither I hook the audio straight into my on-board sound or not, the on-board sound (which should really be replaced with an isolated sound card for various reasons) is still doing the recording, so odds are my fears of losing synch are just paranoia, and software could fix it without any major hurdles. VirtualVCR is a lovely program, and once I find a hardware dongle that doesn't up and die in the face of a stiff fart, I'm sure it and I will become very, very good friends.

Until then, I'm off to get a return number and then exchange it for a device that doesn't completely suck. The first full-on hardware captured Kentai DVD should have been done a long time ago (story of my life), but I'll make it a point to make sure that it happens sooner rather than later.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Sirabella Didn't Go As Berserk As I Thought

"Direct from 16mm film masters", he says. "Better video than the Japanese DVDs" he adds.

John Sirabella, CEO of Media Blasters and its' general anime subsidiary, Anime Works, was naughty this year getting my hopes up for a Berserk restoration. I'm not sure if I should leave him $50 in his stocking or not.

What you see above is a comparison of the old (left) and new (right) DVD transfers used on the upcoming BERSERK REMASTERED collection. Having prior watched a video comparison of the old and new OP sequences, I saw different frame judder and felt all warm and squishy knowing that a new telecine was being used. Unfortunately I was suffering from a mild bout of temporary retardation, and didn't take into account that the Japanese OP and "clean" creditless OP used to make the English credits would - by default - literally have to be a completely different transfer. A clean OP is created for the animation, and credits are added afterward via optical printing. I know this. Hell, I've known it for years. I was just so pleased by what I saw that I didn't stop to put two and two together.

Take a look at the above image. Aside from being interlaced and a bit softer, with a line or two of information cut off from the top, the two look virtually identical... don't they? The improvement is obvious in terms of clarity and not needing to worry about combing, but for a "new transfer" and "direct from 16mm film", there's virtually no difference. How could that even be?

Creating a new telecine means literally re-scanning the film print to create a new video transfer, and with every telecine setup being different, not to mention every colorist having a different opinion on how the material handed to him should look, it would be almost mathematically impossible to have the EXACT same framing each time. Either you'd get a bit more info or a bit less, be shoved more to the bottom of the frame, or maybe to the side. The fact that the colors on these two are also completely identical proves that no color correction was performed, and once again, that's almost mathematically impossible to do with a brand new telecine. If something looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck you don't say "it's a swan" just to mess with people. That'd be silly. This "new" transfer looks just like the same Digibeta tape masters Media Blasters was given in 2002, so I'm going to assume that's exactly what they are.

I'm reminded of Anchor Bay talking about "vaulted 35mm Italian film masters" for Tenebre and Phenomena being used for their "New 16:9 Remastered" DVD release, when in fact all that they did was IVTC and upscale the LD transfers made a decade ago by the Roan Group. Media Blasters basically did the same thing here, claiming the transfer is "straight from film". What the hell else would it be from, anyway? VHS? Laserdisc? Wax paper? Silly putty? This isn't a new transfer "from film", it's a new DVD transfer from an old Digibeta, and for Sirabella and the guy who worked his ass off restoring it to pretend it's anything better is deceptive as hell. I'm not saying the new release isn't an improvement, nor that I've rules out buying it, I'm just disgusted at the layer of bullshit we have to peel off to get to what's actually in the box set!

To be fair, though, a lot of time and effort went into this release. New subtitles, a proper IVTC for a new progressive encode, and as you can see from the stationary background the new transfer is sharp as a tack compared to the vertically filtered initial release. There's also been a wealth of audio restoration performed to balance levels from episode to episode, as well as fixing pops, hiss and dropouts which plagued the (often mono) initial release. In the audio/video department this may well be superior to the VAP Japanese DVD release, and the fact that it's English friendly and sells for just $50 makes it quite a steal in the long run. In the same way that the upscaled Tenebre DVD is better than the initial non-anamorphic DVD, the re-encoded Berserk DVD collection is better than the original Berserk DVD collection... but wither that means it's "remastered", let alone "directly from 16mm film" is highly debatable.

It's really more like the "BERSERK: We weren't competent enough to present the show in stereo with progressive video and accurate subtitles 6 years ago, so here's the Competently Produced Edition". I guess that just doesn't have the same ring as "BERSERK: Remastered", though. I was sympathetic towards Sirabella when he was handed a PAL VHS copy of LIZARD IN A WOMAN'S SKIN and told to find his own damn uncut 35mm print, but this is just inexcusable. It also makes me cast some doubt on him saying that the Special Edition Ichi the Killer R1 DVD was from a "new print"... but I'll be damned if it's not the best looking DVD release of that film out there.

At least I no longer have any desire to check out that "Kite Remastered" DVD in March, since at best it'll be a comb-filtered disc with a better bitrate. No thanks. The Kite: Special Edition looks just fine. Short of an uncensored Blu-ray showing up from Kitty Media, I think that Sirabella has more than enough of my money for that title.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

'Tis the Season... Year End Update

Patches for R2 Japan versions of NINJA SCROLL (or, if you prefer, Jubei Ninpucho: The Wind Ninja Chronicles) and WICKED CITY have both been posted for some time, and are now available from the usual sources. The former looks slightly better than the R1, the latter is a dramatic upgrade, and both include exclusive special features and their Manga and Streamline dubs, respectively.

Ninja Scroll has no Japanese subtitles, and even has the English track set to the default audio when you pop it in, despite the R2 DVD being intended solely for Japanese audiences. Why would he do that? Because Kawajiri is a reverse-weaboo, my friends, and loves hearing his movies in English as if they were epic Hollywood productions, apparently. I half hope that his Highlander: The Search for Vengeance film being hacked to somewhat incomprehensible ends by authentic Hollywood producer dickheads has finally kicked him of the habit of wanting to 'go Hollywood' so he can get back to appealing to a Japanese audience more than a generic international one, but since the last supposed bit of news involved him either adapting another Kikuchi novel or dusting off the script for Ninja Scroll 2, I guess only time will tell what my boy has up his sleeve next.

I also patched the GHOST IN THE SHELL FINAL EDITION R2 Japan DVD as a celebration, of sorts, to commemorate the release of Ghost in the Shell 2.0 on home video. What I mean by this, of course, is that I patched the R2 as fast as I could so that my thunder wouldn't totally get eaten by the 2.0 release. Hey, I have to keep up my share ratio somehow...

The GITS "Final Edition" actually has both the Manga English dub (in its' original stereo mix) and English subtitles, but... they aren't subtitles. They're dubtitles, so they pop up when nobody's talking and don't have a particularly literal bend to them like the official R1 translation does. If that sort of thing gets on your nerves, you can now be spared without having to listen to Manga's bullshit DTS upmixes or their constantly artifacting interlaced transfer on the Special Edition. Only downside is that I got lazy and didn't subtitle the special features, but as the Production Report was actually dubbed in English for the US release... well, dubtitling that and then editing it back to the Japanese version is just more work than I'm prepared to do for a 30 minute making-of for a film I've only kinda' recently fallen in love with. Maybe next time.

In other supposed news, Kentai Films continues translating bit parts for films not directly released by yours truly. One of them I actually did the VHS restoration for - LADY CHATTERLEY IN TOKYO (you know, the one with the horse junk) - so while the bulk of the translation came from a subtitled Italian VHS, carefully translated back into English, there were a lot of spots that didn't quite gel from one language to the next. So I wound up translating a substantial number of scenes in the hopes that, between me and Italy, the entire film will make sense.

The other new project is one I don't feel I should take any real credit for, but I'll mention it, since it'll be of interest to some of you. Teruo ISHII's original Tokugawa era Pinky Violence picture, TOKUGAWA ONNA KIEZU, was one of (if not the?) first sex film set in the Shogun's Harem. Unfortunately if you fell in love with the man for his zany antics in stuff like Inferno of Torture or Horrors of Malformed Men, you might be disappointed, as this is a strict 'Dorama' that happens to involve boobs and infidelity along with bad bald-cap wigs and gorgeous period sets. If you're into period dry humping, you'll be in for a treat. If not... well, I've got plenty of non-dry hump themed projects coming up in the near future.

The translation on this one isn't totally literal, and not without good reason: much like Lady Chatterley in Tokyo, the translation was taken from the German dubtitles on the recent DVD, translated back into English. Vintage German dubs are all over the place, with some being more or less identical and others being totally re-written to the point where you wonder if the people behind the process even had a script to work from. Tokugawa Onna Kiezu was actually pretty close, but like all dubs it had some rough spots, and my job was to listen to the Japanese track and make a subtitle that made sense. This was trickier than usual, since the German script was already just different enough that I had to first translate the scene, and then word it in a way that made sense with the rest of the Gerglish translation. Hopefully my stuff will sneak in with the rest of it so well that no-one will even know I was there.

And I'm out until Baby Jesus knows when.

Happy Holidays!

Informational Bonus! Despite predating the entirety of Ishii's Joy of Torture/Tokugawa series, German distributor Eyecatcher has decided to release "Der Shogun: Ein Mann fur 1000 Frauen" under the title TOKUGAWA IV. Also, I have absolutely no clue what film "Tokugawa: Das Fraudenhouse von Nagasaki" is, or if there was ever supposed to be a number on the end of that... but I guess I haven't looked very hard, either.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Crunch This: Streaming Anime And DVDs Downfall?

Remember a month or go ago when I said "Something is seriously messed up with the American anime industry right now..."?

A friend of mine pointed out that roughly a dozen shows have aired via YouTube, Bost, Crunchy Roll, Hulu, Joost and (I'm sure) other similar streaming services that have zero plans for a R1 DVD release. This grows even further when we consider all of Toeis' properties currently on sale at Direct2Drive (and now, God help us, Crunchy Roll) . This awkward imbalance at first seems to suggest something that I half-championed myself a year ago; the notion that freely available fansubs don't directly harm the profitability of a title. I maintain this to some degree, but perhaps not to the level I once did.

Japanese studios like Gonzo, Kadokawa, Pierrot, Toei and others literally giving their shows away on Youtube firmly establishes one of two things: either sales literally aren't effected by broadcasting the show for free, or that they know it's going to get bootlegged anyway, and they figure beating them to the punch at least gets them some face time. As most anime airs on free basic Japanese broadcast, allowing Japanese fans the chance to tell if they like a series before they invest heavily in an expensive DVD release, it doesn't seem totally unfair to me for American fans to want the same chance to Yay or Nay their potential favorites. Japan has realized this, and given America its' fair chance: you can watch a mediocre stream of even my beloved Fist of the North Star on the Crunchy Roll for free, or belly up and download the episode in a near-NTSC resolution DivX file for $1.99 an episode, or even just pay a monthly fee and then watch the same quality broadcast for free.

The download-to-own model isn't one I'm totally against... but it has started a worrisome trend. Remember BLASSREITER? Sure you do. It was Ichirou ITANO's first TV show after GANTZ. It was also Ichirou's first failure... or, at least the first episode failed hard enough that I never bothered to watch any more after that. (Yes, I'm going to try again... I owe him that much after Angel Cop.) I can buy the whole show via h.264 downloads, literally paying whatever I want - even 5 cents an episode! - as a "donation" straight to Gonzo. It's actually quite a clever and fascinating way to allow Americans to put their money where their mouth is over wither or not they're just bottom feeding anime leeches, or wither the R1 DVD being "too expensive" and "out too late" is really the issue.

Here's what I can't do: buy the show on subtitled DVD. I can actually steal it that way, but I'd really rather just buy it. Pretty covers, that warm fuzzy feeling of supporting starving animators, reasonably high quality audio/video... honestly, what's not to love?

It's really just an open secret that sales for anime are in the crapper here in North America, despite Japan selling upwards of 20,000 - 40,000 copies per DVD on otaku centric shows, despite their usual retail price of over $15 USD per episode. Some studios have admitted that sales are worse now than they were a decade ago when dubbed VHS selling at $25 for an hour of content were king. Urban Vision, Central Park Media, Illumation, Geneon, and so many other distributors have effectively ceased to bring "new" anime titles to the US market, despite some of them still surviving on paper, leaving us with a relatively narrow number of distributors in the US to expect anime from on DVD:

FUNimation, Viz Communications, Bandai Entertainment/Honneamise (Bandai Visual), Sentai Filmworks (ADV Films), Anime Works/Kitty Media (Media Blasters), Nozomi Entertainment (RightStuf)... occasional, often spotty releases from Dreamworks, Warner Brothers, and Sony Entertainment.

Beyond that, uh... maybe AnimEigo, once in a blue moon? JapanAnime/AnimeWho once or twice a year? That's it, ladies and gentlemen. Game, set, fucking match.

FUNimation and Bandai seemingly have the right idea, releasing multi-episode collections at a visibly lower cost than the traditional "singles" model, with some titles still getting both singles and limited deluxe editions. Viz releases sets seemingly only when they have to, but also focus on multimedia releases that they can cross-promote with basic cable broadcasts and manga licenses they've already pushed onto the market. Media Blasters has taken an alternate route of continuing to release singles, increasingly often without English dubs and a lower sticker price. Nozomi Entertainment has done both, focusing on limited edition sub-only releases catering specifically to the botique crowd. Animeigo... well, they release mostly chanbara and Miike films these days, so don't get your hopes up that they'll bring over Soul Eater or anything.

What troubles me, however, is the fact that with some 9 months of streaming experiments, none of the shows not already announced as having been licensed by a US distributor (say, FUNimation handling Black Blood Brothers) has announced plans for an American home video release. I'm not asking for a solicitation with full specs, just so much as a "we'll release it on DVD eventually" would be just fine. While I figured Blassreiter in particular would be a no-brainer license for FUNimation, the fact that Gonzo is selling AND giving the show away online means that FUNi's chance to release the show for internet broadcast/download, and possibly even TV broadcast rights are severely marginalized, if simply not available at all. US anime licenses typically include home video, TV, and internet these days... I'm not seeing internet as a viable option for the US release of any of these shows, which means that 1/3 of the license is now worthless*. Hell, if I were active in licensing foreign entertainment I wouldn't want to throw money at a deal missing a major broadcast option, either.

*That's not to imply that internet broadcasts account for 1/3 of the profits the R1 studios might make, just that it's one of three ways to distribute the title. There are also merchandising rights, but unless you're dealing with a show like Naruto or Dragonball Z, they're effectively worthless. Americans won't even pay to watch anime, forget paying to own art books or model kits.

The R1 market has been saying that freebies cut into legitimate media sales... to which Japan said "okay then, no more freebies unless WE say so". The trouble is the only people who pay for anime in the first place are the people who are already buying it on DVD. Sure, "donating" via CR or whatever promises that the Japanese studios that created the series will get at least some minuscule cut, and that's all well and good, but what it isn't doing is supporting the AMERICAN industry - something I've been saying since Gonzo announced their plans pushing one year ago. I wanted to be positive, and assume that good online performance would lead to an inevitable home video release, but I'm seeing zero proof of that thus far, and frankly, it has me worried.

Japan has always had a very... well, skewed theory on what Americans want. Particularly the picky beast that is the rare American willing to drop $25 on a few episodes of foreign cartoons...

Toei treated distinctly Japanese titles - like Slam Dunk and Air Master - like an American property at a reasonable price, with English dubbing and (dub)btitles for the Japanese track, but failed to include previews, basic extras, or even useful chapter stops. They failed.

Bandai Visual treated their distinctly niche-oriented titles like a Japanese product, offering subtitled only DVDs at prices closer to what a Japanese audience would pay.
They failed... hard. Yet even now they exist as a subsidiary of Bandai Entertainment International, proving that there is simply no justice in the world.

Urban Vision's (Japanese) founder started co-producing original content that would appeal to both American and Japanese audiences, mostly by riding on the coat-tails of Kawajiri and Kitamura. Guess what? Yeah. Failed.

Kadokawa USA, to their credit, realize they have no fucking clue what OCD American fans want, and thus distribute their titles directly to US licensors who claim to and then split the profits. They're the rare Japanese corporation who asked for help in a crazy marketplace, and considering that it gets us everything from Lucky*Star to MPD Psycho, I'd call it a positive for both parties.

Not all hope is lost, of course. For one thing, FUNimation has the broadcast rights to SHIKABANE HIME, so at the very least Gainax is still willing to let international parties sell its' shows. Some studios, like Madhouse, simply don't bother streaming anything, and theoretically are in the same boat. Despite NARUTO SHIPPUDEN airing sub-only on CR as a simultaneous US release, they're apparently still dubbing the series, and there's no way Viz would bother if cable broadcast and DVD releases weren't going to happen in the future.

Finally - and this is the one that strikes me as fascinating - FUTARI WA PRETTYCURE, the bipolar fusion of Cardcaptor Sakura and Dragonball Z, is going to air dubbed in English on YTV in Canada next year while Toei continues to peddle VHS quality Nippon Golden Networks versions via D2D. Some shows have an almost guaranteed English dubbed broadcast, and short of 4Kids being involved that usually means a DVD release will happen eventually. Toei bombed last time, though, so wither they'll simply try again (and fail) or will take a drastically different approach - one that people like myself may not like - has yet to be seen.

Particularly for shows that only appeal to a tiny segment of fans in America to begin with - like Hokuto no Ken, Galaxy Express 999 TV, Shugo Chara, and Steel Angel Kurumi Zero - I can't fault Japanese distributors for only offering an inexpensive download/stream option. Mass producing a few thousand DVDs likely is not worth their initial investment, and will just lead to hundreds (or even thousands) of unsold copies that need to be liquidated later. I don't like the thought of truly "niche" anime releases never getting released on DVD, but I've heard enough doom and gloom talk from the people who actually sell it to understand that legit online distribution for these titles is still better than no distribution at all. I sure as hell wouldn't pay $2 an episode for Galaxy Express, but for Hokuto no Ken it's a steal (wink), and I'm sure someone else out there is just as crazy as I am but argues that these two titles are swapped. For both of us, there's a more or less satisfactory option, and we should all be at least somewhat satisfied for it.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a line drawn in the sand, where even shows that are clearly marketable in the US - Digimon 02, Blassreiter, and Duraga: Ages of Uruk, to name the most blatant examples - that are in the same "download or nothing" boat. That just can't be right. Some of the titles on display, particularly Strike Witches, seem borderline on wither or not a DVD release would be profitable... but all I can say is that, amusing fetish show or not, if Gonzo wants my money they'd better get a reasonably priced subtitled DVD out there. Paying for a DivX file is bad enough. Paying for the edited TV broadcast is even worse. Paying for both with no guarantee of a better release later on? That's just inexcusable.

Ghost in the Shit *BIG Screencaps!*

Haha, first ever Kentai Blog Blu-ray comparison! GHOST IN THE SHELL. Hold on to your butts...

Original "1.0" High Definition Blu-ray release from Bandai Visual, mastered from the 35mm 'negative' printed in 1995.

New High Definition Blu-ray release from Bandai Visual of the "2.0" restoration, released this week.

Okay. I've been fascinated by the potential for Ghost in the Shell 2.0 since the way the original feature film was created was totally unique: rather than photographing the animation cels on top of backgrounds using a traditional film camera, Mamoru OSHII had his animation staff scan each painted cel and background and composited them digitally using the AVID system. Once all the elements were in the digital realm, they were printed to 35mm film, along with all of the digital effects. This level of electronic control freed Oshii to do some things that were physically impossible with a traditional animation stand and camera, like forced perspective, depth of field and pan shots that were relatively simple in live action cinema, but literally a pipe dream for typical 2D animation. Ghost in the Shell was a triumph of visual and technical ingenuity when it was released, presenting what was effectively the best use of traditional cel based animation using only digital effects to bring a level of finesse that traditional means were incapable of providing.

Fast forward a decade. Oshii makes his sequel, INNOCENCE. A drastically different looking film, he decides - for whatever reason - to restore the original so that it fits with his more contemporary follow-up. Certainly there's a bit of a Lucasian shudder that went up my spine at the thought, but at least Oshii has made no effort to hide the original film for those who prefer it, and in fact the Limited Edition BD includes both cuts, which makes me wish I had about $140 to spare almost solely out of principle.

The problem is that, as you can see by the above comparison, much of GITS 2.0 hasn't been extensively "restored" so much as it has just been... smeared. Because of the relatively stone aged digital-to-analog nature of the beast, Ghost in the Shell has always had a thick layer of film grain, print damage and gate judder: complaining that GITS had these artifacts is like complaining that Casablanca doesn't have color. The selling point on this project - at least in my mind - was that Oshii and company had the chance to go back to these individual elements and completely re-animate the film from scratch, creating a more modern version of a traditionally animated film, not so much unlike NEON GENESIS EVANGELION 1.0: YOU ARE [NOT] ALONE. Unfortunately the more I read and see about this disc on the interweb, the more it sounds like all that was done for the overwhelming majority of footage was a simple blur filter was put over the "original" 35mm footage to hide the grain. Compare the details in the background of the shot, such as the cable grids and monitor screens, and you'll find that the 1.0 transfer actually has more detail than the 'remastered' version, which just smears everything away along with the grain. This likely is less a re-composite, and more a lazy way out of doing the extensive level of work that would require by simply using digital tools to restore the always 'iffy analog materials we've all come to know as being GITS.

It's not all bad, I admit: while too dark for my tastes in general, the color timing of the new 2.0 transfer gives it a totally new look, replacing the ugly Matrix inspiring green and yellow of the original for a combination of cooler blue and warmer orange. The lack of analog film grain also gives it a (perhaps ironic) level of "digital" coldness always lacking in the original, which considering the film's inherent focus on what makes "living" any different from "existing" may help the film feel closer to home on a purely subtle, psychological level. Still, for every potential positive side effect of this 21st century tinkering I can find, I then see a shot like this:

...and wonder what dog ballsac Oshii was sniffing. While I'll admit that CG offers a director a lot more flexibility in terms of camerawork, the opening sequence to the 1.0 version is so iconic and meticulously beautiful that I can't even wrap my brain around what the point of changing it was. Had it just been the shots of Mokoto jumping, that'd be fine, but the shots before it? Why? To match the fact that Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex had a full CG opening? Nothing else even makes sense! CG may well have enhanced the overall experience in Evangelion, but I'm not at all convinced that it's done Ghost in the Shell any favors. Granted, I haven't seen 2.0 yet beyond several screencaps and a brief trailer, so I know I'm jumping the gun, so I'll have to report back later on wither there are any genuine improvements. I wasn't sold in Eva 1.0, but I'll be damned if that wasn't The Best Eva Ever.

I do have to be fair to everyone's favorite emo furfag and point out that Oshii didn't come forward like Georgie Boy talking about how compromised his vision was. Just like Ryuhei KITAMURA's VERSUS 2.0, or the so-called "Director's Cut of Ridley Scott's ALIEN, this is pure marketing hooplah meant to drum up more interest in the man before his first animated non-GITS film in over a decade, SKY CRAWLERS, hits Japanese theaters. Once more, the fact that there's been zero attempt to hide the original version removes this from total reinvisionism and juts puts it on the same level of double-dipping stupidity as most Special Edition DVDs released just in time for the sequel/remake. At least this time the extra is a complete new version of the same film. I'll take that as a special feature any day over a new commentary any day.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A-Kite, A-Cut, A-Remaster...

I swear, sometimes Media Blasters does these things just fuck with me...

In March, a "2009 remaster" of UMETSU Yasuomi's masterpiece A-KITE will be released on DVD by Anime Works with a reasonable retail price of $20. Considering the impressive work that's been done with BERSERK, my fears aren't that the restoration itself will be fucked up... rather, the problem is that A-Kite is a film with several different editions floating around, and while I can't fault people who prefer the version that I don't, the differences are so drastic that I'd rather not support the version that's actually being announced.

For those who don't know UMETSU, he's a demigod of hot pointy women, exploding bullets, and over the top picaresque action. Aside from providing the character designs for Megazone 23 Part 2, the storyboard for Yellow Star, the ED sequence of Girls' High and key animation for the first episode of Angel Cop, he's probably best known for having directed A-KITE and MEZZO FORTE. Initially a concept of a gritty girl-with-guns action title coursing with violence and sex appeal, his plan to turn the show into a TV series back in the mid 1990s was met with resistance. Producers, believing in the core concept, suggested that he rewrite the title to include graphic sex and sell it to the 18+ Ero Anime crowd, where he would be allowed both the budget and the creative freedom to pull off his Luc Besson/John Woo inspired set pieces. Eventually Umetsu did just that, releasing A-Kite as a two episode OVA in 1998. Mezzo Forte, despite its' lighter tone and higher budget, are the satirical extension of the groundwork laid down in A-Kite. The Opera to Umetsu's Phenomena, if you will.

Things get complicated from there. The series was licensed by the then fledgling Media Blasters in the United States, who loved the gruesome violence and gritty urban drama, but were worried that a pair of blatant pedophilia sequences detailing the heroine Sawa's unpleasant and personality defining past would kill them in no time with lawsuits that would be impossible (or at least expensive) to defend. Rather than take the risk, John Sirabella and co. removed all traces of graphic sex from the short series, keeping only a few moments of brief nudity and implications of post-coitus pillow talk. They also edited the two episodes into a single movie, which leads to a jarring sequence that was one of the things fixed in the "Director's Edit"... but, more on that later. This shortened, sex-free version I'll call "Kite" for now.

When fans requested an uncut version be made available, the former MB customer affairs representative actually said that 'only pedophiles would want this title uncut', and was shortly thereafter fired for calling potential customers (many of whom didn't even KNOW what the uncut version was like!) a bunch of morally corrupt creepazoids. I mean, we are, but that's not the point: if you license pedo anime, you don't call us freaks for it. Common sense, right? John Sirabella has since taken over any and all representation to the fans for the company, and it's generally a positive change... even if it occasionally makes him a solid target for those displeased with his work to throw stones at.

"My word! This, Umetsu character put child pornography into a non-pornographic title just to get funding?! Ew... Well, we're better off not having the uncut version then, right? It's all just vile and sick masturbatory material made to satisfy the producers and lowlife sickos, correct?" - I hear some of you thinking.

Unfortunately for anyone morally offended by fictional characters having fictional sex as represented by lines on paper, A-Kite is a complex beast in which the hardcore scenes not only flesh out the gritty pulp noir Tokyo that the characters inhabit, but the way in which they react to forced sexual encounters, and even one another during them, further establish the characters themselves. For one thing, the Svengali-esque Akai has Sawa kill pedophiles for him, but in the uncut version we see the hypocrisy of this since Akai is clearly a child predator himself. Similarly a specific scene shortly after Sawa's boyfriend Oburi gets dragged off by Kanie loses all meaning in the Kite cut, and it actually makes Sawa look like a total heartless bitch!

A-Kite is a story told primarily through actions rather than words, so the edits made to the title were quite detrimental to the already subtle character development. "Kite" is a thrilling action spectacle, but compared to the uncut version, A-Kite, it feels quite empty and fragmented. Even if you can't tell footage is missing, the motives for Sawa's actions remain unclear, and as the heart and soul of the story is the tale of this young assassin's struggle to sever her ties with her cruel and heartless caretaker, then a large part of what makes A-Kite so powerful is simply missing from the heavily edited initial US version.

Note that I said "heavily edited"?

After years of complaints, Media Blasters - through their newer adult anime line, Kitty Media - released the "Kite: Director's Cut", which ran 50 minutes versus the Anime Works' mere 45. While this restored all 6 sex scenes, several fleeting moments of Sawa being molested as a girl were still cut. The implications of her abuse are enough, I suppose, but watching her confused expressions and seeing her cling to him as a source of strength after an already horrifically traumatizing period in her life give life to her conflicted nature of both hating him, and looking up to him as a protector, father, and yes, lover.

Seemingly to further establish that Japanese otaku want to be American as much as American otaku want to be Japanese, the series was re-released in Japan sans-porn and with the MB English dub under the title "A-Kite International Version: Director's Edit". Ironically, several shots of child molestation cut from even the US "Director's Cut" are present on the Japanese R-15 rated Director's Edit DVD, further establishing how fascinatingly different our two cultures' attitudes toward sexuality (and especially pedophilia) are. $5 says that if English dub audio had existed the 'Director's Edit' would have kept some of the sex scenes, too, but it didn't, so this is all a frustrated theory of mine and nothing more.

So... confession time. The very first 'official' Kentai Films DVD was none other than my own A-KITE: UNCUT AND UNCENSORED. It was a terrible, terrible PAL-NTSC conversion from the unedited German DVD released by OVA Films with terrible menus and barely readable subtitles and a woefully incomplete Umetsu filmography as the best extra I could come up with. At the time, I didn't know shit about fuck, but somehow I slapped a working DVD together and made a small fortune on eBay for about two or three months. Then, out of the blue, Media Blasters announces that it's going to release an official DVD of Kite: Uncut. Being the noble sort of chap that I am, I quietly retired the title and went about my business of stealing other titles not yet available in Freedomland uncut.

Sure enough, the "Uncut" R1 DVD was exactly as promised, with every second of dirty footage intact, and the unexpected surprise of featuring a brand new Umetsu interview. It was all I'd ever wanted to see, and while I can't prove anything, I do find it suspicious as all hell that the moment my own bootleg starts getting bid up to $50 and over, Media Blasters' decides that it's time to risk going to jail for peddling animated kinderporno, an act they've yet to risk since, going as far as to remove entire scenes from LEGEND OF THE PERVERT. Heck, even the Kite/Mezzo Forte "Uncut" 2-pack includes the less graphic 'Director's Cut', and it was such a last minute change that Media Blasters had to put a sticker on the DVD cover insert! My theory on this remains that it was less a matter of fear from being tried for obscenity, and more the realization that with the Uncut and Director's Cut versions both costing $30, no-one in their right mind would buy the DC anymore, so if you toss it in with its' stylish and similarly awesome follow-up for a cheap overall price maybe the buying public won't care that they're missing 30 seconds of child-fucking.

TL/DR version:

"Kite" - 45 minutes (no porn, no pedophilia)
"A-Kite: International Version" - 47 minutes (no porn, some pedophilia)
"Kite: Director's Cut" - 50 minutes (porn, no pedophilia)
"A-Kite: Uncut" 51 minutes (porn, graphic pedophilia)

With this history lesson under your belt, take note: The "2009 Remaster" of A-Kite is the 45 minute sex free Anime Works "Kite" version. It's entirely possible that they've already remastered the Uncut 51 minute version as well, but if so they're sure taking their sweet time about announcing it. I love A-Kite, I've considered buying the alternate 'International Version: Director's Edit' for the OCD collector in me that wants to own every possible edit of every film he loves, and if the remastered version is indeed a major step-up from the 10 year old transfer I'm familiar with, I shall be tempted. But if Sirabella and MB want my money, they'd better release an uncut Remaster while they're at it. If they were smart (and odds are, they were) they did restore the uncut version and simply re-edited it, but I'm afraid that only time will tell on this one.

While I won't say that the heavily edited version of A-Kite is without fans or potential enjoyment, the uncut version of A-Kite is truly something special, a gritty and over the top fusion of La Femme Nikita and Thriller: They Call Her One Eye that simply hasn't been matched in animation since. It's a sad, elegant, grotesque and brilliant experience that has all the raw moral outrage of Violence Jack: Evil Town with a sense of jazz noodling and smoking streets style that, I'm sorry to say, Itano could never outclass in his prime. Yes, Umetsu's been slipping as of late, between Mezzo TV blowing its' budget completely by episode 3, and Kite Liberator being one long winded joke that wasn't actually funny, but there's nothing - NOTHING! - that will ever detract from the delirious levels of pulp perfection that ooze from the bullet holes left in the wake of both A-Kite and Mezzo Forte.

Now come on, Columbia. Make with the Urotsukidoji HD Remaster. I know you want to...

Fry the School Girl

Now available for the wicked masses.

The R2 DVD was no looker, so I'm afraid this is 4:3/interlaced all the way, but the subtitles are 16:9 zoom friendly, and at least you don't have to worry about the usual NTSC-PAL crap like we all had to on the old Japan Shock DVD. Included is an interview with Naoyuki TOMOMATSU and Suehiro MAURO, who designed the cover art, as well as a short film Tomomatsu made years ago that appears to be shot on 8mm, edited on VHS. Neither are subtitled - I HATE interviews, and a TV episode length surrealist movie with distorted audio was never part of the deal - but both are worth a look for fans.

Give it a look. I'd never make the mistake of calling myself "fluent" in Japanese - one could argue that my English could probably use some good polishing, even. But I can promise you that this translation is a hundred times plus better than what Japan Shock threw on their Dutch DVD.

And back to the subtitle mines I go. Lady Chatterley needs some lines checked, as does a period Pinku from my favorite Pinku director, Teruo ISHII, so I should really get to that. I've also patched my ass off, and with any luck I'll get one more long overdue project finished before Christmas and then ring in the new year with one of my all time favorites.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Profondo Rosso Ultima Presentazione...?

Well... it's still a fuck of a lot better than the old R1 corpse cover.

Another World Entertainment (AWE) caught my eye ages ago by releasing films I've usually already seen, but don't particularly want to pay for (again, in some cases) in spectacular and oft-definitive special edition presentations. Their discs also sell for under $25 on average, which for a Euro import is nearly criminal. Despite being a Norwegian based distributor, their focus on Italian cult cinema - most of which was made with an "International" market in mind - would inevitably mean that plenty of their releases would be English friendly by their very nature. While AWE has yet to create their own original telecine, they're not above splicing multiple masters together to create the best presentation they can, and their attention to small details mean that their presentations are essentially made specifically to please anal-retentive fans who just want to have one edition of any given title sitting on their shelf.

They're just like me! Well, except they make money at it...

It seems they've done it again... almost. As most of you may know by now, Profondo Rosso is plagued with all sorts of frustrating nonsense when it comes to watching the complete, unedited version of the film. The whole story can be read here, but the short of it is that Anchor Bay created their own standard-definition remaster a decade ago, and the Italians who own the picture have so far been too cheap to make their own transfer, so every single DVD release of the film worth mentioning have been based on the Anchor Bay NTSC tape. It isn't an awful disc, but it is primitive, and a new HD restoration is simply too expensive for any of the current rights holder to undertake. Besides, Italy decided to do their own HD remaster of SUSPIRIA and that didn't go so well... anyway, rather than make a brand new transfer, the Italian DVD includes the original Italian credits on the US transfer (an NTSC-PAL conversion), and used a video processing based restoration, which combines DVNR with color correction to fix the ancient master up as best they can.

Yes, DVNR can lead to smearing and other nasty problems, but the English credits freeze over the original ending sequence and the video on the Anchor Bay DVD was never top notch, and the transfer is from a grainer Interpositive rather than from the Original Camera Negative, so at this point we're really just trading one set of problems for another. The US transfer also supposedly has more Edge Enhancement, but since the Italian version is converted from the US transfer I don't see how that can be entirely true. The Italian audio has also been overhauled and even given a 5.1 mix, and thankfully the subtitles for the many Italian-only sequences in the film have been retained. Frustratingly the "full" English subtitles for the film are not included, but as just as many performances were dubbed on the Italian track as they were on the English track it's a compromise I think I can live with, and fix myself later if I can't.

To differentiate themselves from every other release out there, extras include the shorter Export version of the film, presented in English and in full scope for the very first time on video. There's also a commentary for the full length cut, from an Argento buff by the name of Thomas Rustock, which is in English. He actually put the DVD together, and if anything this could be a winner for it. Aside from the usual trailers and stills, there's also the British TV documentary Eye for Horror focusing on Il Maestro's career, which is included on a few other Dario DVDs around the world, but I don't own it yet, so bring it!

EDIT: Damn... turns out I misread the info. While the shorter "Deep Red" cut is dubbed in English for the entire feature, the 'Version Integrale', "Profondo Rosso", has about 28 minutes of Italian dialog sequences with no English subtitles at all.

Owning the Blue Undergroudn release won't be the worst thing on the planet, and the AWE release will still have several special features that likely won't appear on any restored HD transfer, so the Norwegian DVD isn't a total coaster despite not being overly English friendly. Also, Medusa's claim to have used the MTI Digital Restoration process seems to be either completely fictitious, or merely applied to the newly transfered Italian credits, as other than being an NTSC-PAL transfer it otherwise looks 100% identical to the US transfer.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Eat the School Girl with Creamy Sauce

Back in, oh, I guess late 2004 I was told by my legitimate employer that he was thinking of releasing a nasty little Japanese film called KO-GAL GUI: OOSAKA TELE-CLU HEN. The issue holding the decision at bay was that he was already pushing against every boundary there was in the market place with his current catalog, and being that he was co-producing some original stuff that pushed even harder, he was worried that his studio could wind up being the target of a bullshit obscenity trial. (He's right, it only takes one twat with an agenda to fuck it up for everybody.) Japan Shock had just announced that they would be releasing the title with English subtitles, and deciding to offer the license to a friend of his he balked at the thought to so much as tell his Japanese associates their miniscule offer. In the end, like so many titles my well meaning boss courted, it just wasn't worth the money or headache it would cause... but at least we'd always have Japan Shock.

Well, lucky for me Japan Shock didn't so much translate the film as they did have some dude get shitfaced, watch it through once and then literally make subtitles up out of thin air as he went.

The JS translation was so incomprehensible and nonsensical that even the simplest of Japanese - "Okaasan!" - winds up being 'I did it!' or some bullshit that renders the scene meaningless. To properly show you how terrible this translation is, allow me to directly compare a short piece of dialog:

Japan Shock:

- Listen honey, you shouldn't call so much. It is just too expensive for you.

- None of your bloody business.

Kentai Films:

- I imagine this other girl. She's pretty. And she kills people.

- Did you say 'kill'?

While I acknowledge my own weaknesses as a translator, at least I'm competent enough to sit down with a pair of headphones, a Japanese<->English dictionary, and can come back telling you what almost any given scene is about. Especially when you factor in the incomprehensible evil that is Osaka dialect, that's not a feat that was honed without years of practice translating children's fighting comics and depraved pornography, with a liberal spattering of various cult movies in between. What Japan Shock provided was not a translation, it was an abomination... and not even a particularly amusing one like FUNimation's Shinchan, or even What's Up, Tigerlilly? It's just the worst kind of awful, stupid shit, and proves that Japan Shock was too cheap to hire a translator who understood a word of Japanese. At least the guy who made the script up was smart enough to spend all the money on booze before he started getting creative... I guess.

Anyway, since I love Japanese exploitation... and, a friend of mine would hire a stranger to do it anyway, expect to see a fully translated (for the first time ever!) version of EAT THE SCHOOL GIRL: OSAKA TELEPHONE CLUB STORY in the very near future. I'm really just fine-tuning a couple aspects at this point, ensuring that the final DVD will meet not only my expectations, but will wipe the floor with Japan Shock's release in every possible way. It just seems the least I can do.

I'll give a thumbs-up when the DVD is patched and ready for the masses. Or at least the 20 people who'll be interested.

Chatteleying About

1920s' English erotic scribbles + Nikkatsu Roman series = Lady Chatterley in Tokyo? You bet your bippy, baby. Seems like every week or so I've got another Pink Eiga for the world to be patched, and this is no exception: quickly, to ADC before all the other seeders give up!

Unlike Sukeban Mafia, this tape was watchable enough that a full 16:9 remaster was possible, aside from the usual degraining and color correction. As you can see, the blacks are VERY black, which is a bit frustrating, but that's either the print Nikkatsu used or the way it was originally shot so making it any brighter would have just kept more noise. Believe me, there's a certain point where "more noise" really equates to "more artifacts" on DVD, and with this one running a full 90 minutes I couldn't just kick the bitrate up to 8mbps like I usually seem to get away with on 60-70 minute Japanese softporn.

As with most Nikkatsu tapes from the 90s sell-through market, the tape is windowboxed to about 2.0:1 during the credits, and opens up slightly to 1.9:1 for the rest of the feature. By "open up" I mean "is cropped more" than any anamorphic scope print would be, but as a 70mm print would be letterboxed to 2.1:1, wither or not the extra 0.2:1 is a big hairy deal is a personal call. Then again, Roman Porno would never have gotten 70mm prints because they were always shot in a week for about 30 cents, always in mono and sometimes even on 16mm, and so blowing it up to 70mm would serve absolutely zero purpose. As always, until Nikkatsu un-vaults some 35mm print and does a new transfer, this is still as good as it gets, so just relax and enjoy. 'Specially with that upcoming subtitle patch.

Also, horsecock. Mmm-hmmm. You know you want it now.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Yamato Video Is A No Go

Got word today that the new release of KEN IL GUERRIERO - IL FILM from Yamoto Video is the same more-censored version available in France, Korea, Japan and (formerly) the United Sates and Germany. He also says the quality is awful, so likely it's the same ancient LD era master released in Korea, but with the added bonus of being converted into PAL... basically, it's the old French DVD but with an Italian dub instead. Disappointing.

Not to worry, though. With the help of the webmaster - nice guy I might add - I've ordered the Dynamic VHS for the low price of 11 Euros, plus God knows how much to ship it to the United States of Economic Stupidity (still waiting to hear on that front... damn you, eBay!). I won't be able to watch it without any PAL equipment, but at least I'll be able to send it off to Video Screams so they can make a PAL DVD-R out of it, or, something. Meh, details. I'll soon have partially uncensored Hokuto no Ken in the best quality available, and in the end, that's all that REALLY matters.

In happier news, censored or not the Toei HD Remaster DVD is definitely the one to own. Other than the 5 minutes of censored footage and a niggle I'll get to in a second, the HD restoration is delicious, and since I love y'all I took some caps to prove it:

The new transfer does have a touch of EE, but it's not as bad as 95% of the DVDs on the planet that do, and the bitrate of 6.39 Mbps is adequate (if not impressive). It pushes the R1 and R3 options off the swing and makes them eat dirt, and the PAL versions are all out by default, save for that new French DVD, which is more likely than not a PAL conversion from the same Toei restoration. The only flaw compared to the R1 transfer is slightly overblown contrast, which only really affects scenes that are blown out anyway... here's an example, R1 on top, R2 middle, R3 bottom:

Having color corrected a few things now I know how tempting it is to just crank up the contrast so stuff you think should be white is white, but this is exactly why you should NOT crank up the contrast without finding the brightest scene in the film and then correcting it so that it reaches 235 white. Blowouts aren't frequent in the film, but as you can see, they aren't pretty either.

For extras, the "Original" theatrical ending is included with both Japanese and English audio options (but no subtitles in any language), the uncensored theatrical trailer we all know and love in 4:3, a 5 minute "Promo" film that's basically an extra long and music free trailer, and most surprising was a teaser trailer that probably served as a TV spot, featuring totally original animation using theatrical framerates and TV character designs. It also has this... thing.

Looks like Ashida lost track of a Vampire Hunter D villain... seriously, WTF IS THAT?!

The lack of uncensored footage is frustrating, and the transfer is a notch or two below perfection, but overall it's without a doubt the most complete, and best quality version of Hokuto no Ken Gekijou-ban that there's ever been, and likely the HD master when ported to Blu-ray will be the best version of the film there will ever be. It's entirely possible that Toei will see the error of their ways and then do a new transfer... but it's also possible that Manga Entertainment will offer a heartfelt apology for every retarded thing they ever did to anime, and Andy Farin will commit seppuku at the New York Anime Fest to atone for Devilman's ham-fisted English dub. This doesn't mean I expect either to happen.

P.S. - Turns out $31.99 is the total cost to send that Italian tape my way. Still cost me less than the limited edition R2 DVD, so I'm not going to complain.

Speaking of which, the "Multi Ending" feature (ie: the original theatrical ending), English dub, and booklet are all considered first press bonuses on the Hokuto no Ken HD remaster DVD, so if you want any of those, hop to it!

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Hokuto no Ken: The Magic Touch Edition

How I've always seen the scene of Shin scarring up Kenshirou: Shin's got the touch... he's got the powe~r...

How THIS YOUTUBE CLIP plays the scene: uncensored. It includes the full, bloody color version of Kenshirou getting his legendary seven scars. Enjoy that.

My first impression was "a thousand hours in photoshop", but as the entire shot has more info on all sides compared to the R1 transfer - which looks almost identical to the R2/R3 transfer in this shot - I don't think that's the case. Also, the clip has an obvious analog dropout when Shin yanks out his fingers (probably from the owner pausing on the shot several times).

A buddy of mine sent me screencaps from a really awful looking Italian VHS release. At first I shrugged it off as an impressive color correction... but seeing this in action, I'm now convinced that the Italian VHS tape was the real deal. Sadly, it's still blurred when Rei cuts thugs up, and likely represents only a semi-uncensored print of the film as a whole... still, it's closer than the goddamn Japan HD remaster, so I'm not willing to write it off yet.

Methinks I need to get my hands on a PAL VCR...

For further proof that some - but, clearly not all - of the footage in the Italian version remains uncensored and unseen, here's the screencaps I was sent a few months back:

Just when I THINK I have this one figured out, I find a new piece to the puzzle that shoves the truth back into a little lock-box hiding in a Toei Animation vault! At least we've confirmed that uncensored footage of the color-timed gore (Shin vs Ken, and Ken vs Z's thugs) exists, but we've yet to find proof of anything regarding the blurred gore, or the clumsily-cut scene of Galf killing a putz who can't cheer "KEN-OU!!" with everyone else. Frustratingly all of the "DVD Sourced" versions of the Italian version floating around are really just the Italian VHS audio married to the French Ken le Survivant - Le Film transfer, which is literally a PAL version of the Korean transfer. There so far is no legitimate Italian DVD of Ken il Guerriero - Il Film, or even a VHS sourced bootleg I could steal uncensored footage from, and that's just a damned shame.

...or, at least that's how it used to be. According to THIS French fansite, the "Édition Collector" DVD release of Ken le Survivant Le Film, released last April, contains a brand new transfer - and he's even got A/B images in a slideshow to prove it! Sadly, these screencaps suggest that the "new" Ken le Survivant transfer is has been scrubbed of all grain, and seemingly has some awful combing artifacts, so odds are it's far from a perfect presentation. The question remains, however... is it uncensored? My got says absolument non, but if Germany can release the first FILM sourced print of Vampire Hunter D in 20 years anything is possible...

Whatever this all means, I just know that it's not going to be cheap to find out.

P.S. - Turns out there is an Italian DVD of Ken il Guerriero, and it's getting released... ha, tomorrow! Check it! So, the question now: is this version the same as the partially uncensored Dynamic VHS, or is it some "Remastered" version that'll use the censored Japanese restoration? I guess only time will tell.