Monday, January 05, 2009

Free DBZ BD... Whee?

I feel it's kinda' sad that the first non-Hollywood Blu-ray I own is the FUNimation promotional release of DRAGON BALL Z: THE DEAD ZONE. To be fair, it came free with the PS3 game Dragon Ball Z: Burst Limit, a generally underwhelming - but very attractive - simple button masher of a fighting game that strips most of the charm from the PS2's rather impressive run of Dragonball Z games away like a wire brush strips paint from a plastic gashapon figure.

I'll assume that anyone reading the Kentai blog at least has a vague notion of what the Dragon Ball franchise is, and if not, I assume you've been living in a cave for the last 25 years or so. If not, welcome to the world of tomorrow! We have a black president and everything, just like in that movie Deep Impact you... uh... also probably haven't seen. The basic jist is that wild haired and bright eyed Son Gokuu, a simple and powerful man who lives in a slightly Warner Brothers inspired version of Japan, uses the strength of his convoluted alien heritage to defend Earth from invading aliens, time traveling cyborgs, and black magic demons who are quite literally mentally retarded. Lots of fireballs, butt jokes and bizarre puns are thrown around to keep things lively, and all things considered the series is actually one of the better never-ending anime/manga titles to have captured America's attention, in no small part due to the simple charm, playful sense of humor, and surprising high drama that creator Akira TORIYAMA infused the whole thing with.

While the pacing of the TV series, sometimes earning it the moniker "Drag-On Ball", was something of an issue, and the subtle homoeroticism of two men starring into each others eyes for minutes before throwing a punch may leave some curious viewers confused, the generally intricate story arcs often come together nicely and do their best to build on what came before it rather than abandon common sense. Well, that was true until Gokuu's son Gohan put on a cape and started fighting petty crime before high school classes, but we can discuss exactly when DBZ jumped the shark another time. The DBZ movies occur in their own little pocket universe that reflects the general timeline of the series as it appeared on TV at the time, without being able in any way to occur in the series itself. It's expected that they come with shoddier writing, but better animation than any random half-dozen episodes, so they're a good way to get a feel for what the series has to offer without dedicating 10 hours into watching a single story arc. The one major advantage of the theatrical outings was that, at an average on 50 minutes each, they didn't even have time to stretch the fights into endless marathons of sweating and grunting occasionally spiced up with a punch to the face, so the theatrical films arguably do a better job of delivering on the lightning fast action that supposedly made the TV series so impressive. Some movies are better than others, but all of them - save, perhaps, movies 4 and 11 - have their redeeming qualities...

For better or worse, Dragon Ball - particularly the 291 episode long "Z" stretch - was written off by and large by "serious" anime fans when it became a mainstream hit on cable TV about 10 years ago in the US, having already enjoyed success in France, Mexico, Hong Kong, Korea, and most other civilized nations in the world (including Hawaii... go figure). As most of those "serious" anime fans had been watching the show on VHS fansubs a year prior to them deciding that it was the Antichrist, and only appropriate for babies who still thought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Rock Em Sock Em Robots were the definition of badass, what we have is actually a simple reaction that happens to virtually every popular shonen anime that makes it big in the Western world, and God help us we'll see it again with Soul Eater within the year.

You see, American teens flock to the animu because it's "different" from American cartoons. Yes, that's right, because people say "damn" and spit out blood the show obviously has to be smarter and edgier than X-Men, or Ben 10, or, whatever processed crap it is the fuck children have left to watch these days. Once American 8 year olds appreciate the show for more or less the same reasons Japanese 8 year olds appreciated the show, the cross-culture punks can no longer justify watching a cartoon and instead turn to "darker" content, regardless of its' relative artistic or narrative quality. Granted nowadays otaku also turn to fetishistic titles like Rozen Maiden whilst simultaneously bitching about how terrible harem comedy anime is, so perhaps the very core of American anime fans is that they're hypocrites.

In brief, Dragon Ball Z isn't by any stretch a bad series, it merely has a few irritating tendencies created by the need to produce an ongoing TV series while the comics it's based on are still being written, and is as obviously Japanese as Rambo 2 or a Big Mac is obviously American. The animation for the period is quite good, the Japanese vocal cast is an all star affair if their ever was one, it boasts the most intelligent and epic storyline you'll get for a series targeted at kids who are still carting around plastic lunch boxes, and if anyone tells you that it's retarded dreck but then counters with saying that Transformers of He-Man or anything that isn't Hokuto no Ken or Freekazoid was "better", please, kick them in the balls for me.

I made a promise ages ago to never buy FUNimation's "HD Remastered" Dragonball Z TV sets, because doing so would effectively be taking a huge dump on what little principles I hold dear when it comes to flatly not buying something:

1) Don't use lesser materials when better masters already exist.

Honestly, this one should just be a no-brainer.

2) Keep the damn film in its' original aspect ratio, whatever that may be.

Of course, I personally reserve the right to tell director's that they're fucking crazy if the matted version was clearly just an after-thought. That means YOU, Sam Raimi and Toyoo ASHIDA.

3) If your masters suck, don't bother trying to fix them if you don't know how.

You'll only fail. Believe you me, I know a thing or two about failing at video restoration.

A couple years ago I learned a lot about how film works, in part because I couldn't fathom how FUNimation had screwed their precious Dragonball Z pooch so hard. The short answer is that FUNi, deciding that it was time to cancel their first ever bi-lingual and unedited release of the first 65 episodes of DBZ and replace them with trumped up "Season" box sets, collecting a seemingly random number of episodes that may or may not tell a complete story. Well, sucks for all the sods who paid $25 for 4 episodes only for the so-called Ultimate Uncut release to die uncerimoniously a third of the way through, but hooray for everyone else, right? Bullshit. This is FUNimation we're talking about. The guys who changed the word "English Dub" to "English Reversioning".

I'm NOT kidding.

Rather than buy the Dragon Box NTSC masters that Toei created for the Japanese release of the series, FUNimation decided to be clever little shits and bought the entire DBZ franchise - 291 TV episodes, 2 TV specials and 13 theatrical films - as 16mm film. Of course Toei didn't give them the interpositive prints they'd used for the Dragon Box, instead they ran off a set of second generation internegative prints. As you lose quality by blowing out contrast, adding a layer of grain and giving the chain of prints ample opportunity for judder and physical print damage, FUNi was already off to a brilliant start.

FUNimation's HD remaster is NOT 10,000 hours in Photoshop.
(Yes, the R2 DVD has all of the outlines and none of this "connect the dots" bullshit.)

FUNimation decided, first and foremost, that digitally erasing scratches, hair and dirt was too difficult (by which I mean expensive). So, instead they left all the blemishes on the HD remaster, despite the fact that Toei had the good sense and decency to erase the scuffs from their own NTSC transfer, and left all the restoration work to Digital Video Noise Reduction, yes that chestnut I love so well that smears everything (like cartoon outlines) into oblivion. The nature of their prints also meant that the contrast levels were fucked, the colors erred onto the blue side, there are torn and mangled frames from time to time... but hell, that's no worse than what you'd see on a 35mm print as your local multiplex. I guess.

I'll say it again: I'm NOT kidding.
(Yes, 16mm film is supposed to be grainy.)

The real kicker-to-the-balls was that FUNimation decided to crop the entire series into Widescreen, despite it having been a TV series that ran from 1989-1996 and had never, even once, been broadcast that way before. The argument arose that TV overscan eats up to 15% of the original 4:3 picture in the first place, so what harm could we have opening up the frame to the sides by 10%, at the expense of the top and bottom 20%, thus reformatting the original 16mm camera negative to the more chic 16:9 "HD" aspect ratio?


The best part is that their marketing calls this "Dragonball Z as it was always intended". Uh-huh. Sort of like how my penis was 'always intended' to be rubbed across a cheese grater. I'll get right on that.

I'm happy to report that, while not even close to perfect, the Blu-ray release of the first Dragon Ball Z movie, 'The Dead Zone', (which in Japan was simply "Dragonball Z: The Movie") manages to survive being cropped into obscurity or smeared straight to HFIL*. The reasons why are two-fold: for one thing, the DBZ movies were supposed to be shown in widescreen, so the focus is generally kept in the center of the screen anyway. Even the Toei LDs and DVDs are matted widescreen, though international and Japanese VHS were always open-matte 4:3, so anyone bitching that the movies are missing precious footage can take that complaint up with the very concept of open-matte existing in the first place. The other is that, unlike the naturally gritty 16mm TV series, the movies were shot on higher quality 35mm film so there was far less incentive for FUNimation to smear Vaseline all over the telecine gate. Unfortunately, the 35mm IP's were still riddled with dirt, hair, tape, and scratches. If only they'd left the grain intact they could have sold it as the DBZ Grindhouse Experience.

*If you don't get it, don't worry. It's not even worth going into if you've never seen the US broadcast version.

Yes, I am exaggerating, but not by enough. The other inherent flaw in FUNi's master is that the contrast is boosted through multiple generations of film prints, which is most visible in faces that literally appear to glow like an orange lightbulb instead of looking like... well... skin. It's uncomfortably similar to the neon faces on the Urban Vision DVD of Vampire Hunter D, though of course that makes even this BD look good. Boosted contrast aside the color timing didn't strike me as awful, though I can't help but think that everything is a bit more red than it ought to be. This could be the fault of the film print itself rather than FUNimation being douche bags, but it's still worth mentioning.

Adding salt to the fresh (though perhaps not as gaping as I'd feared) wound is the fact that the Blu-ray included with the PS3 game is a dub-only promotional copy. The retail version not only includes the second film, THE WORLD'S STRONGEST, but also includes the original Japanese mono audio. Being a self professed Subjew nobody should be surprised that I much prefer Dragon Ball in Japanese, and while the now standard FUNimation English cast has improved dramatically from the once pale charicatures of the former Ocean Studios performances, that doesn't mean that hearing Chris Sabat both murder and rape Piccolo with a lead pipe doesn't still give me dry heaves. English dubbed DBZ is, much like alligator meat or jamming bits of metal through your genitals, an acquired taste. While I could tolerate Ian Corlett, Scott McNiel, and even to a lesser extent Briam Durmond bringing the show to life (despite the butchered scripts targeted at retarded fetuses in which nobody dies, despite the fact that they're running through clouds with fucking halos) the FUNimation staff just... well, there's no way for me to put this nicely. They suck. Even in the typically mediocre world of English dubbed anime for broadcast TV they stick out as being terrible. I hate to pull out the Macek Card, but even the bastard dubs of the Streamline era some 20 years ago were slightly less awful.

With this in mind, you'll forgive me that I only watched bits and pieces of the disc. The moment I heard Sonny Straight come out of Kuririn's mouth I was in the fetal position, choking back tears of rage and resisting any and all urges to throw the PS3 remote right through the fucking screen. This isn't even that snooty pretentious "so bad it's good" bullshit, this is just plain bad. The kind of bad that people should probably get lynched for.

As if just to further my hatred of all things Dragon Ball in English, the "original Japanese music" was there... most of the time. The opening sequence which featured CHA-LA HEAD CHA LA* in all prior incarnations was replaced with some generic pop-rock... thing, and the best part of the film in which Gohan eats a "magical" apple and proceeds to start tripping balls, dancing with fuzzy muppets and dinosaurs while narrowly falling off ledges and cracking his cute little skull wide open, was replaced with a cheap synth version of the same song with no lyrics at all. Considering even the goddamn US TV broadcast included the insert song, there was absolutely no reason to replace it with a generic remix. Amazingly, the end credits song, Deteokoi Tobikiri ZENKAI Power, remains intact and was even subtitled.

*Come on. Even Konata loves Cha-La Head Cha-La!

So... you can sing in Japanese, but only during the credits? Then why the hell was Cha-La Head Cha-La axed?! What glue huffing madman even makes these descisions? It's like FUNi channeled the spirit of Manga Entertainment circa 1994 when they'd just look for things to screw up.

While not "edited" in the traditional sense, the HD Remaster features new English credits on the end credit sequence, and uses a "clean" version of the Opening sequence. Oddly, one shot (where the director credit would go, I think...) seems to have been cribbed from excessively grainy 16mm, while the rest of the OP looks like genuine 35mm. No idea why that would be, but I never said that the FUNi HD Remaster made a lot of sense...

According to FUNimation, these god-awful Dragon Ball Z Season X box sets "Sell Like hotcakes...". FUNimation employees ended this statement by adding "...bitch!", and then sodomizing a dead puppy with a lead pipe.

All things considered, the theatrical films made it out the other end of FUNimation's "remaster" ("Digital Demaster", as a friend of mine loves to call it) looking just barely passable, which is more than I can say for the DVD release of the TV series. There's enough detail to see cell shadows and minor animation flubs that disappear completely on DVD, but the hand painted backgrounds and grain structure have been smeared into oblivion for a more modern and sterile look that only distances the hand-crafted art from the warmth that digital animation struggles so valiantly to recreate.

My viewing setup is, for the next few years I'm sure, a 30" 1080i Hi-Scan Sony HD WEGA CRT, and a PS3 hooked up via HDMI. No surround, as my apartment walls would probably crumble. Yeah, it's not that impressive, but neither is the disc, so I don't see any harm in venting just a little frustration over the whole thing. I can't even imagine how horrifying this transfer would be on a 10 foot screen through some $10,000 1080p projector. Honestly, I can live without knowing.

*Hi-Scan grills are supposed to resolve about 853 lines, or roughly the same as a 1280x720 progressive display. In comparison most CRT NTSC TVs only resolve 33 lines, so even a medium-quality HDTV can resolve 3 times what a high quality SDTV can. Go figure...

While I'm sure that, overall, this disc is better than any prior 4:3 composite DVD release, it's still a major disappointment on pretty much every level. While I wouldn't be ashamed to own any of the FUNi DBZ movie releases at this point, I wouldn't be excited either, and would buy them simply because they're about 1/3 the price of the R2 Alternative. (Suck it, weak dollar to Yen exchange rate.) Still, I'm sure the Toei DVD lacks rampant scratches, and I bet it even has grain. Hilariously, when Toei does their own HD transfer, it probably won't have grain if the Hokuto no Ken TV HD remaster is any indicator. I can't say I recommend it, but it was somewhat nice to see my worst fears not quite realized.

Now, if only Burst Limit sucked a bit less... but, at least unlike this Blu-ray, it's still awfully purty.

The worst part is, fugly cover or no, at least I'd get this on a steelbook if I bought it on DVD. Seriously, everybody listening, stop doing simultaneous BD keepcases and Steelbook DVDs. It's balls. It just makes me want to buy neither out of a comples one-two punch of packaging lust and AV jealousy.

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