Friday, February 19, 2010

The Skull Man: A Half-Assed DVD Quality Review

Kamen Rider, I Am Your Father!
Sentai Filmworks was one of the remnant companies to emerge from ADV Films' firey 2008 apocalypse, a studio that ADV regulars once claimed were a "Japanese partner company". Anyone who's been paying attention has likely realized that Sentai Filmworks, Happy Carrot, Switchblade Pictures and AEsir Holdings are effectively all just puppet labels for Section 23, a situation which oft-dickish Anime Corner Store head honcho Rob summed up pretty well... the short of it is ADV played a complex shell game to hide its' assets from their old Japanese partners, Sojitz, and sold all of its' assets back to itself under new names so it could milk the same properties without needing the ADV "brand name". The fan community took to calling them "Neo ADV" once it was all spelled out, and it became all too obvious that this was a matter of ADV's own CEO John Ledford simply reshuffling his old business model.

Having weathered some harsh financial storms, Neo ADV releases have been... well, just a bit different from what fans would have associated with the prior brand name. All of their "new" licenses under the Sentai Filmworks umbrella are subtitled only, and come in simple multi-disc sets often selling entire 12-13 episodes for $40 or so. It's a safe, uncomplicated, and above all else inexpensive way for them to release their current properties, which run from modern takes on vintage shojo manga Glass Mask, to festering piles of nonsensical MANime dung like Legend of the Dark Kings: A Fist of the North Star Story, and even mainstream Shounen Jump comedy Gintama...

But the release on the examination table today is their new release of THE SKULL MAN: THE COMPLETE SERIES.

Here's the bad news first: The Sentai Filmworks DVD doesn't get to keep the cool OP sequence animated to essentially be a music video for the Japanese rock band TOKIO, who has... let's call it a "history" of their management not liking us foreign devils getting an ear-full of their work. It's effectively a power struggle in which the record label feels that allowing their hot new band to premier on some cultish cartoon is somehow going to hurt the group's chance as hitting it big in Hollwood and the rest of the Yew Ess of Aye, despite the fact that - by and large - the only way to get white kids to notice your J-rock band is if they did the intro to a dark and violent anime series... you know, like The Skull Man. But that kind of reasoning makes far too much sense, and thus has no effect.

Not that it matters in the magical world of Web 2.0 - in fact, you can see it right here without even leaving the blog:

OP: TOKIO - ひかりのまち/Hikari no Machi

The Sentai OP has a substantially less inspired collection of clips from the show itself, set to a decent but somewhat generic piece of background music. It actually looks like a re-cut version of the earliest minute long TV promo, and has full kanji staff credits, so at least it's not something we can blame on Sentai themselves. That ugly bit of business out of the way, how does this local release stand up to the very high quality, but equally high priced Japanese imports?

Due to various factors (mostly the fact that I'm a lazy son of a bitch) I'll just be comparing the first episode from the R1 North American Sentai Filmworks DVD set to the Japanese R2 Geneon Universal release. The quality on all episodes are - give or take - uniform, so comparing episode 1 is no more or less relevant than, say, comparing episode 6 or 9.

This is hardly a "you should buy X release over Y!" matter either. I didn't buy the R2 DVDs, nor am I on Sentai's payroll, so I have no attachment to either release. It's mostly one of personal curiosity, since I happen to really like what little I've watched of The Skull Man, and also so that anyone else interested in owning this neat looking dark mystery show can have a rough idea what your money is actually buying - aside from potentially putting a few yen back in the pockets of starving animators, and telling studios like Sentai that you want more releases like The Skull Man... wither that actually means more Bones productions, more Ishinomori inspired titles, more cheap subtitled-only collections, or more shows that are basically just Spawn: The Aneemoo, I shudder to think.

The best news is that the R1 set is cheap. I mean, dirt. Farking. CHEAP! It wasn't so long ago that I was paying $24 dollars in Best Buy for three or four episodes, but today $28 gets you the entire 13 episode series. Even at MSRP ($39.99), it's roughly 1/10th the retail cost of buying the show new in Japan. I know people love to say that anime is expensive - and in the scheme of things, they're right - but I'm honestly not sure how Sentai Filmworks could have possibly made this set any cheaper and expected to make even a dime off of it. Even the recycled plastic double DVD case looks like it was a return at some point... consider that a minor complaint if you like, but it's not as if I can't swap it out for any other double case I have lying around the house.

The show proper is spread over 2 discs in a 6/7 pattern, with the only "extras" on disc 1 being the DVD production credits, and various trailers for other Sentai Filmsworks titles. Disc 2 includes a total of 4 subtitled Japanese TV promo spots, the first three running between 1:02~1:07, and the last running 3:20. That's all you get.

No, there's not even a clean OP/ED sequence... though with the above fact in mind, I'm not surprised. If we can't even get the opening in the first place, why expect a clean version of it?

Let's just move on before I get my panties in a wad...



In terms of the general video quality, both of them look quite good at first glance. The R1 has a hair more information at the bottom of the frame, but it also looks to be vertically filtered, blurring out the original (intentional) 'noise' in the signal, but not to the point where outlines or background details are drastically effected. The R1 audio mix is a Dolby track at 224 kbps, while the R2 features 448 kbps. I was surprised the latter didn't have a PCM track, but honestly, both of them sounded fine to me.



The biggest difference between the two transfers may or may not even be an issue, depending on your hardware investment. The R2 is 100% progressive - you can even force film without combing. The R1 is 100% interlaced, and I guess I don't blame Sentai for playing it safe. If you're playing your DVDs on hardware with a good deinterlacer, odds are it'll IVTC the disc flawlessly and you'll have little to no BOB/combing artifacts to speak of. If not... well, have fun with your aliasing, combing, and other nasty side-effects until you spend a few bucks on a better player.

While interlacing in and of itself isn't always a bad thing... it is bad as far as compression is concerned. Progressive NTSC is 24 frames per second with pulldown flags to 'fake' 30fps. Interlaced NTSC is 30 frames per second with redundant data during motion. Essentially, a progressive transfer at 6 Mbps (Megabits per second) will look as good - in terms of compression, anyway - as an interlaced transfer at 7.5 Mbps, simply because it's storing 20% less data. Not all anime can be made 100% progressive, but clearly The Skull Man is a title that could have been given an IVTC, if Sentai were so inclined.

The R2 DVD has an average bitrate of 8.62 Mbps... the R1 DVD has an average of 5.23 - but animation, due to being large areas of flat color and all that, is supposed to compress without much visible macroblocking... right?



For real, Sentai?! Hell, even FUNimation's
old DVDs are pointing and laughing at you...

The encoder Sentai used really seems at a loss during scene changes, so the very last frame before a cut - particularly on dark, grainy and fast-moving sequences - tends to get pixelated like this. Most of the show looks decent enough, but if you're sensitive to GOP* based compression errors, prepare to do a lot of wincing whenever the titular anti-hero is about to show up. To be fair, I've seen much worse and watched those awful DVDs get "A" and "10" scores from professional reviewers, so I'm not going to bother affixing a numerical score**. Just know that, on occasion, the Sentai release looks like a goddamn bootleg VCD.

* No, the republicans don't have anything to do with this particular douchebaggery.

* You like numbers? How about 4?

While the R2 DVD release never included English subtitles, there was a certain enterprising fansubber who fixed that... I'll give you a sample of the fansub versus the R1 release.

(Not exact frame!)


R2 (Fansub)

What's really infuriating about that Christmas colored vomit is that EVERYONE ELSE in the show gets "normal" subtitles on the fansub...

R2 (Fansub)


The worst part is TSUCHIDA Hiroshi isn't even pulling a Dark Knight-like Skull Growl or anything... he's just talking. As with the hideous Bakemonogatari subs I bitched about a few weeks ago, I don't so much blame the guy who made the DVD, or even the guy who typeset the original fansub ASS script... I blame this culture of attention-whoring fansubbers trying to out-dick one another by using the most god-awful fonts possible. The video quality may not be as nice on the R1, but at least I can say that the subtitles are always legible. (The fansub also has some trouble displaying sign subtitles properly on the PS3, but that's another issue entirely...)

As far as special features go... well, the first R2 DVD has a commentary track, staff interviews, and the same promo spots featured on the R1. The second R2 DVD has clean OP/ED sequences. The third DVD has another interview and TV spots. The fourth DVD has more interviews and DVD commercials. The fifth, sixth, and seventh DVDs all sport interviews as well... they average about 13 minutes, though some run as short as 9 minutes, and others go on for up to 17 minutes. How useful any of these interviews and commentaries are depends on how fluent your Japanese is... for me, they're kind of worthless. The dialog you learn watching shows like The Skull Man don't help much when you're listening to voice actors prattle on in faux-embarrassed politely scripted answers about how they're nothing like the characters they play, not really, but they do admire how the screen writers injected a sense of yadda-yadda. To be fair these things are only interesting if you already *heart* the performers or the characters anyway, but untranslated, they're about as dull as watching paint dry... whatever happened to the super-deformed making-of skits in Tatakae! Iczer 1, or the snarky in-character shenanigans of the Hanappe Bazooka documentary?

It's also worth pointing out that the first few R2 DVDs included first press extras. Volume 1 came with a second DVD filled with behind-the-scenes footage of "The Skull Man Episode 0: Prologue of Darkness" live action TV special (think Spawn City), and volume two came with a collectible box to house the whole series in. If you're lucky you can get them for cheap Yahoo Auctions Japan, but no matter what you do you'll spend several times what the Sentai R1 release will cost - and even then you could wind up with chewed up ex-rental discs.... and, of course, there's the English subtitles issue. To the best of my knowledge the R2 fansubs were only released on a single torrent community, and it's having some problems as of late, so if you didn't already get them... well, they're gone, baby.

The old adage "you get what you pay for" seems incredibly appropriate for The Skull Man. A small fortune nets you an impressive import release without a shred of English translation, and a pittance gets you the entire show with no frills, a MIA opening sequence, and a fairly mediocre video transfer. I don't regret having downloaded the entire series via R2 fansubs, but I can't say I regret purchasing it, either... but I suppose I'm of a dying breed who actually likes owning TV shows on shiny discs instead of just downloading them and being done with them. If you just want to see the show and don't mind getting a less then stellar video transfer at less than $3 an episode, the Sentai Filmworks release is adequate. But if the missing OP sequence and compression errors will piss you off to no end, it's a much tougher pill to swallow.


superG said...

Hey Kentai, is there any possibility of getting your input/help with an upscaling/remastering project?

I figure you are busy, but it can't hurt to ask.

Buster D said...

Those compression errors would definitely piss me off, although I wonder if they would look a bit better with the various filters in a PS3. Have you tried that yet? I only have a JP PS3 so it can't be used for R1 anime unless I rip and re-burn.

Kentai 拳態 said...

superG - drop me an eMail with some more info at: