Saturday, July 30, 2011

The Overfiend Reborn (Part 2)

O, arrogant humanity!
Not all that the Blu-ray format promises
may be what Kitty Media actually provides...
It's here. Kitty Media/Media Blasters' UROTSUKIDŌJI: LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND DVD/Blu-ray set. You all know how I feel about the film, so let's just get down to the technical stuff, shall we?

You know what? Fuck it, here's what you're probably here for: SCREENSHOTS FOR ALL!!

Before I even removed the shrink-wrap, I knew I was in for trouble. According to the packaging, the main feature is presented in "1080p High Definition 1.66:1 aspect ratio", and as a bonus feature you're treated to the "DVD release with original 1.33:1 aspect ratio". As I went over, the Urotsukidoji Movie was made of footage from the OVA series, and as such the title was always, always meant to be shown in 4:3. Every single prior VHS, DVD and LD release of "The Movie" has been in SD fullscreen, and I didn't even think I had to worry that Media Blasters would fuck up something as basic as a film produced in 4:3, for 4:3, being presented in 4:3. Seriously, I thought we were passed that shit in the year 2011.

But I suppose 1.66:1 is a better compromise than 1.78:1, right? Well, we may as well see how bad the framing is compared to the DVD...

1080p Blu-ray

480i DVD (upscaled to 1080p via Photoshop Bicubic)

...oh. It is 1.78:1. The hell? Well, I guess at least the box warned me the aspect ratio was fucked, it just downplayed HOW fucked it was. As you'll see through this comparison, the Blu-ray has marginally more info on the sides of the frame, but that it comes to a considerable loss at the top and bottom.

The whole Urotsukidoji series was animated in 4:3 - no exceptions - and was never intended to be shown at this ratio. "The Movie" has never been matted before on home video, and as this was probably only shown in a hand-full of arthouse theaters, it's not as if they had gone out of their way to "fix" the original framing for the compiled theatrical version. I honestly don't know why the Media Blasters crew thought it'd be a brilliant fucking idea to do it THIS time. I wouldn't say it's the most ruinous cropping in the history of animation - if anything it's slightly less retarded looking here than it was on the otherwise stunning German remaster of Vampire Hunter D - but it's still a boneheaded bullshit move that should please absolutely no-one who knows anything about the history of Urotsukidoji.

While it's always frustrating that almost nobody mentions the ultimate source of an HD film scan, I actually don't even need MB to tell me what this Blu-ray was made from: The title sequence does it for me.

Having spoken with former CPM employee Justin Sevakis about this title on more than one occasion, I know for a fact that a total of three English dubbed prints and three subtitled prints were in John O'Donnell's possession when he bought the rights for the Urotsukidoji film in the early 90s. These credits are a 35mm optical effect, not a digital recreation thereof, so we can be pretty safe assuming that the new Media Blasters HD master was made from those roadshow prints, or at least the Internegative that CPM used to create their prints with. This means that the title card and the Myojin "University" sign are subtitled, but also means that the opening Legend of the Overfiend is not. The closing credits are actually an all-new digitally created crawl that credit both the CPM and MB staff... fair enough, I guess, even if the chapter menu shows original Japanese credits.

So what's the quality of the transfer like, cropping and titles aside? It isn't good, that's for damn sure. It beats out the DVD materials, but since that's an analog CRT transfer dating all the way back to '89, the fact that the Blu-ray is generally more detailed and and has better colors should come as nothing of a shock. Naturally the Blu-ray lacks the analog video noise, composite rainbows and dot-crawl of the old JP transfer, and in general has a sharper, essentially more film-like look than any of the older prints. For once I'm not squinting at the transfer and trying to decide if this is an upscale; most of the transfer (and I'll get to that caveat shortly) looks better than a DVD, and as pitiful as this is, that's something I broadly want to praise Media Blasters for. The contrast is much higher than the old DVD materials and the blacks appear slightly crushed, but both of these are the result of the print used; this isn't something you "could" fix like print damage or poor framing, that's just the nature of the beast.

Unfortunately the transfer has clearly had a moderate pass of grain-scrubbing DVNR, and it looks as if zero attempts have been made to clean up the myriad of scratches and dirt blobs that cover the print from start to finish. Urotsukidoji has never been especially pretty and I'd be more than willing to forgive the occasional scratch in the name of preserving the film's artistic integrity, but I expected at least a token effort to clean up the constant layer of emulsion damage... it appears  I may have expected too much. There's also a slightly distracting level of warping based edge-sharpening that's easy to spot on character outlines and similar 'hard' edges, but hasn't exaggerated the grain or color gradients too horribly (thank fuck for that, I guess). I've always expected "The Movie" to be a grainy, ugly mess considering that it was primarily compiled from duplicate negatives of the original OVA material, but this is pretty far above and beyond the level of "ick" I had expected for its' HD debut.

Urotsukidoji certainly looks more like film on Blu-ray than it ever did on DVD, but it looks far more like a chewed up and slightly out of focus print you'd find at the local Multiplex than anything approaching the camera negative. Consider this the "warts and all" approach to restoration and there's still some level of appreciable gains in quality, but I wouldn't put this anywhere close to the level of care and deducation showered upon Rock & Rule, another animated film who's surviving elements might have been in a similar shape as the print we're reviewing today. Colors are largely consistent with previous releases, though it's worth mentioning that the last reel goes to hell somewhat, with Akemi's aura now appearing more green than golden, and the otherwise rock-solid black levels take a turn for the unpleasantly gray once inside that universal negative space between our world and that of the Choujin.

And you know what? If that had been what I was handed from start to finish, in its' intended ratio, I'd be fine with it. Oh sure, I'd moan and sigh and be less than impressed, but at the end of the article I'd still shrug and say "Oh well, it's Legend of the Overfiend in High Definition. Guess I can die happy now. Go buy it, ya hosers!"

I'm afraid that's not quite what we were given - not in full, anyway. You see, when you hit 'Play' from the main menu, it starts with the following "warning"...

It's worth noting that Rock & Rule only played this card
for the "lost" consumer-VHS sourced TV broadcast cut...

When I saw it followed by the familiar but more chewed-up than normal West Cape Corporation logos, I wasn't too worried. I figured, Oh okay, they had to cut multiple 35mm prints together because scenes from each one have been damaged. That's fine. I figured worst case scenario, the print gets blurrier or the colors change or the framing might get a little dicey...

Or maybe it defaults back to a cropped version the same FUCKING ANALOG TAPE master the VHS and Laserdisc were made from over twenty years ago. I should have guessed was a possibility, right? I know, I'm such an asshole for expecting a 1080p Blu-ray release to not suddenly shift gears into VHS territory...

No need to panic though, I thought to myself through gritted teeth and clenched fists. Maybe the scene with Akemi being raped was just a one-time thing. So I skipped forward to the scene with the nurse, trying very hard not to put my fist through a wall as I did...

Great Tezuka's Ghost! The whole scene looks like this, barring about 15 seconds?  Oh, my bloody fuck... but hey, it's not like the scene where Amano and Suikakujuu are fucking up Osaka will look half this--


While I'd have been a dick and argue that the 35mm sourced restoration wasn't all that impressive to start with, at least it was High Definition. The finished Blu-ray transfer almost regularly switches back and fourth between 35mm and the same analog source tape that the Kitty Media 2010 DVD was sourced from, which in turn is the exact same master tape every single prior home video release of 'The Movie' was ultimately born from. Even the Anime 18 DVD was crafted this antiquated transfer, though they went out of their way to source the end credits from a "Clean" source and create a new title card with video technology.

For further proof as to how fucking pitiful these inserts are, here's a comparison between the new 2011 Blu-ray and Kitty's own 2010 DVD:

That's right; they've actually managed to obscured a sex scene into complete nothing through sheer failure to double-check their color correction of their shit analog tape source. I'd call this failure on an epic scale, but I feel like even saying that well worn catch-phrase would be giving this piece of festering shit too much credit.

Here's a (probably incomplete) list of scenes that Media Blasters has sourced from analog video, complete with timecodes... I warn you, just making the following list makes me want to vomit, and if you have any respect for this phenomenal achivement in erotic-horror, you'll feel just as ill as I do. And oh yes, the following list spoils the SHIT out of the film... so, go watch it first. Preferably download it first or something.

00:08:39-00:08:40 - Togami rubs Akemi's vagina with her fingers.
00:08:52-00:09:00 - Togami licks Akemi's breasts and holds her hands to the cot.
00:10:02-00:10:16 - Togami rapes Akemi with her "tongue". Akemi writhes and screams.
00:10:31-00:10:49 - Togami wraps Akemi up with tendrils and spews neon slime on her face.
00:11:13-00:11:15 - Pan up Akemi's body while she's being raped.

So, the scene in which Akemi is raped has a total of about 47 seconds' worth of VHS master footage. When you factor in that this is the less graphic theatrical version, that means virtually every shot of Akemi actually being molested by a monster - you know, the whole reason most people are even watching this fucking movie - has been sourced from a shit source.

00:13:53-00:14:13 - Akemi tackles Nagumo naked, thanking him. Pan across Osaka as Amano and Megumi stare up at the skies, ignoring the ballgame below.

20 seconds removed around an original reel-change. Trust me, this won't feel like much of a cut when we're done...

00:26:50-00:28:22 - Nagumo begins to rape the nurse and transforms into the Hakai no Oni for the first time.
00:28:38-00:28:52- Nagumo licks the gore off of his face, and Kuroko runs to find Amano.

The Nurse Rape has a total of 1 minute 50 seconds sourced from analog video. That's virtually the entire sequence!

00:31:20-00:32:29 - Storms go off over Osaka (reel change shot). After this we're taken inside of Suikakuju's subteranian lair and watch as the ecosystem of demons eat and fuck each other to death.

So the awesome Giger-inspired designs of what's essentially Hell are now blurrier and darker than ever before? That's just fucking lovely. 1 minute 9 seconds.

00:45:12-00:45:22 - Niki fucks and abuses some skanks in the AV Room.

Semi-notable for the hilariously poor dubbing in this scene. "Shaat da fuuck up ya bitch. Ya SLUUUT!" Still, I'm not fucking smiling, and neither should you. 10 seconds.

00:51:20-00:53:17 - Niki licks Akemi's face clean and gains the Choujin's strength. Amano and Suikakujuu continue to trash Osaka.

No horrifically homoerotic footage in HD for you! Ubergod help me, I am upset about this fact. This was yet another reel change, so I'm not surprised to see some of it disappear, but I think this is the single longest example of analog footage appearing on the Blu-ray. Also, Amano is way better at playing DBZ than Gokuu is, so this scene has always amused me. 1 minute 53 seconds.

00:57:22-00:58:14 - Niki forces Akemi to masturbate so he'll save Nagumo. Kuroko pops a tiny boner until Megumi smacks him.

52 seconds of precious sexual manipulation, horrible mutilation and shota-wang sourced from utter shit. Goddamn it, Sirabella!

01:08:30-01:08:52 - Fukaki feeds Suikakujuu's horn to Niki's dead body.

Once again, goddamn reel changes. 22 seconds.

01:10:06-01:10:30 - Suikakujuu has sex with his consorts to revive his body.

Pretty much the entire scene as it appears in the movie edit has been sourced from low quality analog material. Seriously?! I can't even watch the twins explode in non-upscaled HD? 26 seconds.

There may well be even more missing footage, but I'm in too white hot of a rage to continue checking. Tallying me bananas, we're already up to a total of... Jesus Christ in a fucking burrito, that's just under 8 MINUTES!! Again, it's entirely possible that even more footage has been sourced from this shitty tape that's legally old enough to drink, but I've had it up to here with looking for it. My soul can only take so much crushing in a year, damn it.

This release is a travesty, pure and simple; if there was a single 30 second sequence so damaged that they resorted to the VHS materials I'd still be slighly pissed, but shrug it off as an inevitable compromise and just be grateful that they didn't release it cut. When your source print is missing eight fucking minutes of footage, you know what you do? You don't fucking bother. Just stop what you're doing. Walk away, admit defeat, and release whatever you came up with on DVD and say "This is as good as it gets, sorry". The fact that they would pull this shit with any film is horrifying... but to have done it with The Hentai Ubergod himself makes me want to tear my own flesh off with my bare fucking hands, just so that I might once again feel clean.

Perhaps the ultimate irony in this horror of a release can be found on the Forum's rather epic discussion between Euro Horror fans, Midnight Legacy's Dolph Chiarino, and John Sirabella - CEO himself of Media Blasters, which can be read in its entirety HERE:

"We could have tried to splice in inferior footage but it would look like crap. On a blu-ray I can not do that, DVD like zombi 3, ok but not a blu ray. Infact we will be announcing zombi 3 soon and I know some of those scenes we got on vhs will not be there. We will have to deal with it."

Clearly, this quote from about three months ago is now null and void, and we can all look forward to Zombi 3 featuring state-of-the-art "Video Home System" data - but presented on today's Blu-ray technology! Aren't you just fucking EXCITED?

Slightly Less Geeky Info: Subtitles are yellow, and appear to be a brand new translation that - in some ways - might be better than the subtitles featured on the Perfect Collection from Anime 18. A slate track is included for those who want to brave the vintage English dub. Both audio tracks are presented in lossless DTS-HD MA 2.0, with the main film clocking in at 19 gigs, which puts bitrate estimates around 17 Mb/s. There's some minor banding around "glowing" effects and you can find some minor breakup along moving outlines, but the middling bitrate is about the last of this transfer's problems. The technical presentation is "okay", which I suppose is better than anything else I can say about this miserable excuse for a Blu-ray. No extras of any sort are included on the BD, and the DVD that comes with it only has trailers for other Kitty Media releases.

I won't say the DVD looks better than the Blu-ray on the whole. That would be a lie; analog video from 1989 is not pleasant to look at, and you can use the above DVD shots to see why. But I will say that everything wrong with this Blu-ray FAR outweighs anything that they might have gotten right. The materials they had on hand weren't fit for a proper DVD release, and yet they released it on Blu-ray none the less. The Legend of the Overfiend is cropped dramatically, absolutely rife with ugly film damage, and has been stripped of anything resembling an organic, natural appearance... and at least 8 shocking minutes actually do look worse than the DVD.

Part of me wants to say the following: "Buy the DVD and support Urotsukidoji, the most rightfully legendary adult anime series ever conceived. Just skip this trainwreck of an only partially-remastered Blu-ray". The other part is just... kinda  making horrible, feral sounding cuss words that started out as just obscene, but moved straight into obtuse following the phrase 'cuntshit fucktonguing pussgargling analwank'. I'll let you weigh the two and decide which choice is right for you, naturally.

Someday the Overfiend's great power will be placated by a proper HD restoration... but in the meantime we must all continue to wander the three realms and wait for his true High Definition revival. Pray that it does not take another three thousand years, arrogant humanity.

So how do you feel about all this, Amano Jyaku?

That... sums up my feelings perfectly.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Tenebrae - Rated x264

Be afraid, dear friends, for Kentai is fiddling with encoders again. More specifically, fiddling around with a high quality HD source (the French release of TENEBRAE) and the freeware Blu-ray Spec ready encoder x264, plus a few programs acting as middle-man between it and the source. Having long ago decided that the BD encoder good enough for Criterion Collection was good enough for Kentai Films, I've taken to it's multitude of rather simple setup and very high quality H.264 output.  I'm still experimenting with what real-world difference each option creates in the final transfer, speed settings, material presents and all of that, but I think I've started to understand what does and doesn't make much of a difference.

This is just noddling with the encoder, mind you - the bitrate is a relatively-low 25 Mb/s, and the settings weren't as fine-tuned as they would be if I were actually creating a transfer for official replication. With these settings I can whiz by at 5-6 frames per second... at "professional" levels, I'm lucky to get 1.25fps, and that's with all four cores running at 100%!

BD25 re-encode (TOP) and BD50 original (BOTTOM), lossless PNG:

All of these are exact frame matches using the same decoder, and saved to a lossless compression format: for all intents and purposes, this is what's on the original disc and what the single-layer transfer I've concocted looks like. I'm not dancing around looking for the best samples, either; a few of these were chosen specifically because they were some of the worst frames I could find, and by "worst" I mean "the least like the source frame". When you have the luxury to A/B the two, side-by-side in different tabs or whatever, you can see a slight level of softening, a minor shift towards 'smoothing' in grain structure, and some very minor blocking artifacts on the re-encode... but even with less than optimal settings, the difference are much more subtle than I had expected.

Still, having shaved a third of the original bitrate off I don't think these are anything to sneeze at: the source was 37 Mb/s, and the single layer transfer here is 25 Mb/s, which - after two lossless stereo tracks - means there's still ample room for SD bonus features without requiring a dual layered disc.  Make no mistake, the 37 Mb/s transfer is a slight improvement and there's no sensible reason for a commercial release to limit themselves to BD25, but it's nice to know that even a freeware encoder using bitrates that'd fit a 2 hour film on a single layered disc are still "good enough" for everyday use. Keep in mind the above examples aren't even x264 working at its full potential.

So, to any readers with videophiliac leanings, what do you think? Using this test and the following samples as a rough measure, is 25 Mb/s on naturally grainy material "good enough", or do you think the inevitable compromises at single layer bitrates are unacceptable even with a high quality encoder? Would you pay $30 for a BD50 and maxed out bitrates over $20 for a single layer transfer of this quality, or do you think this is the point where it ceased to be an issue? I promise I'm not fishing for compliments - x264 author Laurent Aimar did all the legwork here, not me - but I am legitimately curious what anyone reading this thinks about the above experiment.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

R.I.P. - Toyoo ASHIDA 芦田 豊雄

April 21, 1944 - July 23, 2011
You saw 199X and beyond, Tough Boy.

Toyoo ASHIDA may not be as crippling a loss to the creativity of the Japanese animation industry as Satoshi KON was last year, but he was still quite notable for being one of the few animators in the country to push for fair treatment towards commercial artists. He was not only the co-founder, but president for the first ever Japanese animators union, JAniCA, in 2007. He also founded Studio Live in 1976, a company that continues to both produce, and contribute to the creation of, contemporary animation.

On a slightly more personal note, he was also the director behind my beloved Vampire Hunter D OVA, as well as series director for Hokuto no Ken: Fist of the North Star, and of course the director of the unforgettable 1986 Fist of the North Star: The Movie. These films remain very dear to me, and I'm just as enthralled by them as I was the very first time I watched them in the early 1990s. Ashida may not have been in the forefront of the modern anime industry, but he will be missed none the less.

I wonder how much it'd cost to get that now-final Hokuto no Ken interview with him from the R2  movie booklet properly translated...

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The End of a Century

Just a reminder that FIST OF THE NORTH STAR: The TV Series Volume 3 comes out on Tuesday. This takes us to the final days of 199X, and ends with Kenshiro and Raoh's climactic smackdown.

That's three down, and one to go.

The Overfiend Reborn (Part 1)

UROTSUKIDŌJI: LEGEND OF THE OVERFIEND is one of those things tied so closely to my development as an individual that there probably aren't words to describe how important it was in creating the individual known as "Kentai" you know now. It had a profound effect on my appreciation of animation as a visual medium, introduced me to the wonderfully frustrating world of intentionally re-cutting a film for different markets, and more or less assured that well over a decade later I'd be unable to get a boner if she wasn't crying and covered in neon-colored sperm. So, let's do us all a favor and never ask how I plan to procreate.

Nostalgia is a dangerous weapon the past uses to convince us that it didn't really suck. Having been lucky enough to have literally grown up watching high quality not-necessarily-for-children Japanese animation from before the age of 10, I quickly abandoned American cartoons in favor of those wild Japanimatoons, devouring every poorly dubbed tape or multi-generational fansub dupe I could get my hands on for the next decade or so. While the internet and DVD (and now Blu-ray) may have changed how I devour my drug of choice, it never caused my appetite to wane. In much the same way that Italian horror of yesteryear essentially wiped away my desire to watch anything contemporary with a masked killer, the violent fantasy of nonsensical Japanese animators quickly washed away any interest I had in suffering through reruns of The Smurfs or He-Man and whatever other trash I probably ate up before I knew any better in a sea of blood, screaming teenage girls, and pointy haired protagonists fighting body-horrors personified or sentient mechanical beings gone haywire.

Fuck. I actually own this Cantonese dubbed VCD set.
It's cut and I don't speak Chinese, why did I even--

When you get down to it, tt was the emerging direct to video market - or "OVA", Original Video Animation - that would be the catalyst that created a generation of rabid otaku. Seen by production companies as a way to move video tapes and related hardware, or even cross-promote unrelated media (like video games), Sony Music Entertainment funded Vampire Hunter D, and Toshiba got the wheels spinning for Bubblegum Crisis. The aborted TV serial Megazone 23 was quickly dusted off for a feature length home video release, and fans of lesbian-alien-mecha Cthulhi were delighted to find that Fight!! ICZER-1 ticked off their every possible fetish box. I could go on - Gunbuster, Guyver Out Of Control, Demon City Shinjuku, - but we'd be here all night! This "Golden Period" reached its' peak at roughly the middle of the 1980s, with bizarre and decadently-produced epics literally popping out of the production staff's heads as a means to sell a few thousand copies at nearly $150 a piece. While the sheer scope and breadth of anime released between Dallos (1983) and Akira (1989) - arguably the bookends that both birthed and destroyed this culture of artist driven anime - it's fair to say that a number of incredible titles released in this period simply could never have been produced in the years before or since. Not everything was a classic, I admit - go ahead, make your M.D. Geist jokes so we can move - but with so much content and so much freedom alloted to it, it was still a damned good period to be into animation.

It was from that fertile soil of artist-driven Japanese animation that Playboy Video and JHV decided, in 1987, to produce an adaptation of MAEDA Toshio's erotic horror manga, Choujin Densetsu Urotsukidouji/超神伝説 うろつき童子. It was hardly the first pornographic anime sold in Japan, and even Nikkatsu tested the waters with the Uchiyama Aki Lolita Anime some four years prior. But this approach was... different. The original manga was as much driven by mythology and character interaction as it was graphic boning, and the inclusion of distorted hyper-sexualized monsters in the vein of the old EC Comics brought a unique Freudian layer to the distinctly Lovecraftian tale of a monstrous "Choujin" (übergod), who after slumbering for 3,000 years is preparing to  unite the realms of Heaven, Hell and Earth into a unified and eternal kingdom... but the ultimate salvation of the Choujin's legend may not be what the foolish mortals of the three realms had ever imaged.

--- oh yeah, I've still got this one, too.
Goddamn Germans and their bootlegged extras...

 A being from another world, Amano Jyaku, skulks around the Myojin Academy in search of a scent he's convinced can only be the God of Gods... but he can't quite pin down who it is. Odds are in the favor of school jock Ozaki, and in his search he blissfully ignores Nagumo, an awkward loser who jacks off peeking in the girl's dressing rooms and spends his time being bullied by the cool kids. It's not until Amano saves the school idol, Akemi, from a lustful Makaijin - and Akemi, not knowing any better, assumes that Nagumo is her hero - that things begin to change. Ozaki is super-powered all right, and upon being attacked by radicals who want the Choujin dead, Amano unleashes his full power, only to watch Ozaki fall dead. It's not until his sidekick Kuroko reminds him of a passing incident in which Ozaki teased Nagumo and swallowed a drop of his blood that he realizes the grave mistake he's made...

The 45 minute Urotsukidouji OVA was a hit. It strayed pretty far from Maeda's realistic character designs and comparatively humanoid monsters, but the adaptation arguably improved on the original's uneven tone, which can perhaps best be described as obscene-yet-juvenile. Maeda's core concept of the three worlds and the fascination of the Choujin's coming remained, but were expanded into a literal epic, with the first episode ending with the largely anti-heroic lead Nagumo literally absorbing the people around him with massive phallus shaped tendrils and becoming a Godzilla sized monstrosity that looks like Satan itself made from the bodies he's swallowed whole. With director Hideki Takayama having found a unique aesthetic that turned the title's "Wandering Kid" Amano Jyaku into a garish biker punk, and the demonic Makaijin were in turn inspired by the contemporary monsters featured in films like Aliens, The Fly and Basket Case. Masamichi Amano's synth-score fit this more contemporary vision like a glove, and audiences were so voracious that Playboy announced two more episodes to finish the anime's unique storyline, which essentially cameto the same ending as Maeda's original comics, but did so on a completely different path.

A-ha! I DON'T own this one.
I mean... not on DVD. Not YET.

When asked how he felt about the anime version, Maeda was quoted as saying it was "Cruel, repugnant, and sadistic... but still brilliant". Episodes 2 and (particularly) 3 would show an increase in production quality, with more detailed backgrounds and frames per second than the prior episodes. The first episode is really the runt of the litter, but it's no slouch in the scope of cheaply animated early 1980s porn anime; it's production values certainly eclipse any TV series of the period, and as the budget ramps up, so too does the wantonly graphic sex and violence. In full the whole original Urotsukidouji series runs about 142 minutes, and crammed in that nearly two and a half hour runtime are acts of rivalry, compassion, and utter annihilation. Sure it might not quite be Tolstoy, but the storyline splits off into two related subplots: One in which Nagumo is forced to go toe to toe with a jealous classmate who's sold his soul for demonic powers, and another in which Amano must face an old enemy who's sole mission in this world is to destroy the Choujin before the Eternal Kingdom prophecy can be fulfilled. Niki becomes a savage presence ready to tear Akemi away from Nagumo, while Suikakujuu wages a war in the skies over Osaka with Amano just so he'll have no further obstacles in removing the Choujin from the face of the Earth... but why is Suikakujuu ready to destroy millions of lives to prevent what seems inevitable?

Quickly notions of heroics and terrorism blur as characters from all three worlds battle for what they want, all with their own dedicated passion, but all for differing reasons... and some without fully understanding what their desires may lead to. It's a surprisingly complex and bittersweet piece of fantastic escapism, one that approaches - but doesn't ever eclipse - the nihilistic notion of humanity's own selfish destruction that becomes so central to another one of Japan's finest programs of the last 30 years, Neon Genesis Evangelion. For fans of horror and animation alike to write Urotsukidouji off as the anime version of Caligula, equating it to "Expensive Porn", are doing both themselves and the minds behind this grotesque masterpiece a grave disservice.

I own, what... 3 copies of this?
...yeah I might have a problem.

Even if Urotsukidouji had nothing else, it was a tour-de-force that assaulted the audience with villains who fought to save their entire universe and heroes who would sacrifice everything if it meant saving someone they initially thought was a walking joke. It saturates the viewer with acts of sex and violence, but does so in the confines of a universe in which sex and violence are, ultimately, the only way in which the characters communicate with one another. Love changes Nagumo, but in the end the only way he can protect Akemi is through violence. Suikakujuu's servants love him so dearly they literally offer the destruction of their bodies to him so that he may accomplish his one driving goal in life. In the end, talk is cheap; in the blood and sperm soaked universe of the Choujin, it's who you fuck and who you eat that ultimately matter, and those who can stand being splashed with both will find both an unusually rewarding narrative about largely Eastern concepts of renewal, and an expertly crafted piece of extreme entertainment besides.

When all is said and done Urotsukidouji was perhaps the closest thing to a perfect pornographic anime series ever created... and it was that realization that led distributors to announce "Urotsukidouji: The Movie". Yes, they literally cut the three episodes together into a feature film and toured around Japan with it. Unfortunately the original home video version was already more graphic than Japanese obscenity laws would allow without pixelation, so "The Movie" cut the most graphic moments and even went as far as to re-animate some of them, and even includes a few new scenes to smooth over some of the cuts... including a lengthy shot of the Warner Brothers-esque sidekick getting a teeny erection. (I'm sure Maeda approved.) One could argue that that the theatrical cut was the mass-marketed "R-rated" version of the original three part OVA, but the MPAA still slapped a big fat NC-17 on it when it premiered in the United States some 18 long years ago, so it's not as if all of that tentacle rape has been replaced with footage of puppies snuggling with kittens. The uncensored OVAs are without a doubt the definitive take on the animated material, but "The Movie" isn't without its' place in the title's infamous legacy. It's also the first piece of the Tentacle Rape Puzzle I ever saw, and as such it'll always remain special to me on that very personal level. And thank fuck my nostalgia doesn't further extend towards CPM's rotten vintage dub... I guess it's not quite Devilman bad, but that means it also isn't quite Devilman unintentionally-funny, which is just as damning.

This one doesn't even exist... and I still might own it!

Urotsukidoji's enduring popularity would spiral into a total of four sequels and one remake, with no less than 16 OVAs and five compilation movies plus a primitive PC game completing the massive franchise. Unfortunately, the second series (Legend of the Demon Womb) - which amusingly has the balls to start off with Hitler attending a meeting of the Vrill Association - would supplant it's bizarre creativity with a continually dwindling budget, and the third series (Return of the Overfiend) starts out strong as a fusion of medieval fantasy epic tropes in the guise of post-apocalyptic science fiction, but when the title's long-time script writer Shou Aikawa departed, the show takes a sudden dive into crazy town and doesn't ever get a chance to properly right itself. The fourth and final "proper" series (Inferno Road) starts as a moderately amusing experiment in unrelated horror tedium, but falls apart like so much wet dung in the final episode.

In fact, the ending was deemed so wretched by the show's producer that they made up a new one for the Inferno Road compilation movie, and used THAT ending to spring off into the show's aborted revival (The Final Chapter), which was never legally released outside of Japan... the less said of this confusing mish-mash that ends with the realization that the Choujin is a giant bio-mechanical spaceship pumping out androgynous hive-mind parasite warriors, the better. After a nearly decade long hiatus, a remake of the original OVA known in Japan as "The Urotsuki" (New Saga) proved that, oh yes, it could get worse than The Final Chapter...


So why the hell am I waxing poetic about a film series I've talked about so many times before? Because after nearly a year of delays... Media Blasters/Kitty Media have actually released Urotsukidoji: The Movie on BLU-RAY. I've been waiting for this ever since the original announcement, and even with Media Blasters' hit-or-miss quality control, I ordered a copy as soon as I realized it was available.

When this son of a bitch gets here I'm strictly going to talk about the quality of the release - how it looks and how it sounds and how it's subtitled, and anything else that seems relevant. Media Blasters probably didnn't know this, but this could forever change how I view them... they're dealing with something amazing here, something sacred. If they treat it right, odds are I'll blindly give them money for anything for the next decade solely out of respect for finally giving me an excuse to toss out my Japanese VHS, LD and CPM DVD copies of "The Movie". But I swear to the übergod, if they've pulled another stunt like they did with Versus, Zombie Holocaust,or even... *gulp* Ichi the Killer...

We'll just have to wait and see, won't we?

Friday, July 22, 2011

How to Milk Your Dragon

FUNimation entered the DVD market in 2000 with "Dragon Ball Z: Captain Ginyuu - Assault". A decade-plus later this all seems so quaint, but Dragon Ball Z  - Toriyama Akira's fantasy/action show about, essentially, burly spacemen with pointy hair melting each other with fireballs - was arguably the anime series that forever changed the face of the industry, and even cultural perception of the art form as we know it today. Well, that show coupled with the ever-growing DVD format and Cartoon Network's shockingly lax standards and practices board helped, but that's another discussion for another time...

It was considered something of a milestone simply because it was one of the very first anime DVDs for a "mainstream" title currently on basic cable broadcast to be released both unedited, and with the original Japanese dialog plus accurate English subtitles as a viewing option. At the time, $24.99 bought you three or maybe four episodes in a keepcase with no extras, and I daresay most fans were pretty happy to see it. To FUNimation's credit, they released from episode 68-291 in "single" DVD volumes from start to finish, milking fans for $6.25-8.33 an episode at MSRP... and at the time, after nothing but years of heavily edited VHS, it was still a step in the right direction. Keep in mind this was also an era when Hollywood mainstays were shitting out an old LD transfer onto a single-layered disc was regularly considered "good enough", so the mere fact that you didn't need a VCR to watch Gokuu and Vegeta beat the snot out of the Ginyuu Special Forces was probably a novelty unto itself back when.

Back in 2000, FUNimation still didn't have the rights to release the first 67 episodes (/the first 53 English episodes... the butchering of this series was remarkably insane), due to Saban and Trimark still holding those reigns as distributor. When the rights lapsed in 2004, FUNimation announced they were going to release the "Ultimate Uncut Special Edition" versions of the first 67 episodes at the same price as the rest of their singles. It included a "new" English dub to match consistency with the rest of the show FUNimation had since dubbed internally instead of outsourcing to Ocean Studios, but otherwise the only thing 'special' about it was the fact that it was uncut in the US for the very first time. For better or worse, they made it to episode 27 before canceling the release outright, with only vague news that a "big announcement" was coming - leaving all of those poor schmucks who had bought the artboxes empty slots in the process. (I know! Total asshole move, right?)

After ramming only one-third of their Ultimate Uncut release up consumer's less than healed collective ass, in 2006, it was announced that FUNimation was going to re-release the entire TV series remastered in High Definition... but on DVD. These transfers were based on FUNimation's own well-worn Interpositive prints (which I assume are second-generation materials, but have no way to be certain), were matted in a faux-widescreen ratio, and the whole image was hastily smeared into obscurity with grain removal and scratch repair filters, not to mention overzealous saturation boosting that left colors positively atomic. The release was a clusterfuck of epic proportions... but it also meant you could purchase 39 episodes of Dragon Ball Z for $50, or the price of six fucking episodes based on the price of the old singles model. The quality may well have been shit, but at that price, even a turd wrapped in bacon begins to taste like filet mignon. For $450 MSRP, you could have the whole series, and the footprint from their unimpressive "Orange Brick" digipack casing would only take up a small bookshelf instead of an entire tool shed.

Once the "Remastered" seasons were finished in 2009, FUNimation stunned the miniscule public that cares about this sort of thing and announced - not Dragon Ball Kai -  but the release of the Japanese remastered "Dragon Box" collection. The Dragon Box masters were made from Toei's own vaulted IPs in the show's original 4:3 broadcast aspect ratio, had a substantially higher quality frame-by-frame restoration, and is still largely considered the ideal presentation for the show despite the transfers being several years old now. Pieces were said to be strictly limited to the first pressing, and the first set contained 42 episodes at an $80 MSRP - but to FUNimation's credit, that included a handsome chip-board box, two glossy digipacks and a translated hard cover booklet flowing with liner notes. By the time the second set came out the MSRP on both had dropped to $60 a piece, which means even if you bought the first set at full price this release will still set you back slightly less than the prior "Remastered" season sets.

In 2010, FUNimation announced that they would be releasing Toei's "Revival" version, Dragon Ball Kai, which features most of the same animation but an all new score and re-done digital effects. Neato, right? Well, the first rule about Dragon Ball Kai is that you do not talk about Dragon Ball Kai. The second rule about Dragon Ball Kai is that you mention the first four FUNimation sets are being phased out due to soundtrack legalities in favor of heftier box sets with the 'original' Dragon Ball Z score, and move on.

It's 2011 now. Blu-ray has more or less become the HD standard as DVD sales continue to dwindle, and there's literally no way left for FUNimation to add a new hat to a DVD release anyone would be willing to pay for. So what's a massive franchise owning company to do? That's easy - they milk their shitty HD transfers from 2006 all over again! There's no mention of the aspect ratio, or of the film having been re-scanned, or anything beyond the vague notion that they're using "newer technology" to clean up everything they fucked up so stunningly several years ago for this upcoming "Level 1.1" Blu-ray. The fact that they'd neglect to mention things like aspect ratio after months of vocal and violent internet hullabaloo about it, and even mention the name of the same stinkin' colorist that must be held responsible for trying to explain away the 16:9 widescreen fiasco, leaves me with only one sensible conclusion: They're pulling their 2006 "Remastered" Orange Brick materials out of storage and are crapping them out with a fresh layer of turd polish, hoping nobody will notice and assume that since holy hell, it's the original DBZ on Blu-ray, so it MUST be worth whatever price they're asking for.

The absolute funniest part is that the set only has 17 goddamn episodes, meaning - if we were use the DB Kai pricing ($35 per set) on the assumption that this will be a total of 17 releases - you'll have to spend $595 MSRP for an HD transfer that everyone who remotely cares already knows is a pile of crap!! The stones on Gen Fukunaga may not compare to the immeasurably tempered steel balls of Albert "Here's Captain America Upscaled For $9 Extra" Pyun, but that's still some pretty hardcore cajones-flapping on his part.

So... Dragon Ball Z Level 1.1 is for this guy?

FUNImation, I just want you to explain one thing... who the heck is this release even for? People who are concerned with image and sound fidelity enough that they turn up their noses at the inferior DVD presentation, but also don't give a shit that the masters are cropped and filtered beyond recognition? Is that even a market demographic matching that description, or are you guys just doing this to give people watching your history a fucking migraine?

We get it, Dragon Ball Z is the monkey that laid the golden egg. That's a fire you have to keep stoking, just to make sure pop-culture hasn't forgotten that Majin Buu literally killed everyone. (He did, too. Look it up.)  But if you get anything besides dust from Son Gokuu's chiseled bosoms this time, there really is no justice in the world.