Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Deader By Dawn

Oh, silly Turkey! Fright Night and The Keep
are not proper poster elements of Evil Dead II...

By now, all of you reading this probably own the Lionsgate 25th anniversary edition of Sam Raimi's EVIL DEAD II. A fusion of extreme gore fueled terror and Three Stooges shenanigans, it easily ranks as one of the top five splatstick horror comedies ever made, and single handedly catapulted Bruce Campbell from "that one pussy who survives in the first Evil Dead flick" to the constantly abused one-liner quipping B-movie icon we know and love today... and wish would stop directing. What? We're all thinking it, damn it!

Certainly Sam Raimi's prior The Evil Dead had a streak of black humor, but there's no doubt in my mind that the film was primarily - as the staff themselves snuck into the end credits - a "grueling terror" film with much of the schlockier moments emerging from the ineptitude that's bound to happen when even talented college kids are tackling their first feature film. Perhaps sensing that the film's sillier elements were its strongest, the sequel embraces them fully, going so far that any pretenses it may have had of being a serious fright film are, quite literally, lopped off at the wrist and then hidden under a dust bin and weighted with a copy of A Farewell to Arms. Though hardly the first gruesome horror-comedy of the modern age - Day of the Dead, An American Werewolf in London, and Basket Case all beat Raimi to the punch of making the graphic violence so over the top it became an intentional joke - it's still easily one of the best fusions of graphic violence and vaudevillian yucks, with only awe-inspiring masterpieces like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part 2, Re-Animator, Braindead, Kakugo no Susume or the entire combined Troma catalog even threatening to topple it as reigning champion.





Original Trailer - Now available in Nth-Gen Vision!

It's at times been accused of remaking the first film, but in reality it only summarizes Shelly's demise because Raimi couldn't legally access footage from his own earlier film. It ranks as some of the most ridiculous make-up effects in the KNB EFX Group's history, but that's not a complaint; the whole film's purpose is to use the tropes of the 70s horror film to make the audience laugh, not scream, so Raimi's on set calls of "bring in the muppet!" couldn't have been any more spot on. The film is an absolute success as dragging the original Evil Dead film's legacy of tree rape and brutal dismemberment through the lens of Tom and Jerry (with substantially more viscera).

This entire film franchise has had more fucking video releases than any one man should legally be allowed to keep track of. So ignoring numerous VHS, Laserdisc and import releases, we've been treated to no less than FOUR noteworthy home video editions in the last decade or so:

* Anchor Bay's 2000 DVD (Digitally Mastered by THX)
- This DVD was also available in a limited edition oversize tin. Goddamn, Anchor Bay...

* Anchor Bay's 2005 "Book of the Dead 2" Divimax DVD
- This comes packaged in a rubber replica of The Necronomicon. It screams!

* Anchor Bay's 2007 Divimax Blu-ray
- Same master as the 2005 Book of the Dead 2 DVD. Uh-oh.

* Lionsgate's 2011 25th Anniversary Blu-ray
- The version we'll look at today.

Now let's not mince words on this one: The 2000 "THX DVD" was a phenomenal presentation for a DVD release. Color timing was spot on, there was nothing in the way of offensive digital manipulation, and the correct 1.85:1 framing left the inclusion of the 4:3 open-matte version slightly redundant - but kudos for slapping it on there anyway. Compression wasn't ideal due to bitrates under 5 Mb/s, but it was still a reference release ten years ago.

Now direct your attention to THIS COMPARISON between the 2000 "THX DVD" and the 2005 "Book of the Dead 2" DVD. Notice anything wrong? Like the textures in the background missing in the first shot, or Bruce's face becoming a faded waxy mask in the third? These are the unfortunate side effects of digital noise and grain removal tools. Mrs. Kentai, being the awesome lady that she is, bought me the overpriced squishy BOTD2 edition, only for me to usurp her thoughtful gift months later with the THX DVD, once I found it for peanuts in a bargain bin. Yes, it was that disappointing... worse yet, it was one of Anchor Bay's "Divimax" titles, the name they gave to their HD restoration process, so when they announced a Blu-ray in 2007, I think everyone within ear shot expected the worst... and man, we got it. The initial Anchor Bay Blu-ray was such a smeared, washed out, and thoroughly rotten affair that the THX DVD is - in many ways - a less awful way to experience the film. Yes, I realize what I've just said: the 480i THX DVD was preferable to the 1080p Blu-ray, for the mere fact that at least the DVD's shortcomings weren't enhancements added by an overzealous attempt to "fix" a mid '80s splatter film by removing the grain and pumping up the gamma to 'brighten up' the intentionally dark film.



So here we are in 2011. Once again, Evil Dead II has a new home video release. I'm glad to say that I am never, ever going to feel compelled to buy it again. And I fucking mean it this time.

Let's start with the new 2K transfer and see the results compared with the Divimax Blu-ray, courtesy of those cool cats at Caps-A-Holic: HOLY SHIT, THAT'S AN IMPROVEMENT!! Honestly, there's perhaps never been a more literal example of a Blu-ray wiping its digital ass with the prior HD release. The difference between this and the Anchor Bay BD - forget any DVDs you're hoarding! - is simply night and day. Just look at the pretty pictures, take your time and enjoy the view. Thankfully, there isn't much dour to say: Levels look natural and film-like, without any major clipping or black crush. Bitrates are through the roof and compression artifacts or banding are a total non-issue. There's very minor specs through the print, but none of it's especially distracting or even noteworthy - you'll know you're looking at 35mm, and it suggests that they've done very little to scrub the print clean. In the scheme of things it looks damn good, and in my eyes, Evil Dead 2: The 25th Anniversary Edition deserved no less.

That said, I do suspect that there's been a thin layer of noise reduction applied here - or maybe a similar temporal process (stabilization? deflicker?) that's slightly dulled the grain structure, giving the texture of the film itself a slightly hazy look in motion - not so much in stills, which isn't a bad thing. We also have the following quote from Michael Felsher, the Blu-ray's executive producer on the matter, which doesn't do much dissuade my opinions:

"I'll admit its hard for me to be objective in some ways, but having just viewed the new transfer of EVIL DEAD II for the first time, I have to say this lays to waste any version of the film you've ever seen before. Lionsgate really stepped up to the plate for this one. Deep rich colors, natural healthy film grain, sparing use of noise reduction, and practically blemish free. This is the first time the original negative was used to create a home video transfer for this title, and it shows!"

It does indeed, sir. Having seen a number of recent Lionsgate BD titles (The Crow and Pulp Fiction spring to mind) I'm starting to think this minor level of filtering is just standard practice for their encoder? What with every effort made to ensure that the new HD master is as high quality as possible, it'd be odd to apply even a minor pass of noise reduction - unless that minor temporal smoothing is just what their AVC encoder tends to do? The film's reliance on dim lighting, soft focus and optical effects meant it was never going to look razor sharp to start with, so this is less me complaining about the disc looking bad, and more me scratching my head and wondering why it looks that way. It doesn't have obvious static grain or temporal smearing,  so perhaps this is all in my head? At the very least, the Audio Video Science forum is full of other people who are seeing the exact same thing, so if I am crazy it's one of those weird mass-hysterias where dozens of unrelated people are going crazy at the exact same time.

If you're on the fence here, don't read too much into this technical niggling I'm doing. Just like the Rurouni Kenshin Blu-rays I spoke of earlier this year, I don't think the disc looks "poor" - far from it! If I made it a habit of doling out numbers for discs this'd probably be in the High 8s, while that earlier Anchor Bay atrocity would rot somewhere in the 4s. It ain't bad, that's for sure. It's just a little odd looking, and I wish I could put my finger on why.

That said, I'm not nearly as impressed by the audio. Don't misunderstand, I have little doubt that the all new 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is a reasonably accurate recreation of the theatrical experience, but with added clarity and some largely warranted directionality. Despite being released in 1987 and Dolby Stereo having more or less become the worldwide standard in theaters, the original mix for Evil Dead II seems to have been a vanilla mono track, and it's low-budget origins show through to a fault with this slightly dull, unimpressive sounding track. There's substantially less background hiss on the new Blu-ray than there was of the 2005 DVD, but I think Anchor Bay's earlier surround mix pumped everything - music, dialog and sound effects - to the point of booming homogeneity, and as such things like the switch in levels from on set dialog to post-dubbing ("Workshed!" springs to mind.) became all the more noticeable on Blu-ray. There's nothing wrong with the remix that I could spot, it just shows off the seams in the original sound design in a way no previous digital release has. As is so often the case with vintage independent horror films it doesn't sound very good, objectively speaking... it just kind of sounds like Evil Dead II, and that's how it'll always sound. There's no original mono track for comparison, but there wasn't for any of the prior DVD/BD releases of the film either, so whatever.

The star attraction in the Bonus Features department is the all new Swallowed Souls: The Making of Evil Dead II, a 98 minute making-of feature produced by Red Shirt Pictures that runs 14 minutes longer than the actual film(!), with talking heads from virtually everyone involved in the making of the movie - well you know, except for Sam goddamn Raimi, which seems just a little weird. Despite having literally gone right back into splatstick territory after having finished his Spider-Man trilogy and having both overseen the new HD transfers and recorded a new commentary for The Evil Dead, his presence is sorely lacking on these new bonus features and he has yet to have been mentioned once in reference to the transfer work. It's a little strange that he'd show so much affection for The Evil Dead and then wash his hands of the sequel a year later,

Now don't get me wrong, I love me some Evil Dead II and it's nice to see it get a polished and focused behind-the-scenes documentary after years of random on-set photos with some lacking-in-narration context. But somehow this all seems just a little... excessive. Maybe with Sam on tap, it wouldn't seem that way? I'll watch the damn thing, make no mistake, it just strikes me as a little over the top. There's also 30 minutes of KNB behind-the-scenes camcorder footage including deleted scenes once only available on shoddy gray-area bootleg tapes, which is pretty goddamn awesome. Also, 8 minutes of location scouting. Not to be a ponce to Red Shirt for their dedication or anything, but do people actually like these things? I always try to watch them, being an OCD crazy person and all that, but I can't remember not being bored out of my skull with any of these clips that are always "Here's a building. 25 years ago, it looked like this. Now it's... basically the same except, except it's got nicer green roof tiles and there's a Taco Bell next to it instead of a gas station." I'm sure this one's as good as any other, but is there really a demand for them?

The extras train hasn't pulled into the station quite yet: We also get Anchor Bay's old "Behind the Screams" and "The Gore The Merrier" DVD featurettes,  and of course the LD Sam Raimi/Bruce Campbell commentary track, the original theatrical trailer and a host of still galleries. Seriously, the only reason you might have to hang on to your THX DVD is the 4:3 open-matte version, but unlike the original Evil Dead, nobody has ever really questioned ED2's 1.85:1 aspect ratio as being the ideal way to see the film. The old 4:3 print certainly has more vertical information, but that doesn't by default mean any of that information is vital to the framing.

If there was one real purists complaint to be leveled at this release, it'd likely be the lack of a pair of wires, scrubbed back to the beyond through digital magic - one of them yanking Bruce Campbell out of a shattering windshield, and another rocketing a rubber eye out of Ted Raimi's skull into someone's screaming mouth. These minor alterations were actually on the BOTD2 'Divimax' master as well, so we can only assume they're something Raimi himself has requested. He's had a hand in fussing around with the Evil Dead trilogy on multiple occasions in the last ten years - removing a crew member here, or a spotlight there - but they've always been fairly inoffensive, technical gaffes. Don't worry, Ted Raimi's stop-motion transformation into a skeletal ghoul hasn't been replaced with CGI or anything! If you want to see the wire sticking out of the bottom of the flying eyeball you'll have to hang onto your THX DVD, but I really can't say I'm all that irked about it personally.

The 25th Anniversary Blu-ray is literally selling for less than twelve bucks everywhere. Amazon, Wal-Mart, Deep Discount, your mom's house and so on. It's "Region A" locked for those that need to know that sort of thing, and comes in a typical blue keepcase. Don't bother waiting for the 30th Anniversary, Evil Dead II isn't going to get any better or cheaper than this. If you like the flick - heck, even if you hate it - there's little reason to hold back or wait for anything better to come along. Lionsgate has done the film proud, and I can safely retire every single prior release forever. Groovy.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cut A Centipede In Half


Having had a brief look at the UK home video edit of HUMAN CENTIPEDE 2 [FULL SEQUENCE], I can confirm that - though still heavily cut by the BBFC for its "18" Certificate - there's at least two sequences present on the British version not available on the North American "On Demand" cut. Don't go reaching for your Mastercards so fast, boys - while it includes some footgae not available locally, that comes at the cost of over 30 cuts when compared to the US version, and there are actually jump cuts in BOTH of the "extended" UK scenes, so it's not as if cobbling the two versions together would recreate the uncut version anyway.

Without anything more solid at hand, here's the runtimes of the two versions floating around, minus warnings and dead space at the end of the credits of the former:

ON-DEMAND VERSION: 1:27:33
UK BLU-RAY VERSION: 1:27:51

The BBFC website says that the original, rejected version ran 1:26:50 - but that was on video, which in the UK implies a PAL runtime that's about 4% shorter than its theatrical incarnation would be. All we know for sure anymore is that the UK DVD is two and a half minutes shorter than its submitted length - roughly 2:37 shorter on Blu-ray. With that in mind we can assume that the complete, uncensored, 24fps runtime for the film is between 90 and 91 minutes - don't forget that runtimes are fickle bastards if studio logos or dead space at the end of the credits are included, so it's difficult to say anything conclusively without having an uncut version on hand to compare everything with... all I know for sure at this point is that the UK version restores two sequences not present on the On-Demand version, while the On-Demand version has numerous sequences cut from the UK version.

To make matters even more frustrating, there appears to be an alternate take to smooth over the big scene missing from the On-Demand cut! Without too many blatant spoilers (for now), I'll say that this shot is exclusive to the US release, and that the version submitted to the BBFC plays out VERY differently:


This shot is less than 3 seconds long, but it does leave me curious if the On-Demand version has any other footage not included in the UK Blu-ray that aren't directly related to all of those BBFC jump-cuts? Maybe if the Australian Classification Board bows to pressure and bans this after having cleared it once before (just like they did for A SERBIAN FILM), I'll be stuck being the asshole to provide a side-by-side edit report.

Frustratingly, there seems to be no US video release date in sight. With a due-date on Valentine's Day and a listed runtime of 88 minutes, we'll just have to wait and see what happens. Not that I expect IFC to grow a big enough pair to release the complete, original version of the film, barbed wire included, but it'll be nice to know for sure...

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

This is Bullsquid

Yeah, I just Blu'd myself. What's the squidding problem?

Forgive a moment of unfocused and incessant disgust... it's been a long ass week, and I'm just in the sort of mood where I'd like to see the world kicked in the balls. Repeatedly.

So, here's a fun little story: Back in August, someone asked Media Blasters' Faceplace if there was any chance of seeing the 2010 comedy anime SQUID GIRL/侵略!イカ娘 on Blu-ray, and not just DVD. As you can see, Media Blasters' public relations guru and CEO, John Sirabella, replied with a pretty straight forward negative:

"Not sure about Bakuman but right now I do not see a Blu Ray of Squid Girl."

The first DVD came out at the tail end of September, and the second DVD is due to ship the first week of December. I was ready to shrug it off as a sign of the times; Blu-ray replication is still expensive and anime consumers willing to pay for it are few and far between, so the fact that this title was destined for an SD only release was pretty much the natural result of the dwindling mar--

Oh wait! How silly of me. RightStuf announced the SQUID GIRL SEASON 1 BLU-RAY, just last week.

So let me get this straight: They're taking pre-orders after lying to their public and convincing them to spend $25 (minus the usual discounts) on the first DVD? And it's coming out, like, 3 fucking months after the second DVD - not a year, not six months, but three?!

I realize that a history of substandard quality on DVD and delaying even your few decent Blu-ray releases by anywhere from 3 months to a fucking year has left even the most dedicated of Media Blasters employees with a minimal sense of shame or pride, but to announce it as coming out 3 months after the second DVD - much less announcing it AFTER he's told the public to go buy the DVD, 'cause there ain't no fucking Blu-ray in sight? For real-real?

That's a dick move. Even for Media Blasters.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

We Gotta Blu-ray (Part 2)

ON THE LAST EPISODE OF KENTAI FILMS VS DRAGON BALL Z:

Kentai spilled his guts like a crying little girl over how much a cartoon about panties and punching aliens changed his life. What a loser! Can he redeem himself with a thorough and scientific review of the new FUNimation Level 1.1 Blu-ray?

BLU-RAY IS THE HOPE OF THE UNIVERSE!!
FUNimation, You Guys Are... All Right?

The final Dragon Box DVD set has been available for only a month. The last 23 episodes of Dragon Ball Kai have yet to even get a firm release date on home video in the states. It's truly a weird time to decide that RIGHT FUCKIN' NOW is the best possible time to release the first 17 episodes of Dragon Ball Z on Blu-ray, but I suppose a combination of the looming holiday shopping spree and the perceived thread of the "original" '89 version of Dragon Ball Z being seen as irrelevant with the completion of Dragon Ball Kai make their timing as smart as any...


Before I dissect the release for it's literal quality, I need to talk about the "Level X.Y" system. On the packaging they show a breakdown of what each set will contain, breaking DBZ down into 18 bite-sized Blu-ray chunks with 16-17 episodes each. Level 1.1 comes out on November and Level 1.2 comes out in December, with no set date for 2.1/2.2 (as of this writing, anyway). FUNimation is still performing this restoration work, and likely they will be for the next several years, so breaking them down into smaller chunks with a brief gap in between every two is actually pretty smart; it gives the illusion of these sets being inexplicably cheap, but by breaking those 18 sets into 9 designated "Levels" with a small gap between each half, they've given FUNimation more time to restore the show and buyers' wallets a little bit of breathing room. At the end of the day the MSRP is $45 for about 17 episodes, but with the magic of Amazon and big box retailers you can get them for less than half that... all things considered, I paid $1.25 an episode for "Level 1.1". Having experienced the pain of buying three episodes on a VHS tape for $20, and later four episodes on DVD for $30, I can't help but see this release as a damned good deal even at full retail. Obviously it's not as cheap as the widescreen DVD "Season" sets, no, but frankly that's akin to saying that a fresh cut of fillet mignon isn't as cheap as a McDonalds cheeseburger.

The packaging itself is fine. Gokuu, an orange stripe on the side, a bunch of goofy text hiding in the background including the cringe-worthy "Doragon Boru Zetto" romanization that not even the saddest weeaboo has used since '99, and English Goku's "I am the hope of the Universe!" speech that more or less signified FUNimation's upheaval of the English dub circa Cartoon Network's "Season 3" from around the same time period. I won't call this a nostalgia release, but they are tugging on shit that fans of both sides of the linguistic fence will recognize, and it's brilliantly evil. The discs are packed inside of a standard double BD keepcase inside a nonchalant cardboard sleeve, and there's nice little Chris Sabat/Vegeta profile card with a printed 'signature' inside for the dub fans - which seems silly, since Vegeta doesn't land until "Level 1.2" AND he gets the cover for that release. It's not exactly a classy chipboard affair like the Dragon Boxes, but other than the tacky prose floating behind the star of the show, it's perfectly fine.

Bonus features are limited, but include the expected "Creditless" Openings and Endings - which is almost completely redundant, for reasons I'll get into at some point. Aside from trailers for other FUNimation titles, the only real bonus feature - and it's short length perhaps belies its importance - is DRAGON BALL Z: FILM TO BLU-RAY (7:48), essentially an interview with the FUNimation video restoration staff, and the colorist who oversaw the FUNimation HD telecine... again.

Redemption time, come on - tell your friends!

"I was asked this past year to re-color correct and re-scan Dragon Ball Z. But in order to make that work we have to, obviously, find a starting point to try to match the colors of the film as the, uh, creative guys, intended it to be.

So what we did is, I got a hold of our telcine analysis films, called TAF, and what we do is we align the telecine to match the color information - the grayscale - and the detail of that film."

There's another bit that bears quoting, and you'll see why shortly:

"Now the prints at that time - you had a lot of grain, but in standard def[inition] the grain was kind of smushed over because you didn't really "see" the grain. And now we're taking to HD, it's looking further into the film we're seeing more resolution, and one of the byproducts for resolution in any film is grain - grain is what gives us the resolution.

That's probably one of the most important things about this project is - trying to be as true, and honest, and do the proper "reproduction", if you will, of this film... I feel like we've accomplished making it look as true as it could possibly look."

Keep in mind this is the same guy who, five years ago, recorded this featurette where he defends cropping the series to 16:9, using automated grain/dirt removal tools, and "performing little to no color correction" on the prints themselves!


Everything that FUNimation did for the '06 DVD Remaster?
They basically did the exact opposite for the '11 Blu-ray.

Perhaps inadvertently, this new 7 minute piece has answered a lot of technical questions I've had from the very start regarding FUNimation's source materials and film lab. As you can just barely make out in the video itself, the telecine device appears to be a Spirit Datacine SDC 2000 - the same machine they used five years prior - and the 16mm prints themselves being scanned appear to be 16mm negatives, suggesting that FUNimation has second-generation Internegative prints, not third generation positive prints as I'd long suspected... but the prints they show in the previous restoration featurette of the OP footage appear to be a positive. It's really not enough information to go by definitively - no nice long shots of a film can saying "Master Positive" like Criterion showed off for Godzilla - but it'll suffice to say FUNimation has a mix of Positive and Negative elements at their disposal.

Why is all of this important? Every generation away from "Generation 0" (that is the, original camera negatives) introduces additional grain, print damage, color degradation and other analog woes, so while FUNimation has done literally everything possible with their G2-G3 prints, it'd be physically impossible to make them look as good as the potential lurking on Toei's G0 negatives. Now that's not to say Toei isn't pretty good at fucking up negatives all on their own, but perhaps that's another discussion...

Four Perfect Strangers... One Perfect Restoration?

The rest of the video talks about the restoration of each episode, admittedly in very broad and basic terms - dirt removal, splice fixes, flicker reduction, gate weave removal, all of that good stuff that prevents HD transfers from looking like chewed up grindhouse prints. There are numerous split-screen examples, some of which are legitimately impressive. It's a shame they keep cutting the damned thing like it's a super badass heist movie or something, because these four people pictured are the life-blood of this restoration. They ARE Level X.Y, when you get right down to it, and loathe as I am to give Fukunaga's crew any real credit, FUNimation restored the show the right way this time, and it's no small task for a single 90 minute film, much less 291 TV episodes. This involves manually painting away all debris and stains on the print, stabilizing frame jitter with complex algorithms... they basically do the same shit I do for free, except they have much better hardware AND they're getting salaries for it. I won't say I envy them - doing this stuff right is hard and often thankless work - but I have a lot of real respect for the work they're doing, and I have to say that, by and large, it's top notch stuff. Oh yes, it IS better than the similar "frame by frame" restoration that Toei gave the Dragon Boxes some eight years ago, but considering we already have the Dragon Boxes in North America, I guess it... kind of had to be.

The only part of that caused me to raise a brow was the following quote from one of the four FUNimation in-house video engineers:

"After the steady pass, the last couple of filters that we apply - the first of which helps reduce the flicker that's evident in our print, the second process is the grain and noise - in order to make this the truest representation possible of the original master."

...I'm sorry, I must have had a bit of crazy in my ear. Did you just admit, after everything even that idiot colorist Franko said about "grain being the resolution of film"*, which is absolutely a true statement by the way, that the final pass is a "grain and noise" pass? The audio actually cuts out after the word 'noise' - but the image speaks for itself:

IT'S A MOTHER FUCKING GRAIN REMOVAL PASS!!

I fully understand that DVNR has some legitimate uses in the post-production world. For one thing, a light pass of noise reduction can help an encoder not create ugly quant-based artifacts like macroblocking, and with FUNimation squeezing 9 episodes on each disc, you're getting an average bitrate of about 22-23 Mb/s, or just slightly higher than half of Blu-ray's full potential. Another issue is that because FUNimation is using second generation prints - rather than the camera negatives, or even new fine-grain interpositives - there are "extra" layers of grain on the material that aren't necessarily the most desired levels of grain available.

The DVNR isn't anywhere NEAR as destructive as it was on the '06 DVD remaster, and as we'll soon see it's actually left a very thick layer of relatively natural looking 16mm grain through this 17 episode set. Had they not said anything I probably would have given FUNimation the benefit of the doubt and assumed that the "weird" look to the grain - a slightly uneven, "patchy" look you could say - was merely the result of their compression, not intentional filtering. A shame they had to open their mouths and essentially spell out that they were doing something even their idiot colorist says, point blank, is a bad idea... but, fuck it. At least they aren't lying to us about it, I guess?

...did I speak too soon?!

The restoration special also includes the following comparison between the Dragon Box and Level 1.1 - cool, right? It would be except for one little problem - it's bullshit, for a number of reasons. First off, see that little oval-shaped tag in the bottom-right hand corner hiding underneath the "HD RESTORED" box? That's an EIRIN Certificate number, which are only given to theatrical movies approved for public exhibition in Japan. So, FUNi's "Clean" OP is from an archival print of the first Dragon Ball Z movie, or 'The Dead Zone', NOT an archival print that would have been used for the TV series. Secondly, the Dragon Box footage they're using has credits laid on top of it, which in 1989 would have been optically printed onto the film, causing further analog degradation of the print. Finally, the opening/ending footage would have been animated on 35mm and then resized to 16mm after the episode titles were applied - the larger format film makes including credits  easier, after all. The opening footage is, in terms of real-world resolution, the absolute worst point of comparison FUNimation could have chosen. A random scene from the middle of any episode would be MUCH more revealing in wither or not the FUNi HD remaster is a big step up from the Toei SD Dragon Boxes.

If that's the game FUNimation wants to play, fuck 'em. Kentai's here to make some REAL 1:1 comparisons using the American Dragon Box transfers. This is as real and accurate a comparison between the Dragon Box R1 DVD and Level 1.1 Blu-ray as it's going to get. No YouTube split-screens compressed down to 6 Mb/s, no 35mm footage shenanigans, and no goddamn smushy JPGs made without a clear concept of how to accurately represent the source. Just a flat-out old fashioned A/B Blu-ray vs DVD slugfest... just as Toriyama would have intended.

Samples were taken more or less at random from episodes 1-4. The Dragon Box images have been level-corrected to IRE0, resized to 1440x1080 in Photoshop CS3 using Bicubic, and then pasted into a 1920x1080 frame. The Blu-ray images are UNTOUCHED, saved as lossless PNG.

LEVEL 1.1 BLU-RAY On Top, DRAGON BOX DVD on Bottom:












Whew! Posting that many comparisons is enough to drive me crazier than usual...

*THE GOOD*

As you can see, the Blu-ray release might not be perfect, but still stands head and shoulders above the Dragon Box DVD in terms of image quality. Some (but not all) of the most notable improvements are as follows:

* The Blu-ray transfer has more of the frame exposed on all four sides


* The Blu-ray has much better outline definition and more visible 16mm grain

* The Blu-ray has substantially less gate-weave than the DVD

* The Blu-ray has, scene to scene, less print damage than the DVD

All of these are, in no uncertain terms, positive changes compared to the Dragon Box transfers. Broadly speaking, Dragon Ball Z looks fantastic in HD, and a hell of a lot better than I ever expected to see it outside of Dragon Ball Kai. Grain Removal processes or not, the show looks sharp as a tack and there's plenty of gritty 16mm texture left over from whatever filters FUNi has subjected their restoration to... I honestly expect that plenty of viewers who don't objectively love seeing film grain will be a little turned off by the way the new Blu-ray looks, but lucky for them virtually all HDTV's have built in DVNR settings they can experiment with, and lucky for us, FUNimation has clearly used a fairly light touch on the temporal dial. There's still some gate weave, flicker and dirt embedded into the prints, but compared to the Dragon Box, the results are still impressive.

One must keep in mind that this is a restoration of a 16mm low-budget TV series from multi-generational elements, not a Disney styled "trace the original frames, average in the backgrounds and let the computer sort it out" affair. Being able to literally see the hand-crafted flaws and gritty film texture without an excessive level of damage is something I personally adore. Mind you it's not as crisp and clean as Dragon Ball Kai, but Kai is a combination of the 16mm negatives, heavy handed digital tampering and brand new cuts of digital animation. Dragon Ball Z can't, and perhaps shouldn't look as "pretty" and modern as Dragon Ball Kai does. Dragon Ball Z has been preserved with just enough of the original production warts that there's no question we're looking at a title produced in 1989, but I think the minor level of analog issues baked into the materials only add to the authenticity of the experience. Yes, the show could still look better - but only if the original negatives were used, and given the same level of frame by frame hand-holding. FUNimation's given us what they've got, and they aren't exactly pretty, but somehow that make seeing them in HD absolutely gorgeous. It was David Lynch who, a few years ago, when questioned about the move from celluloid to DV and High Definition video, so eloquently said that "film is beautiful". Wither or not you agree with him will have every level of impact on how much you enjoy this presentation.

What's less factual and more a matter of opinion are the accuracy of the colors. FUNimation hasn't exactly been shy in calling the "Level" Blu-ray release the original director-approved color scheme, but how did they come to that conclusion without Daisuke Nishio's involvement? The answer Franko gives us is the existance of Telecine Analysis Film, essentially celluloid test patterns that give a colorist the Kodak-approved "official" range of color that should be available on the appropriate film stock. It's not a be-all end-all point of reference like, say, a director approved Answer Print or actually having the film makers themselves on hand to look the process over since all sorts of things can go wrong between shooting and the final product, but it's a substantially better starting point than letting Franko just eyeball it and make shit up on the fly, which, by the way, is exactly what they did five years ago.

"But aren't the Dragon Boxes perfect?" you ask. Well, even old-school Japanese fans who have vintage first-generation recordings of the original broadcast as a point of reference AREN'T CONVINCED. Even by using the incredibly scientific method I like to call "holding the DVD cover up next to the screenshot", it becomes easy to see that the Dragon Box - while certainly better than anything FUNimation has ever given us before! - is visibly oversaturated. Gokuu's orange gi practically glows with firey passion, and his flesh has an uncomfortably pink hue. Also take note of the sky and the shading of the clouds in the last few screenshots - on the Dragon Box it's an unappealing shade of teal, while on the new Blu-ray transfer it's a much more neutral shade of blue with happy, fluffy white clouds. For the last several images in particular, I can't say with any level of historic certainty that the Blu-ray transfer is "better", but I know it looks a heck of a lot more naturalistic. If I had to guess (and you just know I do), I'd say that Toei pumped the saturation up on their DVD transfers, likely to give the image just a little more "pop" and make Dragon Ball Z look as bright and appealing as it could, regardless of the damage it might have been doing to the colors as a whole.

Where it gets confusing are the caps from the first episode. Check out Raditz' hand, or the shot of Gokuu jumping through the trees. Once more the DVD looks oversaturated, but here the Blu-ray looks too dark, obscuring shadow detail and clipping whites, similar to someone adjusting the contrast on a TV set. That's a little strange, isn't it? That the first episode looks notably worse than the next 16 or so? Well, according to episode #0278 of the Daizenshuu EX podcast, the FUNimation print of Episode 1 - which has been used since the original American broadcast in '96 - has always looked worse than the rest of the first "season" (Japanese episodes 1-36)! Their best guess is that FUNimation's print for the first episode, for whatever reason, is an extra generation removed from the rest of their initial run of Toei sourced 16mm prints. Is this true? I don't know, and Mike "VegettoEX" himself admits he isn't sure either... but for only a single episode to look substantially different, and for every prior incarnation of it to have had the same problems, it's as good an explanation as any I could theorize. Even with these contrast based anomolies the Blu-ray is a marked improvement over the Dragon Box, so while it's possible that some future episodes will look worse than others you can be reasonably assured that the Blu-ray quality will continue to topple the DVD.

The audio is actually even trickier one to categorize. I'll point everyone to THE FULL DISCUSSION on the Daizenshuu EX message board, and summarize it as such:  the original broadcast of Dragon Ball Z used the master "Cinetape" audio format. The Dragon Box and new Level Blu-ray are based on the optical soundtracks matched to their respective 16mm prints, and optical soundtracks simply aren't of an especially high quality to start with. It's assumed that Toei hasn't kept the Cinetape masters, though this has never been confirmed. In any case, the DTS-HD Master Audio (16-bit) for the original Japanese and two English tracks - one in 5.1 surround with the original Japanese score, and one in 2.0 stereo with the American broadcast music. You'll have to forgive me for considering the English dub for this show a no-man's land, but the Japanese audio... well, it sounds about as good as it ever has on home video. It's muffled and a little overly bass heavy, but it doesn't sound bad for being a vintage mono mix sourced from optical elements. It's been preserved as well as it can be, under the circumstances, so I can't imagine anyone remotely familiar with Dragon Ball Z's Japanese mix being too upset by the quality we get on Blu-ray. Much like the variable contrast and heavy grain on the video end, the limiting factor isn't FUNimation's work, it's the audio elements themselves.

*THE BAD*

Of course, this set almost couldn't exist without some caveats. Assuming the color balance is right, what did FUNi lose going from the Dragon Boxes to Blu-ray?

* OP footage is "clean"/ED footage has only main staff and English cast

* Japanese title cards have been replaced with English episode titles

* Next Episode Previews are not included

Remember how I said the inclusion of the "textless" songs was a moot point? Yeah, there's no credits during the show's opening itself - not even token "Animation by Toei, English version by FUNimation" or anything like that. You just straight up get the clean version of Cha-La Head Cha-La, which is fine, I guess. English credits are provided over Detekoi Tobikiri ZENKAI POWER, which includes only the main English dub cast and none of the Japanese actors. Main credits (producer, director, composer, etc) are given their due, as are many of FUNimation's staffers. Frankly my kanji knowledge is piss poor anyway, so while I do appreciate having things like the original cast list and episode directors on the Dragon Box, actually "reading" them requires a lot of squinting and kanji look-up on my part. It does make including the same exact OP footage as "bonus features" a little silly, but not anything to get upset about. And before I forget to mention it, the first opening  is actually from the first Dragon Ball Z theatrical movie - but not to worry! The footage is absolutely identical, barring the EIRIN Code number on the title card. The second opening won't appear until "Level 1.2", so I can't say yet if that'll be sourced from one of the movies as of this writing.

The replaced title cards, however, make me wince every single time I see them. Now I KNEW they would be there, and I guess if you watch the show dubbed in English - which is likely how a great number of consumers do - it's not at all an issue. If, however, you watch the show in Japanese you'll be treated to seeing THE NEW THREAT on-screen, while the narrator and subtitles call the episode "Mini-Goku is a Sheltered Boy! I am Gohan." It's jarring, but not outside of the norm for an American anime release, and is likely one of those stipulations that Toei would want to see in place anyway to prevent Japanese fans from satisfying their immense Dragon Ball lust with "cheap" American imports... not that anyone on the fence can't probably download a decent quality 720p rip of these transfers anyway, I suppose. What makes this doubly frustrating is that we know FUNi has access to the title cards because the single DVDs from '99 or so had them as an alternate video angle! In a horrible twist of fate, FUNimation gave up the alternate angles right when they got their shit together and figured out how to encode DVDs that didn't look like pixelated asshole, so while it was (at the time) something of an acceptable loss, it does suck to know that I have the original title card on DVD and now have these on Blu-ray.

Speaking of which, the Next Episode Previews - or "NEP", as fans more hardcore and jargon loving than even myself have come to call them - are MIA, too. Not that this should be a surprise; it's been pretty well documented that nobody outside of Japan got the previews on vintage 16mm elements, and the only reason the FUNimation broadcast version had them was because FUNimation basically created new previews on their own. I actually like the way the previews were put together, since they'd always have Nozawa playing Gokuu/Gohan and giving an in-character summary of the events to come, but they're always non-essential bits of footage we have from the next episode anyway, so it's not a big loss. I'd have loved to see them included solely so I could hold the Blu-ray up as having usurped the Dragon Boxes, but I can't say I'm weeping tears of blood over their loss.

And what of the technical prowess of FUNimation's encoding? It's on a regular basis that I diss a release for poor compression or wonky audio and all sorts of similar issues, and I have little reason to hold back on this one. To be perfectly honest, I'm split down the middle on the encode:  With an average bitrate of roughly 22-23 Mb/s (individual episode depending), the transfer is a major improvement over the DVD, but is perhaps unexceptional as a Blu-ray. The image of Raditz' hand gripping the side of his space pod should tell you everything you need to know; the image is consistently "grainy" to be sure, but it's also prone to pretty blatant macroblocking and patchy break-up when the grain overpowers that relatively meager bitrate. The only saving grace is that, because the show is consistently covered in a thick layer of grain, the macroblocks tend to "blend in" to the moving layers of analog movement better than screenshots can properly show. The artifacts are there, and if you're sensitive to MPEG-4 blocking you'll likely see them without too much of a struggle, but they're substantially easier to pick out when you hit the pause button than they are when it's actually playing at 24 frames a second.

*THE BLU-RAY*

I honestly wasn't sure what to make of FUNimation's announcement that their Blu-ray Remaster would be a brand new 4:3 scan from their archival elements with a 'real' frame by frame remaster... should I be excited that they're making up for their butchery of the "16:9 HD Remastered" Season DVD sets? Appalled that they were announcing them before either the Dragon Box or Dragon Ball Kai releases were even finished? I'm still not sure how I "feel" about this set sitting on my desk, but I can tell you that it looks and sounds pretty goddamn good, and it was surprisingly cheap. Exactly where on the "Owning Dragon Ball Z" spectrum you fall under should probably dictate how you treat this release, though:

Are you an OCD videophile who doesn't even want to touch a DVD anymore? Get it now. You're only fooling yourself by imagining that Toei's 2003 Digibetas with ghosting and oversaturated colors are "good enough".

Do you only own the "Season" widescreen DVDs and think they look "okay"? Skip it. This release is simply not for you, unless you want to empty out the Season DVDs and use them as ninja stars... which, actually, sounds kind of fun, doesn't it?

Have you been holding off on the series for too goddamn long? Consider buying the first Dragon Box as a reference of what you're actually missing, and then buy this as a litmus test. The second Dragon Box is already selling for $200 on Amazon, so your window to snatch up the whole show for MSRP or less has basically closed behind you.

Already own all 7 Dragon Boxes and are considering this release for the upgraded video? Well, how much shelf space have you got? The Dragon Ball Kai "Season" box set was almost the same price as buying Parts 1 and 2 together anyway, so unless you can't stand the thought of waiting between volumes or you absolutely need to keep a smaller footprint on your DVD shelf, there's probably not much incentive to wait another year to get "The Complete Level 1". That said, if you're just doing it to make FUNimation wait for your money after being such a dick about announcing this release before the last Dragon Box even came out, I can't say I'd blame you.

The Blu-ray has some niggling little annoyances, but on the whole I think this is by far the best looking and sounding presentation of "The Greatest Action Cartoon Of All Time" we've ever had. In the forseeable future, this is as good as it's going to get, and while I'm not convinced it's the best thing I've ever put my meager finances towards, I find myself oddly satisfied with the set sitting next to my Dragon Boxes. Dragon Ball Z in High Definition is a delicious treat for someone who cut his geek-teeth on (at times) literally unwatchable VHS tapes he bought back before eBay was a publicly traded company, and while I still can feel the aftershocks of that boundless rage that consumed me when FUNimation's initial "HD Remaster"came to light... well, that's all in the past. These sets, though a couple steps removed from ideal, are pretty fucking decent.

History does tend to repeat itself, I know, and I have little doubt that at some point before "Level 9.2" is released Toei will announce their own epic restoration of the series for Blu-ray... but how long will it take? Will it be caked in detail-smearing DVNR like the Galaxy Express films? Will you be willing to pay Japanese prices if their restoration is immaculate? The R2 Dragon Box release set Japanese fans back 100,000 yen each - that'd be $2,600 with today's exchange rate - and I can't imagine a new High Definition release would be any cheaper. FUNi's release will finish off with a retail price of about $810, and if you're a smart shopper odds are you'll get it for close to half that price.


Besides, we NEED that money. For bourbon.

So, there you have it. Pigs have flown, Hell has frozen over, and FUNimation has created a High Definition version of Dragon Ball Z that eclipses the Dragon Boxes... I'd say more, but it's clear the world is about to end, so I'm going to make peace with my family, eat a whole bunch of gummy bears, and have exactly as much sex as I can before the world simply ceases to exist. Because this, dear friends, is surely a sign of the end of days...

Unless, of course, the world keeps on spinning. In which case I'll probably be back sometime later on in the week.

-SPARKING!!-

*That's not entirely fair, I suppose. For all I know Franko's a smart guy - but, seriously, go watch the feature from the '06 16:9 DVD. He says "you'll see more!" when literally talking about cropping 25% of the film away. It's madness. MADNESS!! So either he is (or was?) an actual moron, or was really good at faking it five years ago... I'm not certain which would be more sad.

EDIT: One of the Dragon Box comparison images appears to be M.I.A, and I'm afraid I've long since deleted it from my hard drive. Thanks, Photobucket.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

...Wha?!


Ghana: The Turkey of the 21st century

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Discotek City


Yeah I know, I never talk about DVDs anymore. Blu-ray is finally starting to out-sell the SD competition, and the more DVDs I can sell for a dollar to FYE to replace with a High Definition version, the happier I am. Even so, several niche distributors focusing on cult titles like 1980s Japanese animation simply aren't at that level where releasing every title on Blu-ray is feasible, financially speaking, and so every now and then we'll have to make an exception and add yet another DVD to the shelf. Discotek Media/Eastern Star's recent R1 DVD release of KAWAJIRI Yoshiaki's supernatural action fantasy, DEMON CITY SHINJUKU/魔界都市<新宿>, based on the recently translated KIKUCHI Hideyuki novel of the same name happens to be one of those exceptions.

Since a few friends have asked if the new Discotek DVD is up to snuff, I decided to make a quick bitrate comparison between the new R1 and the 2007 Japanese Special Edition. The top graph is the Geneon DVD, the bottom is for Discotek DVD...

Sorry about the lingerie. Wasn't expecting company.


...or, maybe it's the other way around? I honestly don't remember, but it doesn't really matter because they're literally the exact same transfer. Same audio files, same video files. The menus, chapter stops and subtitles are ever so slightly different, which is why the VOB cutoff point differ, but the bitrate, source and encoding is exactly the same - an interesting oddity I noticed on Nozomi Entertainment's Revolutionary Girl Utena box sets, as well. The R2 DVD is an absolutely gorgeous affair restored in High Definition with a DTS Japanese remix, and the R1 release from Discotek mirrors it to perfection.

The transfer is absolutely stunning for a DVD, and if you still have the old CPM DVD, do yourself a favor: immediately set fire to it, and then throw it out of the window of a moving car. Yes, the remastered Discotek DVD is just that much of an improvement.

Subtitles appear to essentially be the same as the old CPM DVD, except all of CPM's hardsubs have been replaced with player generated subtitles. The CPM translation was by Neil Nadelman, so there was little to complain about. The villain's name in the original texts was "レヴィ・ラー ", or 'Levi Ra', as in the biblical name with the Egyptian sun-god suffix attached to it. The Discotek DVD subtitles use the spelling "Rebi Ra", which doesn't make a lot of sense... you see, the katakana [ヴィ] is used only to express a 'Vi' sound, so while "Revi" could theoretically be a proper romanization, "Rebi" is right out. But I doubt Discotek is to blame for this oddity, since the Kikuchi approved translation in the novel original novel also uses "Rebi Ra" - this looks like it could be one of those oddities where the Japanese creators aesthetically prefer a certain romanization, whether it's accurate or not, in which case the hands of the international licensor are sometimes completely tied.


Pictured: Another anime character with the same exact name in katakana.

The only other letdown in regards to the R1 DVD are the special features. The R2 has a total of six animatics showing Kawajiri's impressive pre-production storyboards set to finished music and dialog, while the R1 DVD has only the first scene of Levi Ra and Genichirou duking it out over Shinjuku. The R2 also had 100 character design sketches and a Kawajiri trailer show, though the latter isn't that big of a loss. The R1 DVD adds what appear to be the English credits from the old CPM version - nice to have, but not quite on par with the rest of the R2 features that went MIA.

Considering you can get the DVD from Discotek's own website for less than twenty bucks, it's absolutely worth getting. The R2 DVD will set you back nearly four times that before shipping fees, and you'd still be up a creek if you wanted to watch the feature subtitled. The pruned bonus features are unfortunate, but not by enough to keep me from recommending that any and all English speaking Kawajiri fans add this to their collection.

We Gotta Blu-ray (Part 1)

ON THE LAST EPISODE OF KENTAI FILMS VS DRAGON BALL Z:

Kentai has grown ever impatient over the news that American anime specialist label FUNimation has promised a fully restored High Definition Blu-ray release of one of his favorite anime series of his misplaced childhood, DRAGON BALL Z!

JOURNEY IN THE WORLD OF 1990s MEMORIES!!
Can 1080p Replace Bootleg VHS In Kentai's Heart?!

Some background is necessary, I think, for explaining what this series means to me on one of those weird personal levels. If you just want to know how the fucking Blu-ray release looks... well, you're gonna have to wait a couple of days. I want to do this right, and the first part of that will be presenting you with a snapshot of my life from the mid 1990s. Nostalgia equals Distortion, I know this, but to understand why I even care, we need to dig for the nuggets of madness in the vomit-filled sink of my younger years. So read on, friends... or don't. I'd maybe skip this sort of thing, depending on how rough a day I'd had when all I want to know is how the fucking thing looks, so if you do the same I won't judge you... to your face.

Let it not be said that Dragon Ball Z is a fine series, in the scope of serialized entertainment for Japanese eight year olds. That's not to try and trivialize the show's appeal by suggesting that it's especially juvenile or simplified, but I think parts of the Western world has long held a mistaken assumption that a cartoon that features the hero getting drilled through his abdomen by a corkscrew fireball in the fifth episode is some crazy underground affair that was made to appeal to college kids, like the [adult swim] block of programming that's delivered on The Venture Bros. but still owes us more Korgoth of Barbaria. Just so we're clear that the blood drenched, child traumatizing, and man ass fueled action of Dragon Ball and its' related franchise was firmly a money-making juggernaut not unlike He-Man, G.I. Joe or any other ridiculous parody of 1980s machismo most men my age seem to remember with a far greater sheen of rose tinting than I do:


That's some big pimpin' there, Gokuu.


Unlike shitty 80s American cartoons literally based off of ridiculous toy designs, however, Dragon Ball was a single creator driven concept, as has been more or less normal in Japan since the 1960s when the thought of animating local properties started with Mushi Pro and titles like Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, which in the context of me calling them "cartoons" forbids me from calling them Tetsuwan Atom and Jungle Tantei Leo.  The creator of Dragon Ball is a charming, wicked little imp of a man man named Akira Toriyama, who decided after a lengthy and successful run with the gag comedy Dr. Slump that he'd change up the pace by adapting the 16th century Chinese fairytale Journey to the West (sometimes simply known as "The Monkey King") in what was scientifically designed to be the single most ass way possible, with the snarky sinning macaque god San Wukong having been turned into an innocent adolescent boy who sets off on a quest with a precocious 16 year old stranger to recover magical artifacts. Along the way they meet shape shifters, badland bandits, ninjas, and discover that the damn kid is not only stronger than Hercules but also roughly as educated as a jug of spoiled milk.

Potty humor, improbable martial arts, and an old pervert who hangs out with sea turtles proved to just be the start of a literal epic that would stretch from 1984 to 1995, totaling over 500 weekly chapters which would later be collected into 42 tankou digest books. It's easy to forget that a show as popular and successful as Dragon Ball Z basically started out as a bunch of gags that nobody with the emotional faculties past those of the average thirteen year old would probably find legitimately hilarious, but these people forget that Japan is great like that. Plus, a lot of people around the world only saw the censored international versions of stuff like this to start with...


"Wah! There's no balls! They're gone!"
If you think THIS is juvenile, go look up "Unchi-kun".


Toei Douga, having already animated Toriyama's Dr. Slump gag-comedy to great success through the first half of the decade, began adapting Dragon Ball into a TV series in 1986 once Dr. Slump's run ended. The adaptation was essentially usurped in 1989 when the TV show's title was changed to "Dragon Ball Z", and would continue until 1996. While Toriyama had very little direct influence with the TV series or related TV specials and theatrical films, series director Nishio Daisuke would pester him for input on character casting and like before being trusted to oversee the adaptation on his own for which, I think, he deserves plenty of credit - the Dragon Ball anime franchise expands upon the storylines Toriyama created without typically contradicting them, and the animation and direction itself, though naturally limited by the break-neck pace of being a weekly serial, was reasonably good and generally quite consistent, with most fans only turning their back on the (admittedly god-awful) anime only Garlic Jr. saga that tried to tie the stand-alone movie universe back into the generally more canonical TV series... let's just pretend this never happened. You know, like  we tend to do with the fourth and eleventh DBZ movies.

Toriyama's publishers at Shueisha convinced him twice to extend the series - once after the defeat of Freeza, and again after the Cell Game. He continued pumping out new characters and expanding storylines, waffling back and fourth between his new role as the premier "action: mangaka and his first love of ridiculous jokes about poop, obesity and midgets. Toei Douga adapted the weekly chapters as best they could, adding original content (often disparagingly called "filler" by English speaking audiences) but stuck reasonably close to the source material, often cribbing dialog and camera angles verbatim from Toriyama's dynamic comics. The animated series was quickly sold to the rest of the world and dubbed into countless languages, and became a world-wide phenomenon that forever changed action cartoons. It may not sound like much, but the idea that, at any time, a main character - hero of villain - could be killed in the natural and due course of battle was kind of a big deal back in 1990, and it's a ballsy move that most children's entertainment (even back in Japan!) tend to avoid to this day. It also introduced the world to Mr. Satan, iconic pro-wrestler and Savior of Earth... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

This is the best thing ever and you fucking know it.

Toei Douga would continue milking the franchise - much to its detriment, it's worth noting - in Dragon Ball GT, a series that was made almost entirely without the input of Toriyama, and was uncerimoniously ignored to death after only a year and a half. The show was set to be canceled before that, but Toei kept plugging away at increasingly stupid stories after the defeat of the villainous Baby, only so that they could air the final episode on the same day as the Japanese release of the Playstation fighting game. That game was "Dragon Ball: Final Bout" and it totally ate a dick, by the way.

It's really a shame that Torimaya's Dragon Ball franchise, a decade long powerhouse of youth action and adventure that crossed all cultural barriers by way of sheer charming insanity, ended on such a whimper... but Toei found a way to milk the franchise 20 years later that's both better and worse in the form of "Dragon Ball Kai", essentially a 100 episode Cliff Notes reworking of the first 200 episodes of Dragon Ball Z. Most of the original Japanese vocal cast returned, essentially, to re-voice the roles that made them famous set to re-edited versions of the same fucking show - though occasionally brand new digital footage would be used to replace outdated special effects, which rarely looked half as good as the vintage material. I'd talk about the all new soundtrack, with Kenji Yamamoto's largely electronic beats replacing Shunsuke Kikuchi's neo-classical orchestral pieces, but it turns out that Yamamoto was a filthy plagiarist who thought little of ripping off scores from Hollywood movies and progressive rock bands alike, so Toei eventually nudged him off of the project and went about replacing the entire Kai soundtrack with vintage Kikuchi. I personally think of that as an improvement, but it does make Dragon Ball Kai feel all the more redundant for it...


I literally have no feelings for this song one way or another.


I actually admire the ruthless capitalism and nostalgia vampirism Toei showed in re-packaging a 1989-1994 TV series as a contemporary TV show in 2009 as a way to "celebrate" the manga's 25th anniversary, but in the end Kai is an amalgam of old and new, fixing what in my eyes weren't ever broke to start with. Kai is an abridged experience that some people find better than the cautiously paced original TV series that was always in very real danger of running out of new Toriyama created material to adapt, and even earned the snarky nickname "Drag-On Ball" by some of its fans who acknowledged that the show would tend to consist of long stretches of Gokuu and Freeza staring into each others eyes longingly instead of actually punching each other... but Kai decides that Goten and Majin Buu and Vegeto never existed, so fuck it. "Z" and "Kai" are completely different animals essentially made for different audiences. I'll not fault those who like it, but will say that it clearly doesn't exist for my sake.

It's greatest strengths are perhaps its incidental ones - the fantastically realized world of TORIYAMA Akira's boundless imagination that's equal parts Hamster dome and romanticized 19th century China. The fact that the hero, loosely based on the legendary Monkey King, literally grows up, gets married and starts a family after saving the world about a half-dozen times. The fact that the boundless power of a dragon crafted by God himself is abused to grant a Communist Pig - no, really, a talking swine in a Chinese military uniform - fresh panties. The fact that time travel, intergalactic warfare, and two children in a sheet passing themselves off as an adult are all given equal weight and exploration makes the show just as exciting as it is absurd. Case in point there are these guys, who are just as likely to break a five year old's spine in half as they are make even the homosexuals of N*Sync look like bastions of sweaty and heavily bearded heterosexuality.

Did I mention they're all named after dairy products?

Trying to explain the appeal of Dragon Ball - and its' latter chapters, which Toei Douga adapted as "Dragon Ball Z" to signify the rather dramatic shift in tone as classically "evil and stuff" demons loosely based on the Djinn's of 1001 Arabian Knights were replaced by murderous intergalactic real estate agent aliens as the show's main villains - is surely an exercise in futility. The show's core focus is on supernatural martial arts, the hierarchy of intergalactic race relations, time traveling android fighters and a being made of pure magical evil who happens to be legally retarded.  Calling the premise of any given story arc "batshit crazy" is an understatement, and watching the series evolve from weekly comedy sketches about a naive country boy with a tail's lack of understanding that girls don't have penises to a show about a murderous lump of silly putty literally killing every single person on the planet just to draw out a worthy challenger is one so gradual and unpredictable that Toriyama's comics would literally shift between one extreme to the other seemingly at the drop of a hat, and created such a ridiculously convoluted world of fantasy, science fiction and straight up nonsense that it becomes impossible to explain where each ingredient begins and ends. Seriously, let me describe the backstory to one of the standard saga-long villains:

Upon returning from a second alternate future in which Dr. Gero has created a perfect hybrid clone of the Z Fighters, this biological create - Cell - returns to our time with a murdered Trunks' time machine so that he might collect the bodies of Androids #17 and #18 so that he can perfect himself, and - becoming the most perfect being in the universe - will spend his time destroying it to stave off boredom until he spends eternity in a void of nothing, satisfied that he is now everything.

Yes, that is the show's greatest villain's motivation in a nutshell; he can now truly be the greatest thing in the universe SO FUCK ALL Y'ALL. It's these broad, black and white terms in which Toriyama's universe exists, but it's in so many ways removed from reality that it never feels like uncomfortable thematic propaganda, but is also just close enough to our own that it never feels completely alien. Japan in particular is a modern culture obsessed with trying one's best, evolving and surpassing all others, and this is realized by the heroes literally becoming golden, glowing gods that possess untold powers in their Super Saiyan forms. A lot of people have read into this being a symbolic and racist concept, of Toriyama and perhaps all Japanese viewers wanting to "evolve" into aryan supermen, but I think taking that from a black and white visual medium where a change in hair and eye color from black to white might be taking it all a little to far without factoring in the limitations of a monochromatic visual medium.

...then again...

Son Gokuu himself is an inspiration to geek culture everywhere, though most people probably don't consciously recognize it. Discovering martial arts at the start of his adolescence, Gokuu literally spends every free moment pursuing his passions. Not because he's the Earth's defender with a strong sense of justice or even because he's a brainwashed murder machine, but because it's fun. Becoming stronger, finding tough opponents that excite him, literally spending months dead to learn a new style of martial arts - he wouldn't have it any other way. He isn't a neglectful father or a bad husband, though; aside from the whole "being dead" and "lost in space" parts of the story he spends his days at home punching trees for firewood or preparing hot baths, providing for and doing his best to take care of his dangerously insane wife and young son. He without hesitation accepts the trials and responsibilities of adulthood, but spends the time that's his own learning and experiencing that which he adores, solely because it's the one thing he really enjoys in life. His hyper-focused nature and complete ignorance of anything that's unrelated to his family and friends, eating or punching gives him an accessibility to the work's target audience - children, remember - but keep him from being a totally irresponsible role model, and could be the poster boy for the modern age if only people equated "punching skulls" with "playing Xbox". I suppose a cynic would argue these are less "geek dedication" traits and more a simplified discussion of aspergers syndrome, but I've no time for all that, so I'll let the Cracked.com editorial staff decide exactly what personality flaws fictional characters have.

Son Gokuu is a fascinating character anyway, because he is - at face value, anyway - an idiot savant. The victim of violent head trauma as an infant, an alien monster who turns into a giant ape in the light of the full moon, and able to launch fireballs out of his fist like he's snapping his fingers, Son Gokuu has all of the ingredients to be a jaded war-machine who's decades of fighting monsters, robots, aliens and balls of pink snot could have left him a bitter husk of PTSD. Yet he speaks with a thick Osaka twang, and seems more interested in what's for dinner than getting any traditional therapy. It'd be disingenuous to call him a redneck, but he's a simple bumpkin with a fair share of brain damage who's natural talents to work out what's wrong compensate for his broad lack of common sense. But he's also a fighter, through and through; the threat of bodily harm or even death to little to persuade him to stand down, and seem only to goad him on in some self exploratory emotional masochism that demands he fight until he has, in no uncertain terms, beaten his enemy on terms they can both acknowledge. He doesn't want to kill anyone, or even prove that he can win... he just wants to know he can. He's an ineffably charming bastard who's manly leanings were really incendental, and yes, the fact that he was voiced by a squeaky woman made the combination perhaps all the more charming.

 "All these damn Chinese cartoon characters look exactly the same!"
- My grandfather and his infinite wisdom.

Ah yes, the last sentence has instantly created a divide in some people; those who think of Son Gokuu as Masako Nozawa, and those who think of him as Sean Schemmel - or, if you're getting old like me, maybe Peter Kelamis. FUNimation's English "reversioning", as they literally like to call it, has come a long way since they were working with the Ocean Group to dub the first 13 episodes of Dragon Ball in the mid 1990s. They were playing the Syndication game back when, and were busy making both Saban and the fellas at the freakin' FCC happy, which resulted in a show that was dramatically censored and repurposed for its American broadcast. The first 35 episodes were so chopped up they literally became 26 on syndication (with a "bonus" episode that was released on video), with the show's main selling point in the action sequences being bowdlerized, often outright castrated beyond recognition. People never "died" and went to Heaven, as was the case in every other dubbed version of the show (and made obvious by the halos) - oh no sir, they merely passed into "another dimension"! There was regularly ADR work to downplay images of destruction, with city blocks being blown to smithereens accompanied by someone snidely remarking about how it's a good thing they'd evacuated - when, often enough, the original version of the show would include images of hapless citizens being vaporized. This was on top of bizarre anglicized names, like "Krillin" instead of Kururin, "Tien" instead of Tenshinhan, and of course Son Gokuu's family name being dropped. In America he's just 'Goku', thank ya very much. Apparently last names are for losers.

Blood, booze and tobacco was digitally erased frame by frame on a regular basis, and in a stunningly bizarre decision, FUNimation removed all instances of a character being punched in the head. Obviously they could only cut so much before the battles became incomprehensible, so they came up with a "clever" solution by way of adding blinking "POW!" stars like you'd see in old episodes of the Adam West Batman TV series. Well, they didn't literally say POW!, but they sure as hell looked just as silly. Of equal note was that plenty of minor characters - holdovers from older storylines, mostly - were minimized, with some of them (such as the multiple-personality bank robber Lunch) disappearing outright. The show's soundtrack was replaced, a necessity after all of the drastic cutting done, and some episodes would be re-ordered or sped up digitally, just to meet episode count quotas. While perhaps not quite as butchered as vintage Harmony Gold titles - particularly the still beloved Robotech, which tried (in vain) to convince Americans that Southern Cross and Mospedia were somehow just the later episodes of Macross - the Americanized version of Dragon Ball Z was still a massive departure from the Japanese title it once was, and at the time, it was something of a big deal. Even before Dragon Ball Z hit American airwaves there were studios who were pushing for authentic and unedited presentations of Japanese animation... so what made Dragon Ball Z any different? Obviously, DBZ had a larger market for action figures and bed sheets than Ranma 1/2 and The Guyver: Bio-Boosted Armor, but what about the emerging base of fans who realized that Dragon Ball wasn't an American production, and wanted to see what all of the fuss was about without needing to see it through a filter of FCC regulations and a new electronic score?


That said... I kinda wish all syndicated cartoons had death metal themesongs.

It's thanks to Chris Psaros and his time capsule of a website DBZ Uncensored that I even knew that Dragon Ball Z was a different product outside of North America. At the time I had already "discovered" anime thanks to my father having shown me and my brother a copy of Vampire Hunter D and Robot Carnival, and I'd spent the next few years tracking down whatever I could find, good or bad, for adults or children, just to get a better understanding of what this crazy Japanimation stuff even was. The internet was in its infancy, mind you. I mean there was still a lot of porn, but it was all pictures instead of streaming video, and Real Media was the only way to see movie trailers in postage-stamp sized clips that may as well have been pixels on top of more pixels - I know I'm dating myself with all of this, and that's fine. I think it's great that now anyone can watch all of Citizen Kane on YouTube, I really do. But for there to be such a comprehensive and amusing (to my younger self) look at the differences between Toei's Dragon Ball Z and FUNimation's English bastardization thereof that I had to see it for myself. Only trouble was I wasn't Japanese, and it wasn't 1989...

At the time, you were just plain out of luck. It's easy to joke about the concept of internet sucking back when, but I honestly can't, in any satisfactory way, explain how different things were as a fan of anime in the late 1990s who was still only getting a weekly allowance; your options were buying VHS tapes at the local FYE store and hoping they didn't suck, waiting for the Sci-Fi Channel to stop playing Kolchak reruns long enough to premier something from Manga Entertainment or Streamline Pictures in a heavily cut run form, or search high and low in the internet for someone selling these... "fansub" things, which sounded like non-profit bootlegs, a concept that made even less sense than it does now when getting strangers on the internet to type "koo! thx ni99a" is a reward unto itself... apparently. We were several years off from BitTorrent giving any asshole with google the power to watch an anime the same week it premiered in Japan - back then, it was dubbed and potentially bastardized US releases, or skanky VHS bootlegs you mailed $25 in cash off to some guy who ran an anime club on the other side of the country, and hoped the results were actually subtitled and remotely watchable. When I saw the first 35 episodes of Dragon Ball Z as they aired on Japanese TV for the first time, it was a revelation for me - the show's fabric, it's very culture had nothing to do with the cringe-worthy Americanized shit friends of mine had convinced was the best thing they'd ever seen on a Saturday morning. Instantly I had fallen in love, and while I won't claim that it's remained my favorite single anime series, the impact it had on me was undeniable. Instantly I got WHY people wanted to watch subtitled films, why they sought out strange artifacts of foreign cultures, why weekly cartoons intended to move plastic toys and curry rice lunches mattered... even when it didn't.

I literally had an EP dupe of this fucking thing with 3 other movies.
It must have cost me like $12. At the time, I was literally elated.

While I don't for a second believe the arguments that friends and even strangers propose of anime "being worse" in the 21st century than it was 15 or 20 or 30 years ago, I do believe that there's a certain cutoff they're associating with things that they thought were "better". Anime was always a cultish obscurity one had to go out of their way to find, and the lack of a unified distribution system (ie: The Internet) made anime both an appealing and treasured commodity before the mid-oughts made it available both free and instantly to anyone with a passing interest in it as a disposable entertainment medium. It warms my heart knowing that my teenaged sister goes through twitching miserable withdrawals when she hasn't caught the latest episode of Naruto Shippuden,  but I also know the fact that she only needs to go to YouTube to get it makes the experience that much less personal.

Also, odds are they fell in love with this crap when they were like 15. After a decade or two you see through all of the superficial and pretentious bullshit you thought was awesome back when and see it for the cloying, goofy manipulative bullshit it really was. Movies, music, fashion - it all reaches a point where the stuff you thought was awesome now looks ridiculous and dated, and the only way to acknowledge that you weren't a flaming douche when you did think that stuff was cool is to assume that YOU didn't change, but the world around you somehow got worse. It's a trap we all probably fall into from time to time, but it's one I only hope the world can march towards understanding and recognizing more than it does.

I would never buy dubbed tapes, not even in '97.
But I have to admit, Blu-ray cases can't do that...

Before one thinks this is strictly a bucket of self-pity about things being "better" back when, I don't decry the perceptible loss of quality anime as so many friends and frenemies over the years have suggested. Merely I decry the intangible concept that there was something special and magical about them, that you were alone in the world and consuming something that those around you just didn't understand. This doesn't make shows better or worse - it's an illusion, a fabric of coolness you build up around yourself subconsciously that makes what, and the end of the day, is a cartoon for 8 year olds seem personal. It's not even bad to take stupid shit like movies and video games and novels like they're tailor made just to make you happy... but with the ease with which one gets these things, the only thrill left is the consumption.

That isn't really such a terrible thing, mind you. Film is a consumable product, and if a film is good it doesn't matter if you imported the damn thing from Kazakhstan on a bootleg VCD or if you just saw it on cable one day. The only problem with the model of everything being readily available is that now nothing has a set worth - not only a price tag, but in how hard you had to work or how long you had to wait just to see something you were legitimately excited for. The days of trading fansubs with dudes you barely knew on message boards or writing reviews on a website before the word "blog" existed about some weird horror movie your local mom 'n' pop video store had which IMDb said didn't exist are gone, and with them is that sense of discovery and satisfaction. Don't get me wrong, the fact that I had to spend a comparative fortune and watch Dragon Ball Z on nth generation tapes with barely readable subtitles and utter garbage quality just to understand what the show really was is a thrill I'm not convinced I'll ever find again in this world... it's a dumb emotional attachment thrill, but that doesn't mean it was real. These days I'd probably have to murder a stripper with a length of habanero-coated barbed wire to get that same rush, and goddamn it, I can't keep asking friends to keep locked freezers on their property for me forever.

If, for whatever reason, I'm emotionally unable to put away my toys and grow the fuck up, I'm surprisingly fine with that. At the very least, maybe I can just put away my DVD box sets in favor of the new Blu-ray...

ON THE NEXT EPISODE OF KENTAI FILMS VS DRAGON BALL Z:

...wait, how the hell am I doing a Next Episode Preview if the Blu-ray doesn't include them? OH GOD, I'M BEING EATEN BY A PARADO--