Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ninja Troll

I think it's safe to say that I have mixed feelings about the recent HD master of KAWAJIRI Yoshiaki's most famous film, NINJA SCROLL - JUBEI NINPUUCHOU/獣兵衛忍風帖. The film was released on Blu-ray in its native Japan back in May by Flying Dog/Victor Entertainment, and was recently given a "20th Anniversary" US release by Sentai Filmworks on December 4th. After the whole Serial Experiments Lain debacle I decided I'd sit this one out until I could get my hands on both, do a little lab work, and see what came out on the other side... so, without further ado, here's a bunch of lossless PNG caps and plenty of commentary to follow.

TOP: MANGA ENTERTAINMENT 10th Anniversary DVD (ABR: 7.65 mb/s)
MIDDLE: SENTAI FILMWORKS 20th Anniversary BLU-RAY (ABR: 19.83 mb/s)

While perhaps not all it could have been, the new HD master is absolutely a dramatic step up from the now roughly twenty year old analog video materials that prior DVDs have all been based on up to this point. Resolution is improved with strong, crisp outlines and nothing substantial to mention in terms of compression artifacts - one need look no further than the wall of bees to see how massive an upgrade this is over Manga Entertainment's "10th Anniversary" DVD. (The Victor R2 DVD was better in terms of compression, but was ultimately sourced from the same ugly analog master.) It's clear that some level of grain reduction has been used, with minor traces of smearing and "slow-motion" grain on brighter areas of the screen, but the use hasn't smeared anything into obscurity or led to any major textural oddities, so I'll just shrug and move on.

Much like the RUROUNI KENSHIN: TSUIOKU-HEN OVA BD I spoke at length about last year, the matte bars are solid IRE 0 black, but the feature itself has an oddly elevated gamma, giving shadows a washed out look that disappear into a sort of hazy midnight blue. Unlike the Kenshin OVAs, however, the previous DVD masters did feature shadow detail in that now-murky gamma low-end, which you can plainly see in a few of the above screenshots, particularly the one with Jubei standing up in a dark corner; his every outline in visible on the DVD, but he's been turned into a sort of ghostly sword-toting blob without any clear outlines on the new HD master. If the gamma were lower and that image actually faded to black around Jubei I'd be fine with it, range limiting or not, but looking at the Blu-ray as it is now, it's as if they crushed the gamma to reference levels, and THEN boosted it back up later on, sans any shadow detail!

I asked myself, having done color correction on intensely bizarre animated sources before, why the hell would they do that? I honestly don't understand what the fuck happened here, and I wish I did. Could have been a mistake? A color space conversion gone awry? A gamma profile interpreted out of whack? Could have been something as simple as the techs did their job without any direct input, and down the line Kawajiri looked at the results and then told them "Hey guys, this looks way darker than it should be. Can we fix that somehow?" This could easily be the bizarre result of such a request, and isn't too much unlike John Landis requesting that the grain be put back into the HD versions of Animal House and An American Werewolf in London, only for Universal to dust a layer of fake digital grain on top of their already heavily processed masters and call it a day. Technically they did as requested... they just didn't actually fix the problem. I honestly don't know what chain of events led us to having crushed-yet-washed-out shadows, and it's a shame that the few complaints I've heard of fudged shadow details were indeed a big issue... thankfully, if what you see above doesn't turn you off, you've already seen the worst of it. The new master is more processed and less like actual 35mm film than I'd have liked, but it is what it is, and after years of genuinely shitty DVD presentations, this is easily the best that Ninja Scroll has ever looked.

Sentai and Flying Dog have each created their own AVC encodes, and the two do look very similar at first glance... but, sadly, both of the issues that plagued our last guineapig Serial Experiments Lain - namely elevated black levels, and posterization (or "banding") - are both present to varying degrees. The real world shadow detail itself was already a mess making the turned-up gamma a bit of a "eh, whatever" situation for me personally, but the banding is kind of a downer, even if it's far from the worst example in recent memory. Is this merely the result of halving the bitrates? Or did Sentai get their hands on a highly compressed HDCAM source, rather than a full-bandwidth HDCAM SR master? Only their authoring team knows for sure, and I doubt they're in any rush to admit that a possible shortcoming is because the hardware they chose to sink tens of thousands of dollars in just isn't top-of-the-line enough. The backgrounds in the scene with Gara attacking Jubei in the hot spring is probably the worst example of unnatural, twitching color banding to be found on the Sentai release, but it's worth noting that the $100 import - while superior, I'll admit - has plenty of slightly more subtle color contouring of its own. If the Flying Dog transfer is... I dunno, let's say it's an 8 out of 10, the Sentai Filmworks release is probably a solid 7. Not as technically sound, but more than good enough for the vast majority of viewers, and considering how terrible your options have been until now still a worthy purchase to anyone looking to revisit the OVA itself.

Both releases include Lossless 5.1 English audio, Flying Dog in Dolby TrueHD and Sentai in DTS-HD Master Audio. Both are unimpressive ports of Manga's old DVD surround upmix, and frankly my dear, if you're actually watching Ninja Scroll dubbed in English you're getting exactly what you deserve. The original Japanese stereo mix (Uncompressed on the JP release/Lossless on the US) is surprisingly decent for a modestly budgeted Japanese production of this vintage, though a mix of this nature made about twenty years ago is only going to ever sound so fresh. English subtitles are provided on Sentai's release, while there are no subtitles of any kind on the Japanese import... that's just odd, isn't it? That Victor Entertainment sticks English dubs on there with no Japanese subtitles?

The only bonus feature on the Sentai disc is a subtitled director's commentary, but considering how rare these tracks tend to be - even in Japan, much less translated - it's reason enough on its own to recommend the US release at the price it's currently selling for. The only other bonus feature found on the JP release is a Japanese TV spot and Trailer, both of which are 1080i upscales of some really ghastly looking SD materials. And for those with a fancy packaging fetish, there's also a BD + DVD combo available in the UK that's currently selling in a sexy LIMITED EDITION STEELBOOK complete with a 20 page English language booklet - and hey, it's got the JP trailers, too! Just keep in mind that the Manga UK release is REGION B only, so if you live in the States aren't multi-region capable, it might not be worth the thirty quid just to have a shiny little tin you can't actually spin in the comfort of your own home. The UK disc is confirmed to be a single-layered presentation, though I can't say for sure if the transfer is comparable to the US release or not.

Through the mid 1990s this film was something of a counter-cultural dirty bomb: A grotesquely exploitave yet professionally crafted piece of NC-17worthy material that was not only a cartoon, but one that literally every single Blockbuster Video on the planet had at least one copy of. Infamous or not, when you cut beyond what Zac Bertschy recently described as its "Museum Piece" subtext,  it's still a balls-out piece of uniquely Japanese pure violence entertainment with style to spare and numerous creative set pieces. It may not be quite as wild as Wicked City or as overwhelmingly beautiful as Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, and I can't stress enough that there are no scrolls anywhere to be found, but anyone writing this off as mindless candy for the basest of instincts is ignoring how much raw talent Kawajiri had, and while it's not my favorite of his films, it's hard not to just ogle how such uncompromisingly extreme material was treated with such finesse. The general death of the OVA market and Japan's natural propensity towards cute, light hearted fare means that while titles like this were never overwhelmingly common, they're practically non-existent in today's market, so while hardly representative of anything but Kawajiri's visual fetishism and bold strokes white-knuckled action, it's something that any fan of contemporary anime should at least know existed, and give a chance on its own merits. Not that it matters, really... I can't imagine anyone buying this new Blu-ray didn't see this on VHS at least once a decade ago.

While I can't say either the HD master or Sentai Filmworks' presentation is without flaws, I can't imagine this one looking or sounding any better on home video than it does right now. The JP release is superior, but not by an especially wide margin, and hardly enough to justify spending the real world price difference between them. Long time fans will be floored at just how detailed Madhouse's hand-drawn animation was for a direct to video project based on an original idea, and newcomers will likely be too filled with shock and awe at the savage, rampant bloodletting and borderline pornographic treatment of its cast to care.


Demon said...

Kawajiri is an animation god. That is all.

Kentai 拳態 said...

Agreed, Demon. I can't think of anything the man's ever worked on that isn't a visual marvel, and he's a better storyteller than people tend to give him credit for.

Too bad the last thing on his filmography is still HIGHLANDER: THE SEARCH FOR VENGEANCE, which is easily the least interesting and unimpressive feature I've seen from him. And I like the first Highlander flick!

Demon said...

HIGHLANDER: THE SEARCH FOR VENGEANCE (the director's cut) is still the second best Highlander movie :) I actually thought it was pretty decent, but not premium Kawajiri.

Very satisfied with Sentai's blu-ray for NINJA SCROLL.


Demon said...

Hell, I'd even take LENSMAN :P

Kentai 拳態 said...

Speaking of which, have you seen the original, unedited version of HIGHLANDER: THE SOURCE? If the 86 minute US "Director's Cut" is a train wreck, the original 99 minute cut might as well be a double-abortion in the middle of The Hindenberg disaster.

Highlander was a franchise that both consumed and crapped out mediocrity after it stuck its initial landing, with the original film and (arguably) the live action TV shows being the best formats for the concept, but THE SOURCE was such a... I mean, how hard do you have to fail to make THE QUICKENING seem like the lesser of two evils?

SEARCH FOR VENGEANCE is no less that competent. The opening scene with MacLeoud dueling against cyberpunk mutant freaks in a post-apocalyptic wasteland was a really fun and stylish way to kick it off, promising an over the top and insanity-fueled adventure using the franchise tropes... and then it basically just shrugs all of that potential off like a torn overcoat and becomes a dull, predictable rehash of every other HIGHLANDER story ever told.

It's not terrible, and the "Director's Cut" certainly feels more competent and natural than the abbreviated International Version. It just isn't especially good, and I wouldn't hesitate to put it down towards the bottom of his filmography.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

I second a BD for VHD: Bloodlust, but if the Japanese audio track isn't included, I'll stab some eyes out. I know, I know, the English was recorded first—but that was AFTER some heavy Hollywoodization was done to the script. Fork that.

Not that it's a bad dub. By the same dude who did Aeon Flux I believe, I just don't know WTF he was thinking in regard to Left Hand. Ugh...

FJO said...

"...while titles like this were never overwhelmingly common, they're practically non-existent in today's market..."

Exactly why it's so tremendously frustrating that the new Sony USA DVDR release of Kurozuka is dubbed only, as the best way of describing Kurozuka is "Highlander as written by anime artists."

Kentai 拳態 said...

Fun Fact: The VHD: BLOODLUST dub was never meant to be permenant! It was made to interest international investors and the long term plan was to con some crazy Hollywood talent into showing up and crafting a star-spangled cast, not unlike the average GHIBLI dub... or perhaps more realistically, at least something cut from the same cloth as that hilariously bad Kiefer Sutherland ARMITAGE III: POLYMATRIX clusterfuck.

I'll grant that Bloodlust is, full stop, the absolute peak of Kawajiri's visual fetishism. It's also one of the last truly beautiful and legitimately epic feature films to be animated on plastic cels using 35mm. It's too bad that, for all its beautiful music and stunning imagery, I always thought the whole film felt like a dozen unrelated set pieces glued together at the last minute. Is it a Western? A forbidden romance? A monster throwdown? No one angle is given enough room to really take, and in the end we have a bunch of really pretty scenes that seem to be taking place on completely different universes.

I'm probably biased as one of the bigger '85 VHD OVA fans I've ever met, but I just think Kawajiri's BLOODLUST is just so... boring. It's mesmerizing, make no mistake, but at the end of the day it just doesn't have much under the gorgeous surface.

Still, boring or not I'd buy that on Blu-ray in a heartbeat. Even if I have to sync the Japanese DTS track to it myself.

Gurotaku said...

It sure is nice that the NINJA SCROLL commentary got ported over and subtitled but for me it turned out to be a huge disappointment. Kawajiri is perfectly capable of giving great commentary and one need look no further than the US DVD release of CYBER CITY OEDO 808 for that. On that release, he was paired with a moderator who asked all the right questions, though, whereas on NINJA SCROLL he's mostly silent while a bunch of other Madhouse staff make fun of the film, each other and the co-workers they tricked/bullied into drawing difficult scenes. The only interesting bit of info in the whole mess is when Kawajiri, during the end credits, reveals that the original negative was in terrible shape when they dug it out of storage (caked in gomi, is what he says) and that they had to do extensive work to make it somewhat presentable.

Anonymous said...

Back in the usenet days, there was a HDTV-sourced 1080i version of Bloodlust. Looked darn pretty too (for an MPEG2 broadcast). Doesn't look like it's survived the transit to torrents though.

Buster D said...

Hmm, I wonder if the UK release has boosted blacks and banding like the US release.

Demon said...

Never saw THE SOURCE. I stopped caring about HIGHLANDER after being savagely burned by the second and third films - only came back to the franchise because of Kawajiri ^_^

Parotaku said...

Thanks for the comparison shots, Kentai...

Here are some uncompressed ones from the Manga video UK Bluray...
(look the same as the US it seems: higher brightness & more banding than the JP one...)

Have a Happy New Year!! ;-)

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