Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Burial Treasure: There's Still Time To Crowd Source BURIAL GROUNDS

Just a friendly reminder that 88 Films' have successfully funded their remaster of Zombi Holocaust for 7,500 pounds, and are trying to reach their stretch goal of 12,500 to restore the far superior BURIAL GROUNDS. They're currently at 11,808 pounds (or about $1,000 USD short) and there's 4 days left.

To put into perspective how goddamn hard I want the second goal to be reached, I donated 20 pounds early on for the initial campaign, and donated a second time this week in the hopes that we'll see the whole thing pass that threshold and get the second release finished. I've long thought that Zombi Holocaust was a pretty dull and disappointing experience, but I happen to think Burial Grounds is pretty goddamn awesome, a bizarre mash-up of 60s Spanish horror, 70s Italian erotica and some of the most charmingly terrible paper mache  monsters in cinematic history, with a soundtrack that's so off kilter I can't even decide what planet it's supposed to be from. I'd also remind you that the Media Blasters BD is such a mess it's missing frames at literally every single cut, while 88 Films is prepared to do a new scan of a vaulted, and complete, Interpositive.

Anyway, happy various holidays to all friends of the Kentai Blog. Probably won't be back until the New Year, but if any of you guys want to know what I want this year, I just want to see this goddamn flick get restored on Blu-ray. Plus if you kick in $40, you get a copy with an exclusive slipcover - so what's not to love?

UPDATE: We did it, boys and girls! New transfers for both ZOMBI HOLOCAUST and BURIAL GROUNDS are incoming for 2015!

Sunday, December 21, 2014

KITE Revisited: The Most Infuriating Failure of 2014

Remember when this was supposed to be a thing?
And how instead we got BOSTON LEGAL: MAGICAL GIRL SQUAD?
I'm not gonna' lie. I've got super mixed feelings about Umetsu's career as a whole.

First off, friends, I apologize for having been busy for the last several weeks. Job changes are part of it, my old TV dying is another, and the fact that the Christmas Season is full of video games for cheap  is only exacerbating the issue. Let's face it, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes got a surprisingly great PC release, and there's no way that ISN'T going to eat at least a dozen or three hours of the next two weeks. Heh, "hour long" game my ass...

Rest assured, I plan on doing a number of BD "reviews" in the near(...?) future. I did, after all, just get AnimEigo's Bubblegum Crisis Collection, and I fully plan on exploring both the strengths and weaknesses of FUNimation's new Cowboy Bebop set - there's a lot to talk about there, so we'll get to that sometime early next year. Merry Christmas and everything else in the meantime, folks. I know, it sucks to have to wait to explore what did and didn't go right on releases like that, but hey, I've only had a chance to play the new Smash Bros., like, twice. We'll get there eventually.

But seeing as how I did get my hands on easily the most controversially broken Blu-ray to come out in 2014, I find myself with no choice but to do something of a proper write-up on Media Blasters' much-delayed mess that is the "International" version of Yasuomi Umetsu's picaresque action masterpiece, KITE/カイト. I've discussed how I feel about the OVA itself, the various international edits and its very unique and prominent place in the realm of ero-anime (or "hentai", if you prefer) as experimental pulp at least once, so I'll be focusing exclusively on the technical merits of Media Blasters' new Blu-ray only this time.

This is one of the most frustrating releases I can remember, because it's almost incredible. The vast majority of footage was clearly pulled from a new, high quality scan of what John Sirabella himself claimed to be the original camera negative, and with the 35mm footage looking as sharp and natural as it does, I'm inclined to believe him. Occasional specs crop up here and there, but nothing is ever particularly distracting on the 35mm sourced sequences. The contrast is high and the black levels rock solid, making it one of the best looking transfers of a 90s OVA available in HD. Heck, the bulk of the footage looks even better than the suspicious grainless and gamma-boosted transfer given to the Rurouni Kenshin: Trust and Betrayal BD import, which is one of the few older OVAs comparable to Kite on a lot of levels.

There's also an obvious comparison to make with Media Blasters' own Urotsukidoji: Legend of the Overfiend Blu-ray, which used a censored and well-worn 35mm theatrical print from the UK as the bulk of its source with some analogue SD footage to fill in the gaps. That release was an abomination, but it was almost consistently that way: The bulk of the footage looked heavily processed anyway, and while the results had obvious limitations there was at least a solid attempt to color-grade the SD upscale footage to match the rest of the new HD transfer. And since this was an actual 35mm print that was hacked up by the BBFC, there was a legitiamte excuse for the footage to have gone missing. Not, I must stress, that uncut prints didn't exist in the early 1990s and probably don't to this day... but that's neither here nor there, I suppose. Legend of the Overfiend was a middling 35mm transfer mixed with decently upscaled material, resulting in a disappointing release that - at the very least - tried to hide its still somewhat glaring flaws.

With Kite, the upscaled footage is not only exceptionally heinous - DVNRed into a smeared blob, not even a token attempt at color correction, aliased as hell, chock full of gross frame-blending artifacts and so on - but it's also frequent, and consistently on a full cut-for-cut basis. In other words, it never switches from 35mm to SD footage in the middle of a shot; this is typically how I myself work when I need to cobble different sources together, since getting framing and color and everything else to "Match" is next to impossible in the middle of a cut, but surprisingly easy when the camera cuts from one thing to another.

As for a potentially complete list of issues? That's what you guys really wanted, right? Well, here's what we've got. I can't promise it's 100% because trying to do this makes my heart sink, but hey, I'm trying! Goes without saying that I'm going to be floating Spoilers like a Game of Thrones book discussion sub, but good gravy, if you haven't seen Kite yet and you're somehow reading that, go fix that immediately!

Shots in BLACK are upscaled from SD sources, despite (presumably) being on the original negative in some capacity. This is the stuff that I honestly can't find any proper excuse to exist in the way that they do; in some cases, I'd rather they have compiled one usable frame from whatever film exists and just frozen it rather than switch to nigh-unwatchable, nearly VHS analogue garbage. But we've got so much more to discuss, I won't dwell on it.

Shots in RED are, for one reason or another, not on the camera negative and should be treated as "damned if you do, damned if you don't". We'll discuss these in detail, but the short of it is these were always going to be fucked in some capacity.

Shots in BLUE are... I'm not entirely what to call these. Basically, they're alternate shots that are pulled from the uncut camera negative, but that means they don't match the "International Version", which is what this Blu-ray is tyring to present. We'll discuss these in gory detail as needed. Basically, the footage is HD, but it's not the correct footage - not for the version of the OVA they're giving us, at least.

And as for the edits themselves, I'm trusting German censorship site Schnittberichte on the matter. If it's not entirely accurate... well, I'm done caring for now. Sorry, folks.

03:19 - The animated title sequence is upscaled. (10 seconds)

06:49 - Tracking shot of an escalator was trimmed down slightly in the International Version.
             It appears in its original length on the Blu-ray. (3 seconds longer) 

07:20 - In the International Version, Oburi passes by two people while on the escelator.
            On the Blu-ray/Uncut Version, he passes by three. (6 seconds longer)

16:28 - Young Sawa being molested by Akai has been slowed down to account for alternate takes.
             The missing alt. shot of adult Sawa is missing entirely.  (16 seconds, 3 cuts)

24:35 - The International version uses an alternate, forward-facing angle when Sawa is pushed.
             The Blu-ray uses the side-angle featured in the original OVA (episode 1) instead. (2 seconds)

24:40 - The grinning bodyguard falling to his doom was cut down slightly in the International Version.
             The Blu-ray plays the same length as the Uncut Version. (2 seconds longer)

25:19 - A young Sawa falls to her knees and begs Kanie to give her earings back. (1 second)

25:21 - Sawa stands up and begs for them back again. (2 seconds)

25:27 - Sawa hops up and tries to reach them as Kanie tosses them away. (2 seconds)

26:13 - The man shot by Sawa's exploding bullets twitches and bleeds out. (3 seconds)

26:57 - Sawa and the bodyguard fall from the skyscraper. (3 seconds)

27:12 - Sawa hangs on for dear life as the bodyguard shoots at her. (5 seconds)

27:35 - Sawa and the bodyguard freefall as he shoots upward at her. (4 seconds)

27:36 - Sawa and the bodyguard continue to fall from a different angle. (1 second)

27:38 - Sawa and the bodyguard slam through the bridge onto a car. (1 second)

27:39 - Sawa and the car fall through the bridge. (1 second)

27:50 - The truck falls through the street and explodes in the subway. (2 seconds)

28:15 - The explosion from the subway billows up into the street as Sawa goes flying. (2 seconds)

29:57 - Shot of "B. Willis" being interviewed through a two-way mirror. (4 seconds)

30:35 - Akai pulls his cigarette out of his mouth and beratws Sawa. (3 seconds)

30:57 - Akai tells Sawa she has another earring. (3 seconds)

31:36 - Sawa walks by a puddle. (6 seconds)

31:42 - Sawa waits to cross the street in the rain. (5 seconds)

33:00 - The shot of Akai reading a magazine has been looped/slowed down as Kanie speaks offscreen.
             The International Version has a shot of the "next" assassin in the background playing. (6 seconds)

34:59 - Subway car pulls into the station. (6 seconds)

35:24 - Subway car billows over with blue smoke. (1 second)

37:05 - The subway car explodes as people take cover. (2 seconds)

37:09 - The unnamed cop's head flings past the turnstile.  (2 seconds)

37:38 - Shot of Akai's shoes as he walks through the bathroom. (1 second)

38:01 - Show of Oburi's face as he chides Akai. (2 seconds)

38:13 - Oburi holds Akai at knife point as the lights flicker. (47 seconds, 6 cuts)

39:04 - Oburi runs out of the dark bathroom. (1 second)

39:06 - Oburi enters the hallway and turns around as he hears Akai. (1 second)

39:08 - Akai kicks Oburi while he's on the ground. (2 seconds)

39:11 - Akai kicks Oburi again. (1 second)

40:06 - Kanie shoots Sawa's gun out of her hand. Kanie chops her in the back of the neck. (2 seconds, 2 cuts)

40:26 - Freeze-frame and fade to black as Akai tells Sawa to thank him. (3 seconds)

40:29 - Kanie drags Oburi out the door. (1 second)

40:48 - Close-up of Akai explains that torture is his hobby. (7 seconds)

41:07 - Akai commends Sawa for standing up to him, same shot as before. (3 seconds)

42:53 - Slow pan down of the sewer with Sawa waiting in the shadows. (7 seconds)

43:10 - Sawa stands up. (4 seconds)

44:08 - Sawa unloads both pistols into Akai. Close up of her face, and him being shot. (3 seconds, 2 cuts)

45:25 - Sawa's cats wait for Oburi to return. (5 seconds)

So, by my current and - I admit, rough around the edges - count, that's about 2 minutes of upscaled footage that should, theoretically, have been on the OCN in one form or another. That's not including another 30 seconds or so of shots that wouldn't be on the negative anyway, but there's less than 3 minutes upscaled total, even at worst. Mind you, the Blu-ray only runs about 47 minutes...

The fact that these are all entire cuts missing - and that the entirety of the first episode was complete - leaves me to assume that there was damage to these particular scenes, but that they weren't "missing". If I had to guess, it would be that the footage was damaged - maybe frames were cut to use as promotional materials, maybe there was warping or massive scratches, who knows? At this point, Media Blasters and whatever uncredited film lab did the actual mastering work are the only people who have a clear idea of what these materials were. I can't claim to know better than anyone else, only theorize that with more judicious freeze-frames and maybe a few digital tricks, some of these seams could have been smoothed over better. Digital edits are annoying, we all know that, but they're nowhere near as bad as missing or upscaled footage.

Both the opening credits and the end credits have been re-generated at 1080p, in English. Considering the credits have always been video-generated kanji, I can't blame MB for doing this. The Green Bunny logo is also upscaled, because of course a Japanese cartoon porn distributor did that shit on interlaced video.

I'm going to call special attention to the scene that starts at 40:30 and ends at 41:35. Aside from the 10 seconds of upscaled footage exclusive to the "International" version, they loop two close-up shots of Sawa and Akai which, in the original version of the scene, only lasted about 15 seconds; the dialogue plays over a shot of Sawa and Akai in bed together in the Uncut Version missing entirely in the International Version. By the power of math, that means they re-used this footage about 3.5x times, but since it cuts back and fourth between Sawa and Akai, it's probably not quite as noticeable as it could have been.

Simply put, this scene looks weird, but not owning a copy of the International Version right now (seriously, why would I buy that?), I can't confirm one way or another how the edited version of the scene plays out; it is, however, bizarre watching not only the grain slow and freeze in place as they try to match Akai's dialogue, but you can see the same print damage - a small white scratch on Sawa's chin, and a black blob on Akai's shoulder - pop up again and again. Without a reference point on hand I can't tell if this is how the old, edited version was "supposed" to play out or not, but it looks like butt here either way thanks to the otherwise benign film scratches. Amusingly enough, random analogue noise might have made this scene look a bit less slapped-together otherwise.

There's also a handful of shots I can't really fault Media Blasters for not sourcing from the OCN, specifically because they don't exist on the OCN. The water effects on the puddle Sawa walks by are animated at 30fps, suggesting this was an edit done on video at the last minute. This is also true of the shot in which Sawa and the Bodyguard are free falling and he fires his pistol up towards her; the muzzle flashes are late-90s digital effects if I've ever seen them, and while it's difficult to say I wouldn't be surprised if the side of the blue building rushing up on the left was, too. Both episodes have video generated titles, too, so it's unsurprising to see that uprezzed for the Blu-ray. I can't think of anything else that looks like it was tweaked on video for the uncut version, but it may have something to do with the concurrent shots being upscaled immediately thereafter, too. Hard to really say without looking at the material and guessing what could have been done by duping a frame here or cutting a frame there. 30fps-to-24fps conversions are a bitch, and I can only fault Media Blasters so hard for any of them looking awful.

Similarly, there's a handful of "alternate" scenes that were animated specifically for the International Version, which - having been made two years after the fact, and presumably at the request of Media Blasters - were likely never stored with the original vaulted negatives. If this alternate footage has really disappeared, there isn't much that can be done now: Either you upscale the god-awful looking video masters, or you find wherever the 35mm materials for the "new" stuff was hidden away. There's also a handful of shots that were cut shorter by a second or two on the International Version for whatever reason; some of those play out the same length as they were created, and have been noted. I assume these were trimmed solely for pacing? I can say that the clearly-looped shot of Akai spacing out into his baseball magazine is to cover something of an unfortunate loss; in the original cut we see him sexually abusing a teenaged girl, and in the International Version we have a new shot entirely where the "third assassin" is playing with the presents he's brought for her.

So what, realistically, could Media Blasters have done in these scenarios? After all, the Rurouni Kenshin OVAs before this included upscaled SD footage, but... well, the SD footage was at least watchable by comparison, and since most of those scenes looked weird even on DVD, nobody expected the 30fps video effects to look pristine in HD anyway. By comparison, Media Blasters didn't even try to color correct everything to match; the title card should be red on black, and yet the uncorrected gamma and RGB leave the whole thing a gross, grubby dark green with a dark orange font on top. To try and fail is bad enough, but the upscaling on display here is so shockingly bad I'm not convinced they even tried.

Had it just been the title card and the handful of video edites sequences presented upscaled, I'd have been willing to give this a pass; they'd always look like shit, but what can you do? Under the circumstances of two minutes being upscaled when they should exist on the negatives, however, I wonder if this would have been the appropriate time to reach out to Umetsu and request that he oversee some drastic measures. No, really - for all the bullshit I've given John Sirabella and his company over the years, they have managed to cultivate a few notable business relationships, and in the case of the (utterly bizarre and disappointing, I admit...) KITE LIBERATOR Sirabella himself was the executive producer to Umetsu's sequel. Would it be unthinkable that he could have talked Umetsu into overseeing - or at the very least, approving - that these 2 minutes be re-animated from scratch? Yes, they would have looked weird and "off" from the rest of the film, even in they had tried to add some grain and blur filters to 'even out' the content the way Ghibli does to emulate 35, but if Media Blasters' insistence that the original camera negative is incomplete, I can't think of a more appropriate time to pull in a favor from a director who would likely be grateful that an American studio is putting in the efforts to preserve his work, while the Japanese studios that actually produced it seem to not care one way or another.

I'm okay with dated effects in films existing as they are. I'm not okay with the films themselves being incomplete, and licensors resorting to elements that were barely up to snuff for DVD. If your film elements are incomplete to the point where you can't release the whole movie, consider not going through with it. Literally nobody will be pleased with the results, and your sales are going to suck, regardless of what good intentions you had. In this case, the studio doing the restoration has the contacts and the incentive to do something to preserve the whole work in the best quality possible. I'm not saying Media Blasters should have re-animated the damaged footage, but... I'm not seeing any other better solutions here, either.

Well, there is one solution left:

To Media Blasters, and indeed any other licensor who's interested in taking this title further: Provide me with high quality footage of both the original NTSC Digibeta master of the "International Version" and the raw, complete scan of the "Uncut" Negative, and I'm just about willing, able, and crazy enough to restore this beautiful mess to the way it was meant to be seen. I love this film, and while I don't particularly love the Director's preferred version, if that's all we're going to get, it deserves to be re-created and restored to the best ability of the materials available. I'm not going to bother doing it just to amuse myself, because I don't care about the edited version: This wouldn't be for me. It would be for Umetsu. If you're ready to do this right, you guys can eMail me and we can discuss it from there. Check my profile, I'm not so hard to find.

Having watched the disc end to end, I'm left feeling exactly as I did when I first saw the screenshots: The Camera Negative sourced HD footage is incredible, the SD footage filling in the gaps is an abomination, and having finally sullied myself by watching at least a close approximation to the "Director's Edit", I find it to be a weaker film: Sawa appears to be willful and emotionally manipulative the whole way through without submitting to Akai's sexual abuse, and I maintain that for all the controversy that the "Cheese Pizza" inserts have caused over the years, none of them do quite as much to solidify the gruelling aesthetics as the two shots of a bloodied Oburi on the floor, being held at gunpoint; one in which he stares in shock at Sawa's abuse, and another in which he simply stares off into space, having accepted that nothing will ever change. Umetsu's most polished and expensive work is doubtlessly still Presence, a short in the Robot Carnival anthology about a man who creates a Cindi Lauper robot who falls in love with him, but Kite remains his most poignant, visceral and deeply affecting work. Castrating the literal pornographic sex scenes come with a loss in the bleak and hateful vibe that every part of the film is based around, and while I can understand Umetsu's preference on a thematic level I'm still no closer to agreeing with them.

If you can deal with 2 minutes of upscaled bullshit, the wrong alternate takes being used and this being the "R-15" cut, the Blu-ray's visuals are such a dramatic improvement over the DVD most of the time that it brings a damned tear to my eye. If you consider that a recommendation... well, that's as solid an opinion on such a flawed, bizarre and unfortunate release as I can sum up. The odds of any other studio releasing this title in a superior edition without being massive fans themselves seem slim to none, though perhaps some kind German licensor will go just crazy enough to re-cut this from the raw footage someday... not counting on it, mind you, but I'd so love to be wrong and see them do some absurdly expensive restoration of the uncut version, complete with as much of the trimmed footage as is possible to keep.

Alright, that's quite enough passive-aggressive fury over Media Blasters - how'd I do on my last Ground Zeroes run?

To think some assholes finish this entire game in 10 minutes... I can't tell if I fear or envy that level of autism. Ah, well. To the final two XOF patches!

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Zombi Holocaust Denial: Let's Help 88 Films Fix Media Blasters' Shoddy Work

Thai posters are glorious, in their own special way.

UK genre label 88 films has, up until now, mostly been a sort of "Bizarro" equivalent to US labels like Full Moon and Troma Films - releasing high quality encodes and bonus feature packed special editions of the same movies that the US branches crapped out in whatever quality they could manage. They're limited by the same materials as their US equivalents, but whoever is handling the materials clearly has a better grasp on it, and the results are a notable improvement for about the same price. They've moved on to doing a wider range of American cult movies - slasher flicks, in particular - and while I'm not the biggest fan of every title they've announced, I like these guys on principle. Plus, they're selling the original Toxic Avenger, Castle Freak and The Last Horror Film at cheaper prices than their North American equivalents; if you need a better excuse to support a region-free UK label, you may need to re-think your trashy movie priorities.

Their most recent announcement in particular is an interesting one: THEY WANT TO REMASTER ZOMBI HOLOCAUST. They're asking for 7,500 pounds ($11,786) to craft a new 2K scan from the camera negative, and if you pledge 20 pounds (or $39.28 with all shipping fees) you get a copy of the finished BD, complete with an exclusive slipcover for backers. They're up to a bit over one-third of their stated goal, and have admitted that if they fail, they'll default to using the same crumby Media Blasters produced master I bitched incessantly about when it was released a couple years ago. No, it wasn't an upscale as I'd initially guessed, but man was it crap all the same...

I'm trying to get people to see this not because I think Zombi Holocaust is a particularly good movie - frankly, this is all anyone should waste their time with more than once:

Can we please, please get a chewed-up grindhouse transfer as a bonus?
That was by far the best aspect on the BD release of JUST BEFORE DAWN...

There's about three minutes worth of really great one-liners and gore show pieces, but it's such a lazy and shallow imitation of substantially more worthwhile Italian genre fodder that you're really better off just having a double feature with Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2 and Umberto Lenzi's Eaten Alive for a much better experience. Still, watching B-movies cannibalize their own trends is a fascinating little historical foot-note unto itself, and it's nice to see any studio willing to give it the white glove treatment, top shelf content or not.

I know 88 Films has done some great work, though I'm disappointed to admit I've yet to purchase any of them myself. This reminder - and the great prices on their own website - are tipping me into trying a few of their catalog entries, and you can bet I'll be grabbing that sweet exclusive slipcase for a movie I've always thought was pretty "meh". To be honest, I hope this does so amazingly well that they'll consider doing a similar project for BURIAL GROUNDS. I don't doubt the OCN for that is a bloody mess, but for a dull turd like this to get a new 2K scan and for a shambling, accidental masterpiece like that to remain in its current state would be utterly unforgivable. In a karmic sort of way, I mean.

Not sure what's up with Burial Grounds, but if you want to prove that there's a market for trashy good Italian exploitation, give them money. If you want to get properly mastered garbage cult movies, you have to prove there's money to be made in properly mastering them in the first place. Arrow Video has done some cool stuff using similar means - Happiness of the Katakuris and the Walerian Borowczyk films in particular - but those are the rare hybrid of B-movie schtick and high-brow symbolic transcendence that will always get curious support, if nothing else. Zombi Holocaust is another beast entirely... sort of a big slobbery Boxer to a batshit crazy Chinese Crested. If that makes any sense.

Buy this, too. Yes, I hate recommending Shout Factory titles unseen myself. But fucking hell, is that CRUEL JAWS? On Blu-ray?! How did-- when the fuck-- REALLY?!*

Goddamn it Cliff, I'm buying this even if it's a train wreck, even knowing that their upcoming "Special Edition" release of DOG SOLDIERS is a fucking upscale. So just skip that pile of ass and get this instead... and hope it's not a pile of ass.

Honestly, I wish I had one label left I trusted. Well, besides Arrow Video. I'm not sure what to make of 88 Films just yet, but I've certainly got my eye on 'em. We'll see, ladies and gents. We'll see.

* UPDATE: Ha! Apparently Shout Factory just now realized that CRUEL JAWS is chock full of footage "borrowed" from a certain Steven Spielberg franchise, and have pulled the plug on the release for fear of this release getting legally hate-fucked into oblivion. For those unaware, it's this very issue that's prevented the film from ever getting a legit DVD release up to this point outside of a few European releases from labels that had less than zero fucks to give, and it's long been figured that the film would either have to be dramatically re-cut, or someone would have to crap out a limited edition in the hopes that Universal would simply ignore it.

Thanks to hansolo for pointing out that Shout Factory finally did their research... after taking pre-orders. EXTERMINATORS IN THE YEAR 3000 is still coming out, for those who are more excited by middling post-nuke adventure movies than hilarious shark flicks. This is pretty far down on my list of post-nuke flicks I'd love to see in HD, but with the loss of CRUEL JAWS, I'll simply bide my time and see what reviews say about this now single-feature.

Monday, December 01, 2014

Flying Too Close To The Sun: Media Blasters' KITE Blu-Ray

It's safe to say I'm a pretty massive fan of Yasuomi UMETSU's 1998 two-part OVA, released as A KITE/カイト in Japan, and as the slightly simplified "KITE" everywhere else. The miniature movie, a blood soaked and action packed tragedy across three acts, plays as any hardcore exploitation fan's wet dream come true; a grueling, stylish, morally bankrupt, and - depending on which country you watch it in - blatantly pornographic mash-up Luc Besson's Leon: The Professional and La Femme Nikita, Bo Arbe Vibenius' Thriller: They Call Her One Eye, with action set pieces that would make even John Woo at his prime seethe with white-hot jealousy. It's a pulpy explosion of sex, revenge, brutality and jazzy sorrow, and draws a curious line right between when anime - as a medium - would break out into its own uniquely niche little market culture; Umetsu's plan was to always make the show a sexually charged and super violent action extravaganza, but at the time, TV shows for kids were still the norm, which led his producer to suggest re-writing it into an explicit porno title to secure funding, since - at least 15 years ago - adult videos always sold numbers to cover a modest production cost. He'd repeat this process in the no less fantastic MEZZO FORTE, though that would eventually get a "mainstream" TV sequel, which - while not terrible - remains the lowest point, artistically speaking, for this very unique and talented director.

While I maintain my belief that the graphic rape scenes present in the original, uncut version are integral to Sawa's definition and even growth as a character - hell, I'd argue one of the most heartbreaking scenes, emotionally speaking, is watching Oburi's bloody face shift from fury to acceptance, showing just how little control over their own destiny these emotionally manipulated teenaged assassins really feel they have... but, hey, for some reason a lot of people can't seem to see past the "cartoon kiddy porn" aspect of the uncut version. I don't agree with their assessment, but I both understand where it's coming from and can't find it in me to hold it against them. So it's safe to say that while I staunchly disagree with it, I wouldn't hold it against anyone who decided to stick with the "R-rated" mainstream version. Not only do you not feel like some sort of alien pedophile when you're watching it, but even the director says it's the version he likes best.

It's with this in mind that I was already hesitant to get excited about Media Blasters' announcement that they would be releasing KITE on Blu-ray... in the less-explicit "International Version", of course. But when this was delayed numerous times due to production delays - evidently going as far as getting their hands on the original Japanese camera negatives - I maintained curiosity, if not excitement. At worst, I thought, perhaps I could use the base to create my own uncut BD using upscaled footage of the "explicit" scenes and call it a day.

Then it was announced that the Hulu and Crunchy Roll airings were from the "Remastered" source material... and that things weren't pretty. Comparisons to their massively compromised Legend of the Overfiend Blu-ray were raised, with multiple scenes sourced from upscaled analogue SD video sources due to the film prints used being incomplete. I've yet to watch the digital stream version myself - figured I'd wait for the BD and be done with it - but I thought, if nothing else, they couldn't have done a dramatically worse job than they did with Urotsukidoji. Yes, those upscaled bits are obvious and janky and disappointing - especially when you factor in that I know for a fact uncut 35mm prints* existed in the 90s, and it follows that they probably still do - but the limitations of the film source were so bad, and the upscaling was at least somewhat competent, so how much worse could this get?

I'm not willing to take back my benefit of the doubt. The following SCREENSHOT GALLERY is worth a thousand words, and at first, the results seem breathtaking; unlike prior Media Blasters releases, this looks clean and sharp enough that I'm willing to take their word that this is a new scan of the original film negative; natural grain, bold color, phenomenal resolution... honestly, the 35mm material looked better than I could have asked for. For a brief moment, every ounce of me wanted to toss on some pans, march to my local Best Buy and yell at a clerk until they could find a copy for me. It's that good.

And then you keep scrolling, and then you get to the episode 2 footage, and then... and then...

Pictured: Fury personified.

Also, since this was cut together on video too,
it may never get a decent Blu-ray either. Fuck.

To be fair, Media Blasters claims that the negative was "incomplete". Maybe this is true. Maybe there really is no proper 35mm source for large chunks of the second OVA, and that means we're stuck with analogue telecine materials made in 1998. If so, man, does that suck. There's intermittend frame blending throughout the original tape masters, which means it's impossible to get a clean 23.98fps IVTC going: At best, you can deinterlace and then use "restore" tools that'll duplicate non-ghosted frames to get a cleaner version of the shot going at the cost of frames it can't de-blend. Kind of a no-win situation there. Analogue noise, dot-crawl, line shimmering and other issues have always plagued the 1998 master of Kite, to the point where I would argue that there was nothing anyone could have done to make the SD materials "work" on Blu-ray. Honestly, for all the shenanigans that Sailor Moon has been going through, those Toei SD masters were as perfect as an SD master could get; Kite is far from the worst I've ever seen, but I'd need to dig back into the mid-1980s to find something legitimately comparable.

So, the footage is upscaled and the masters look like shit. This release was going to be a train-wreck no matter what happened. Unfortunate, but almost predictable. What I couldn't have guessed was just how HORRIBLY Media Blasters would go about upscaling the SD material, to the point where after I screamed at my monitor I went to my shelf, dug out the "Kite Uncut" Media Blasters DVD, and decided I could probably upscale this fucking thing better myself.

The results are as follows. Actual MB Blu-ray on the top, my own upscale on the bottom:

All pictures should work.
If not, tell DropBox to stop being such a-holes.

What I want you to keep in mind is that the filter chain I've used here is EXTREMELY basic. I didn't color correct anything, there was no film-judder or scratch repair filters here, I used a super-fast DVNR algorithm I'd never trust on something I expected people to pay for that may be smearing away otherwise maintainable temporal detail, and even I used a basic de-blending script to cut down on the worst of fuzzed-over, ghosted frames as best I could. This is also being made from an actual production DVD which, to be perfectly frank, has some fairly piss-poor compression; examples such as the subway car exploding and Sawa falling with the flailing bodyguard are going to look substantially worse for me due to the MPEG compression artifacts gumming up the DVD, none of which should be on whatever gnarly analogue Betacam master the original materials were actually stored on. Don't forget, Media Blasters' compression was so grungy that they did a "remastered" DVD for the edited version of Kite back in 2009. It's literally the same exact source tape as their 1998 DVD - it was simply compressed far better than it was the first time 'round.

And yet, despite all of those limiting factors, somehow even the "Kite Uncut" DVD from 2004 looks dramatically better when properly upscaled to 1080p during SD sourced sections. The shot of Akai sneering after he's curb-stomped Oburi in particular have a shocking level of aliasing and lost-detail in the background painting, which is depressing considering how little "detail" there was on this title for the DVD release. I've yet to subject myself to the Crunchy Roll stream, but consensus so far is that the first episode's worth of material is complete or damned close to it, while somewhere in the ball park of 4-5 minutes of the second are sourced from poorly upscaled SD tape. Evidently, there are sections where it cuts back to SD material for just a few frames and then cuts back to the new film scan. Exactly why several minutes of the original negative for episode 2 were unusable, I'd love to know; call me crazy, but had they included a behind-the-scenes featurette showing what state the OCN was in, I'd probably have bought the disc just to understand why the fuck a 15 year old negative is in such bad shape. I know Green Bunny and ARMS probably didn't keep great tabs on the negatives for what was, from a marketing point of view at least, some crazy niche-porno film that'll only appeal to sex and violence obsessed degenerates, but without a compelling explanation, it's hard to make any real judgment calls on how much of this grotesque upscaling is a legitimate means to and end, and how much of it was Media Blasters' unwillingness to fix whatever materials they were offered.

Without a compelling pile of evidence either way, I'm left feeling like this is most comparable to the RUROUNI KENSHIN: TRUST AND BETRAYAL/るろうに剣心―明治剣客浪漫譚―追憶編 Aniplex Blu-ray import. The difference, though, is that certain scenes of the Tsuioku-Hen OVA have always looked funky due to 30fps video generated effects, so nobody who was particularly familiar with the series was surprised to see a handful of scenes look like absolute shit. Came hand in hand with the production, even if, deep down in my blackest of hearts, I kind of wish Sony had just paid to re-animate those scenes from scratch for the otherwise stunning HD master. With Kite, those crappy shots are gonna stick out like sore thumbs, being not only terrible for SD upscales in general, but not being weird effects shots where we could forgive production gaffes; this is simply a release where the negative was lost, and they resorted to the only thing they had left. Truth be told, I wouldn't be surprised if the upscaled footage was originally created as a guide to re-assemble the raw film scan, and when they realized there were no more prints to be had they used their upscaled reference to fill in the gaps. Yes, the film lab should be ashamed of coming up with results that terrible, but from their point of view, I can understand them just not giving a fuck anymore; when you've completely run out of film, what's the point in even finishing up your HD master?

It's a shame this had to go the way that it did, too. Because goddamn, the 35mm sourced scenes look incredible.

Contrary to what many of you may have assumed over the years, I don't really hate John Sirabella, or his company Media Blasters. If anything, that'd be giving them far too much credit. I'm often annoyed that they're in the business of licensing fantastic content, but always had trouble delivering a quality release, due to a combination of a lack of proper quality control and a nasty habit of promising more than they could deliver. Sometimes those flaws are minor irritants that could have easily been avoided had someone more familiar with the material been keeping tabs on it, while others are such unmitigated train wrecks I truly can't understand how they ever came to get a wide release in the first place. Whether this is the former or the latter, I'm still struggling to decide; unlike the Overfiend fiasco, where we have every reason to believe "complete" 35mm prints of the theatrical version still exist in varying elements, this may be the only print available. I honestly don't know. If you have a Hulu Plus or Crunchy Roll membership, I'd recommend watching the SD stream first, just to get an idea of how jarring it'll be; "understanding extenuating circumstances" and "tolerating the results" aren't necessarily the same thing.

Media Blasters has always been a frustrating operation to consumers with standards about quality control, and this release might be their most frustrating release in years. I've supported them dozens, if not hundreds of times with individual purchases over the last 15 years, and God knows I'll probably keep doing it when they don't screw up. I'm not buying this one, though. I just can't bring myself to do it, knowing that not only are chunks of it upscaled, but they've been upscaled about as badly as humanly possible, short of leaving them at 1080i. Sure the thought of getting about 40-45 minutes of  KITE in glorious OCN-sourced HD is an attractive one, but the fact that my ten year old and not-too-good to start with DVD looks better for the other 5 minutes is already a deal breaker; the fact that it's the shorter, less-explicit version was already a tough pill to swallow, but with this they've coated it in super glue and hot sauce. A shame, too... for as awful as those upscaled shots are, they're at least the minority of the runtime.

For anyone who still wants a copy, Best Buy stores are stocking it seemingly at random, and pre-orders are up at Rakuten. Media Blasters distribution can be called spotty, even at their best, so if you want one I'd suggest looking now before it quietly slips out of print and into over-priced obscurity. Not saying you should, but if you're going to, at least do it for cheap.