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.


Anonymous said...

Blunt and to the point. Very good.

Going to swing by Best Buy tomorrow after work just to see those 35mm scenes in glorious HD.

Anonymous said...

had no intention of purchasing the MB Blu-ray since learning it was cut. Knowing its full of shoddy upscaled SD footage, makes my initial decision even more justified.

Anonymous said...

Great review! I honestly don't know if I want to purchase it or not. It's censored and has some video sourced material. By the way, 88 Films UK are planning to remaster "Zombi Holocaust" for blu ray on Indiegogo( and hopefully fix up the first fucked up effort by Media Blasters( and LVR)). Here's the link-

Anonymous said...

Despite being the cut version, I still would have purchased it had they handled the SD shots better. As it is, I have 3 versions of it on DVD, so I guess it's about time I revisit this graphic little gem.

BluMeino said...

It might be worth a download, but certainly not worth purchasing unless it's uncut. Of course, then you'd have to worry where the uncut scenes were sourced from.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

The beauty of the 35mm-sourced footage and the obscurity of MB BDs made me cave in and buy it. $13, I can live with that. I have a strange obsession with buying shitty MB discs. Plan to pick up Devil Dog soon, which can sit alongside FleshEater and Bad Biology.

But dammit, I just want this movie uncut and in fine quality throughout. Even if Sirabella personally blew a load on the negative during the porn scenes, I'd still want that grime up on my screen. said...

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