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!


Anonymous said...

Kentai, if I ever get super rich, which I intend to do in the next 5 years, I will contact you and give you a boat load of cash to help me restore all of these exploitation animes to their so far unrealized uncut glory, starting with Urotsukidōji and KITE.

Anyway, I look forward to your run down of Bubblegum Crisis and Cowboy Bebop. Re the former, you can see Robert Woodhead in the forum link below suggesting a year ago that some temporal noise reduction to the Japanese master would be a good idea, and in turn his defense of his similarly noise reduced (and waxy as hell) Lone Wolf & Cub Blu-ray.

It doesn't sound like he went and did it, but confirmation one way or the other would be much appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Lol , epic write up man. I too am interested in hearing a few words about the recent BGC & Bebop BD releases. :-)

Unknown said...

So Media Blasters fucked up this much? welp going to go cry forever.

Anonymous said...

It's late but apparently Kite & Mezzo Forte are getting Blu-ray releases in Japan.

(each page might direct to a +18 disclaimer)

BluMeino said...

Looks like Japan has some BDs coming:

I assume they'll be the full length versions, but obviously censored.

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