Sunday, January 25, 2015

Dead or Alive, You're In HD: Takashi Miike's D.O.A on Blu-ray

Holy crap, ladies and gents, it's been a while, hasn't it? I must apologize for dropping off the face of this little corner of overlong glorified shitposting I call the Kentai Blog, but in my defense, I've been serving an epic run of jury duty (which ended today - huzzah!), got promoted with a host of new responsibilities I was in the process of learning, and I'm currently trying to figure out if the rental unit I'm in is worth the price versus the massive pain-in-the-ass that comes with moving. (It's not.) In short, shit be cray-cray, and I literally don't have time or energy to do much of the long-winded but sincere nonsense I'd like to throw up here on a semi-regular basis.

But hey, let's do something I can do in my sleep and talk about Takashi MIIKE - more specifically about the bizarre lack of earlier Miike films on Blu-ray. That'll make for a short, rage inducing post... unless, maybe, there's something worth talking about?

"I am the director of love and freedom." - Takashi Miike, 2006,
in response to agreeing to be part of Mick Garris' Masters of Horror.

I must confess I'm at a bit of a loss as to how few Takashi Miike films have found their way to Blu-ray, especially here in North America. I know, I know, his heyday was without question that magical period from about 1998 to 2006, gaining noteriety with the Western world for his outlandish and gruesome, but almost always at least somewhat  satyrical excess-experiments like Ichi the Killer, Visitor Q, and  Yakuza Horror Theater Gozu. I love all of these films, but I'll admit I have a soft spot for his earlier movies as well, including the whimsical escapism of The Bird People in China, the mean-spirited excess of Fudoh: The New Generation, and the... well, the whatever the fuck it is you'd call MPD Psycho. If I had to go out on a limb and pick the last truly great Takashi Miike film, it'd probably be his "Oni El Topo" time and space rejecting tale of furious revenge, IZO, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't find even somewhat more mainstream efforts - like Yatterman, and Yakuza: Like A Dragon - to be thoroughly amusing, even if they lack the same level of analogue unpredictability and fury that made me fall in love with his work so long ago.

Asia has been fairly kind with Miike films on Blu-ray since about 2006, Sukiyaki Western Django being the first title I can personally remember getting released in HD (though, of course, the extensive bonus features are only available on the limited edition R2 DVD). North America has been substantially less kind - a handful of titles like the legitimately unexpected Zebraman 2, the under-appreciated teenaged tough-guy ballad Crows Zero, a truncated version of 13 Assassins, and somehow,  Hara-Kiri 3D: Death of a Samurai, which remains perhaps the only film in his catalog I have absolutely zero interest in ever seeing. (Seriously, why did that happen? And when is America going to make an equally tasteless 3D remake of Kramer vs Kramer next?)

Perhaps not all hope is lost - after all, Arrow Video announced that their first "Arrow USA" title will be none other than Happiness of the Katakuris! - but it's the one bright spot in a sea of DVD-only releases for one of the most prolific and fascinating film makers of the last decade. A pity, really. Miike's output has grown increasingly more family-friendly and "mainstream" by Japanese standards, making it that much less appealing to international licensors to begin with, even if it raises his profile at home. Stuff like Ninja Kids! never had a prayer or getting much interest outside of Japan, to say nothing of films like For Love's Sake and God's Puzzle. Even his fittingly tongue in cheek adaptation of the Pheonix Wright: Ace Attorney handheld games have never had a US release, Yatterman got a subtitled DVD only several years after it was released via Discotek, and anyone interested in seeing his brutal Lesson of the Evil will have to import an English-friendly Hong Hong Blu-ray. Without a doubt, the biggest hurdle here is getting anyone interested enough to prepare new HD masters; many Miike films never even had proper 16:9 DVD presentations, and when Discotek was going through a run of Miike films they never actually released D. O. A - FINAL, not because they couldn't get the rights to it, but because there were no high-enough quality materials available!

Honestly, the only notable BD release of a Miike catalog title we've seen stateside was AUDITION, the 1999 fusion of middle aged romance and flesh-crawling horror that helped to put Miike on the map outside of Japan, and remains perhaps his most accomplished and beloved film from a "serious" critical perspective. I'd personally argue that Visitor QSukiyaki Western Django or Juvenile A: Big Bang Love were far more transgressive and "important" works, but Audition hit the sweet spot between arthouse polish and schlock-horror extravagance, so it's unsurprising that it's the film that ultimately gets all the affection that's less showered on by his notably more camp-heavy efforts. Besides, Visitor Q was shot on DV and it ain't going to look any better upscaled to 1080p than it already does on DVD.

The Shout Factory Blu-ray, unfortunately, wasn't very good; they were given access to a 35mm Internegative and carried out their own HD telecine, but didn't go out of their way to restore the film much from there. Dirt baked into the print is common, telecine judder occasionally borders towards the point of distraction, grain is heavier than it feels like it should despite middling compression keeping grain soft and clumpy, and perhaps most notably is the colors, which regularly veer far closer to the red and purple end of the spectrum than even prior DVD releases. Perhaps most notably, the Shout Factory BD is the only master I'm aware of that features cue marks at every reel change, suggesting prior DVD masters - such as the 16:9 PAL release by Tartan from about 12 or 13 years ago - were made from an fresh Interpositive, or at least were given more TLC during the telecine process, which wouldn't surprise me since Tartan released a shoddy looking disc the first time and then restored the film in a bid to convince consumers that they had, finally, found a basic set of standards. That said, the Blu-ray presentation remains the highest quality release out there, warts and all... it's just a shame that the only "classic" Miike film we've gotten to see in HD to this point was such a middling affair.

Ichi the Killer got a Blu-ray release. When I first saw it, I gave it the benefit of the doubt and assumed it was just a poor HD master. I've since come to the conclusion that it's actually an SD upscale, and can find literally nothing to refute this theory. This initial realization left me perhaps too critical of some of Media Blasters' legitimate (if regularly underwhelming) BD releases since, but... well, if Sirabella hadn't pulled a fast one on this, I probably wouldn't have been so quick to assume he'd done the same with Versus. I wish I could say the BD was the best presentation by default, but frankly, the Netherlands DVD has MORE DETAIL. As such I'd recommend the R1 DVD Special Edition for US buyers, used if possible, just because you shouldn't ever support trash of this magnitude.

It's with these exceptionally low expectations that a friend informed me that a German studio by the name of Mad Dimension (if I'm not mistaken, at least) had released Takashi Miike's clearly tongue-in-cheek "ultimate yakuza movie", D.O.A - DEAD OR ALIVE 犯罪者 in a Limited Edition BD + DVD Mediabook set. It includes German dubbing and subtitles, no English translations here, but the limitless power of The Internet means a few certain trackers are already hosting a custom English subtitled release for those who, like myself, don't speak a word of Deutsch beyond 'spaetzle' and 'schlampe'. So I spent the better part of a day getting my Nautical Freelance software in order - I've honestly been too goddamn busy to steal movies I already own, which feels like a weird thing to say - and, truth be told, expected a pretty crumby upscale of the 1999 Japanese Digibeta...

Instead, the results are - while still pretty far from perfect - substantially better than I dreamed they would be. This is clearly a new, High Definition transfer of pre-print 35mm elements, which very much mirror the various DVD releases we've all seen to date; Dark club interiors are often oppressively so thanks to poor original lighting, certain entire scenes (such as the final showdown, or the heavily blue scene in which the gangsters visit their mother's grave) remain heavily photochemically graded, as they always have been, Resolution is somewhat muted by the soft photography and less-than-ideal HD telecine, but there's an added level of depth and clarity over prior SD masters none the less, and the coarse grain (which we'll talk about) never has any serious compression issues or digital artifacts - like banding or edge ringing - to complain about. "Sparkle" - that is, minor spots and scuffs on the print - is moderate in volume, but not particularly distracting.

So far this is sounding pretty good, but there's two issues that are constantly present on very different sides of the divide. It may sound like one existing would contradict the other, but, hear me out...

The HD telecine is heavy on chroma noise, with Aikawa Show's gray suit constantly infected with a sort of buzzing swarm of green and red shimmering, as are the darkened backstage scenes set at the strip club. I have no idea what Telecine hardware was used, but I know the fuzzy-yet-coarse results of a less than optimal device when I see it; I won't point fingers or take any wild guesses, suffice to say that the film elements themselves appear to be in decent-enough shape, which puts the presence of gross, irregular chroma artifacts like we're seeing here solely on the Telecine hardware. To put this another way, don't you hate it when you're watching a 35mm print and all the dark scenes have weird, rainbow-colored grain? No, you don't, because that's not a thing on celluloid - or at least not one I've ever seen, not even at the New Beverly's Tuesday Grindhouse Double Features. It's simply a limitation on the telecine hardware when the scanner picks up low-lit material and can't quite find a bead on what the color information should be, at which point it manifests as seemingly random chromatic spittle. It's basically the same thing we saw in the Media Blasters HD release of Burial Ground, it's just dramatically less pronounced - and thank fuck for that.

But that's not all! Despite the whole film having a heavy noise structure covering the image, there has been some... interesting noise removal applied. I say "interesting" because I don't quite get what's going on here. Some scenes - such as the shots on the police station roof - have been blasted of anything resembling grain. Others look like they weren't processed at all. Darker areas tend to be left alone, but brighter spots of the scene - particularly anything green or blue, such as police uniforms - tend to have a total lack of harsh noise, at the cost of some temporal smearing. I won't lie, the noise is so sharp and funky looking that the DVNR'ed footage might actually look better than the raw telecine... but the DVNR is applied so infrequently and to such specific frequencies that at times you can see flesh tones and white shirts smeared while the rest of the screen is crawling with heavy, coarse analogue artifacts. A perfect example is the shot of the guy in the green jacket holding the sword; his forehead and shoulders are smoothed clean, while the rest of the frame is positively crawling with video noise. It just looks weird once you see those frequency cut-offs, and as the image as a whole is still crawling from neck to tail in coarse video noise, it didn't really "fix" anything, it just made the divide between the more-smeared scenes and the more-noisy scenes that much more obvious.

Why did they even bother applying DVNR strictly to high-frequencies? Was it a way to get some wayward frequencies to behave before encoding, or perhaps a way to even out skin tones during color correction? I couldn't tell you for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised if that was the rational explanation. The transfer isn't ever unwatchable or cringe-worthy, but the inconsistent combination of smeared temporal areas on one scene and omnipresent video noise the next makes it hard to think of it as anything other than a wasted opportunity. Truth be told, I wouldn't be surprised if a consistently, and slightly less temporally-focused DVNR filter would have done  this rough 'round the edges some more favors than harm... then again, knowing me I'd have bitched about how waxy and soft the final results.

Do I recommend the transfer for the $30 it's selling for? Eh, it's a tough sell, but I've spent more for worse and I know it. Anyone who wants to get the original two disc set can find it HERE for about $30 before shipping - you'll have to speak either German or Japanese to get anything out of it, but if you're reading this site, I'm guessing you're also bright enough to use a software BD player that'll load external subtitles. It's not quite rocket science, after all.

I have little doubt that a 2K scan of the original negative would have yielded sharper, less gritty and more natural, filmic results, but in the interim the HD master we've got is - at worst - merely a B-/C+ affair. It's not an upscale, it's not inconsistent with prior DVD releases, and while it isn't great, it isn't a disaster, and as sad as that is, these days that's all I can hope for when it comes to a second-tier cult film from 15 years ago.

Here's hoping the even more outre sequels get the same - if not better! - treatment. And sooner, rather than later.


bruce holecheck said...

Shout Factory announced a few months back they've picked up Miike's OVER YOUR DEAD BODY, so that's something, right?

Also, while Arrow USA are indeed doing HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS, it's not their first release -- they've already announced two waves of titles coming prior, including restorations of DAY OF ANGER, BLOODBATH OF DR. JEKYLL, and Bava's BLOOD & BLACK LACE.

Anonymous said...

Lesson of evil is out in the uk on Blu-ray from third window films. Comes with a 2 hour making of .

Gurotaku said...

DOA was actually released by our old friends from Japan Shock Video aka Shock Entertainment. For what it's worth, the transfer was done by the "worldwide license holder" and not by them. HD transfers of all 3 DOA films have been done and are currently being offered for sale by said "worldwide license holder". Shock hasn't committed to releasing the other two as sales of the first film were disappointing but at least they haven't ruled it out completely yet. I'd be very curious if a HD transfer of FINAL would for once come without those burned in Japanese subtitles.

Anonymous said...

Kentai, you see this?


Kentai 拳態 said...



God, I needed this. Thank you, kind anon. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

In re: Audition and Tartan - they clusterfucked their way through that title multiple times (like a lot of titles), and even worse the second R1 in the US which was relased by Lionsgate suffered the same issues because they got their transfer source from Tartan.

The first R1 DVD by Ventura in the US was the best DVD version of the film, despite being non-anamorphic, at least until Shout Factory came along.

None of it matters now, Blu-Ray looks 100 times better and it's correct.

As for Ichi the Killer, what do you expect: Tokyo Shock aka Media Blasters. They don't care about anything but $. Kite Blu-Ray that you previously reviewed/commented on is proof of such.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

Discotek were apparently working on a DVD for DOA: Final that doesn't have the burned-in subs, so there must be a film source that lacks them. Would love to have all three on Blu-ray. With English subs, of course.

Speaking of Discotek, their DVD of Violence Jack is supposed to have unmosaiced scenes as an extra. I guess they listened to me when I linked your blog post on the unmosaiced VCD for Evil Town.

Kentai, didja see the Frankenstein Created Bikers Kickstarter? $37 gets you a limited to 1,000 Blu-ray. Shit's being done on 35mm, which is so delish.

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