Vintage Japanese Video Ad
Before I get to my main point, it's worth noting that Discotek Media is releasing Yoshiaki KAWAJIRI's 2000 film, VAMPIRE HUNTER D: BLOODLUST, on bilingual DVD and Blu-ray sometime later this year. I have only three words, to be honest: About, fucking, time. The R1 DVD has some truly deplorable compression issues that are impossible to ignore, and while I won't claim that there isn't some sensible argument to be made for the English version being the "original" dialogue track in this case, the Japanese dub is far superior in this instance, and as a fan of Kawajiri the thought of not at least having the option to watch one of his films in Japanese seems weird, at the very least. So yes, put me down as someone excited to finally replace the 15 year old Urban Vision DVD I can't tell you how long I waited to get my grubby mitts on, so long ago...
Which is surprising since, to be honest, I don't even like the movie much.
Don't get me wrong, I have an immense level of respect for the technical skill that went into its creation, and having been a film I got to follow the long, somewhat murky production behind I find the circumstances that birthed it to be worth the subject of their own documentary alone. At the same time, I'm a firm believer that this is one of Kawajiri's single weakest films*, because while Yoshiaki "The Ninja Scroll Guy" Kawajiri is an exceptional talent in terms of distinctly Japanese aestheticism and stretching sparse, sometimes downright minimalist techniques into larger than life epics, he's also a surprisingly good film maker in a broader, more general sense. His films often have a great sense of pacing and escalation, heroes and villains "read" instantly by body language, music powers action scenes as much as the visuals behind them and common, dreary settings turn nightmarish in the blink of an eye with equal parts John Carpenter and Dario Argento, staging the end of the world as a synth-powered candy colored apocalypse and copious non-consensual couplings, time and time again.
* Let's be honest, no matter how you slice this one it's a toss-up between this and his HIGHLANDER feature. That was cheaply animated, shockingly stupid stupid and an utter waste of a great premise - HIGHLANDER 3000 - as the fantastic and exciting opening scene suggests... but at least that felt like a single, cohesive story. It's far less ambitious and far less interesting to look at, but goddamn it, at least it's a real movie and not a feature-length demo reel!
And what is Bloodlust, exactly? It's a big, ugly, confused mess. The pacing is a mess, it switches genres every reel, the morally gray cast isn't interesting enough for their philosophies to say much of anything, "D" is basically a footnote in his own movie, the villainess feels tacked on because she is, the most iconic set pieces were lifted verbatim from Coppola, I could go on for days here... it's just not a very good movie no matter how I slice it. It takes too long to setup the central conflict, and once it does there's no sense of urgency, no real threat beyond a bunch of characters you don't care threatening to kill other characters we feel equally nothing for. The only other feature length anime I can think of that's a bigger, bolder and ultimately even dumber mess is Steamboy, but even that I can more readily forgive, since by the time I'd seen it the whole world had shat so thoroughly on it I expected it to be 125 minutes of Adolf Hitler sneering at the viewer or something,
Bloodlust is a collection of really cool stand-alone scenes that, in no way, add up to a competent or interesting movie. But goddamn, it's still some of the most meticulously produced masturbatory animation I've ever had the pleasure of drooling over. If you ever wanted a traditionally animated demo disc, this is one of the best titles you could whip out as background noise.
So far, Discotek has done some fantastic BD releases, so I'm not especially worried about this one. Take note, however, that it appears the Samurai Pizza Cats (English version) is going to get an "SD Blu-ray" release, effectively the DVD MPEG video files plopped onto a single disc instead of a chunky DVD set. I... guess that's fair enough for a show with no proper film materials to go back to, but it sets a troubling precedent. After Viz (and Toei's!) general fucking around with Sailor Moon, proving that upscaled garbage really is "good enough" in 2015 for vintage anime, I honestly don't know what to expect anymore...
Vintage Streamline Postcard
But Bloodlust is the footnote here. For those unaware, when I was about 8 years old, my father - whom I hadn't lived with in some time - found a VHS of something he'd recorded he wanted to show me. He had meant to record Heavy Metal, but got the time it started wrong and wound up getting to "Adult Japanese Cartoons" by mistake, but he figured I'd like them all the same.
One of them was Vampire Hunter D. The other was Robot Carnival. To say these two films had a profound effect on me would be an understatement, and have largely led me down the road of the socially awkward codec-obsessed goony-beard sociopath you see before you today. Mind you, my father also watched Creepshow, The Toxic Avenger and The Rocky Horror Picture Show with me when I was far younger than that, so... yep, that's actually starting to explain a lot of things in hindsight.
Here's what little we know: Sentai Filmworks, one of many shell companies that formed after AD Vision had to scatter its ashes to the heartless sea to avoid Japanese parent companies leverating unpaid promises against it, is going to release the original 1985 OVA on Blu-ray come August 25th. They've promised - and I quote - that the feature has been "remastered in High Definition from the original elements". Word on the street (unconfirmed as it may be) is that they're likely using the same master as Italian distributor Yamato Video, who released - by far - the best looking 1.33:1 OAR transfer of the film I've ever seen... even if it isn't exactly perfect. And it dawned on me that despite having posted a few caps of Doris in the shower as a bit of a joke, I never did do a proper comparison between it and its most obvious competition for Best VHD85 DVD Ever.
That said, the Italian DVD was released in 2003. Odds of them doing an expensive HD remaster seem a bit slim to me, and even if they had, it's uncertain how high quality an HD master from so long ago will look under the microscope today. It's entirely possible that what Sentai Filmworks is trying to say is that they've done a new transfer from whatever 35mm elements Yamato Video themselves have in storage, but without further confirmation, your guess is as good as mine. The lack of PAL speedup and superior compression alone would make a Blu-ray appealing, even if it were a crap upscale... but let's not even entertain that thought too loudly. I've been hurt too many times as of late.
There is, of course, one other fascinating DVD release of Vampire Hunter D floating around Europe. German distributor OVA Films made their own restored version back in 2004, and it's... frustrating. Deeply, intensely frustrating. I could explain why, but it would be far easier just to show you. Since any my prior plans on this matter are now completely irrelevant - I'm a different man with a different path than I was 5 years ago, crazy as that is to realize now - I'm going to dump a handful of comparisons so those curious can simply judge for themselves which of the PAL masters they prefer. Sadly, both the Sony Japan and Urban Vision USA DVDs aren't worth the plastic they were pressed on, so I'll ignore them for the time being...
OVA FILMS - Germany, 2004 (Top)
YAMATO VIDEO - Italy, 2003 (Bottom)
As you can see, the OVA Films 16:9 transfer consistently has a bit more info on the left side of the frame than Yamato Video's 4:3 transfer, but the Yamato Video has substantially more info on the top and bottom. Do note, however, that you can regularly see the inside frame of the camera in the bottom-right of the Yamato print, suggesting that their telecine is "off" somewhat in terms of framing; there's probably a bit more headroom on whatever 35mm print they were given access to, and I'll be damned if I believe the Italian transfer was pin-registered, meaning that getting a consistent, stable scan was likely low on the list of priorities being checked off in whatever lab they brought it to. And hey, let's face it, we've covered how less-than-perfect Italian film labs can be at the Kentai Blog more than once... that's not to say they did a terrible job, particularly for the time, just that I wonder what could be done today that wasn't in 2003.
Having recently re-watched the two of these transfers for this comparison, I can say that while the Italian Yamato Video version is (almost) framed correctly, the cinematic blocking has always been a touch claustrophobic. As you can see the German OVA Films transfer may be consistently center-cropped, but... good lord, is it a mess. Look at the moon, missing both the top and bottom of the fucking sphere. Look at that horse-drawn carriage being cut cleanly in half, despite being the focus of the shot. Look at Doris' chin just disappearing as she spits out a curse in one of the most dramatic bits of spite in the picture, or even the first shot of the film showing Count Lee's castle raising up from seemingly nothing; everything just looks off, and that's because this film was never designed to be shown this way. Reframing 1.33 to 1.78 is no less destructive to image composition that the inverse, and while I can forgive a carefully weighted crop as much as the next guy, this was a set it and forget it affair; if they had taken the time and effort to do a proper "tilt-and-scan" transfer and stretch certain shots (such as the moon) to preserve the frame maybe, MAYBE this could have worked... but, ultimately the OVA Films master simply is what it is.
Don't get me wrong, some scenes look perfectly fine matted to 16:9 - some of the sweeping landscapes arguably look better, and yes this is how a theoretical 35mm showing would have looked if Sony Music Entertainment had ever made good on their promise to push a wider release - but in much the same way that director Toyoo ASHIDA's iconic Fist of the North Star movie has never looked correct matter beyond the full 1.33:1 frame, neither has his earlier Vampire Hunter D. This was technically produced for the home video market anyway, so while I'd be willing to accept that director Ashida paid lip-service to the idea that a theatrical version would be matted, it's clearly not something he himself ever actually accounted for, and if so there's no reason to distort the image any more than it has to be.
It's truly a shame, since the German transfer is otherwise superior in pretty much every way. The Italian version regularly has small bits of debris clinging to the print, the the OVA Films transfer has a much more natural level of film grain, compared to the sludgy and temporally filtered Yamato master. Compression is also better on the German release, though as you can imagine both are pretty underwhelming in the age of Blu-ray with high-bitrate AVC producing some of the most film-like images humanly possible at reasonable file sizes. Flesh tones and blue daylit skies consistently look more natural on OVA Films' transfer as well, though if the German color grading had one major flaw it wouldn't be the slightly boosted by comparison contrast, it would be the curiously green tinged shadows. Darkness plays a very important role in the art design here, and while I can't say the OVA Films version is "wrong", it's not inaccurate to say that pushing darker images towards blue is typically the 'natural' way to create shadows during color grading. I have no doubt that the low end could have been shifted away from green while keeping flesh tones close to their current state, but again, the OVA Films DVD is over a decade old now. The fact that it's held up for this long as well as it has is actually pretty impressive.
To be fair to Yamato Video, the transfer only looks especially "dark" in direct comparison: Full screen those caps and you'll find a natural, healthy level of contrast that simply adheres to the film's overall aesthetics and production methods of the time. OVA Films' flesh tones are glowing by comparison, but having at one point been so used to the painfully ugly Urban Vision DVD, I can't say either grade grinds my gears all that hard. The OVA Films transfer looks "brighter", but its more natural appearance is largely down to the midrange grade rather than the boosted contrast; I'm not too fussed about the boosting myself, but once you've seen it, it's a little hard to ignore it on daylight scenes.
It's also worth noting that neither transfer seems to have tried to account for the numerous inconsistencies already present on the negative. Optical shots - such as D's arm regenerating its own flesh after he fights off the Jaguar Boy in the basement of the castle - have always been either too dark or too bright, depending on how they were exposed, and neither transfer seems to have put much effort into getting any major consistency between flubs or limitations in the lighting. Having done it myself for a professional DVD release (using far, far worse materials than this) I can promise you that it can be done, but it's tedious, painstaking work, and if you're charging by the hour, no independent studio is going to throw down a fortune for it. Pity, since while I have some hopes that Sentai's transfer will be the best yet, I have little faith that any of the original inconsistencies will be fixed in the process.
A far harder to spot oddity is the presence of film grain - more specifically, the consistency thereof. The Yamato DVD doesn't appear to have much in the way of overt grain scrubbing, since once or twice a second the film has a properly defined grain structure; more likely their compression method was simply crap and leaned towards smoothing "noise", which means that the I-frames are all nice and crisp, while everything between them has a gross, diffuse macroblocking pattern over them. How obvious (and annoying) this will be depends on how obvious MPEG funkiness is to the individual viewer; I'd be willing to bet 3 out of 4 viewers would never second guess why backgrounds "pulse" from sharp to soft, but it drives me bananas. The OVA Films transfer is still limited by the simple realities of PAL MPEG-2 streams on a 9 gig disc, but the overall consistency is substantially higher, leaving the film with a fairly natural, high quality coating of 35mm grain from start to finish.
If only the OVA Films transfer wasn't fucking matted, I wouldn't need a Blu-ray half as badly as I do...
There is one more bit of surprise news about Sentai Filmworks' re-release, though... and man, is it a shock to the system for me. They're including a brand new English dub, and the Streamline Pictures version of the film I've known and loved for over 20 years will not be included.
Look, you guys know me by now. You know that I'm a firm believer that while dubs can, in and of themselves, be a polished and - at times - even worthwhile production in their own right, film is a medium of culture. In a sense I could see the argument that the English "reversions" of titles like Godzilla: King of the Monsters or Shogun Assassins are essentially uniquely American films, cobbled together from the fever-dream level scraps of misunderstood Japanese pop-culture of the time. I can even see the good in dubs for giving audiences who may never have had access to these films otherwise a chance to revel in the shared consciousness of film that envelops the entire world in different, fascinating ways.
Not all Hollywood films are the same, obviously, but English is the language of Hollywood, and it doesn't matter if you're talking Cecil B. DeMille or John Waters, dubbing a film changes its presentation away from the way it was meant to be consumed. Subtitles are no substitute for a native understanding of the language, no, but they're a far closer emulation to getting to experience the film as it was created than a dub could ever be. I won't bother arguing over the notion that Patrick Steward's presence in Ghibli dubs makes the films better; Patrick Steward makes EVERYTHING better, and I'll not hear anyone argue otherwise. But that still doesn't mean I'm not lunging for the language menu on my Nausicaa Blu-ray to play the damned thing in its original audio. Why wouldn't I? It's a friggin' Japanese movie, made by a Japanese crew, for a Japanese audience. I'd be confused if it wasn't in Japanese. I'd no sooner watch Nausicaa dubbed in English than I would Tiger Mask dubbed in Italian, or Urotsukidoji dubbed in Cantonese - and yes, I'm using these examples because I've done all three, because they happened to be the versions available to me at the time.
"But what about Roger Ebert?" some of you are probably thinking. "He said ALL cartoons are dubbed, so it shouldn't matter!" I've given Roger a lot of shit for the way he treated a wide swath of genre films I myself am quite fond of, and in hindsight I've given him a lot more hell than he ever deserved; Ebert was a smart, sincere guy who's personal taste happened to not sit where mine did, and there's nothing wrong with that. But arguing dubbing doesn't matter, just because the audio is syncronized in post? Utter horse shit! Did the booming, terror-inducing casting of James Earl Jones not matter in Star Wars, just because he was dubbed in later? Do the over the top performances of Mark Hammil and Tim Curry not matter in their cartoon voice overs, despite them being - by far - more varied and fascinating than anything they've ever done with the rest of their body? Hell, if dubbing doesn't matter for animated films, does that mean everything Walt Disney ever made would be improved by replacing the entire cast with a drunken Dave Chapelle? I understand he was trying to come up with a "Gotcha!" argument for everyone whinging about the Ghibli dubs they thought would be poorly produced and as awkward as previous attempts, but the argument is so wrong-hearted that it always makes me just a little sick. The cast is important in any film, even if they're just voices coming out of cheap looped mouth-flaps. Hell, both Bob's Burgers and Archer are fantastic comedies, and the only reason they work is because of the exceptionally talented staff behind the mics giving limited animation
Pictured: Feels I never asked for.
It's with that in mind you may be surprised - confused, even? - to find that I'm... a little upset about the Streamline dub's inclusion. The dub isn't even particularly good - it's, okay, for the era, but it's nowhere near as presentable or even polished as the English dubs for Wicked City, Robot Carnival or Golgo 13: The Professional, and the combination of smarmy one-liners and even blatant mistranslations - such as the now infamous "dunpeal" - make the dub just a big enough mess that it's literally difficult to understand certain plot points if you already know a lot about Slavic horror mythology.
Credit where it's due, Michael McConnohie's D (serving double-duty as his own left hand) and Barbara Goodson as Doris aren't half bad, but the fake old country accents for the vampires was a poor, cheesy direction to go on. I can appreciate the smarmy snark Kerrigan Mahan put into "Reigansay", I'm not convinced it really works. The script itself is unexceptional, only occasionally cringe-inducing, and sits comfortably in the middle of primitive "adult" attempts at dubbing anime from the very start of Streamline's rise to power of presenting anime as imported cultural commodities, rather than a cheap slot-filler for syndication and possibly simplified toy marketing. It's simply a product of its time.
So why would I care either way? Because that English dub is as much a part of its cultural footprint in America as anything else about it. In the same way that the AIP dubs for numerous Godzilla films became the defacto presentation Americans would recognize for an entire generation, and anyone who's not revising an old friend they saw on the Sci-Fi Channel's Saturday Anime is probably interested in it from a historical perspective - at which point they'll presumably just watch the damned thing in Japanese anyway! Dubbing a 30+ year old cultural artifact just doesn't make a lot of sense, and as Discotek Media has proven, those who have an affinity for vintage Japanese animation are more forgiving than those who's tastes run just a bit more modern.
It's with all of this in mind that I can only assume that the Japanese end who control the rights - Sony, if I'm not mistaken - probably don't want the Streamline dub included for one reason or another. To make a long story short, MGM now technically owns all of Orion Home Pictures, who - in turn - technically own Streamline Pictures. A very similar chain of technicalities has prevented Toho from using those classic AIP dubs of Godzilla, not because there would be legal trouble, but because there could be, and God help you trying to convince a middle aged Japanese salaryman you know more about international copyright law than his co-workers who said it could be an issue do.
It's also entirely possible that someone on the Japanese end, someone important like a producer, simply hates the English dub. That he dislikes the casting or thinks that Americans won't like it for some reason. But as most Japanese don't speak English to begin with - and as such their opinion on dubs is usually somewhere in the ballpark of "Wow, it sounds like a real Hollywood movie. Neat!" - I have my doubts this is anything but paranoia that a series of company mergers has someone high up in the food chain nervous that, somehow, MGM would sue them for allowing "their" content to be released on video literally 20 years after whatever contracts MGM once technically inherited had already lapsed.
Pictured: Japan's typical reaction to an English dub.
About the only time I can picture vintage English dubs being a legal issue are those rare instances where the crew behind them got a little too creative for their own good. One frustrating example is the Manga UK dub of Space Adventure Cobra, in which the original enka soundtrack was replaced with a soundtrack by Swiss synth-pop group Yello, who's best known work is the "Ooooh Yeaaaah" song featured in Ferris Beller's Day Off. Instances like this, frustrating as they are, at least make a degree of sense - these were often done when contact between Japan and the rest of the world was done either by fax or by phone, and back then you could simply fudge the details confident that they couldn't google-translate the eMail into something comprehensible enough that they'd stomp down your awesome in with Yello's manager. There's also the occasional and unexpected issue - such as some old dubs having been recorded at PAL speed which make releasing them on modern equipment at 24 frames per second impossible without making the actors sound... well, "weird", if nothing else. I don't know for sure if this is why we got two separate dubs of Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, but if I had to guess, it's the only reason that makes any real sense.
Now that said, I can at least understand Sentai's desire here. Vampire Hunter D is a bonafide classic, one of the emergent OVAs testing the waters for a contemporary young-adult market for science fiction and fantasy animation that would eventually spiral into the sprawling and unpredictable otaku culture we have today. It may not be as big and flashy as some of its contemporaries, but the fusion of brisk spaghetti western storytelling and Hammer Films inspired gothic aesthetic were moulded into a perfectly tense, vibrantly unique film that feels just a little too mean to be for kids, a little too dumb to be for adults, and a little too smart for anyone who's already looking down their nose at being anything in between. It's a time capsule that's as fun and charming as it ever has been, and while the original Japanese version is absolutely the version that should be given priority... well, shit. This may be the first custom BD I've made in well over a year.
Rest assured I'll pick up the Blu-ray, match the above screenshots and give my thoughs on the matter. But knowing that the Streamline dub isn't just not included, but will never be available again makes a very small, strange part of myself very sad. For the first time, I almost understand why some people are so willing to watch Robotech: The Macross Saga when they have a perfectly good copy of Super Dimensional Fortress Macross sitting right there...
...oh my fucking God, what just happened?! What did I say?! WHO AM I?!
...am I in the middle, or on the right?
I can live with being in the middle.
I can live with being in the middle.
Jesus, September, just get here already...
Come back next time when I talk about, fuck it. I'unno. The preservation of VCD, or a review of the Cannibal Ferox LP or something no less disgustingly autistic. I know I have tickets to see Mad Max: Fury Road in the morning, but I guess shots to wash the taste of childhood memories out of my conscious mind are the way tonight's going to go regardless.