Monday, August 31, 2015

Anime Like It's 1985: VAMPIRE HUNTER D Sentai Filmworks Blu-ray Impressions


We've talked about the 1985 version of VAMPIRE HUNTER D enough over the years, so let's just get down to business.

VIDEO (FILM ELEMENTS AND TRANSFER)

Sentai Filmworks' Blu-ray marks  the first ever HD release of my beloved horror-western, and while details are sparse Sentai promises, and I quote, "this Special Edition has been Digitall Remastered in High Definition from the original materials". If I had to guess I'd assume we're looking at an above-average quality telecine of a vaulted interpositive with some fairly mild digital manipulation, but you know what they say about assuming things; in any case, the materials on display are quite comparable to the Italian PAL DVD release by Yamato Video dating back nearly a decade, and as that's been our "reference" transfer ever since, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

Heck, they might even be the same exact 35mm print, as both the Yamato Video and the Sentai Blu-ray start off with a Toho Film Company logo - this is absent from most other prints used for video transfers as the film was originally produced by Epic / Sony Music Entertainment, who released on DVD in Japan circa 2001 to cash-in on the Yoshiaki KAWAJIRI directed psuedosequel Vampire Hunter D: Boodlust, and seemingly sold it to Toho at some point in the next decade and a half or so. This may seem bizarre - and trust me, I know at least one licensor besides Sentai was trying to court this title only to be stopped by one issue or another (we'll get to the most likely one shortly) - but keep in mind the mere fact that Japanese "Production Committees" are a fairly recent phenomena only underscores how little thought went into keeping these assets organized for international release.

First, the good: Before getting into the niggles brief, Vampire Hunter D never has, and likely never will, look any better on home video. I have a feeling that the late director Toyoo ASHIDA would be proud if he could have seen the final form of his labors. Framed properly - if just a bit tighter than most prior releases - at 1.33:1, this new HD master presents the film looking largely consistent with the Italian and Japanese home video versions, though with improved resolution, less print damage, and a wealth of color fidelity never seen in any prior release - not even the matted OVA Films DVD from Germany compares in terms of detail and overall image quality. If you have one of the superior PAL DVD releases, this is still a massive improvement in every way, but if like so many fans you've only seen the American and Japanese DVDs, this may as well be a revelation. The Urban Vision DVD in particular was a noisy black hole of nothing for long stretches in Count Lee's castle and moonlit duels, and finally getting to see what the shit is going on when D gets thrown to the catacombs is reason enough to celebrate.

Color grading is always going to be tricky for this one, due largely to the low-contrast nature of the film itself. I assume because they knew the target market would be rental VHS, the film features several scenes - including the lengthy opening - in which the backdrop is effectively a large, sweeping monochrome plate with partially animated characters peeking out of the shadows. Before you assume I'm just being pretentious, and Christ know I could be when waxing poetic about Ashida, the same clever monochrome minimalism would be improved by Yoshiaki KAWAJIRI's Wicked City a few years later, and the color pallet - mostly stark gray, black and blue - was confirmed by the director himself to be tailored specifically to the known weaknesses of VHS and Laserdisc. Scenes set in daylight were always a bit drab and cold looking on video, and having seen the comparably pumped-up German transfer, I can see why some would find it more appealing that way. But the majority of the film happens at night, and over-exposing those lengthy battle scenes just reveal a large swath of shadows and nothing, which leaves me to believe that the slightly dim color grade shown here is "accurate", even if it makes the film look a bit dull compared to the vibrant excess of similar 80s OVAs.

That said, Vampire Hunter D has always been a little rough around the edges, and this new transfer - glorious as it may be - hasn't changed the fact that the limited budget has always left it looking a bit like a sow's ear. Judder, flicker, staining and animation errors - always a part of the film since the day it was shot - are relatively frequent, as are odd and occasionally twitchy animation errors that fans of newer, all digital titles may be unhappy with. While I have little doubt all of these issues could have been massaged with heavy digital manipulation, I have no complaints; it looks like a low-budget video from 1985 given a modern HD transfer, and goddamn, that's all I've ever wanted. At the very least there are no cue-marks at reel changes, obvious vertical scratches, photochemical staining or similar marks of a print left in anything but proper storage. It's as cheap and raw as it's ever been, but in the best way possible. I don't doubt that a proper pin-registered and stabilized scan of the original 35mm negative may have yielded more stable results, I'm more than pleased with the overall retention of the film's inert limitations.

Sadly, the scene of Count Lee's face being crushed by his own castle - represented by wet paint between 2 animation cels being pulled apart in the camera - is not present. To this day I'm not sure why the Japanese home video master minted in 1985 has this sequence slipped in, but it's a fun, bizarre oddity I'm begrudgingly willing to live without.

VIDEO (PROCESSING AND ENCODING)

The less stellar news, however, is that the transfer looks to have been digitally processed to some degree. Having seen abominations released by Disney and Q-TEC I'm not going to bitch and moan too hard about this one, but there's an odd level of... let's call it textural inconsistency? Oranges, yellows and greens have a fine layer of soft, relatively natural looking grain, while blues and grays have a very broad, almost defocused layer of noise, and red... well, red is basically fucking grainless. Film stocks play an important role in each color having a certain texture, I know, but a total lack of visible celluloid structure on D's cloak? Bullshit. That's some grain management going on, and there's nothing anyone could say to convince me otherwise.

That said, it's at least an attempt at grain management, not removal. In hindsight, the inconsistent but largely still semi-present grain structure isn't too different from the DVNR applied to the "Miyazaki Collection" release of Nausicaa. keeping in mind that, as a full frame 1.33:1 transfer, Vampire Hunter D would actually have about 30% more resolution (and thus less grain) than a 1.85:1 transfer from the same stock. I'd say the level of grain is comparable to other marginally processed 1.33:1 transfers like Ninja Scroll or Rurouni Kenshin Tsuioku-Hen/Samurai X: Trust and Betrayal, but as both of those transfers had notably less in the way of flickering, splices, film judder and other production mishaps, the 'grainless' look just sort of blends into the otherwise polished presentation. D's rough edges and occasionally ugly, flat key frames make the smoother, less textured appearance stand out just a bit more by comparison: Vampire Hunter D has always been a rough looking film in its own charming way, and removing the texture, while hardly a deal breaker, doesn't really help its aesthetic in any way, either.

I don't use numbers to summarize complex opinions - it, sadly, undermines actual reading and critical thought. In summation the transfer is above average but not exceptional, unto itself, but an essential and much needed upgrade for a film with a long and rather dour history up until this point, especially in North America.

AUDIO (JAPANESE)

First off, this is perhaps the most pleasant surprise: The Japanese track is, by far, the best audio presentation the film has ever had. Not only that, but I suspect it's the first ever genuine presentation of the Japanese Dolby stereo mix promised on the original Japanese advertisements, but - for one reason or another - were always presented as weak and muddy sounding track. I don't have the R2 Japan DVD handy, but as far as I could tell the track was dual-mono with an above-average level of flutter and other analogue distortions, rather than a genuine stereo track. For the example that convinced me I wasn't crazy, listen to D enter the front door from the left side of the sound-stage at 00:54:22. It's not the most dynamic stereo track in the history of animation, but it's by far the best sounding presentation of this particular film I've found... and trust me, I've looked.

Just to confirm I'm not insane, another easy to spot example is during the end credits of TM Network's "Your Song" - at 01:18:06, the music skips back and fourth between the left and right ear before settling back in the center for the Engrish line 'Why do you go forward, why do I go backward?' a few seconds later. If, like me, you're just enough of a possibly gay 80s pop fan to have actually listened to TM Network recreationally, you'll know this is exactly how the song is "supposed" to sound.

Why has every other release? If I had to guess it's because stereo audio wasn't quite common in theaters until the late-1980s in the United States, with Japan trailing somewhat behind until the advent of cheaper digital decoders in the late 90s. It's common place for Japanese films made before the DVD era to have a finished mono mix placed on the master prints themselves as optical tracks. Optical audio, sadly, is a bit trash from an archival standpoint with limited fidelity by nature, with original magnetic tape being the preferred materials where available. The German and Italian DVD transfers both credit their Japanese mix as "original mono", so it's not much of a stretch to assume that they sourced their Japanese audio from the sound-on-film present on whatever archival print was used for their respective transfers. Even the original North American Laserdisc specifies "Stereo English" and "Mono Japanese", for what it's worth.

Newly translated English subtitles are included, and at a glance appear to be a marked improvement over Urban Vision's generally serviceable translation from 2000. I've only spot-checked a few scenes, but so far, it's A-OK. Wonder how close it got to that custom track I prepped shortly after the first novel got translated...

The German DVD went out of its way to include a new 5.1 remix, but being sourced from the same crumby mono materials as everything else, it was more of a mono track that echoes slightly louder in the right side from time to time and has a wildly out-of-whack LFE mix that makes even standard dialogue thump like a friggin' DMX album. I applaud them for trying, I guess, but with them only able to echo the mono mix there's actually more directionality in the proper stereo mix on this new Blu-ray.

AUDIO (ENGLISH)

It's a rare day indeed when a 30 year old Japanese dub has higher fidelity than a brand new English localization, but what is this Blu-ray if not a short trip to crazy town? Sadly, the Streamline dub is nowhere to be found, and in its place is a newly produced dub courtesy of Sentai Filmworks. I can't say for sure, but I wouldn't be shocked if the exclusion of the Streamline dub was, itself, at the request of Toho; having tried to deal with the paranoid legal branches of film licensors, I can say without hesitation you'd be shocked at what you'll be told you can't include, no matter how little sense it makes.

To put all of this into perspective, Streamline Pictures was sold off to Orion Home Entertainment. Orion Pictures was bought out by MGM. Streamline Pictures themselves only owned temporary distribution rights to the Japanese films they purchased; the dubs produced by them are considered ancillary works, and in more or less any court case would go back to whomever owns the international rights to the film. I know for a fact that archival film and audio materials for the various Streamline titles were auctioned off from closed film lots after MGM's bankruptcy in 2010, meaning that at this point, about all MGM really owns are the logos for Streamline Pictures...

Unfortunately, when you try to explain this to a Japanese corporation they see "MGM owns the company that dubbed the film", and they don't want to even risk MGM noticing them. This is a crying shame, but as Toho has had more or less the same reaction to the AIP produced Godzilla dubs - to say nothing of the Roger Corman produced "Godzilla 1985" - and is the reason why the "classic" dubs have more or less disappeared from the market from the 1990s onward.  This doesn't explain why the bonus features have gone missing, of course, but I'd assume that Epic/Sony Records didn't bother to keep close tabs on this before being folded into CBS/Sony Music Entertainment in the late 80s.

Amusingly enough, the premix materials they based this on were made in mono, with all of those exciting directional cues I've never heard before on the English track becoming a dull and central thump that turns the TM Network song into an indistinct, echoing mess; this explains why the music is so low and muddy compared to the Japanese track, too. The quality of the English voices themselves are fine, but I... will refrain from commenting on the dub much beyond that. I finally understand how old school Kaiju fans felt about having "new" dubs of their childhood shat out by Toho, and while I agree that both are ultimately rather silly, and arguing that one is ultimately inferior to the other feels a bit like spitting in the wind... it's also somehow very, very unpleasant to sit through the new dub. If you want an opinion on the Sentai dub, ask someone without 20 years of familiarity and nostalgia with the Streamline version, 'cause my bitch ass is biased as it's going to get. What I can tell you is the Texan accents are laid on thick, Rei sounds like a poor man's Ralph Fiennes wearing David Bowie as a suit, Larmica's voice is shrill and cringe-inducing to a Japanese-emulating perfection, and Witchie's laugh is even more out of sync with her animation than I'd imagined possible. If you guys can sit through this thing in its entirety, you're stronger than I am.

To be fair, the translation of the Streamline localization was always a heinous mess, but at least everyone involved had the good sense to play it as a somewhat hammy Hammer Films inspired melodrama; the new dub appears to try and emulate the Japanese voices to an almost painful fault, lacking any of the nuance and humor in the Streamline translation, which seemingly realized you can only take a boomerang chucking mutant David Bowie running himself through to mortally wound a combination of Marvel's Blade and The Man With No Name so seriously before it all starts to fall apart. The original Japanese version has its own sense of humor, muted as it may be by comparison. Say what you will about Carl Macek's lack of respect for the original Japanese language; at least the man produced dubs that felt natural for the material it was given. And hey, the new Sentai dub actually uses the word "Dhampir", so that's more than the 'official' Bloodlust English dub managed.

BLU-RAY TECHNICAL PRESENTATION

Sentai's new Blu-ray comes on a BD-25, with the main feature clocking in at 14.5 gigs with an average bitrate of just under 20,000 kb/s. Both audio tracks are presented as DTS-HD Master Audio stereo at 24-bit sample rates. Due to the use of mild DVNR I honestly doubt cranking the video bitrate would have made a worth-while difference; you can make out some mild blocking during high-motion shots, but with much of the grain having already been smoothed over to a soft dither, the compression artifacts are more or less negligible. The whole thing is packaged in a standard semi-transparent blue case with familiar Amano YOSHITAKA key art, and a somewhat updated version of the original Japanese logo.

Also of note, the entire Japanese credits sequence has been left intact, with English credits added at the end. Kudos to Sentai for that being their standard operating procedure for features, minor as it may seem. The Streamline version included English credits over the final scene of D riding off into the sunset, which was always so long and oddly silent that I'm surprised the Japanese version didn't do the same; then again I'm suspicious that the original script called for a 60 minute film and the production was later requested to stretch itself out to a feature length, which would explain the lengthy, silent scenes of D riding to, and from his mission.in an otherwise quite aggressively paced film after the intentionally methodical opening.

Aside from Sentai propaganda, the sole bonus feature present is an HD presentation of the original Japanese trailer. It's worth watching just to see numerous alternate cuts that were changed for the final film, and the hissing soundtrack and odd blue cast to the whole thing are a cheeky reminder as to how much better the film looks to any prior incarnation. Sadly, the 10 minute making-of from the Japanese laserdisc - which was included on the Urban Vision DVD - is nowhere to be found. This is a surprisingly decent piece for what's basically just an EPK, interviewing the original actors (and editing inappropriate footage to the conversation), and letting the director give his philosophy on how to approach what was, at the time, an entirely new format.

I hardly expected it, but the only other noteworthy bonus feature is the fascinating Jonathan Clements commentary track from the Manga UK DVD. Pity none of those made the leap, but everything else on the Urban Vision DVD was propoganda for the upcoming Bloodlust film, so the "special edition" status of the 2000 DVD was a bit more of an exaggeration than I'm sure they'd like to let on in retrospect.

FINAL THOUGHTS

While it took a damn long time to get here, I think I'm finally satisfied enough with a Japanese language presentation of VAMPIRE HUNTER D that I can move on with my life. The lack of the Streamline dub and Making-Of featurette from the Japanese Laserdisc is a frustration pair of omissions, but what can you do?

Fans of the film shouldn't think twice; pay the damn $25 and move on with your life. It's probably never going to get better than this.

HEY! WHY ISN'T THIS A FULL COMPARISON?!

Because Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain comes out in 15 minutes. If I ever post again, expect it to be long after I've completed the game... and "completed" can mean a lot of things in this context, even before you get to rankings. Yes, I know just a little too much, and yet not enough to spoil the fun. Maybe I'll revisit this in a month or two, we'll see just how upset I am over the revelation that Punished Snake kills Dumbledore.

For what it's worth, I've seen the caps of VAMPIRE HUNTER D: BLOOSLUST and I'm convinced this - much like GHOST IN THE SHELL and THE END OF EVANGELION - is very much a victim of its own original production methods. Soft, weak contrast and grainy as shit? Sounds like a 90 minute AVID to 35mm-out project to me! Justin Sevakis has noted that he actually tried to done down some of the washed-out and grubby look, which means the only way this film would look dramatically better is if someone gave it a proper shot-by-shot color grading, which it's clear the Japanese side wasn't willing to do. To be frank, I can hardly blame Discotek for not hiring some crazy asshole to fix a disc that was already knee-capped by not being allowed to include the Japanese audio. This fucking movie will never catch a break.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this.

Slight spelling error in the last paragraph though: "BLOOSLUST" and by "done down" I assume you mean tone down?

Kriztoffer Swank said...

Do you have a video/screenshot/anigif of the castle crushing Count Lee? I don't think I've ever seen that. I love that Ashida seemed to do a lot of weird experimental effects using unconventional means. Wasn't there a POV death from the Fist of the North Star series where the animators physically bent the animation cel? (And just because...)

I wasn't aware Ashida had died, by the way. Sob. ;_; I'm hoping somebody puts Ultimate Teacher on DVD someday.

The Bloodlust BD is good by my estimation, it just looks like you're watching a film print (which it likely was scanned from) and is a bit fuzzy, but is a heckuvalot better than the DVD especially with its richer color; I'm just peeved there's no Japanese audio because I've always wanted to see this sumbich subbed. If you ever pair up the JP audio with Blu-ray visuals, send that ish my way... (Same goes for pairing Streamline dub with the first movie.)

Bloodlust looks a lot like the BDs for Perfect Blue and Ghost in the Shell, which is acceptable in my book. Getting them sure beats being stubborn and sticking to DVD.

pork dumplings (really good flavor) said...

UK blu-ray release of Cowboy Bebop is up at caps-ooo-hooolic - http://www.caps-a-holic.com/hd_vergleiche/multi_comparison.php?disc1=6392&disc2=6393&hd_multiID=2612#auswahl

Joseph Hostage said...

Super Big News regarding Fist of the North Star Movie at Charles Theater!!!

https://www.facebook.com/Charlestheatre/posts/10153576906396240


"It is the US retail master-- but the uncensored, uncut film. The US retail master was the only version they had with English subtitles."

Anonymous said...

Hey Kentai, out of curiosity, just what the hell am I looking at here exactly? - http://www.blu-ray.com/movies/screenshot.php?movieid=33686&position=6or is just me, or does this look like straight clay garbage? Has Sony and co trolled us hard or am I just off my rocker? I've been very cautious in my purchasing of "Criterion" blurays and was hoping to hear your perspective.

Anonymous said...

Whoops, screenshot isn't loading.

Here's a proper link - http://www.imagebam.com/image/2ddc89435731634

Anonymous said...

https://gyazo.com/e2f5ec3d02e87f799b95454addec8332

Your typical SHOUT! Factory fanboy.

Kriztoffer Swank said...

Holy shit, 35 neg for Zombi 3 pre-credits sequence found. The great irony is that the rest of the movie will likely be another LVR shitjob, but we'll finally get that intro in good quality!