The times, they are a-changin’. More and more, companies that produce content are finally accepting that their business model needs to embrace the immediacy of the Internet age. Content needs to be provided to those who want it, how they want it, when they want it. Companies who fail to wrap their heads around this risk facing a hostile customer base who will resort to their own methods to get that content.

Out of the dust of the rapidly declining anime DVD market comes an apparent savior for the anime industry. Crunchyroll offers up anime in pretty much exactly the way I would have described my dream scenario a year ago. You can pay a flat fee to access high quality streams of anything on the site. If you like something, you can then buy a permanent, DRM-free copy of your very own for $2. What’s not to love?

Well, as far as the service itself — nothing. That’s exactly what I wanted. My problem is that of all the possible entities that could have arisen to provide this service, it had to be Crunchyroll. To clarify why this bothers me, let me give some background.

Fansubbers have traditionally often left notices in their work to identify it as a fansub and discourage unscrupulous behavior. In the days of VHS fansubs, these would be on pre-roll splashes or overlaid on the commercial bumpers. When digisubs came about, primarily based on TV recordings, they’d often be put in the bit after the opening credits where the show’s sponsors are thanked. Typical content of these notices would warn people that fansubs should not be rented or sold for profit. Digisubs would warn you that if you paid anything at all for it, you were ripped off. When streaming video went big, fansubbers started using these messages to plead people not to upload them to streaming video sites like YouTube. Some didn’t want such a cruddy, low resolution version of their work out there. Many were concerned about it drawing too much visibility into what is really an illegal underground practice.

At one point, I started noticing some JDrama fansubs specifically mentioning Crunchyroll as a place they did not want their stuff uploaded. Since I wasn’t familiar with the name, I went to see what it was. What I saw at that point in time made my blood boil. Here was a site that had exclusively Asian content, mostly subbed by fansubbers, all nicely indexed for your perusal. And, of all the sheer dickhead moves, they charged for a subscription. I couldn’t believe it. These people had the chrome plated balls to actually try and found a business on the backs of fansubs. There was a word for that in the VHS days — bootleggers. Nowadays, we usually them pirates. Well, not a big deal I thought. Surely anybody gaining this much attention while daring to charge for copyright infringing content will soon be sued out of existence.

Flash forward a bit and… what the hell? Some venture capital firm actually dumped four million US dollars into Crunchyroll? Are they insane? If the site didn’t have a big “SUE ME” sign on it yet, it must now. Right?

…right?

Turns out Crunchyroll had one more card to play. They were actually forming legitimate distribution deals, starting with content from Gonzo. In doing so, they began to build momentum to become a truly legit business. This feat, attempted and failed by many P2P services in the past, actually was working for them. More and more content providers jumped on board, and now Crunchyroll has an impressive selection of titles new and old.

Now that we’ve gone through that, let’s back this thing up and look at what happened here. In its original form, Crunchyroll was all about hosting illegal content. Crunchyroll’s apologists supporters will tell you that Crunchyroll did honor DMCA notices from rights holders, and would even honor a fansubber’s request to take something down. Also, once a request was made to take something down, they made sure it stayed down. That is all true, and nobody is denying that. The problem is that content would only be pulled down if somebody specifically asked for it. Crunchyroll remained as a hub for all the illegal content that wasn’t specifically requested to be removed. With that content they were able to build a brand, and an audience. This is a classic Web 2.0 model. Once they had a certain critical mass, they were able to use that momentum to obtain their VC funding, and open the door for their distribution deals.

They used the brand and audience built on illegal content to obtain four million dollars in VC funding and establish relationships with the very companies they’d been ripping off.

Are you fucking kidding me? How can this be? When they begin negotiations with a rights holder, do they open up with “Hey, we have an audience of X million uniques a month that we gained by stealing your shit. Want to sign a deal with us?” Are these companies so out of touch that they don’t see this? Aren’t they researching Crunchyroll before entering into deals with them? I honestly cannot fathom how Crunchyroll is rewarded for being a den of piracy. They get funding and cozy deals from the content industry, while the Pirate Bay guys get hauled into court and fined for more than they’ll make in their lifetimes? And this all because Crunchyroll, in their vast sense of honor, obeyed DMCA takedowns instead of flaunting them?

Somebody please explain to me how the hell that works.

The worst part of this is, I probably will wind up using Crunchyroll, despite my protests. The new Fall season is showing definite signs of fansubs beginning to fall away in the face of this new model. Getting good quality fansubs of shows that are on Crunchyroll is getting harder and harder as well-meaning fansubbers step aside for the “legitimate” solution. In addition, we have self righteous cocksuckers like Mark Ishikawa and his BayTSP out there actively going after the users of popular BitTorrent trackers, so I may have no choice but to use Crunchyroll in an effort to keep my nose clean.

I love anime and JDrama, and I’m more than happy to pay for content. I spend more on content every month than anybody else I know. I have a large collection of DVDs, most of which was built based on watching fansubs then later buying the DVDs. A large portion of those DVDs have never even been watched, they were bought just to do my part to support the creators. I am not some punk kid who thinks he should get everything for free. However, whenever I reach a point where I’m about to throw down my credit card for Crunchyroll, my teeth grind as I recall what I felt the first time I saw them. I just really have a problem giving my money over to “reformed” pirates.

Buzzer Beat

October 3, 2009

This summer season has been fairly busy for me. I’ve had a lot of things taking up my time. As a result, my viewing of new Japanese TV goodies was pretty light. One show I did make time for, however, was “Buzzer Beat”.

Initially, I wasn’t sure I was going to watch it. When I pulled up its info on the D-Addicts Wiki, what leapt out at me is that this was a show about a basketball team with neon pink uniforms. Since I have little interest in basketball, especially in such an obnoxious color scheme, I thought I might take a pass on it. On closer inspection though, there were three reasons why I decided I had to see this show, which I will now enumerate:

1. Yamashita Tomohisa
2. Kitagawa Keiko
3. Aibu Saki

Yamashita Tomohisa was one of the first actors I noticed when I began watching JDramas. While he’s unlikely to show up on any lists of the greatest 21st century actors, he has a sort of subtle goofiness about him that makes his characters very entertaining. In 2007’s “Proposal Daisakusen”, he played a character who was completely clueless in how to deal with women. His performance must have been good, as I was simultaneously rooting for him, and falling off the sofa yelling at him for being such a blockhead. He brings a similar sort of aloof cluelessness to “Buzzer Beat” in its lead character Kamiya Naoki.

Kitagawa Keiko dates back with me even farther than Yamashita. Kitagawa had a main role in the very first live action Japanese TV series I ever watched: Pretty Guardian Sailormoon. “PGSM” as it’s commonly called was a 2003 adaptation of the 90’s manga and anime classic “Bishoujo Senshi Sailormoon”, successfully blending elements of the manga, the anime and original material into a pretty compelling story. Unfortunately, it was plagued by some middling to bad acting on the part of the central five actresses — with one exception. Kitagawa Keiko turned in a surprisingly competent performance as Sailor Mars, despite just having been plucked from the ranks of gravure idols (as were the other four). In a surprisingly wise move among idols, Keiko decided to attend college after the completion of the series rather than immediately pursue a celebrity career. Recently, she has returned to acting, doing a few movies before returning to TV with “Mop Girl” for which she won an award. In “Buzzer Beat”, she plays Shirakawa Riko.

Aibu Saki I first encountered in 2006’s “Attention Please” where she played a supporting role as the main character’s friend. Since then, I’ve seen her move up into larger roles and recently landing some leads in shows like “Zettai Kareshi” and “Utahime”. Saki typically plays very pure and innocent characters. However, in “Buzzer Beat”, her role as Nanami Natsuki allows her to play a woman who, while outwardly poised and well liked, secretly is spiteful and even vicious toward those she believes have wronged her. Saki handles the duality well, successfully acting like a good, upstanding person while simultaneously using subtle facial expressions to indicate her character’s true nature to the audience.

The story primarily follows Kamiya Naoki (Yamashita), a player for a Japanese pro basketball team called the JC ARCS. As the series begins, Naoki loses his cell phone on the bus, which is found by a young violinist named Shirakawa Riko (Kitagawa). The ARCS’ head coach, Kawasaki Tomoya (Ito Hideaki) comes to retrieve the phone, and also winds up arranging for a date with Riko. Naoki, meanwhile, asks his girlfriend and the ARCS’ head cheerleader Natsuki (Aibu) to marry him if they win the championship. However, the ARCS are quickly eliminated from the playoffs, where Naoki made a less than stellar performance.

As the off-season begins, Naoki is fully depressed. He heads to a local park to practice, where he finds a girl practicing her violin on the court. As it turns out, this is Riko, whose apartment neighbors the park. Riko is unaware that Naoki is the owner of the cell phone she had found earlier, but they have a pleasant conversation and begin a sort of friendship. Later, when Kawasaki brings Riko to one of the ARCS’ practices, she notices Naoki’s poor performance on the court. Without thinking, she disrupts the practice by yelling out to him, calling him an idiot. The unusual encouragement from Riko seems to rejuvenate Naoki, and he starts to play better. As they continue to encounter each other in the park, Naoki and Riko promise to chase their respective dreams of winning the championship and becoming a professional violinist.

Meanwhile, one of the ARCS’ new players, Yoyogi Ren (Kaneko Nobuaki), has his eye on Natsuki. He begins to appeal to a “bad” side he says he can see in her, and soon they begin an affair. After Naoki discovers them in the locker room, he breaks things off with Natsuki. Natsuki begins to show more and more of her vindictive side as she continues and on again/off again relationship with Yoyogi while also going out of her way to make Naoki more miserable. As Naoki and Riko begin to grow closer, things become more complicated when Natsuki begins to notice their relationship, as does Kawasaki who was quite in love with Riko despite her never feeling much spark for him.

“Buzzer Beat”, thankfully, manages to build its drama on character development with basketball merely as a background. This is good for me because the basketball is the least interesting aspect. What basketball scenes that do show up are well executed and exciting. However, the bulk of the story regards the evolution of the characters’ various relationships, the obstacles in the way of their various romances, and the sacrifices they have to make in order to chase their dreams. This is supported well by strong performances from the cast all around. I can’t really find fault with any of the actors. Some of the plot devices used were a little forced, but I can forgive that, as this is primarily a character driven story.

One thing I found interesting is that the show presents pro basketball in Japan as a very nascent industry, with pretty low attendance. They don’t even get their games broadcast on TV. Finding this odd, I checked, and indeed pro basketball in Japan is a relatively new thing. The unfortunately named BJ-League was formed only in 2005, currently featuring 13 teams, with 3 more to be added next year, and planned expansion to 24 by 2014. None of the teams are named the JC ARCS, however, and the real teams do get their games broadcast, albeit on satellite stations.

“Buzzer Beat” is overall a very good example of JDrama. It features a number of currently significant actors, and serves well to introduce someone to the overall structure and tone of its genre. Specifically, it’s a “renai renzoku” or “romance serial”, a very common format. Don’t let the word romance scare you off though, these shows feature typically strong writing, multiple types of plotlines and a good sense of humor that differentiate “renai renzoku” from the interminable soap operas your mother has been watching for 30 years. Also, Japanese prime time dramas (with a few exceptions) only last for one 13-week TV season, with the final episode count typically around 10-12. That makes the barrier for entry very low, since you never have to jump in halfway through a very long series. If you’re curious about modern JDrama, “Buzzer Beat” would not be a bad place to start.

Kamen Rider Kuuga

September 20, 2009

Following the conclusion of Kamen Rider Black RX in 1989, there was an 11 year absence of new Kamen Rider series on Japanese television. A few one-off movies and specials came out, but for the most part the franchise was dormant through the 90’s. Toward the end of the decade, series creator and renowned mangaka Ishinomori Shotaro began to move on a revival of Kamen Rider. Despite Ishinomori not living to bring the project to fruition himself, the first new Kamen Rider series in over a decade hit Japanese airwaves on January 21, 2000.

The debut of Kamen Rider Kuuga would kick off a new era of Kamen Rider series. These would be known as the Heisei Kamen Riders, due to the changeover in the traditional Japanese calendar with the ascension of Emperor Akihito in January 1989. Though technically most of Black RX aired in the Heisei era, Kuuga was the first TV series to debut under the new era.

Kamen Rider Kuuga is the story of a jack-of-all-trades named Godai Yuusuke. Among his many hobbies, Yuusuke likes to travel to remote parts of the world. Frequently, he brings some kind of odd souvenir of his travels back to his friend, archaeologist Sawatari Sakurako. As the series starts, a group of archaeologists uncovers ruins of the ancient Rinto tribe, including the mummified remains of an ancient Rinto warrior and a sealed chamber. When they open the chamber, something escapes, killing the entire excavation team. Yuusuke arrives to check out the dig, finding the police there. Though he finds himself drawn to enter the ruins, he’s repelled by detective Ichijou Kaoru. Later, Yuusuke and Sakurako are called in by Ichijou to consult on the case, and are shown blurry video of the attack. The mysterious creature attacked the mummified corpse before going after the team. They are given the strange belt worn by the mummy, and asked to decipher the writing on it.

As Yuusuke and Sakurako go to leave the police headquarters, another unidentified creature bursts in, apparently after the belt. It quickly proves immune to the police officers’ gunfire and seems unstoppable. Acting on instinct, Yuusuke puts the belt on himself, only to have it disappear into his body. As the Yuusuke and the monster fight and move out onto a side street, Yuusuke’s body changes into a white armored creature, and he is designated by the police as Unidentified Lifeform #2. In this form, Yuusuke barely drives off the monster, saving Ichijou in the process.

Yuusuke consults Sakurako to better understand his new powers. He believes that he should have a different, red colored form as he sees in visions. When attacks begin from another creature, dubbed #3, Yuusuke and Ichijou confront it in a cathedral where it had been masquerading as the priest. Yuusuke declares his resolve to fight to Ichijou and achieves his true form, the red colored Kuuga Mighty Form. Though Mighty Form is misidentified as another creature, #4, by the police, he is able to drive off #3 and defeat #1.

Soon, others are brought into sharing Yuusuke’s secret. Tsubaki Shuichi is a doctor friend of Ichijou’s that looks after Yuusuke and studies the effects of Kuuga’s powers on his body. Ichijou also introduces Enokido Hikari, a scientist at the police’s research division who helps develop new weapons to combat the Grongi. One of the interesting things about Kuuga as a superhero show is that the regular humans aren’t useless. Kuuga works in conjunction with the police (though only a few know his identity), and the police actually become more and more capable as the series moves on. Initially, they just find ways to stun the Grongi, allowing Kuuga to finish them off. By the end of the series, they have a weapon that poses a real threat to the Grongi without Kuuga’s help.

The Grongi themselves are somewhat interesting, and really set a standard for monsters throughout the Heisei Rider shows. The Grongi’s main goal is the eradication of the descendants of the Rinto tribe, humanity. This is carried out through a ritual human hunting game called the Gegeru. There are several classes of Grongi, each with different Gegeru rules by which they must abide. The lowest level Grongi can’t even speak, but higher level ones are able to speak, use weapons similar to Kuuga, and even assume human disguises. This concept of intelligent monsters that disguise themselves as humans would reappear in several Heisei shows, as would the tendency for a monster to last through multiple episodes. They also tend to rack up a pretty substantial civilian body count before Kuuga can put a stop to them. The Grongi are led by the powerful Daguba, the creature that originally escaped from the crypt and is designated #0 by the police.

Following in the footsteps laid down by Black RX, Kuuga gained a number of power-up forms defined by a signature weapon. Each weapon is summoned by finding an object with a similar shape, and transmuting it. The blue Dragon Form sacrifices strength and armor for enhanced speed, agility and jumping power. Dragon Form’s signature weapon is the staff weapon Dragon Rod. Clad in green, Pegasus Form enhances all of Kuuga’s senses to extreme levels and features the Pegasus Bowgun for highly accurate ranged attacks. Pegasus Form strains Yuusuke’s nervous system however, and can’t be held for more than 50 seconds. Finally, the purple and silver Titan Form sacrifices mobility for thick armor. Titan is able to steadily walk through enemy attacks to strike at close range with the Titan Sword. Later, Yuusuke is able to access a “golden power” to upgrade his various forms to their Rising variant (Rising Mighty, Rising Dragon, etc), but only for 30 seconds. Finally, he becomes able to access Amazing Mighty Form and what may be Kuuga’s true form, Ultimate Form. This tradition of power up forms would persist through the Heisei era, as each main title Rider since has had at least one power up form.

Since Kuuga was somewhat experimental, one may find that the special effects and overall production values of the show may pale even to Agito which came immediately following. Despite this, the various costumes including Kuuga’s forms and the various Grongi all look pretty good. The special effects for the attacks may not be as flashy as some of the other Heisei Riders, but this is more in keeping with the way the older shows were. Once you’re sucked into the mysteries of Kuuga’s world though, none of this will matter much.

It’s often said that Kuuga is more like the Showa Riders than the Heisei ones. This mostly refers to the fact that Yuusuke is a pretty typical hero role model. He doesn’t have any inner demons to tackle, nor does he have any issues with his own confidence. He’s a classic hero archetype through and through. Kind, brave and strong. The overall story structure for Kuuga with its intricate plotting, mysteries to be revealed, and complex villains is pure Heisei. Kuuga is definitely the prototype for what came after.

Anyone who has been interested in the more recent Kamen Rider shows should really seek Kuuga out and try to see it. It really is a good series that doesn’t get a lot of attention due to being a bit older now. It may not be super flashy, but it’s a good, solid series full of great characters.

Shoujo Kakumei Utena

June 20, 2009

When I was first getting into anime heavily at the tail end of the 90’s, my gateway was Sailormoon. I was spending a lot of time in a Sailormoon related IRC channel, and the people there were some of my primary exposure to anime. At the time, many of them were big into fansubs of Shoujo Kakumei Utena. The problem was, nobody could ever explain the show to me in a way that made me want to see it. In this way, it was similar to Fushigi Yugi, another show popular in those circles at the time. The show came back into my consciousness at Otakon ’08 when Okui Masami performed Utena’s theme, “Rinbu Revolution”, live during the JAM Project concert. Though I hadn’t seen the show, I did have a copy of that song, and hearing it live reminded me how awesome it was. Given that reminder, when I had a chance recently to see Utena, I decided to give it a go.

The story of Utena, such as it is, begins with our main character Tenjou Utena. Utena was once encouraged by a prince when she was very young, and given a rose crested ring which he said would one day lead her to him. Utena was so inspired by this prince that she decided to become like a prince herself, and therefore dresses in a boys’ uniform while giving off an air of nobility. Utena is one day hanging out with her friend Wakaba when they see Himemiya Anthy in the rose garden. Having never seen her before, Utena inquires who she is. As Wakaba explains that Anthy mostly keeps to herself, student council member Saionji Kyouichi approaches the rose garden and slaps Anthy across the face. Utena is shocked at his behavior, but relieved when council president Kiryuu Touga (played by Koyasu Takehito) appears to intervene.

Utena later witnesses more of Saionji’s abusive behavior when he posts a love letter Wakaba sent him for the whole school to read. Since he’s captain of the kendo club, Utena challenges him to a match. Saionji agrees to meet her in the forest behind the school where students are generally forbidden to go. When Utena arrives, she’s encounters a large gate that only opens for those who wear a rose ring like hers. On the other side, on an unsupported platform is the dueling arena, situated beneath a strange upside down castle in the sky. Waiting for her are Saionji along with Anthy. The rules of the duel are that each duelist has a rose placed on their chest, with the goal being to knock off your opponent’s rose. The winner of the duel will become the “Engaged” and gain possession of Anthy—The Rose Bride. Utena doesn’t understand any of this, as she only wanted to teach Saionji a lesson. She duels and manages to win, despite only having a bamboo shinai as her weapon.

At this point is where the show’s main formula begins. Anthy moves into Utena’s room, and the members of the Student Council begin to challenge her in turn. First is a rematch with Saionji. Second comes Kaoru Miki (played by Hisakawa Aya), a genius pianist and fencer with some hangups regarding his younger sister. After Miki is Arisugawa Juri (played by Mitsuishi Kotono), the fencing club captain who became estranged from her best friend after some incident in the past. Touga’s younger sister Nanami becomes a member of the Student Council and challenges Utena after the disturbing depths of her brother complex are revealed. Finally, the last member to challenge Utena is Touga himself. This arc is referred to as the “Seitokai Hen” or “Student Council Arc”.

The second arc is the “Kurobara Hen” or “Black Rose Arc”. In this arc, a student named Mikage Souji (played by Midorikawa Hikaru) convinces various people to challenge Utena. These people are all connected to Utena, Anthy and the Student Council and have some kind of grudge against them. Mikage supplies them with a black version of the rose ring and a frozen black dueling rose. Following the Kurobara Hen is the “Ohtori Akio Hen” where Anthy’s brother Ohtori Akio, also serving as the substitute chairman of the school, works with Touga to convince each Student Council member to challenge Utena again. This is almost always accomplished during a bizarre ride in Akio’s car, leading to it sometimes being called the “Akio Car Arc”. The series finishes with the “Mokushiroku Hen” or “Apocalypse Arc” where the true nature of the duels is revealed.

The entire Utena series is rich in visual symbolism and literary metaphor. It’s often compared to Evangelion in that it’s a post-modernist deconstruction of established genres. In Eva’s case, it deconstructed the classic mecha anime series. Utena deconstructs shoujo as well as the classical fairy tale. Prominently placed are examinations of the roles of the prince, the princess (or the damsel), and the witch. Utena is both the prince and the damsel, while Anthy is both the damsel and the witch. The role of the prince is also examined, when we learn that Dios was the prince to all the girls of the world, in contrast to the typical image of the prince being dedicated to one princess.

Utena also deals with heavy themes of personal discovery and adolescence. Each character must overcome their past and their pain to become a complete and functioning person. Also, the series metaphorically deals with casting off the fantasies of childhood and accepting adulthood, despite the harsh realities of the real world. In respect to its symbolism and themes, Utena I feel is overall much more successful than Evangelion at getting its point across, and therefore much more interesting. Utena is ceretainly more strange and surreal than Eva overall, but since Utena is like that from the very start it’s never jarring or out of place. It also doesn’t get caught up in its own rhetoric with interminable exposition the way Eva did. Therefore, if you didn’t like the strange and sometimes incomprehensible nature of Eva, that’s not necessarily reason to avoid trying Utena.

The series was directed by Ikuhara Kunihiko, most famous for his work on Sailormoon R, S and SuperS. Hallmarks of his style can be seen easily by anyone familiar with Sailormoon. Some scenes reminded me greatly of particular scenes in Sailormoon, like a scene with Touga on the phone reminding me of the scene in Sailormoon S where Eudial leaves a threatening message on Haruka and Michiru’s answering machine. He also carried over some elements of the magical girl genre by using some of its tropes in Utena’s stock “pre-duel” scenes where she makes her way to the arena. The reuse of this scene seems extremely deliberate, where the transformation scenes in a magical girl series are a way to save money and are usually edited slightly for time when needed. Utena’s scene is played in full, every time. The series also contrasts its dark and apocalyptic story against lighthearted scenes and even some completely throwaway comedy episodes. Again, this calls back to Ikuhara’s work on Sailormoon S. Nanami’s character began as pure comic relief, but then became twisted and disturbing, and finally tragic. It doesn’t appear Ikuhara has done much since Utena, but I’d be interested to see him resurface.

Overall, I think this is a series that should be watched by anyone who wants a show with something more to chew on, and doesn’t mind having to interpret it. The show was heavily discussed in its time, and a lot of that analysis is still on the web. I find it sad that it never had the broad appeal or apparent staying power that Eva did, but I do see how this isn’t a show for everybody. I did enjoy it thoroughly, so I recommend giving it a shot at least through the first story arc.

Kamen Rider Black

May 19, 2009

I recently finished up 1987/88’s Kamen Rider Black. Black and its direct sequel Black RX almost exist as their own “era” of Kamen Rider. The last full TV series had been Super-1 in 1980, and there wouldn’t be another full TV series after RX until Kuuga in 2000. What Black does is introduce a lot of elements that would become hallmarks of the later shows.

The story begins with Minami Kotaro and Akizuki Nobuhiko. Kotaro was adopted by Nobuhiko’s father and raised as family along with Nobuhiko’s sister Kyoko. On their 19th birthday, both young men are kidnapped by an organization of evil cultists called Gorgom. The boys are each modified into cyborgs and implanted with a Kingstone. Being given the names “Black Sun” and “Shadow Moon”, they are to fight to the death, with the victor becoming Gorgom’s next Creation King. However, Kotaro is able to escape before his brainwashing is complete. When he’s attacked by Gorgom’s three high priests, he undergoes a transformation into his Black Sun form. Kotaro decides to use his powers to fight back against Gorgom, taking the name Kamen Rider Black.

Black’s premise and tone were considered generally dark at the time. The Gorgom organization is presented as extremely creepy and even disgusting at times. It may seem a bit funny now with its obvious rubber suits, but in 1987 I can see how this was unlike what people had seen before in this kind of show. It also introduces a lot of the tension and drama that would become standard in the later movie-era and Heisei-era riders.

The most important addition is an antagonist Rider. A little after halfway through, Nobuhiko awakens as Shadow Moon. This puts a lot of strain on Kotaro, Kyoko and Katsumi (Nobuhiko’s girlfriend), and creates a conflict of loyalties for Kotaro. Can he fight his best friend and brother? Shadow Moon of course is brainwashed by Gorgom, but sometimes shows unexpected compassion and restraint, especially when confronted by Katsumi. This all culminates toward the end of the series when the Creation King pushes the two to finally duel it out, and things don’t initially go as you’d expect…

Despite all that, most of the show is typical mid-80’s tokusatsu. Gorgom comes up with some wacky plan, Kotaro stumbles onto it, kicks the monster’s ass. The formula is broken up a bit during the first half by the introduction of Birugenia, a former Creation King candidate who was considered too out of control and sealed away. Birugenia would sometimes appear to challenge Black, spicing up the fight scenes until he was finally taken out and replaced by Shadow Moon.

The effects are decent for the time. The regular monsters are a bit cheesy, but the more major characters look great. Black has some nice organic muscley stuff in his joints, and Shadow Moon is just badass all over. The priests look really good too, both before and after their mid-series upgrade. I love the grip tightening sound effect when Kotaro clenches his fists before transforming. The biggest problem I had is that the strobe effect during Rider Punch and Rider Kick really hurts my eyes. I can only imagine the seizures this show caused.

Overall, I liked it. The regular episodes could drag on sometimes, but it’s made up for whenever the story kicks in with the Priests, Birugenia or Shadow Moon getting involved. Shadow Moon especially was a cool character, setting the stage for later Riders like Ouja, Kaixa, the Hoppers, Saga, etc. It’s certainly a lot cooler than the 70’s stuff I’ve seen (not to hate on that or anything), and much more satisfying as a full series than the one-off “movie” Riders. I’ve started into Black RX, which isn’t as dark but I still like it. Best part of RX, no Furbus.

Century Kings, a fansub group consisting of I think just one guy, has Black done through episode 38. The rest I got as raws from this thread on Henshin Justice Unlimited.

Mei-chan no Shitsuji

March 31, 2009

Butlers are big in Japan. After all, women need a fetish to match guys’ obsession with maids. Several properties have come out lately featuring butlers. Hayate no Gotoku, Kuroshitsuji… but none capitalizes on the butler rage more than Mei-chan no Shitsuji.

The premise is this: Shinonome Mei lives happily with her parents where they make a small but reasonable living running an udon shop. She spends a lot of time with her childhood friend Shibata Kento, whom she has nicknamed “Mameshiba” and who clearly has a crush on her. One fateful day, her parents are suddenly killed. Shortly after, a man named Rihito appears before her, claiming to be her butler! According to Rihito, Mei is actually the heir to the powerful Hongo family, and she must attend the prestigious St. Lucia Academy to become a proper lady worthy of the position. Further complicating things, it turns out Rihito is Kento’s older brother.

Mei is initially determined to continue running her family udon shop, but it’s soon destroyed. She’s also pressured by her grandfather, the current head of the family, by saying he won’t allow her mother to rest in the same grave as her father unless she becomes the Hongo family successor. So, Mei agrees to attend St. Lucia. When she arrives, she finds that the school requires each lady to have her own butler, responsible for her comfort and safety. The school is governed by a rigid system of rank, with Ombra being the bottom, then Luna, then Sole. Mei starts at Ombra, as all students do, but is constantly challenged and bullied by her snobbish classmates. Standing atop the hierarchy is Hongo Shiori, another potential successor to the Hongo family, and the current “Lucia-sama”, the top lady at the school. Shiori is outwardly benevolent and admired by all, but she’s secretly ruthless in pursuit of her goal. Mei is not alone, however, as Rihito is a top S-rank butler, and Kento even enrolls as a butler in training to stay close to her.

The plot is pretty typical shoujo fare. Tons of pretty guys doing… pretty things. Lots of flower imagery and wish fulfillment for girls wanting to be pampered. As the plot moves along, conflicts escalate from simple problems fitting in to life and death struggles as Shiori’s schemes become more and more dangerous. There’s also a forbidden love aspect since butlers and ladies are not allowed to be romantically involved. Despite that, there’s clearly something going on between at least half the couples, not the least of which is the romantic tension between Mei and Rihito so thick you could scrape it off the walls.

So, why the hell did I watch this? First and foremost, it has tokusatsu actors galore. Most prominently, Rihito is played by Mizushima Hiro, who was none other than titular character of Kamen Rider Kabuto. Rihito is not terribly different from Tendou Souji/Kabuto. Both are seen as nearly perfect, but harbor a bit of a complex regarding a particular young lady in their lives. Opposite him playing Kento is Sato Takeru, who was Nogami Ryotarou/Kamen Rider Den-O in his own eponymous series (directly following Kabuto too). Also playing smaller parts are the actors for Natsuki (Boukenger), Nago (Kamen Rider Kiva), Impactor Logia (Gransazer), and others.

In addition to the cast, the show was just somehow entertaining. Mizushima Hiro goes a long way toward accomplishing that, but it’s not just him. It’s a bit over the top, but not quite as obnoxiously so as Hanazakari no Kimitachi e was. It even has some decent fencing and hand to hand combat scenes peppered in. I would say give this a try if you’re curious, especially if you want to see some Kamen Rider actors outside those roles. It may put you off, but who knows… you may just like it.

Otakon roundup

August 12, 2008

Finally getting some time to post. Was pretty dead Sunday and yesterday. Cons are not exactly the relaxing type of vacation. I get more sleep during a regular work week O_o

Kicked off the con with Otaku no Video. It’s an Otakon tradition, and honestly there usually isn’t anything better going on at 9am on Friday. Always good for a laugh though. Also hit panels for Dubs That Time Forgot, PGSM, and JPop. Dubs That Time Forgot demonstrated another Otakon tradition — technical issues in the panel rooms.

Big event for Friday was of course the JAM Project concert. Let me start by saying I’m not a big follower of JAM Project, but I am a huge fan of Macross music, especially Fire Bomber. Seeing even one Fire Bomber song performed live by Fukuyama Yoshiki was huge for me. It was also cool to hear some other classic themes like Cha-La Head-Cha-La from DBZ (huge fun heard live) and Get My Revolution from Utena. As a toku fan, the GARO theme was really cool too. Two pictures, first the group performing Little Wing from Scrapped Princess, then Fukuyama doing Fire Bomber’s Angel Voice. Sorry for iPhone photos, I actually don’t own a camera (I know, I know, I spend all my money on anime and toku stuff…)

Day 2 we checked out panels for Anime is Serious Business, two panels on tokusatsu, and the Fansubbers and Industry panel. I actually have a pic of that monumental clash below. Actually, they were pretty cordial, and it was interesting to hear the viewpoints of the industry. They’re really not “the man”. Really the problem with lag between release in Japan and the states is legal junk and the Japanese licensors’ relucatance to change anything. The industry is trying to work out a fast, online means of distribution, however.

Big events Saturday were the main AMV contest screening and the Masquerade. Some good stuff in the AMV contest this year, though a lot of 5cm Per Second. Do I need to watch that? The Death Note shoes video was riotous. I didn’t find the masquerade overall as funny as I did last year, though the girl cosplaying Link and doing Zelda tunes on the flute was good. Was she the same one who did it last year? Also, the second act was a girl of about 13, dressed as Sakura from Naruto, and singing Utada Hikaru’s Hikari. Looking out at the 1st Mariner Arena and something to the tune of about 8 or 9,000 people, she froze up pretty bad. The crowd was sympathetic and tried to encourage her. Aren’t otaku sweet?

Sunday we checked out the Hand Drawn Animation and Maryland Language Club panels before heading off to the concerts. Daisy Stripper, MarBell and The Underneath were all good, though I like The Underneath best. MarBell’s vocalist was pretty funny though, flashing her ass at the crowd and proposing marriage to all assembled.

Overall, not a bad con this year. I think I’ll finish out with a pic of the assembled loot from this year. As I often do, I actually walked away from the con with money in my pocket still. I don’t buy anything I couldn’t easily get off the net from the comfort of my own couch. No need to fight through throngs of otaku for manga I can order right from TRSI or Amazon. I will be talking about some of this swag here after I’ve had a chance to digest it.

Dear Producers of Ultraviolet: Code 044

It seems you desired to create an anime series about a chick that kills vampires with a sword. Unfortunately, you accidentally shot some bizarre fusion of Ang Lee’s Hulk and softcore porn. Instead of lots of gratifying shots of said chick killing vampires, we got odd compositions of multiple panels and the lead character stripping down to her panties several times for absolutely no reason. Please do it over, cut out all the bullshit and include actual vampire killing in your vampire killing anime. If you can do this, I may make it farther than halfway through your first episode.

Thank you for your attention.

An article on ANN points out that Japan has made a request to the US government to help stop online distribution of anime. Though probably not mentioned by name, this is in direct regards to the ever more commonplace and open distribution of fansubs.

Now, I do understand their concern. A huge amount of their intellectual property is flying across the net. However, I think that stamping out fansubs would be doing them a huge disservice. Nobody likes to admit it, but fansubs serve a big indirect role in the promotion of anime in the West. Not everyone watches fansubs of course, but some do. Those who do are usually the more “hard core” anime fans who exert influence on the more casual ones. These fans will watch the fansubs, then go out and discuss them on forums, cosplay their characters at conventions, and otherwise raise awareness of the property. Then, when (if) the series comes out in the US or wherever, it already has a base of guaranteed sales and all important name recognition. I don’t think The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya would be the hit it is without the buzz fansubs generated. In fact, Bandai wisely acknowledged this in its ASOS Brigade promotional videos.

This has always been the case with fansubs though, so why is Japan only lately getting its panties in such a bunch about it? Part of it is that Japan is noticing the commercial viability of anime abroad (a market built on the backs of… you guessed it… fansubs). Their bigger problem is that people in Japan have noticed how easy we in the West have made it to download anime. In fact, people in Japan are downloading our fansubs rather than buy the Japanese DVD. This is now hitting the Japanese companies at home, where it really hurts. However, I’m inclined to think Japan wouldn’t have such a problem with out of control piracy if they would stop ripping off their consumers. We may fuss over the prices of DVDs and CDs, but anime in Japan often costs 7000–8000 yen per disc. That’s about $60–$70 US, and often for a lower episode count than the R1 versions. That’s just completely ridiculous, and if I lived in Japan I’d probably be pirating everything too.

Bottom line, and this goes for media companies in all countries: if you want to combat casual piracy, stop ripping off your customers. Simple as that.

Gundam 00 – First Look

October 7, 2007

The latest entry in the long running Gundam franchise debuted Saturday evening on MBS and TBS in Japan. Gundam 00 is directed by veteran anime director Mizushima Seiji of Fullmetal Alchemist, Shaman King and others. Character designs are provided by Chiba Michinori & Kouga Yun. Music is provided by Kawai Kenji, famous for his work on the Ghost in the Shell films, with the theme song provided by JRock mainstays L’Arc~en~Ciel.

 

In the 24th century, things are not nearly as peaceful on Earth as portrayed in Gene Roddenberry’s idyllic Star Trek. Fossil fuels have run out, leading to constant wars between three major factions over the remaining energy sources. In the midst of this chaos, a paramilitary organization known as Celestial Being emerges. Celestial Being’s mission is to end all wars on Earth. Their method of choice: overwhelming force with 4 advanced mobile suits called Gundams.

The series initially seems a lot like Gundam Wing. 4 bishounen pilots descend to Earth in powerful mobile suits and fight for peace. Compared to Wing, though, 00 has a lot more grit to its depictions of war. It also hasn’t overpowered the Gundams too much, as it’s shown that there is a limit to what even the Gundam Exia can handle without backup. I’m hoping the portrayal of the characters won’t be so shallow as it was with Wing, though I don’t think this will be a problem with FMA’s director at the helm.

With only one episode to go off of, I can’t make a real judgement on the series. For the moment, however, I’m going to be bullish on Gundam 00. It looks like it could shape up to be a pretty good outing for the Gundam metaseries.