The Blu-Ray Format

March 25, 2010

I’ve been paying attention to the progress of HD media formats since the HD format war kicked off in 2006. I was determined not to buy anything until things shook out and one format emerged as the standard, and it seems like most of the world agreed. Eventually, things tipped in favor of Blu-Ray, and in March 2008, HD-DVD met its end. This is when I consider the true kickoff to Blu-Ray (BD) as the next-gen optical disc format.

However, I still didn’t move. Most of my DVD collection, by far, is anime. For whatever reason, I feel more compelled to “collect” anime than I do American movies. The anime industry hadn’t (and still hasn’t) moved onto BD in a major way. Unlike DVD, whose ability to have multiple audio and subtitle tracks on one disc was a massive advantage for anime, BD doesn’t offer anything much more to anime than an increase in quality. Also, BD is reportedly terribly expensive to license and produce, causing the small independent companies that release the bulk of anime in the US to tread carefully. However, it finally came that something gave me the push I needed — Gundam Unicorn was being released simultaneously worldwide, but only on BD.

With my preorder for Unicorn in place, it was time to get myself a BD player. I considered the PS3, but I have next to no interest in the PS3’s game library at this time, and James Rolfe’s impressions of controlling it as a BD player as well as configuring the audio were less than inspiring. So, I hit the Internet to find out what a good stand-alone BD player was. Since DVD is still a huge part of my viewing, I went with the Panasonic DMP-BD60P-K, as its DVD upscaling ability was praised much more than its Sony counterparts.

I’ve gathered 7 BD discs in the past month, 4 live action films and two anime releases (including Gundam Unicorn). I only have a 720p TV right now, viewing the BD as a bit of an investment in the future, but even then I can clearly see the difference. Not only are things generally sharper and more detailed, but the compression is much better. Gone is the macroblocking in dark scenes and the cross-luminance rainbows in fine detail. When it comes to the actual quality of the show, I have no gripes about BD.

Unfortunately, this thing was developed by Sony, and we all know nothing can be straightforward with them. The biggest problem with BD is the different spec levels or “profiles”. Depending on when your player was made, it may or may not support features which are mandatory on current players. The first players used profile 1.0, which is pretty much just a very high quality DVD. Nothing fancy. Profile 1.1 introduced “Bonus View”, which is an embedded picture-in-picture which can be used for commentary or to show storyboards with the movie, or whatever else they come up with. Profile 2.0, which is supposed to be the “final” profile (for now) introduces BD-Live, the ability for BD discs to connect to the Internet to pull down additional content, participate in live events, or even upload user-created content related to the film.

Now, the profiles also updated the hardware requirements for the player. Profile 1.0 players didn’t really need anything a DVD player didn’t have, aside from it being beefed up with a blue laser diode and processors that could handle BD’s compression formats. Profile 1.1 began to require 256mb of storage, as well as secondary audio and video decoders that would be necessary for the Bonus View feature. Profile 2.0 began to require Internet connectivity (ethernet, wifi or both) and 1gb of storage, both to accomodate BD-Live. Now, all of those things were options even during Profile 1.0, and expensive players might have them. The PS3 certainly did. However, if your older player lacks the necessary hardware, no amount of firmware updates is going to qualify it for the higher specs. Indeed, if it lacks the Internet connectivity, you probably can’t update the firmware anyway, so it’s a moot point.

So, multiple software versions and a list of hardware features. Sound like anything you know? Yeah, it’s the “system requirements” you see on the box for every piece of computer software you ever bought. Make no mistake, your BD player is a computer, and if your setup doesn’t meet its requirements, you may not be able to play a newer disc. Or, at least not be able to take advantage of all its features. That’s what you always wanted right? System requirements for a damn movie? To cope with this, you will often find some sort of warning on the packaging of BD discs informing the customer that the BD disc is made to the highest possible standards, and that if certain features don’t work the customer’s player probably doesn’t support it. Warner Bros even puts a little paper insert into the case to make sure you notice this message. What a joke. I honestly laughed when I first saw this.

One other issue we have isn’t really Sony or the BD format’s fault, but a matter of needing to maintain backward compatibility with older equipment. Most people understand that they need to upgrade to an HDTV to see the HD video on Blu-Ray. What they may not realize, or may be unwilling to do, is replace their surround sound receiver. So, although BD supports shiny new lossless audio formats like Dolby TrueHD and DTS Master Audio, all BD discs also need to support secondary Dolby Digital or standard DTS tracks for older receivers. The player must be configured according to the capabilities of the receiver to output the proper audio track. This is what bit James with his PS3, needing to tell it to output plain old PCM audio instead of the straight compressed bitstream coming off the disc. My Panasonic player’s factory defaults are for the lowest common denominator, so it will work out of the box with any receiver, at least on some level. If your receiver is more capable, you can consult a confusing as hell matrix in the manual which tell you what combination of settings will yield what results. Oh, fun.

And what about the anime? It seems the anime industry is taking Steve Jobs to heart and considering BD a “bag of hurt”. There are only a few dozen anime releases on BD in the US, and many of them are DBZ movies from Funimation. Obviously, Funimation will have no trouble making that investment back with a sure-fire cash cow like DBZ. Going forward, I see some new titles like Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood slated for release on BD, but then neither season of Gundam 00 got the BD treatment. Some shows like Claymore and D.Gray-man were released on BD sometime after their DVD release, which is confusing and frustrating. Very little catalog material from any company has been upgraded, though you can get Samurai Champloo on BD, and Disney released a few Ghibli films on BD to coincide with the release of Ponyo.

BD also has the problem of needing to contend with the changing nature of consumers, and the push to put everything online. Many are heralding the end of physical media entirely, pointing at successful ventures like iTunes or Netflix’s Watch Instantly. Videophiles however are not, and will not any time soon, be satisfied with the quality of streaming or downloadable video. BD is just so high bandwidth that it can afford to have obscenely high bitrates, because it rests on a 50GB disc. The masses of people are not videophiles though. This may leave BD in a similar position as LaserDisc occupied. The masses may well stick with DVD or online video due to low cost and/or convenience, while videophiles put up with the expense and hassle of configuring their BD equipment and juggling discs. Just as videophiles were willing to put up with bulky, awkward and expensive LDs, but the masses were perfectly content with VHS.

So, overall, I consider my BD player an investment in the future. As things come out on BD, I’ll be able to pick them up in that format, enabling me to enjoy the higher quality, and enjoy it even more once my existing TV ages out and gets replaced. The pickings for anime at the moment, however, are horribly slim. Fans of American movies though, you can get just about whatever you want. As long as it’s not Star Wars or anything else George Lucas controls, because he’s being a dickhead again. If you don’t consider yourself a videophile, it may be worth your while to wait and see how this whole online video thing shakes out. Before long, you may be able to pull any movie you want off Netflix right from your TV, and never look at a physical disc again.

Advertisements

Evangelion

March 28, 2009

Since I finished up Gundam Wing, I figured I would take on the only 90’s mecha show more divisive among anime fans: Evangelion. I had only watched this one time, back when I first bought the DVDs. I thought it was OK, but did not get what the big deal was about. So, how does many years more experience with anime adjust my opinion?


When this show is just being a good old fashioned robo romp, it’s pretty good at it. The first half of the show contains some pretty cool sequences. Of course, things start with Unit 01 going berserk on the 3rd angel, which is great. I also like Unit 02 jumping ship to ship, the one where Asuka blocks the acid from that spider angel so Shinji and Rei could get down to the rifles and kill it, and the synchronized attack is pretty funny (and, I believe a reference to Double Rider Kick!). That’s all good stuff. Even the antics of the characters in their off time were amusing, with cocktease Asuka messing with Shinji and the perpetually drunk Misato.

Some aspects of the production are great. Sadamoto Yoshiyuki’s character designs are very nice, and I continued to like his work on the first .hack saga. The theme song is infamously catchy, and still sung wherever otaku sing karaoke. The voice cast is also superb, with the likes of Kotono Mitsuishi (Sailor Moon), Ogata Megumi (Sailor Uranus), Koyasu Takehito (Zechs Merquise) and Hayashibara Megumi (Ranma, Faye Valentine). I also noticed this recently: Kaworu was voiced by Ishida Akira who also played Gaara (Naruto), Athrun (Gundam Seed), and Fish Eye, the flamboyantly gay member of Sailormoon SuperS’s Amazon Trio o_O

Production, however, is where the show also falls apart. Gainax was famously short on cash when this show was made, and it is apparent. I have never seen so many cheap shortcuts taken in animation from a big name studio. Pan shots out the ass. The most notable one is probably the famous bathroom scene. Suzuhara and Aida have a whole conversation while the camera does nothing but pan over a static background of urinals. And that must be one humongous fuckin bathroom too to have that many in a row.

Eventually, we pass the critical point, episode 16. This is the first episode where the series just regresses into jibberish. Between the lack of money and Anno’s steadily declining mental state, the show just goes nuts here. It loses most of its narrative structure as they desperately attempt to introduce and wrap up critical plot threads, sometimes in the span of one episode. The animation also drops off even more, as even pans apparently become too expensive and they start using just static shots. Isn’t the point of animation that it moves? Big example of this is the shot of Eva Unit 01 clutching Kaworu in its fist. I swear, you would think your DVD player locked up. It just drags on frozen on this one frame with some music playing.

Of course, it all ends with the final two episodes, comprised of little more than stock footage, still shots, and… like… scribbles. It explains nothing about the plot at all. Instead, we get to psychoanalyze everyone in turn. That’s all well and good, but I’d rather it be done within a narrative since that’s what I tuned in for. Without external knowledge of what the Human Instrumentality Project was, these episodes are impossible to understand. And, frankly, that’s bullshit.

Eva had some great ideas, and some good foundations. However, in the end, the production was a disaster and they failed to deliver on it. Regardless of what the reasons were, regardless of what Anno was trying to say, the bottom line is they fucked up and the second half of the show is a complete mess. It may have been trying to communicate grandiose ideas, and be rich in symbolism, but they failed to hold it all together into a cohesive narrative. I can sit here and spew philosophy at you for 10 hours, but it doesn’t make me a great film maker.

Now, I should point out, even though I have some knowledge of what happens, I had not seen End of Eva when I wrote this, but I wanted to get my thoughts down on the TV series before I did. The TV series should be able to stand on its own, since that’s how it was originally developed. Unfortunately, it really can’t. Now, here are my brief thoughts on End of Eva which were written later:

The Rebirth part starts off pretty well. Stuff is happening, it’s very exciting. I thought I might have finally understood why people are so captivated by this show, even to this day. Then, I got to End and it basically reverted to the same BS as the TV series. “Let’s do nothing but show weird images and spew our half baked philosphy”. Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit. The only difference is that this time the weird imagery had a budget. I hate pretentious stuff like this. This is what happens when a creator buys into his own hype. It’s the same reason I hate the Matrix.

Look. Everybody. All you content creators out there. You can’t just put a stream of consciousness in front of people and call it art. Your job is to communicate. If you can’t distill that thought down into something that can be communicated and understood, you fail. You fail as an artist. The mere fact that people still, over a decade later, have to sit around and argue what this series means indicates it failed to communicate its message. Being obscure doesn’t make it brilliant.

Now, when are people going to stop asking me about this show the minute they find out I watch anime? Can I be done now?

I have been rather annoyed lately. I’ve been meaning for some time to pick up the Tim Burton Batman movies, and the Dark Knight’s release was a catalyst to make me finally get around to doing it. Surely the release of such a blockbuster would mean the easy availability of related material?

Right?

No such luck. Apparently, Warner Brothers doesn’t like money. The reason I say that is because on the day of Dark Knight’s release, every Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, every DVD retailer in North America should have had a huge point of sale display of Batman DVDs. Tim Burton, Joel Schumacher, The Animated Series, Batman Beyond, all of it. Cases worth of DVDs ready to sell to Bat-frenzied consumers. Did they? To an extent, they’re pushing Batman Beyond and the animated DVDs, but the old movies are nowhere to be had. What little stock retailers had, both brick & mortar and online, shriveled up quickly. Sites like Amazon aren’t even listing a restock time.

What the fuck?!

Didn’t Warner Bros. think it would be a good idea to print up a stockpile of this stuff in preparation? Apparently not, as I had no luck on Amazon, Best Buy, Deep Discount and everywhere else I looked. All out of stock.

OK, I like to have a physical DVD on my shelf but I won’t split hairs. I just want to see the movie. Surely, iTunes has my back. Unfortunately, a search for Batman only gets us this:

Gotham Knight: reasonable since that just came out

Return of the Joker (Directors’ Cut): Not bad, but not what I’m looking for

Batman and Mr. Freeze Sub Zero: If I had to pick an Animated movie, it would’ve been Mask of the Phantasm… but whatever…

Batman (1966): Um… kay

No 1989 Batman. No Batman Returns. Not even Batman Begins. Will somebody please go knock on Warner Bros. door? They’re obviously asleep at the wheel here. I had credit card in hand, ready to give them money for their product but I can’t find it anywhere. It’s like looking for a Nintendo Wii the week before Christmas.

So, I said screw ’em. You know who does got my back? The Pirate Bay. They didn’t let me down. I got my copy of Batman. Sorry Hollywood, you had your chance to get my money and you fucked it up.

Bleach: Memories of Nobody

September 11, 2007

Bleach’s first movie has hit DVD in Japan, and thus the first fansubs have hit the net.

Ichigo and Rukia are out patrolling Karakura-cho for Hollows when they pick up a strange reiatsu. Arriving on the scene, they see a crowd of strange souls in white cloaks with faceless red heads. Before they can figure out what to do with these odd creatures, a mysterious female Shinigami shows up and dispatches them. Ichigo questions her, only discovering her name is Senna, as she doesn’t know what squad she’s from or anything else about her past. As Rukia heads back to Soul Society to investigate, Ichigo sticks to Senna looking for answers. Soon, a mysterious group called the Dark Ones appear attempting to kidnap Senna as part of their plan to destroy both Soul Society and the living world.

If you’ve ever seen a movie based on a Shonen Jump property, you know the drill here. Mysterious new threat appears, main characters investigate and get into some skirmishes, then at the end everybody parades out and the super powers explode for the big climax. These movies are almost a genre unto themselves.

Bleach, fortunately, is a better attempt than some others. One thing that really helps is that I really liked Senna’s character. In a standalone movie like this where development of the main cast is nil by necessity, it’s the original characters that make or break it. On the down side, I wasn’t very interested in the villains. I didn’t care who they were, why they were doing what they were doing, they were just uninteresting. In fact, if this wasn’t Bleach and needing a certain action element, I’d say the film could have been done without them. Just focus on the story of Senna and what she is, what the mysterious souls were, etc. But, hey, we need a reason for everyone to bust out the bankais at the end right?

Bleach: Memories of Nobody is a decent standalone effort. Fans will of course love seeing their favorite characters with a bigger animation budget (and on that note, this was the first animated appearance of Rukia’s zanpakuto “Sode no Shirayuki”). The film could also serve as a decent way for someone unfamiliar with Bleach to quickly get the gist of how the show works, though as with all movies of this type the character relationships are mostly left unexplained. Overall, it’s no classic, but a decent way to kill 90 minutes.

Star Trek movies

September 9, 2007

I’m going to diverge a bit from what I usually talk about here and discuss Star Trek. If you need to apply it to the Japan or Apple main themes of the blog, Sulu is Japanese and there’s a Mac in Star Trek IV. 😛

I recently bought the Star Trek Motion Pictures Collection, a box set of all 10 Star Trek feature films. The set is compiled from the 2-disc editions of each film which are available independently. Content-wise, the set is pretty good. Copious special features are included on the second disc of each film, and there are commentaries on the main discs. DTS audio is included on the later films, though I wish we could have gotten a DTS mix for all of them. Video is presented in anamorphic widescreen with no major flaws in the encodings despite all the heavy use of dark colors in the space scenes.

The only real gripe I have here is the packaging. Some odd decisions were made. Most obviously is the use of cases which are 50% wider than the standard DVD case. There’s no reason to do this with only two discs per case, especially since it uses the same sort of double hub design used in the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex limited edition releases. There aren’t even booklets included to necessitate a wider case, in fact all but one of the films don’t even have an insert. All these wide cases have accomplished is make the set take up an unnecessary amount of shelf space, which is annoying. Also, while most of the discs use a uniform silver label, a couple feature artwork from the film, which is just strangely inconsistent. Also in terms of inconsistency, the cover of the first film is gold rather than silver like the other 9. Why is this one different? The only thing I can think of is to call attention to the fact that this is the “Director’s Edition” version released in 1991 with new effects rather than the 1979 original. I think that’s pretty well covered by the fact that it plainly says “Director’s Edition” below the title.

Anyway, my griping about design consistency aside, this is a really worthwhile set at a good price. You should have no problem getting it online in the US $70-80 range.

As for the films themselves, this was actually the first time I’d seen Nemesis. I just never got around to it before. Overall, I didn’t find it as bad as I’d heard. Not the greatest, but I’d still take it over I or V in a heartbeat. I had of course heard the big spoiler about the film some time ago, it’s hard to avoid on the Internet. I’m glad though that like Spock’s death in II, they left the door propped open for Data’s return in a future film. Also, I believe this was the first time in my life I actually made it all the way through Star Trek I in one sitting without falling asleep! Damn that is a dull movie.