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.

Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers title card

Recently there has been much buzz online about Bandai and Disney relaunching the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers. The show will be re-aired on ABC Family, and Bandai has a whole line of freshly tooled toys ready to hit the market (including a new version of the MegaZord). With all this going on, I decided to seek out and finally rewatch the show after I hadn’t seen it in at least a decade. I have a fair amount of Super Sentai under my belt now, including Zyuranger, and wanted to really see how it stacked up. I was going to mention here that the episodes were available on iTunes, but they aren’t anymore. Not sure if that has to do with the relaunch or what. If that’s how they’re going to be though, and not have the episodes for sale or streaming anywhere, well… you know what I had to do. The versions that were on iTunes were the post-9/11 cuts which had some shots of building destruction removed anyway. I’d rather see the original cuts released. Methods of content acquisition aside though, on with the review.

Adapting Zyuranger

Saban’s concept for Power Rangers, one that they pitched many times before it was picked up, was to take footage from a Japanese tokusatsu series and splice it with new footage of American actors to make a new, English-language series. This must’ve sounded insane to the network execs, and who could really blame them. The result would be disjointed and silly as hell. However, circumstances aligned in the correct way, and Fox Kids was in need of a throwaway mid-season series. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers was greenlighted, creating 40 episodes based on the 50-episode series Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger.

Teenagers with attitude + 1 annoying robot

Compared to Zyuranger, the premise was substantially altered. Instead of five ancient warriors waiting in suspended animation until they are needed to fight off the witch Bandora who has a personal grudge with them, Power Rangers has five freshly recruited “teenagers with attitude” battling Rita Repulsa who wants little more than to destroy the Earth. Why does she want to do that? Who knows, maybe it’s blocking her view of Venus. Instead of a wise old elf watching over them, the Power Rangers are supported by an interdimensional being called Zordon and his perpetually annoying robot assistant Alpha-5. In addition, they control giant battle machines called Zords, a more traditional idea than Zyuranger’s sentient dinosaur gods.

During this initial batch of 40 episodes, the fact that it’s written around existing footage is painfully obvious. The Power Rangers were granted the ability to teleport into battle, which conveniently explains away the sudden shifts in setting. However, this also causes the plot to leap all over the place just as suddenly. Some episodes it’s almost like there are two shows going on, one a bad Saved by the Bell clone, the other a superhero series, and never the twain shall meet. “Civilian” scenes would have the Rangers doing some bullcrap to promote peace, or help the environment, or whatever soapbox it is they’re on today. Then, suddenly, Rita will attack them, they’ll fight some putties, then transform and teleport to a totally different place to slug it out with a monster. When that’s done, it’s back to the good old Youth Center to resolve the story from before and drill in today’s moral.

This first part of the series would be almost unbearable at times, aside from two saving graces — Farkus Bulkmeier and Eugene Skullovich, aka Bulk & Skull. Played by Paul Schrier and Jason Narvy, these two bumbling wannabe bullies are always good for a chuckle. Often, I found whatever antics they were up to more interesting than what the Rangers were doing. You can hardly blame Bulk & Skull for wanting to pick on the Rangers either. I mean, they really were a bunch of dweebs.

Contrary to all expecations, Power Rangers was a smash hit. Kids all over the country were running around karate kicking each other and singing “Go Go Power Rangers!”, myself included. Problem: Saban didn’t have much Zyuranger left to work with. Almost all the usable footage had been exhausted making the initial 40 episodes. A couple more were created with what was left, plus an episode featuring an encore of the Pudgy Pig consisting of almost all American footage. Meanwhile, Saban prepared a nice little surprise.

All six Power Rangers

Zyu2 — The Zyuranger episodes that never were

Saban went back to Toei with a request: Shoot another half season (25 episodes) worth of Ranger fights and corresponding Zord battles. Toei agreed, and designed 25 new Zyuranger-styled monster costumes as well as dragging the Zyurangers’ suits out of mothballs. Saban even got them to include elements tailored to Power Rangers, such as a relationship between the Green and Pink Rangers which didn’t exist in Zyuranger. This footage is often referred to by Power Rangers and Sentai fans as “Zyu2”. Since these were not full Zyuranger episodes, just costume and Zord fights, the only place to see them is in Power Rangers.

Since Saban was now working with footage that was made specifically for Power Rangers, they had a much easier time creating cohesive stories. The last 20 episodes of the season contain some of its best and most memorable. The stories are better, it’s less jumpy, the actors are improving, even Bulk and Skull are funnier. There was even new combination footage for MegaZord and UltraZord. The new MegaZord sequence is interesting since it has them going directly to MegaZord without going through the tank mode first, but it’s also pretty obvious that Toei shot these new sequences using the toys. This isn’t new, all the original footage of Kyuukyoku Daizyujin (UltraZord) was the toys, but these new sequences make it more apparent so I don’t like them as much.

MegaZord combining without becoming a tank first

In Zyu2, the Green Ranger was even revived, something that never happened in Zyuranger. Ironically he was more active after his revival with his temporary powers than he had been before. In his previous stint, Saban had to work around the fact that Burai (Zyuranger’s Dragon Ranger) had a very limited amount of time to live from the very start. Whenever he would leave his special “lapseless room”, his remaining life would decrease. For this reason, Burai would only come out to fight when his Dragon Caesar was needed. Thanks to that, MMPR’s Green Ranger never participated in a ground fight while transformed, they would always have to find a way to write him out until it was time to call out the Zords. In the Zyu2 footage though, Green Ranger is frequently right there with the others kicking ass and taking names. This is great for fans of the Dragon Ranger/Green Ranger (and who isn’t his fan, honestly).

The Zyu2 episodes are also where they started using the show’s famous battle themes. Songs like “Fight”, “We Need a Hero”, “Combat” and “5-4-1” help to really up the excitement level of the fights. They are also genuinely pretty damn good songs. Ron Wasserman, under the pseudonyms Aaron Waters and The Mighty RAW, was called in to create the new themes. Wasserman had previously performed the series’ infectious opening theme “Go Go Power Rangers”. Though I think the drums were done with a drum machine, Wasserman’s vocals and guitar created some truly memorable stuff not befitting a mere childrens’ TV series.

All that combined to bring the series its own identity during the Zyu2 era. No longer was it merely a hacked up Zyuranger, it was its own entity with its own style and appeal. This trend would continue into the second and third seasons as they relied less and less on the Japanese footage. It does beg the question though, what would this have been if Saban had just made their own show? Could they have come up with a concept that would have worked as well? I’m not sure, but at the very least it has introduced a lot of young Americans to tokusatsu and Super Sentai in particular. Though I still think the Super Sentai shows are overall better, MMPR is pretty enjoyable once it hits its stride and shouldn’t be totally written off.

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.

Snow Leopard Server

September 2, 2009

Well, the Internets are ablaze with people’s thoughts regarding Snow Leopard, Apple’s desktop OS. Mostly in debate regarding whether it’s worthy of being a paid upgrade. Personally, I think it will, but it’s a chicken or the egg problem at present. End users will get value when apps start taking advantage of its underlying technologies like Grand Central Dispatch, OpenCL and QuickTime X. However, developers aren’t going to make their code dependent on those technologies until Snow Leopard reaches a certain level of penetration, so it’s up to the Apple hype machine to help things hit critical mass.

That’s not what I want to talk about though. Plenty of other places discuss it at length. If you want the super-techy breakdown, Ars Technica has their typically superb article up. What I want to discuss is a version of OS X not as many people play around with, OS X Server. Snow Leopard Server, like its predecessors, contains everything the desktop version does, and also has some of its own server oriented enhancements.

Some of the biggest improvements to Snow Leopard server happen before you ever get to the first login screen. The first is pricing. Traditionally, OS X Server has come in two licensing varieties. There was 10-Client Server for $499 and Unlimited Client Server for $999, the latter of which came standard on all Xserves. The client limit always seemed kind of random and pointless to me, since unlike Windows CALs, the only thing this affected was the number of concurrent AFP connections. Not exactly a big deal, and if the particular server in question wasn’t going to be providing file sharing services, the Unlimited Client version was entirely pointless. Apple, in their usual vein of wanting to keep things simple, has changed the pricing for Snow Leopard Server to just a single Unlimited Client version. What’s more surprising is that this version comes in at the $499 price point of the previous 10 client version. This easily shaves $500 of a lot of the pitches I get to make for installing a workgroup server in situations where an Xserve would be overkill.

Another welcome install related feature is Migration Assistant. Huh? Didn’t they invent that during Panther when the G5 first came out? Yes indeed, but the feature was never present on OS X Server. The logical assumption was that servers are much more complex beasts than a desktop system, and attempting to migrate one’s entire config automatically was asking for trouble. Naturally, I was skeptical when I saw this feature in Apple’s upgrading and migration documentation. At home, I was moving up from a Dual 867mhz Mirrored Door G4 to a brand new Mac Mini. I had every reason to expect this to go to hell in a handbasket, but imagine my surprise, then joy when each and every service I had installed came up, running, and configured just as they were. Even bitchy Kerberos was humming along happily in its new home. I was practically beside myself, this is going to save me a hell of a lot of time.

Apple continues its steady march toward a full-featured competitor to Microsoft Exchange by updating iCal Server and adding the last major piece, Address Book Server. Both of them use open source WebDAV-based systems to provide, respectively, network based calendaring and contacts. These are backed up by the new Push Notification service to deliver the “push” experience many customers are familiar with when using the iPhone with MobileMe or Exchange. While it’s nice to have these services included with the system, and they are easier to configure than the previous iteration of iCal Server, they are still nascent and not well supported outside the Mac and iPhone. Presently, Kerio MailServer is still a much more mature, easy to use and fully featured groupware solution for the Mac, but I am eager to see how far Apple takes these baked in services. I have not been able to test the Mobile Access service since I don’t have the infrastructure for it. It isn’t quite what I was expecting, and is basically a specialized HTTP proxy for iCal, Address Book and Mail. I was expecting it to be a MobileMe like web interface for those services as well as shared folders (like the web version of iDisk). Unfortunately, that was wishful thinking on my part.

It’s difficult for me to directly compare speed to Leopard, as the speed boosts in my home network are most likely due to the swap out of hardware. Snow Leopard Server does seem to run smoothly in the Mini with 4GB of RAM. My typical behavior of having it running torrents while simultaneously allowing me to play back video files over AFP is noticeably less trouble than it was previously. I’ll have a better grasp of the performance differences between the two once I start upgrading Xserves and Mac Pros from one OS to the other.

That about does it for my early thoughts on Snow Leopard Server. As with the desktop OS, it’s a lot of back end speed enhancements and little tweaks that will become more important as we move forward. The new pricing is very attractive though, and I am genuinely happy to have that Migration Assistant (and that it actually works).

Kamen Rider: Climax Heroes

August 30, 2009

If you’ve looked around this blog, you’d notice something about my gaming habits. I play a lot of licensed games, specifically ones based on anime and tokusatsu. I’m even willing to put up with a somewhat bad game, as long as it utilizes its license well. That brings us to my latest gaming conquest, Kamen Rider: Climax Heroes.

Climax Heroes is the first console Kamen Rider game since 2006’s Kamen Rider Kabuto. It’s also interesting in that this is a PS2 game, clearly aiming to take advantage of the large install base compared to the 360 or PS3 in Japan, but for whatever reason not wanting to do it as a Wii game.

Climax Heroes fits into the overall theme of everything happening in Kamen Rider this year, celebrating 10 years of the “Heisei” Kamen Rider shows. On TV, Kamen Rider Decade was an ambitious crossover featuring Riders of the past Decade. Climax Heroes is essentially Kamen Rider Decade: The Game. While it doesn’t follow the story of the Decade TV series, the meat of the game does have you following Decade as he crosses through the various Rider Worlds, taking on their resident Riders. One interesting thing to note is that the versions of the Riders you encounter in this game are the ones from the original shows, not the alternate ones seen in the Decade TV series.

Gameplay takes the form of a 1-on-1 fighting game. All 10 main “title” Riders of the Heisei era are playable, along with Zeronnos, Ixa, and DiEnd as unlockables as well as a “Dark Decade” created just for the game. You can also play as Gatack, G3-X and Auto Vajin in secret Story Mode missions, though their abilities are incomplete.

Controls are fairly simple, which is not necessarily a detraction. Square initiates a weak combo, Triangle initiates a strong combo. You can not switch between weak and strong attacks during a combo, but you can change the combo depending on what direction you hold when you start it. You can double tap left or right to cancel a combo in the middle and transition to another one, but this costs you two blocks of your Rider Bar. X uses support moves, also costing you Rider Bar energy. These are usually summons, but may be another type of attack depending on the Rider. The support move also changes when used as a counter while being hit by your opponent. Finally for basic attacks, O uses “hissatsu waza” moves like your various Rider Kicks, Ongeki, whatever you’ve got. Again, these may change depening on the direction you hold. Evasive moves include a dash by double tapping left or right, and evasive rolls using L1 and R1. Usually the control seems OK, though there are some things which are annoying, like the timing to do an aerial attack being very specific. Usually, you have to hit the attack button before the apex of the jump, which will be executed from the apex. You can not vary the timing to control the angle of attack.

L2 initiates a “Form Change”, which is key to the game’s mechanic. Generally speaking, this causes your Rider to use one of his power up forms, changing his abilities and fighting style accordingly. Form Change can only be done with a full Rider Bar, which is then begins to drain. The rate which it drains depends on the exact Form Change, as a way of balancing things like Kabuto’s Clock Up and Faiz’s Axel agains more basic Form Changes like Kuuga Pegasus. The most important thing is that anything which requires Rider Bar (combo cancels, support moves, some hissatsu attacks) does not have any cost during Form Change. This nuance causes what may be the game’s biggest problem, spamability. The relative strength of a character tends to come down to what kind of attack/combo you can spam the hell out of during Form Change. Some of them require some skill to pull off, which is OK. However, others basically have, what I’ve heard best described as a “win button”. Zeronnos, for example, goes into Zero Form for his support move and does a machine gun burst from the Denebic Buster. When you Form Change (to Vega Form), you can then just sit there and mash X at point blank range, easily draining half or more of your opponent’s life with no effort. The best they can hope to do is try to get knocked down, then lay there until your Form Change runs out. R2 initiates your Super Hissatsu waza. These consist of a lead in hit which, if it connects, will trigger a cutscene attack that drains exactly 1 life bar of health from the opponent. There is no penalty if it is missed or blocked which, again, leads to a potential to be really cheap.

Decade himself adds an interesting level of depth to the game. As you go through the game’s story “Decade Mode”, you will unlock abilities for Decade. At the beginning, he is very limited having no Form Change, no Super Hissatsu, and very basic X and O attacks utilizing his Ride Booker weapon. As you progress, you will unlock other Riders that you can “Kamen Ride” into as your Form Change, as well as unlocking “Final Form Ride” attacks that can be used to replace X or O button moves. This customization, deciding which set of abilities work best for you, makes Decade a really fun character to play. The last thing you get is his Super Hissatsu move, utilizing Decade’s Complete Form. Unfortunately, you have to choose between this and the ability to use Final Form Rides, though you can still use the Kamen Ride Form Changes. Personally, I think the FFR’s are more fun and more useful than a cutscene attack.

Overall, as a Kamen Rider fan, I had a lot of fun with the game. It lets you set up dream matches, improves on the experience of playing some of the older Riders compared to their own games, and brings in Den-O and Kiva who did not get their own games. It also makes extremely good use of the license by allowing you to use all these Riders, power up forms and hissatsu waza, as well as really making each Rider play in his own unique way. For those of you who are Kamen Rider fans, its ease to pick up and play will be a benefit to those who are not fighting game hardcores. It also has an option, presented right at the first power on, to put the game in “Kid Mode”, which makes all menus and in-game text switch to hiragana and katakana for the kanji-impaired youth (or stupid foreigner). However, I think some game balance issues, slightly quirky controls and mediocre graphics will probably keep more hardcore fighting game fans away. If you can get past those faults, it’s worth a play. If you love Kamen Rider, this is a game you’ve been waiting for.

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.

Now that I’m done with the Kamen Rider stuff for a while, and I’m more or less done moving into my new apartment, let’s talk about some anime. The last anime related posts I did were for two shows I’d seen previously, but was revisiting. These next ones are about two shows I considered to be holes in my anime viewing.

First up, we have GTO, which stands for “Great Teacher Onizuka”. The live action GTO drama starring Sorimachi Takashi and Matsushima Nanako was one of the first JDramas I ever watched, and I thought it was great. I have been intending to give the anime version a try since then, but only just recently got around to it.

For those unfamiliar with it, GTO is the story of Onizuka Eikichi, an ex-bike gang leader who now wishes to become a teacher. Onizuka has just earned his teaching certificate, and we begin with him during his student teaching period. Some of the students in Onizuka’s class attempt to pull a scam on him that they’ve used on other teachers before. One of the girls shows up at his apartment claiming not to want to go home. She cooks him dinner, then begins to strip and come on to him. At that moment, a couple of the boys burst in and take photos of the incriminating scene. While this would normally cause a teacher to resign and flee in disgrace, Onizuka is mostly unfazed. He starts by calling on some bikers to scare the crap out of the boys and demonstrate what real thugs are like. As for the girl, Onizuka senses something deeper going on with her and pushes to find out how much of what she told him that night was a lie. He finds out that in truth she’s lonely and her family has drifted apart ever since they became rich. Her parents have put up a wall between their separate bedrooms that symbolizes this. Onizuka decides there’s only one thing to do — Smash the wall with a sledgehammer. Though the parents are initially outraged, they do briefly start to reconnect while the hole is still in the wall.

Onizuka then moves on to finding a permanent position. He interviews at Holy Forest Academy, an elite private school. On the way there, he punches out a pervert on the bus who he saw sniffing the butt of a girl named Fuyutsuki Azusa, who turns out to be another interviewee at Holy Forest. When he arrives at the interview, he discovers that the pervert is the Vice Principal of Holy Forest, Uchiyamada Hiroshi, who is in charge of interviewing the new teachers. Onizuka bombs the interview, but is given a second chance when Uchiyamada is confronted by a couple of delinquents from the school. He says Onizuka is hired if he can run off the “trash”. Instead of taking out the delinquents, Onizuka suplexes Uchiyamada, claiming nobody should call the students “trash”. As it turns out, the school’s chairman had been watching the whole time while posing as the proprietor of the school store, and hires Onizuka anyway.

Onizuka is assigned to class 3-B, the absolute worst class in the school. They are renowned for their “classroom terrorism”, used to scare off any new homeroom teacher assigned to them. As the story progresses, Onizuka has to get to the root of each student’s problems using his often “unique” methods, and usually causing Uchiyamada all sorts of hell. He also eventually begins to unravel what caused the class to become so anti-authority in the first place, as well as developing his relationship with the lovely Fuyutsuki-sensei.

GTO is equal part laugh-out-loud comedy and touching slice of life. Each student has unique issues that Onizuka must get to the bottom of, even as the students are attempting to humiliate him and get him fired. Though all sorts of often hilarious and cruel pranks are played on him, Onizuka marches on with his firm belief that his students are all that matters. Compared to the live action version, both are “great”, but have a different tone. The anime and manga portray Onizuka as pretty over the top. His antics are wild, his facial expressions insane, and his physics often pulled from Warner Bros. The live action version wisely tones things down so it’s more logical in that format, and though he’s less over the top, I find that Onizuka more believable.

Artwork in the anime version is from the fairly early days of digital animation production, but looks surprisingly good. Since GTO takes place in a realistic setting, it doesn’t damage it to look a little plain. The lineart on Onizuka’s hyper-realistic facefaults is great, and really sells how outright nuts he is. Opening songs were provided by L’Arc~en~Ciel and Porno Graffiti, both are great though I prefer the animation that accompanied L’Arc’s “Driver’s High” more.

Whichever version you watch, GTO comes highly recommended. Very funny, great characters, and a unique concept.

Time to finish up the Kamen Rider fest I seem to have created on the blog lately. This time, I’ll be talking about the last Kamen Rider henshin belt I intend to buy for the time being. Why am I only interested in the three I talked about here? Well, there are a couple things I’m looking for in a henshin belt. First, I like a nice mechanical action. Something to do with your hands, and that preferably makes a solid mechanical sound when you do it. Setting the Faiz Phone into the Faiz Driver, Kabuto Zecter’s lever, and DecaDriver’s open/close action. Secondly, I like voice feedback. I like it when the belt speaks as you do things. “Exceed Charge”, etc. Not sure why, I just think that’s cool. Lastly, I like it when the belt has multiple functions. Preferably a henshin, a final attack, and something else. As a caveat to that, I generally don’t like card-based systems because it’s a pain in the ass to get the cards. DecaDriver was an exception because of finding that barcode card PDF.

So, that brings us to the Deluxe Kabuto Zecter, which satisfies all three requirements. In the series, an alien species known as Worms appeared on Earth aboard a meteorite that crashed into Shibuya. One of the Worms’ key abilities is the ability to molt out of their pupal form, gaining super speed. In order to combat them, a secret organization called ZECT was formed, which developed the Kamen Rider System. The system consists of an intelligent insect robot that can attach to a belt, brace or weapon, turning their chosen bearer into a Kamen Rider. The Riders had two forms, their initial heavily armored Masked Form, and a Rider Form achieved by shedding the heavy armor. The Rider Form could “Clock Up” in order to match the Worms’ speed.

The main hero of the series was Tendou Souji, played by the wonderful Mizushima Hiro. Tendou bore the Kabuto Zecter, a Japanese kabuto beetle which attached to a belt. Above you can see the belt, which as always with the DX Henshin Series toys, is beautifully detailed. The belt looks great even just like this. The mod I made so I could wear the belt is identical to what I did with the Faiz Driver. A nylon strap with a buckle in the middle is just stitched to each side of the belt.

The Kabuto Zecter itself is a red robotic beetle. There are three buttons along one side where the legs should be. Pressing them will make the Zecter produce one of three random effects. It will say either “Here I am” or “Danger”, or make a flying sound effect. To henshin into Kabuto’s Masked Form, slide the Zecter onto the belt, and it will speak “Henshin” while making a sound effect and light pattern. In this mode, pressing the buttons will just make an effect similar to a train rumbling down a track. I’m not sure what it’s supposed to be.

To change to Rider Form, rotate the Zecter’s horn forward a bit, and it will start to pulse, building faster and faster. Pull the horn all the way to the right, and it will say “Cast Off… Change Beetle!” with lights and sound effects. Pulling this lever is very satisfying, and it makes a nice solid “chunk” sound as the cover expands out. Just as in the show, you can initiate Kabuto’s Rider Kick finisher. Press the buttons in order and it will say “1-2-3” while illuminating one light each time. Close the cover and rotate the horn back, then pull it open again and it will say “Rider Kick!” along with the accompanying effects. Again, very satisfying, and accurate to the show. However, that brings me to my one complaint about this belt — it’s missing a major feature. Remember, the whole point of the Riders in this show was the Clock Up ability… which is completely missing from the various toys (with one exception I’ll get to in a second). The pads on the sides of the belt used to initiate it are just pieces of plastic, there for show. Physically, there’s no real way for them to have electronics unless they each had their own batteries, but then maybe the belt should have been designed differently to incorporate it. You can also close the Zecter and rotate the horn back to its starting position (without doing the 1-2-3), and it will say “Put On” to switch back to Masked Form. Press the release buttons and remove the Zecter from the belt to get a henshin cancel effect, a rare case of such an effect being included.

Though primarily a hand-to-hand fighter, Kabuto also had a hand weapon. This took the form of the Kabuto Kunai Gun, which in Masked Form resembles a hand axe with a pistol built in. This form has a firing sound effect, and the barrel lights up. The light up barrel is a really obvious feature I wish had been included on the DX Ride Booker. The size is a bit of a problem, as it’s much smaller than the show, but that’s generally the case with toy weapons. Still, its a little tight getting my big hand around the grip. The Kunai Gun also comes with a holster that attaches to the right Clock Up pad on the belt.

There are two small buttons you can press, then pull the gun’s barrel out to reveal the Kunai mode, making a nice sound effect in the process. Kabuto wielded this knife in a reverse grip while in Rider Form. The toy actually has a motion sensor that will make blade clashing effects as you swing it around. Like the gun, it’s a little tough getting my hand around the grip. but manageable. If you put the kunai back into the rest of the body, it’ll make yet another sound effect.

The final piece I have for Kabuto is his Hyper Zecter. This was actually first seen in the movie “God Speed Love” where it was initially wielded by Kamen Rider Caucasus. In both the movie and TV series, it falls into the hands of Kabuto who uses it to become Hyper Kabuto, and access the time and space manipulating Hyper Clock Up. It attaches to the left side of the belt using its own special replacement for the left Clock Up pad. This attachment point is similar to those used in many other Rider belts, but actually locks with a button release, which is nice. The horn is swung back toward the body of the Hyper Zecter to initiate “Hyper Cast Off… Change Hyper Beetle” along with appropriate effects. Press the large red button to trigger Hyper Clock Up for a whopping 20 seconds. That’s twice what the Faiz Accel gives you! This is also the only Clock Up feature in any of the Kabuto role play toys. While in Hyper Clock Up, you can swing the horn down again to trigger “Maximum Rider Power” to upgrade your kick, or to work in conjunction with the Perfect Zecter weapon.

Overall, the Kabuto henshin series toys are great fun. Very solidly built, detailed, and aside from the lack of Clock Up, accurate to the show. They’re a great set to have for any Kamen Rider fan, and still decently available due to having been released to the Asian market just last year.