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.

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?


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.

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.


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?

Gundam Wing

March 26, 2009

Since it’s happened to come up several times lately in conversation in my life, I decided to rewatch Gundam Wing again. I haven’t watched it through in years. Probably not since I started heavily getting into the other Gundams. It’s in vogue now to bag on Wing, but how does it really hold up once you’ve seen the Gundam saga in its entirety?

Short answer: Not great, but it’s not the worst

Let’s start with what I do like about the show. First is the animation. It was very high quality for 1995. Lots of detail, very smooth. They made heavy use of the backlit effect, even when it was a trivial thing. Like, a small corner of a display screen in a cockpit would by in a shot, and they would go through the trouble of backlighting it. That is some dedication. The opening sequences are also really slick. What’s up with the “Rhythm Emotion” OP though? It was only in the last 10 episodes, and it was like… not quite finished until the last few. At first several of the gorgeous shots of the Gundams were replaced with lower quality or stock animation.

The music is also pretty good. Two Mix, of course is awesome. “Just Communication”, “Rhythm Emotion”, “White Reflection”, all good stuff. The BGM is also very memorable. I like “The Wings of a Boy Who Killed Adolescence”, “When the Dragon Swims, Everything Ends” and “The Curtain of the Next Chapter Rises Now”. Emo names not withstanding. I never really got into the character songs for this show though. They kinda… suck.

Now, onto what’s not so good. Characters. The G-Boys are about as deep as puddles. The only ones with personalities are Duo, Quatre and Zechs. Quatre’s personality is simply “annoying” (though he was kinda fun when he was batshit crazy), and Zechs’ was ripped off of Char. So, that leaves Duo who, while likable, still has nearly zero actual development. Then there’s… ugh… Relena Plotdevice… er… Darlian… er… Peacecraft… Obnoxiousbitch… whatever. I can’t say much that hasn’t already been said. I’ll just put it this way: I spent 49 episodes hoping the rhino would just sit on her. It never delivered. Fuck you, rhino. Fuck you.

It was only the secondary characters who were really interesting and/or likable. Lady Une, Noin, Dorothy (who would be hot if not for those two badgers on her face). Howard is awesome. We should all be that cool when we’re old to rock shades and a Hawaiian shirt. Even some of the secondary cast falls flat, though. Like, what were they trying to do with Treize? Are we supposed to love him? Hate him? I have no fucking idea. Neither do the other characters. Wu Fei kills him, then cries about it, then in EW he’s like “Treize is still alive, I need to rekill him or something”. I’m with you, Wu Fei. I don’t know what’s going on either.

Speaking of confused, how about the plot. Man, stuff just makes no sense. Even the very premise of the show has issues. If OZ a) Has been sitting on the Tallgeese all this time and b) knows what Gundanium is, then why can’t they make Gundams? What is so different about them? Then there’s the nonsensical decisions the characters make. Here’s a brilliant tactical maneuver. You need to get your asses into space to fight OZ. The only guy whose Gundam can actually operate in space dumps it in the goddamn ocean instead of taking it along. Why? Because if the G-Boys posed a threat in space, the whole next story arc can’t happen. Bullshit. That also brings me to my number one annoyance with Wing: not enough Gundams. The entire middle third of the show has almost no Gundams. Wing and Heavyarms are ditched on Earth, Sandrock is blown up, and Deathscythe and Shenlong are being rebuilt. So, we get little bits of Mercurius and Vayeate, Zechs doing a bit with the Tallgeese… it’s all just frustrating. I’m not tuning in for the deep, intricate character development obviously. I want to see some goddamn Gundams!

Speaking of forcing the plot, that’s Relena’s entire job. Every time the writers didn’t know how to move forward, they just pull out Relena to create the proper motivation. Relena Plotdevice. And as a coup de gras, what the holy hell happens to Zechs at the end? From like nowhere, he decides Earth = evil, peace = for sissies, let’s blow shit up. This was obviously a take on Char becoming the antagonist in CCA, but with Char it made sense. Char was moving forward the agenda of everyone moving to space that he was always a follower of. Zechs just randomly decides to kill everyone on Earth. Then goes back on it because… Heero cut Epyon’s arm off? Huh? I have no clue.

Endless Waltz has most of the same issues as the TV series. Makes no sense. Plot is forced. Not enough Gundams. The Gundams don’t even show up until the third episode. It’s not called “Mobile Suit Leo”, it’s “Gundam”. Where are the god damn Gundams?!. And here again, a character does something completely nonsensical just to make the plot work. What was Wu Fei’s problem? If he hadn’t been acting like a d-bag, they could have stopped the whole thing before it started. Argh.

EW doesn’t even do much to explain anything. Yeah, we know a little bit more of the background, but still not enough. Who trained Trowa? For that matter, how did Duo learn to pilot a Gundam? Was he the original pilot, or did he just steal it like Trowa did? Doesn’t Wu Fei’s fiance bear more than a passing mention? What’s the deal with the Gundam engineers? I know there’s a lot of extra material like manga that explains this stuff, but that’s bullshit. I shouldn’t need to read extra manga just to understand the backstory of the main characters. The main characters. It’s not like this stuff is getting into Noin’s past or something. The original Gundam has a lot of supplemental material that expands on its setting, but you don’t need it just to understand the show.

So, in the end, do I hate it? Well, it is entertaining, I can give it that much. In the overall spectrum of Gundam shows, I’d say ZZ is worst, followed by Seed Destiny, then maybe Wing. 0083 and V are down there around Wing too, but Wing is definitely better than ZZ and Seed Destiny. I guess I have it to thank for getting me into Gundam in the first place, but now I have much better ways to get my Gundam fix.

Somewhere in the late 90’s, Final Fantasy V was translated to English and a ROM patch was released to the Internet, allowing English speakers a chance to play the game for the first time. In the wake of this, other unreleased Japanese RPGs were translated and patched. One which caught my attention was Sailormoon: Another Story. The show was at the peak of its popularity on Toonami, and I was heavily getting into anime and Japanese culture through (VHS!) fansubs of it. I downloaded ZSNES, the ROM, and the patch, and played through it enthusiastically.

Recently, I bought a few Super Famicom carts along with a simple cart adapter to let them fit in my SNES. Of course, one I particularly sought out was Another Story. I hadn’t initially intended to play through it, as I’ve already beaten the translated version a few times, and I didn’t think I wanted to sit through a whole RPG in Japanese. After turning it on for a few minutes though, I decided the level of Japanese would actually be manageable and decided to give it a go. With kanji and translation dictionaries at my side, I didn’t have much trouble. Good practice, actually. Also, as I played through it I was referencing a FAQ that summed up most of the dialogue in the walkthrough, based on the translated ROM. There were a lot of wild translation errors that I can see now. For example, during Venus’s segment in chapter 2, the Japanese dialogue uses the term “jibun jishin” which means one’s self. Jishin can also mean earthquake, so the translated ROM apparently starts talking about earthquakes within Venus’s self or something like that.

As for the game itself, it’s a classic Super Famicom style RPG. You wander around exploring your environment and talking to people. In some areas, you’ll be pulled into random turn-based battles where your party squares off against some monsters pulled from the anime’s Monster of the Day ranks. The story is set after the 3rd manga story arc, or the Sailormoon S anime, and is an amalgamation of the two continuities with original material thrown in. All 10 inner and outer Sailor Senshi are playable (but not Tuxedo Kamen), and have access to all their special attacks from both the anime and manga. As with the show, Senshi are able to combine their attacks for new or more powerful effects. You also have access to a full party combo attack depending on the formation you’re in, and if you’re using the 5 Inner Senshi, you can use their powerful Sailor Planet Attack. One oddity of the battle system is that EP for using your special attacks caps at 12 for each character, but refills after every battle. This actually has the effect of encouraging you to bust out powerful attacks, which really speeds up leveling up. However, it does reduce random encounters to simply tapping the A button to repeat the same attacks you’ve been using to defeat the enemy party in 1-2 turns, once you’ve figured out how to do that in the current area. Another criticism of the combat is that the enemies, even most of the bosses, only pull from a very small pool of special attacks which get old quick. With all the unique and amusing monsters from the anime that make an appearance, it would have been nice if they all used their own signature powers.

The gameplay is very dialogue-heavy. You will typically go through long story sequences, followed by being cut loose on an area with random battles where you train up to fight a boss. Then, another story scene and repeat. The story centers around an evil being attempting to alter destiny, which leads to fan-pleasing showdowns against the series’ previous villains like Queen Beryl, the Black Moon Clan and the Death Busters. You also do some time traveling to visit the Silver Millennium and the Earth Kingdom of their previous lives, and the events leading up to their destruction. If you don’t like Sailormoon and aren’t into the story though, you will be very, very bored.

Character customization is minimal. You can equip each Senshi with up to 3 accessory items which affect their stats, though each Senshi has two accessories of her own gemstone hidden in the game which are vastly superior to any of the regular items, so there’s no reason not to use them. The extent of strategy with the characters is to just look at which stat is their highest after getting their gemstone accessories, then fill the third slot with a regular item that complements it. For example, you would put an attack enhancing Bracelet in Mars’ third slot, and put her toward the front of the formation to capitalize on her high damage attacks. Mercury, you would put either a Tiara (defense) or Anklet (speed) and put her in the back where she’ll be near impossible to kill and good for doing healing.

Difficulty of the game seems to be wildly debated depending on who you talk to. Some find it extremely easy, others extremely difficult. I tend to fall in the prior camp. I think some people get so wrapped up in the story, that when the game returns control, they forget they’re playing an RPG. As long as you remember to put some equipment on new characters as you come into control of them, explore the areas thoroughly so you don’t miss those valuable gemstone accessories, and make sure to not let characters fall behind in level, you’ll be fine. There is a point where you gain free roam of the world with an airship and have to go to the North Pole, only to find the enemy parties there are substantially tougher than previously. That can be a bit rough, especially since this is where you first gain the ability to choose your own party out of the full group and there are several characters in need of catching up. Use your head, don’t forget to make good use of your formations, and carry plenty of status healing items. This is also where you learn one really annoying thing about the game—Chibi-Moon is mostly useless, and nothing you do will make her anything but a wasted slot in your party whenever you’re forced to take her along. So, just like in the anime, pretty much. Chibi-Moon is actually unique in that she has three gemstone accessories, but all they wind up doing is giving her good defense and the highest speed in the game, easily hitting 999 on speed. Even then, she’s only really useful for doing a combo healing technique with Mercury.

Overall, I like this game despite its flaws. But, I really like Sailormoon, and can sink myself into its very fanservice oriented story. If you’re a Sailormoon fan, this is a game you shouldn’t pass up. For the rest of the world, I’d say pass. There just isn’t really enough RPG meat in there to sink your teeth into if the story doesn’t do anything for you. The translated ROM is easy to find, and if you’re up for a bit of a Japanese workout, I got my cart CIB for about $30 or $40 I think.

Mikimoto Haruhiko

April 17, 2008

I have been a big fan of Mikimoto Haruhiko since early in my anime watching career. As if his designs didn’t shine enough in animation, he also does beautiful watercolor and pencil drawings of his characters. The few I’ve been able to find scans of online have always been favorite desktop backgrounds of mine. I have always wanted a nice collection of his work, so digging into eBay I found exactly what I was looking for.

Mikimoto Haruhiko Illustrations: Toki no Shiori is a collection of Mikimoto-sensei’s illustrations released in 1984. It covers his work on the original Macross TV series, Macross: Ai, Oboete Imasu ka?, and Orguss. Also mixed in are a number of original (non-anime related) pieces.

The first section of the book is an assortment of illustrations from the various sources all mixed together. Mikimoto seems to love his leading ladies, so most of the book is Minmay, Misa, Mimsy and Muum (lots of M’s in those names…). There are some that include Hikaru or Kei as well though. There are several really gorgeous original pieces in this section as well.

A section dedicated to Macross comes next. Minmay and Misa each get a couple of really nice spreads, and even Hikaru gets his own two pages. There’s a really nice group shot of the main cast (except where’s Max and Miria?), followed by playing cards arranged on the table with Macross characters on them. Overall a very nice section.

Orguss’s section follows, but is only 4 pages long. There’s some really nice stuff here, I just wish this section was longer. Mimsy steals the show here, but there’s a good portrait of Athena as well.

We’re given a section of sketches next. It’s pretty neat to see some of his rough, quicker sketches and comps I’ve never been able to sketch with paint, so this is a skill I envy. The sketchbook leads right into a cool setion of anime art. This is mostly storyboards and some anime cell sketches compared to their finished cell. Very interesting to see. The book closes out with an interview with the man himself.

For anyone interested in the art of anime, this book is certainly worth owning. I would have paid twice what I did on eBay for it. If you’re a fan of Macross, you only have all the more reason. There’s another book of Mikimoto’s illustrations which also covers Macross II, Gundam 0080 and Top wo Nerae. I’d like to get ahold of that, as well as something which would cover his work on Macross 7.

Selected scans:

Misa, looking very 80’s stylish
A nice one of Minmay’s face
Good full body drawing of Mimsy
One of the original pieces from the book, very nice

I apologize about the distortion in the scans, but as you can imagine I did not want to split the book’s spine trying to scan it.