Sunday, December 30, 2007

Fansubs and Distributors' Responses to Them

Let me start by apologizing for this blog's lack of activity recently. Between school, illness, and being separated from the internet for sizable chunks of time I have not kept up with it the way I should. Hopefully regular programming will resume in January. It's one of my resolutions for the new year, so we shall see how that goes.

I am taking a break from reviews to talk about something I have been seeing more and more of which is very interesting to me: the response of domestic anime distribution companies to the phenomenon of fansubs.

Fansubs have long been a huge staple of the American anime community. Initially it was the only way to get access to many of these shows, although it also was a much more demanding process then, requiring more specialized technology and having less venues for distribution. With the huge rise of the internet, it is now quite possible to have an episode of anime fansubbed and up for download within a day or two of its airing on Japanese television. This has given an ever increasing American anime audience the ability to gain access to shows in close to real time, which was unheard of when I first got into anime as an adolescent. Even as more and more shows are being brought to the United States, fansubs remain a dominant force of the American anime community, much to the chagrin of American distributors and Japanese companies alike. The problem is that these companies have simply not risen to the challenge they put out for themselves. Fansubs are by far the quickest way to watch new shows, and even more pathetically often times the fansubs are as or more accurate than the DVD translation, sometimes even offering additional benefits--like translation notes--which the American companies fail to consider and include.

Just recently I have seen, while surfing around, a number of streaming video services designed to combat this problem. Anime News Network has streaming episodes of Gurren Lagann, which is an admirably recent show available, and at least the first episode of Kanon, being released on DVD currently. Certain distributors have taken it upon themselves to provide free streaming previews of their releases, notably Funimation with its release of Fruits Basket. However, when I consider these examples, the lack of competition with fansubs is simply absurd. Fruits Basket originally aired in 2001, and is just now being aired online by a US company. Kanon is similarly quite old, originally airing in 2002. The fansubs for these series are long circulated, and I am comfortable in saying that many, perhaps most, of the people who wanted to see these series have already done so, and are not as likely to buy the DVDs. Even though Gurren Lagann was one of the 2007 shows, its availability on ANN comes months after its completion, while fansubs were updated quite regularly mere days after their original airing. Fansubs do take away business from the American companies. People who argue that fansubs are somehow helping these companies I think are missing the picture. Certainly, there are people who got into anime through fansubs and have purchased DVDs. However, generally people will not buy DVDs of a series they did not care for that highly, and many anime fans refuse to purchase DVDs at all in the face of more convenient and completely free fansubs, especially in light of the fact that there is little to no pursuit of punishing said fansubbers or their "customers."

The announcement of the closing of Geneon USA proved to us, or at least me, that their is a problem in the American anime scene which must be remedied if the market is to remain profitable long term, aside from the blockbuster hits that are surefire successes in America. To put it simply, I think more niche titles will cease to be licensed in the US if something is not done. The steps taken by ANN and Funimation are certainly steps in the right direction, but I feel they are far too meager. In order for American companies to beat fansubbing, they need to be able to provide a service which is reasonably priced and at least close to as fast as fansubbing. Additionally, they need to take pointers from popular fansub communities and provide things like translation notes, and make sure that their translations are both timely and accurate. Although the anime crowd in America is made up mostly of younger people with little or no income, I believe that many anime fans are willing to pay for anime. The problem is the uncertainty that comes with paying 20-25$ for a single DVD of questionable quality. I personally have purchased a fair number of DVDs, as much as my unstable and meager income would allow, and have even purchased DVDs of series I knew nothing about. This has resulted in some very good surprises along with some very bad ones. I cover-bought Kino's Journey, and was treated to one of the finest anime experiences of my life. Similarly I bought the first few Eureka seveN DVDs before having ever heard of or seen the series, and though I watched most of the series fansubbed, was very glad of having purchased those DVDs, and I continue to purchase the DVDs as my income allows. However, for many people, there is no point in owning a series you have already seen. I appreciate the extras included, assuming there are any(which seems to be rarer and rarer these days), and simply enjoy having a physical item that offers better video and audio quality, but many people do not see the point in it. But if there existed a service through which, with a small monthly or episode-ly fee, new episodes of anime could be made available for streaming or preferrably download in subtitled format, I think that many more people would be willing to pay for their anime. In addition, by providing a legal alternative, the illegal activities of the fansubbing communities could be prosecuted much more thoroughly and legitimately, converting even more people to paying for their anime. Certainly, there would still be people who resisted having to pay for their anime, just as there are people who refuse to pay for American cable and instead download it, but their numbers would be much smaller and the American companies would have I think a great deal more business.

As a side note to this: I question the necessity of the dubbing of anime--and I suppose by extension of any foreign films or television shows. A great portion of the American anime community is simply not really interested in dubbed anime, and any vast number of forum wars about subs vs. dubs can attest to this. Furthermore, even assuming they enjoy watching dubbed anime, many people would not be that affected were dubbing to be ceased. Of course, not having to hire dubbing actors and rerecord the entire show would save companies a great deal of time and money, and greatly increase their ability to bring shows to America in a timely fashion. I watched the first three episodes of Fruits Basket on Funimation's site in dubbed format--which was all that was available--and then re-watched those same episodes in the original. Simply put, there is no contest between the two. As a whole, I think the original cast does a better job than the dubbing teams. Though this is not necessarily the case, nor has it always been true, generally I think it can be safely said that subs are indeed better than dubs, primarily due to a greater pool of talent to draw from and a greater primacy within the society placed on voice-acting because of anime's popularity in its native land. The American anime community seems to generally wish to view anime in a form as close to the original as possible, and dubbing and exceedingly loose translation is simply not in line with that thinking.

I have seen a number of forum or blog posts similar to this, often titled something like: "A letter to the anime industry." Ignoring for now the fact that anime fans seem very predisposed to talking about "the anime industry" for some reason, I am not so foolish as to think that somehow this post will serve as a guide to companies that could care less what I think. Instead, through this I have been able to comment on something which I find interesting and often ridiculous, and hopefully spark some sort of thought in whoever may read this.

Good-bye, and good night,


Saturday, October 27, 2007

Innocent Venus

Innocent Venus is a series I heard about a while back and I was pretty excited by the first episode. I was not expecting anything groundbreaking, but I was impressed by the visual panache and overall feel of the show. As it turns out, it is one of those series that starts off strong, and then loses its drive, only to pick it back up again in the final stretch. The problem is, by the time it starts to pick up the broken pieces of itself, it is a little too late to salvage the overall product. As rare as it is for me to say this, I think this series would have been very well served to be even one episode longer, as the end feels like a mad dash to right the wrongs of the middle of the series.


Story: 3

Let us face it: there is nothing groundbreaking about the story in Innocent Venus at all, nor is the writing particularly strong. In falling to so many cliches and failing to really get beyond them, the story of Innocent Venus really drags the rest of the series down. The plot twist of the series, which could have been a very high point—and still, to some extent, manages to be—is so forcefully pushed onto the audience it loses a lot of its weight. Also, though perhaps it seems odd to mention the opening and ending animations here, they actually hint heavily at the plot twist, and raise suspicion artificially in the early stages of the show. Had it not been for the opener and closer, I would not have been waiting for the plot twist from the earliest moments of the series, and, man, would it have been a lot more impressive. I normally ignore those animations for the purposes of a review, but in such a case when they actually negatively affect the series I felt it should be mentioned. Also, the sub-plots, particularly the ones that are the focus of much of the middle portion of the series, are simply abominable, and at times make the series nigh unwatchable. I can appreciate their attempt to diversify the story, but in the execution it fell off horribly.

Character: 6

In general, the characters in Innocent Venus can be described in one word: bland. At least, pretty much every character aside from Sana, Jin, and Jo fit this description. Mostly the cast is made up of flat characters whose entire character is established within a few moments of them being on screen, and typically stick close to basic archetypes, deviating ever so slightly from time to time. However, the relationship between Sana, Jin, and Jo, offers an interesting dynamic which is really one of the major strong points of the show. However, Jo is a weak link in this chain, his reticence a great impediment to any development they might have given him, and even Jin suffers from some drastic changes that really make him a completely different character. Sana is certainly a strong point, her girlish nature amusingly and dramatically at odds with the events occurring all around her. When the three's relationship is at center stage, the show generally flourishes, but when it takes a side seat to the secondary characters and various sub-plots, it is not a pretty sight to behold. And, while the characters design is not completely without merit, the secondary characters really get shafted in this department.

Animation: 6

Right in the first episode Innocent Venus impresses with its animation. The art itself looks great, and is very expressive. The character designs are interesting without being absurd, and everything moves about smoothly and naturally. Though it begins on a very high note, it begins to taper off noticeably rather quickly, and only rises to its former greatness in short spikes until the very end. Early on the action sequences will take you by storm, but in the middle of the series they serve merely as vehicles from one weak plot point to another, and all sense of drama and impact are lost to extensive use of shortcuts and a great deal of action taking place off screen. The 3d models used for the mechs look simple and out of place amidst the sharp characters and the deep landscapes, looking more like plastic models than dangerous weapons. In short, when the series shines, it's an intense, piercing experience, but more often than not it loses that and comes off weakly. During the majority of the middle portion of the series, in particular, production values fall to great depths, and at times it seems as if there is no salvaging it—and, indeed, this section does drag the entire series down a great deal, making what could have been a very good series into one that is merely okay. Especially bad are the naval battles, which run the gamut from unwatchable to simply bad, and are full of the sort of pseudo-military jargon I think everyone has come to expect from action series. Unfortunately, these battles have none of the other battles' flair or style, and are stale even compared the most perfunctory ground battle.

Sound: 6

Now, I will be the first to admit that soundtracks can be too overbearing, and dominate a scene to the extent that you sometimes wonder why they bothered with the animation. Innocent Venus generally takes it to the other extreme. Most of the music in this series is so subdued as to be completely unnoticeable, occasionally flaring up into existence to nudge a scene in the right direction. Thus, the soundtrack is not bad, per se, and certainly has its place in the series, but a little more weight would have been a good thing. At times this is not the case, primarily in one of two instances: piano pieces, which hold a fairly important place in the story, and during action sequences, during both of which the soundtrack really shines. One thing that can be said for the soundtrack throughout most of the series—certain sections in the middle the most notable exception—is that it is timed very well to what is happening on screen, and never leaves a sour taste in your mouth. However, even this trait suffers in the middle portion, unfortunately, the only thing not noticeably taking a hit being the voice-acting. On that note, the voice-acting is almost universally decent, but—aside from a few instances and Sana's seiyuu Nazuka Kaori—never impressive in any sense. However, because the seiyuu for Sana does such a good job in expressing her character and providing most of the fun in the series, and because she is present throughout much of the show, the voice-acting as a whole remains a modest strong point of the show.


Overall, Innocent Venus was an enjoyable ride, but it drags so much in the middle portion, and loses everything that made it exciting in the beginning. Though efforts are made to pick up the pieces in the ending stretch, ultimately they fail to make up for the miserable pacing and drop in production values that haunt the majority of the central third of the show. With a supremely forgettable soundtrack and uninspired voice-acting from all but one of the cast, nothing in Innocent Venus manages to stand strong throughout the series. The series loses it focus a great deal, and cannot manage to regain its lost concentration until it is too late. When events are focused around Sana, Jin, and Jo, and the relationship among them which is quite well developed, the series thrives, and is a genuine pleasure to watch. However, take this away and a cold, unpleasant taste is left in the audience's mouths.

The Ten Second Version

Story: 3 – Full of cliches expressed through lackluster writing, the story is propelled forcefully by the series' stronger traits.

Character: 6 – The relationship between Sana, Jin, and Jo is a remarkably strong point in the show, but the majority of the other characters are flat and dull

Animation: 6 – Early on and later on the animation is extremely well-handled, but during the middle portions it all suffers greatly. Static art is attractive, although many of the designs, both for characters and machines, could have used a lot more work. The 3d animation in the series is also poorly integrated.

Sound: 6 – The music is mostly subdued, barely managing to push scenes in the right direction, although the piano pieces are very good. Some of the tracks are put to good use, however, and the dramatic timing is often quite good. As for voice actors, Nazuka Kaori shines as young Shana, and there are no glaringly bad ones, but overall the performances are lackluster.

Overall: 5.5

Seems a little out of tune...

Monday, October 22, 2007

Beck- Mongolian Chop Squad

Series about young boys searching for themselves and their place in life are not rare by any stretch of the imagination, but ones that really grasp the viewer and provide something more than a simple coming of age story are astoundingly rare. Beck takes the coming of age story and introduces two characteristics which help to distinguish it greatly from other series of its kind: a deep immersion in the world of underground rock, and a deep involvement with its subject matter, which lends emotional weight and a sense of honesty to a tired premise.

Koyuki, the main character, is unremarkable at first glance--a currently unskilled boy who shows a lot of promise(unheard of!)--but the major difference is that Koyuki quickly establishes himself as a real person. A kind, determined, hard-working student, Koyuki often finds himself discouraged by his current situation, and is prone to melancholy and bouts of hopeless resignation. As we watch, we see firsthand the profound impact that the introduction of a new form of music, along with Koyuki's growing love of it and rapid immersion in it, has on the young protagonist, deeply rooted in his newfound friendships and initially rooted in a superficial desire to impress and spend time with the girl he fancies. This assessment is true of most of the cast, all of them interacting together in something which often remarkably resembles real life, and at others completely abandons realism but still remains fundamentally grounded in the series' profound sense of humanity.

The characters in Beck's main cast all retain an honest, human feel to them. This is juxtaposed against the fantastical nature of most of the series' supporting cast, and solidifies the sense of close-knit family which develops within the band and the people close to them. This down to earth feel persists even as the characters gain wider and wider success, making what might have been a completely unbelievable and unsympathetic story decidedly the opposite. Bassist Taira is undoubtedly the weakest of these main characters, his stand-offish demeanor and mysterious history preventing him from capturing sympathy like the rest of the main cast.

The animation in Beck is decidedly high quality, with only a few minor complaints to raise. Foremost among these are the often jarring uses of three dimensional models, particularly during some of the performance scenes. These performance scenes represent both the best and worst of the animation in Beck, usually incredible but occasionally clunky and amateur. It is good to note, however, that all of the major performances are almost universally on the better end, leaving only the minor scenes to suffer this fate. Characters' visual design shares the nature of the characters themselves, the main cast simple and real, and the supporting cast fantastic, from black record executives who encapsulate a good percentage of relevant stereotypes to shop assistants resembling Swedish guitar virtuosos. At times this difference is striking, at other times simply odd, but undeniably the fantastic designs of the supporting cast make the main characters seem even more human by comparison.

Beck's soundtrack represents both the strongest and weakest point of the series. Because of the nature of the story in Beck, a great deal rides on the audience's impression of the soundtrack, particularly the tracks performed by the bands within the series. Unfortunately, this is a dangerous position, as disliking the music gives much of the series a false feel, in part nullifying the humanity of the story and the interactions within it. The soundtrack does, however, perform its task admirably throughout the series, and I personally enjoyed the insert songs played by the various bands from the series a great deal. But while the series stands on its strong points well even should you dislike the insert songs, it becomes nearly impossible to view the series the same way, particularly towards the conclusion, if you find the music to not be your thing.

The voice-acting in Beck, while not spectacular and without featuring any performances which particularly stand out, is universally solid, and is bolstered by good writing and expressive animation, thus making the overall experience on the whole remarkably satisfying. It is worth lauding here that the singing voices and speaking voices of the characters who have both are very well cast, and match up seamlessly. Also noteworthy is the handling of English in the series, especially the characters who are supposed to natively speak it. These characters almost actually do sound as if they speak English naturally—an astoundingly unique trait in animes featuring English(watch Negima if you want a good example)--and, although the writing of the English lines is decidedly sub-par compared to the series as a whole, they perform their parts well, in fact making the writing seem not so bad at times. Even if you ignore the fact that English is a second—conceivably third—language for the actors and writers, the scripting and performances are pretty good. If you take these into consideration, they are simply astounding.

The core plot--both the growth of Koyuki and Beck, and the relationship between Koyuki and Maho--stands as Beck's greatest achievement, a remarkable journey through the life of several remarkably real people. Many of the side-stories, however, leave a great deal to be desired. Sub-plots are all well and good, but Beck's sub-plots leave one anxiously awaiting the series' return to its core, and in many cases simply go on for too long. Though generally interesting and still rather well-written, they lack the emotional weight and honesty that propels the core of the story forward, and in some cases cheapen that quality. Especially guilty of this is the story involving Ryuusuke's guitar, which, especially during the times when it takes center stages, drags the series down right when it should have otherwise been strongest.

Ultimately, Beck rises from the mass of coming of age series by providing solid writing and a uniquely honest take on the whole notion of growing up. It suffers from occasional animation hiccups--particularly with the use of three dimensional models in some of the minor performance sequences—and a heavy reliance on the audience to enjoy the soundtrack, particularly the songs played by Beck, but manages to minimize these weaknesses while bolstering its strong points. The core plot and interactions between characters is highly laudable, but some of the side-stories simply do not compare in quality, and should have been either scrapped, strengthened, or shortened.

Maho, won't you sing for me?