Answerman Brighter Days
by Justin Sevakis, Aug 15th 2014
This has to be one of the worst, most depressing news weeks of the year. So rather than continuing to fixate on all the misery in the world, let's tackle some questions, shall we?
I have recently started to care about the audio of the anime I buy, and wish to know why the English/Japanese audio differentiates from one another and why there is no consistency in animation publishers' audio descriptions. For example, A Certain Scientific Railgun Season 1 has 5.1 dolby surround sound for english and stereo audio for japanese, while season 2 only has stereo for both. My Gundam Unicorn movies have both 5.1 surround sound in english and japanese. Funimation uses Dolby TrueHD 5.1, but Sentai uses DTS-HD Master Audio for most blu-rays. Aniplex uses Dolby Digital 2.0 for my Fate/Zero Limited Edition blu-ray. The japanese is listed as Linear PCM Stereo. I'm very confused as to why all of the differences, and if I got my money's worth.
Audio is important, and many fans are becoming more and more concerned with making sure that they're getting the best quality audio possible when they fork over the money for a shiny disc of their favorite show. But with so many different formats, which one is best? Which ones should you be asking for? Sometimes the difference is negligible or non-existant, other times it makes a huge difference.
Let's start with the easy one: why some shows have 5.1 mixes for the dub, but not for the original Japanese. I've answered previously on this column that most TV anime doesn't bother with anything more than a stereo (2.0) mix because the Japanese broadcast standard doesn't really support 5.1 audio, and given how big home theater systems aren't as common in Japan for a number of reasons, they generally don't bother remixing for 5.1 when it comes time to release the discs on home video. However, when making the dub, an American publisher might think 5.1 is worth the extra work. If they're already set up to do 5.1, the audio has to be remixed anyway, so it is an opportunity to have a nice added feature for dub fans.
5.1 mixes require special equipment, take a lot more time, and are harder to check for errors (and requires a lot more office space to do so), so it's often not practical to do 5.1 mixes for everything. They can also cost more money. The decision to make a 5.1 mix is made on a show-by-show basis, based on whether the Japanese is 5.1 (usually just movies and some high-end OAVs) and how much the show is predicted to sell.
As for what format in which they're stored on a disc, these days you generally see 4 different kinds of audio tracks:
- Linear PCM (Completely uncompressed, basically just a WAV file. Takes up a lot of space, especially in 5.1.)
- Dolby Digital (AC3) (Lower quality, like an MP3, but takes up a lot less space. Supported by DVD and Blu-ray.)
- Dolby TrueHD (Blu-ray only. The full quality of the WAV file, but compressed to a more manageable size. Still much bigger than AC3, however.)
- DTS Master Audio (Blu-ray only. For the end user, pretty much identical to Dolby TrueHD.)
When you make a DVD or Blu-ray, you are tasked with squeezing a lot of data onto a finite amount of space, so compression can be very important. Wasting too much bandwidth on audio means you might have to sacrifice video quality. The above compression formats are essential ways to get the most quality out of an audio track without having an unwieldy amount of data to contend with.
Audio quality obsessives swear that Dolby Digital AC3 audio has a lot of distortion and they can DEFINITELY tell a difference. I am skeptical. I've definitely heard bad AC3 encodes that definitely affected audio quality, particularly in very early DVDs, but there has never been a double-blind study that shows even audio experts can tell a difference at higher bitrates (and quite a few proving that nobody can tell at all). At any event, the presence of "lossless" audio (in either LPCM, DTS-MA or Dolby TrueHD) has become an important marketing bullet point for Blu-ray discs, so whether people can REALLY tell the difference or it's all a placebo effect, who am I to argue.
Honestly, while 5.1 audio tracks are nice, I don't think they're a make-or-break thing for most people. And while people complain endlessly about lossy AC3 audio making it onto Blu-ray, I don't make a big deal about it in my own living room. You can proceed to the comment section, where a small army of people will breathlessly post that I'm wrong about this, but people believe whatever they want.
Several times you've mentioned studios relying on Digital Betacam ("Digibeta") or HDCam masters as sources for video releases of shows, but what about the film masters from which the Digibeta was made in the first place? What happens to those, and are they generally available in case the Digibeta copy is missing or damaged?
Film materials for older anime are virtually never available to American publishers. If the Japanese rights holders don't have access to a new, spotless transfer for a show, the publishers are pretty much out of luck. There are a handful of cases where Americans have gotten access to film materials, but these cases are very rare and usually involve a lot of money. (Funimation with Dragon Ball Z, for example.)
The sad fact is that back in the 80s, nobody was really thinking too much about preserving higher quality versions of anime made for TV and home video. Sometimes the original film elements were properly archived, sometimes not. Sometimes the production company that made the show got bought out or went bankrupt, and so the film elements were scattered to the wind. In a few cases they were damaged.
It's impossible to tell what shows are genuinely lost forever in film form. American companies have long been told a specific classic show they're after has no good elements, or that the film has been lost, and then a brand new HD version magically shows up on Japanese store shelves a year later. I've heard gossip that "Show X had its masters lost in a fire," so many times, only to later be completely proven wrong, that I've stopped believing it. What, are Japan's anime film vaults just constantly burning to the ground?
Are the American publishers being lied to? Probably sometimes. "Those elements don't exist" is a nice and polite way of shutting down a proposal from a zealous and possibly annoying American, and licensors do it all the time. But sometimes licensors genuinely don't know what exists, or what might be lurking in the vault somewhere. These are big companies, and it's pretty common for things to fall through the cracks. Frankly, I don't blame them for not wanting to trust their precious and completely irreplaceable film elements to
dirty Americans FedEx and international customs.
There are a number of shows that I'm sure film elements are completely lost for. You can tell because Japan keeps re-releasing ratty old analog masters of them, even on Blu-ray. But every once in a while, we get a surprise. And you always have to be ready to accept that your assumption of what was available was wrong.
I remember a decade or two ago that OVAs were being dubbed and released in English. In recent years, I have noticed a decline of OVAs being released stateside. In light of the Senran Kagura controversy, I have noticed that there haven't been any Fairy Tail or Attack on Titan OVAs released or announced as well as other anime series that has OVAs. Are distribution companies only obtaining rights for broadcast and DVD/BD, are most unaware of the series' OVAs, or do they think OVAs will not profit well?
The OVA (or OAV) was once THE dominant format that otaku anime got released in -- direct to video. Today, the OVA is a shadow of its former self. The media landscape has changed so much over the years that the distinction is no longer really a relevant one.
People tend to romanticize the OVA because its coming heralded a new era in anime, one that wasn't constrained by the narrow opportunities of the TV market (which, at the time, was mostly there to sell toys) or the theatrical market. When the format first launched in the mid- to late-80s, the sudden market for home video content meant that a lot of young animators got their first stabs at making something without adult supervision (which ended in disaster quite often, but sometimes ended in some real gonzo masterpieces).
But the fact of the matter is, the term "OVA" (Original Video Animation) was just a marketing term to describe something that just went direct-to-video. That's all. There were quite a few great OAV series, but lots of OAVs were TV series or movie projects that sputtered out, and going direct-to-video was just a way for producers to dump out what they had, to try and make some of their money back. The OVA market declined mostly due to the content medium of choice shifting over to the late-night TV market. We're still getting the series that we otherwise would have, they're just longer than they would've been before, and any significant gore and nudity is censored for its initial broadcast.
The term "OVA" was pretty questionable anyway. Many, many OVAs were shown theatrically, albeit briefly. A good number of them have been shown on television in some way, shape or form. So the idea of an anime being released first to video is a pretty meaningless distinction. The only thing you really can't do with a heavy censored late-night TV series that you CAN do with an OVA is outright porn.
So, in 2014, why would someone still make a non-porn OVA? Occasionally you get an interesting "indie" work that gets released this way, but when the big series producers make an OVA these days it's mostly for promotional purposes. These shows are a meant to be more obscure, because you need to buy (or rent) something in order to see it. That means that they are mostly made to be a premium item for Japanese super-fans of a given franchise. It's an extra cookie for only those fans nuts enough to buy that extra special episode. And since the creators can't count on everyone seeing it, it's usually not all that important to the story. They're filler, more often than not.
To get back to your question, since OVAs are produced largely as a separate marketing event for a given franchise, they are usually a separate license for international publishers. However, what do those publishers do when there's just one episode? How do you justify the expense of a separate license fee for what's essentially a glorified DVD extra, one that is mostly filler and doesn't contribute anything to the main story? Sometimes the licensor doesn't even want to make it available outside of Japan. After all, the program is an important premium item for Japanese fans, and they risk cheapening it by letting an American company throw it on one of their already low-priced discs for free.
So without some way to package these OAVs into a compelling multi-episode volume, there's really not a good way to package and sell them to the US market right now. Perhaps that'll change in the future, but in the mean time I don't think anybody in the US would be too excited to buy a Blu-ray with a single episode 25-minute OAV on it.
There are still a few OAVs being produced that don't fit this mold, particularly for concepts that only have a very very tiny group of hardcore fans. But largely the medium's time as a prominent means of delivering the most relevant shows is in the past.
Digital Manga Inc. recently omitted a chapter from the hentai, Coffin of Cerebrum. The reason of the removal was the violence against children and wanted to abide by the laws. Another title that got the same treatment was Hisasi's Cute Devil Girlfriend due to the chapter featuring children engaging in sexual intercourse. I was sure that manga/hentai was protected by the first amendment as they are also not "real" children. (The imprint was for adults first of all.) Then we have Fakku coming in as a manga publisher and stated on Reddit that they are going to publish lolicon as lolicon is not illegal. Is lolicon legal to license and publish even if its just one chapter? Did Digital Manga make the right decision to delete those chapters?
As is usually the case with things like this, the answer is "it depends." The law is very seldom a completely black and white matter, and what constitutes "obscenity" is one of those very nebulous things that is subject to different standards depending on circumstances.
I am not a lawyer, but the question of obscenity has come up a number of times in my career. Actually, scratch that: it really only came up when I was working at Central Park Media, where we were regularly releasing some pretty rank hentai product. When we licensed the now-legendary Night Shift Nurses, we had a lot of meetings as to what we should do with it. For those who don't know, it's got poop in it. Lots of poop. I honestly think it was more of an attempt at shock humor than titilation, but frankly if people really did find that exciting, I don't want to know.
Anyway, after consulting with our in-house lawyer, we decided that releasing it uncut was too risky. While, on a federal level, porn that shocks and grosses people out but ultimately harms no one can probably be safely categorized as protected speech, there are local anti-obscenity laws here and there that can still prohibit their ownership and sale. Some of those laws can hold the publisher of those works responsible for violating those community standards, even if they aren't in the area or state where the "crime" took place. All it takes is one overzealous prosecutor and police detective, and suddenly your tiny company is in a hot mess of legal trouble. After all, fighting against porn might not make good law, but in conservative communities, it sure makes for popular political theater.
Whether you'd win or lose the resulting legal proceedings is almost besides the point. Just fighting them off would be so expensive and time consuming that it would easily bankrupt a smaller publisher. (Publishing porn online is seen as much safer, as the world seems to generally accept that the internet is one gigantic cesspool of horrifying pornography anyway.) So, first amendment or not, legally sound or not, the risks of being prosecuted are just too high to make publishing questionable material a sound business decision in many cases.
But to finish telling the story... We released Night Shift Nurses with all of the poop scenes cut out, which amounted to about 20 minutes of footage for 3 episodes. And it was HUGE. It was one of our hottest sellers in years. Emboldened, company head John O'Donnell decided to toss his lawyer's advice aside and release Volume 2 uncut, and with all of the stuff we cut out from the first disc added as a bonus. It sold, albeit not as well as the first one, but at least all of the shock and awe it inspired online was amusing to watch. And no legal issues ever came of it.
But we all had to live with the fact that we all paid our bills with poop porn. Oh, the shame.
And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!) animenewsnetwork.com.
Justin Sevakis is the founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap, and check out his bi-weekly column on obscure old stuff, Pile of Shame.
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