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Hung Over

by Justin Sevakis,

It's that sleepy week between Christmas and New Years', where most people have the week off and nothing gets done. Except for me. I have a ton of deadlines in the next few weeks, so while most people will be spending the next few weeks milling aimlessly around shopping malls and watching bad direct-to-video movies on Netflix, I will be working. A lot. But what else is new.

K.C. asks: What is your opinion of the direction the anime industry is going? I am quite dispirited about most new anime since it seems to be pandering to an exclusively otaku audience. Do you think the best storytelling, character designing, and directing talent is being lured into the video game industry instead? If it was possible, how would you like to change the anime industry?

I admit, I spent a few years bemoaning the state of things. After the salad years of the DVD boom, and the ensuing market correction away from Western fan-friendly, original, action-oriented anime left me wondering what was going to happen, and whether there was even as future in anime. The lean years seemed to extend into 2011, with the industry reeling along with the rest of Japan from the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.

But now those sentiments feel very 2007 to me. While there are still lingering doubts about Japan being able to make the sort of anime that would blow minds worldwide and create a big semi-mainstream craze the way they once did, the industry is largely healthy, making more anime than ever, and doing pretty much OK. There are a handful of interesting series every season, as much as there ever was. Most of my fears now seem pretty unfounded.

Those years in the mid-00's, when ADV and Geneon USA were joining production committees and shows were being green-lit out of the assumption Americans would go for them, those years were anomalies: products of a market bubble that ended in a bust. If you rewind back to, say, 2001 and earlier, none of that stuff was really made with Americans in mind. We got great stuff like Cowboy Bebop and Escaflowne and the like, but we also got a lot of garbage. And we got a lot less anime in general.

I think a large part of what drives cynicism about the world of anime is simply the maturing of fans. For the first 5-7 years of being an otaku, I devoured and enjoyed almost everything. I tore through shows like Sorcerer Hunters, Mamotte Shugogetten and Saber Marionette J, and I LIKED them.. I can't believe I typed that sentence. Those shows are garbage.

That's the thing. If you take off the rose colored glasses, a lot of anime from your formative years were garbage, and another big chunk were just OK. Can anyone remember why people got worked up over Those Who Hunt Elves, or Sorcerous Stabber Orphen? There are good shows from that era, sure, but there's a lot of crap. We might not identify it as crap, because we associate those with good memories, and from a time when everything anime seemed amazing and novel. They don't hold up to adult scrutiny.

I'm not even necessarily recommending you take off the rose-colored nostalgia goggles. If reliving those days gives you pleasure, that's great, and I'm the last person to judge. But if you actually came fresh to shows like NG Knight Lamune & 40 and tried to watch them today, I'm pretty sure your brain would shrivel up and die. Believe me, I write a column about the stuff we forgot about. I try to watch those shows and my brain goes into convulsions. Much the same way it does when I try to watch the newest boob show from this season on Crunchyroll.

We got Attack on Titan a few seasons back, but the big Gaijin-friendly hits are still few and far between. No matter. The anime industry is humming along just fine, and they're still making a lot of garbage, more than ever before. Enjoy it.

Craig asks:

I have imported a few Blu Rays directly from Japan and wanted to know if it's the same video quality/file that we get with a domestic R1 release. For example, when Tonari no Totoro (My neighbor Totoro) and Grave of the fireflies was released in Japan, I quickly imported those because I couldn't wait the 12+ months for Disney's Ghibli releases. But I also buy the R1 releases, because I do want to support the distributors/licensors and everything else that goes along with importing and releasing titles here in America. I own a few copies of both the original Japanese release and american releases and I can't really tell or if one is superior than the other. (I do notice the extras, but that's something else entirely.)

In most cases, there isn't going to be a noticeable difference. Japanese discs usually have a higher bitrate than their American counterparts (as they stuff less on each disc), but anime is so easy to compress that the extra bitrate doesn't result in any visible improvement in the encode. Very few American anime discs rip and re-use the video encodes from the Japanese discs, but a few do: 12 Kingdoms from Media Blasters is an example. Of course, there are authoring differences -- the US releases are more likely to have English on them, or might have subtitle options locked due to fears of Japanese fans reverse-importing the cheaper American discs. The vast majority of discs from both countries look great.

There are exceptions, of course. Japanese encodes tend to deal better with interlaced video (which is still somehow an issue nowadays), while American companies tend to pull off upscales of digitally-made standard definition anime much better. Both countries also make mistakes: fans are quick to point out when the American publishers screw up, but I've seen Japanese discs that accidentally had mono audio and some pretty severe video problems. Also, Japan has started upscaling ancient analog master tapes of shot-on-film OAV series, and these look SERIOUSLY awful.

These problems are relatively rare, and most people are actually not really that discerning when it comes to video quality. I'm actually a little surprised how few people still tear apart discs for perceived quality issues these days -- the internet used to be full of that stuff, and now there are only two or three forums and blogs where anyone even makes mention of a bad encode or messed up disc. There simply aren't that many writers that can both write a decent review as well as evaluate a disc's technical merits.

Your example of the Studio Ghibli discs aside (they ALL look good), I would do some cursory research before buying, but that's true of every new release.

Michael asks:

In a previous column you mentioned that Japanese Dramas are hard to licence. I've actually been interested in watching Jdramas and have noticed that they are almost never available on streaming services like Crunchyroll, DramaFever, and Viki. On the other hand, those three services all have plenty of Korean dramas. What exactly makes Jdramas harder to licence than anime or Kdramas? Is there perceived to be no English language audience for them by Japanese licencors, or is there another issue that makes them difficult to licence? Do large networks like Fuji TV, NHK, and WOWOW even attempt to shop their hit dramas to foreign distributors?

Basically, the Japanese talent agencies make it impossible. They usually co-produce, or at least have some major controlling interest in every series their major star is in, and their standards for how that show is to be disseminated in a major market like America is unrealistic. They demand license fees that nobody could ever recoup, insist on ridiculous limitations on artwork and availability, and basically make life hell for all who might attempt to work with them. It's a non-starter.

Japanese talent agencies are also so spoiled for the level of control they have in Japan that they pretty much don't know how to play well in other markets. Agencies are used to writing marketing disguised as content DIRECTLY for publications, dictating how, when and which photos of their stars can be printed where. The agencies use the threat of withholding access to their stars to enforce these demands, and they get surprisingly little blowback. Some agencies also have yakuza ties, just in case someone was considering screwing with them.

In the case of TV dramas, the agency known as Johnny & Associates (Johnny's Jimusho) is thought by many to be one of the most difficult. Johnny's controls Japan's most popular boy bands and their members, from SMAP and Tokio to V6 and Hey! Say Jump!, and get those guys placed in pretty much all of the popular dramas. Johnny's requires approval on every step of the process, and have a reputation for being so difficult that many companies in Japan refuse to even attempt to work with them. To give some indication of how ridiculous they can get, Cyzo Magazine reported earlier this year that with SMAP's Takuya Kimura reprising his lead role for the Space Battleship Yamato live action sequel, the agency is demanding that all the space battles and CG be ditched in favor of human drama with lots of close-ups.

Every once in a while one of these agencies attempts to do something with an American media outlet, and is quickly taken aback and insulted when Entertainment Weekly or Rolling Stone either a) doesn't care about their pop star that doesn't speak English; and/or b) uses an image in a way they consider improper. And then they take their toys and go home.

Movies tend to be easier to license, as the contracts involved give the talent agencies less say over international deals. But for TV dramas? Forget it. Even if you could navigate those disgusting, fetid waters far enough to actually get to release something, the amount you'd have to pay to license it would surely bankrupt you, and the approvals process would probably prevent you from even getting a DVD out. Not worth the trouble, not worth the expense.

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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