Semi Conscious

by Justin Sevakis,

Maybe it was the insane amount of work I did this week, maybe it's allergy season. But for whatever reason I feel like poo. I really would just give everything right now to crawl back into bed and maybe zone out to the Manga Video dub of Patlabor 2 while lulled into a state of relaxed, paranoid semi-consciousness. But alas, I have an Answerman to write. Sorry if this week's answers are a little less... snappy than usual.

Mark asks:

Neon Alley has ditched the live-streaming service format and gone into partnering up with Hulu/Hulu Plus and including subtitled anime into their formerly English-dubbed exclusive service, thus reshaping the VizAnime site just to Neon Alley. I heard of the backlash of them ditching the live-streaming and the whole Hulu situation, mostly on their Facebook page and while I'll miss the live stream, I'll get over that soon enough. I just hope they kept their promise of being 'studio agnostic' (getting anime content from other distributors like Aniplex, Sentai, FUNi, etc.) Do you think them ditching that format for more of the on-demand format was a good move for them?

Neon Alley is one of those things that, in its original inception, made me and most of my industry friends just sort of shake our heads in confusion. Who, in 2012, launches a LINEAR broadcast channel that's restricted to TV through game consoles? While catch-up and PC/Mac support eventually made the whole idea less insane, the whole project looked from the outside to be this hugely expensive, bizarrely old fashioned mess of the sort that can only be dreamed up by Japanese corporate overlords.

The service had its fans, but I can't even imagine what a money sink it must've been. In addition to elaborate branding and promotion, the channel was even rumored to have subsidized English dubs from other companies. The logistics of running a 24/7 linear TV channel (and sticking to a schedule) required a lot of gear and outside services. I'm kind of amazed that it lasted as long as it did. The visibility on game consoles (and the increasing scarcity of dubbed anime) probably helped keep it afloat.

What has replaced it makes a whole lot more sense. Viz uploads their content on Hulu like they've always done, they set up some automated scripts to populate a second website with anime of their choosing, and very few resources are wasted. Hulu pays a fortune in ad revenues, so the new site might make Viz even more money than their old subscription service. And even better, rebranding the site means that they get to keep benefiting from all of the Neon Alley marketing stuff that's still floating out there.

Behind the scenes, I'll admit this feels like a pull-back. Viz no longer needs to actively license broadcast rights from other anime companies, and there's a whole operation that they are no longer running -- that operation was the very THING that was Neon Alley. What's replaced it is something Viz was pretty much already doing, but with a new coat of paint. But this website only requires that an anime be available on Hulu to include it on the site. Unless, say, Funimation specifically tells Hulu to block their shows from Neon Alley, they can host whatever they want. Hulu has a LOT of anime content. On the downside, you are literally just watching Hulu through another website, so unless there's a community there you like, there's really no reason to go to Neon Alley at all.

I guess more than anything, the new Neon Alley represents a commitment by Viz to continue uploading their new dubbed content to Hulu. So if you like watching dubs, and you live in the US, you win. Regardless what website you use to watch it.

Daniel asks:

I see occasional listings on eBay for a US release of Jin-Roh on BluRay. Usually it is shown as a box set. It is always marked up at a gigantic price over any normal release. The box is always listed as containing extras like a 500 page book and such. It also crops up on Amazon searches. much like UFO's the pictures of what's really in these boxes and booklets are always blurry and out of focus, so you never get a real sense of whether you are looking at a real US release, or just blurs of a Japanese release pretending to be a US release. I see no press releases or reviews in for a BluRay of the movie. The pictures of the box set have Bandai's logo on them. Did this really get released and then dropped that quickly, maybe during the dark times when most all the US anime distributors went out of business?

It is real, and I know that because I own a copy. The disc itself is identical to the Japanese release, and contains menus and audio in both English and Japanese, and there are subtitles as well. The package (which retailed for $79.98) came in a very nice chipboard box containing the movie, a 20-page book (in English) with interviews, and a book containing all 522 pages of continuity storyboards for the film (untranslated). The disc was part of Bandai Visual's short-lived Bandai Visual USA division, which released a lot of very nice classic anime but priced them so high that most fans could never afford them. After a few awkward and condescending convention panels (and a few releases that sold a small fraction of what was anticipated), they folded up shop and merged the division with Bandai Entertainment.

Their release of Jin-Roh came very late in the division's short history, so I imagine print runs were quite limited, and even shortly after its release it was very difficult to find. I also had minor quibbles with many Bandai Visual Blu-rays from this period, as the company liked having a thin black border around the entire image to accomodate older HDTVs that trimmed a little off of the edges. It was also missing the "Speculate about Jin-Roh" interview documentary that was included with Viz/Bandai's old DVD boxed set release. At any rate, the disc today is probably nearly impossible to find unless you import it from Japan.

The good news is, Discotek recently announced that they have acquired the film, and a regular DVD release is scheduled for the end of the month. A Blu-ray has already been announced, and in the interest of full disclosure, it's actually something that I'm working on now. It's literally sitting in pieces on my hard drive at the moment. I don't think we have a release date yet. However when it finally comes out I highly doubt the books from the earlier release will be included.

Vanessa asks:

Hello, I am seeing all the cool stuff available on Australian Blu-rays and am really thinking about buying a player so I can start getting series that won't be released in the US. Would it be worth it? They have Chihayafuru and the live action Rurouni Kenshin movie, and I'm sure they will get the Black Butler live action movie. When blu-rays first came out, I thought they were supposed to be "region free", but now there are regions. Luckily, Japan in the region 1 zone (thanks to whomever may have thought of that). I suppose there is no way to get an American blu-ray player to play a disk from another region?

It's impossible to say whether any of those titles will come out properly in the US, but if you're sick of waiting around for something that might never come, importing is definitely an option. I've taken this tack myself, with discs like the Street Fighter II Animated Movie, the German release of Strange Days and a few others. I tend to be very careful in what I buy, but with Amazon having reasonable shipping rates from virtually every industrialized country, buying import discs has never been easier.

It is, bizarrely, nearly impossible to import a foreign-region Blu-ray player unless you have a friend in that region that will mail it to you: no electronics retailers will ship them overseas. Luckily, it's quite simple to buy a modified, "code-free" Blu-ray player that will play discs from any region. I recently snagged a modified Sony BDP-5100 from 220 Electronics and couldn't be happier. Since the players are literally modified physically, you'll only have a few models to choose from (and they're a bit more expensive than stock players), but so far my player is rock solid.

A few caveats: modifying the players obviously voids the manufacturer's warranty, so it's important to buy from a reputable store. Also, many discs have video tracks that are in 25 fps (usually logos and special features and stuff), which is usually not compatible with American televisions, so you'll want a player that does NTSC/PAL conversion. Also, some Blu-ray players are only modified to be region-free for DVD -- the Blu-ray hack is an extra. So make sure you read carefully before you buy.

John asks:

I've understood for a while now that a lot of early digi-paint-animated shows in the early 2000s aren't known to look good on BD. Many times, such shows, should they come to BD, would probably be just be an upscale. However, plenty of anime pre-digipaint apparently look gorgeous as remastered BD versions, and it seems some later digi-paint shows (as early as the mid-2000s, maybe?) are well off as BD versions as well. In all these cases, is the fact of being made on film or in some high-resolution way the key ingredient for them looking good on BD? Funimation is going to be releasing the first Eureka Seven series on BD, for instance, but its first episode originally premiered in 2005-- does that mean it has something that slightly earlier digi-paint shows don't that make it worth an HD release? At what point in anime production history did digi-paint anime finally start looking good when brought into high-definition? It's almost too sad to think that the DVD releases of Wolf's Rain (as well as other gems of the early-2000s) will be as good as it gets for us.

There are a few factors that go into the decision-making process as to whether a show would look good on Blu-ray. If it was shot on film, the original film elements are available, and a new HD remaster of that film exists, it's a no-brainer to release that on Blu-ray (provided it would sell). Some OAVs and TV series were shot on film, but then edited on video (and maybe had some additional video effects added) -- those would be much harder to remaster, since the whole thing would have to be reassembled, and after years of storage who knows if parts are missing. The process can get quite expensive, so usually it won't happen unless the Japanese rights holders do it first.

For digipaint shows, there are ones that upscale well and ones that don't. The most important factor is that the anime uses a consistent frame rate, so that it can be turned into a nice progressive presentation. Early digipaint shows sometimes used a jumble of different frame rates, and didn't smooth out jagged edges with anti-aliasing. That's why shows like Fruits Basket and Bubblegum Crisis: Tokyo 2040 would look absolutely terrible if blown up to HD. Also, if the original masters have video quality issues like rainbowing, dot-crawl and other issues, those would also make things look bad once upscaled.

Despite Funimation being pretty good at upscaling (and I'm not bad at it either, but I don't know that any other anime company has attempted it in the US), more and more Japanese licensors are taking command of the process and doing it themselves, and then requiring that American publishers use their upscaled masters. To be honest, I'm not happy about this. There are a few upscales made over there that look spectacular, but most of them are interlaced, blurry rush jobs that look terrible. Post production house Qtec has become infamous for their interlaced upscaling methods.

The disparity in quality has as much to do with the selection of shows as the process itself. Rather than pick the cleanest, most scale-able masters, it seems like they'll run just about anything -- even old LD masters of shot-on-film series from 1992 -- through the process, slap it on a Blu-ray, and expect fans to buy it. The results can be pretty heinous. Just ask anyone unfortunate enough to have bought the Japanese Blu-rays of Irresponsible Captain Tylor or Cat Girl Nuku Nuku.

And that's all for this week! Got questions for me? Send them in! The e-mail address, as always, is answerman (at!)

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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