In Search of Stability

by Justin Sevakis,

I am trying not to read the news obsessively, because it's all just terrifying and awful and we are all but uninformed, impotent civilians with neither the power nor information to do anything but bend with the breeze, except that we are now spoon-fed enough easily-digested factoids that we might think we know better, if only someone asked us. It's a particularly upsetting and maddening place to be emotionally when lives are at stake, so I am deciding to disengage, if only for long enough to get my sizable pile of work done.

Whew. OK, enough of that. Let's talk about anime. That stuff is fun. Nobody could possibly get into a fight about anime, right?

Andy asks:

In one of your previous answers you mentioned that DigiBeta [the master tape format for SD video] only supports 29.97 fps interlaced video. Is this the reason why when older standard definition anime TV series are released on DVD, the video on the disc is interlaced/telecined? I've noticed that newer anime that is downscaled from a high definition source is released on DVD as 23.98 fps progressive video. If DVD players can telecine a progressive video on-the-fly when needed for output to an interlaced TV, why wasn't all anime released as progressive on DVD? If the master tapes were only in a telecined format, why couldn't the video be inverse telecined by the US or Japanese authoring house before encoding to DVD? I have been wondering about this for years.

To catch up our less technically-inclied readers on what Andy is talking about, basically nearly all anime is animated at 24 frames per second (well, 23.98 if you want to get technical) which are "progressive", or contain the entire image with every frame. But most older things in the video world are in 30 frames per second (29.97 actually), and interlaced, which means that every other horizontal line of the screen gets refreshed separately, in two different "fields." (It's a giant mess that we're left with today due to how really old tube TVs used to work.)

Anyway, we like things to be progressive today (and generally 24 fps), but back in the days of standard definition, when everything was mastered onto Digibeta (or Digital Betacam) tapes, everything had to be converted to 29.97. This was done by "pulling down" every third frame so that it lasted a field longer than it should have, and suddenly the math worked out and everything was the proper frame rate. If an anime was shot on film, or animated digitally at 24 fps, it was always converted to 29.97 by using "pulldown." It was just a standard part of making video.

DVD can, in a limited sort of way, support 23.98. But in order to encode the video that way, the "pulldown" has to be removed, and that can be a real challenge. Sometimes the frame rate conversion was done with old analogue equipment that blurred some frames together. Sometimes the anime was edited or had special effects added after it was turned into 29.97, and so if you took out the extra frames, the resulting video would look really bad. Also, a lot of the professional tools used to reverse the pulldown (they call this "inverse telecine") gets really confused by anime's low cel count. Those tools are meant for live action, in which there's at least a little bit of movement going on all the time.

But nowadays a majority of anime is made in 24p, so when we make the DVD versions, we can make them progressive and not worry about it. And there are ways to inverse telecine most anime and have it look good. But it is a technical challenge that not everybody is up to.

Frank asks:

So recently I had an argument with a friend of mine. Although I am typically satisfied with the quality of most of the anime I watch, I couldn't help but agree with some of the complaints that my friend brought up, namely that anime tends to over-use expository dialogue and narration. At a certain point you have to ask yourself, "did he really needed to say that out loud"? Off the top of my head, I could remember from the first episode of Aldnoah.Zero, there was one guy on a bridge who saw something strange falling from the sky and he remarked "what is that?" as if he didn't think the audience was smart enough to figure out that there was something falling. There is also the trend of "info dumping" in a lot of anime and manga, where a character or the narrator just casually explains the entire back story of something or the rules of an event that the character is participating in (Fate/Zero Episode 1). For some viewers, like me, this is tolerable, but both my friend and I feel that making dialogue do most of the work doesn't give viewer the chance to invest in a show, and it can sometimes make the viewer feel insulted that the director had to include something so obvious. So my question is, do anime directors or writers seriously think that their viewers don't have enough patience or intelligence to accept a subtler, if not cleverer, style of storytelling, or is this simply a norm in Japan to explain stuffs in a straightforward fashion, or are the directors constrained in some way to be unable to deliver such storytelling? What is the reason behind this?

Zac and I have bemoaned the anime dialogue info-dump and other bad writing technique in anime for a long time, ask any ANNCast listener. Whenever we do, we inevitably get someone telling us that it's a cultural difference that we just don't understand, and that truckloads of expository dialogue is TOTALLY ACCEPTABLE IN JAPAN!

I hate to break it to those people, but they're wrong. What this is, simply, is just plain bad writing. The golden rule of screenwriting is "show, not tell." We should know about things happening by seeing them happen, not by being told about them. Being told about things is boring, rings hollow, and shows a distrust on the part of the filmmaker in their ability to convey the proper emotions to the audience.

This happens in anime like absolutely no other visual artform. This is not a "Japanese thing" because Japanese cinema does not do this. In fact, most Japanese live action films are fairly minimalist with dialogue, unless you count the recent glut of cheap TV dramas-turned-movies. The classics by Ozu and Kurosawa, from which the country's filmic language is inspired? Sure, there's some expository dialogue here and there, but nobody is overtly declaring what emotions they're feeling, and an "info-dump" would be unheard-of.

The info-dump can likely be blamed on the practice of adapting anime from light novels, which tend to be pulpy affairs that are aimed at genre fans. Genre novels can get away with a lot. They focus on building worlds, and often do that through character conversation. This dialogue doesn't really work in visual form -- nobody actually talks that way -- but producers of the anime versions are concerned that the more pedantic fans of the show are literally following along with the light novels in hand, expecting absolute fealty to the original work. If their expectations are not met, after all, they're likely to raise hell on social media, and sales will suffer.

So take that otaku pandering, and combine it with an overworked and somewhat ghettoized contingent of writers who are often looking for shortcuts in order to get their scripts done on time, and you have a recipe for some really bad writing, which usually goes unnoticed by Western fans because it's really not clear from the subtitles how stilted and crappy the dialogue actually is. I've actually seen anime based on a Korean work that seemed like the dialogue itself was translated into Japanese with Google, and then not edited at all. That's how bad some of the writing is on these things.

If none of this bothers you, great -- by all means, be a fan of those shows. But it's absolutely true that a significant amount of anime really suffers in the screenwriting department, and it's those flaws that you and your friend are noticing here. But if it does bother you as much as it does me, it's a great reason to follow who's doing the Series Composition on each show. That title is that of the head writer, and the truly great ones are as worth following as the best anime directors.

Of course, I have my list of favorite anime writers, but who are yours? Let us know in the talkback thread!

David asks:

Hi there, don't know if this question has been asked in the past. Is there a big (or growing) market for OP / Ed songs outside Japan? I just came back from Tokyo and they seem to have a lot of music shops there (with their own anime sections), but here, apart from importing CD's I only see a few titles on iTunes.

Anime fans love listening to the J-pop/J-rock Opening and Ending songs, and I'm sure they'd buy those songs online if they knew how, but unfortunately there's a bit of a disconnect that makes it way harder than it should be to do so from America.

In most cases, anime songs are intended to be singles released by a somewhat famous artist in Japan. it's the record label that's in charge of putting those songs on iTunes, and indeed, if you go to the Japanese iTunes Store, they're there. Making these tracks accessible to Westerners is something that, frankly, isn't on the radar of most Japanese record labels. Doing so would require them to upload their songs again, this time with Romaji metadata (spelling out each name in English letters, and leaving out punctuation like stars and hearts, which you can't type with a Western keyboard).

The digital departments at record labels are not in the anime business. They don't understand Western anime fans, and aren't really interested in marketing to them. They'd rather have their artists debut in the US, and have people here know the songs by the artist, and not as an opening to whatever anime. Unfortunately a major push into Western markets will never happen for the vast majority of Japanese musicians, so in a misguided attempt to "keep their content fresh," the label simply won't make the songs available on iTunes or Amazon overseas at all.

So some labels and artist management agencies hold back their singer's work entirely from a place until they've "debuted" there. Others are more lax and put their songs up on iTunes internationally, but put as little effort into it as possible. You'll never find those songs by the anime name, and sometimes you'll have trouble searching for artist names. They might be listed with Romaji, kanji, or punctuation that you can't easily type with a Western keyboard. It's really not meant for us gaijin, but more for Japanese people living abroad.

I've been writing about how screwed up the Japanese animation industry is for many, many years, but none of that even holds a candle to what a terrifyingly complex, frustrating, unholy mess their music industry is. Stay far away if you know what's good for you.

Daniel asks:

Why is there still so much anime released on DVD? Blu-Ray has been around for 6 years or so. I can't imagine anyone who would be both (1) buying anime as opposed to watching streams, but (2) would spend money on a completely obsolete format.

DVD might be obsolete compared to Blu-ray and streaming formats, but it's still a very useful format for many people. Blu-ray looks much better, of course, but nothing can stand up to the ubiquity of the DVD. Those players are everywhere, and everything can read them. You can play them in an old PS2, virtually any laptop, and virtually every PC dating back to the late 90s. You can probably even take them to Grandma and Grandpa's house and expect them to have a player.

There are still many anime fans who don't have a Blu-ray player, but still want to buy discs. Personally, I don't understand how people can be a collector of media, and not want it in the best format possible, especially when a brand new Blu-ray player can be had for $45 or less. But many claim they don't really notice a big enough difference to spend the money, or they don't yet own an HDTV, so anime publishers have to go where the money is.

Of course, there are still plenty of older shows that will never be in HD for one reason or another. DVDs are still much easier to author (most technically savvy people can pull it off with the right software -- Blu-ray, not so much). DVDs are MUCH cheaper to manufacture. So if your goal is to bring out an anime, and you only expect to sell 1,000 copies or so, doing a DVD-only release makes much more business sense.

These days, when an anime is released separately as a Blu-ray and as a DVD, sales can go either way. If I were to offer a rough guess, I would say DVD fans and Blu-ray fans are about 50/50. That's too split down the middle for publishers to ignore either group. Neither format shows any signs of going away any time soon.

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.

discuss this in the forum (202 posts) |
bookmark/share with:

Answerman homepage / archives