What Time Is It, Anyway?

by Justin Sevakis,

This has been a week of bizarre struggles. Struggles with my computers, struggles with trying to buy things, struggles with eating too much, and struggles with a grotesque-but-terrible late-summer heat wave of the kind LA is famous for. So, I'm not going to try and pretend to be friendly right now, I'm just going to answer some questions.

Phineas asks:

Is there a stricter bias towards anime age ratings in the United States simply because they're animated? Someone in the Answerman thread two columns ago noted the fact that Monster was 18+ by Viz but was rated M (the equivalent of a PG-13) in Australia. This reminds me of a few other situations, such as Strike Witches being TV-MA in the United States but PG in Manitoba and 12 in the UK, and Bubblegum Crisis Tokyo 2040 also getting a TV-MA but every episode but two being rated as suitable for eight year olds in the UK. (The other two were rated 12.) Are ratings sort of a slapped-on thing like "yeah, this has nudity, 18+" or is there someone who actually looks at the work before slapping on an age rating? (I still question how on earth Genocyber got a 13+ on my DVD set.)

Inconsistent (or non-existant) age ratings have been a problem in the anime business since the early VHS era. Back in the day, no VHS anime publisher would put any real warnings of any kind on their boxes, with the exception of hentai releases. No doubt, this caused many issues with some of the more R-rated shows getting rented by kids, and a lot of angry parents. Rental mega-chain Blockbuster Video solved the problem from their perspective by simply putting a sticker on ALL of the anime that indicated it was not for kids. Unfortunately, his "Youth Restricted Viewing" sticker meant that, in their computer system, all anime got treated like an R-rated movie. Surely I can't have been the only kid that had to really heavily lobby his parents to be allowed to rent anime.

Eventually a combination of fan suggestion and retailer pressure led the various anime publishers to put ratings on their boxes. This was largely a slap-dash affair of self-invented age ratings -- Pioneer had a "3up", "13up" and "17up" system that got adopted by a few other publishers, and others used the American TV broadcaster's age rating system. But all of these systems were, and still are, pretty arbitrary. There was never any actual guide written as to what would fall into each rating category. I's completely up to the publishers.

This resulted in the wild inconsistencies you are witnessing. Other countries have central, usually government-related bureaucracies dedicated to assigning age ratings to home video product. But since American publishers can basically put whatever they want on a DVD box cover without being questioned, they end up putting whatever the marketing department thinks is appropriate. Sometimes these are not well-informed decisions from someone who has seen the show. Other times, they're from people who are, perhaps, a little de-sensitized to ridiculously violent or sexual content.

I don't know of a rating system that satisfies everyone. The MPAA, which is the independent body that determines movie ratings in America, gets no end of guff about their sometimes arbitrary or unfair standards, even though they have a giant book drawing as clear of guidelines as are possible. My friends in the UK snark endlessly about the BBFC ratings system they have imposed on them (and which were famously exploited by Manga Video back in the 90s, when they added a bunch of swearing in their shows so they could get a higher, "edgier" age rating). Everyone has their own barometer for what's appropriate and what isn't, and once you add in Japan's constantly changing levels of tolerance, things can really get weird. Are the kids OK seeing cartoon boobs? What about exploding heads?

Luckily now there's the internet, where parents can do a little more research on a title instead of relying on arcane and irrelevant rating systems. I'm not a parent, so I'm not overly concerned with these things right now, but if I were, I would probably have given up already: thanks to the internet, the kids have probably already seen snuff porn.

Noam asks:

Anime has reached some new places as animation, therefore i wonder if you know any general, specific or unusual (sub?)cultures who are not related to anime in any way, who got influenced by anime? The reason i ask this is because during last year when hanging around on discogs i started to notice there are many albums related to anime. I am not talking about j-pop j-rock, there are albums from pretty underground genres like industrial, noise and chiptune. And large amount of them are related or imply perverse sex, violence and other such stuff that the hipster makers of the industrial underground culture are known for. Japan was into the industrial scene almost from day one, but this minor development goes back at best to 2005 and is not japanese. There are labels that exist solely for making hodgepodge genres electronic music albums with anime covers ,the most famous is probably "tsundere violence". There are underground genres like j-core and lolicore who are exclusively related to anime. So, i am curious if there are more offbeat anime influence like this?

You forget: us anime nerds are people too. We, or rather most of us, have interests and careers outside of the standard nerdy things like video games and cosplay and learning how to draw and such. Some of us actually have whole creative careers, and anime is but one of myriad influences on what we do in our daily lives. Homages (or, sometimes, ironic references) can pop up anywhere and everywhere. Some, of course, are more overt than others.

The bands you mention are obviously rebellious and counterculture in spirit. This seems to jibe well with Japan's practice of combining cute with lurid and bloody, and the shock value of that combination probably works well with the image those bands are trying to project. (Chiptune is the obvious exception, but that genre is more about celebrating 80s nostalgia and nerdiness, which fall within the otaku purview quite neatly.) But where else does this stuff pop up? Anime references obviously pop up in live action movies and Western animation all the time, but that's more of a direct thing, and to anyone who's at least a little bit into off-the-beaten-path TV and movies, something that should be expected. Less expected was TV show 30 Rock's direct satire of otaku culture a few years ago, when James Franco guest starred as a version of himself that was such a closet otaku that he carried around a (really crappy looking) body pillow of his waifu, "Kumiko-tan".

I think the most unexpected place I've seen anime stuff pop up was in an old Apple IIGS shareware game, the name of which escapes me, as it was a good 20 years ago. In a buggy, poorly coded puzzle game, I found no less than 6 references to Robot Carnival, in places like the soundtrack (featuring several .mod file renditions of the Robot Carnival soundtrack) to little scanned graphics from the film. Around the same era (early/mid-90s), skate company Hook Ups used some pirated images from shows like Iria and Ah! My Goddess on their T-shirts and skate paraphernalia, much to the irritation of otaku. I never got to the bottom of why they did that.

Far more recently, anime and its fandom has made unexpected cameos with Edward Snowden having come to light as having been involved with the anime scene in his youth (complete with embarassing pictures!), but aside from that, I'm hardpressed to come up with other places where random anime iconography has made an unexpected appearance -- largely because I'm so inured to it that I just don't notice it anymore.

So I'll turn this one over to the forums... Guys, where are some completely unexpected places you've seen anime pop up over the years?

Tayler asks:

Over the years it seems like way too many shows have ended up getting licensed and then just left alone until everyone forgets about them without the show ever even seeing a Home Video release(or at least a complete one). I don't really understand why that happens. Is it so expensive to put out a physical copy of a show that just waiting out the license(and taking that loss) without doing anything with it is a prudent financial move? How much does it cost to give a standard 1-2 cour anime a Blu-ray Home Video release? Or just a home video release in general? I know there are a billion variables that go into something like this, but if a North American anime licensor already has a title, how much would it cost for them to put out a barebones, sub-only Blu-ray release?

Anyone who watches the anime business has seen this happen again and again. Some American anime publisher announces, often with great fanfare, that they've secured the DVD/Blu-ray rights to a big show. Everyone cheers. And then... silence. Nothing. Questions to company reps get an evasive "we're working on it," reply. Months, and sometimes years go by.

Pumping out a DVD or Blu-ray release is relatively not all that hard or expensive -- we're talking less than $10,000 for a 2-disc subtitled-only set of 12 or 13 episodes, working completely from scratch (i.e. no existing dub or subtitle track) -- FAR less if the company is big enough that they have their own in-house authoring and production department. So what's the hold up? It's certainly not the publishers. Nobody licenses and announces a title just to sit on it.

What happens instead, nearly 100% of the time, is that something goes wrong. The contract might be signed, but the licensor may be dragging their feet at sending the master tapes/files and artwork. The licensor might say, "well, sure, we have a contract, but we can't let you release the show yet, because we're worried about reverse importing." Or they might not even give a clear answer. Behind the scenes, the show's original producer or creator might demand to be involved in the overseas release, but not have the time to do it. Or someone in a position of power might have issues with the contract or the company, or some other unforeseen snafu needs to be straightened out. The publisher can only wait. And wait. And wait. And occasionally pester by email. And wait.

Some companies have (had?) a policy of not making any announcement about a new acquisition until the master tapes/files are physically sitting in their office, to avoid subjecting the fans to disappointment when a release fails to materialize. A few times, contracts signed but trapped in an endless waiting game, one of them just said, "screw you! We have a contract, I paid you money, and now I'm going to release this show!" They rip the Japanese DVDs and Blu-rays, and put out their product by the contract, without giving the licensor any extra leeway for approvals. Needless to say, this caused problems down the road. Depending on how angry the licensor is, acting like that could very well burn the bridge, and make it impossible for that company to ever get another show from them again. There aren't THAT many major licensors in Japan, so this could very well be devastating.

So by and large, the publishers play along, waiting for the Japanese side of things to get their act together. A delayed release is better than no release, and way better than burning the bridge. After all, they DO have a contract, so it's not like they can sell it to someone else. In the off chance that things get so bad that it looks like they'll never get to release anything, the publisher might ask for their money back. But there's really very little else they can do to speed things along.

For the record, if you befriend an executive at an anime company and have drinks with him or her, this is the #1 thing you are likely to hear them venting about.

Alexander asks:

One of the job titles I see when viewing ending credits on an anime is "Director of Photography". Now, in live-action film, the job of the Director of Photography (DP) handles the placement of lighting and the camera (and in some cases even the selection of the type of camera lens and aperture), to provide the images that the director wants. However, in anime, there are no physical props, and with the exception of the old days where physical film cells were being photographed to make the finished product, no physical cameras to place, no physical lenses to select and no physical lights to move. So, in anime, what does the DP do?

Directors of Photography (or cinematographers) actually do quite a bit more than that on a live action project. They are the director's closest collaborator. Not only is the choice of camera and lens usually up to him or her, but they are in charge of supervising the camera operators (or do it themselves) as well as the gaffer and grips. They design the lighting of a scene, which, since photography works on the basis of reflected light, is really really important. In a given day, a DP might decide to put a certain color of gels (large vinyl color filters) on lights to convey a certain mood, bounce a 2K (2,000 watt equivalent lamp) off of a reflector to soften it, and then back light the actor with a small Inky lamp. They then might select a faster but grainier film stock for a more high contrast look, and then make notes for the post-production team to desaturate the scene to make it almost-but-not-quite black and white. That's for one shot. The DP has a lot of duties to keep track of.

While the use of cels, film and actual physical photography might have gone the way of the dinosaur as far as anime is concerned, the DP is still no less important. What used to be called "photography" in animation -- wherein cells were layered on top of a background and photographed a frame at a time, still happens virtually. This is now called "compositing", and it's done in software like Adobe After Effects, or for very high-budget feature films, Autodesk Flame, Flint or Inferno. Cel sequences are layered and moved across a background layer, with specific lighting effects and filtering applied to soften the harsh digital edges. Keeping track of all of that very technical work -- what gets layered on what, when, and how fast -- is what a DP does.

The speed at which things move in digital doesn't mean the DP has an easier job. A DP now has to keep track of blending traditional 2D layers with 3D shapes and backgrounds. Some studios still prefer to hand-paint backgrounds, so those have to be scanned and tweaked in Photoshop. Special effects like glowing, lens flare, motion blur, and other tiny things most viewers never think about, are in an astounding number of shots, and finally the whole finished product needs to have a thin layer of diffusion and fake grain added, to prevent the image from looking too sharp-edged, like early digipaint shows often did.

The director of photography is instrumental in creating the visual mood of a scene, and in the actual work of making animation. They are the unsung heroes of anime -- not directly responsible for the heavy lifting of the storytelling, but supporting it in a way that should normally be hardly noticeable to the end user. A good DP can mean the difference between a show that visually just lays there, and one that really "pops," even if the animation itself is a little lackluster.

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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