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Hangovers from Turkey, Hangovers from Life

by Justin Sevakis,

Obviously I'm writing this column a couple of days early, but you're seeing it on Black Friday. Otherwise known as the day Americans stop all that "being thankful" nonsense and start going to the malls en masse and decking each other over cheap underwear. As if we needed something more to be horrified and disgusted by this week.

Why do people even go to the mall anymore, anyway? Ordering online is SO MUCH EASIER. And there's pretty much zero chance you'll get trampled or elbowed in the face. The sales are usually better. People are weird.

Duc asks:

could you please talk about black borders? You mentioned working on a title which will not have black borders on its BD release. Why do older releases have it?

Sure. When we talk about black borders on video, we could be talking about multiple things. First, we have letterboxing (only on the top and bottom) and pillarboxing (only on the sides). Those are added when the native shape, or aspect ratio, of a movie or TV show doesn't match the final presentation format. For example, an old TV show, which was made for 4x3 TVs, needs to have pillarboxing added when it's released on Blu-ray, because Blu-ray can only be in widescreen. The black is spacing, and is added to fill out the screen. The original shape of the picture is preserved, and no part of the image is cut off (ideally).

There are times when the letterboxing and pictureboxing collide, such as when you play an old letterboxed widescreen DVD (encoded as 4x3) on a modern HDTV. The TV will sense a 4x3 signal and add black borders on the sides, unaware that there already IS a black border on the top and bottom of the picture. The resulting image now has a giant black border all around it, and the picture is now a tiny inset in the middle of the screen. (You should be able to zoom it in on most TVs, though.) A similar issue happened with the new Viz DVDs of Sailor Moon, which still had the black pillarboxing on the sides added to make a widescreen HD master, and was put on the disc as a widescreen image. Old 4x3 TVs thought it was a widescreen image and added letterboxing on top of it. Viz has stated that they won't be doing that on future releases.

But what I think you're talking about is what happened on older Bandai Visual transfers: a thin black box is added around the entire perimeter of a new HD master, even though it's unnecessary. The reason for this is something called "overscan," and it's a relic of how old tube TVs used to work.

A tube display, hard as it is to believe, is actually an electron gun. From the back of the display, the gun shoots electrons at a layer of phosphorous on the inside of the front of the screen, and those electrons cause the phosphorous to glow for a fraction of a second. But those electron guns weren't all that accurate back in the day, and to fill the screen, TV manufacturers set the guns to slightly overshoot the size of the screen. Exactly how much they overshot depended on variances in voltage the TV was getting from the power outlet, and in the video signal. The broadcast industry compensated for this by coming up with an area of the screen they determined "action safe" and an area they determined to be "title safe." Anything within "Action Safe" is something you could count on not getting cut off on the vast majority of TVs. "Title Safe" is even further inside, since the edges of the screens would often warp the image a bit. All text had to be displayed within Title Safe.

This is the safe area for a widescreen display. The outer rectangle is the "Action Safe" perimeter, while the inner rectangle is "Title Safe."

None of this has been necessary for a very long time. Modern LCD displays do not natively cut off anything, and even tube displays, toward the end of their run, didn't really need to either. But the industry had started hiding stuff like closed captioning data in the hidden areas of the picture, so the practice stuck. While the vast majority of TVs sold today will show you the entire picture, many of them default to zooming in the image a little bit, on broadcast TV if nothing else. (If you zoom out on broadcast TV, you can see a thin line of static on top, which is where the closed caption data is.) Some cheap TVs won't let you turn off the zooming at all. Early tube HDTVs were especially bad about that. So, when Bandai Visual created new HD masters of a good number of its classic films, they added a thin black box to the outside. You know, just so everyone could see the entire image.

As far as I know, only Bandai Visual did this. While it might have seemed like a good idea at the time, nowadays you look at those HD transfers and go, "what the hell, why is there a black box here?" Needless to say BV doesn't do that anymore, but in the mean time, many of the crown jewels of the company's back catalog still have transfers with these black bars.

Occasionally other companies will do this just for credit sequences, if old films have titles that otherwise wouldn't be within title safety -- another standard that no longer really makes any sense, and yet is still rigidly enforced by most broadcasters.

Cesar asks:

Aside from a 'certain', obvious controversy about going around it, I've started noticing quite a number of disc error reports going around when it comes to recent releases I've heard of from several different localizers. These vary from banding issues, brightness, ghost artifacts, missing episodes, menu errors, audio weirdness, etc. And since I've only begun starting buying physical releases, and thank goodness I've yet to run into these, how much caution should be exercised before I pre-order anime nowadays? Since I'm new to buying anime, should I really be that worried?

No, I don't think you should be. While you definitely hear about the odd title here and there that doesn't look as good as we'd like, the number of discs that are absolutely broken are extremely few and far between. The vast majority of them look just fine. A handful here and there could look better, but exactly how anal-retentive you want to be about that is the extent to which you will ruin the experience for yourself. You're free to get mad, of course, but usually your ultimate choice is to buy the show, or not buy the show. And honestly, if I really love the show, I'm going to buy the show.

A good chunk of the complaints you hear, I'm guessing, are actually about discs that are a year old or more. I still hear complaining about discs like Penguindrum or the old Media Blasters release of Moribito, both of which look pretty terrible. Sentai Filmworks had a run of questionable looking discs, but seem to have mostly cleaned up their act lately -- or at least, I haven't heard any real complaints. But people still complain about the discs even though they've been out for years now. Funimation also gets its share of "GOD, all their discs look like CRAP!" even though I haven't seen any recent screenshots or seen any discs to back up that statement (last year's Lain boxed set notwithstanding).

Not everyone is sensitive to video flaws. I'm pretty sensitive to them -- it's my job, after all -- but even I think some of the complaining is overblown. That said, there are some discs which absolutely do have problems. I went ahead and bought a couple of the problem discs myself, because frankly, not having the show at all (or having it on DVD) was the worse option when I thought about it. I'm not happy about that. I really wish Sentai would redo Penguindrum and a handful of other discs from their losing streak, but I'm resigned to the fact that it's probably not going to happen. And as for missing episodes... well, those are mostly an issue of new content being made after the contract was already signed, or something being actively held back by the licensor for the US release. So there's not a whole lot that can be done, really.

If you're that paranoid, do some research. Go to forums like the anime subforum on Blu-ray.com or FandomPost.com and see what people are saying about the discs before you buy. Those guys don't always catch everything, but many are surprisingly eagle-eyed. I can't be the one to tell you to buy stuff with impunity, though, because that's a choice you're going to have to make for yourself.

Ava asks:

I stumbled upon a Youtube channel one night that plays Japanese commercials. Not just the "wacky" or "crazy" ones but it seems to be everything. I noticed a lot of familiar celebrity faces in the many many commercials for cars, women's fashion, and cell phone carriers. It got me wondering about the differences between Japan's entertainment industry and America's. You wouldn't see Katy Perry or Lady Gaga in commercials for anything that wasn't tied directly to them, but Kyary Pamyu Pamyu seemed to be everywhere this year and last year. As well as lots of comedians/tv stars selling phones and hair gel. Is it just because Japan is a smaller country so the talent is centralized or is it a difference in the way the agencies work?

It's true, major actors and musicians in the United States and Europe will almost never appear in a commercial. In the west, to be cool you have to be a little bit rebellious, and not be "the man." Being in a commercial might mean some good money, but you also run the risk of looking like you've completely sold out, losing the faith of your fans. This is an attitude that's changing slowly, particularly with musicians. As the recording industry crumbled in the post-Napster era, musicians had to finally give in to ad agency demand, and license their songs for use in advertising. The era of counterculture had long been over by that point, and so to the surprise of many, there was no backlash. In fact, new hit songs that appeared in ads ended up getting the exposure necessary to get people interested in a new song, something that's nearly impossible to do these days. And thus, we now get Lady GaGa songs in car commercials featuring CG hamsters.

But things are different in Japan. Asia has never really had that line in the sand between being successful and selling out. As actors and idols are beholden to their (usually very powerful) talent agency, they're more or less expected by the general public to be a dancing monkey. Need you to be in a dopey commercial for dish soap? No problem! How about a variety show in which you must wear a banana suit and eat a plate of spaghetti without your hands? Just tell me when and where! I can't even imagine a Western star doing anything like what Asian stars have to do, but the complete loss of ego and/or dignity seems to be an expected part of being a celebrity over there.

Japan also has an extremely outsized advertising industry for such a small country, and that industry has huge budgets. As as been pointed out in everything from the Conan O'Brien Show to the movie Lost in Translation, the money is SO good, American actors will go over there and shoot a silly ad, just for the paycheck. (Perhaps some of the older celebs are under the outdated delusion that Americans will never see it.) So yes, of course local Japanese talent will be in an ad or two and think nothing of it. It's all a part of one giant, coordinated marketing machine, and the celebrities are an active and willing cog.

Reuben asks:

A while back there was some hype for Ronia the Robber's Daughter, a CG series made by Goro Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli and Polygon Pictures. Yet it's been airing in Japan with no simulcast over here. At NYCC, the people at the Crunchyroll panel didn't even know what it was. My first guess would be that the Disney deal probably prevents streaming from other services, so is Disney going to release it? If they aren't, is anyone?

I'm sure Ronia the Robber's Daughter will eventually get a release in the US, although I would be highly surprised if it happened in time for us to get a simulcast. Obviously, I don't really know what's going on -- I'm certainly not privy to any behind the scenes negotiations for this or any other anime deals. That said, I think if you take a closer look at the companies involved, it will reveal a lot about what the show might be in store for overseas.

First, we have NHK and NHK Enterprises, the government-owned broadcast giant (and their content distribution division). NHK was slow to climb on the simulcasting bandwagon, but in recent years they've worked with Crunchyroll quite a bit on shows like Log Horizon, Baby Steps, Bottom Biting Bug, Elementhunters [edit: OK, not that one] and ERIN the Beast Player. That said, they don't do a huge amount of anime, so it's not like they're beholden to this business model or anything.

Next, we have Studio Ghibli. Ghibli is a wrench in the works for two reasons: first, that they have never authorized their films to be made available online, anywhere. Even the Disney home video deal didn't include the ability to put them on iTunes or anything. This a resolutely old fashioned company, and probably one that's used to taking their time. Second, they don't like being categorized with other anime, and prefer to think of themselves as family entertainment, rather than content for otaku. That means that they're more likely to hold out for a mainstream deal, rather than immediately subtitle it and put it through the normal anime channels.

Then we have dwango, which is the parent company of Nico Nico Douga and game developer Spike Chunsoft, among other things. Obviously, they're more internet savvy than the others on the production committee, but in recent years they've worked with Ghibli as a financier. dwango also produced the Ghibli documentary The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness. I have a feeling they're there more as a marketing partner than anything else.

Then finally we have Polygon Pictures. This is an interesting one. Polygon is a newer anime producer, and was the first Japanese licensor to sell their contents directly to Netflix: their deal for Knights of Sidonia was epoch-making. This is not a company that cares much for how anime has been previously distributed overseas, and is willing to take chances on new distribution methods.

So there you have it, that's who we're dealing with on this title. It's not your usual assortment of anime publishers, and this mix of companies is a particularly unpredictable one. They're all quite internationally savvy, which is what leads me to believe that they have the international market in mind, but this one is almost certainly not going to go the route of most other anime releases. I'd bet it'll pop up somewhere mainstream, unexpectedly, one day.

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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