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Heads Exploding... WITH KNOWLEDGE!

by Justin Sevakis,

I went a little too nuts with the research this week and ended up with a few really long answers, so let's get right to it.

Kira asks:

Years ago, most of anime I saw were long-runners like Naruto or Bleach. When looking up episode lists on Wikipedia, I always get confused about what they refer to as "seasons". Sometimes it corresponds to the story arc, but other times, in the case of Dragon Ball Z or One Piece (or the newer episodes of Fairy Tail), it just seems to cut off at random. How long is a typical "season", and how do you tell when the season is over and when a new one begins?

The idea of "seasons" for broadcast TV shows is mostly an American concept. It dates back to the American radio dramas of the 1930s when it became clear that people weren't tuning in during the summer months: it was too hot inside to huddle around a giant radio like they usually did. Families were outside, kids were playing, agrarian America took to the fields and urban America took vacations. Producers of weekly dramas began taking the months of July and August off -- filling in those weeks with reruns, the earliest example I can find of this being the 1938 season of the domestic sitcom Fibber McGee and Molly. As time went on, that became a more structured practice, with new programming being introduced in the fall, and running until the summer hiatus.

I couldn't find much information on pre-war Japanese radio, but Japanese TV broadcasting didn't start until the 1950s, and early broadcasts were dubbed versions of American sitcoms like I Love Lucy and Father Knows Best. Local Japanese productions, inspired by those shows, didn't really take off in earnest until Japan's huge economic boom of the 1960s (which, of course, also was the beginning of TV anime). The American practice of new fall seasons was never really observed, however. Japanese broadcasts were far more whimsical in their scheduling. Drama producers would break up their shows into separate series, much like British television, and those series would be produced and introduced to audiences according to no particular schedule. For example, the much-loved domestic drama Arigatou aired from April till October 1970, but the second series didn't come along until the end of January 1972. Then series 3 aired only 3 months after the second finished up. This isn't too far off from how most late-night anime works today: if the first series of 12 or 13 episodes is a hit, another series will follow when it's good and ready.

But for long-running kids and family programming, which runs for years without interruption, there really isn't any such thing as a "season". There is no break in the show. A producer might opt to chop a series up into multiple sub-series (such as the myriad Bakugan and Precure series), to make them easier to collect on video and to sell overseas. They might also use the occasion to do some fresh promotion for the show, shuffle around staff, and might plan story arcs around those breaks. But then again, they might not. For a long-running show like Naruto Shippuden, there really aren't any defined "seasons" -- I'm not sure where those came from in the English Wikipedia entry. Indeed, the Japanese Wikipedia episode list breaks down the show by story arcs. The official DVDs and episode listings from Viz make no mention of seasons. Hulu's listing does have seasons (which was possibly done just to force the show into Hulu's rigid framework), but they don't match what's on Wikipedia.

I honestly have no idea where those "seasons" are coming from. I have a feeling it's an invention by whatever otaku put that into Wikipedia.

Joseph asks:

I have read that people who used to rent Streamline Dubbed Fist of the North Star Movie on Orion pre-release VHS rental copy, remember all gore scenes uncut and uncensored with no blurring or filter. I have heard some of the collectors have 35mm film of Fist of the North Star Movie uncut. Many fans believe that 35mm prints were destroyed in the fire and the semi-uncensored Italian VHS version is the closest they'll ever see. Do you know anything about this?

Fist of the North Star is one of the anime that, even decades after its release, I'm still in awe that it even exists. This is a manga, TV show and feature film that was made for ten-year-old boys, that is so ludicrously gory and violent that it often crosses the line into tongue-in-cheek comedy. It was serialized in Shonen Jump well before that magazine started catering to a wider demographic than grade school boys, alongside benign series like Captain Tsubasa, Dr. Slump and Kimagure Orange Road. Violent though it was, there's only so much gore you can perpetrate in the black-and-white, cheaply printed pages of a weekly manga. The later TV adaptation was even more tame, shying away from the use of red coloring and graphic detail in its violence. Nonetheless it was a huge hit with kids of the era, and made parent groups enraged.

So when the Fist of the North Star movie came out, the pre-release materials made a big deal about how it was the goriest, most splatter-filled animated film ever made. (Given the mountain of ludicrously gory anime that followed for the next decade, it obviously doesn't still hold that title, but it probably ranks pretty high nonetheless.) It was a huge hit, although I can't quite figure out how huge: Japanese Wikipedia has an estimated amount of ¥1.8 Billion, or around $17.3 Million in today's US dollars, but that would put it squarely at the #5 film at the Japanese box office for the year, and none of the historical top grossing movie lists for 1986 seem to list it at all. Regardless, it was huge, but so was the backlash from parents and the media. Bowing to pressure, Toei delayed the home video release while they censored it. Most of the over-the-top splatter shots were "enhanced" with an early video processor, which blurred the image significantly, and also tinted it to diminish the visceral impact of the blood and gore. Director Toyoo Ashida also animated a different ending for the film's climactic battle in a way that arguably made more sense for the characters. This version wasn't released until 1988. The original theatrical version has never been released on home video in any form, in any country.

The internet is full of rumors about this, and most of them are probably false. The idea that the original theatrical cut was "lost in a fire" is one that I just roll my eyes at, because according to the internet EVERYTHING that's never been released was lost in a fire. More likely, the original negative was damaged or destroyed in the process of making the censored version, or is being withheld at the request of the original manga artists Buronson and Tetsuo Hara. Buronson in particular is known for exercising tight control over the release of his work. There's also a rumor that an old Italian VHS release was uncensored, but that's only partially true: only one scene is uncensored (wherein Ken gets his scars), and another scene isn't tinted (but still has the video effect). I have no idea why it was like that, but Toei Animation has never allowed those shots to be released again.

The last rumor, that an early Streamline VHS release in the US was uncensored, is demonstrably false -- I wouldn't put much stock in the memories of people who rented a VHS tape 15 years ago. There's not enough information to determine what version Streamline released to theaters during the film's brief theatrical run in September 1991 (it almost certainly had the new ending, since I doubt Streamline dubbed it twice), but all existing home video releases aside from that Italian VHS have the exact same censorship applied. Streamline Pictures only ever had one video master of Fist of the North Star, and didn't do VHS rental-only releases. According to Fred Patten's amazing Streamline Pictures memoirs that he's been publishing on CartoonResearch.com recently (do check them out, if you're interested in that era), their first release of Fist of the North Star was released in September 1992. Orion later made an ill-fated deal with Streamline to distribute their entire library, which caused everything to get repackaged and re-released, often at a lower price. But that didn't happen until August 1994. Copies of both releases were very common -- it was one of the best selling anime in Streamline's catalog -- and yet no uncensored footage from any of these supposedly-uncut releases has surfaced.

Today our only glimpse of the version that was shown in Japanese theaters is an uncensored shot in the trailer that was later censored (which is included in many DVD releases), and the original theatrical ending, which was included as an extra on the first Japanese DVD release (and no others). Occasionally those two shots from the Italian VHS find their way online. But that's it. There simply is no way to see this film in its original form, and unless something major happens in Japan I don't see that changing any time soon.

Cesar asks:

I've started noticing that certain recent shows are released on DVD first while the BD release tends to happen much later. Sentai said on their ask.fm page that these often have more to do with holdbacks with the companies in charge of the international rights on their end. In this case, is it mostly a means to help prevent reverse-importation? Will DVD sales at that time usually affect decisions on whether or not to put a show out for R1BD, be it sub-only or not?

Yes, in some cases, a Japanese licensor will absolutely withhold the right to release Blu-ray versions in the US, out of reverse-importation fears. Sometimes they'll release those rights at a later date (or specify a "hold-back period" in the contract). Other times, they won't allow a Blu-ray release at all.

Of course, there's a third option, wherein the publisher doesn't think the show will sell enough copies to bother making a Blu-ray, which is more expensive to produce, and must be made in higher quantities than DVD. Regardless, everybody is paying attention to sales, and if a show is a bigger hit than anticipated, the parties involved may adjust their plans accordingly. After all, nobody actually wants to turn away customers who want a Blu-ray -- they're just trying to maximize profits while keeping the show's original producers happy.

Oliver asks:

Were any anime ever released on HD DVD? What were the reasons for this format failing, and is there any reason at all to own anything on it when Blu-ray exists?

Ahh yes, HD-DVD, the failed also-ran to Blu-ray. Many of us remember the vicious format war between the HD-DVD camp, spearheaded by Toshiba, and the Blu-ray camp, seemingly most supported by Sony (although they do not own/control the format). The winning blow by the Blu-ray side was several-fold: Sony included Blu-ray playback in the Playstation 3, which meant that after it came out, a WHOLE LOT of households suddenly had a Blu-ray player. Disc sales for Blu-ray were so much stronger that both Blockbuster and Target stopped carrying HD-DVDs. Warner Bros, the last Hollywood studio to exclusively support the format (and also the studio with the biggest DVD market share at the time) announced they were dropping it just a few days before Consumer Electronics Show. Walmart dropped the format too not long after, at which time Toshiba finally threw in the towel. Losing the format war cost them millions, and severely damaged the company.

There were a few anime released in this format in Japan, including Brave Story from Warner Bros Japan, and a ton of releases from Bandai Visual's Honneamise label, including Wings of Honneamise, the first Patlabor movie, Freedom, Ghost in the Shell and several others. Of those, I believe only Wings of Honneamise and Freedom were also packaged for release in the US, and in fact the format died right while Freedom was finishing up its release, so it bears the distinction of being one of the last discs to come out in the doomed format. However, the traditional American anime publishers hadn't yet gotten to releasing in any HD formats.

As for the format itself? It was decidedly inferior to Blu-ray on a technical level. HD-DVD supported most of the same video and audio encoding standards, but held 40% less data (30 GB vs 50 GB). It had no Java support (OK, that one ended up being a plus, since Blu-ray's Java is so awful), and a lower bitrate ceiling -- it really wasn't enough to handle HD video and more than one lossless audio track. It was easier to author than Blu-ray, particularly by 2007 standards, but from a consumer point of view, the right format definitely won in the end. All of the anime that was released in HD-DVD has since been reissued in Blu-ray, so you're really not missing anything.

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 real, strange stories from the anime business, Tales of the Industry.

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