The Mike Toole Show Getting It Wrong
by Michael Toole,
I love mistakes. I love newsreel bloopers. I love live TV production gaffes; I love typographical errors in newspaper headlines and on magazine covers. I love animation screwups, and revealing errors in movies and TV (I don't think I'll ever get tired of the stormtrooper bonking his head in Star Wars, or of Willrow Hood, the written-into-continuity Empire Strikes Back homemade ice-cream technician). Let's face it-- we all make mistakes, and in doing so reveal our shared flaws as human beings. As long as you're not ruled by your mistakes, it's all a positive jam as far as I'm concerned.
Lots of anime DVDs have sported weird little mistakes over the years. This has ranged all the way from simple manufacturing flaws to audio and video problems, subtitle glitches, missing music cues, missing footage, missing episodes(!), and other weird authoring problems. This is partly because the DVD spec wasn't introduced as a clean, bulletproof standard, but as a messy set of software features that oftentimes worked less and less frequently as more and more DVD player manufacturers entered the market. These mistakes have been frustrating to end users like us, who just want to enjoy our damn anime, but they're also fascinating and fun. Let's check some out!
Part of the reason I'm bringing this topic up is because a newcomer to the market has made a couple of high profile boo-boos recently. That'd be S'More Entertainment, a DVD publisher that, until now, has specialized in releases of a weird variety of kids’ shows, public domain movies and TV, cult films, and other cheap goodies. S'more were founded by ex-Rhino folks, so these cats know the nostalgia market, and they know how to get product into stores. Sound good? Well, it ain't perfect! Many folks now know that their initial release, a box set of the first half of the enjoyably dumb Shonen Jump action-comedy Bo-bo-bo Bo-bo-bo-bo, shipped without the advertised subtitles. Instead, the final disc on the set had a PDF of some very weirdly-formatted scripts, which the viewer could read along with the raw Japanese-audio episodes. Old-school!
Honestly, I don't view this as a catastrophe-- Bo-bo-bo is a simple kids’ show with a fun enough English dub-- but there are plenty of purists out there who wanted subtitles and were disappointed. Thing is, this wasn't a simple case of the publisher over-promising; there was some miscommunication, as S'More thought that timecoded subs would be included with the materials. By the time the real goods rolled in, it was too late to alter the packaging and ad materials. Now we know!
S'More are bravely soldiering on, but they've got another issue on the horizon - burned-in subtitles in their forthcoming Galaxy Express 999 TV release. I wasn't clamoring for this stuff, partly because they're cramming an awful lot of episodes on each disc and that'll affect quality anyway, but it's interesting to me how burned-in subs have become completely unacceptable to fans. See, back when DVD debuted, the spec wasn't fully understood - and brother, the DVD specification for subtitles is pretty ill-behaved to boot. So a lot of early releases had hard subtitles for songs, signs, and other stuff. Some fans kicked up a fuss, some didn't, but eventually DVD authoring got better and better and those burned-in subtitles disappeared. Now? Fans don't want ‘em! The cruel reality is, timed scripts once again weren't included with the materials, and this modest GE999 release has exceedingly modest expectations-- S'More are expecting to shift just a few thousand units, which doesn't leave room to spend a pile of cash fixing the scripts. I think fans are mad about this largely because Discotek, the biggest player in the anime nerd nostalgia market, seem to have figured out how to make this model work. But not everyone is clever as Discotek! One thing I do like: S'More posted a dummy art proof on their facebook page, which looks like this:
Dumb, right? That's not even the 999 train! Well, according to the rep I spoke to (who asked not to be named), this was actually a ploy to get the show's fans, irritated with the hard subs, interested in the product again-- once they started voicing their disapproval, other sample covers were posted, and if you go to S'More's facebook page, you'll see fans engaged again, busily trying to decide which cover artwork they want. I'm always happy to see more publishers in the game, so I hope S'More can overcome these early difficulties and get the good stuff out the way fans want it.
There's a whole lot more weird, screwy DVD product where that came from. One of the first “bad” DVDs was dubiously resurrected Tokyopop's inaugural DVD release of Shoji Kawamori's odd opus Spring & Chaos. Aside from an exquisitely bizarre dub, this DVD looked like crap. I still remember seeing the early screenshots and feeling my heart sink; I can't find any old images, but the video was smeared to an alarming rate; it looked worse than a VCD! (Anyone remember those?). Commercial VHS tapes would occasionally have glitches; here, we got the digital version of that sort of fun. Spring & Chaos was quickly fixed, but it was just one of a number of DVD releases with weird or flawed video. Manga Entertainment famously released Gainax's great Royal Space Force: Wings of Honneamise on one of the most horribly interlaced DVDs I've ever seen, meaning they likely used either a laserdisc or a pretty janky tape as a master. I still remember the way my friend, translator extraordinaire Neil Nadelman, who'd worked on the film, felt compelled to rip the mpeg stream and run a reverse telecine on it, just so it wouldn't look like crap. “It doesn't look good,” he commented at the time, “but it looks better than it did!” Bandai's ritzy blu-ray combo release restores the film's majesty, but it's missing that great Carl Horn commentary track! This is why we can't have nice things.
There's other types of video problems, too. Years ago-- like, literally, a decade ago-- I used to notice a particular strain of DVD snobs complain about all the dot-crawl on ADV Films DVDs, notably the various Full Metal Panic releases. This seemed like splitting hairs to me; yeah, you could see some weird shiftiness in black lines, but only if you looked really close. I tended not to notice myself... until I got a nicer TV. Dot-crawl is a consequence of mastering video from composite, which is basically the lowest-quality way to do it; instead of super-nice component, which keeps color data crisp and separated, or S-video, which at least divides up chrominance and luminance, composite video mashes everything into one signal. It's goofy, you know? Like, what's the point of releasing it on DVD if you don't use the best master available? Sadly, the dot crawl issue wasn't uncommon back then; Full Metal Panic is just one that I remember people being particularly vociferous about.
Another dubious old friend from this era would be stuff like hardsubbed English-language credits, text overlays that blocked out portions of the original screen, and replacements for the actual show logo. Like, every single publisher did this. Honestly, it made perfect sense to me, because everything ought to be in English on the English-language release, right? Of course, the overlays in the initial Nadesico release blocked out the actual artwork, and amusingly, the commercial break sequence from Irresponsible Captain Tylor featured overlays that actually corrected in-show misspellings of names. The overlay king is probably ADV's original Evangelion TV volume 1, which was obviously planned to be a seamless experience for the English-speaking viewer, but turned out a frothing mess of ugly overlays and burned-in subs. One of the most infamous credit-replacement sequences is also an ADV joint, the first episode of RahXephon. See, the actual text credits were laid over the show's opening scene, not a typical OP animation. The licensor didn't provide a “clean” version of the scene, so ADV just ran a blur filter on the Japanese text and slapped English text over it. Heh, it looked like crap!
Sometimes video isn't the problem, though, but rather audio. Lots of current fans know that Bandai Entertainment laid an egg with their blu-ray release of K-On!, including a stereo version instead of the 5.1 audio sported by the Japanese version. But that's a minor issue compared to, say, Central Park Media's original release of Slayers on DVD, which was phase-inverted. I won't go into technical details about phase inversion, but it tends to completely destroy any remotely active sound mix; as a consequence, the dubbed version featured nearly inaudible dialogue. This was a pretty incredible mistake at the time, because the only way it could've gotten through is if the company skipped doing Q&A entirely and rushed the discs to market. Obviously, a replacement was soon offered. I'm not sure if Gundam 08th MS Team: Miller's Report ever got fixed, though. The initial DVD release includes a dub that's redlined all the way through, so it's horribly distorted and clipped. This was never fixed; there was no replacement program. Incredible.
I think the worst anime DVD of all time, at least in terms of sound editing, is the original DVD Ltd. pressing of CPM's Cyber-city OEDO. Not only is the disc rife with hard subs for signs and encoded poorly, you can actually hear the Japanese soundtrack while watching the dub; it's faintly audible, underneath. Bad, bad stuff! If you get OEDO (and you should), get CPM's Final Collection, which has improved video and audio and a ton of neat extras.
Putting all that aside, anime DVDs also get edited from time to time. Bandai Visual USA's premium release of Gunbuster drew some raised eyebrows because a music cue was changed, allegedly because it sounded too similar to Chariots of Fire. Some fans were just livid about this change, but it doesn't surprise me-- Bandai Entertainment's DVD release of The Big O II was obliged to omit the second season's OP song, because it's a rather embarrassingly obvious ripoff of the theme to Gerry Anderson's UFO. Don't believe me? Check the Big O tune here, and UFO here. This cracks me up; man, why did the Japanese composer, Rui Nagai, feel the need to bite Anderson's style so hard?! One that hits home for me is the missing OP and ED songs from Zeta Gundam. Clearance problems kept them from being included (they're rewritten Neil Sedaka songs, so getting them would've involved extra money), which also crops up from time to time in other releases. FUNimation's release of Beck: Mongolian Chop Squad, omits the original Japanese broadcast finale, which featured a cover of the Beatles’ “I've Got a Feeling”; however, they did pony up some money to use that Oasis tune from Eden of the East at least once in the commercial release. (Fun fact: licensed music is charged per use, so if they'd included that tune in front of every episode, they'd have paid for the rights to it thirteen times!)
Somtimes a DVD comes out that's missing stuff, because it turns out that there was a separate broadcast and home video version of the series. This issue first really reared its head with ADV Films’ release of Sakura Diaries, a saucy little romantic comedy; the TV broadcast is relatively chaste, but the video version features some non-worksafe fun. Naturally, fans pitched a fit when they realized they'd been robbed of their precious nudity. ADV Films responded, amusingly enough, by first releasing a subtitled-only brick of the uncut series (the original dub didn't sync up), and years later, by finally dubbing the definitive version. This is one of those weird releases that I just live for, because they dubbed the dang thing twice! I do kinda sympathize with this problem, because noticing that you've got the broadcast version actually requires considerable knowledge of the property. I know that we're all fans and are absolutely meticulous about the cartoons we watch, but nobody told Geneon that Enoki had gone and assumed that Mao Dante would be shown on American TV and helpfully tweezered out the most violent and naughty parts. Hirameki International released a goofy strip-mahjong show with all the nudity omitted, which basically made watching it like watching the old TV edits of trashy sex comedies on USA Up All Night, only without the dubious advantage of Gilbert Gottfried and Rhonda Shear. Another late Bandai Entertainment entry, The Girl Who Leapt Through Space, featured a Japanese home video version that really just added a scene or two of nudity, a sly little reward for fans who bought the discs. The US release? The TV version, obviously. When the differences are that minor, how can you tell, unless the Japanese company lets you know?
Last but not least, sometimes DVD publishers release DVDs that are, for lack of a better term, substandard. Early in the game, when everyone was still trying to figure DVD out, it wasn't unusual for stuff to be letterboxed, or lacking menus, or missing stuff. However, Toei Animation USA didn't really have that excuse when they entered the DVD race in 2005, foisting DVDs of Air Master, Slam Dunk, and Interlude at us. DVDs with hilariously bad subtitles, rushed, wooden dubs, and bizarrely few chapter stops. I loved Air Master, but wasn't too saddened or surprised when Toei quickly faded from the US market, retreating in confusion when fans wouldn't buy their lousy, ineptly-made discs. But one company made Toei look like true pros: Illumitoon! Illumitoon was a neat little boondoggle launched by some defectors from FUNimation, who'd observed Dragonball Z and Yu Yu Hakusho grow into TV hits and decided that they wanted in on this racket for themselves. There was actual ambition at work, here-- Illumitoon really wanted to get their stuff on TV, with high-quality bilingual DVDs as a supporting product. But TV didn't want the likes of Beet the Vandel Buster, B't-X, or AM Driver, and TV had already had its way with the previously mentioned Bo-bo-bo (yep, it didn't get a fair shake the first time around either). Illumitoon's releases featured “dubtitled” captions-only subtitle tracks, plus the added bonus of mediocre new theme music. Don't worry, though, the original OPs were included! On a separate section of the disc.
There's also hentai releases, but they're an entire self-contained galaxy of weirdness. I'll just let this image speak for itself.
Man, we've seen a lot of goofs over the years: overlays, edits, sound issues, authoring screwups, and other weird localization problems. What's interesting is the way that these issues have gradually been addressed, until nowadays, where more often than not we have a product that is virtually identical to the Japanese release. Except in rare cases, like Manga UK's recent release of Panty & Stocking, which, thanks to a materials oversight was slightly edited. The company is fixing the problem, but boy, UK anime fans were pretty fired up about what amounted to like eighty seconds of changed footage! I wish people would be nicer when these honest, obvious mistakes get made, but let's face it: if it happened to something like Space Adventure Cobra, I'd probably be pretty mad.
Of course, our anime DVD releases are not always identical to the Japanese. Fans are rightfully miffed that Sentai Filmworks’ upcoming Persona 4 blu-ray release won't have the Japanese dialogue. This isn't actually a mistake-- well, it's a mistake, sure, but not a strictly technical one. Essentially, the issue is that if you want P4 on blu-ray in Japan, you're going to pay a few hundred bucks for lavish limited-edition single discs. Sentai was going to do their usual thing and offer it for about a third of that price, so the licensor, fearing reverse importation, changed the terms. That whole reverse importation dance is a complicated problem—I can't help but notice, when I go to Amazon.jp and search for K-On!, that the second result is Sentai's release of season 2-- but stuff like this really makes me wish the Japanese would lower prices on their goods instead of restricting ours.
And brother, if you think we're the only fans who get the shaft, you're mistaken! It just recently came out that the new Japanese blu-ray of the great Macross: Do You Remember Love? movie has some of the original's most violent scenes blurred or clipped. This bums me out, because everyone was cool with the movie's sometimes outrageous violence in 1984; what's so different 28 years later? I just pray that someday, somehow, this gem in the crown of the anime business gets the release it deserves.
So what's your favorite anime DVD gaffe? Did you notice when the original Tylor DVDs omitted half of an entire damn episode? What'd you think about Tokyopop's “tricked out” dub of Initial D? Got any other good ones that I didn't cover? Sound off in the comments, and remember-- don't take this DVD stuff too personally, okay?!
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