The Mike Toole Show
What's The Criterion?

by Michael Toole,

Earlier this year, Criterion did something they hadn't ever done in the DVD age: they released an animated movie as part of their Criterion Collection, an imprint known for exacting special editions with exhaustive supplemental materials and bonus features. Was that animated masterpiece a modern classic of Japanese animation, like Millennium Actress? Was it a latter-day critical favorite from Europe, like The Triplets of Belleville or The Secret of Kells? Heck, maybe it was a beloved American animated film, like maybe The Iron Giant? Nope, it was a film directed by an American auteur, name of Wes Anderson. Just a few years old, 2009's Fantastic Mr Fox became Criterion's first animated release since DVD became the home video standard.

It's an interesting piece of trivia, because Criterion are particularly known for their constant celebration of great Japanese cinema—Yasujiro Ozu, Nagisa Oshima, Seijun Suzuki, and of course Akira Kurosawa are all directors represented in Criterion's 150+ DVD releases of some of the very finest Japanese films. But Fantastic Mr Fox is one of only two animated films to ever receive the Criterion treatment. The other, released as a 3-disc laserdisc set in 1993, is Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira.

Ah, Akira. If you haven't yet witnessed Neo-Tokyo E*X*P*L*O*D*E, you've likely at least heard about the classic film. More than 25 years after its release, it remains one of the most engrossing and visually arresting anime feature films ever made. When Criterion put it out on laserdisc, they'd already released precisely 150 of their special editions, starting with Citizen Kane and King Kong in 1984. The Akira set came in a gloriously huge triple-gatefold sleeve (I don't miss laserdisc's bulkiness, fragility, or technical limitations, but I do miss the gigantic cover artwork!), with a thick stack of production inserts (production artwork and the first chapter of the manga, mainly) and some thoughts on the back by film essayist David Chute. The film in both Japanese and English, plus trailers and additional production footage, was packed onto the discs. (yep, back in the day, a good long movie necessitated multiple trips from the couch to the player, to flip and/or change discs). While it was the only anime film to receive the Criterion treatment, Akira was still part of a very important movement towards expansive special editions – one engineered, in those early days, almost entirely by Criterion themselves.

If you've been kicking around for at least 20 or 25 years, you can probably remember when letterboxed versions of movies started showing up on video store shelves. Some viewers scratched their heads at the black bars, but true film buffs relished seeing the movies in the correct aspect ratio, even if this meant a slightly smaller image on regular TVs. The approach persisted, and by the time DVDs started hitting shelves, the demand for widescreen versions of widescreen movies ramped right up. It's a feature we all expect now, but back in the before time, it was an innovation introduced by Criterion. Supplemental documentaries, trailers, and other bonus goodies? Yeah, the Criterion folks were the first to bring those to the table, as well. Criterion's King Kong, part of their first wave of releases, also featured something unheard-of at the time: a guided audio commentary. As fans watched, film buff Ronald Haver talked through the movie, dropping knowledge about its production history along the way. This novel idea was yet another experiment that's since turned into a mainstay of home video special features across the globe.

Reasons like the above are why so many anime nerds look wistfully to Criterion, wondering when the label will finally dole out some precious validation to this corner of the cinematic world next. The notion that Criterion needs to get off the high horse of auteur cinema and start releasing some great anime movies isn't a new one—but it came back into my head last week, after I sat down and celebrated the anniversary of one of my favorite anime films. Twenty-five years ago last week, Patlabor: The Movie was released to cinemas in Japan. It met with both critical and commercial success, further establishing the reputations of its all-star creative team, headgear.

Headgear were kind of a weird creative incubator, a team that initially consisted of manga artist Masami Yuuki and designer Yutaka Izubichi, before the circle was widened to include character artist Akemi Takada, screenwriter Kazunori Ito, and director Mamoru Oshii. Their big project, Patlabor, was a “media mix” deal right from the beginning, with Yuki's manga launching concurrently with Oshii and company's OVAs. The smart, funny, and challenging OVA series was designed to lead the viewer straight into the movie. In the pages of the late, great Animerica magazine, my friend and colleague Carl Horn once characterized Patlabor as “a sci-fi anime series… about nothing,” a la Seinfeld. That's a pretty good way of summing up the series’ appeal. The central concept—a near-future world of labors, giant “real robots” designed for construction and law enforcement—has a lot of appeal, but it's the characters of the story's police department Special Vehicles Unit Section 2 that give Patlabor its real magic.

Shinohara, one of the show's central protagonists, has that everyman look—but in fact, he's a grouch who's only a member of SV2 to prove that he doesn't need his rich family's money or connections. Ota is a hotheaded agent of justice who always seems ready to shoot first and ask questions later. Yamazaki and Shinshi, the SV2's truck drivers, are respectively a soft-spoken giant and a meek married man. Noa Izumi, Patlabor's ostensible “it” girl who graces the cover of most of the videos, turns out to be far more defined by her high spirits and industriousness than her looks—though she's a bit disturbingly devoted to her patrol labor, which she nicknames Alphonse. The team's led by Captain Goto, a man who's outwardly a laconic slob, but keenly intelligent and perceptive.

Just by character descriptions, you can tell Patlabor's a bit special. The patrol and construction labors, both in concept and appearance, have a lot of appeal, but they're simply never as interesting as the crew of weirdos in the SV2. The initial OVAs presented some interesting looks at the far future year of 1999 (man, you're playing with fire when you set your future world a little too close to the present! Then again, we don't have labors, but we do have roombas…), but it's the movie that really brings the whole Patlabor concept—smart, driven, unpredictable people and their robots dealing with major conflicts—together. It's a tightly wound, fiercely smart look at how one bad apple can spoil the hell out of the ominously-named Babylon Project, the biggest public works project in Tokyo's history. On top of that, it's an extremely enjoyable, conventional action movie. Manga Entertainment threw this movie at the west back in the 1990s with no pretext, and they were right to do so—it's a good film, entertaining, smart, and accessible.

But what does the Patlabor movie have to do with Criterion? Well, nothing—except for the fact that its North American DVD release might be the single most lavish anime collector's edition I've ever seen. Now, I'm not speaking in terms of handsome physical extras—there's no challenge coin here, or cloth map, or underpants, or pencil sharpener set, or punching Ota puppet. Instead, there's a very good transfer of the film, a new dub (not terrible, but simply not as good as the way-above-par Manga UK dub), an extras disc with a lengthy making-of documentary, a full, translated book of storyboards by director Mamoru Oshii, and a 180-page full color art and production diary, also in English. It's the last item that really puts this release over the top, beautifully defining Criterion's original “film school in a box” ethos without actually being a Criterion release. Of course, this amazing version of the film was released by the now-defunct Bandai Visual USA, whose strategy of offering American fans premium releases would naturally include a few goodies like the Patlabor movies. But Bandai Visual priced these at $90, which means that stores sold them for $60ish at the cheapest, a price which not too many people opted to pay out of the gate. Suddenly, 10,000 copies (mine is stamped 7934) seemed like an awfully high number to produce. For years, the movies hovered around this price point, until suddenly, a couple of years ago, they dropped to less than $10 each on Amazon and a few other outlets. Whoa, what happened?

It took some digging to get an explanation for this particular phenomenon, but I eventually dug deep enough. A DVD dealer that has a presence at a number of conventions (they're on the road right now and haven't been able to provide a few final details, so I'll omit their name) got a call from a contact at a warehouse in the Midwest. The contact said he had ferreted out a whole pallet of anime DVDs, something called Patlabor? Did this sound familiar to the dealer? The dealer got photos of the pallet to verify the description, and was a bit dumbfounded to see what was unmistakably a shipping pallet containing hundreds of units of the Patlabor 1 collector's edition, still shrinkwrapped and completely untouched, possibly for years. Supply lines had somehow gotten clogged during Bandai Visual's active days, but here was some fresh overstock. The dealer and some other suppliers grabbed all of this stock up and brought it to market, and seemingly overnight, prices for Patlabor collector's sets deflated to just $10 or $15 – a price that saw many more fans lining up to buy. Even now, these superb sets can be had for around $20 each. I find this anecdote interesting, not just because it explains why a great release from a defunct publisher stayed on the market, but because it's a tangible example of DVDs simply getting lost in the supply chain. That happens more often than you think!

And what of Patlabor 2, the sequel to the fine first film that came on in 1993? Its collector's edition is largely identical, in terms of features – it's also got a new dub, a fat storyboard book, an extras disc, and a sprawling, informative art/archive book. Most fans who've seen both films will tell you that Patlabor 2 is a better, smarter, more ambitious film – whereas the first one concerns itself with labor technology run amok and the breakdown that happens in its wake, the second is about Japan's standing as a nation, an insurgency inside the Japanese military, and what happens when the SV2 has to deal with it all themselves. Patlabor 2 is a better movie, but considerably quieter and weirder, and less accessible. The film series is closed out by 2001's Patlabor WXIII, which is a perplexing little bridge story between the first two films—based on a side story from the manga, it features the SV2 in a supporting role, and is more of a monster movie than anything else. It's still a pretty good film, though, and Geneon gave it a fairly lavish collector's set that can still be had for cheap.

We're still waiting for blu-ray editions of these great movies in the west; Maiden Japan picked up the baton for the Patlabor OVA and TV series on blu-ray, and they're pretty great, but they're all we've got at the moment. Frustratingly, the last puzzle piece of Patlabor animation, the New Files OVAs, are still missing in action for fans in the west. That's doubly annoying, because they never really got a strong release from Central Park Media back in the day, either. But ultimately, Bandai Visual USA's release of the two films established an extremely high bar for anime collector's editions, and one that's never properly been equaled, in this writer's opinion. Some of BVUSA's subsequent releases have been magnificent, but with less crucial extras—their Jinroh blu-ray release, for example, didn't have translated storyboards, just the book in Japanese. NIS America have established a nice template for collector's sets involving hardcover artbooks, but theirs are nowhere near as exhaustive, in terms of production details. Funimation and Aniplex USA have slipped into the collector's edition game, but again, their releases often involve physical extras like postcards, posters, and trinkets rather than detailed production reports, the “film school in a box” approach that makes Criterion releases so desirable.

Do any other releases come close? Well, I'm partial to to Manga UK's Akira bluray set, which contains more extras than the Funimation version, wrapped up in a handsome steelbook. The jewel of my R2 Japanese collection is undoubtedly the collector's edition of Millennium Actress—much like the Patlabor sets, it comes with a bonus documentary disc, a thick storyboard booklet that renders Satoshi Kon's love of match cuts in great detail, plus a handkerchief and a great set of postcards that feature the main character's movie posters from the film. It's all wrapped up in a collector's box that features heat-activated paper, which changes color when you grab the box. This type of collector's set is slightly more common in Japan, though big otaku favorites, as is the case in the west, often focus on physical extras.

The reason I'm pointing at the existence of sets like the Millennium Actress one is because, if you ask me, it's proof of concept for a Criterion release. The extras are already out there, they just need to be translated. Get the film and its supplemental material—maybe add a new commentary, perhaps by Kon scholar Andrew Osmond?—into Criterion's distinctive packaging, and bang, job done. Dreamworks’ lackluster DVD release is long out of print; so what's the holdup? To this animation nerd, it's a mystery. Criterion's release schedule for the rest of 2014 is crowded, but crowded with films from the like of Shohei Imamura, David Lynch, and John Ford. More than twenty years after their groundbreaking release of Akira, Criterion haven't yet returned to try and set the standard for Japanese animation on DVD and blu-ray.

To wrap this little foray up, here's a poser: what would be your pick for a Criterion Collection release of an anime feature film? A few come to my mind. Animation great Bill Plympton's been praising Masaaki Yuasa's Mindgame on twitter, so I'll start with that. Not only is it a great and underappreciated film, there still hasn't yet been a DVD release of it in North America. In general, we're starved for the work of Yuasa, one of anime's finest working directors—you can watch some of his TV work on Hulu and Funimation in Tatami Galaxy and Ping-Pong: The Animation, but Mindgame's only been released in Australia. His unexpected and welcome involvement in Cartoon Network's hit Adventure Time has raised his profile a bit, so hopefully that road leads to Mindgame.

Patlabor 2 is one of Mamoru Oshii's masterpieces, but we've still never gotten a solid release of one of his 80s projects, the Angel's Egg film. We've gotten the rest of his body of work, all the way back to his great Urusei Yatsura episodes and film and the OVA pioneer Dallos, but still no Angel's Egg. We almost got a release of the film, after a fashion—some years back, Anchor Bay had In the Aftermath, a peculiar 1988 SF film that used Angel's Egg footage as a framing device, on its release schedule, but the disc ultimately never materialized. A collaboration with artist Yoshitaka Amano, Angel's Egg is a beautiful and challenging film that bombed hard on its release in 1985 but has gradually drawn admirers for its weird story and detailed visuals. With its creative pedigree, it'd be a natural for an artsy release, possibly one involving a gigantic, art-deco ‘C’ on the packaging.

My third and final piece of blind, thinking-out-loud speculation? I'm tempted to pitch Hells, Yoshiki Yamakawa's ambitious, surreal, and thoroughly entertaining film for Madhouse—a film that was completed and saw very limited release in 2008, but then shelved for home video release for years, only emerging in 2012. But maybe Hells is still a little too new. (You should still seek it out; its Japanese blu-ray has English subtitles!) In lieu of Hells, I'd go for Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust. Roll your eyes at this slice of vintage Yoshiaki Kawajiri action if you must, but Bloodlust is a gorgeous, inventive, and extremely entertaining movie, and one that's never gotten a really satisfying release on video. There was a pretty good collector's edition in North America, but it left off some goodies like the Japanese dub (remember, Bloodlust was recorded in English first). A technically exacting blu-ray, perhaps with some new supplemental material, would be worthy of the Criterion label. We just have to cross our fingers and hope that, sooner or later, Criterion's criteria for release includes some anime. So again, readers: what's in your personal anime Criterion Collection?

Finally, I'll be at Otakon in two weeks time, doing my usual presenter shuffle, so come to one of my events and say hi if you can!

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