Monday, December 10, 2007

Game Review: Earth Defense Force 2

Title: THE Chikyuu Boueigun 2 (The Earth Defense Force 2)
Publisher: Sandlot/D3 Publisher, 2005
System: Japanese Playstation 2
Type: third person sci-fi shooter, ages 12+, 1 Player/2 P split screen
Availability: NCS
Links: Official Site, Wikipedia, Youtube, Game FAQs

The year is 2019, and the Invaders have returned. Earth is overrun by millions of giant ants, alien walkers, Adamski UFOs, fire-breathing radioactive lizards, and hordes of other creatures straight out of a 1950s monster movie. Once again, the only thing standing between these terrors from Beyond and the good citizens of our world is the Earth Defense Force. So, strap on your motorcycle helmet, don your UN-issued gray coveralls or purple miniskirt/leather thigh-highs combo, grab a plasma rifle and join the fight.

Given that basic description and a few screen shots, some portion of my readership is already fumbling for their credit cards. My advice is: go with your instincts and buy EDF 2. Here is all you really need to know: the game is even more fun than it sounds, and it's a budget-priced Simple 2000 Series game, to boot. Visually, it's quite nice for last-gen, and gameplay is solid and stable. The number of different enemies and battlefields is adequate, and the arsenal of weapons potentially at your disposal is huge, as well as being entertainingly destructive.

The basic workings of EDF 2 are straightforward: select a mission, and kill everything with more than two legs. There are no epic cutscenes or wrenching moral choices, which is fine, because stuff like that would just get in the way of rocketing the hell out giant pillbugs and collecting cool loot. It is a PS2 game, so it is not going to have much in the way of dynamic particle lighting effects or realistic ragdoll physics, but the graphics are often surprisingly good looking: there is real menace in the mothership looming in the clouds, and things blow up in truly satisfying jets of smoke, flame, broken glass and green ichor. I'm pleased with the laser effects, too. They're graphically simple, but they just feel right in a way that's lacking in many a more sophisticated FPS. The pencil-thin beam, and the retina-searing halo of wavering diffraction patterns where it hits, seem to me to be exactly what you'd expect from a laser pointer hooked up to a dedicated nuclear power plant.

The American and Japanese monster movie ambiance of EDF 2 is pitch perfect, right down to the musical score, which includes pieces in the vein of the Godzilla March, and unless my ears deceive me, actual theremin music. The enemies and settings are drawn a range of TV and theatrical productions, from Them to ID4, as well as Fate Magazine alien mythology. For those who know a bit of Japanese, the radio chatter that goes on in the background during missions is a source of amusement unto itself: operators issue updates in clipped military jargon, veteran EDF soldiers make snarky comments, and green recruits run screaming at the sight of a few black ants. EDF 2 is well aware of the absurdities of its sources of inspiration, but it never degenerates into mere camp: the creators clearly love the material they're working with.

On a technical level, EDF 2 holds up well. Load times are fast, and I can't recall ever having the game crash. Slowdown does occur--the spider web effect, for example, makes the PS2 bleed, especially on higher difficulty levels where the webs get really thick--but it's not usually distracting. Clipping problems crop up here and there, so that you sometimes get attacked through a thin wall in underground stages, but overall the game seems reasonably polished.
Hope you remembered your sunscreen, invader scum. Tee hee. [weapon: ARC LAZR]

Before you get too deeply into EDF 2, I'd recommend messing around with the options, and switching from normal controls ("ノーマル,"which use an annoying auto-aiming system) to technical controls ("テクニカル,"which are standard console shooter controls). You can also turn off the cinematic camera angle that kicks in when you do something impressive, such as wasting a carrier UFO. The camera effect looks kind of neat, but the fixed angle makes aiming really difficult, just at the point where you're probably getting swarmed by whatever was escorting the carrier.

As with the original EDF, you choose two weapons from your arsenal before joining the fray, and aquire additional weapons and armor from items dropped by defeated aliens. One of the features new in EDF 2 is that you can also choose between two character classes. The Ground Soldier (male) has heavy armor, can drive vehicles (tank, helicopter or hoverbike), and uses projectile weapons like rifles and grenades. Primitive, but effective. The Pale Wing Soldier (female) is equipped with a portable power plant, jet pack and energy weapons based on reverse-engineered alien technology, so you can go all Saikano on some Invader ass (as my pal BZ remarked). The balance between the two character classes is interesting. The Ground Soldier is slow, but gets most of the good long range and explosive weapons, and can absorb a lot of damage (he starts with more armor, and his armor increases by about 1.5 points per armor icon picked up, compared to less than 1.0 point for the Pale Wing). The Pale Wing Soldier gets the best short range weapons, and can jet into and out of combat quickly, but is more vulnerable to attack, and runs the risk of depleting her batteries and losing the ability to fly, as well as fire and reload weapons, until they recharge.
When you think about it, the subprime mortgage crisis is what really doomed those homes. [weapon: G Launcher UM-XA]

Solid third person shooter action and rampant allusions to science fiction movie classics will draw the gamer into EDF 2, but what keeps her attention through 71 missions at five difficulty levels is the addictive RPG thrill of collecting new weapons, and figuring out the strategies needed to make it through "Inferno" difficulty in one piece. My review is basically done at this point (buy it); the rest of this post will be me waxing nerdy about the EDF arsenal and its usage.

The Ground Soldier
Assault Rifles (column 1)
Assault rifles--or more properly, "fast acting second amendment home defense freedom rifles," as our friends in the NRA helpfully remind us--are your basic meat-and-potatoes weapons in the early and middle phases of EDF 2. The Ground Soldier can pretty much get through anything with a decent assault rifle, plus something long range like a rocket launcher, at least until Hardest and Inferno difficulties. Later in the game, assault rifles don't keep up so well, and have difficulty dealing out enough damage per second to justify continued usage. Still, the really high-end ones like the AS-22RR and the AS-99 are good options on stages with a lot of small fry, and quite usable against robotic walkers, even. Remember: short, controlled bursts.

Sniper Rifles (column 2)
In general, EDF 2 is not the sort of shooter where it pays to set up a pup tent and hump your sniper rifle: the enemies are too fast, aggressive, and numerous, and the instant you plug one of them, everything within half a mile comes running straight for you. Still, sniper rifles are good against bigger, slower enemies like the robotic walkers, excellent for taking down carrier UFOs, and indispensable for the climactic mothership battles. Among the different models, there are trade offs between firepower, accuracy, and the time it takes to chamber a new round. For most purposes, I favor the Lysander series (ライサンダー), which emphasizes destructive power over rate of fire.

Shotguns (column 3)
If years of playing survival horror games have taught us anything, it's that when weird creatures attack, you want to keep a shotgun handy... for close encounters. I was disappointed to find that the shotguns that crop up early in EDF 2 are kind of useless: too slow and random to make up for their paltry increase in firepower over a decent assault rifle. But, shotguns come into their own in the end game, where the extra seconds a Ground Soldier might spend plugging away at a giant spider with a rifle are likely to get him surrounded. The SG-99 is my favorite so far, with decent range and a tight shot spread, reasonable reload time, and abundant stopping power. It puts down most of the bugs in one hit, even in the last missions on Inferno, and tears robots apart from a fairly safe distance.

Rocket Launchers (column 4)
A good rocket launcher, paired with an assault rifle, will get you through the first three difficulty levels of EDF 2, though maybe not get you through in style. I mostly use the Goliath series (ゴリアス), which tend to do more damage, with a larger explosive radius, than other launcher types with more ammo per clip or faster firing. These weapons don't fare very well with the increasing hitpoints of enemies on the higher difficulty levels, though. When you fire your favorite rocket launcher into a swarm of black ants, and they just get thrown into the air with their little legs waving around, you'll know it's time to learn how to use grenade launchers.

Missiles (column 5)
Missiles in EDF 2 are all fire-and-forget; they automatically home in on the single enemy that is closest to the player when the trigger is pulled. I don't have much use for most of them; by and large they're either too weak or too slow to be practical. The Soaring series (ソルリング) multiple-missile launchers are not bad against quick, flying enemies like the gunships: the player can concentrate on rolling and dodging, so long as he remembers to pull the trigger whenever the launcher reloads. The Lucifer S (ルシフェルS), which is awarded for beating all missions on Hardest difficulty, is big fun: a single missile flies up into the stratosphere, then rains down 32 powerful guided bomblets. It takes forever to load, but is worthwhile when fighting large, single enemies (especially the giant centipedes, which it tends to keep at a distance by stunning and knocking them into the air). It's also amusing to set off a Lucifer S when you've mopped up a mission, and all that's left is one poor ant.

Nuke 'em from orbit. It's the only way to be sure. [weapons: Lucifer S, SG-99]

Grenades (column 6)
Grenades are not for the faint of heart, requiring skill to aim and avoid friendly-fire injuries, but they become critical in the endgame of EDF 2. The Sucker Grenade D (サッカーグレネードD) is one of the Ground Soldier's best weapons against hordes of ants, and really his only decent method of dealing with red ant swarms: just shoot one on the ground right in front of you, and back away before the five-second fuse burns down. The G Launcher UM-4A (GランチャーUM-4A), and its upgrade the UM-XA, are some of the best weapons in the game, against pretty much anything. Both do tons of damage, with a wide splash, and have good reload times. The grenades are spat out at high velocity, so their arc is pretty minimal, and detonate on impact, so that they can be used almost like rockets. The UM-XA is devastating against anything from underground spider infestations, to carriers on the opposite side of the city, once you get good at compensating for the projectile's arc, and a develop a sense for the space needed to avoid getting caught within the blast radius. Oh man, I love me some UM-XA.

Special Weapons (column 7)
This category includes a lot of miscellaneous oddball devices, none of them very practical, but with a few that are worth messing around with on easier missions. The Firecracker (かんしゃく玉) series weapons are tiny impact grenades that the Ground Soldier tosses out by the handfull. They're entertaining, but not very powerful. Bound Guns (バウンドガン ) are assault rifles with bullets that ricochet all over the place. They're usable in tunnel missions, but there are probably better options. And then there are the Repair Sprays (リペア ースプ レ ー), which fix small amounts of damage to vehicles, take forever to reload, and are completely pointless.

The Pale Wing Soldier
Short Range Weapons (column 1)
This category includes the most ridiculously overpowered weapons in EDF 2, with the catch that you have to be standing toe-to-toe with the Invader menace to use them. Most short range weapons have the added bonus of loading multiple shots at once, so that you can fire for quite a while without draining your batteries (power is only consumed when a round is loaded, but most other Pale Wing weapons load only one round at a time, and so eat into your energy reserves whenever fired). The Rapier (レイピア ) series includes some of the best weapons in the game; a good Rapier will kill bugs almost instantly, and robots with a few seconds of exposure. Try farming for weapons on red-ant-only stages on Inferno with duel Rapiers (Pale Wing weapons reload passively, so you can be using one while the other is recharging), hopping backward when the ants get close; you can succeed surprisingly early in the game, and pick up crazy loot you shouldn't have access to until much later. Bring along a Ground Soldier friend in 2P mode, and he can share in the advanced weapon bounty, even if he doesn't survive (weapons are distributed evenly between players, regardless of who picks them up). Which he almost certainly won't. Some of the high-end Lances (ランス), such as the Demonic Lance (デモニック・ランス), are also quite good, dealing out huge amounts of damage in single shots.

Fun in the sun, with the Plasma Broom (a Rapier series weapon).

Mid-Range Weapons: Laser (column 2)
As with the short range weapons, these load a supply of shots all at once, and can be used without draining energy until the supply is exhausted. They're good as back up weapons, for use in self-defense in case a more power-hungry primary weapon gets the Pale Wing's batteries low or into recharge mode. However, their range and destructive potential are somewhat disappointing. The LAZR series includes most of the weapons in this category that I have found worthwhile.

Mid-Range Weapons: Electrical (column 3)
The weapons in this category acquired early in EDF 2 are uninspiring: energy hogs that don't do much damage, and are prone to reflecting off of surfaces and zapping the player. A couple of the more advanced lightning weapons are truly excellent, however. The Eclaire-LIM (エ クレ ール-LIM) is still an energy hog that will reflect and instantly kill a player who fires on a target point-blank, but it metes out so much punishment that it's absolutely essential equipment for many Inferno stages. It's better than any other weapon in the game for dispatching fleets of gunships, small UFOs and flying ants, for example, and it's absurdly effective in tunnels, where the shots bounce along the walls frying everything in their path. The Thunderbow 30 (サンダ ーボウ30) is quite similar to the Eclaire-LIM; weaker, but with a capacity to load multiple shots that makes energy budget management easier.

Mid-Range Weapons: Particle Cannons (column 4)
Particle cannons are the Pale Wing equivalent of shotguns and assault rifles; they rapidly dispense discreet shots with so-so accuracy and range. There's a lot of garbage filling out this column, with a couple of minor gems in the mix. The Ixion Mark 4 (イ クシオン・マー ク4) holds its own pretty well, for example, with rapid firing, very powerful shots, and energy consumption so low that it's equal to the battery recharge rate (so, you can hold the fire button down indefinitely without running out of juice). The Ixion and other particle weapons have the property of becoming wildly inaccurate in flight mode, so jet-pack use has to be kept to a minimum when these are equipped.

Long Range Weapons (column 5)
Long range combat options for the Pale Wing are relatively weak and energy-intensive. In situations where it's essential to attack from a distance (for example, shooting down high flying carrier UFOs), the LRSL series of long-range lasers is often the best choice, particularly the LRSL-S and LRSL-AC, if you have them available. The MONSTER-S is tricky, but quite effective in certain special conditions. It's a laser that completely exhausts the batteries in a fraction of a second of firing, but it does such huge amounts of damage that it can be worthwhile to carry for use against distant carriers and queen insects, if the player has got a safe spot to hide out in while she recharges.

Plasma Weapons (column 6)
These are the energy equivalents of the Ground Soldier's grenades and rocket launchers; they're Pale Wing weapons with splash damage. The Plasma Launchers (プラズマ・ランチャー) and related weapons are nice in concept, but there is really nothing in this category that I use, except for messing around on easy missions. They've got good range, but chew up huge chunks of your battery reserves while doing mediocre damage.

Homing Weapons (column 7)
Like missiles, shots fired from these weapons automatically seek out the nearest target, and do some (usually limited) splash damage. The Sai Blade (サイ・ブレード ) series, and especially Sai Blade α, are fun, traveling in a straight line for a kilometer or so, then curving around to blast the heck out of some aliens. You can fire a Sai Blade up in the air and let it find distant enemies, or use it like a rocket against foes in your line of sight. The Mirage (ミラージュ) series of multiple homing lasers (the Mirage 15S may be the best) is good against agile airborne targets, though a bit weak for Inferno difficulty purposes. The Mirage series is also good for executing the "cheese technique," in which the player knocks herself down by shooting at her own feet, in order to gain a period of invincibility. Sometimes, it pays to take a break from the action, if really nasty stuff is incoming or weapons and batteries need to be recharged, or even for distracting an overwhelming wave of enemies, while a buddy lobs grenades into the fray from a safe distance. I dislike making use of methods like the cheese technique, but some particularly intense Inferno missions virtually require it.

Special Weapons (column 8)
These are all devices that create a stationary ball of plasma that emits lightning or beams. They are not aimed, so you have to hope that an enemy stumbles into the wrong place. Pale Wing special weapons are generally pointless, though Heaven's Gate α (ヘ ブンズ・ゲートα) can be surprisingly good against the large swarms of gunships that appear in some missions: just set it off and hang out where the beams are coming down, using the cheese technique to avoid taking damage if necessary. And, how can you pass up using a weapon called Heaven's Gate, at least once in a while?

Overall, EDF 2 gets the strongest possible recommendation from the M.J. Console Gaming Staff: there's no reason not to own this game if you have a Japanese PS2, and it may even be a reason to buy the system if, like me, you have fond memories of Saturday afternoons spent watching Godzilla spinoffs and low budget cold war invasion flicks. There's a European version of EDF 2, but the game hasn't been licensed in the US. Those in the US with an XBox 360 can, however, easily obtain EDF 3, known here as Earth Defense Force 2017. Graphics are much improved in the 360 version, of course, and there are some cool additions, like CPU support troops and a series of autonomous turret weapons. Unfortunately the game is basically a remake of the original EDF, with fewer stages and enemy types than EDF 2, and no Pale Wing Soldier at all. It's still a blast, but the definitive Earth Defense Force game is really EDF 2.

The final battle against the Mothership. Fission mailed.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fansub Wars: Send in the Clowns

The seedier side of the otaku community regularly voices a nasty little script, that starts off with something along the lines of: "I love anime, and I download it all the time, but I never buy it because..." What follows is inevitably disingenuous, myopic, and nauseatingly self-serving. These arguments stunk on ice when people spewed them onto Usenet in 1993, trying to justify their collections of fansub VHS tapes, and they haven't become any less grotesque in the interim.

There's been a lot more of this nonsense lately, thanks to a pair of commentaries on fansubbing and the anime industry, one from Arthur Smith of GDH International condemning the fans for, well, not really being fans in any meaningful sense of the word, and another from Justin Sevakis of Anime News Network that takes the industry to task for not adapting to the changing expectations of the fans. These commentaries were probably themselves inspired by the recent implosion of Geneon (or at least Geneon's US anime licensing and distribution arm), which served as a dramatic demonstration of the sinking fortunes of the anime industry. Smith and Sevakis both, I think, are guilty of some exaggeration, but their basic premises seem sadly accurate.

As if to prove Smith's point, an awful lot of the responses from the fans have been of the "I love anime, but..." type. The reasons these people give for not actually supporting the medium they say they love are various, but usually include some subset of: 1) nobody cares about downloading, 2) it's too much trouble to get DVDs, 3) anime dubs are crappy, 4) it takes too long for things to come out, 5) DVDs aren't HD, 6) downloads are like advertising, and 7) DVDs are too expensive. These are all pathetic, after-the-fact justifications for a policy of grabbing as much free anime as possible regardless of legal or ethical considerations. They're so transparently poor as excuses for bad behavior that it it hardly seems worthwhile to address them individually, but for what it's worth: 1) listen to what the creators say, 2) Amazon, Netflix, 3) "audio" button on the remote, 4) patience is a virtue, 5) upconvert player and decent TV, 6) nobody paid for entertainment before illegal downloading?

Pathetic excuse #7 has a special place in my heart, since I'm a veteran of the days when anime cost $100 for a 40 minute LD. I was a starving student back then, and I own shelves full of those LDs. American DVDs are cheap as hell; I've eaten crappy lunches that cost me more than the average anime DVD that I buy. If you're whining about $20 for five episodes of a show you supposedly like, you're a contemptible loser. I'm not talking about anyone out there who is truly poor, and watches Lucky Star on YouTube at the public library, as his or her sole mental escape from life in the ghetto. I can't speak for the anime companies, but as far as I'm concerned, he or she should go ahead and watch Lucky Star on YouTube. Everyone else, sitting in your suburban basements or patchouli-scented dorm rooms, in front of your $1200 laptops and $40 a month cable modems: just find another goddamned hobby. You're parasites, and the whole anime community--from the overworked, underpaid artists who create the stuff, to the kid saving his allowance to buy a Naruto video--would be better off without you.

Manabi wags her finger admonishingly at fans who don't support anime creators.

Whew. That's about enough of that. I usually try to keep the tone positive here at Moetic Justice, but a nice frothing rant once in a long while is cathartic. I'll close with a few of my own thoughts about the use of downloaded anime, with rant mode off.

I do watch fansubs and raws, as is pretty obvious if you glance at the M.J. archive (or the screencap in this post...). I guess that my rule of thumb for watching downloads has two components. First, I never watch anything via download, beyond a sample episode or two, that I don't wholeheartedly enjoy. Easy enough. Second, I buy or rent everything that I have found I enjoy, plus a healthy sampling of shows that are new to me, when they become legitimately available in the U.S. (and even pick up the occasional R2 disc). Overall, I probably wind up with more anime coming to my monitor from legit DVDs than from fansubs. I like to think that this scheme provides a sort of economic symmetry between what I love and what I pay for, that compensates the creators fairly for their efforts, supports the industry and encourages the production of more of the shows that I like. Who knows if it really does; half of it is still illegal, and the whole is probably terribly hypocritical. At best, it's the copyright infringement equivalent of borrowing without asking. Ah well, it doesn't sound so bad when I put it that way, and hypocrisy is the least of sins.

And, maybe there's a hopeful sign--amid all the recent portents of doom for the anime industry--in the fact that the fansub wars have been simmering for more than a decade. There have always been obnoxious scofflaws who point to their stacks of fansubs, and launch into elaborate explanations of how they love anime, but... However, these people were, and probably still are, in the minority, and anime has done pretty well in spite of them.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

New York Run: New Kinokuniya Now Open!

On Saturday, some friends and I decided to make a shopping expedition to New York City and the Mitsuwa shopping center in Edgewater, NJ. Things went swimmingly: we arrived at Mitsuwa early, then took the shuttle to NYC. The first stop was Rockefeller Plaza, where we poked around the old Kinokuniya bookstore for a bit; the place is looking a bit run-down, but it's still open for business and crammed with goodies. We then strolled over to the Nintendo Store, where expedition driver Suj T. snagged a copy of the elusive US Hajime no Ippo game for the Wii, and expedition navigator Ray C. very nearly bought an olive drab Nintendo jacket.

We ate a tasty and very filling lunch at Yoshinoya (mmm, gyuudon), near Times Square, then made our way to Book Off, on 41st Street, in front of the New York Public Library. I bought a cheap but still unopened copy of the Clannad game music 3-CD box set, and half a dozen volumes of manga, including Elfen Lied 11. I've been following Elfen Lied via the manga for a while now, and I have to report that the scifi plot devices and new characters are getting loopier by the chapter. There's still plenty of melodrama, nudity and richly-deserved decapitations to keep the reader distracted, but overall I get the impression that the anime chose a good point to wrap things up, three or four volumes back.

On the way back to the Port Authority for the return to NJ, we decided to check out the new Kinokuniya location, on the Avenue of the Americas, behind the Library and Bryant Park. We weren't expecting to do anything beyond confirm its location, since the old store was still operating and no official announcement had been made for an opening date. But, lo and behold, the door was propped, and Kinokuniya was open for business! We chatted with a manager, who was helping work out the bugs at the cash registers, and learned that we had happened to arrive on their first day. Even the previous day, apparently, they hadn't been certain when they would be opening.

The new location is really nice, and we had the place almost to ourselves. It's huge for a store in NYC, with three levels. Street level is devoted to magazines, English-language books, tourist information and other materials suited for a general audience. The basement has Japanese novels, business oriented publications, and other stuff of little interest to me. The second floor is almost entirely given over to manga and anime. It looked like they hadn't quite finished stocking it as of Saturday, but I would guess that it already has the largest selection in the Northeast; I spent maybe 45 minutes there, and didn't have time to do anything like a thorough inspection. The second floor also has a cafe, still unfinished. It'll be impressive when it's done, with a seating area overlooking Bryant Park through floor-to-ceiling windows.

Kinokuniya apparently plans to hold an official grand opening sometime in early November. Also, we learned that Takehiko Inoue (of Slam Dunk fame) will be at the store on Nov. 19 as announced previously, to paint a wall mural. However, the events of the 19th may only be open to the press, according to the employee I talked to. It sounds like there will be an attempt to arrange public events with Inoue on Nov. 20, but things seem quite up in the air. I'll be keeping an eye on developments, with a possible return visit in mind.

Loot from my inaugural Kinokuniya raid included the English version of the Welcome to the NHK novel, and the Lucky Star Official Guidebook. The Lucky Star guide, which covers the manga only, is small, but well worth the price (about$14), with 30 pages of color illustrations, then another hundred or so pages of black and white character guides, sketches, and a glossary of L.S. terms. I also picked up the latest Japanese volume of Yotsuba&!, published last Monday. It looks like it will be great stuff, as always, involving more simple, amusing adventures for Yotsuba and friends. One of the appealing aspects of Yotsuba&! is that it makes me feel good about my Japanse ability: the language is basic enough so that I can understand about 95% without cracking open a dictionary, and the other 5% is obvious from context. I wonder when there will be an anime adaptation? It seems like an obvious candidate.

After Kinokuniya, we retreated to Mitsuwa, had dinner at the UCC Cafe (mmm, curry rice), stocked up at the supermarket, and drove back to Connecticut. All in all, it was an excellent trip.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Summer 2007 Anime Rundown

A useful piece of otaku jargon I picked up recently is yandere, which describes a character who is gentle and loving, but with a capacity for anger that can turn murderous. Yandere is derived from the verb yanderu--"to be sick"--and deredere, which is slang for mushy and lovestruck, probably by analogy to tsundere ("haughty and aloof but turning loving"). With an anime adaptation of the notoriously bloody visual novel School Days, and a sequel to When They Cry: Higurashi airing in Japan, the cups of yandere fans runeth over this summer. (Just to clarify, by "yandere fans," I mean people who appreciate yandere characters, not fans who seem pleasant enough, if clingy, until they go on homicidal rampages with icepicks.)

From the new batch of TV anime (22 in total), I intend to follow five shows (in approximate descending order of enthusiasm): Higurashi Kai, School Days, Doujin Work, Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei and Moetan. I've caught an episode or two of some other possibly worthy entertainments (e.g.: Nanatsuiro Drops (Rainbow Drops) for high-quality pseudo-shoujo magical girl adventure, or Mushi-uta (Insect Song) for shounen fighting with giant arthropods), but there's still a bunch of good spring shows airing, and stacks of DVDs to watch; one has to draw the line somewhere.

Doujin Work (Fan-produced Work)
These days, the anime scene has almost reached the point where it's tough to find a show that doesn't include the odd otaku character or anime in-joke; even relatively mainstream productions like Sgt. Frog include episodes that consist of 20% Gundam and Eva references (by volume), apparently without anyone batting an eye. Still, it's rare to see an anime that unapologetically wallows in otaku subcultural ephemera to the extent that Doujin Work does.

Najimi, whom narrative clues mercifully indicate to be older than she looks (about 20, I'm guessing), has just been fired. Under the evil influences of her artist friend Tsuyuri and natty Comiket veteran Justice, she decides that working for a living is for suckers, and that the real money is in drawing porn doujinshi (fan comics). Doujin Work is decadent, if not downright offensive, but also fast and very funny. Overall, it's a nice change of pace from the more sanitized view presented in that earlier anime set in the world of doujinshi artists, Comic Party.

Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai (When the Cicadas Cry: Solutions)
One of my favorites from 2006 returns, with somewhat more expensive-looking animation, a great new opening sequence (though maybe not quite as great as the first season's OP), and more clues to the mysteries that fueled many a late night bull session last spring. Higurashi Kai starts a bit slowly, with an episode set in the present day (i.e., 24 years after the main story), which functions mostly to review the events of Tsumihoroboshi-hen (The Atonement Chapter), where the first season left off. It then moves into new territory, with an anime-original story arc called Yakusamashi-hen (The Awakening Disaster Chapter), which will cover material from various early sound novel chapters that was omitted or downplayed in the first season of the anime. Yakusamashi-hen starts off innocently enough, with the Hinamizawa game club playing a round of "zombie tag" (definitely one of the more amusing club activities from the portion of the sound novels that I've read), but even here, there are hints of the paranoia, supernatural creepiness and abject terror that is sure to follow.

Higurashi Kai
is sort of an obvious summer recommendation from me. Higurashi's mix of cute anime girls and slow-burn rustic horror appeals strongly to my sense of aesthetics, although I can see where it might put off other viewers. But, damned if this show isn't shaping up to be the best of the season, with all of the strengths of the original series intact, and the defects pretty well plastered over, like the door to a hidden room in the basement of a decrepit mountain farmhouse.

Moetan (acronym: Methodology of English, the Academic Necessity)
Moetan is loosely adapted from, of all things, the first volume [] of a series of unofficial (very unofficial) English-language study guides with moe illustations, intended for Japanese high school students cramming for college entrance exams. A friend who teaches English in Japan tells me that some of her pupils have admitted--under pressure--to owning copies of Moetan and using it to study. English usage tends to be a bit funky in Moetan, but it's good enough for government work, I guess.

The Moetan anime has plot issues, as you might expect. The textbook incarnation included a running story about Magical Teacher Ink Pastel, and her mentor Aa-kun, who is a lecherous talking duck, trying to help ordinary teenager Nao-kun study and get into college, but most of the book is just English vocabulary and sample sentences (example: "Repair. The robotic maid was damaged to protect her master. It was impossible for her to be repaired."). The anime fleshes things out a bit, with more background for Ink and Aa-kun, and the addition of some new characters, but the story's a bit by-the-numbers. The main attractions in Moetan are definitely the POP character designs, which have made the transition to animation in fine form, and the periodic eruptions of mangled English. You can decide for yourself whether that's enough to carry a TV show through a season.

Sayonara Zetsubou-sensei (So Long, Mr. Despair)
Nozomu Itoshiki is a teacher in modern Japan (who seems to think that it's the year 1910), whose mood ranges from despondent to suicidal. His foil is one of his students, Kafuka Fuura, who is giddily, nay pathologically, optimistic. Together, they start a new school year, provide guidence and comfort to the troubled souls of Fuura's classmates, and generally do their best not to stumble into the black abyss of meaningless suffering and dread at the heart of existence. Without much success, I might add: it's Mr. Despair's world, and Fuura is just visiting.

Zetsubou-sensei is the sort of thing I might watch out of sheer amazement that somebody: A) animated it, and B) broadcast it on TV. But it's also quite an enjoyable viewing experience, if you appreciate gallows humor, obscure Japanese wordplay (Nozomu Itoshiki can be misread as "despair," if written horizontally with two of the kanji squashed together), and quirky to experimental visuals.

School Days
School Days is based on a visual novel (opening animation from the game, on YouTube), known for its lavish animated sequences, and love triangles that can go wrong in traumatic ways if the player doesn't pick the right path. Makoto Itou has a crush on Kotonoha Katsura, a school idol-type girl who is quiet and unapproachable. Makoto's classmate Sekai Saionji is a cheerful girl, who learns about his interest in Kotonoha and decides to help the two get together. In some bishoujo anime, relationships would develop smoothly towards a happy conclusion from there, at least for the chosen leads, but even someone who has avoided spoilers from the visual novel (as I've tried to) gets the impression that there will be serious complications and consequences in School Days.

The dark-eyed ultramoe character designs and high production values in School Days are reason enough to watch, as far as I'm concerned. Add to that the promise of sensitive characterization and the occasional shocking dramatic development, and the show is an easy recommendation.

That's it for the summer, so far. My selections this time are pretty heavy on disturbing stories, possibly involving off-label use of gardening tools, and totally "maniac" otaku-oriented stuff. If you're in the mood for some healthier viewing, check out the late-starting spring anime Dennou Coil (Cyber Coil), a slice-of-life/adventure show about children growing up in near-future Japan, where a virtual world is subtly superimposed on the the real world, for those wearing special glasses. Coil is a high-end production from Japan's public broadcasting system [Welcome to the NHK joke suppressed], and is excellent in every way, apart from a willingness to borrow from Hayao Miyazaki films that occasionally verges on the actionable. Then again, there are worse places to swipe ideas for your anime.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Newtype in Lucky Star, and Vice Versa

In Lucky Star episode 8, Konata gets her postcard published in the June 2007 issue of Newtype (she says the May issue in the dialogue, but the June issue shows up in the animation). Some people have been wondering what, if anything, appears in the actual magazine. Here it is...

Konata's card is the one showing Akira abusing Shiraishi, if that isn't obvious. The scrawl on the card reads: "Akira-chan, hang in there! yay." Above the card, it says "Are you watching Lucky☆Star?," then prints Konata's message: "Akira-chan, I'm pleased to meet you. You always make Lucky☆Channel so much fun. I'm a huge fan of the always-cheerful Akira-chan☆ I'll be rooting for you from here on, so hang in there, OK!"

The purple caption under the card says: "Saitama Prefecture/Izumi Konata, age 17: We wish you'd be a little bit more considerate of Shiraishi-kun."

To the left of the card, the commentary reads: "Lucky☆Channel, the same within the TV program Lucky☆Star or on the radio. Your message of support for that super-idol with the powerful personality, Kogami Akira-san, has been received."

I suppose there's an aspect of gratuitous corporate self-promotion to having a Lucky Star character submit Lucky Channel fan mail to Newtype magazine (they're all Kadokawa-Shoten properties), but it's also pretty darn entertaining. The scene in the anime is funny on its own, with Konata joyfully showing off her work, getting depressed when Kagami says that she's amazed they published something like that, then cheering up again when Kagami struggles to put a more positive spin on her comments. The anime never shows what Konata's drawing looks like, and when you run across it in Newtype, it's completely hilarious.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Spring 2007 Anime Rundown

Busy, busy, busy. I’m going to try something a bit different this spring, and choose seven representative anime to review, out of the 50 new TV series. These seven are more or less the ones I intend to follow myself. I’ll briefly mention some others that I’ve seen, where they seem to fit in. Reviews are based on only the first two or three episodes of each show, and so will undoubtedly contain some misapprehensions.

Bokurano (Our)
There seem to be more than the usual number of Evangelion-inspired (to put it charitably) sci-fi anime out there this season, but for me, Bokurano has been the one that stands out. A group of 15 middle and elementary school students on a class trip to the seashore meet an absent minded professor-type named Kokopelli, who signs them on to try a “game,” where they will defend the Earth from a series of 15 attackers, using a giant robot. Of course, the robot and the invaders turn out to be real (as near as the viewer can tell, so far), and after showing them the ropes, Kokopelli leaves the students and their robot to fend for themselves.

I haven’t read the original manga, but it’s clear from the first two episodes that Bokurano is going to be bleak stuff: there are strong and early hints that the use of the robot comes at a high price. The robot itself is half a kilometer tall, a mountain of black armor atop impossibly thin legs, and it gives the simultaneous impressions of having an ethereal, dreamlike existence, and also of being tremendously dangerous. It’s almost like something out of Mamoru Nagano, but nastier, and thoroughly inhuman. Also memorable is the robot’s control room, which consists of a circle of assorted tag-sale chairs floating in the center of a projection of the outside scenery (best new cosplay idea for the spring: 15 friends and 15 mismatched chairs).

I’m intrigued by Bokurano: it’s got a great setup, a unique visual style, lots going on beneath the surface, and an opening that might have been the best of the season, if it wasn’t up against the unholy power of the Lucky Star OP. It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles its large cast, and lack of an obvious main character, though one possible strategy is suggested at the end of the second episode… As with other Gonzo productions, I’m also concerned about how well the animation quality will hold up. While the OP is impeccable, the CG robot action within the show is a bit clunky.

Other Eva-ish robot options this season include Idolmaster: Xenoglossia, which is recommended in spite of—or because of, according to taste—the fact that it seems to involve neither idol singing nor Pentecostal ritual. There’s also Gigantic Formula, a humorless hash of G-Gundam and several other better super robot shows.

Set in an alternate medieval Europe, where monsters called yoma feed on hapless villagers, and Spandex was invented 500 years early, Claymore chronicles the travels of a monster hunter named Clare. Clare is a Claymore, half human and half yoma, who is able to detect yoma and fight them on equal footing. She’s too late to save one boy’s family in the first episode, though, and winds up taking on young Raki as a cook.

Blood-soaked seinen (young adult male-oriented) action ahoy! Dark and violent, Claymore invites comparisons to Berserk. It’s more action-heavy, though, and I suspect it won’t have the same depth of character development, or the slowly building sense of supernatural dread, that distinguished Berserk. On the plus side, Claymore does look like it’s working with a reasonable budget, unlike the anime version of Berserk.

For more young women killing stuff left and right, you might check out Murder Princess, an amusing new OAV, probably more comparable to Bastard!! than Berserk, which delivers—wholesale—exactly what the title would lead you to expect it to deliver. On the TV front, Kaibutsu Oujo (Monster Princess) follows the queen of the monsters as she battles rebellious former subjects, with the aid of a schoolboy she brings back from the dead, and, if the opening is to be taken literally, a chrome-plated chainsaw(!!). Also, Bee Train has produced another conspiracy-riddled girls-with-guns semi-sequel to Noir, called El Cazador de la Bruja (The Cazador of the Bruja*). Help yourself, as the New York Times TV reviewers used to write about movies they didn’t care for, but felt were good examples of their genre.

Hayate no Gotoku! (Hayate the Combat Butler)
Through various unlikely circumstances, the impoverished Hayate Ayasaki winds up working as the butler/bodyguard for young heiress Nagi Sanzenin, who is beset by a constant stream of kidnappers, assassins, and runaway military robots. Hilarity ensues, Shounen Sunday style.

I contend that it’s impossible to go too far wrong with an anime titled Hayate the Combat Butler. The humor in Hayate is somewhat scattershot, but the show throws out so many jokes per minute that there’s bound to be something going on to keep you amused at any given point. Highlights from the anime’s numerous running gags include regular breaks in the fourth wall, Hayate’s dubious original theology (featuring Santa as conscience and Lord of Creation), and Norio “Coach” Wakamoto—one of the most recognizable voices in anime—playing the Voice of Heaven. Glancing at Wakamoto's profile on ANN just now, I see that he used to work for the Tokyo Riot Police, which seems reasonable: if you were rioting, and Norio Wakamoto asked you to stop, you probably would.

Lucky Star
Those with an interest in, or at least a tolerance for, low key, character-based Japanese humor, small slice-of-life stories, and pastel anime girls, will do well to check out Lucky Star, the latest from production house Kyoto Animation. My other reader(s?) can skip a couple of paragraphs ahead, where I’ll list some alternatives.

Here is how Lucky Star works: high school friends Konata Izumi, the Hiiragi sisters, and Miyuki Takara go about their somewhat funnier than ordinary lives for a while; one typical and instantly famous/notorious scene consists of the girls talking at length about what they’re having for lunch. Then, a bitter and lethally sarcastic teen idol, Akira Kogami, and her long-suffering co-host, show up and discuss the episode for a few minutes. Next, the credits run, with Konata singing an obscure Nixon-era anime theme behind the closed door of a karaoke box. Finally, you feel compelled to start the episode again and watch the OP—which is the audiovisual equivalent of crack cocaine—over and over until you pass out.

Lucky Star is not really laugh-out-loud funny most of the time, nor is it trying to be, but the characters are engaging, and their antics are sure to keep you smiling. It’s arguably pretty lightweight stuff, though Cruel Angel Theses points out a possible feminist interpretation of the show’s undeniably subversive take on traditional gender roles. That might be reading too much into it, but it’s worth pondering. The simple, cartoony (as it were) animation in Lucky Star is not exactly what people have come to expect from KyoAni, but it fits the story, and is spot-on where it needs to be: character movement and facial expressions are superb. All in all, Lucky Star will be a most excellent way to spend Monday evenings for the next 21 weeks.

The following shows are radically different from Lucky Star: Darker than Black, a sci-fi/occult thriller from studio Bones, has a fantastic setting, great music (by Yoko Kanno) and cool action sequences, though the whole thing is a bit on the bloody-minded side. Over Drive is sports anime about a guy who starts off not even able to keep a bicycle upright and, you have to assume, ends up turning into some kind of ultra 2-times Lance Armstrong. Romeo X Juliet, studio Gonzo’s stab at adapting Shakespeare, is fairly enjoyable if you forget everything you know about the play. Done and done.

Mahou Shoujo Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS (Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS)
Nanoha has become something of an institution among post-millennial anime fans. Earlier Nanoha series are well regarded for their dramatic plots, in which fundamentally decent people are forced into conflict by cruel circumstance. The franchise is also noted for its explosive magical girl-on-magical girl combat. Nanoha Takamachi’s most basic spell, Divine Buster—the spell she would hypothetically use to open recalcitrant jars of pickles—unleashes a veritable fire hose of million-degree plasma (image). Million-degree plasma and justice. Being a decent person, Nanoha stages her big battles out at sea, well away from any vulnerable island nations.

StrikerS is set 10 years after the events in the previous installment, M.G.L.N. A’s. Nanoha and friends, now magical women, are working as full-time mages, with Nanoha training new recruits for the time-space cops. The previous two series managed a steady increase in animation quality over time, and Nanoha StrikerS continues this happy trend. It does, however, seem less focused than the earlier series, in part because it has accumulated a very large cast of characters, who all need air time. There’s also a certain amount of tasteful fanservice in the new Nanoha. The franchise has always been pseudo-shoujo anime—with the form of a magical girl show, but aimed at an older anime-fan audience—but prior to StrikerS things were kept squeaky-clean. None of this is putting us off of StrikerS here at Moetic Justice, mind you; we’re made of sterner stuff than that.

Viewers interested in checking out some true shoujo anime this season are advised to try Lovely Complex, a romantic comedy set in Osaka, and loaded with Kansai region local color. I’d like to see more anime set outside of the confines of metro-Tokyo, in general, and working-class Osaka in particular is a city that interests me (I spent a few weeks there, years ago).

Yorito Morimiya is up and about before dawn, preparing to take pictures of the sky at sunrise, when he runs across Matsuri Shihou, who is struggling with a malfunctioning vending machine. Matsuri vanishes before Yorito can free her canned soup from the machine. We learn that Matsuri is actually some sort of supernatural entity, and that she’s being hounded by other creatures of the night. Soon enough, she’s taking refuge in Yorito’s house, creating awkward situations with Yorito’s human girlfriend, and horrifying the mundanes with her questionable preferences in clearance-sale instant noodles.

Sola is being released as a nearly simultaneous blitz of manga, anime and game, so there’s no pre-installed fan base for it to rely upon. It seems to be catching on quickly, though, at least in part because of original character designs by Naru Nanao, the divine empress of moe illustrators. Matsuri herself is so moe, one suspects she’s secretly taking some kind of supplement made from ground-up mascot characters from old magical girl anime, in addition to whatever unspeakable nourishment she derives from the avocado ramen she consumes on-screen. Story-wise, sola is not terribly original, but it’s handled well, with an appealingly somber tone, broken up by periodic light-hearted moments.

There are plenty of other bishoujo anime to choose from, if sola isn’t your cup of tea. Touka Gettan (“Standing in Awe of the Moon, Under the Peach Blossoms,” is I think sort of what the title implies, maybe) holds some interest, but is mysterious to the point of leaving you wondering if it is about anything, other than beautiful young people standing around in storms of pink petals. Nagasarete Airantou (Castaway on Airan Island) is a harem comedy about a boy who finds himself stranded on an island with a 100% female population. As a biologist, I have some questions about the feasibility of that premise, but this post is getting too long as it is.

Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (Heavenly Breakthrough Gurren Lagann)
With Gurren Lagann, studio Gainax returns to the robot anime genre on broadcast TV, for the first time in 12 years. Protagonist Simon seems doomed to live out his days underground in a claustrophobic subterranean town, until, while going about his job of drilling out new living space, he finds a robot. Simon, along with his ne’er do well pal Kamina and the trigger-happy Yoko, make their way to the surface using the robot, and begin their adventures in a new world without sheltering walls.

A frequent running theme in previous Gainax works has been: real men and real women breaking out of their fated roles, and fighting the powers that be. In Royal Space Force, the antagonists were bean-counting politicians; Gunbuster pitted its heroines against the avatars of an incomprehensible, indifferent cosmos; in Evangelion the oppressor was, basically, God. More recently, FLCL started off with rebellion against the petty tyranny of ordinary day-to-day life, then moved into a cosmic struggle of almost Gunbuster-like proportions. Gurren Lagann looks like it will fall into the FLCL pattern (the director, Hiroyuki Imaishi, was an animation director for FLCL), with foreshadowing of epic space battles right from the first episode. The visual style of Gurren Lagann is also very much in the FLCL tradition, with simple designs, animated in a fluid, dynamic way, and chock-full of Freudian symbolism.

Gurren Lagann is shaping up to be a fantastic show. It’s not quite a return to the golden age of Gainax anime, but it’s a big step in the right direction. Let's hope that a messy online squabble between Gainax staffers and faceless whiney dorks ("fair and balanced" is our motto at M.J.) doesn't cause the studio to retreat from potential sources of future controversy.

Other sci-fi offerings this season include Rocket Girls, a light drama about a near-future project to create a manned Japanese space program. The emphasis in Rocket Girls is on realism (it’s the sort of show with space agencies listed in the credits), with minor concessions involving form-fitting spacesuits and 17-year-old pilots. For bombastic mythological space adventure in the tradition of 1930s pulp magazines, check out Heroic Age. The robot animation in Heroic Age looks a lot like Makoto Shinkai's works, which is not a bad thing.

There’s a glut of good stuff out there this spring, but I’ll more or less be confining myself to the seven anime reviewed above. I guess I’m feeling especially enthusiastic about Lucky Star and Gurren Lagann. On the horizon for the summer, I’ll be looking forward to Higurashi no Naku Koro ni Kai, as well as the anime adaptation of Moetan, which has up to this point been a series of English language study guides** for the otaku generation.

Here is one more chance for the Lucky Star OP to violate your cerebral cortex, on YouTube’s dime, and with stop-motion Gundam models instead of animation: Lucky Star OP, Gun-Pla Version.

*My Spanish is, if anything, even more hilariously inadequate than my Japanese.
**Given rather broad definitions of the terms “study guide” and “English.”

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Vegetable SOS Brigade?

So, does this photo of a South African desert plant bear a resemblance to the final frame in the ending animation of a certain Kyoto Animation production, or is it just that my brain's been addled by borderline obsessive viewing of the Lucky Star OP?For reference, here's the grand finale to the ED sequence from The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (YouTube)...
The plant in the photo is Dactylopsis digitata, a deeply peculiar native of the quartz flats of the Knersvlakte region of western South Africa. It's in full bloom and quite healthy, just a bit wilted and yellowed as it begins a long summer dormancy. The photo was taken by DJ Ambient, while he was visiting Mesa Garden, in June of 2005. DJ Ambient--who I know through botanical channels--emailed it to me out of the blue, simply because he thought I'd be interested in a good image of a plant that almost nobody cultivates. He noticed a funny resemblance to people dancing, but certainly knew nothing of Haruhi. The image has been 'shopped, but only in order to remove a busy background (the original can be seen here).

The match isn't exact--Dactylopsis Kyon and Koizumi are facing the wrong ways, and there's a blurry extra stem behind Dactylopsis Haruhi--but it's pretty close. It's more convincing, I think, than the water-stain Marian apparitions that reporters puzzle over on slow news days. What are the chances that five stems on the plant would grow that way, that someone would take a picture at just the right stage of the plant's senescence, and that it would get emailed to a person who would understand its significance, two years later? The mind boggles. I'm converting to Haruhi-ism.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

A History of Fansubbing

Part 3: Early Digital Subtitles.

This April, we continue a series of articles on the history of fan-subtitled anime in the English-speaking world, with a discussion of the almost forgotten early days of digital fansubs. In the early- to mid-1990s, growing fan dissatisfaction with analog media for exchanging anime, such as Video Home System (VHS) tapes and crude homebrew laserdiscs (LDs) fashioned from Tupperware and aluminum foil (see Part 2) led a small group of pioneers to experiment with distribution schemes for digital video. The internet did not exist as such at the time, however, and existing technology such as magnetic core memory proved too bulky and unstable to physically ship between fans. A high-tech solution for the distribution problem was offered by the invention, in 1992, of the punch card (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Legendary fansubber Bryce Carson edits his latest project (ca. 1993).

Punch cards are light and able to store large amounts of data, up to 6 kilobytes in a standard 25 kilogram carton of cards. Early fansubbers, often impoverished college students eager to save on postage, created an innovative compression method called American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) art, in order to pack as much anime as possible into a shipment of cards. Sophisticated subtitling groups such as the Urusei Yatsura Project (UYP) drew full-color ASCII art representations of every frame of animation, by hand, then applied nearly professional-quality subtitles, based on translations by members who had become fluent in Japanese by listening to weekly Nippon Housou Kyoukai (NHK) news broadcasts on shortwave radio (Fig. 2). Dialogue, music and sound effects were represented by rich, life-like 3-bit digital sound.

Fig. 2. Frame from the 1994 UYP subtitle of Top o Nerae! Gunbuster, ep. 3.

Other fansub groups, such as Polar Animation, focused less on the technical excellence of their subtitles, and more on translating large amounts of anime. Polar was able to release full runs of several dozen series, including Kimagure Orange Road (Fig. 3), by employing a cutting-edge automated program to rapidly generate ASCII video. This program ran on top-of-the-line Amiga computers, reported to be on loan from the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). Early Polar subs were subject to some artifacting from the ASCII compression process, and sported translations that were often less literal than hardcore fans demanded, but most observers feel that these difficulties were adequately addressed in the group’s later efforts (Fig. 4).

Fig. 3. Earlier Polar Animation subs lacked refinement. (Frame from Kimagure Orange Road, ep. 17).

In spite of advances in compression technology, distribution of digital subtitles by mail remained relatively expensive and slow. A single 25-minute TV episode, which could be stored on about 80 kilograms of punch cards, would have cost $1.25 to ship from Utica to Bangor in 1994, or approximately $420.00 in 2007 dollars. With a shipping time of 3-4 business days, the postal method achieved transfer rates of only 0.000000088 kilobytes per second (kbps).

Fig. 4. Sample frame from a later Polar Animation subtitle (Maison Ikkoku ep. 62).

Resourceful fans living near estuaries developed a clever method of transferring fansubs via laminated punch cards, carried by the ebb and flood of the tides (Fig. 5). Multiple fans could take part in distributing a video file, with individual users retrieving cards from the water, duplicating them, and returning cards to the current for others to share. This method was called bit torrent (BT), and could reach transfer speeds of nearly 0.00000046 kbps. A related technique, direct download (DDL) was even faster, but was practical only in urban settings, where cartons of punch cards could be gravitationally transferred from a sender on the upper floors of a building, to a receiver (or “leecher”) at ground level. New York University students, in December of 1996, used DDL to transfer the entire Patlabor TV series—on 11.4 metric tons of punch cards—from the top of the Chrysler Building to viewers at street level. The students managed to record, at the moment of file receipt, a data transfer rate of 438 gigabytes per second, which is impressive even when compared to the speed of present-day cable modems.

Fig. 5. Bit torrent file transfer in progress at Hell Gate, New York, ca. 1996.

But even at the height of the first digital subtitle boom, the days of watching anime recorded on punch cards were numbered. Production of new digital subtitles was dealt a serious blow in February of 1997, when the entire Polar Animation staff died in a tragic Feng Shui-related accident, while attending a party in a dormitory lounge furnished in a catastrophically unharmonious manner. VHS tape, despite markedly inferior video quality, made a temporary resurgence. The final blow to punch card fansub distribution was delivered by the internet, which was invented on March 4, 1999, by Al Sharpton.

Please look forward to part 4 of A History of Fansubbing, titled “HD-VCD: The Future of Anime?” It’s coming soon, and will be made available on bit torrent.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Higurashi Matsuri Preview

Here's a sample of the new Higurashi PS2 game; theoretically, it comes out this Thursday. If the whole thing is narrated or voice acted, as the video indicates, I'll totally be able to pick up 20-30% of it, maybe more for the bits that appeared in the anime ^_^ From watching this sample, I'm not quite sure if all the seiyuu are same as in the anime. We'll see, later this week! If it isn't delayed again.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

U.S. Gunbuster DVDs!

There have been significant advances in animation techniques in the past 20 years, as becomes immediately obvious to a present-day otaku watching just about any anime from the 1980s. In general, character designs have gotten more consistent and more attractive, backgrounds more detailed and realistic, animation of movement and action cleaner and more convincing. It's not that modern anime has become uniformly better, even on a purely technical level, but it's undeniable that current productions do more with their animation resources, simply because new and improved ideas about how to, say, animate an explosion, have been invented. Top o Nerae! Gunbuster (Aim for the Top! Gunbuster) is about the only anime from ca. 1988 that a naive viewer might almost think was a high-end modern OVA. Gunbuster was many years ahead of its time, and not so much because it happened to resemble what anime would become, but because present-day anime came to resemble Gunbuster.

Gunbuster was, for example, the first commercial "meta-anime," the first anime made by fans, consciously aimed at an audience of anime fans. Initially content to deftly parody beloved shoujo melodramas, hero shows, sports manga and robot anime, Gunbuster went on to surprise viewers by turning serious, synthesizing something new and unexpectedly powerful from its mélange of inspirations. Gunbuster pilot Noriko Takaya was probably the first anime character who was herself an anime fan, and writer Toshio Okada and writer/director Hideaki Anno weren't content with playing Noriko's otakudom for a few self-referential chuckles. Instead, they use it to turn the show's framework of relativistic space travel into a metaphor for the indefinitely extended adolescence of young people in prosperous modern societies (as has been noted by several commentators over the years, including Ryusuke Hikawa in the liner notes for the new U.S. DVDs).

Of course, Gunbuster is a heck of a lot of fun to watch, subtle and prescient social commentary aside. You know those Lively Internet Debates about which fictional entity would win in a fight? The answer is always Gunbuster. Both Death Stars, 500 Borg Cubes, any two Heralds of Galactus, Great Cthulhu and Dick Cheney with a shotgun and a coffee mug of Everclear? Gunbuster takes them all in style, with Noriko and Kazumi yelling out the names of the moves they're using, just before turning their opponents into smoking holes in the space-time continuum. The show dishes out apocalyptic space opera on a scale not approached before or since (with the possible exception of Ideon), in anime or film, and if you can keep yourself from giggling with glee as the Gunbuster starts incinerating carrier-class aliens the size of planets, you're a better person than me.

My region 1 DVD box arrived last night, and there was much rejoicing: I've been waiting for subtitled Gunbuster in some kind of decent, non-VHS format since, oh, about 1990. In most respects, the new set from Bandai Visual's boutique Honneamise line is everything I was hoping for: excellent video quality, a proper translation, and top-quality packaging and liner notes. Extras on the DVDs include all six science lessons (including the two made for the Okaerinasai LD Box set), original trailers from the '80s, and new short animations exploring facets of the story that are relegated to the background in the main OVAs, like the workings of the "Sizzler" mass-production Gunbusters. Totally sweet.

I really wish that this post could be a piece of pure, unapologetic boosterism for a new release of one of my favorite anime of all time, but there is a significant problem with Bandai Visual's Gunbuster. The training sequence in the first episode was originally set to a piece of music called Honou no Tokkun (Blazing Special Training), which is a pastiche of the theme from Chariots of Fire. Apparently, someone at the home office in Japan got spooked by America's litigious reputation, and replaced the training music with the preparation-for-battle music used in episode 4, Sakusen Kaishi (Commence Operation). The sound in this part of the episode also seems distant and fuzzy. I've got my tapes and LDs to fall back on if I want to hear the original, and I'm not sure that a more casual Gunbuster enthusiast would even notice that anything was amiss, but to me Sakusen Kaishi in the context of the first episode just sounds jarring and wrong. In the end, it's not the sort of thing that would stop me from picking up the DVD set, but it's a blemish on what should have been one of the anime highlights of the year for American fans.