Junker Woland

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Giant Robotic Stick in the Eye

Being a fan can be painfully hard at times and take enormous amounts of hard work and guts to get through those difficult periods.

What follows are many, many words devoted to Gunbuster—a classic anime title if there ever was one—and why I’m thoroughly upset over 90 seconds of background music being changed for the show’s first North American DVD release.

The year is 1988, and you’re celebrating eight years of life with a party attended by most of your second grade classmates. Tiny paper plates decorated with garish balloons and red plastic cups blanket every available surface of your home, kids dance spastically to friendly hip-hop music, all the while a pile of birthday offerings stacked on the kitchen table begs to be attacked—they’re the real reason for this shindig. Your school chums can all go straight to hell, “Give me the presents.” The obligatory pizza finally arrives, is eaten, and bland cake distributed. Gift time, and there’s only one box you want, the one containing the single item you had your Mother promise to buy: a Donatello action figure from The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Scanning the wrapped specimens for what’s obviously the desired toy, you see Mom’s name on the appropriate package, which you snatch and immediately liberate from its paper prison. Raphael, the red turtle, sneers back at you.

As we speak, the rough equivalent of getting Raphael instead of Donatello is slogging its way to my house via the tireless efforts of the US Postal Service. What I’m talking about is Bandai Visual’s anime DVD release of Top wo Nerae! (Aim for the Top!), also known simply as Gunbuster.

Japan has been steadily churning out countless animated series on a yearly basis, since Osamu Tezuka’s Tetsuwon Atom first appeared on television sets in the early 1960s. While anime can certainly be considered a form of entertainment art, it’s also a product made to feed the voracious consumer appetites of young children and adult males who spend their money on six inch plastic figures of saucer-eyed schoolgirls with removable skirts. Each season sees another onslaught of new shows, the majority of which are forgotten about in less than five years as their luster fades and product tie-ins dwindle, leaving only a few rare gems to endure in the hearts of fans that years from now will find themselves re-buying these same series on the DVD’s successor to play in super-high definition.

Gunbuster is just such an anime.

Back in 1988, a young Japanese animation studio named Gainax—and a director who’d one day make a movie where a 14 year old boy jerks-off to the body of a comatose 14 year old girl—were taking virgin steps into the OVA (Original Video Animation) market; for the uninitiated, OVAs are a direct-to-video format allowing for greater overall production quality at the expense of a limited episode count. Their efforts resulted a work many fans of Japanese animation still consider to be a masterpiece, Top wo Nerae!. The Gainax of today is a major player in the anime industry best known for their ultra stylish shows, expertly crafted to sell expensive product lines from PVC figures to soft drinks, all with a penchant for blowing the minds of teenagers, eager to find hidden meaning in every colossal, disembodied hand clutching a clothing iron-shaped office building that continually belches out steam, but there was a time when this same animation studio’s name was synonymous with a reputation for being founded by anime and manga otaku (obsessive fans), a fact they later showcased in their semi-biographical piece, Otaku no Video.

Top wo Nerae!—crafted during those bygone days when a small and determined fan-run studio was trying to carve out a niche for themselves in the anime industry—is a show of polar opposites, evolving over six episodes from lighthearted schoolyard comedy into heroic tear-jerking drama. It’s a superlative example of what can be achieved in the animation medium when there’s a tight script and strong wills guiding a work towards the finale. This might seem hard to shallow with a title parodying Top Gun and a well known tennis anime, Ace wo Nerae! (Aim for the Ace!), even more so when the series is generally full of references to other shows and doesn’t mind occasionally borrowing a thematic element or two…or three. And yet, as Gunbuster transitions into a hard-nosed sci-fi epic for the second act, it manages to rises above being a purely derivative work, played solely for laughs, and become a uniquely poignant story of bravery and sacrifice.

My own Gunbuster fandom was born the moment I came home in 1990 with a clamshell VHS case—covered in gorgeous Haruhiko Mikimoto artwork—and watched the first of three tapes officially released in North America by the now defunct US Renditions. Far from my initial tryst with Japan’s indigenous 2D animated entertainment and long after the enticing, almost voyeuristic, lure of viewing an inherently alien production had worn off, Gunbuster still managed to sear itself into my consciousness as the final scene of episode six rolled up the television screen. “Welcome Home.”

Manga Entertainment purchased most of US Renditions’ anime catalogue in the mid-90s and reissued their titles under its own label, helping this relatively new company to enjoy some notable success during the remainder of the VHS dominant days of home video. As the decade drew to a close with the anime industry increasingly shifting support towards DVD as their preferred release medium, Manga Entertainment failed to embrace the new technology in the same capacity of its peers; their early DVDs were plagued with problems, and older titles only slowly trickled onto retail shelves in the new disc format—except for Gunbuster, left to perpetually waste away on out-of-print VHS tapes.

By the time Gainax produced the first episode of its sequel, Top wo Nerae! 2, in late 2004, the original Gunbuster had become something of a lost relic in the US anime community; Japan, on the other hand, had already received two DVD releases of the series: a standard film-to-disc transfer in 2000/2001, and a special box-set remastered edition in 2004. Younger fans drawn to Top2 by its lush animation and FLCL styling suddenly found themselves eager to view the preceding work, while those of us who fondly remembered watching Gunbuster on VHS eyed the Japanese discs, jealously hungering for DVDs of our own. The first encouraging news appeared in early 2006, when Manga Entertainment disclosed they no longer held the license to Top wo Nerae!; then several months later at AnimeExpo, Bandai Visual USA—the American arm of the company responsible for producing Top wo Nerae!—finally announced what many North American anime fans had been waiting to hear: not only had Gunbuster been licensed, the company went over the top and secured rights to the limited edition Japanese DVD remastered version.

And so here we are today. Bandai Visual’s Gunbuster DVD was officially released on February 20, 2007, though many online retailers began shipping preordered copies earlier in the month. My own copy—I begrudgingly purchased it because of the price ($43.00 and free shipping can open many a wallet when the other legal alternatives cost at minimum $99.98 MSRP)—should arrive any day now. The question that may be asked, “If you wanted Gunbuster on DVD for such a long time, why are you unhappy.” Well, as I said, I’m getting Raphael instead of Donatello.

Bandai Visual’s Gunbuster DVD was positioned to be the perfect model of a domestic release geared towards hardcore anime fans: there would be no individual discs sold, only a one-time purchase box-set featuring a reasonably more expensive price tag, the DVDs themselves were based on the out-of-print remastered edition and would come with a 24 page supplementary booklet sourced from material original included alongside the Japanese discs, with all of this being housed in a special imported artbox. Admittedly, the imported artbox—assumed to be the box made for the Japanese remasters—was in truth a rather humorous mishmash (apparently fashioned in Japan by real Japanese people no less) of character artwork placed against a live landscape image of red grass and mountains topped off with an actual—by which I mean available for purchase in the real world—toy Gunbuster photoshopped into the background. Still, this horribly crude box and even the absence of some DVD extras found on the Japanese releases were minor non-issues.

What ultimately taints Bandai Visual’s set is the alteration of about 90 seconds of background music from the first episodes. Yes, you read correctly, 90 seconds of background music.

In the affected scene, Noriko, our protagonist, seeks out advice from her coach after losing confidence in her ability to succeed as a robot pilot. What unfolds is a training montage featuring music made to parody the Chariots of Fire theme; the song is in no way a direct copy, though anyone familiar with the movie’s titular track will immediately notice the similarities.

Less than a month before the set’s release, Bandai Visual screened episode 1 of the series for a Los Angeles anime convention, where a diligent fan thankfully noticed the newly installed music. No prior mention of this change had ever been made, and upon questioning, their convention representative was lacking any definitive answers. Soon after, the only official response on the issue came in the form of an E-mail posted to AnimeOnDVD.com (the full contents can be read here); it essentially stated the alteration was made at the behest of the Japanese producer who felt it needed to be done for the US market and further went on to suggest those “die-hard stickler” fans wanting an original, unmolested version of the anime should consider buying a non-region coded reissue of the Japanese remastered edition, available for a limited time solely in North America. This release, of course, has no subtitles and costs $99.98 before taxes and possible shipping fees. Though Bandai Visual’s explanation was evasive at best, fan conjecture agreed fear of the United States’ ridiculously litigious society likely prompted this meddling to avoid any possible lawsuits stemming from copyright infringement. On an interesting side note, Chariots of Fire is a British film; where in the UK, an extremely poor quality DVD release of Gunbuster has existed for years, with this same music left intact and having drawn no unnecessary legal action.

Whining over 90 seconds of background music in a 160 minute series sounds petty to many people; maybe it is, but you know what, those people can fuck off. Just like Mom couldn’t comprehend the difference between your Raphael and Donatello action figures, those people don’t understand the desire for purity, something you can hold up exclaiming, “This is unblemished, this is the way it was meant to be.” Fans—true fans—feel the importance of this need; it’s what we crave and what innately makes us fans in the first place. Sure, Raphael was only Donatello with red ninja gear and slightly different weaponry, but as a kid you couldn’t grab your Raphael figure and say, “This is Donatello;” that just wasn’t possible. And maybe it wasn’t a Ninja Turtle figure, maybe it was receiving the Blue Power Ranger instead of the Red one, or a copy of Adventure Island for the Nintendo Entertainment System instead of Super Mario Bros. 3, either way what you got wasn’t equal what you wanted.

Gunbuster has remained unchanged for twenty years, and to now suddenly have a portion of this classic anime destroyed out of cowardice over the possibility of an unlikely lawsuit is utterly disheartening. What will be left on my doorstep is not Top wo Nerae!. Just like Raphael, it will look almost exactly like Gunbuster, except in the fine details, and that’s enough for a true fan to make all the difference in the world. To those people who buy this set and see no real issue with such a small alteration I say, “Good for you, please enjoy this classic anime.” But for myself and other hardcore fans, we’ll either have to make the difficult decision to avoid what could easily be the last release of Gunbuster North America will see for quite some time, or deal with paying for a product we can’t fully accept. I, unfortunately, caved and bought Bandai Visual’s gimped DVDs—that’s what happens when cheap online prices and personal finances dictate spending significantly more on an un-translated product to be absurd.

There are additional interrelated matters worth quickly touching upon. The sudden appearance of a non-region coded reissue of the Japanese remastered set, available only in the US, is obviously suspicious on its own, but having its existence announced by Bandai Visual USA through their Gunbuster website merely serves to draw further attention towards the altered North American release and leaves debate open over the true intentions behind such an anomaly: is it a quirky experiment or failed concession to hardcore fans? And for a company advertising itself as wanting to “bring authentic Japanese anime…from Japan to the North American” for “[their] customers in the US who are seeking real anime rooted authentically in the Japanese culture,” it suddenly becomes hard to view them as anything more than just another anime distributor, when almost certainly, the decision to change this music came from within the Bandai Visual organization. If this company desires to promote an air of elitism and charge collector prices, besides leaving their titles unedited, they should at least strive to be completely upfront and open with their consumers and not attempt to hide unfortunate circumstances, hoping they’ll slip past people unnoticed. They would also do well to refrain from issuing somewhat condescending statements to parts of their fanbase suggesting they spend a greater sum of money on a product they’ll likely be unable to fully understand. You want our money Bandai Visual; then treat us with the modicum of respect we deserve.

For my part, I did send a courteous E-mail to Bandai Visual voicing my dissatisfaction over their Gunbuster set and the manner in which they handled this issue; I also plan to send a written complaint to their offices once my DVD arrives, containing the appropriate mailing address for such a letter. Expecting any change in future Gunbuster DVD pressings or a recall of the first disc is highly unlikely, though I’d still suggest anyone bothered by these circumstances, at the very least, compose an E-mail to the company in hopes that their future releases won’t suffer a similar fate.

I intend to write a review of the Bandai Visual set once I’ve had the chance to watch the DVDs; please look forward to it.

As a final gesture, I’m posting a YouTube clip of the original, unaltered scene. It begins at 6:03 minutes into the video. Enjoy!

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Please Allow Me to Introduce Myself…

Welcome to Junker Woland—the newly named incarnation of a blog I’ve let stagnate in the Internet’s polluted backwaters for well over a year, time I wasted half-heartedly fighting design templates created in all likelihood for people who shouldn’t be given even the slightest opportunity to type their incoherent, mangled thoughts onto the Internet. Sadly, free site hosting is too powerful an impetus when money’s tight and the other option involves paying web storage fees. I begrudgingly limped through many an aborted start with this page, until casting the crippling desire for perfection aside as the dawning reality of effortless procrastination seemed to be a much less attractive concept.

So here we are, draped in lovely crimson, at the inaugural post. But what is Junker Woland, or rather, what do I hope this blog will become?

Maybe it’d be best to begin with a few words on myself: I am a young writer from the puritanly-decadent city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, currently eking out a meager living doing office work at a local University. Gaining compensative entrance to the all but mystically concealed world of words has, to be blunt, been a major pain in my ass since graduating college, and one can only have so many resumes find their final home at the bottom of a New Jersey landfill before turning towards alternate measures for achieving certain goals. As such, I decided to start this page as a means of both galvanizing my creative juices and generating written content under my own name.

But not to worry, I have zero intention of authoring some insipid and whiny online diary; that style of writing has its place, but I find it doesn’t particularly make for compelling content, plus I certainly wouldn’t ask others to endure musings I myself wouldn’t touch.

My intention for Junker Woland is to cover news and add insights on those topics that most dominate my mind during waking hours. Expectant subject matter will consist largely of video games, toys, Japanese pop-culture of the animation, comic book, and music variety, all generously accented with the sweaty-coital moans of random perversity, so please keep your filthy children at home, because they have no place here. Word of books I’m currently tackling might also flirt through these digital salutations; and oh yes, don’t let me forget beer, I promise to talk about my favorite of beverages from time-to-time.

To put it bluntly, I’m a nerd, probably a bit of an elitist one at that, and like all nerds I obsessively collect products and follow certain forms of media. I plan to highlight those things I find most noteworthy and entertaining and present them to you in an interesting, thoughtful manner. I’ll do my best to update frequently and make Junker Woland standout amongst the frothing horde of similar blogs, and I hope you’ll do me the fine pleasure of coming to visit often.