Junker Woland

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Motteke! Synergy-fuku

In a previous kvetch on anime’s future within the digital divide, one nuance I ever so gently grazed concerned the often ridiculously lengthy timeframe that exists for loosing an American anime DVD into the retail wilderness. This issue boomeranged, ruthlessly slamming into the back of my skull, while mulling over a recent news blip for Bandai Entertainment & Kodakawa Picture’s forthcoming title, Lucky Star.

For the oblivious, Lucky Star was Kyoto Animation’s immediate follow-up to the grossly popular, The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi—while featuring an independent narrative, the show’s lighthearted satire channeled much of the momentum from its predecessor and in a sense prolonged the massive Haruhi-ism begun in 2006. Lucky Star itself aired from April to September of 2007 and in November of that same year was officially announced for the US, slated to breach sometime in 2008. Bandai and Kodakawa went on to speak nary a word of promotion until just last week, when a street date of 5/9/2008 was finally dropped for the first DVD.

Four silent months have already slipped since the initial US licensing communiqué, with roughly three more stretching-out before the eventual delivery of the inceptive disc. By that time, over a year will have lapsed from when the show originally began airing in Japan. Too put things another way, once Lucky Star does hit, it’ll be seriously old-hat for many a hardcore fan—ostensibly the show’s targeted audience—who in this marketing void might no longer care enough to buy the product.

What I then question are the circumstances that birthed this synergistic vacuum. The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi rode a tsunami of fan enthusiasm on its crash course with the United States, further swelled during a five month incubation period by Bandai Entertainment’s fabulous ASOS Brigade marketing campaign. Even though the show ended in July 2006, was announced for the US in late December, and didn’t see the first DVD release until May 2007, during that disc-less period where visions of the series’ elaborate box-set danced in fan’s heads, it never felt like the anime world was lacking in Melancholy awareness.

Lucky Star, in considerably humbler fashion, saw its US curtain raised by way of a DVD extra on the final Haruhi disc. This rather unceremonious reveal was all the pomp afforded prior to last week’s terse product dating.

I’m sure fan falloff is inherently expected by all companies releasing anime in the US, but Lucky Star isn’t exactly a one-to-one equivalent with its forbearer, either. Within the community, opposition towards the series was present amongst the most devout Suzumiya followers; this could be attributed to a simple truth: where Haruhi is easily accessible by even casual anime watchers, Lucky Star remains tightly cloistered for all but the aficionados of Japanese pop-culture. Cartoony visuals and comedic trappings belay a dizzying deluge of anime, manga, and cultural references providing both the show’s bread-&-butter and a perplexing impediment that’s already culled portions of the fanbase.

Potentially siphoning additional gas from the tank is the winding-down of Haruhi's hype. Unlike Japan, America hasn’t been graced with the product push—whether in the form of new light novels, manga, PVC figures, or video games—that has outlasted the spunky SOS Brigade’s animated adventures. While season #2 of The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi might still be sometime in coming, there’s enough ancillary material bombarding Japanese consumers to keep them sated until those promised days of a second season are reality.

Conversly, Haruhi’s American fandom was propelled by fansubs and kept aloft on the show’s US marketing campaign; once the actual DVDs landed, the energy surrounding the series expediently drained and has bottomed-out in the absence of new domestically released products. In this current environment, May 9th is going to be a long ways off, enough so that Lucky Star might have to swim primarily on its own prowess.

Here’s a show made by the same production studio, features some of the same voice talent, and is plugged-in enough to make direct references to its slightly older animated cousin, yet Bandai and Kodakawa in their wisdom allowed a cavernous rift to form amidst the two works, when common sense would dictate overtly employing Haruhi to promote Lucky Star.

Sure, unavoidable issues will always prevent series from receiving faster releases, but it’s this manner of inconceivably boneheaded handling that hobbles shows before they’re ever placed inside a DVD player. During the waiting period, why not attempt to energize the fans, especially when an existing title’s popularity can be heavily leveraged to advertise a somewhat related but ultimately less exciting property? Instead, saying nothing almost guarantees the only consumers left once the DVD is available will be hobbyist collectors and dedicated followers of the show.

Seeing these types of lost opportunities, I can’t help but think it’s really mismanagement, as a whole, hurting the anime industry and not many of the other reasons often scapegoated for declining sales. Simply licensing and releasing products can not amount to a show’s total marketing. Looking at Lucky Star, I’m left hoping Bandai and Kodakawa get with it and start a late game effort to publicize this series beyond a few website banners and simply slapping a gold-foil sticker on the DVD package reading, “From the animation studio that brought you the smash hit, The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi.”

[Note: this post’s title is a Romanized mishmash of the word “synergy” and Lucky Star's opening theme song, Motteke! Serafuku, which translates into something like “Bring it! Sailor Uniform.”]


Monday, February 25, 2008

Wank or Die! - Tactile Troubles

A burning red “11:58 PM” glares from the stark, onyx face of the nearby alarm clock. Snuggly tucked into bed with the TV’s volume turned down too low to hear, your excited paw gropes about the carpeted floor, finally snatching a thin, glossy book purposely positioned for just this occasion. As you juggle the paperback between grips, letting your right hand slides down between the sheets towards your crotch, a funny inconvenience suddenly rears its churlish head—the book’s unyielding spine demands either forever breaking its virginally smooth covering or continuing on with some seriously awkward self-loving.

What’s a dirty boy to do?

Stiff spines and artwork cannibalizing bindings have long been an issue for US manga since morphing into its modern quasi-tankoubon graphic novel incarnation. While remaining an ever present annoyance, it’s a problem that can be somewhat tempered by practicing a routine of wrist-destroying acrobatics during one’s regular reading regiment. For me, such carpal contortions are an utter necessity, because no matter how hard I might try to expel him, inside a dank musty corner of my being lurks a hardcore collector who just will not accept anything other than perfection from his comic books; though I’ve learned to significantly subjugate this obsessive compulsive, I still can’t deal with major pockmarks and spine creases defacing my precious illustrated entertainment.

Now with regards to erotica, obstinate packing was never an area of concern. Thanks to a near total absence of translated adult manga in the US, my entire collection was almost entirely comprised of imported specimens—that is, until recently.

About two years ago, Icarus Publishing tentatively nudged their way into the US scene, unprecedented in their sole offering of domesticated adult manga for men. Unlike the hoard of businesses already catering to female fans with hardcore yaoi books or the established pushers of cartoon smut with their microscopic smattering of Japanese titles, Icarus Publishing’s catalog boldly catered only to the perverted male niche looking for English language editions of Japanese 2D raunch. Not only were their books in our native tongue and bereft of its motherland’s legally imposed genitalia censorship, Icarus also wasn’t scraping the barrel’s bottom in terms of acquiring noteworthy salacious talent, with works by two of my favorite filth furnishers—Yumisuke Kotoyoshi and Gorou Horikawa—soon oozing their way into retail outlets and my own residence.

Problem is—even though Icarus Publishing’s books are slightly larger than their imported counterparts and make decent allowance for art-eating binding—standard American printing conventions tend to produce manga that, in all honesty, aren’t very accommodating to one-handed reading—to prevent leafs from easily loosening, glue is allowed to seep further into each page, creating a much stiffer, sturdier backbone. Japanese publishers, on the other hand, generally employ a different (likely more expensive) process allowing books to inherently open wider without causing spinal damage.

Where physically maintaining regular non-naughty manga isn’t so much a problem (because I’m using both hands), keeping one from Icarus intact is a significantly trickier process, boarding on self defeating. I doubt there’s any delusions over these titles’ intended purpose, yet attempting to avoid spine creases using a lone mitt means keeping a book barely open while…let’s just say while reading.

I know Icarus Publishing is a small company and profit margins are probably tight, but asking consumers to pay between $15.00 and $20.00 per book seems a high price without any special consideration. Ultimately, I’m not sure what a feasible solution would be: maybe reducing the artwork’s size a smidgen to allow for greater gutters, or finding a more forgiving binding method that isn’t an astronomically greater expense. Either way, Icarus Publishing from a content standpoint is gangbusters (I’m most eagerly awaiting their forthcoming Tune Empire title), and I’m hoping they’ll stick around for some time; I just wish they’d try a bit harder to accommodate their fanbase’s physical requirements.


Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Digital Revolution - Anime's Future Online?

Blanketed by seemingly unbroken grey skies, the US anime-verse has been atwitter recently with insiders and pundits discussing the burning hot topic of digital distribution and download-to-own video as a last-ditch means to save this quickly withering industry.

Such discourse has been searing a hole in my brain, compelling me to throw some words together on the matter, which I’ve finally done. As always, it’s something of a long post, but if you’ve got the time, I’d appreciate if you, dear reader, gave it a gander.

Hit the “Read more…” link to imbibe the body of my spirited brew.

Technology’s infinite march of forward progress has finally ignited a major interest in downloadable media, beyond just music. Television shows, movies, and video games all find themselves prime targets for digital distribution, with few companies idling to enter into this lucrative and rapidly expanding market—not surprisingly, US anime businesses are no exception.

Motivation, however, is the core difference between a company like FUNimation and Disney. Where the major media conglomerates see a promising new revenue stream, domesticators of Japanese animation are primarily propounding digital media as weapons to help stem the tide of illegal anime downloads, both in the form of enthusiast created fansubs and DVD rips.

The basic truth is people who support piracy in lieu of purchasing DVDs do so consciously and will rarely buy a legitimate product. They simply will not spend money on what they can already obtain for free.

Suggesting a cheap, legal alternative will somehow curtail the baulk of anime piracy is, of course, ridiculous. Not that I honestly believe the major players within the US anime industry prescribe to such a flawed ideology; because regardless of what might outwardly be spoken, purveyors of binary contraband aren’t who digital anime is geared towards. In reality, the intended audience is John and Jane hardcore fan: heavy fansub viewers, but only occasional supporters of official DVD releases. For as much as they watch, these fans never amass sizable collections built upon bootleg discs and fansubs. Many delete their digital spoils once a show is finished. The problem is—even when a series they’ve previously enjoyed is licensed—they rarely ever venture into buying the physical media. These fans just want to watch anime and nothing more.

What this age of high-speed Internet and a bloated anime industry has birthed is a fandom that no longer monetarily consumes the majority of product set loose into the market, economically charted by the ever widening divide between pure anime enthusiast and financially invested hobbyist. Hard as it might be for some to imagine, there was a time—as recent as ten-or-so years ago—where the average Japanophile could afford most of the titles released in the US, since back then, the fanbase’s size was well matched to the amount of shows annually domesticated. As would happen, a growing interest in the medium and American corporations licensing more titles for younger audiences suddenly put the industry in the position to rapidly expand.

Nowadays, the largest contingent of fans seems to be those who forego the physical product, existing almost purely as spectators, watching fansubs and maybe creating collections via rental services. These are the people companies hope will latch onto legal anime downloads.

There’s certainly evidence the iTunes’ generation will, to an extent, embrace official download-to-own anime, but I can’t help feel in all the duplicitous talk one crucial aspect of digital media is being detrimentally overlooked—the intrinsic need to sample a product prior to buying.

See, when John Q. Public goes online to buy episodes of Lost, the newest Foo Fighters’ single, or The Simpsons’ Movie, rarely is he doing so sight unseen (or unheard as the case may be). This is especially true for television and movies where, unlike music, digital formats are not as of yet supplanting their physically housed cousins. People go to iTunes for secondary viewing. They’ve already enjoyed the television show or movie in its original format and now want a cheap, simple avenue for additional, private screenings.

With anime downloads, their inherent flaw lies in the lack of any legal outlet to first watch most programs without incurring an immediate cost. Why should I blindly pay $1.99 for, say, one episode of Black Blood Brothers when I can download a fansub for free? Unless my intention is to substitute the less expensive digital copy for the DVD, then there’s really no incentive on my end to spend money. Self-righteous fans (or deceptively self-righteous as the Internet’s cloak of anonymity allows) might expound I should desire to support the industry by purchasing the legal video, but coming from a long-time hobbyist who’s always bought official media, that concept is pure bullshit.

For most people (myself included), it takes a Herculean effort to blind-buy, with each added dollar making the investment that much greater a challenge. And when it comes to entertainment, expecting a decision to be made on a several episode series after only the initial twenty-odd minutes of animation is laughably unacceptable. One could theorize companies are aware of this, knowing full well if they get you for one episode they have you for at least a second dip, but I’ll forego this manner of conspiratorial talk…

Fansubs, whether in modern digi-form or their archaic VHS incarnation, are currently the only means of conveniently sampling a show prior to the official release. If I were to monetize my regular fansub downloads to the equivalent price of an average download-to-own episode, the end cost would make the monthly cable bill blush. This effectively relegates download-to-own anime to the same status as DVD purchases—they’d have to be shows I already know I want to collect. Which, again, means download-to-own anime is really only worthwhile for those looking to replace their plastic discs with AVI files.

Such a setup isn’t going to entice the pirates and the dedicated watchers in any noteworthy respect. They’ll continue downloading free anime, some eventually trading in the legal download-to-own episodes once the DRM has been cracked.

So should anime companies just give-up the ship and let the US industry sink to the bottom of the Pacific? No. I think companies need to start realizing one of anime’s fundamental problems in the war against illegal downloads is the lack of competitive alternatives.

Download-to-own is fine, but where’s the real effort towards free, streaming web-episodes? Anime is a product that by necessity compels fans to pirate, since there’s nowhere for them to watch titles prior to four episodes of a twenty-six episode series being pimped at thirty dollars a pop. I’m not trying to dredge-up the tired argument that anime is overpriced, but thirty dollars for less then two hours of entertainment is still pricey, regardless of how much money went into producing the DVD. And in truth, fans (even the most devout) really don’t care much about a company’s expenses; they just want the show itself.

Ultimately here’s the dilemma: the only way to grow the industry and its fanbase is by releasing more product, but more products makes it harder for consumers to educate themselves on any particular show while also acting as a larger drain on their disposable income, which in turn—due to ignorance and limited funds—causes greater numbers of people to turn towards fansubs and bootlegs for their anime fix.

The US anime industry has already begun moving back into its old, smaller shell. Geneon USA is dead, ADV is apparently marooned in an ambiguous holding pattern, while all remaining players are licensing less and relying on cheap, repackaged series to inflate their bottom lines. If anything, the market has apparently proven it can no longer sustain this larger industry functioning under the current business strategy of “license it, and they will come.”

Isn’t it time for US anime distributors to wake-up and realize maybe they need to showcase titles in a way that doesn’t demand consumers bare the cost? Thanks to broadband, the infrastructure finally exits to allow for efficient online streaming of video. This is a perfect opportunity for FUNimation, ADV, Bandai Entertainment, and the like to freely offer their shows in a viable manner before the DVDs are available.

Think about it: degraded video quality is inherently expected, and only the most miserly fans would make attempts to steal these offerings; since they’re free, advertisements shown before, during a mid-episode break, and after the video could help pay for the service; parts of the episode, like credit sequences, could be omitted to make them even less attractive to would-be pirates; viewing schedules could be created, as well, so people wouldn’t have complete access to an entire series at any given time. These showings would essentially be nothing more than full-length previews—enticements to buy the actual goods, whether in the form of DVD or download-to-own.

And thankfully, fansub creators are almost always deathly afraid of legal action, so once a title is officially licensed, affected groups generally suspend any remaining work even before a C&D letter is drafted. What would be needed is the US industry’s continued push to license shows before they ever finish airing in Japan, while negotiating rights to allow such online presentations (which I’m sure is something considerably easier stated than achieved). Still, anime isn’t doing so hot in Japan either, and Nihon businesses would likely love to get their hands on as much of our filthy gaijin dollars as possible, creating a small hammer to push certain conditions into reality.

Of course, free web-episodes wouldn’t make piracy and fansubs disappear, but is that really the battle the industry should be fighting? Instead of trying to stop the unstoppable, why not positively engage the fans in an attempt to grow their ranks for the future.

Prior to whatever unforeseen calamity recently befell them, it looked like ADV was positioning itself to lead the charge of free streaming video by opening a service and premiering the first few episodes of the hotly anticipated Tengen Toppa Gurren-Lagann. I was disappointed to learn they didn’t plan on showing every episode of Gurren-Lagann, but they did seem to be on the right track. If we can take this basic concept, move up the timeframe so shows are getting streamed around the time the Japanese airing ends, pledge to present the whole series (not just three or four episodes), and I think you’ve found a realistic tool to help fight illegal downloads in a manner that actually allows the industry to prosper.

Sure, there would be a large expense associated here, but what’s more productive: paying the Internet operating fees, or putting out money for DVDs that just stay warehoused. Also, anime distributors could mitigate their costs by only selecting shows that would most benefit from this style of marketing push and exposure. Anime essentially guaranteed a television broadcast (like Naruto and Bleach) and huge fan favorites like The Melancholy of Suzumiya Haruhi could have web-duty overlooked in favor of lesser known shows and those with truly niche fan appeal.

On the other hand, companies can continue on the established path. License shows half a year or more after they’ve aired in Japan, giving fansubbers ample opportunity to do their thing; take another six to eight months to produce the US DVDs, by which time the American fans have already sated themselves a second time over watching fansubbed Japanese DVD rips; then dribble out domesticated DVDs on an every-other-month schedule. The hardcore fans of a particular series and hobbyist will still buy, though that’s probably not a big enough consumer pool to net a decent profit, assuming any money gets made at all. Surprisingly, I actually do think the industry can survive under this tired methodology, but it’d mean returning to a 1997-like state with regards to number of companies in existence and the quantity of shows being released.

But, hey, I’m just a fan with a keyboard and an Internet connection, one of the many Anonymous (we do not forgive, by the way) floating around the Interwebs, screaming my opinions, and downloading my animu. Speaking of which, looks like all the data-bits for the latest episode of Bamboo Blade just finished seeping their way into my hard drive; if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ll go watch that now.


Friday, February 15, 2008

Today Kinda Sucked, but then...KoF XII

So yeah, today really fucking sucked (for personal, family reasons). Thankfully, the one thing I can take away from the last twenty-four hours is...King of Fighters XII is hi-res.

Coming during some ambiguous time in 2008, KoFXII I can hardly wait to get my hands on you.

Street Fighter IV, now that I've seen you in motion, know that you disappoint me even more, though I'd love me a poster of Ikeno's lovely Chun-Li character artwork (her in-game 3D model is monkey-fuck horrid, however).


Friday, February 08, 2008

Anime to Watch - Bamboo Blade

This is a super quick update, but I felt the need to share. Once I finish up this review for Anime on DVD, I'll post some thoughts concerning the much bandied about idea of anime digital downloads—the legal kind.

Until then, you should really be watching Bamboo Blade. It’s got cute, moe, moe girls; it’s got kendo; it’s got hot blooded justice; but best of all, it’s got inspiring messages as seen in the image below.

Yes, Sega Saturn ALWAYS watches over you!!! Bamboo Blade, you make Segata Sanshiro proud.