Junker Woland

Thursday, April 21, 2011

K-On! – Don’t Want to be Your Monkey Wrench

It’s tough being a U.S. fan of anime and manga in these early days of 2011: established companies keep dying, discourse between the fans and industry seems nonexistent to hostile, and new releases—of which there are certainly fewer and fewer—keep either getting gimped for our market by the Japanese rights holders or fucked-up for some ridiculous reason by the domestic licensors. To quote the Interwebs, “Feels bad man.”

Coming along as yet another prime example of such industry-wide failure is Bandai Entertainment’s recent release of K-On! Vol. 1.

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This 2009 adaptation of a manga by the same name is a slice-of-life comedy, recounting the daily lives of five teenage girls and the experiences had as band members in their high school’s keionbu (or “light music club,” an odd-sounding translation that is conceptually just the “pop music club”). Propelled by the anime’s success, K-On! became a huge franchise in Japan’s otaku subculture, with a second season having already completed its TV run, a forthcoming movie in the works, and two upcoming manga sequels from the series’ original creator.

Thanks to the wonders of broadband Internet and fansubs, shows reaching critical mass in “the land where the sun rises” rarely go unnoticed on this side of the pond, and in most cases, become major hits in their own right, within the U.S. fan community.

K-On! certainly followed suit and was a much hoped for and requested license in the U.S. market. Bandai Entertainment finally answered that call. Originally announced at their Anime Expo panel in July 2010, with further details emerging three months later at the New York Anime Festival, Bandai had fans in a euphoric lather with their intentions for a simultaneous DVD/Blu-ray releases and Limited-Edition versions, packaged with music CDs (of which there are quite a few singles and compilation discs of K-On! music in Japan).

After going a good year-and-a-half with few (if any) major anime acquisitions, K-On! is arguably Bandai Entertainment’s biggest license since The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2007) and Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann (2008), and as things stand, remains their most prominent new series for the first half of 2011. Fans understandably expected the show to receive special treatment, and Bandai initially seemed more than willing to comply.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long before the first cracks started to split across the series’ pristine release plan. In late January, retail solicitations for K-On! appeared and absent was any mention of the Limited Editions—all that was listed by various retailers were standard DVD and Blu-ray discs, sans music CDs and any other additional goodies. As fans tend to do, they pouted and complained, posted on forums, and attempted to rouse some word on the matter. Bandai remained silent; and fans, as they also tend to do, eventually looked past this perceived shortcoming, focused instead on the show’s April 2011 release date.

Months passed, April is here, and K-On! has landed. So where do things currently stand with this series’ inceptive volume (one of an intended four)? Well, not surprisingly, the Limited Editions never materialized—a sad situation likely the result of any number of issues, but at least, the various music CDs can be imported for a somewhat decent price.

More disconcerting is the absence of high definition audio on the Blu-ray version. Admittedly, none of Bandai Entertainment’s solicitation materials ever promised, let alone mentioned, HD audio, but in 2011 (for a show originating in 2009) its presence should never have been in question. Worse, the Blu-ray is saddled with a DVD-quality Dolby Digital 2.0 track at 192kbps, which is an insult when even the Japanese DVDs have a superior LPCM track (an uncompressed encoding format that ideally provides better sounding audio).

And just to make sure the defects in their release go to 11, a short instrumental rendition of popular-Japanese folk song, “Tsubasa wo Kudasai,” played near the end of the first episode has been replaced with what sounds to be Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender” (itself an adaptation of a Civil War ballad, “Aura Lea”). Giving credit where it’s due, the new music does an extremely good job mimicking the original; although, both are simple compositions, comprised of only a piano melody, bass guitar, and drums (just from a cursory observation, the bass and drums seem untouched, and considering everything is done digitally nowadays, it probably would not have been difficult to merely substitute a new piano track).

Given the subjective nature of fandom, one shouldn’t make any blanket statements regarding how much the degraded audio and music alteration will bother the U.S. anime community at large. For myself, I could have accepted the loss of “Tsubasa wo Kudasai,” especially since the scene in question lasts maybe a minute, and the song has no particular relevance to the show, as a whole. But in 2011, there is absolutely no justification for releasing a Blu-ray disc without high definition audio—it’s a main selling points for adopting a HD setup, one which helps offset the disc’s more expensive pricing.

In the absence of proof, apologist will often claim changes—particularly those such as the lack of HD audio—are the result of pressures from the Japanese rights holders (to help prevent the dreaded “reverse importation”). To this I say, even when true, it’s way past time the American market stopped bending to every whim of the Japanese—if they have no issue taking our money for their products (which, considering the current Japanese economy, is certainly the case), then U.S. audiences should not be forced to accept crippled releases.

In all honesty, though, regardless of the reasons behind these unfortunate flaws, my ultimate problem is the absolute lack of communication from Bandai Entertainment. In 2011, with the rise of the modern Internet, the proliferation of broadband, and continued (at times almost frightening) spread of social media, there is no excuse for a subsidiary of a major global corporation (in this case the Bandai Namco Group) to fail at disseminating such information, well before their product ships to retail outlets. A press release sent to certain websites, a few forum posts, and Facebook/Twitter updates is all it’d take to inform the people who’d be most interested.

And in the end, that’s what matters most: let me be an informed consumer. Allow me to make the decision on whether to buy your product based on facts, instead of going on assumptions, only to have unwanted alterations and quality issues forced upon me. The U.S. anime and manga market has been in a downward spiral for the last four-to-five years, and understandably no company wants to lose sales, but deciding to remain silent on what could be considered serious flaws in a much anticipated product only erodes the trust most company’s hope to foster in their consumers. And sad as it is to say, at this point, I have absolutely no blind faith left for any company dealing in U.S. anime and manga distribution.

K-On! is without a doubt one of the biggest releases North America will see this year, and I expect most fans will look beyond any inherent problems with Bandai Entertainment’s discs. It will likely be a good seller for them. For this fan, however, I will continue to read Yen Press’s release of the manga, but K-On! Vol. 1 on Blu-ray is the only disc from Bandai Entertainment that will see itself added to my anime collection.