Friday, March 12, 2010

Gundam Unicorn Vol. 1 Review

I just finished watching Gundam Unicorn episode one and I thought I'd share my initial impressions of the highly anticipated OVA series.

To my knowledge, Gundam UC is the first in the franchise to receive a simultaneous international release on any disc format. Although the first episode was shown on the Playstation Network last month in Japan, the Blu-Ray release saw its U.S. and Japanese debut on the same day. Baring that in mind, there was a genuine feeling of excitement knowing that for the first time English speaking Gundam fans are enjoying a new Gundam OVA at the same time as their Japanese counterparts.

But what about the show itself? Based on this first episode, I believe that we're in for a serious treat. I never read the original novels that the series was based but I hear it's very faithful. I was very impressed with the animation. Gundam series generally don't deliver much in the realm of character animation since most of them are 50+ episodes. But one of the advantages to OVA's is they generally have superior production values over television shows. It's nice to see characters whose animation matches the quality of their mobile suits. Speaking of mobile suits, I am very glad to see that they are predominantly hand-drawn in a time where most mecha anime rely far too heavily on CG. This makes for some pretty spectacular battle sequences.

I won't go too in depth with the story as to avoid spoilers. I'll just mention that there's a sense of familiarity in the narrative, but in a good way. It really feels like the Gundam shows of old; where the series was less about flashy mobile suit designs and bishounen fan service, and more about the inner struggles of being a pilot thrown into into battle on a regular basis and putting your life on the line for the sake of others.

As for the bonus material, there are some Blu-Ray live features such as a preview screen for Gundam UC episode 2, original promos and TV commercials, as well as trailers for other Bandai titles. Nothing too special. A behind the scenes featurette would have been much appreciated but I'm sure they're waiting on that.

Lackluster extras aside, I think Gundam UC will remind people about why they became Gundam fans. To me it represents everything that was good about the Gundam franchise before it began to lose focus. It's looking like this show will reach the heights of previous Gundam OVA's like War in the Pocket and 08th MS Team. I can only hope that the release date for volume two is announced soon.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Castle in the Sky Review (2010 DVD Re-Issue)

Miyazaki’s Castle in the Sky (Tenku no Shiro Laputa) is one of his most thrilling, action packed, and entertaining entries in the Studio Ghibli library. However the first U.S. DVD release of Laputa was rushed and sub-par to say the least. But now the movie gets a second chance at a mainstream U.S. DVD release with this recent re-issue. Considering how horrible the original DVD was, this will be more of a compare and contrast.

The story begins when a young girl named Sheeta has been kidnapped by the army. She is soon “rescued” by a group of sky pirates who are after the mysterious crystal on her necklace. She soon finds herself in the care of a boy named Pazu, whose dream is to find the legendary floating aisle known as Laputa. The two soon find themselves on a high flying adventure to find Laputa before the army claims it as their own.

Laputa is a very important to me. It was the film that initially sparked my curiosity about Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli. The first time I saw any footage of it was at an AMV (Anime Music Video) contest back in 2001. The video compiled clips of all of Miyazaki’s films that had been released up to that point and it to this day it remains my personal favorite AMV. Of all of the clips it was the image shown above that sparked my interest. It was just so beautiful that I had to know more about it. When I finally saw it, my expectations were surpassed. The movie was even better than I had originally imagined. The animation was incredible and fast paced, especially for 1986. It still boggles my mind to think that it all had to be done without CG. What really impressed me was the look of the film. Many of the locals were so cool and so fascinating that I almost wish Laputa was a television series in the tradition of The World Masterpiece Theater so that the world could be further explored. The soundtrack by Joe Hisaishi is one of my personal favorites. Also, the characters were really fun to watch. Especially Muska, who is one of the most evil characters Miyazaki has ever conceived. I do have to say, I always found the pirates to be funny, yet kind of creepy. They wear skin tight pink pants, they’re love interest (Sheeta), can’t be any older than 13, and they only become attracted to her when she’s wearing their mother’s clothes. But as I said, they’re pretty funny and that creepiness kind adds to the humor. But with that said, Laputa is easily one of the most entertaining movies in my collection and a great example of Miyazaki’s genius.

It would be two years before I was finally able to obtain a legit copy of the film. However I was less than pleased with Disney’s initial DVD release. So why don’t we talk about some of the changes that have been made in this new re-issue.

Original 2003 Release

2010 Release

The DVD Cover

The first thing you’ll notice right off the bat is that the cover art has been replaced. No longer are we stuck with overly glossy, terribly awkward photoshop face lifts with gigantic spoilers throughout. Instead we are treated with the image that was used for the original spoiler-free Japanese theatrical poster from Miyazaki himself. Why they originally felt that this wouldn’t be marketable is beyond me. I’m just glad they’ve wised up since the release of Spirited Away.

The Subtitles

Studies show that about 60% of anime fans prefer English dubbing. I myself have always preferred watching anime subtitles or even raw. But if there’s one thing Disney learned very quickly, it’s that ignoring that 40% can really hurt your sales. That’s why the original DVD as well as all subsequent Ghibli DVD releases were bilingual. However the subtitles on the original Laputa DVD left a lot to be desired. They were over simplified, mistranslated, or at times even mistimed all together. This clearly demonstrated that the disc, as well as Kiki’s Delivery Service, were merely rush jobs intended to capitalize on the success of Spirited Away. It’s negligence like this that drives people to produce fansubs. Sadly, this time around it’s not that much better. They decided to rewrite the subtitles to omit the glitches that were present in the original and to improve the translation. However the text is clearly a tweaked version of the English dub script. This becomes painfully obvious when the timing matches the English actors better than the original Japanese version. This is one area where I'm going to have to recommend the original 2003 DVD.

The Bonus Features

Disc 1 of the 2003 release featured the usual “Behind the Microphone” featurette that is present on almost all of the U.S. Ghibli discs. It was kind of painful to watch considering how terrible the English version was (more on that later.) We also got the original Japanese trailers. Disc 2 featured a storyboard presentation of the entire film. The only problem there was that you were unable to switch between the film and the storyboards, a feature that was present on the R2 release. The new DVD provides all of the features listed above as well as brand new interviews with Miyazaki and producer Toshio Suzuki that were made specifically for this release. There’s also a feature called “Enter the Lands” that serves as a mini introduction to Studio Ghibli for those who are new to their films. It’s a neat little feature.

The English Dub

This is probably the biggest and most unexpected change, but first here’s a little bit of history. Back when Disney first announced the casting for the English version of Laputa, there was quite a bit of anticipation. It featured stars such as James Van Der Beek, Anna Paquin, Mark Hamil, Cloris Leachman, and Jim Cummings. Considering that English speaking audiences weren’t able to hear the dub until four years after it was recorded and considering that Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away had drastically raised the bar for English dubbing by this point, it was fair to assume that expectations were pretty high for Laputa’s new dub. What we got was one of the most insultingly bad English dubs ever recorded. The writers and ADR director clearly had no idea what the hell they were doing. Lines were poorly read, characters were out of character, there was dialogue inserted with the sole intention of destroying dramatic silence, and worst of all it felt as though anyone that was originally a fan of the movie was purposefully being driven away to make room for a new demographic. And that wasn’t even the half of it. The back of the case boasted about containing an English 5.1 track and a new score by the original composer Joe Hisaishi. The 5.1 was a joke. I can only assume that there was no soundtrack that included the sound effects but didn’t contain the music so they simply replaced all of the sound effects, very poorly might I add. Half the time it was as if there were no sound effects at all. And Joe Hisaishi was less than thrilled about having to essentially butcher his own score to get rid of most of the silence. It would have made for a great CD but it did little to enhance the experience of watcing Laputa. If you can believe it, this was all done for a theatrical release that never happened.

So you may be wondering why in the hell did I just told you about all that. That’s because this new DVD release features a “Remastered English 5.1 track,” meaning that the English dub has been completely re-edited. In all my years as an anime fan I don’t think I’ve ever seen this done before. None of the lines were re-read by the actors. Instead most of the dialogue that killed the dramatic silence or was added to humor small children has been omitted. The original 1986 score has also been restored as well as the original sound effects. While I still feel many of the lines from the core cast are poorly read (with the exception of Cloris Leachman as the pirate captian Dola), this makes for a far more faithful dub that’s an overall vast improvement over the original. It’s the best thing they could have done aside from rerecording the entire voice track. But with that said it's still a pretty bad dub. I would most definitely recommend the Japanese version even if the subtitles are crap.

I should mention that there’s one thing that wasn’t changed that would have been welcome. I always felt that the picture quality of the original disc was lacking a bit. While it certainly looked better than any VHS or maybe even Laserdisc copy, it seemed as if someone turned the Detail setting all the way up. It makes the outlines look distorted and I found it to be a little distracting. This was not present on the Japanese R2 release so I was hoping they would fix it up a little.

If you’ve never purchased Laputa on DVD before I would say that this recent release is a no-brainer. It’s a far superior to the original in almost every way. It’s a great film to add to your collection and it’s certainly worth checking out if you’ve never seen it.