Monday, December 31, 2012

Golden Oldies

It's a slow season for fansubbing, as many shows are on hiatus for the holidays, and many team members are as well. Thus, for once, I have time to watch anime instead of just working on it. I decided to go into the back catalog of stuff I've collected but not watched to see what I was missing.

I recently completed working with macros74 on Shinkai no Kankai: Submarine 707, so I decided to keep with the submarine theme and watch Submarine 707R and Blue Submarine No. 6. macros74 described Shinkai no Kankai as a "ripe piece of anime cheese," and that description fits 707R as well. Although 707R is usually described as a sequel to 707, it's more like an alternate setting of the same story. If the two shows are meant to be part of the same timeline, then 707R would have to precede 707, because the mature minisub pilots of 707 are young teenagers in 707R. What they have in common is their protagonist (Captain Hayami) and his sub the 707, and his adversary, Admiral Red. In 707, though, Admiral Red is from outer space and is attacking the mythical continent of Mu, while in 707R, Admiral Red is a terrorist and is attacking the navies of the major powers. Both seem to believe that a World War II-vintage diesel/electric submarine can easily outmaneuver the latest in nuclear-powered (or alien-powered) technology. In short, both series are good for laughs but not much else.

Blue Submarine No. 6 aspires to be a more serious show, but that only leads to a great deal of muddle. Blue is set in a world where sea levels have risen and flooded most of the world's major cities, thanks to the dastardly actions of Dr. Zordyke. The evil doctor has also created a race of animal-human hybrids (mermaids, shark men, sentient whale-battleships) to challenge humanity. The Blue Fleet is mankind's last hope of preventing the total annihilation of human civilization. All indications point towards a decisive battle in Antartica... which never happens. Instead, we're treated to a long, rambling, pointless dialog between the hero and Zorndyke leading to a "Why don't we all be friends?" style conclusion. Although the first two episodes were pretty good, this show was a letdown.

At this point, I decided to switch from OVAs to movies, and I started at the beginning of the alphabet with Akira. My readers might well wonder how I had missed such an historic milestone in anime, but the fact is, I had. It did not disappoint. The animation is brilliant, particularly for its time. The story is original; if it looks derivative now, it's because so many later movies and series have stolen from it. And it's fearless in not giving the audience anyone to identify with. Tetsuo, the nominal protagonist, is a psychopath. (In Shin Sekai Yori, he'd be considered a fiend.) Kaneda, his friend at the start, is a reluctant hero at best. There is no happy ending.

From there I went on to Steamboy, because steampunk is one of my favorite sci-fi genres. It did disappoint. The film cost a fortune, and it shows: the animation is terrific, creating a steam-driven alternate reality in gorgeous detail. Unfortunately, the story is trite and cliche-ridden. The film tries to be a philosophical argument about the purpose of technology, but it never picks a point of view. The plot is as full of holes as Swiss cheese - would England let the US arms dealers that destroyed a fair amount of London go back to the US unscathed? The characters are straight from the anime tropes handbook, including the plucky hero, the tsundere ojou-sama, the eccentric scientist grandfather, and the unidimensional villains. I will say that it's a fine display of Japan's ambiguous feelings about Britain, which has been a prominent feature in other shows, such as Code Geass and Hellsing.

My final movie was the seasonally appropriate Tokyo Godfathers, another classic that I had never seen. The strange family formed by the three homeless protagonists; the way the discovery of an abandoned baby catalyzes them into action; and the peregrinations of the coincidence-driven plot; all add up to drive home a message about the importance of human connection, regardless of appearances. While it romanticizes the plight of the homeless somewhat, it doesn't hesitate to show the darker side of urban life, such as Gin's beating at the hands of a teenage gang. Thus, it's not your typical heartwarming Christmas story; it's not going to displace It's A Wonderful Life on the babble box any time soon. Nonetheless, a very good movie.

So that's it for 2012. See you all on the other side of the fiscal cliff.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Favorites of 2012

That time of year, I guess. A few caveats before I begin.

I'm not a anime blogger; I'm a fansub editor. Thus, I don't feel any compunction to watch every show or even to sample all the new ones. I have a relatively narrow range of anime interests, focusing on science fiction, comedy (romantic or otherwise), slice-of-life, and cats. I don't watch mecha unless Youko is in the cast, so that eliminates, for example Eureka 7 AO and Aquarion Evol. I dislike harem and most moe-blob shows, which eliminates the eroge and VN adaptations. And as a grandfather, I don't like shows about violence against, or exploitation of, children, which rules out Jormugand (a good show) and Btooom! (junk). Despite their sci-fi premises, neither Accel World nor Sword Art Online interested me; there have been too many virtual-world series recently.

I can be lured outside my comfort zone by compelling characters, compelling stories, or preferably both. Normally, I don't watch sports anime, but Guardian Enzo steered me to two of them in 2012, and he was right about both Chihayafuru and Ginga e Kickoff. On the other hand, I'm having difficulty staying engaged with Psycho-Pass, despite the thrilling plot line, because of the over-obvious intrusion of the authorial voice in the proceedings.

So with those caveats, here are my favorite show of 2012, in alphabetical order. I make no claims that these are the "best" anime series this year; they're the ones I enjoyed the most.
  • Acchi Kocchi. Yeah, I know it was incredibly exploitative of the moe trope. Nonetheless, I found it consistently funny, not to mention very soothing to watch. It was clear from the get-go that the central relationships would hardly change, but they were funny relationships, and the humor was unforced.
  • Ano Natsu de Matteru. The most enjoyable romantic comedy of 2012. Although it was almost a remake of Onegai Teacher (a prequel, actually), it succeeded in its own right by creating believable characters and letting them carry the story through to a proper conclusion. It never put a foot wrong.
  • Chihayafuru. Who'd have thought that the most exciting sports anime this year would be about karata? Chihayafuru transcended its genre - indeed, all its genres - to provide an engrossing show that kept faith with the ethos of sports anime while providing believable characters, strong development, and some engaging romance. I regard it as one of 2012's miracles that this unclassifiable show is getting a sequel.
  • Ginga e Kickoff. This show is heartfelt, honest, and smart: a sports anime about kids' soccer that neither makes the kids into supermen nor dogs them with insurmountable obstacles to be overcome. The slow knitting together of the team, the small issues of growing up that each of the characters has to face, and the growing sense of friendship among the team members are all portrayed impeccably. Even the low-budget animation doesn't mar the appeal of this show.
  • Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita. Non-linear, obtuse, savagely satirical, and at times hysterically funny, this show said more about the human condition with less preaching than any other show in 2012. The decline of mankind, and the rise of the "fairies" as a distorted mirror of our civilization, were the themes of a story that appeared to run backwards in time, with a nameless protagonist and no apparent plot. Only at the close of each two episode arc did the pieces seem to click, then to be undone by the next set of episodes.
  • Natsume Yuujinchou Shi. The fourth season of Natsume was as good as any of the previous three and in some ways better. The blend of supernatural comedy and human growth was pitch-perfect. There was plenty of air time for Nyanko-sensei and the youkai, but also a strong emphasis on Natsume's increasing comfort with his adopted family and the human world in general. Is there enough manga material left for a fifth season? I certainly hope so.
  • Nazo no Kanojo X. Another fine romantic comedy, portraying the joys and perils of adolescent romance from a sufficiently different perspective to provide an original experience. In retrospect, the "drool" factor acted as a alienating device to keep the viewer both engaged and distant at the same time, allowing the show to be appreciated from several viewpoints simultaneously. If Tsubaki was a bit generic as the hero, Urabe was an original creation, brought to life with a terrific performance by a new voice actress, Yoshitani Ayako.
  • Polar Bear Cafe. One of the most underrated shows of 2012. It gets almost no respect. No Crunchysubber ever picked it up, even though its songs cry out for translation. The core cast of characters (Polar Bear, Penguin, Panda, Hanako-san) are supplemented by representatives from across the animal kingdom and the human spectrum. The comedy arises purely from how the characters bounce off each other - from Polar Bear's endless trolling, Penguin's constant complaining, Panda's enduring laziness, Hanako-san's charming naivete, and the quirks of all the others. There's no great point to the episodes, but then again, there was never much point to Seinfeld, either. This show makes my Thursday mornings.
  • Shin Seki Yori. The best science fiction series of the year, and the best horror series as well. Here's a dystopia that doesn't shirk from the conclusions of its premises and appears to be driving its characters - and its viewers - into a corner. While I see influences from Forbidden Planet (monsters conjured up from the subconscious) and the 21st century's rash of mass shootings (fiends armed with psychokinesis rather than with guns), the bleak vision in this series is both original and ominous. For all its outdoor, rural setting, the show is constricting and claustrophobic. I almost feel like writing an analysis about it, but I'll spare everyone.
  • Tsuritama. The best anime ever made about fishing. No, seriously, this was a fine, character-driven comedy, mixed with just a tidbit of science fiction. The quartet at the center of the show - Haru, Yuki, Akira, and Natsuki, not to mention Tapioca the duck - bounced off each other and grew up in the process. They also, just incidentally, saved the planet from an Extraterrestrial Threat that turned out to be one of the best MacGuffins in a long time. Beautiful animation and terrific scripts made up a short series that, like Anu Natsu, never set a foot wrong.
Honorable mentions: Binbougami ga and Haiyore! Nyarlko-san, anarchic, over-the-top comedies that only rarely erred by trying for sincerity; Hyouka, with its KyoAni-perfect depiction of the pleasures and boredom of high school life; Lupin III: A Woman Named Mine Fujiko, for its gritty retake on the Lupin legend and its fearless embrace of the author's fetishes; Poyopoyo, the best short comedy (about cats, too); Thermae Romae, an extremely funny show made on an animation budget of three bottlecaps; and Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun, the most engaging of this fall's shoujo romances.

I wish everyone a safe and happy holiday season. See you all again in 2013.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Dangers of Second-Hand Translations

My work on Tezuka Osamu's "adult" anime films has given me a new appreciation of the issues with "second-hand" translations, that is, translations that pass through multiple languages and transformations from Japanese to English. This practice is pretty common in the anime and manga world. One well-known fansub group freely acknowledge that they work from Chinese subtitles rather than the original Japanese audio, but they (usually) subject their output to rigorous translation checking by a Japanese speaker. Others have not been so scrupulous or have not had access to a Japanese translator for checking. Then the result is something like the original subtitles for Senya Ichiya Monogatari or Cleopatra: unintelligible and incorrect.

It need not be that way. I've just finished collaborating with macros74 on the first English version of Shinkai no Kankei (Deep Sea Fleet) Submarine 707 (not to be confused with its much better known sequel, Submarine 707R). This ripe piece of anime cheese started with a Dutch DVD and Dutch subtitles. macros74 translated from Dutch to English, adding corrections based on his limited knowledge of Japanese. I edited the translation and arranged for a check by a knowledgeable translator. The translator corrected a few things but felt, overall, that the script was pretty good and captured the intent of the original Japanese. As a result, a hitherto unavailable Japanese OVA is be available in English (or will be, as soon as the  moderators at BakaBT get off their behinds).

However, there are many pitfalls in a multi-step translation process. First, the original translation must be correct, or correct enough. For Shinkai no Kankei, it is. However, many translations take great liberties. I'm not talking about localizations but total rewrites. A good example is Junk Boy. The English dub is basically a different story, as can be seen by comparing the dub and a later, accurate translation. (Both are on BakaBT.) Another problem is loss of cultural references. Unless they are noted in some way, they are sure to be lost in the passage through multiple languages.

Then, the second translation has to be correct as well. Shinkai no Kankei shows how to do it correctly. However, counterexamples abound. The translation of Senya Ichiya Monogatari from Chinese to English appears to have done by a computer. The same is true for the unreadable subtitles in Doukyuusei 2: Graduation. Many Hong Kong DVDs have English subtitles created by people with limited knowledge (to be kind) of English. No amount of editing polish can make up for meaning lost, and confusion created, in this step.

And finally, a translation check, by someone who knows Japanese, is essential. Japanese is a subtle, ambiguous language, and it's far too easy to lose nuances at either translation step.

As an example of what can go wrong, I tried to create an English version of Harukanaru Toki no Naka de 2 from the German DVD release. However, due to deficient training in my dear, dead college days, I don't speak German, I only read it. Even with my limited knowledge, though, I can tell that the German subtitles are overly compressed compared to the German dialog, not to mention the Japanese dialog. Too many of the details have been left out. So someone who speaks German might be able to create an English version from this source, but I can't: the German subtitles leave out too much. So it remains on my wish list against the day that some kind soul is willing to translate it, from Japanese or German, as the case may be.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Prince of Trash?

Fansub editors seem to be in short supply these days, so I've often ended up doing favors for acquaintances in the fansub community and editing projects that have been abandoned or otherwise lack critical resources. This leads me to working on shows that lie far outside by normal range of interests, such as Yawara! (sports anime), Hiatari Ryoukou (ditto), and KoiChoco (eroge adaptation). Mostly I find something of interest, such as Yawara!'s charming heroine, sometimes I don't. But rarely do the shows inspire outright rage... until I got involved with Prince of Tennis.

This started as a favor to my Saizen colleagues on the Yawara! project, where they've done all the timing and release checking. The last two OVAs in the PoT Another Story II series were translated but not edited, as was the recent PoT movie. I hate to see projects left undone, so I agreed to edit them. Now I wish I hadn't. Further, the endless popularity of the show makes me ask: Does everyone in Japan think that tennis is the grass-court equivalent of a magician's battle?

I've commented elsewhere on the cyclical nature of shounen manga and anime, and the steadily escalating nature of the hero's (super)powers, but the application of this to tennis leaves me dumbfounded. Special moves! Magic shots! Employment of life force! I saw some of this in Kuroko's Basketball, but PoT takes this to the max, over the top, and into complete absurdity. Violent street gangs that use tennis for revenge against perceived wrongs done by society? Give me a break!

Sports anime doesn't have to be this absurd. As Guardian Enzo has pointed out, the soccer (football) in Ginga e Kickoff is entirely plausible, not just as soccer, but as kid's soccer. The baseball in Hiatari Ryoukou is a bit exaggerated, but it's still believable. And the judo in Yawara! appears to be real judo, with real moves from the approved playbooks. So why does PoT play like the teenage male equivalent of a mahou shoujo series? All that's missing are the transformation scenes.

Saizen colleagues... you owe me. Big time.

Now, I fully acknowledge that I am not the "target demographic" for PoT, or any other shounen show for that matter. Further, I didn't watch the original series, so I haven't followed the evolution of the characters and their skills. Maybe the TV series contains an explanation for all this - like it's taking place in an alternate universe, or it's a fever dream, or something. Lacking that, I can only take the OVAs and movie at face value. And I'd much rather have episodes that are about actual tennis. You don't have to dress up a sport in fantasy clothes to make an interesting show. Chihayafuru demonstrated that.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Tezuka Osamu's "Adult" Anime (Revised)

Tezuka Osamu, sometimes called the "godfather of anime" and the "god of manga," is a revered figure in the pantheon of Japanese graphic artists. His anime and manga have, by and large, been treated well in English, with two significant exceptions: the two "adult" anime movies he created in the late 60s, Senya Ichiya Monogatari (A Thousand and One Nights) and Cleopatra. Marketed as "adult" cartoons (i.e., porn), both did poorly in the United States (and in Japan as well); the English-dubbed versions are considered lost. Subtitled versions have been floating around the Web for a few years, but the quality is terrible. The subtitles for Senya Ichiya Monogatari appear to be a machine translation of Chinese subtitles that were themselves a machine translation from Japanese; they are incomprehensible. The subtitles for Cleopatra were, as the group responsible admits, mostly guesses.

This year, I obtained new translations of Senya Ichiya Monogatari and Cleopatra. These have now been timed, edited, typeset, QC'd, and so on, and new versions of both movies have been released, at last. I want to acknowledge the Internet-based team that made this possible: first and foremost, convexity, who did the primary translations; ElyasRay, who also helped with translation; Corbyn and Saji, who provided QC checking; and tophf, who provided the original raws. The new versions will make it possible for an English-speaking audience to see these movies and understand the script more or less as their creators intended, rather than through the distorted lens of junk translations.

Some Initial Thoughts

These movies are not "X-rated cartoons," as their American distributors proclaimed. They're not even hentai under current definitions of the genre. If they were released today, not a single frame would need to be censored. Yes, there are lots of topless or unclothed women, but the films are much less explicit than, say, Yosuga no Sora. They're more like current ATX late-night boob-fests, such as Dakara Boku wa, H ga Dekinai.

Also, they're not lost masterpieces. Both suffer from rambling plots, shortcuts in animation due to budget constraints, and stylistic inconsistency. Senya Ichiya Monogatari spins a meandering tale of Aladdin and his rise from water seller to King of Baghdad, plundering many Arabian folktales, and The Odyssey, along the way. Cleopatra frames the story of the last queen of Egypt inside a science-fiction story. The framing story exists only to explain how one of the characters has knowledge of modern inventions, a factor which is exploited for occasional comic effect. Cleopatra makes mincemeat of historical events and ends with Cleopatra dying for love of Antony, without ever showing that she loved him in the first place.

Finally, they're too long. Admittedly, the Arabian Nights story collection is very long, but Senya could have been much more selective in choosing which episodes to tell. When Senya time-skips fifteen years forward just past the midway point, introducing a new set of characters, the viewer's reaction is more exasperation than renewed interest. Cleopatra's satirical set pieces — the assassination of Caesar is staged as kabuki theater, for example — don't have much sting.

On the other hand, both movies are intermittently entertaining, with good comedic, action, and romantic set pieces. In Senya, the love idylls of Aladdin and Miriam, and later of Aslan and Jalis, are charming, before the action in each case turns very dark. The action sequences are fluidly animated, albeit on a small scale. Aladdin is a flawed hero, capable of selfish and irresponsible actions, but ultimately redeemed in the end, and his opponent, Badli, makes a scheming, villainous antagonist. I find less to admire in Cleopatra, but the endlessly horny leopard, Lupa, provides comic relief, which is sorely needed.

Translation and Editing Notes: Senya Ichiya Monogatari

Names - The traditional English names from the Arabian Nights have been used, e.g., Aladdin instead of Aldin.

43:57 - "Open... barley! Did I say it wrong?" The start of a long sequence in which Aladdin forgets the incantation to open the thieves' door (Open "sesame" [translated to Japanese as "goma," meaning sesame seeds]) and tries a long list of other edible seeds, barley and peanuts included.

Translation and Editing Notes: Cleopatra

Names - The traditional English names from history are used, e.g., Julius Caesar instead of Iulius Caesar, Mark Antony instead of Marcus Antonius, Octavian instead of Octavianus. Where possible, character and place names follow historical usage: Ptolemy, Pothinus, etc. However, Cleopatra's faithful attendant was a man, Apollodorus, rather than a woman, Apollodoria; and her tame jungle cat was probably Arrow (a tiger) rather than Lupa (a leopard). Lupa is used instead of Rupa, because Lupa is a Latin word meaning wolf.

5:59 - "Deces d'amant." Because Japanese pronunciation of European languages can be rather variable, it's really impossible to know what this is supposed to be. I've construed it as misprounounced French, because "death of the loved one" is the essence of the plot.

12:44 - "the Great Lord Caesar." Literally, "Lord Caesar, child of the sun."

22:57 - "The heart of finger massage..." and the following line are a well-known quote by Namikoshi Tokujirou. See

29:02 - "Great gods of the heavens." Literally, "Ah, says the surprised Tamegorou!" ("アッ驚く為五郎). This is Hana Hajime's catchphrase from a 1969-1970 TV variety show 『巨泉×前武ゲバゲバ90分!』; and Hana Hajime is the voice actor playing Caesar! "Tamegorou" is a character from a story Hana liked. See

1:17:45 - "No butts touched, no piles gained." Literally, "You can't get hemorrhoids without touching your butt." The start of some truly terrible punning.

1:17:50- "You mean, 'Nothing ventured, nothing gained.'" Literally: "You can't catch a tiger cub without entering a tiger's lair."

1:17:52.84 - "But you still gain something!" Literally, "There's still the ass." "Ketsu" by itself means "ass." Tiger's lair is "koketsu."

1:21:20 - "I mean, mine's just a tiny subcompact." Literally, "I mean, mine's just a tiny one with a compact vehicle license," meaning the Japanese license for engines of 360cc or below.

1:21:24 - "Caesar's was a huge 100-ton dump truck." Literally, "Caesar's was a dump truck with a special license."

1:22:47 - "You bit my little finger" - A line from "Koyubi no Omoide" by Itou Yukari. See

1:23:42 - "The word i-impossible is not in my dictionary." A real quote from Napoleon, to match the onscreen image.

Ending song - "Guerilla, Guevera, Gewalt." "Gebaruto" means violence. To keep the alliteration, the German term for violence, "gewalt," is used.

Concluding Thoughts

Any prolific artist - the complete collection of Osamu's manga runs to more than 400 volumes - will produce a mixture of great, average, and less than stellar work, and Tezuka Osamu was no exception. Just because Senya Ichiya Monogatari and Cleopatra fall at or below average is no reason to ignore them or treat them shabbily. Both movies show Osamu developing his style at an early point in his career and point the way towards better works in the future. I hope these new translations will help make these movies more accessible to a broader audience.

(Revised 11/24/2012)

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Technology Marches On

When softsubbing first became possible and then fashionable, it involved a number of compromises. Fancy sign typesetting wasn't really doable, and elaborate karaokes seemed to go the way of the dinosaur. The technology for elaborate typesetting, and the performance of softsubbed playback, simply wasn't there.

Well, time marches on. PCs have become powerful (I write this on a quad-core i5 that spends 99.9% of its time doing nothing). More importantly, the software for typesetting and subtitle playback has improved considerably. As a result, sign typesetting is approaching the glory days of hardsubbed AFX signs, and complex karaokes are rising from their graves.

For typesetting, the key development has been the use of motion tracking software, combined with automated frame-by-frame transforms of a base sign based on the tracked motions. This allows frame-by-frame typesetting of signs that move in non-linear ways, with none of the hassle associated with the manual process. Back in 2009, I set a 50-frame moving sign in Orphan's Hand Maid May by hand, and it took me hours, with manual computation of the position deltas between frames. I did a similar effort with a non-linear sign in Orphan's Space Neko Theater; after that, I swore off the practice. But with new software technology, it's no longer necessary.

The motion tracking software is based on the sorts of techniques used in motion-capture special effects. After designating an initial set of points to be tracked, the software follows the image (in this case, a sign) through subsequent frames, generating coordinates. Those coordinates feed an Aegisub automation script that applies the coordinate changes (including changes in angles) to an initial typesetting specification. The result is a frame-by-frame sign that accurately tracks the motion on the screen.

Complex softsubbed karaokes are a more recent development. When Polished released a DVD version of Tokimeki Memorial a few years back, the initial version, which emodied C1's hardcoded karaoke in the script, simply wouldn't play. Polished had to redo the scripts with a simple, line-timed karaoke. The problem wasn't the speed of PCs; it was the subtitle rendering software, vsfilter, which suffered from a number of design bottlenecks. Recently, the community became sufficiently fed up to code up a replacement, called xy-filter, which is significantly more efficient.

I saw this in action with the recent DVD redo of Rescue Wings. When topf(h) added the typesetting, he simply incorporated the Ureshii karaokes verbatim — even though some of them to thousands of lines. With xy-filter, they play back as smooth as butter on almost any modern machine. Now fancy karaokes are making a comeback. GotWoot's opening for the season's hit show, Magi, runs to 6500 lines. I'm sure more will follow.

These developments will not be without their detractors. Viewers with old PCs will be in trouble. Non-techies will have difficulties in figuring out how and where to install xy-filter. As with the advent of the MKV container, replacing OGM; of h.264, replacing XviD; and 10-bit encoding, replacing 8-bit; the fansub community will by and large ignore them. One hopes that recoders (who typically change the original format to MP4 for playback on tablets and phones) can provide relief to technology laggards.

So with beautiful signs and complex karaokes again with reach, I think it's time for updated versions of some classics. I'd love to see Amatsuki, Yume Tsukai, Nodame Cantabile, and other classics from Ureshii or C1 redone, with their original karaokes. (Some are probably still beyond reach: the Skip Beat OP karaoke is more than 8MB long.) If you've got the interest, and the raws, I have the scripts.

Summer's Over

Fall has arrived in New England. The days are cool and crisp; there's more rain. The nights are longer than the days and downright cold. While the leaves haven't started turning, the ferns are turning brown and folding up. Summer is over.

So it's time to take a brief look back at the Summer 2012 anime season. I don't have much to say, because I found most of it unwatchable. My favorites:
  • Jinrui wa Suitai Shimashita. Quirky, maddening, and hilarious by turns, Jinrui was my favorite show of the summer. It's a ferociously angry satire about the human condition, and its fractured story-telling and bizarre changes of tone only added to its appeal. The nameless narrator ("Watashi" - "I" in Japanese) provided a sardonic, bemused tour through a fallen human world and its new inheritors, the adorable, dangerous, and malleable fairies. Some of the set pieces - like the headless chickens plunging to their doom to the strains of "Ave Maria," or the spectacular self-immolation of robot Bread-san - left indelible impressions. Alas, the BD sales for volume 1 are only so-so, so I think we've seen the last of Watashi and her world.
  • Binbougami ga. A mostly over-the-top, take-no-prisoners comedy filled with bizarre characters, parodies, and the like. There were occasional dips into seriousness - sometimes with disastrous effects - but mostly it was non-stop slapstick, much of it politically incorrect. I mean, seriously, an S&M-loving dog-god and a perverted monk who sing a hymn of praise to "oppai" (boobs) to open an explicitly labeled fanservice episode? gg did a great job localizing the show and the gags.
  • Hyouka. A carryover from the spring season, Hyouka worked at multiple levels: as eye candy, as a study of high-school aimlessness, as (occasionally) a mystery show, but mostly as a character study. The quartet of leads were interesting and complicated, and the series gave them time to show their characters developing and changing. Even Miss "I'm Curious," Chitanda Eru, was shown to have greater depths that the adorable, somewhat ditzy personality she showed on the surface. The show was beautiful to look at (KyoAni, natch), but it was also worth looking at.
  • Moyashimon Returns. Those talking microbes are irresistible; must be the science student in me. I wish the show hadn't left so many threads hanging, but it was fun to hang out with the gang for another season.
That's pretty much it, as far as I'm concerned. I lost interest in Natsuiro Kiseki, Joshiraku, and Utakoi fairly quickly. Hagure and Dakara were too shoddy for even the abundant fanservice to compensate. Many of the other shows (Kokoro, Oda Nobuna, Tari Tari, Koi, Campione, Arcana Famiglia) seemed like retreads of retreads. Accel World and its sibling Sword Art Online also get the DTD (done to death) award. I didn't finish the first season of Rinne no Lagrange, so the second season didn't work either. And as for the end of Sket Dance... there was much rejoicing.

Of the ongoing shows, I continue to look forward to Polar Bear's Cafe, whose droll style and shaggy bear stories seem to improve week over week, and Poyopoyo, which is truer to life that most cat fanciers would care to admit. If the fall shows prove disapointing, I may go back and start on Space Brothers, which failed to catch my eye the first time around.

See ya!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Rescuing "Rescue Wings" Redux

It should be no secret to readers of this blog that Rescue Wings (Yomigaeru Sora) is one of my favorite anime series. It's a terrific story about the Japanese Air Rescue Service and the people who serve in it. It's a show about and for grown-ups, but it should appeal to younger viewers as well. It has a great balance of action and character development, and the stories blend tragedy and hope in equal measure.

Rescue Wings was one of the first series I worked on when I joined the Ureshii fansub team. The project had a checkered history, with almost as many near-death experiences as in the stories it tells. Ureshii started subbing the TV broadcasts but fell further and further behind. The project was restarted from DVD sources, but after a great start it suddenly stalled out after the sixth episode. The core problem was that the translator didn't like doing songs, and there were a lot of them. Long gaps occurred between episodes six and seven, and seven and eight, and then nothing.

Almost two years later, I persuaded some friends from another group — in particular, a new translator — to help Ureshii finish the series. This required rebuilding the team from scratch, in particular for typesetting. The karaokes were done by cut and paste until the team got to episode 12. There we were stymied by inclusion of verses that had never been used before. Because the original karaoke typesetter was long gone, I ultimately wrote a C (!) program to build the typesetting for the missing section, and the project came to a successful conclusion. It look more than two years to finish a 13-week series.

There matters rested for four years. Three weeks ago, a resubber decided to redo Rescue Wings from the DVDs in modern encoding technology at larger file sizes. However, all he had to go by was the dialog script in the Ureshii releases, so he omitted every single sign in the release. Someone promptly offered this version on BakaBT.

At this point, I went ballistic and posted a bit of a diatribe on the BakaBT forums. It pointed out that the signs carried much of the story and were critical to understanding the timeline of the rescues. Further, I had offered the Ureshii script archives to anyone who wanted to make a legitimate effort at redoing a series with better video, as Jinsei did with Nana. (That offer still stands, by the way.)

Well, sometimes things do work out. toph (or tophf), who did the terrific rips of the Tezaka Osamu "adult" anime films I'm working on, saw my note and volunteered to typeset the signs — including the ones that were originally done with AFX. Within a matter of days he had new and very complete scripts for me to check.

I went back to look at Rescue Wings for the first time in four years. With fresh eyes, the cracks in the edifice were very obvious. Rescue Wings had been done over a long period of time, with two or three different translators, and at least four editors. There were numerous consistency errors in spelling and terminology as well as some stylistic variations in tone. toph(f) gave me stern advice on avoiding "editor's remorse," so I focused on only the most essential changes.

I should mention that toph(f) not only preserved the complex Ureshii karaokes, he fixed an issue that had nagged me for a long time. The ED was done without official lyrics, because the scanned booklet was missing the lyrics page for that song. As a result, the last "Engrish" phrase (Eternal Wing) was rendered as "Eternally" in most of the episodes. I thought the karaoke too complex to alter, but toph(f) fixed them all, seamlessly. So this new version of Rescue Wings, although not definitive, is a significant improvement on the original subs.

(I'm amazed that these complex karaokes play so smoothly in softsub. Viewers will probably need xy-filter and a decent multi-core processor to avoid significant lagging.)

Viewing Rescue Wings again for the first time in four years renewed my admiration. This is not a typical shounen series about a young man's journey from nerd to superhero. The protagonist, Kazuhiro Uchida, starts out full of doubt about his vocation and slowly builds his competence, and confidence, through hard work and harsh lessons. At the end, he's not a superstar but rather an accepted member of a highly professional team. The "antagonist," an older and somewhat embittered veteran pilot named Shuujiro Honda, is shown as a fully rounded character, with a convincing back story to explain his hard-bitten attitude. He doesn't mellow into a father figure but remains true to himself, while gradually accepting that Kazuhiro is mastering the job. The rescues are exciting but not uniformly successful, just as in real life.

I also want to note the exceptionally effective use of music in the series.  The ending song is an emotionally overwrought ballad that, despite its histrionics, fits the tone of the series well. There are several different versions, using different verses, a fact that gave the translator and the karaoke artist fits. The OP and the insert songs are appropriate. However, the most interesting use of music is in the central arc (episodes 6 and 7), which provide Hongo's back story. The episode 6 OP is an irrepressibly bouncy piece of j-pop called "Madcap Island" — but it plays over a black-and-white flashback of a funeral, where it seems totally out of place. By the end of episode 7, where it is used in the story and also over the credits, the song has come to symbolize the spirit of the rescue squadron: to never give up in the face of adversity.

If you haven't watched Rescue Wings, I urge you to give it a try. It's available in a variety of formats: Froth-Bite's hardsubbed mp4 version, compatible with mobile devices, and this new, entirely softsubbed version with state of the art video. You won't go wrong with either of them. I still have a soft spot for the original Ureshii version, and if the softsubbed karaokes and signs won't play on your computer, you can still see how they looked.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The (Endless) Circle of Shounen

The long-running anime Bleach recently ended, after 366 episodes. The long-running manga Naruto is rumored to be ending soon, and the anime should follow after it exhausts the source material. Among the numerous fans of these series, there is much wailing and gnashing of teeth. But in my neck of the woods… there is much rejoicing. I have only one question about the demise of these shows: what took you so long? And when will One Piece, Sket Dance, Toriko, Fairy Tail, and the rest exit stage right as well?

Of all the tropes in anime, I detest the endless shounen shows the most. They are, simply put, repetitious and boring, because they all follow the same basic pattern, which I call the (Endless) Circle of Shounen:

  1. Plucky youth discovers he has some special ability.
  2. Plucky youth meets some supporting characters.
  3. Plucky youth goes out to battle and defeat the Bad Guy.
  4. Plucky youth strengthens his power(s).
  5. Plucky youth discovers there’s Another Bad Guy (the Next Boss) above the last one.
Repeat steps 2-5 until nausea sets in.

This cycle is nothing new. In fact, I encountered it back in the Dark Ages when I first read EE “Doc” Smith’s legendary (as in legendarily bad) science-fiction series Lensman, which dates from the sci-fi pulp magazines of the 1930’s. In each volume of Lensman, our noble hero encounters and defeats dastardly villains from outer space in the name of Truth, Justice, and… oops, wrong series… in the name of interplanetary harmony. But at the start of the next volume, more powerful and dastardly villains appear to upset the apple cart, and the plot starts all over again. “Meet the new boss… same as the old boss.”

More recently, I saw this in the manga of Kekkaishi. I have a soft spot for the anime series, because it was one of the first long shows I edited from start to finish. However, as I’ve continued reading the manga (the anime ends at volume 13 of 37), the repetitive, cyclical structure has become very apparent and extremely dull.  Our teenage hero defeats a villain, powers up, and promptly runs into the villain behind the previous villain. All of the original charm of the series – the comedy, the quirky character traits, the fledgling romance – is lost in the endless action of the endless Circle of Shounen.

Now, I understand why shounen manga authors repeat the same basic plot. It’s very difficult to create a linear narrative extending over dozens or hundreds of episodes. The great geniuses of 19th century literature, like Dickens, Tolstoy, and Hugo, could extend a plot over hundreds or even a thousand pages, but that would only fill fifty or sixty episodes. The mangaka or screenwriter has to fill in a far longer canvas with some degree of continuity. In that context, step and repeat makes a lot of sense.

Further, long-running shounen series, in both manga and anime form, convey great economic benefits on the creators – not just guaranteed income, but tie-ins from merchandise, movies, DVD and BluRay releases, foreign licensing, etc – not to mention doujinshi. In industries fraught with uncertainty and badly impacted by the recession and digital media, long-running shounen series provide an annuity income stream and some precious security. It’s only human to pursue these goals.

Nonetheless, these shows are a blight on the anime scene, sucking up dollars and creative oxygen that might go into more imaginative shows, and contributing to the descent of anime into repetitive trash. I treasure the one season of Usagi Drop or UN-GO or Tsuritama, or the intermittent seasons of Natsume Yuujinchou, more than the whole corpus of Naruto and Shippuuden.  There’s more wit in the thirteen episodes of Fireball or Fireball Charming or Yondemasu Azazel-san than the six hundred plus episodes of One Piece.

So, otaku of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your mental chains. Support term limits for manga and anime series. Dump those shounen shows, and the moe-blob shows, and the rest of the repetitive dreck you’ve been watching, and demand something better, something creative, something original. Your mind will thank you, at least eventually.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Delicate Subject

This blog is about the rise of fansubbed hentai anime. H-animes are a somewhat delicate subject in the fansub community; hence, the title of this essay.

Five years ago, fansubbed hentai anime was comparatively rare. There were no groups really dedicated to the idea. Some fansub groups had an h-anime "division" which produced the occasional episode. Lunar did a few; Shinsen did the first two episodes of Kage (Shadow) and then abandoned the project. Almost all h-animes on the Interweb were rips of shows that had been licensed in the US and released, with subtitles and/or dubs, on R1 DVDs. For one thing, only the R1 DVDs were uncensored. All Japanese DVDs were and still are censored, with pixellation over the really "naughty bits."

However, since the middle of 2009, this trend has been dramatically reversed. Based on an admittedly unscientific survey, it appears that in the last three years, fansubs of unlicensed shows have outnumbered rips of licensed shows by more than five to one. There are groups dedicated just to fansubbing unlicensed h-anime, such as Erobeat, SubDESU-H, PixieS, and Fakku. What has changed?

One thing that has not changed, at least not for the better, is the "quality" of the shows. Current hentai shows are cheap and essentially plotless, a concatenation of sex scenes with minimal connective tissue. Gone are the romantic comedies with a final sex scene, such as Canvas, Yesterday Once More, or First Love, or the intense action and terrific artwork of Kage. (Actually, what was classified as 18-restricted in the 1990s is far less explicit than modern "mainstream" anime like Yosuga no Sora or Aki Sora.) In fact, fansubbing modern hentai is not really necessary. The dialog is, to put it mildly, beside the point. So what is driving the boom in fansubbed h-anime?

One possible answer is the rise of file-sharing sites, particularly sites that compensated content uploaders for downloads, like FileServe. Erobeat was the first group to realize the potential. The major bottleneck in fansubbed hentai was not lack of demand - the fansubbing audience being mostly otaku males - but lack of translators. Most fansub translators looked down on hentai and refused to work on it. (So did many timers, editors, and encoders, for that matter.) Erobeat use the money raised from file-sharing sites to pay for DVDs and translations. This in turn generated more content, which generated more money, which paid for more DVDs and translations - a virtuous circle. Erobeat used the file-sharing sites strictly to pay for expenses. Once a show had paid off its costs, it was released as a torrent instead. Erobeat dealt with the (lack of) quality in modern shows by focusing mostly on the back catalog, providing, for example, the first accurate translation of 1987's ecchi classic Junk Boy.

Other groups, notably SubDESU-H, picked up the model and ran with it. These groups used a variety of raws as sources, not just DVDs, which allowed them to work on even more shows, and more recent ones, driving up volume and the revenue stream from file-sharing sites. The MegaUpload shutdown interrupted the picture briefly, but new sites have arisen to fill the gap, and the flood of animated, subtitled porn continues unabated.

From a technical point of view, fansubbing h-anime is easier than mainstream shows. The most difficult part is finding staff, particularly translators. Once a translation is available, the rest is straightforward. The scripts tend to be short, with long sequences of just heavy breathing and sound effects. That simplifies timing. The dialog is cliched, mostly verbalized monologues of the action on the screen. Editing is reduced to finding different phrasing for reactions and body parts, to vary the monotony. There's no typesetting, beyond the title and the choice of a font style. So it's step 1: find a raw; step 2: create a simple script; and step 3: profit.

Exceptions exist, of course. Kage had a dense plot that required careful translation and editing, as well as beautiful visuals that needed first-class encoding. The great Tezuka Osamu's ventures into h-anime (Cleopatra and Sen'ya Ichiya Monogatari) haven't received the translations they deserve, although excellent encodes are available. But today's h-animes are interchangeable and disposable.

As with mainstream anime, h-anime has its orphans. Some of these are shows that were only partially licensed in the US, such as Beast City, Kiniraru Kimochi, Lunatic Night, and The Last Kunoichi.  All of them are missing the concluding episode. Izumo and Kodomo no Jikan (the h-animes, not the TV shows) are fansubs, but they too were abandoned one episode short of competion. There are undoubtedly others.

So here's another example of the technology and finances of the Interwebs interacting with the fansub community to alter what shows are subtitled and how. Whether you think the alteration is good or bad is up to you. Technology has no inherent intent; how it's used by people provides that.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Summer's Here, and the Time is Ripe...

...for a quick summary of the spring season. As usual, I'll discuss my top picks, and then the rest of the shows I watched.

My personal top five, in alphabetical order:
  • Acchi Kocchi. What seemed like a typical moe-blob show evolved into a charming and sly slice-of-life comedy. The characters were interesting, and the gags ranged from good to great. Yes, it helped that Tsumiki seemed to be some sort of cat, but it was really the interaction among the five leads that made the show shine.  There was even some character progression, if nothing conclusive.
  • Haiyore Nyarlko-san. The subversive comedy of the season, if not quite as anarchic as Yondemasu Azazel-san. Chock-a-block with parodies, references, political satire, and shattered fourth walls, Nyarlko-san was far better than the Flash-based shorts that preceded it. The show never took itself seriously, which allowed for absurd plots to climax in even more absurd denouements. (The summary for several episodes was, "What a terrible punch line.")
  • Nazo no Kanojo X. Like most viewers, I'm still put off by the drool ick-factor, but that aside, Nazo was a charming and honest exploration of the head-heart (or hormone-emotion) conflicts of teenage romance. If the hero, Tsubaki, was a bit generic, the heroine, Urabe, was an original creation, brilliantly voiced by a new seiryuu. I wish we could see how this all turns out.
  • Polar Bear Cafe. This droll, slow-paced comedy seems to be an acquired taste, but it suits me fine. Polar Bear's constant trolling; Panda-kun's childisth narcissism; Penguin-san's romantic anguish; and the general absurdity of animals and humans interacting naturally while still remaining true to their natures; all tickle my funny-bone. The last couple of episodes have been unexpectedly "sincere" without becoming maudlin.
  • Tsuritama. Probably my favorite. A show that began as character-driven and transitioned to plot-driven without missing a beat. All of the characters change and grow - and grow closer - while pursuing that least-interesting of sports (fishing) and a Macguffin of a fish that legend says they must catch. The interactions among Yuki, Haru, Akira, Natsuki (and Tapioca the duck) drive the show and shape the plot as well. Tsuritama was visually innovative and a pleasure to watch. Unfortunately, it truly wrapped up conclusively, so no second season or OVAs seem possible.
The others that I watched or am watching:
  • Accel World. I really have trouble with the lead character being drawn as a dumpy chibi. It makes his friendships with Snow Black and the others seem unrealistic. Or will we discover that the "real world," as the hero sees it, is also a virtual reality of some kind? In any case, I find Accel only intermittenly interesting, as the VR trope has been done to death.
  • Ginga e Kickoff. I started watching this because of Guardian Enzo's recommendation, and I'm still watching it, despite my distaste for both shounen and sports anime. It's not sophisticated, or brilliantly animated, or all that original. However, it has sincerity and enthusiasm going for it, as well as likeable characters and realistic situations.
  • Hyouka. Or, the mystery of "Much Ado About Nothing." I was okay with the show's trivial mysteries when they only lasted an episode, but the current four-episode arc is trying my patience. It is totally dependent on what Roger Ebert calls the Idiot Plot device: if they ask the screenwriter what she intended, the show is over in 30 seconds. But meanwhile, it's beautiful eye candy and interesting on occasion.
  • Kimi to Boku 2. If you enjoyed season one, you liked this; and if you didn't, you didn't. I did, although the show is sometimes so laid back as to be soporific.
  • Kore wa Zombie 2. The same comments apply to this sequel. If it was no better than season one, it was no worse, either.
  • Kuroko no Basketo. This started out well, with an interesting premise and set of characters, but now it is caught up in the Endless Cycle of Shounen: in each show, the basketball team must draw a new rabbit out of the hat to confront the Next Boss. I'd like to see more character development, particularly of Kuroko, who remains a cipher.
  • Lupin III: The Woman Called Mine Fujiko. Stylish, sexy, and totally over the top. The author's fetishes are on full display in this series, but to me, that just added to the interest. I particularly liked the dark side that Lupin and the other characters displayed. This wasn't the G-rated Lupin of the later TV series and specials: Lupin wanted into Fujiko's shorts, and Zenegata actually got there.  The animation style was different, gritty, and well-suited to the material.
  • Medaka Box. There are better shows about high-school student councils. Much better shows.
  • Mouretsu Pirates. This show seemed thematically conflicted. On one hand, it was about cute high-school girls doing cute things. On the other hand, it was about galactic conflict. On one hand, there was lots of slice-of-life comedy. On the other hand, ships got blown up and people killed. The show never really came to grips with the life-and-death nature of piracy and treated it, until the last few episodes, as a form of cosplay. Still, the heroine was plucky and likable, the supporting characters interesting, and the animation good.
  • Sakamichi no Apollon. I'd like to add to the near-universal chorus of praise this series received, but I felt it fell apart at the end. Probably there was too much material for a 12-episode show, but the breaks in continuity, and the deus-ex-machina events, of the last few episodes were very annoying. Kudos, though, for the music, the animation, and the direction; it was fun spending time with these characters.
  • Tasogare Otome. This just couldn't hold my interest after the first couple of episodes.
I dropped Folkstales from Japan, Hiiro no Kakera, Natsuiro Kiseki, Saki Achiga-hen, Sankarea, and Zetman. I never started Aquarion Evol, Eureka 7 AO, Jormugand, Phi Brain S2, Queen's Blade Rebellion, Sengoku Collection, or Shining Hearts. Your mileage may vary.

Among the short series, I continue to like Poyopoyo best. Yurumates 3D was okay (although not as good as the OVAs), but Recorder to Randoseru fell back too often on the "he's a child molester" joke.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Wish List

I have a modest list of projects that require skills I don't have. Here's the list, with status (I have removed the completed items):
  • Urusei Yatsura special: typesetting. This special, released by ARR, needs an overhaul for timing and editing. Even the "fixed" version on BakaBT is terrible. The retiming editing, and translation check are done, but there are now 22 signs of considerable complexity needing work. Status: in QC. I typeset what I could and used \an8 for the rest.
  • Sotsugyousei: translation. This three-part OVA from ARR also has garbled subtitles. Status: first two episodes done.
  • Harukanaru Toki no Nake de 2: translation. This three-part OVA is available with a German dub and subs, but the subs are much shorter than either the Japanese or German dialog. I'd also like to find an R2J source, as the PAL transcoding introduces serious artifacts. Status: in QC; using the German DVD source.
  • Harukanaru Toki no Nake de specials: translation. Two specials from the original series have not been translated. One is a recap, the other has new content.
  • Nagasarete Airantou BD: timing. This early release from Polished preserves all the timing and editing defects of the original Ayako subtitles. The series is 26 episodes, so it needs a proficient and efficient timer. Status: first 3 episodes done; stalled.
  • Gosenzosama Banbanzai movie (aka Moroko): timing. This summary of the six-part OVA can be translated by reference to the OVA once it's been timed.
 So if you would like to help with any of these projects, drop me a line.

[Updated 27-Jan-2013]

    Wednesday, May 16, 2012

    Signs and Portents

    Another piece of the fansubbing process where I've occasionally dabbled is typesetting. Typesetting consists of two rather separate activities:
    • Styling: selecting and apply fonts, colors, spacing, and effects to dialog.
    • Typesetting proper: selecting and applying, fonts, colors, and effects to signs.
    Let's look at each of those in turn.


    At its core, styling is about font selection, and then about font size, effects, and spacing. I rarely do this on my own, as I don't have much feeling for typefaces; if left to me, every drama would be set in Corbel, and every comedy in DomCasualD. Fortunately, other team members with good typographic sensibilities make these decisions.

    Font coloring can vary, but most dialog is set in white, with a black outline. Sometimes other outline colors are used, particularly in comedies, but white with a black outline is the least distracting.

    The basic font style may have variations to represent different dialog modalities. For example, if the dialog represents thought, the subtitle may be set in italics. If the dialog is a flashback or overlaps another speaker, the subtitle may have a different outline color. It's easy to take this too far and end up with absurdities like different outline colors for each character. (In EPIC's version of Harukanaru Toki 3: Endless Destiny, the outline matched the character's hair color.) Personally, I prefer to keep the number of styles to a minimum: main and overlap, with a third for thought if the translator really insists.

    The transition from 4:3 aspect ratios to 16:9 aspect ratios has affected spacing, particularly padding. When the typical anime was only 640 pixels across, it didn't really matter if the subtitle came fairly close to the left and right edges; the eye could encompass the line without moving. Further, horizontal space was at a premium, so wide left and right margins tended to create 3-line subtitles, a definite no-no. With 853 pixels across on SD, and 1280 on HD, there's more room for the subtitles and less pressure on the margins. Lines that come close to the margins require eye movement, particularly in HD, so wider margins are preferred. A 640x480 anime typically had 10 pixel margins. Today's 16:9 episodes have 60 pixel margins, or even wider.  Likewise, subtitles have been moved away from the bottom of the screen, with the original 10 pixel padding mask extended to 30 or 35 pixels.

    Once the stylist has selected the dialog styles, the application of the styles is fairly mechanical and easily done during the editing process. The editor has to look out for a few potential issues:
    • Special characters. The selected font may not support em-dash (long dash), accented characters, or foreign characters. Em-dash can be emulated by {\fscx200}-{\r}, but other unsupported special characters must be replaced by their standard English counterparts.
    • Italics. Some fonts have true italics and don't require special treatment. When fonts lack true italics, italics are emulated by sloping the font to the right. This creates compression of any space that follows an italicized word, so that the italicized word appears to run into the next word. The fix is to elongate the space following the end of italics, e.g., {\i1}italics{\i0\fscx130} {\r)normal-text. (The scale factor may need to be 140 or 150, depending on the font.)
    • Sign clash. Dialog may clash with signs or with those scrolling messages that seem so prevalent in TV episodes these days. The dialog may need to be moved up or down with {\pos(x,y)} or moved to the top of the screen with {\an8}.

    The minimal goal of typesetting is to put the translation of important signs somewhere on the screen; the maximal goal is to make the translated sign appear to be part of the original drawing. Yawara is an example of the minimal approach. Signs translations are placed at the top of the screen. No effort is made to integrate the English text with the picture on the screen.

    More elaborate typesetting effects can be achieved with the SSA/ASS typesetting markups. These range from simple font selection and scaling to elaborate animations that will move, transform, or clip subtitles through multiple frames. Because SSA markups are embedded in the script, this is the only form of typesetting compatible with softsubs, and experts can achieve quite remarkable effects, albeit with great effort. For example, the comic book dialog in at the end of C1's Nodame Cantabile episode 23 is done entirely with SSA markups; the signs script is three times longer than the dialog script. One sign in FFFpeep's Nekogami Yaoyozuru has more than 300 lines, each covering one frame.

    The most elaborate typesetting is done with photographic manipulation programs, like Adobe Photoshop, or special effects programs, like Adobe AfterEffects (AFX). These programs can create typesetting that is truly indistinguishable from the original. However, they have to be encoded into the video, which complicates and lengthens the subtitling process. Because most groups set speed as an overriding priority, AFX typesetting is declining.

    As with styling, I prefer to leave typesetting to team members with greater experience and proficiency, but I have done a few shows myself, including the Orphan Fansub version of Hand Maid May and the Frostii episodes of Gosenzosama Barbanzai. For me, font selection remains the greatest challenge; figuring out which typesetting tags to employ to get a specific effect is actually a lot of fun.

    The best way to learn typesetting is to try it. Take a script with interesting softsubbed signs, load it into Aegisub, and see what the typesetting tags are doing. By varying tag parameters, or removing tags entirely, you can get a good sense of what's happening. Then take an episode and try doing the signs yourself. You'll fall off the bike a few times, but eventually, you'll get the hang of it. And if all else fails, there's always the Yawara model:

        {\an8}Sign: what the sign says

    Have fun!

    Monday, May 14, 2012

    It's All in the Timing

    I'm not a timer, and I don't play one on TV, but in the course of doing editing and QC, I've picked up the basics of this deceptively simple and absolutely necessary part of the fansubbing process. As a result, I've become quite sensitive to bad timing and find myself correcting script timing more often than I would like.

    Timing is the process of fitting subtitles to the spoken dialog. Subtitles should appear when a line begins and disappear when a line ends, more or less. (It's a bit more complicated than that.) Really good timers can time a script almost as fast as they can listen to it. For me, the process takes hours, and by the time I'm done, my wrists are really hurting from all the mouse clicks - a sure sign that I'm not doing it correctly.

    When I started fansubbing back in 2006, the group I first joined believed in precise timing. Lines appeared precisely when speech began and disappeared precisely when speech ended. This didn't bother me, because I'm a fast reader, but after I started working with other teams, I learned that almost everyone added padding before (lead-in) and after (lead-out) lines, to allow more reading time. In addition, they added additional padding between adjacent lines (joining) so that lines didn't disappear and appear quickly, an annoying visual pattern called flashing. Finally, every group tried to make sure that lines didn't spill over a scene boundary change unnecessarily (scene bleed) or start just after, or end just before, a scene boundary (reverse scene bleed).

    Thus, a timer's style can be defined by a relatively small number of parameters:
    1. How many frames of lead-in?
    2. How many frames of lead-out?
    3. How many frames allowed between lines for joining?
    4. How many frames should be added to pad to a scene boundary?
    5. What are the rules on scene bleeds?
    1-4 are strictly numeric and can be applied by rote; in fact, Aegisub - the most popular subtitling program - has a tool that will apply these parameters to a precisely timed script.

    The only "controversy," and it's a rather mild one, is around the rules for scene bleeds. Clearly, if a line continues on for a substantial amount of time beyond a scene change, the subtitle has to remain on the screen. On the other hand, if the continuation is just an extension of the last syllable of the line, the subtitle should be cut off at the scene change. But what if there's a whole word, or even just a whole syllable, beyond the scene change? Opinions differ.

    My "style" as a timer can be summed up as follows:
    1. Five frames for lead-in (200ms). Most timers use 200-300ms.
    2. Seven or eight frames for lead-out (300ms). Most timers use 300-500ms.
    3. Join if gap is less than or equal to eight frames (320ms). Most timers use 500-1000ms.
    4. Extend to scene boundary if less than or equal to six frames (250ms). Most timers use 300-500ms.
    5. Extend over a scene boundary if a word or significant syllable would be cut off. No real consensus on this one.
    If you prefer the majority position on timing to mine, fear not: I've only timed 58 scripts in the last ten years, mostly for my Orphan Fansubs label, and that was 58 too many.

    In my opinion, timing doesn't get enough respect. Bad timing makes subtitle viewing really unpleasant. For example, almost all R1 subtitle scripts are badly timed, and I almost always prefer to watch fansubs instead. If you think it's easy, give it a try. I think you'll start to understand why timing is important, and why good timers are hard to find.

    [Revised 15-Nov-2015]

    Saturday, April 28, 2012

    Resubbing Reconsidered

    About a year ago, I took a look at resubbing, the use of existing fansubs with new video and audio source materials. That blog focused on the reusing soft fansubs of TV series to BluRay or DVD sources, and how often errors were not fixed or, worse yet, new problems were introduced. Well, a year is a long time, and the practice of resubbing has continued to evolve, so it's time to look at this from a different perspective.

    Refurbishing Old Hardsubs

    A small minority of resubbers are refurbishing hardsubbed series by extracting the subtitles and timing and typesetting them against modern sources. This is hard work. The software for extracting subtitles via Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is finicky and unreliable, particularly when the subtitle font is small and/or the subtitles are colored; and hand transcription can be tedious and inaccurate. (See Zalis' excellent overview of options for obtaining subtitle scripts for old shows.) The resubber has to verify and correct the extracted script and then proceed through the whole resub process of editing, retiming, restyling, QC, and so on. In addition, the resubber has to cope with replacing hardsubbed typesetting and karaokes. This can be quite difficult, as hardsubbing allowed significantly more complex effects than today's softsubs can support.

    To me, the "best in class" awards for this category go to Jumonji-Giri and Redone Fansubs. Jumonji-Giri has refurbished many older series, such as Canvas and Canvas 2, Futakoi and Futakoi Alternative, W Wish, and most recently Kagihime Monogatari Eikyuu Alice Rondo. The improvements in video quality are always substantial, and the fidelity to the original fansubs is evident. Jumonji-Giri often includes multiple fansub tracks, and the original fansub teams are always credited in the file names, a very nice touch.

    Redone Fansubs does similar work. The "proprietor" knows Japanese, and that facilitates editing of shows where the subs are in need of improvement, such as the ongoing Rizelmine, or where added material in the DVDs needs original translation, such as Lime-Colored War Tales. Again, the reworked series offer substantial improvements in quality, across the board.

    Both Jumonji-Giri and Redone are one-person shops, so their output is limited by the complexity of the process, starting with the OCR or transcription stage. A few disbanded fansub groups, such as C1 and Ureshii, have recognized the value of the refurbishment process and offered their script archives for reuse. (Lunar's entire script archive was published on the Internet, in a famous case of fansub "dorama" a few years ago.) However, many group archives have been lost to the vagaries of time, Internet FTP hacking, and other woes.

    Other resubbers that used to do this kind of work, such as Polished and Retrofit, have moved onto working with softsubbed shows or gone inactive.

    If anyone wants to work on restoring old hardsubs, I have a list of candidates for refurbishment, starting with Amatsuki, a wonderful short series that suffered from horrible quality TV raws, and Yume Tsukai, another short series that would benefit from the process. I just happen to have the original scripts for both... but I'm not an encoder and can't help with finding or encoding better source material.

    Refurbishing Old Softsubs

    Most resubbers work with softsubs, and the vast majority of resubbers working with softsubs focus on making BluRay releases of recent TV shows. However, a small minority of "soft" resubbers work on the back catalog. For example, Jinsei Fansubs is redoing the original fansubs of Nana, one of the greatest shoujo series of all time, with DVD sources. The team has both an editor and a translation checker, so they're able to correct errors in the original material. Skip Beat could use the same treatment, as the current DVD version is a hodge-podge of fansub sources, several of them quite sketchy.

    Resubbing Contemporary Series

    This is where most of the action is, at the moment. The anime industry's practice of spiffing up the BluRay releases of TV series with uncensored content, or at least correction of obvious animation mistakes, makes the BluRay release the "definitive" version of most shows. Further, the widespread use of softsubbing for everything - dialog, signs, and karaokes - makes the production process for BluRay releases much easier.

    Surprisingly, most fansub groups don't make their own BluRay releases, or only do so sporadically. UTW does BluRay releases of many of its series, but not all; Hiryuu has started (but not finished) several; WhyNot has done a couple. By and large, BluRay resubs come from independent teams, such as DmonHiro, Zurako, Rizlim, Final8, mudabone, Coalgirls, Atsui, Kira, tlacatl6, Thora, and so on.

    A year ago, there were noticeable differences in quality, particularly in editing, timing, and typesetting, among the various resubbers, but these days, the survivors are fairly competent at the basics. The real difference lies in their attitude to file sizes. Some, such as DmonHiro, Atsui, and mudabone, are quite careful about file sizes and try to make pragmatic tradeoffs between quality and bits. Others, such as Rizlim, Coalgirls, and Thora, believe that bigger files equate to higher quality. (I had thought that Coalgirl's Seitokai Yakuindomo, requiring 11GB for 13 720p episodes, was the most bloated encode I had ever seen, but Rizlim's Softenni, with 17GB for 12 720p episodes, is the new exemplar.) The rest fall in the middle.

    I don't propose to rehash the arguments on each side. I am sympathetic to DmonHiro's reasoning - that the differences between FLAC and AAC are inaudible, and the differences in file size matter to people who have bandwidth quotas, or who pay for Internet usage by the GB, or who live in countries with less than stellar infrastructure. Neither side is likely to budge, and there's often a choice from competing camps. For example, Rizlim's Softenni will face competition from Dual Duality, at less than half the file size. And someday, perhaps, there will be a reasonably-sized encode of Seitokai Yakuindomo that's also competently timed and typeset.

    The Fansub Value Chain

    The resubbing phenomenon illustrates how complex and diversified the fansub "value chain" has become. If you're not familiar with the term, value chain denotes all the steps in the process of producing a product or service, with emphasis on the value added at each step. For fansubbing, this used to be a fairly simple, two-step process:

    • Rip the raws, typically directly from TV.
    • Do everything else, from translation through finished encode.
    Today, the steps are more numerous and more complicated. Rips, encodes, translation, translation checking, timing, editing, and post-production may all come from different sources, using different techniques. The raws may be transport streams or on-air encoded captures. The encodes may be done by third parties. Translations may be original, from original fansubs, from streaming sources, or from DVDs or BluRays. Post-production steps may be done by one team or several.

    Fansubbing has evolved continuously under the influence of changes in the technology and business models, and that evolution shows no signs of stopping. If I show some bias towards shows that are neglected or forgotten, and towards technology use that is sensibly balanced, that's just one point of view in a highly diversified landscape of hobbyists, enthusiasts, and fanatics. The more, the merrier.

    Wednesday, April 4, 2012

    Winter Wrap-Up

    It's hard to wrap up Winter when it never really happened. In New England, we had a snowstorm before Halloween, and another one in March, and that was it. True, the October storm brought down a large number of trees and knocked out power for days, but it hardly seemed like a winter event.

    My summary of the Winter Season doesn't differ much from my assessment four weeks in. Back then, I thought Natsume Yuujinchou Shi was the best show of the winter season, and I still do, with Ano Natsu de Matteru a close second. I hope that Natsume gets a fifth season sometime, and that Ano Natsu gets a sequel.

    However, I have changed my opinion about two shows, Another and High School DxD. Another started as a stylish horror show with a soupcon of violence for flavoring; it ended in a series of repetitious, bloody, and unnecessary massacres. (It's important to remember that grandparents typically don't like movies, TV shows, or games where children are killed in large numbers; that's why we don't buy first-person shooters.) I'll finish out my obligation to edit the show but without much enthusiasm.

    High School DxD, on the other hand, started out as mindless fanservice and ended up as good, guilty fun. It had plenty of mindless fanservice to the very end, but it also had a plot, appealing characters, and lots of energy. The perverted hero remained true to his essential character even as he grew into a certified Action Hero, complete with a very unique secret talent.

    Poyopoyo, Recorder to Randoseru, and Mouretsu Pirates are all continuing into the Spring season, and I look forward to following them.

    Monday, April 2, 2012

    Orphans Rejoice!

    I deliberately held off on posting this until April 2, so it would not been construed as an April Fools' joke.

    Love GetChu is finished at last, on the sixth anniversary of its initial broadcast.

    Actually, I expected Love GetChu to be finished last year, when Oyatsu began releasing at a steady pace, starting with episode 16. But after December 15... silence. Their translator had vanished. The series was back on hiatus, yet again.

    In sheer frustration, I went into the vaults of the now-dormant Yoroshiku Fansubs. In its second incarnation, Yoroshiku had intended to complete Love GetChu, and C1 Anime had generously given permission to use its script styling, karaoke, and workraws. However, Yoroshiku disbanded — for the second time — before the project really got off the ground, leaving behind unfinished scripts for episodes 14 and 15. I dug those out and began pestering my friends to pitch in. Former Yoroshiku colleagues helped with timing and QC, I did the editing and typesetting, and fairly soon I had watchable versions, providing a bridge between C1 (which stopped at episode 13) and Oyatsu (which began at episode 16). That still left episode 25.

    For the next development, I have to detour briefly to another orphan project, Yawara. As I mentioned in a previous blog, the Yawara team has great chemistry and is making steady progress. The project took a hit in February when I was traveling for almost a month, but once again the episodes are progressing quickly. I appealed to my "Frozen-Evil" colleagues for help with the last episode of Love GetChu, and they graciously provided both translation and timing. So it's done. And there was much rejoicing.

    In another promising development, Licca Fansubs and I decided to revive C1's incomplete fansub of Perrine Monogatari. It's a joint project between Licca, Kiteseekers, and Wasurenai. Perrine had been completely translated, but nothing was released after episode 34. Once again, C1 generously gave permission to use its translations and styles, which will preserve continuity through the 53 episodes. When Perrine is done, we may look at other incomplete projects in the C1 archives.

    In yet another promising development, GotWoot and Doutei followed up the completion of Souten Kouro by adopting an orphan that many fansubbers regard as even more boring: Showa Monogatari. To call the series slow-paced is to insult snails and tortoises everywhere, but it's full of fascinating facts. Did you know, for example, that Japanese parents punished their children with moxibustion, i.e., placing burning pieces of mugwort on their bare bottoms? Opportunities for cross-cultural understanding lurk everywhere in anime.

    In other news, BlueFixer released the final two OVAs for Black Jack and completed Aim for the Ace! ARR released a complete Hell Teacher Nube, both TV and OVAs, as well as many other rarities. Tipota released all of Groove Adventure Rave and Hakugei: The Legend of Moby Dick. There's no progress to report on Lime-iro Ryuukitan X, but Redone redid the first series (as Lime-Colored War Tales) from DVD sources. The DVD-only material puts a new spin on the hero and his harem: it's no longer possible to say that he's the usual, ah, ineffective male harem lead.

    I've still got a long list of projects needing rescuing, so if you're delving into the back catalog, don't hesitate to give me a shout.

    Next up: further reflections on the Hi10P transition; a look back at the Winter 2012 anime season.