Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Winter of Our {Dis}content

We're four weeks into the winter 2012 season, so it's time for some initial judgments on the new shows. I'm going to skip all the carryovers because, except for Chihayafuru, I'm not watching any of them.

First, the picks of the litter (drumroll, please):
  • Natsume Yuujinchou Shi. (What, you were expecting Nisemonogatari? From me?)  Natsume is back, as good as ever, or perhaps better.  The first four episodes have illustrated everything that's terrific about this show, including a two-episode action mini-arc, a charming, lightweight furball fantasy, and a melancholic but sweet reflection on the poignancy and difficulties of relationships - between humans, as well as between humans and youkai. Natsume continues to grow as a protagonist, Nyanko-sensei is more prominent than in season three (not to mention fatter), and so is the Book of Friends. This would be my favorite winter show, but then there's...
  • Another. This show has sunk its claws into me really deeply, and I'm almost at a loss to say why. I'm not a fan of the horror genre. However, Another, like Alien, takes a fairly familiar ghost/horror premise and gives it a very stylish spin. The spare, cryptic dialog; the clever use of sound effects and silence; the utter creepiness of the doll motifs; the dark artwork and twisted camera angles... They all combine to make the show gripping and unpredictable. I can't look away. I rip into each script as soon as I can get my hands on it and pound on my fellow team members to get their work done as quickly as possible. Further, I want the next episode now. I wish this was a printed mystery story, and I could turn to the last chapter for the rational explanation, but I greatly fear there isn't one...
  • Ano Natsu de Matteru. Okay, so it looks like a reboot of Onegai Teacher. Well, Onegai was a terrific romantic comedy, far more deserving of tribute than most of the remakes of recent years. Anyway, Ano Natsu can stand on its own. The leads are charming, the supporting characters are interesting and funny, and the plot is developing at a leisurely pace. Comparisons to Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae... are pointless: this show is a romantic comedy, Ano Hi was something else. I only hope the writers avoid the temptation to introduce a Serious Development in the last couple of episodes.
  • Thermae Romae. This three-episode mini-series takes the winter award for clever writing. And it's a good thing the writing is so great, because the visuals are barely tolerable. I'm pretty sure that Romae will be the keeper from this winter's Noitamina block, and Black Rock Shooter, as well as Guilty Crown, the throwaways.
  • Mourestu Pirates. Sci-fi and space pirates make a good combination for me. I like that the writers are taking their time in building their world and haven't felt compelled to plunge into slam-bang shoot-'em-up action sequences. (Other reviewers have complained about this.)  I hope the series will continue to explore the characters and the premise over the next couple of episodes before launching into the action arcs.
  • Poyopoyo. The better of the two short comedies this winter. While this is notionally a children's show about a roly-poly cat, the writing is subversive and quite funny. And it has cats. What's not to like?
  • Recorder to Randoseru. The lesser of the short comedies. The main problem is that the three-minute format doesn't suit the material, even though the show is based on a four-panel comic. The situations cry out for more extended development.  A 10- or 15-minute format would have been ideal.
Now the others that I've watched or watch occasionally (in alphabetical order):
  • The Daily Live of High School Boys. Being a long way (thankfully) from my high school days, this series doesn't resonate for me the way it does for younger reviewers. I find it fitfully funny, but small doses of the lead characters' idiocy go a long way for me.
  • High School DxD. A guilty pleasure: the ecchi show of the season. I can understand why so many translators have been drawn to this show, instead of doing something useful, like helping Monokage finish Towa no Qwon (hint, hint). This show doesn't have an original thought in its head, but the eye candy is first rate.
  • Ino x Boku SS. The lead's tsundere rantings and the dog-like devotion of the secret service agent wear thin fairly fast, and the subordinate characters are all tropes. Episode 4 was an improvement, adding depth to the lead character through an extended set of flashbacks.
  • Kill Me Baby. I found the first episode rather funny (after I skipped the opening), but the subsequent episodes have just repeated the jokes from the first one, with diminishing returns.
  • Papa no Iukoto wo Kikinasai. I'm not sure where this show is going, and the fanservice scenes make me fear for the worst. Usagi Drop it ain't.
  • Rinne no Lagrange. Sket Dance meets big mecha. Not for me.
  • Zero no Tsukaima F. Tsundere and harem in one show! I liked the original series of Zero, but it's been downhill every since.
The rest I've dropped already: Aquarian Evol (mecha? next); Area no Kishi (sports with personal heartbreak? next); Brave 10 (Warring States? next); Milky Holmes S2 (don't even ask); New Prince of Tennis (is there a point to this?); Nisemonogatari. The latter gets this season's Penguindrum award for pointless cleverness. Many people like that kind of show. I do not. Sorry about that.

To sum it all up: I'm pretty happy with this season's anime!

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Much Ado About Nothing: Softsubbed Signs and Karaokes

The comments and forums of BakaBT contain a lot of whining about shows with hardsubbed signs and karaokes. Some members routinely downrate offerings if the signs and karaokes are not softsubbed. That got me wondering: seriously, folks, why do you care?

I can understand why viewers prefer softsubbed dialog. As an editor, I've been offended by more than one group's editing. If I care enough, I'll demux the script and fix the problems. For example, I recently fixed up Ryokunohara Labyrinth at Al_Sleeper's request. (You can download the revised subs here.) I'd do even more of this, except that editing sins are usually accompanied by both translation and timing problems. The former are beyond my skills, and the latter are too hard on my ergonomically-challenged wrists. So Polished/Ayako's Nagasarete Airantou, ARR's Urusei Yatsura Special and Space Neko Theatre, and many others, languish on the "To Do" list.

But signs and karaokes? Are viewers seriously concerned about fixing them up? I see no evidence that this ever happens. At most, viewers want to turn off karaokes. Well, let me break it to you gently: you can use chapters and skip the songs entirely if you're bothered. In fact, using mkvmerge, you can use ordered chapters to play a raw instead of the subtitled encode for the songs. Or you can mux the softsubbed script onto your own raw and omit those offending karaokes and signs.

From the fansub team's point of view, there are strong arguments for softsubbing everything. The most compelling is efficiency. The encoder can make a final version once, and after that, every change is done by muxing new scripts. This saves a significant amount of time. Another good argument is change management. With softsubs, any subtitle-related error can be corrected easily, with simple patches. That makes it much easier to produce a consistent final series release, although it also contributes to the proliferation of v2's, v3's, and v4's.

Still, there are limits to softsubbing, particularly for signs and karaokes. Complex effects, such as non-linear motion tracking, require frame-by-frame typesetting. For example, a 2.2 second clip of a moving sign in GotWoot's Showa Monogatari required 52 lines of typesetting. The signs script for the final episode of C1's Nodame Cantabile was more than 100KB long: three times the size of the dialog script. Typesetters can rarely take that amount of trouble. Instead, they'll approximate non-linear motion with \move and \t commands, resulting in signs that diverge from the motion of the Japanese text.

Another issue is performance. Complex effects can bring even the brawniest system to its knees. For example, tlacat6's Aoi Exorcist specials have a rotating title sign. My brand-new, quad-processor i5 cannot render that in real time. For its recent release of Denpa Teki, WhyNot warned that the viewer would need to alter parameters in MediaPlayer Classic to avoid performance lags.

For karaokes, the issue is visual creativity. Most softsubbed karaokes use either line-timing or simple k-timing (coloring). This is great for efficiency but boring to watch after a while. Visually creative karaokes are created by scripts and are too complex to be played as softsubs. This can get out of hand, but I would not have enjoyed losing, for example, the brilliant simplicity and thematic appropriateness of koda's opening karaoke for C1's Nodame Cantabile in the name of softsubbed purity.

As a result, some fansub teams, notably Frostii and AnimeYoshi, prefer hardsubbed signs and karaokes, despite the greater work they entail. Their typesetters work to an exacting standard: typesetting is successful if the English looks like it was drawn by the original animators. Their karaokes are intended to stand the test of multiple viewings. Is it worth it? Look at AnimeYoshi's logo for Another and how seamlessly it blends into the show's Japanese title. Look at Frostii's typesetting on Yurumates and Yurumates wa. Look at the karaoke's on C1's Nodame Cantabile or Ureshii's Rescue Wings. I think the results justify the extra work.

Who is really disadvantaged by hardsubbed signs and scripts? The only constituency I can think of is script stealers - ah, excuse me, script borrowers. If you're translating a script to another language, or creating a DVD or BluRay version of a TV series, it's helpful if everything is softsubbed. Well, I have news for you again: fansub groups don't exist for the convenience of your projects. Besides, if you ask politely enough, some fansub groups will provide project materials, including signs and karaokes, particularly for older shows desperately in need of better video.

So please, let's stop the whining and be appreciative of the hard work that goes into these shows; and if softsubbed purity is a make-or-break issue for you, watch someone else's version.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Back to Editing

After a rather long sabbatical, I'm back to editing a weekly show, and... it's fun. I'm working with a great team, including an excellent translator, a fast and accurate timer, and top-notch QC's. The team has developed a good work rhythm. The steady pace means that everyone can maintain continuity on plot, conventions, and styling. Even though the show is very long - more than a hundred episodes - the team can see how much progress is being made, and everyone is staying motivated.

Of course, it helps that the series aired in the early 90's; that takes a bit of the schedule pressure off. I'm referring to Yawara! A Fashionable Judo Girl.

At first blush, or even at second or third, Yawara! is not my kind of show. To start, it's a sports anime. Next, it's very long, 124 episodes. Then, it's rather repetitious. Each arc has basically the same structure. The heroine, Yawara, vows to quit judo so she can lead a normal life. Her sly grandfather, who is also her coach, tricks her into competing in the next tournament. After various suspenseful developments, Yawara trounces everyone. Step and repeat ad nauseam. And did I mention it's a sports anime?

Yawara! was a Live-Evil project, and like many back-catalog projects, it had stalled. L-E teamed up with Frostii for a few episodes, and then the project stalled again, with 58 episodes completed out of 124. Finally, Saizen, which specializes in sports anime, revived the project and set up a three-way joint with the other two groups, resulting in one of the best project names ever: FroZen-Evil.

To be honest, none of the three groups is known for its speed. Yet Yawara! has developed significant forward velocity, releasing 19 episodes in three months. The reasons offer a blueprint of what's required for success in back-catalog projects:
  • Dedication by key team members. Yawara! has been humming along because the team members - translator, timer, editor, encoder, QCs - make it a priority. Episodes don't sit around for long stretches.
  • Availability of raws. A team member owns the entire set of Japanese DVDs.
  • Simplicity. Yawara! is entirely softsubbed. The karaokes are very simple. Styling is straightforward and can be done during timing or editing. There's no typesetting, except for episode and preview titles; essential signs are explained by top-of-screen notes. The "workraws" are actually the final encodes; all they need is the script, fonts, and chapters muxed in.
  • Quality at every step. The translation is first rate, so editing takes hardly any time at all. The timer knows how to deal with the lack of keyframes in a final H.264 encode. The QC team is thorough and pounces on typos and infelicities of expression with equal ferocity. The encoder is quick and experienced.
And last, but hardly least, the show is fun. Yes, we know that the judo matches are going to end positively for the heroine and her friends. Yes, we know that Yawara's grandfather is going to play another dirty trick on her as soon as she wins the current tournament. But I still snatch up each new script as soon as it's available. I've taken to editing (at least on paper) before timing, because the continuity of the project allows me to understand who is speaking, even without the video.

As they say on Wall Street, past performance is no guarantee of future returns, so I can't promise that the team will maintain its blistering pace. We've only done about 30% of the total work; another 47 episodes remain. But as the man falling from the Empire State Building remarked as he passed the 77th floor, so far, so good.

In the interest of full disclosure: I'm also editing a couple of other "weekly" shows, but with one exception, they are not aiming at a weekly schedule. GotWoot is doing Showa Monogatari as its background show, replacing the recently completed Souten Kouro. Most people on the team profess to find it very boring, but I think it's soothing. Perhaps that's because I'm in the show's target demographic (aging baby boomers). AnimeYoshi is doing an archival-quality version of Boku wa Tomodachi ga Sukunai. It finished last December, so it too is not a rush job. I like Boku's sly spin on the harem trope, although I know full well that it will end inconclusively, like all harem shows.

The exception is AnimeYoshi's Another. I was skeptical about this project, particularly after it was picked up for simulcasting. However, I'm hooked now. The show is deeply disturbing, on several levels, and I enjoy editing it as well as watching the finished product. I hope that fans will find the extra effort that goes into this version worthwhile.

I'd like to do more, but as usual, my ambitions are capped by lack of translation help. So, if you would like to see Towa no Qwon finished, or the missing pieces of the Harukanaru Toki franchise subbed, or watch Space Neko Theatre or the Urusei Yatsura Special with subs that are actually English, give me a shout. I'm always willing to trade editing and QC services for competent translations.