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.