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.