Tuesday, January 29, 2013

More Yawara-chan!

FroZen-EviL just released the Yawara movie, Yawara! Sore Yuke Koshinuke Kids!!, loosely translated as Yawara! Go Get 'Em, Wimpy Kids!! (The last word is often misrendered as Kiss, by the way, which puts a wholly incorrect spin on the content.) This is a side story that occurs somewhere in the middle of the TV series. Hanazono asks Yawara for help coaching a pickup team of judo losers who are up against an elite judo club sponsored by none other than arch oujo-sama Honami. It follows almost the same arc as the one of the Mitsuba Women's Junior College matches in the TV series, but Yawara has never been known for the originality of its plot arcs. If there's any defect, it's that the spotlight is on the wimpy kids and their dysfunctional families rather than Yawara-chan and her friends and her dysfunctional family.

This version was done directly from a VHS tape that the team found online. It's considerably better than the Internet raw that has been floating around, but it's still a VHS tape rather than a DVD or LaserDisc. If anyone has a better original source, the team would be very interested.

Meanwhile, the team has successfully found the Atlanta special on LaserDisc, and our intrepid encoder is trying to wrestle this antique medium into a workable encode. I've also found the original soundtrack albums, and they're on their way here from Japan too. More Yawara-chan in the offing!

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Anne Frank

doll_licca and I have just finished working on The Diary of Anne Frank, and it should be available through the usual distribution sources soon. This is another project from the back catalog. C1 Anime was in the final stages of QCing the movie when the group effectively disbanded in mid 2009. After doll_licca and I successfully finished C1's incomplete Perrine, we decided to finish this project as well. We're very grateful to C1 Anime for permission to use their script. Moho Kareshi did the original translation, and nameraka the original edit, for C1. doll_licca did the translation checking and rough timing to the new raw, I did the styling, final editing, and fine timing, doll typeset and encoded, I QC'd. Accordingly, we're calling the result an Orphan Fansubs/Licca Fansubs coproduction.

This was an extraordinarily difficult project to work on. For most fansubbers, World War II and the Holocaust are remote subjects from history class, but I was born just after World War II and studied that era extensively in college. It seemed unrelievedly depressing to me back then, and it still does. While the movie tries to place an uplifting spin on the story, the facts are grim, and the ending is undeniably tragic. I had to work on the movie in small sprints, as it was too overwhelming to watch continuously.

More information on Anne Frank and her diary can be found on Wikipedia.

Note: doll_licca just released a revised version of the Hi10P encode, using a raw provided by Revo. This clears up some aspect ratio concerns with the original encode. Many thanks to Revo for his help.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

In Praise of Nodame Cantabile

I've never made a secret of my fondness for Nodame Cantabile; in fact, I listed it as one of my ten favorite anime shows in an early blog entry. The recent availability of a DVD box set with the first (and only) English dub caused me to go back and look at the show again, and it holds up very well.

Nodame Cantabile is more than just an anime series; it's a media franchise. It's been wildly popular in Japan in all its incarnations. The 23-volume manga series, written by Tomoko Ninomiya, received the 2004 Kodansha Prize for best shoujo manga and is a perpetual best-seller.  The manga spawned three anime series (the original, Paris Hen, and Finale), a live action TV series, two live action TV specials, and two live action movies. The debut of the first anime broke viewership records for its time slot, and the DVDs sold well. The live action TV series received 2007 Japanese Drama Academy Awards for Best Drama, Best Lead Actress, Best Direction, Best Music, and Best Title Song. There are numerous CD collections of music from the various shows.

So why isn't the anime licensed in the US? It's a fan favorite, and multiple groups competed to subtitle all three series. Yet the only available English-language DVD edition is a Korean box set, even though the dub was done more than three years ago. Why?

I have a couple of theories. First, Nodame is labeled as shoujo anime, and the target demographic for mainstream US anime companies is, overwhelmingly, teen-aged males. The classification is actually misleading. Nodame Cantabile is as much about the hero, Chiaki, as about the heroine, Nodame, and it would be more accurate to call it a romantic comedy. Second, the characters are all college students and then graduate students, rather than the more popular high-school or junior-high students, and there's not a trace of moe. But the killer issue, I believe, is that the show is about classical music, and that's a deal-breaker from a US commercial point of view.

Classical music is alive and well in Japan, which hosts multiple orchestras in its major cities. Here in the US, it's dying, viewed as elitist "art" for "old folks." Music classes - whether for music appreciation or study - have disappeared from public schools. The audiences at classical music concerts are skewing older and older. Mainstream US anime companies want "to appeal to the kids," and they clearly believe classical music has no appeal.

Can Nodame Cantabile be appreciated without understanding of or interest in classical music? Perhaps, but it really helps to know at least something about it. The show doesn't demand deep knowledge of classical music - almost all the pieces are repertory warhorses, like Beethoven's 7th Symphony, Brahm's 1st Symphony, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue, and Stravinsky's Petrushka. However, if you've never heard the finale of Beethoven's 7th, then Stresemann's outburst about Chiaki's inappropriate approach won't make any sense. If you've not listened to Brahms 1st, then Chiaki's struggles to convey the overwhelming mood change in the last movement will be boring. If you've missed Petrushka, then Nodame's disaster in her competition concert, and her semi-inspired if ultimately unsatisfactory recovery, will lack context.

Still, I think the show can be appreciated as pure character-driven comedy. Chiaki and Nodame make an eccentric pair of mismatched lovers, each driven by childhood events that have scarred and shaped them. Chiaki's issues are rather melodramatic in origin, and the deus ex machina resolution of them is one of the weaker aspects of the show; but Nodame's problems stem from realistic encounters with bad teachers, and her struggles to overcome them are quite moving. Still, the problem-solving and drama take a back seat to the comedy, which derives from the clash of Chiaki's obsessive, type-A perfectionist personality with Nodame's disorganized and messy lifestyle. Both are given their due, though. The series make it clear that Chiaki is an excellent and methodical musician, while Nodame is an intuitive stylistic genius.

The leads are supplemented by a fine cast of supporting characters who have interesting stories in their own right and are allowed to make some progress on them; they don't just serve as foils for the leds. And then there's Stresemann, the European maestro, a hilarious take on the debauched, eccentric ojii-san. He steals every scene he's in, but he also acts as a goad to drive both Chiaki and Nodame beyond their limits and towards potential success in music. His domineering secretary/agent/manager, Elise, is a great comic turn. Finally, there's an anime within the anime: Puri Gorota, a typical kid's "let's all work together" show that Nodame is addicted to. It was so popular that eventually it got its own OVA, like Kujibiki Unbalance inside Genshiken.

Because Nodame Cantabile is about music, it's not surprising that the music in the series is terrific. The opening song, Allegro Cantabile, by Suemitsu and the Suemith, is a driving piano-based rocker that sets the tone for the whole show. It inspired some elegant work by karaoke artists in various fansub groups. The series includes extensive excerpts from classical pieces that are competently, if not spectacularly, performed by a pick-up Japanese orchestra.

The voice acting is great too. Kawasumi Ayako (Lafiel in Crest of the Stars; Saber in Fate/Stay Night; Mahoro in Mahoromatic) portrays all of Nodame's moods, from mania to depression, from ruthless focus to utter spaciness, with great expression and aplomb. Seki Tomokazu (Sosuke in Full Metal Panic; Shuichi in Gravitation; the title roles in Kenichi and Maze) conveys Chiaki's buttoned-down, control-freak personality with precision. He also makes Chiaki's gradual warming to Nodame (and other people) very believable.

And that brings me back to the newly available English dub. I'm not a great fan of dubs, but this one is pretty good. The cast is American and professional. They use a decent, if compressed, translation. (The Japanese cast speaks at 90 miles an hour, which causes readability problems with faithful subtitles.) On the other hand, the release suffers the usual defects of most DVD releases: the subtitles are poor (mostly dubtitles and way too compressed), the subtitle timing is terrible, and the typesetting is non-existent. This really matters in Nodame, where many of the jokes are conveyed through signs. The last four minutes of the final episode are a comic book that bridges to the next anime series set in Europe and also closes the stories of the characters who will be left behind in Japan. The fansubbers went through great pains to put the translations into the dialog balloons. On the DVD, all the captions are at the bottom of the screen, clashing with dialog and song lyrics and making reading almost impossible.

The fansubs hold up fairly well in comparison, even though they were done more than five years ago. Yes, video standards and styling standards have improved since then, but all three versions (Anime-Keep, Froth-Bite, C1) are quite watchable. If someone absolutely feels they must have a modern softsubbed version and has access to R2J DVDs (no BluRays yet), I have the C1 scripts and most of the typesetting, and I'll make them available to any serious resubber. There are some things I'd like to fix, of course...

As for a US license, I'm not holding my breath. I think the show is too old now, and the classical music theme probably remains a deal-breaker for any mainstream US anime company. But if RightStuf can license Rose of Versailles and Victorian Maid Emma, and a mainstream company can license Tonari no Kaibutsu-kun (another romcom that pairs a type-A control freak with an out-of-control intuitive), then perhaps there's hope for Nodame. I'd like to see her and her friends get the audience they deserve.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Yawara! Completed!!

The entire team's been waiting years for this:

11 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1... done!

124 episodes to the ultimate, inevitable conclusion.

This is the longest series I've ever worked on — 66 episodes from the point where the project restarted as a joint effort between Frostii, Saizen, and Live-Evil. (Chi's Sweet Home had more episodes, but they were three minutes each.) It would not have been possible without the dedication of a small core team that stayed with the project from start to finish:
  • Translation: kokujin-kun (most episodes), blakbunnie27
  • Timing: Juggen (most episodes), sangofe
  • Editing: Collectr
  • QC: CP (all episodes), Mamo-chan (most episodes), Saji, Rosti, sangofe, kokujin-kun, retro, Skr, tlynnec, it06128
  • RC: Juggen
  • Muxing and release: Sqall, Juggen
  • Encoding: Skr (most episodes), toster
  • Raws: CP (R2J DVDs)
The project has some lessons for any group that wants to sub a long back-catalog series:
  1. Find a dedicated and proficient translator. The project never lost steam because kokujin-kun stayed well ahead of everyone else. This kept the pressure on the rest of us. The translations were almost finished products, requiring very little in the way of editing and thereby smoothing the QC process as well.
  2. Maintain staff continuity. By having the same editor, lead QC, and RC throughout, and mostly the same translator and timer, the team was able to maintain continuity on a show with lots of characters and arcane terminology. The team compiled an editing guide and a judo terminology guide to help with that.
  3. Keep it simple. The entire series was softsubbed. Typesetting was kept to a minimum, with most signs simply done as \an8 notes. (Occasionally, Juggen or I would show off a bit and try something more complex.) The encode was straightforward; no attempt was made to correct the numerous defects in the source, which was clearly just a transcription of the original VHS tapes.
  4. Stick to a regular cadence. The project took 15 months to do 66 shows. This was basically a weekly cadence, although the releases tended to occur in bunches, with pauses around vacations, exams, and the like. The steady pace meant that everyone on the team could see ongoing progress and maintain interest. Long breaks allow team members to get involved with other projects.
As for Yawara! itself... well, it's not a masterpiece, but it's quite a lot of fun. Yawara herself is a most appealing heroine. Her judo triumphs, while amazing, are not beyond the realm of possibility: at the Barcelona Olympics, Ryoko Tamura, a Japanese female judo player, won the silver medal. All of the judo moves are real. The plot structure is circular (see this blog entry), so it's easy to anticipate what will happen in any given story arc, but that's fairly typical for a shounen-like sports anime. The biggest weakness, in my view, is that most of the supporting characters are tropes: the haughty ojou-sama Honami, the conniving jii-san Jigoro, the clueless male protagonist Matsuda, and the scheming would-be suitor Kazamatsuri.

The team isn't quite done yet. The "Wimpy Kids" movie in in prepartion, based on a new encode taken directly from a relatively good VHS tape. We'd also like to do the "Atlanta Olympics" TV special, but the available source is a bad tape transcription. We're trying to get a LaserDisc of the special, but it's still an open question whether we can transcribe it once found.We're also looking for the four soundtrack albums:
  • Yawara! Original Soundtrack
  • Yawara! Sound Collection
  • Yawara! Songs!!
  • Yawara! Memories
We're not planning to do the Live Action series.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Space Neko Theater Revisited

Finally, and just in time for New Year, an accurate version of Space Neko Theater. The v2 Orphan release, now up on nyaatorrents, corrects some translation errors in v1, which was itself a significant improvement on the original ARR release. And therein lies a tale.

The ARR version of Space Neko Theater was a simple rip of Aoki Jun's YouTube posting, which included English subtitles that had been created, apparently, by a member of the animation crew. There were a number of problems, including bad timing and no signs, but the killer issue was the subtitles themselves: inaccurate and garbled. So Theater went on my wish list of shows to improve, not because of great artistic merit (it's a silly comedy), but because it was about cats.

I didn't making much progress on the wish list, because translators are rare, and in my frustration I decided to commission a paid translation of Theater. A few bucks later I had a script that at least seemed to make sense, and that became the basis of v1. After that, I decided to let sleeping cats lie.

Convexity's superb work on Senya Ichiya Monogatari and Cleopatra opened my eyes to just how wrong a seemingly sensible translation can be. I persuaded him to check v1 of Theater, and he found a number of errors. Looking through it again, I also found some timing problems, as well as signs that had been missed. So I put together convexity's corrections and other fixes to create v2, which I certainly hope is final.

The experience with Theater has taught me a valuable lesson: you can't judge a translation on plausibility. This makes it hazardous for non-Japanese speakers like me to commission paid translations. I can't check the quality of the result: I can't tell gold from dross. So I have to rely on the "kindness of strangers" in the fansub community, that is, on translators with proven capabilities and an interest in old shows, to move my projects forward.

I'll be much more wary, in the future, about translation sources. In commissioning translations, as in every other form of commerce, the old adage still holds: caveat emptor.

Late-breaking news: BakaBT, in a fit of self-purification, decided that "self-published" anime like Space Neko Theater, which appeared on YouTube, should be excluded. So the only place to find this is nyaatorrents.

Even later-breaking news: BakaBT has revised its policies again, and Space Neko Theater is back up. Yay!

And even more late news: As 12laus points out, BakaBT didn't actually revise its policies. Instead, Aoki Jun has built a body of professional-enough work to qualify under current policies. It's all good!

[Updated 3-Dec-2015]