Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Akatsuki no Yona: A Retrospective

I haven’t done much fansubbing of current shows for the last few years. Most contemporary series have been junk, and the few standouts have been claimed by teams I don’t work with.  Akatsuki no Yona proved an exception, on both counts. Preparing the scripts for the batch release of the show has only strengthened my admiration for the series.

I’m not sure what drew me to Yona. The Fall Preview in Random Curiosity pigeon-holed it as a shoujo harem in the mold of Fushigi Yuugi, an otome series that I don’t particularly like. Guardian Enzo of Lost in Anime saw signs of promise but only enough for it to “sit near the top of my second tier.” Yet from the outset, I wanted to work on the show, even though I was sure no one else would be interested. I more-or-less cursed, cajoled, or convinced a few people in FFF to work on it with me, as repayment for the crap light novel adaptations I’ve edited for the group. My judgment about the show was confirmed within two episodes, as was my hunch that no other team would pick it up.  That allowed for a more leisurely pace, with releases two to six days after the show aired.

Yona is a shoujo series, because its protagonist is a teenage girl, but it is more a historical fantasy in the mold of Seiunkoku Monogatari than a romance like Soredemo Sekai wa Utsukushii. The core subject is not love but power politics. The show is set in a semi-disguised feudal Korea. Yona is the pampered daughter of the non-violent and perhaps indolent King Il. She starts out with nothing more serious on her mind than her red hair, which she doesn’t particularly like; her imminent sixteenth birthday celebration; and her romance, so far unfulfilled, with her first cousin, Su-won, the heir-apparent to the throne.

Her life is rudely shattered on the night of her birthday when Su-won assassinates her father, claims the kingship, and orders her executed. Su-won says he is doing this as revenge for King Il’s murder of Su-won’s father, Yu-hon, but that remains in doubt. At the last second, Yona’s monstrously strong bodyguard, Hak, known as the Thunder Beast, rescues her, and together they flee into the countryside with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

The opening episodes aren’t very promising. Yona is helpless and, worse yet, vapid. The show seems headed for a standard damsel-in-distress-rescued-by-her-hero trope. Yet at the end of the second episode, to set the stage for what’s to come, the show flashes forward to show Yona as the determined leader of a small band of warriors, fighting off an invasion of her homeland. The core of Akatsuki no Yona is showing how that transformation came about; how a helpless and cloistered girl became a leader and a fearsome fighter.

Yona and Hak first encounter an exiled priest, Ik-su, and his clever, handsome, but not physically strong attendant, Yun. Ik-su tells Yona about the myth of the four dragons, companions of Kouka’s founding red-haired king, Hiryuu. According to legend, their descendants are still waiting for a new red-headed king to summon them.  Accompanied by Yun and Hak, Yona sets out to find the dragons in the hope that red-headed Yona is the king the dragons have been waiting for.

Over the rest of the season, Yona encounters and eventually wins over the four dragons, but she also sees with her own eyes the true situation of Kouka and its inhabitants. Her father’s lackadaisical policies have allowed foreign powers and local lords to oppress the populace unmercifully, and the land is filled with bitter, poverty-stricken people who are barely surviving. Inspired by her desire to set things right, and her need to gain strength if she is to survive, Yona embarks systematically on training herself for combat and for leadership. While the dragons, Hak, and Yun all feel protective of her and see her as "frail" young girl, they grow to appreciate her drive, her insights, and her leadership. By the end of the show, she is the undisputed captain of her small company.

While the quest plot dominates, the theme of love is not lost completely. Yona’s feelings of love for Su-won have not disappeared, although they are now mixed with a desire for revenge. Her feelings toward Hak remain at the “childhood friend” level, but his feelings are increasingly colored by love and desire. All the dragons worship her in some way or another and struggle about whether this is because of their heritage or their true feelings. Even Yun, the self-described “handsome genius” and loner, is torn between his wish to remain aloof and his growing attraction to Yona.

Still, it’s power politics that dominate the show, and those politics are far from clear-cut. The initial setup seems to make Su-won an out-and-out villain, but later episodes show that he is a thoughtful, subtle, and skilled leader, determined to rectify the problems that arose under King Il. He puts on the mask of a buffoon in order to probe the state of his kingdom and convey needed but perhaps otherwise unwelcome advice to its powerful warlords. Further, he still has feelings for Yona, although he is determined to forget them lest they undermine his mission. At some point in the future, they will meet on the battlefield, but whether as allies or enemies can’t be determined yet.

Speaking of power politics, two things in the initial setup bother me. The first is King Il’s adamant opposition to Su-won marrying Yona. As the surviving male in the royal family, Su-won is not only an acceptable choice to be Yona’s husband but also the obvious one. The second is Su-won’s apparent decision to have Yona killed during his coup. In feudal times, a usurping lord didn’t kill the old king’s female relatives; he married one of them, to strengthen his claim to the throne. (Think of Henry VII marrying Elizabeth of York, Richard III’s surviving sister, following the Battle of Bosworth.) Yona would have no choice but to submit; in that era, women were chattel.

So there are all these unresolved questions. Why would King Il say that Yona marrying Su-won was “out of the question”? Marriage between first cousins was perfectly acceptable. Why would Su-won apparently agree by deciding to have Yona executed? And why did King Il have Su-won’s father, Yu-hon, murdered?

I have a theory, based on no evidence whatsoever, to reconcile these facts. Suppose Su-won was not Yona’s cousin but her half-brother? Marriage between cousins is one thing, but marriage between siblings is quite another. In more detail, suppose Yu-hon cuckolded King Il and fathered Yona. We know from the flashbacks that Yona’s mother died when Yona was young (six or less), and that shortly thereafter, Yu-hon died (or was executed). If Yona’s mother confessed or her deathbed, it would explain (a) why King Il murdered Yu-hon, (b) why King Il says that Yona can never marry Su-won, and (c) why Su-won would have agreed, albeit reluctantly.

Of course, this is likely to be complete balderdash, and Su-won’s decision to execute Yona rather than marry her may well be just a plot contrivance to set Yona on her journey. We’ll never know – or at least nothing’s been clarified in the 72 manga chapters that have been scanlated so far.

For the batch scripts, I’ve gone back through and tried to make all the naming consistent. Crunchyroll changed the spelling of every character’s name, except Hak and Yona, at some point in the series: Su-won was initially Soo-won, Mun-deok was initially Mondok, Ki-ja became Gija, etc. Male names are typically hyphenated, but female names (like Yona) are not. I’ve tried to listen to the phonetics of the names, but some decisions are just arbitrary. Is the Yellow Dragon Zeno or Jeno? I like Zeno better; so there.

Yona isn’t quite done. An OAD has been announced, and I have faint hopes for an eventual second season. There’s plenty of manga material for another 24 episodes, and with a lapse of six months or a year, there will be even more. But shoujo isn’t as popular as it used to be. Saiunkoku Monogatari got two seasons of 39 episodes each, but that was six years ago. Can an anime market dominated by crappy light novel adaptations pandering to otaku sustain a quality show like Yona? I certainly hope so!

Saturday, March 7, 2015

I Say, "-uusei"

So here is Kakyuusei (1995), a four episode h-anime OVA. It should not be confused with Elf Ban Kakyuusei (1998), a four episode non-h OVA, or Kakyuusei (1999), a fourteen episode non-h TV series, all of which, like Doukyuusei and Doukyuusei 2, stem from Japanese "visual novels" or erotic games with high school settings. The Kakyuusei shows focus on relationships between a male upperclassman and multiple female students, typically first-years.

Kakyuusei (1995) has the dubious distinction of being the only one of all the "-uusei" shows never released on DVD. It also has a strange English (sub)title: My Petty Class Student. At first, I thought this was a misprint for "pretty," because "petty" usually means "trivial" or "unimportant." However, Zalis believes it to be an overly literal translation, using the second definition of "petty" as "of secondary or lower importance, rank, or scale; e.g., a petty officer."

The show is technically an orphan. The first two episodes were released in the US on VHS and ripped by Anime-Hentai. The last two episodes never appeared in English. For this release, Zalis translation-checked the first two episodes and both translated and timed the last two. convexity did additional translation checking and translated the extensive signs. I edited and typeset, as usual, and CP and konnakude checked the results. Because the series was never released on DVD, the only available raws are terrible LaserDisc rips, at 384p resolution.They're filled with deinterlacing problems and blended frames, but they're the only game in town.

Kakyuusei (1995) follows the usual format for the "-uusei" shows. The protagonist, Nanahoshi Kakeru, is high-school senior hoping to "make happy memories" (i.e., get lucky) in his last year in school. He meets and beds a virginal young woman, Urara, to whom he declares his undying love. However, when she is conveniently sent abroad, he pursues and beds a different first-year girl in each of the succeeding episodes, only returning to Urara when she even more conveniently returns at the end of the series. The cast is fleshed out (so to speak) with the usual tropes, including Kakeru's younger sister, Mika, his hapless best friend, Minamino Takeshi, and the sneering, wealth playboy, Douda Shuichiro. The h-scenes are mild by modern standards, but there is a tiny bit of censoring in one spot. In addition, there's a dream sequence involving a St. Bernard that makes the horny mutt in Kennel Tokorozawa look like a model of deportment.

Of all the "-uusei" h-animes, only Tenkousei (1997) remains unsubbed; in the PG category, Kakyuusei (1999) is still unfinished (C1 is slowly working its way through that series). Viewed as a collection, they seem remarkably repetitious, and yet the same basic plot continues to be used in visual novels and anime series to this day. I guess harem shows never go out of favor.

I'm hoping that better raws for Kakyuusei (1995) will surface someday, but with LaserDiscs the only digital source at the moment, I'm not holding my breath. If a reader does find a better set of raws, let me know, and Orphan will redo the subs. In the meantime, this is the best that can be done for this otherwise forgotten series.

P.S. A big shout-out to Zalis for taking on the translation. I don't think this would have gotten done without him.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Yawara-chan Returns!

Yes, the FroZen-EviL gang has reunited to put on another show, in this case, the Blu-Ray version of Yawara! The first two episodes have been released, and despite a mixup about fonts, it's now possible to see Yawara-chan in her HD and color-restored glory.

The process for this project will be a little different than before. For the first 40 episodes, the team is going to use the AnimEigo R1 subs as a base. For episodes 41-58, the team is using the Froth-Bite/Live-eviL subs, which will require OCRing the original episodes (the scripts were lost in one of several FTP catastrophes). From episode 59 onward, we'll use the FroZen-EviL scripts. All episodes will be scrutinized carefully to get consistent styling and terminology, and episodes 1-58 will receive a full translation check. Complete typesetting, instead of the simpler {\an8}Sign: style of the original show, will be done. Karaokes will be styled (simply) instead of just line-timed.

Editorial changes should be relatively few. The award that Jigoro wants Yawara to win is properly called the People's Honor Award, not the National Merit Award. All of the terms in the judo ring will be left untranslated, not just "Hajime" and "Matte." Judo terms will be given consistent spelling and capitalization.

Now, I must confess that I never watched the first 58 episodes of Yawara! In was easy enough to pick up the show in media res, and real-life time constraints made devoting 20 hours to catching up impractical. Now that I'm retired, I could watch the whole series, but I'm enjoying the week-by-week unrolling of the first few episodes. The main characters don't change much from beginning to end, of course. Still, it will be fun watching them run their courses over several years.

To me, the Blu-Rays (like the "Special DVD Edition" of episode 1) look gorgeous. Colors are vibrant, edge-burn is gone, interlacing and blended frame issues much less prominent. The first OP and ED - Miracle Girl and Stand by Me - are excellent. Miracle Girl is a J-pop earworm, albeit quite a good one, but Stand by Me is a soulful ballad that stands repeated listening. Be sure to get the second versions to avoid font problems with the OP karaoke.

So welcome back, Yawara-chan! I look forward to following your progress in the coming months and years.