Ultraman Set 2, Paniponi Dash, Gaogaigar
a bi-weekly column by Don Houston, John Sinnott, and Todd Douglass
This week Anime Talk looks a several interesting series. Paniponi Dash: Lethal Lesson has an 11-year-old genius teaching a class of hyper high school girls. It's a weird but entertaining show full of pop culture references that will be sure to please fans of Excel Saga. Gaogaigar is a giant robot series that is a lot of fun, and the hilarious Ninja Nonsense has come to an end. There are capsule reviews of the lasted series sets including Gad Guard, the Mermaid Forest, Star Ocean Ex, and more. We also have a special treat this week. DVD Talk reviewer Stuart Galbraith IV is known as an authority on director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune (his book on the pair, The Emperor and the Wolf, has been praise by Martin Scorsese as "a must read."), but many people don't realize that he's also a fan of Kaiju films. Stuart provides a look at the second volume of Ultraman episodes for us this time, and includes a lot of background information on the series and the legal problems that it has had. Of course Holly's back with her anime bargains, just in time for the holiday buying season, and we have our list of up coming discs so you'll know what to ask Santa for. If you're having trouble finding that prefect gift for an anime check out our Top Ten Anime discs of 2005 article.
One of the weirdest yet most entertaining releases of the year got an early look this week as Paniponi Dash: Lethal Lesson proved to be full of enough pop culture references to keep us replaying all five episodes in order to determine each of them. The promise of fan superstardom in the form of a contest was the icing on the cake as 11 year old genius teacher Rebecca Miyamoto faces her greatest fear; a classroom full of spastic high school girls that drive her (and everyone else within earshot) crazy. If you liked the Excel Saga series as much as we did, you'll love the inclusion of AD Vidnotes used to clue you in on various aspects of the scenes thanks to the folks at ADV Films.
We close out the popular Tetsujin 28: Advance and Tetsujin 28: Conspiracy, this week. Shotaro has to face the possibility that his metallic friend is more than just a tool to be used for good as the forces of evil all seem willing to bet everything they have on a high stakes gamble involving the power of the mysterious bagume, Tetsujin, and an entire robotic army that proves difficult to control.
Baki the Grappler is still trucking along with its awkward pacing even in volume 10. The series started out very strong with an interesting premise but as the show got older it began to grow long in tooth. The fighting tournament that Baki finds himself in has become bereft of the titular character and in the past few volumes we've had to sit through episode after episode of second tier characters beating the snot out of each other. Baki's plight with his father has essentially become meaningless as he only appears a few times in each volume. The tenth volume has some interesting moments but the best thing about it is the fact that the tournament is almost over.
Star Ocean Ex: Complete Box Set was another series designed for the younger crowd with a boy named Claude leading an expedition on a foreign world after he gets swept away by advanced technology far beyond the immediate reach of his commander father. The series was admittedly a bit light as it was derived from an older RPG videogame but it had some interesting quirks that some of you are likely to enjoy as the quest theme is catered to at length.
Gad Guard: Complete Boxed Set seemed like the kind of anime a lot of younger fans will enjoy this Christmas season. The show is a futuristic story about a 16 year old boy named Hajiki Sanada who comes across a mysterious device called a Gad that everyone wants and are willing to do anything to get ahold of. The Gad essentially grants people a wish and morphs into a Techode; a large robot that fights for Hajiki as he seeks to understand why he was chosen by the device. Seeing all 26 episodes at once was a bit more than we were prepared for but it was still a series that younger audiences might enjoy a fair amount.
For the better part of anime's existence one of the most prominent themes has been ninjas fighting demons. While the characters in Basilisk may not be "demons" in a direct translation of the word they do possess supernatural ninja abilities and are fighting with one another. A clan war has erupted between the Iga and the Kouga and every episode brings each faction closer to extinction. In the third volume we finally get to see what Gennosuke's powers really are and let's just say it's easy to see why he leads his clan. There is quite a bit of character development this time around and that really helps the volume recover from the fact that there is a recap episode wedged in the middle.
I don't know about you, but we can't get enough of giant robots fighting monsters. In fact we'd say that most otaku find themselves attracted to the genre because there are so many shows featuring just that. Gaogaigar is a series that came out in the 90's and is essentially a tribute to those that came before it. The show focuses on a couple of characters, though it starts out by paying attention to a young boy who was delivered to a human couple via the mouth of a mechanical lion. Since then the mechanical lion has garnered a cyborg counterpart and together they all fit into some grand design to defend the world against an alien threat. It's not the most original concept in the world but it is certainly inspired with a fair amount of intrigue and great presentation. Fans of the genre should definitely pay attention to this one if they haven't already.
Begrudgingly we have come to accept that Ninja Nonsense has released its last volume. This small series instantly proved itself to be endearing and hilarious all at the same time. Taking place between the real world and a ninja village the story follows the misadventures of Shinobu, Kaede, and some whacked out ninjas. Each of the four volumes basically represent a season with the final being winter, of course. Kaede teaches the ninja about Christmas and together they celebrate New Years. The ending fits the show very well and throughout this anime has been irreverently entertaining. Check it out if you want a laugh.
In the third volume of Kamichu!, Japan's youngest god encounters some more problems that only a god could have. First she has to move a battleship, and then attend Godcon, a convention for deities, while studying for midterms. That's not to mention getting wrangled into running for student council president. An inventive and cute program, this show is just a lot of fun. It's the type of show that Hayao Miyazaki would make if he ever produced for the small screen; charming and wonderfully engaging. This is the perfect show to screen for someone who claims to hate anime.
Ahhh, series sets. Don't ya love 'em? There's nothing better than getting the entire run of a show in one fell swoop. No more waiting months to see how a cliff-hanger worked out or how an interesting plot line was resolved. Often times the show is more enjoyable that way too. Sometimes it's hard to plunk down another $20 or more for a four episode volume of a show that's only so-so, but if you don't you'll never know if it gets better. One series that falls into that category is Daphne in the Brilliant Blue. If I was buying these episodes one volume at a time, I don't know if I would have finished the show. There were a few too many filler shows and stories that didn't seem to have any point. If you keep with it however, there is a very good story buried among what appears at first glance to be a typical girls-with-guns show.
Though there may be a few anime fans that don't recognize Rumiko Takahashi's name, I doubt that there are many who aren't familiar with her work. Known as the "Princess of Manga" she's the woman behind such manga (and anime) series as Urusei Yatsura (also known as Lum), Maison Ikkoku, and fan favorite Ranma ½. She's created many popular series over her 25+ year career, and is known for her humorous stories that have a lot of heart. But Takahashi is a very talented artist, and she's not limited to one story type as is shown with Mermaid Forest. Darker and less light-hearted than her other series, this story of immortals and monsters will surprise many of her fans. It's very unlike her other works, but that doesn't mean it isn't good. (For another look at this series, check out Don Houston's reviews of the individual volumes here: One, two, three, four.)
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by Stuart Galbraith IV
Excitement that Ultraman (1966-67) - the seminal Japanese
superhero/tokusatsu ("visual effects") TV show of the 1960s - was
coming to DVD was severely tempered by problematic, hugely disappointing
transfers. Volume Two of this collection, featuring the remaining
19 shows, addresses some of the problems and though the collection is still
far from perfect, these issues are less the major distraction that they
The series is a delight, setting the template for myriad Japanese fantasy shows that followed in its wake, its influence extending to theatrical features as well. (The sensibility of Japan's kaiju eiga of the late-1960s, especially films like Destroy All Monsters and The X from Outer Space, were enormously influenced by Ultraman rather than the other way around.) While Eiji Tsuburaya's artisans strived for an illusion of reality with their intricate miniatures and elaborate optical effects, story- and character-wise, including the monsters and Ultraman himself, realism simply was not a concern.
Indeed, the show was among the first to embrace a kind of alternate 20th century fantasy universe, where present-day life freely interacts with fantastic new technology (the Science Patrol's iconic Jet VTOL/Beetle and laser-guns, for instance), where giant monsters are a part of everyday life, and where bizarre creatures like the benign Pigmon (a blobish, child-sized red carnation of a monster with doll-like eyes and droopy, hamster-like paws) can turn up in a department store's toy department - where Ultraman toys are sold, natch - and be regarded more of a nuisance than a threat. This casual attitude is a big part of the show's appeal, and the earnestness of the cast sells the often outrageous storylines.
Volume Two is more of the same, with episodes in turn typically zeroing in on one member of the Science Patrol, and with many of these later shows referencing earlier stories and monsters, some of whom make return appearances. Though not a Toho series, many of that studio's contract players would turn up here in guest-starring roles, including Yutaka Sada (the chauffeur from High and Low), Senkichi Omura (King Kong vs. Godzilla), Ren Yamamoto (Gojira), Hisaya Ito (the inept assassin in Ghidrah), and Akihiko Hirata (Samurai II, Sanjuro, and countless kaiju eiga).
Beyond the highly imaginative if TV-budget level special effects, other aspects of the show easily ignored are top-notch. Frequent series director Akio Jissoji helmed several highly stylized, almost surreal episodes, while scripts by Tetsuo Kinjo especially show a lot of imagination. Finally, Kunio Miyauchi's score, notably its title and Science Patrol themes, is quite charming and, once heard, hard to get out of your head.
Although BCI/Golden Media Group's Ultraman - Series One feature English subtitled versions of essentially uncut episodes, the alternate English-dubbed audio tracks are incomplete, and missing English audio meant that characters would be speaking English one minute, then dialogue would abruptly slip into Nihongo and back again. The booklet included with Volume Two states that "before Ultraman aired on television in the U.S., the show was cut to fill a specific time slot and the English audio dubbing was created for this newly edited version." In fact the reverse was true: the show was edited-down by local channels long after the English dubbing was completed. After original U.S. distributor United Artists Television's rights expired, the complete English-dubbed audio masters were returned to Tsuburaya Productions.
Worse, the video and audio transfers for both volumes are substandard; on Volume One especially, the video is downright headache-inducing. Though fairly sharp, all movement is severely pixilated: characters would walk across the room with robot-like jerkiness, while the monster battles jittered like crude stop-motion animation, so distracting was this transferring snafu. (You can read John Sinnott's review of Volume 1 here.)
BCI took a lot of well-deserved heat for these poor transfers, though they were only partly to blame. The problem is rooted in a nasty, decade-long legal battle over distribution rights between Tsuburaya Productions, the Japanese production company that produced Ultraman, and a Thai firm called Chaiyo Productions.
Back in the mid-1970s, when the two companies were on friendlier terms and had teamed up for several co-productions, Chaiyo founder Sompote Saengduenchai claims Tsuburaya Productions president Noboru Tsuburaya (son of SPFX pioneer Eiji) sold him virtually all worldwide rights (outside Japan) to Ultraman and its spin-offs (Ultra Seven, etc.) produced up to that point in exchange for a monetary loan. Tsuburaya Productions, on the other hand, claim the contract Saengduenchai suddenly produced in the 1990s was nothing more than a blatant forgery. Nevertheless, both Japanese and Thai courts ruled in favor of Chaiyo.
The case seems to have hinged largely on the fact that the alleged contract bears Tsuburaya's official company stamp. Tsuburaya's position apparently is that the document itself is a forgery while they begrudgingly acknowledge that the company seal on it might be genuine. Though business hanko, as such stamps are called, are normally kept under lock and key, Tsuburaya reportedly gave Saengduenchai free reign at the company's Setagaya studio and some have suggested the Thai producer nicked the hanko when his Japanese partners weren't looking. Others argue that the seal is also a forgery.
Though BCI has stated publicly that they would have preferred to have dealt with Tsuburaya Productions directly, in the eyes of the Japanese and Thai courts home video rights to Ultraman clearly rested with Chaiyo Productions, and so it was through them that the show was licensed. However, all the original film and audio elements and digital masters are still owned by and reside with Tsuburaya Productions. Tsuburaya claims BCI and/or Chaiyo has to date never contacted them about accessing masters, while BCI has at least suggested they were denied access to Tsuburaya's elements.
This case is extremely unusual. Tsuburaya is currently appealing the ruling against them in the Japanese courts (a case is likewise pending in China), which would justify their refusal to release original elements or clones to Chaiyo for now. However, if the ruling is upheld and their legal options become exhausted, it would be unreasonable on Tsuburaya's part not to provide Chaiyo and/or their licensees access even if all of Tsuburaya's claims are true. When rights are split between multiple distributors it's common practice for the holder of the film elements to provide these other firms access or, more commonly, clones of their masters at cost with perhaps a nominal access fee.
Video & Audio
Because of this ongoing problem, Chaiyo had to come up with masters on its own, and those they provided BCI with were inexcusably poor. Because Chaiyo's own elements were limited to battered 16mm prints, they essentially swiped the video and audio directly from store-bought Region 2 Japan DVDs distributed by Panasonic, and the pixilation problem apparently is related to the process of creating new masters from these commercial DVDs.
For their part BCI should have flatly refused to accept them. Contractually Chaiyo would have been responsible for delivering acceptable masters and clearly these weren't. Needless to say, Chaiyo didn't exactly ask Panasonic if it was okay that they use their masters, while BCI's trumpeting this "re-mastered version" with its "stereo sound and brilliant color" is rather distasteful considering they neither paid for this work nor had anything to do with it anymore than Chaiyo did.
The good news is that while some of these issues persist in Ultraman - Series One, Volume Two, the pixilation problem has been greatly reduced while the transfers have improved in other areas. Now, for instance, the English version of the theme song is heard over the opening credits on the English track (twice actually, to match the running time of the Japanese credits): on Volume One, the Japanese version of the theme song, unsubtitled, played over the credits. However, there's still English audio missing from episodes, emphasized by the fact that the mono English audio, probably culled from bootlegged VHS tapes, is frequently very poor while the Japanese soundtrack is crystal clear and remixed for Dolby Stereo. (It would have been less jarring if everything had been mixed mono.) Episodes still abruptly end without credits or promos for the next episode.
Fortunately, the Japanese audio with the newly-created English subtitles, combined with the reduced pixilation, make Ultraman Series One, Volume Two a lot more palatable. The three, single-sided DVDs have seven, six, and six episodes per disc, respectively, and offer decent bit-rates.
It's really a great shame this and other "Ultra" series are mired in such a legal quagmire with resentment all around. BCI's packaging is quite nice. Volume Two comes with another useful eight-page, full color booklet featuring a good episode guide and essay by Denny Azumabashi and Montey Yamazaki. Kids will like the two collectible cards featuring Ultraman's foes and a Kaiju Encyclopedia offering details on the show's various monsters.
Ultraman is a series fans have wanted to see again, especially in its original form, literally for decades. It's unfortunate then that forces beyond the control of its American distributors, indeed beyond all the might and technology of the Science Patrol, have so severely compromised these releases. For the foreseeable future, unfortunately, this is as good as it's going to get. Serious flaws and all, it still comes Recommended.
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