Wednesday 31 October 2012

Nico Nico Douga: Happy Halloween!

I couldn't resist adding some more Halloween videos since the quality on Nico Nico today is so high. First, the popular song Kiss Me Aishiteru gets an unsettlingly sexy interpretation by the Sengoku Basara master and servant combinations.

This one has very little to do with Halloween at all besides some more atmospheric clothing design and Kojuurou's creepy eyes. It's Masamune and Kojuurou doing Shoujo Misui though so the context doesn't really matter.

Last but not least, the Date army take on the Takeda army in a Halloween curling showdown. I don't know how the producers of these videos come up with these ideas. The deadpan timing cracks me up.

News roundup: Takarazuka to perform Sengoku Basara?!

This morning, my Twitter timeline suddenly exploded into action with rumours that Sengoku Basara was to be adapted for a musical performance by the famous Takarazuka Revue. It wasn't at all difficult to trace the reports back to their source.

A Google search result showing the page existed
Unfortunately, by the time I had time to look into it properly, the page had been taken down by Capcom. I dug a little deeper and found a screenshot to confirm what had happened.

The article on the official Capcom Sengoku Basara website
In a post on the official Sengoku Basara news feed, someone had mistakenly uploaded an article (dated this coming Friday) with a title which unambiguously announced that the Takarazuka Revue would be performing Sengoku Basara. The article text was a copy of a different news item from a few days ago describing the Blu-Ray/DVD release for Sengoku Basara -Moonlight Party-, so no further information was found in the leak. Friday just happens to be the day of the new Butai Sengoku Basara stage play. It's likely that the announcement was originally planned to debut there and that's when we'll find out more of the details.

The crowd on Twitter have reacted with cautious enthusiasm. I'm excited for the eventual Blu-Ray/DVD release since seeing it live would be challenging for me at the moment!

The other three news items which have caught my eye recent have been Aksys Games announcing the localisation of another Hakuouki PSP game in the US, this time Hakuouki Bakumatsu Musouroku. Hopefully they'll consider a limited edition again as it will be a guaranteed purchase.

Secondly, Kick-Heart was not only successfully funded in the end but it also made its two lowest stretch goals, which means the short will be twelve minutes long rather than the planned ten. In addition it will come with an English dub and Spanish subtitles on top of what had already been announced. Congratulations to the Kick-Heart team for making anime history!

Finally, Crunchyroll have revealed that Giant Killing is going to be removed from their site in a few days. I hadn't taken the time to watch it and now it's looking unlikely I will. A DVD licence in the US would be great.

I'll end this post with a video suitable for the current festive time. In "Helloween" below, the Sengoku Basara characters star in a strange Hong Kong Disneyland commercial with some help from Miku Miku Dance.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Streaming: Sukitte Ii Na Yo (Say "I Love You") episodes 1-2

Hazuki Kanae's Sukitte Ii Na Yo (Say "I Love You") was announced as a streaming title very late this season, so it missed being a part of my planned schedule. Crunchyroll finally posted the first few episodes last weekend to let viewers catch up ready for the ongoing simulcast, so today I settled down to see what this new romance manga adaptation was about. Or so I thought, because for some reason Crunchyroll has only posted episodes one, two and four. I don't want to watch out of sequence so I'm going to have to wait until three appears to continue!

The show is cut from the same cloth as other recent shoujo titles such as Yamato Nadeshiko Shichihenge (The Wallflower) or Kimi Ni Todoke, by which I mean it's a little more realistic and relatable for older fans than shoujo series of the past, heading towards the increasingly blurry line between shoujo and comics for older women. This kind of series appeals to me as it tends to leave behind a lot of the hysteria and nonsense of shoujo aimed at a younger reader. It's already apparent from the first two episodes of Sukitte Ii Na Yo that male and female characters are perfectly content to talk to one another, kiss and go substantially further, so I'm looking forward to what the future brings.

The storyline is very simple so far. Tachibana Mei is a girl who has always been bullied and hurt by people she trusts; consequently, she's decided to go through life without making friends and has given up on ever getting a boyfriend of her own. One day, in response to being teased, she ends up accidentally attacking Kurosawa Yamato, who happens to be the most popular boy in her school. While this doesn't do her already-nonexistent popularity any favours, Mei ends up catching Yamato's eye as a result, and he starts trying to coax her to open her heart to him.

I can relate very easily to Mei's attitude at the start of the series, having had an unenjoyable experience throughout my academic life too. She's a vulnerable person despite her superficially thick skin and a lesser series which didn't properly take that into account with her reactions could end up being difficult to enjoy as a result. Fortunately - so far at least - Yamato seems to be a very interesting, nuanced foil to Mei's introversion. Befitting his role as the most sought-after boy in school Yamato is of course an attractive young man (with a mildly irritating, fussy hairstyle), however his defining character trait isn't his good looks but rather his deep, genuine personality. Like the main character, I'm keeping my guard up along as we still don't know much about his circumstances, but so far Yamato's unpretentious outlook has allowed him to break straight through some of the walls Mei has built up to protect herself. It's not long before her heart is wavering for the first time in her life.

As is usual for school romance series, most of the other girls are cruel sources of potential bullying. I love the way that they are shown to switch between their natural, bitchy personalities and their cute facades when eligible male characters are around. One strength of Sukitte Ii Na Yo in particular though is how it portrays the boys. There's a danger in many shoujo stories of making the male characters too all-powerful and unrealistic, their characterisation tossed aside in order to make them perfect objects of fantasy for the female audience. Here, the boys are shown to have problems communicating and understanding one another just as the girls do, and even the self-assured ones can be vulnerable at times.

It's always interesting to read the video comments on Crunchyroll left by other viewers for female-orientated romance series. I've noticed that whenever there's a low key series aimed at slightly older women, there are a lot of comments from incredulous male American viewers complaining that the story doesn't make sense and the characters are annoying.  That's definitely happening here as well; I'm hoping it's a sign I'll enjoy future episodes just as much.

One final point to make is that the opening theme is heartbreakingly sung by the immediately-recognisable Okazaki Ritsuko. Friendship was a well-liked song which she originally created for Love Hina. The creators of the series have brought it back as Friendship ~ For Sukitte Ii Na Yo; the blend of sincere singing, a sweet melody and the knowledge that Okazaki sadly passed away at the height of her success makes for an emotional accompaniment to the artwork in the opening sequence.

In conclusion, so far I like what I've seen. I hope that whatever the issues are with episode three, they are ironed out quickly so I can continue to catch up with Sukitte Ii Na Yo and add it to my regular weekly schedule.

Monday 29 October 2012

Event: Anime Industry panel at London's MCM Expo (October 2012)

Jerome Mazandarani (Manga Entertainment), Andrew Partridge (Kaze UK) and Tony Allen (MVM Entertainment) were present at MCM Expo yesterday to announce their newest acquisitions and answer some questions from the UK fan community. There have been some conflicting reports so this is a fairly detailed summary of what was said at their panel.

Tony ran through MVM's upcoming plans first of all. They'll be going quiet after the Rozen Maiden Ouvertüre release in November as they deliberately avoid putting titles out in December; there's too much competition from Hollywood during the holiday season. Then, MVM will be releasing Needless part one in January followed by part two in February. Canaan will be coming out in February as well, straight to a complete collection. In March we'll get Dream Eater Merry and the first part of Shakugan No Shana season two. Tony noted that he'll be judging the viability of the third season based on preorders for the second as there's pressure for him to pick that up and the first season did well for MVM. April will see the release of Ga-Rei: Zero in a complete collection.

The schedule thereafter is not ready yet, but other titles MVM is planning to release in 2013 include Bodacious Space Pirates, Mayo Chiki, Majikoi: Oh! Samurai Girls and Kids On The Slope. Jerome interrupted to add that this was the English title for Sakamichi No Apollon, a series he had wanted. They joked about an e-mail Jerome had sent to Tony when he heard MVM had been the ones to pick it up. Reference was made to there being a few more titles in the pipeline which Tony said he couldn't announce until the signatures were on the contracts. In addition to their anime schedule, MVM have some live action titles planned including their first limited theatrical release for one, so they have a busy 2013 ahead of them already.

Next, Andrew of Kaze told the audience what to expect from them. As Kaze is a French company, they work with Manga to distribute in the UK which means that Jerome occasionally broke in to add some extra details about the releases.

The new Berserk movie, catchily titled Berserk Golden Age Arc I: Egg of the King, will be coming out on Christmas Eve on Blu-ray and DVD. There will be a special edition with a leather-bound book-style case and a 'quite interesting' booklet inside. Persona 4 is coming too spread across three DVD/BD combo sets. For the first quarter of 2013, we can expect the fourth Bleach movie, Hell Verse, in February followed by full season sets for Code Geass on Blu-ray. The expected price for the two BD sets (one set per season) is £39.99. Andrew commented that the DVDs for Code Geass which were originally released by Beez would be made available again too. Other titles in the pipeline are Un-Go, Mirai Nikki, Nura: Rise of the Yokai, Journey To Agartha and Mawaru Penguindrum, plus of course the next Berserk films when they are ready for home video. Andrew hopes that the second of these will appear around the start of the second quarter of 2013.

Kaze had brought one of the French Tiger & Bunny combo packs to Expo in order to show off the packaging, which will be the same in the UK. It comes with three Hero Cards - one each for Wild Tiger, Barnaby Brooks Jr. and Blue Rose - and three translated Monthly Hero booklets from the Japanese special edition packaging. The episodes themselves will be spread across two DVDs or one Blu-ray disc in a combo pack. Since there will be four sets in total, presumably the following sets will only include two Hero Cards and Monthly Hero booklets each to complete the collection. The design of the packaging was also very attractive, incorporating the character illustrations from the Japanese special editions along with a slipcase with one of the standard edition artworks on the front. This release has obviously had a lot of care and hard work put into it.

Jerome took over once the announcements were finished, and summarised the plans for Bleach. Bleach season 10 is apparently quite a short one, so it will be spread across two 10-11 episode DVD sets. The first will be released in February or March with the second coming later in Spring. In Summer, a complete collection will follow. There should be more Bleach later in 2013.

He said that they'd had a lot of questions about the packaging used for Bleach complete collections and took a moment to explain it: there are actually two versions of each set. They regard the first run as a special edition, with four discs in slimline Amaray cases with the original Japanese box art and an outer cardboard sleeve. This version is limited to approximately 3000 units. Once the special edition has sold, it's followed by a standard edition packaged in a 'brick' DVD case. I had absolutely no idea that this was how things were done, and indeed I'd seen the question asked online before by irate fans who didn't understand why their boxes didn't match. It's useful to know.

The final Kaze title that was discussed was Bakuman. They have the first two seasons but their release will most likely be DVD-only if France doesn't opt to dub it; if the dub is produced, Kaze can add English subtitles to the Blu-ray disc and distribute it in the UK as well. If France doesn't dub the show it will be very tough to sell a sub-only Blu-ray for this particular title and they'll have to evaluate the options carefully. For the benefit of anyone in the audience who had not been aware of the problems with the US release, they gave a brief summary: Bakuman's situation is unusual as Media Blasters dubbed and released one DVD volume in America then became unable to finance the dub any longer in today's difficult sales climate, eventually suspending their release entirely to renegotiate with the Japanese licensor. Because their release has stalled with the English dub incomplete, Kaze's hands are tied.

As Andrew and Jerome had overlapped quite a lot during Kaze's announcements, the transition to discussing Manga's own licenses was very smooth. Jerome had already revealed most of their upcoming plans in yesterday's live Manga podcast session at Expo. He recapped, adding some extra details when possible.

It was obvious that there was quite a lot of excitement about the acquisition of Wolf Children (Ookami Kodomo No Ame To Yuki). Jerome added that it would be coming on Blu-ray and DVD next year along with a special trilogy pack comprising Wolf Children, Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (Toki Wo Kakeru Shoujo). This would be aimed at newcomers to Hosoda Mamoru's work. They had come up with some ideas to make the release special, one of which was to try to include a Hosoda retrospective going back on his career. They didn't reveal their other big idea and cautioned us that none of these plans were finalised yet. It was obvious that Jerome and Andrew were very passionate about Hosoda's films and had done their homework, calling him a spiritual 'successor' to Miyazaki Hayao in the west and remarked that the Digimon film he'd worked on had done fantastically well, second only to Pokemon in the UK. It was also revealed that Manga had sold 70,000 copies of The Girl Who Leapt Through Time in the UK since they first released it in 2008.

Next, Jerome went on to describe plans for the Hellsing Ultimate OVA series. Parts V through to VIII are being planned for a compiled release in double disc sets, on both Blu-ray and DVD. It's been four years since the first volume came out on DVD in the UK, so the first four parts are going to be rereleased at the same time on Blu-ray to allow viewers a chance to catch up properly. They're hoping to put the sets out in May, if materials can be ready in time. Other licenses which will be coming next year are Jormungand, starting in Spring with one set per series. Aria the Scarlet Ammo will be coming too, as will Guilty Crown. Manga would like to release Guilty Crown in two half-season sets, ideally with a Blu-ray version available too.

Perhaps more interesting than the licenses themselves, Manga and Kaze are expecting a significant reduction in Blu-ray production costs in January. They didn't say what the reason for this was (and Tony remained poker faced). I hope that this comes to pass; it will be even better if it's industry-wide rather than something as simple as a change in authoring houses.

Jerome was also very excited about the last of their licenses, the CLAMP/Production I.G collaboration Blood-C. They've acquired the Blood-C: The Last Dark movie too, boasting that it sold out two screenings at the recent Scotland Loves Anime film festival. Jerome said that he'd been trying to convince his boss to green light a steelbook edition when it's time for the movie to come out.

Once all of the announcements had been revealed, it was time for the panelists to field questions from the audience.

In response to being asked what happened to King Of Thorn, which had been announced by Manga back in 2011, Jerome responded that there had been two problems. First, Funimation had delayed the US edition which consequently delayed Manga's access to the English dub. That's all been taken care of now, but they still can't announce the UK release details until Sunrise sign the contract - and this is taking longer than expected. The problem is exacerbated because there's only one agent for all of Europe and the English-speaking territories, and of course they prioritise each region based on its importance; needless to say, resolving problems in the USA and France comes ahead of dealing with the UK. Manga are hoping for a May release provided that they can push the rights holders to agree all of the paperwork in time.

Tony chipped in to remark that this is exactly why he doesn't announce his titles until he has the signed contract in place, prompting some good-natured ribbing between the panelists.

The second question was simply asking what the panelists thought about there having been a lot of horror-themed anime series in the last few years. They rattled off some Manga titles such as Highschool Of The Dead, Princess Resurrection (Kaibutsu Oujo) and Corpse Princess (Shikabane Hime), categorising them more as fan service or action titles respectively with some horror trappings. Shiki was brought up as a genuinely chilling horror anime, with Hellsing Ultimate and Blood-C being contenders. Andrew added that he prefers to steer clear of the horror genre when possible; it's rarely genuinely scary because it's difficult to do horror well.

Next, Andrew was asked about Kara No Kyoukai (Garden of Sinners) and Fate/Zero. They're on the Kaze France website so why doesn't Kaze release them in the UK? Andrew confirmed that Kaze doesn't actually have the UK rights for either because they're with Aniplex USA. The discussion took off when the other representatives joined in; Tony is very interested in Fate/Zero because MVM already has its predecessor Fate/Stay night (which has done "very well"), while Jerome has been pursuing the Unlimited Blade Works theatrical film and is "pretty sure it will come out eventually". They went on to explain that MVM prefers to avoid movies entirely. Feature films cost far more to license to cover the higher production budgets and the contracts tend to require a larger payment up front as well. In addition, there can be very expensive requirements, for example, to show the film theatrically in the UK on twenty or more screens.

Meanwhile, Manga like movies because they can expect to profit even with a Blu-ray release. The disc count is lower than that of a television series, cutting costs, and as a result the retail price can be lower, so they sell more copies and can reach out to a wider audience. Jerome personally likes the idea of Kara No Kyoukai. Although Aniplex USA hold the UK rights he thinks that they might be open to negotiating now the special edition Blu-ray set has sold out. The other barrier in the past was that the show has never been dubbed into English, but the sales figures for Blue Exorcist have made Jerome less paranoid about releasing titles without a dub. There's a caveat in that Blue Exorcist was a fresh title released right at the peak of its popularity (the manga volumes have been selling in the order of 30,000 copies in the UK!) while the audience for a niche series like Kara No Kyoukai will be much smaller. Other titles without a dub that Jerome would like to see Manga consider are Bakemonogatari and Nisemonogatari.

The next question was straightforward: will there be a DVD release of the second seasons of Gundam 00 and Fairy Tail? Manga Entertainment is distributing Fairy Tail on behalf of Funimation who hold the UK rights, so as Funimation have licensed the second season and movie already the series should be in safe hands once the dub and contracts are all in place. There probably won't be any release dates to announce until next Expo, though there should be a season one box set in early 2013 too. Gundam 00 is a little less straightforward in that it has become extremely scarce following Beez's disappearance and due to the importance of the Gundam series to the Bandai Group in Japan, the negotiations require a lot of care. We were told that while it's not impossible that it will reappear in 2013, we should "watch this space" for further news.

Code Geass' release dates were the subject of the following question. It was confirmed that the dates are still to be finalised, however there will be a gap of approximately five weeks between the two seasons so fans won't be flooded.

There was a brief pause in the Q&A during which Jerome described how he felt when he heard that MVM had licensed Bodacious Space Pirates as "gutted". As a consolation, he picked up Cat Planet Cuties (Asobi Ni Iku Yo!) - which it turned out Tony had really wanted for MVM as well. It was amusing to hear the representatives scrambling for the hottest titles, adding a human element to the licensing game.

The questions resumed with a desperately optimistic appeal for one of the companies to consider tokusatsu shows such as Kamen Rider or the Super Sentai Series. Due to their popularity in their home country, tokusatsu shows are actually more expensive to acquire than anime titles even though the audience here is probably much smaller. It's also an issue that they tend to have very high episode counts. They'd be a possibility on a service like Anime On Demand if a good deal could be struck to gauge the potential audience; alternatively, Jerome mused that Netflix might consider paying a higher than normal minimum guarantee to license that kind of content as an exclusive for their platform. He added that Netflix support subtitled content (unlike iTunes).

The next question was a little confusing as it was about whether Higurashi No Naku Koro Ni (When They Cry) had ever had a UK release, but the audience member mistakenly thought Funimation had originally released it in the US (it was actually Geneon). This led to a rather complicated explanation by the panelists as they tried to explain the reasoning without openly naming any names themselves. The situation turned out to be fascinating; Funimation did not obtain the UK distribution rights when they rescued the series, so these rights are still held by Geneon in Japan today making a straightforward sublicense impossible. Australia's Siren Visual licensed it directly from Japan accordingly. However, Geneon is owned by a large studio which has complex compliance requirements, meaning that Manga Entertainment - also owned by a large media corporation - is unable to do business with Geneon as their parent companies are unwilling to reveal certain trade secrets to one another. It's important to note that these circumstances only affect Manga. Kaze and MVM are able to deal with Geneon in the normal way (and indeed they already do, as Tony interjected).

The panelists were then asked about the viability of dubbing anime here in the UK. It was agreed that although it has been done, for example in the case of Musashi, it's much more expensive to dub in this country than in the US. Musashi was a special case with its format as a documentary, needing significantly less dubbing than usual. Tony said that UK dubs also tended to sound a bit weird, citing the abysmal Urusei Yatsura dub that was made many years ago with a reasonably good cast. Jerome suggested that it might be entertaining to try a live dubbing session using famous British actors for charity one day.

Tiger & Bunny's UK release dates were the next topic of discussion. Andrew said that the first set would be released in February 2013 following a licensor request. He'd wanted the release to be much earlier in order to tie in with the release of the motion picture in September. Since the production schedule shifted, and the only way that they could release the show in France was spread across four volumes with the interesting Monthly Hero magazines, Kaze changed their plans for the UK and decided to match the French model in order to get the show out as quickly as possible. Jerome corrected Andrew to say that the release date was actually planned for 14th January 2013 and it should be possible to preorder as soon as next month.

A question for MVM followed, asking how Broken Blade had performed on Blu-ray and whether there were any more Blu-rays planned for their recently announced titles. Tony explained that Broken Blade was MVM's first Blu-ray release. As they don't have a Sony licence to manufacture the discs themselves, the only economical way that they can product Blu-rays is by relying on Madman in Australia to allow them to participate in one of their Australian print runs. The Blu-ray ended up performing better than Tony had expected. He balanced that by stating that it hasn't done well enough to convince him to go ahead with a lot more anime on Blu-ray just yet, but he isn't going to rule it out and he revealed that MVM deliberately plan ahead by acquiring the BD rights when they license new titles.

The main issue from MVM's perspective is whether they can join in with Australian print runs more often. If they could, they'd be able to consider more titles for a UK Blu-ray edition. The complications come from the BBFC's requirement that UK discs have the BBFC rating logo printed on the disc art. It's not a problem for them to arrange this with the Australian distributors, however, because there is no such regulation in their country (their ratings body only requires logos on the external packaging), MVM are seeing a number of cases where the Australian anime companies are simply repackaging the Funimation's American Blu-ray discs. This means no Australian print run takes place and at the same time, MVM are unable to use the Blu-ray discs from the US here because they won't be able to get the BBFC logo printed on them. Tony said that if it wasn't for the law preventing them from doing the same thing that Australia was they'd be able to release "loads" more Blu-rays here.

As for future Blu-ray plans, he mentioned being interested in trying a few of their catalogue titles which he knew would be receiving Australian print runs. He doesn't yet have Blu-ray rights for the oft-requested FLCL, so he's looking at that, and he'd love to get a Blu-ray set out for Berserk now that the new films have led to renewed interest in the series. The existing DVD box set is selling "phenomenally well" thanks to the films. With Broken Blade, the initial sales figures had been better than they'd expected but over time the DVD sales pulled ahead substantially. In spite of this, MVM had noticed that at Expo this weekend the demand for the Blu-ray version had been much higher. Different markets have different requirements.

Jerome observed that in other countries it's normal to price the BD higher than the DVD version to take into account the higher costs and lower sales. He also remarked that he found it strange that overseas, customers often pay full retail price whereas in the UK everyone tries to haggle (especially at events like Expo) and get a better deal, to which Tony added that prices in the US and Australia have gradually been creeping up. It helps the UK distributors greatly when anime retail prices in those two countries have been increasing by as much as $10 per volume. We were reminded that the prices in Japan are much higher than they are here and the only reason we're able to price our anime so low in comparison is because we're locked into region B.

Andrew had been saving the last Kaze announcement during the Q&A session, and now it was time to reveal it. They had acquired additional home video rights (including an option for Blu-ray) for the Anime On Demand series K.

The next fan wanted to know why the UK edition of Durarara!! was subtitled-only when there was a dub in the US. Andrew's answer was instant; nobody had told Beez about the plans for a dub until after production had started! Although they'd wanted to go back to it to add the dub track at a later date, this ended up being challenging in practice after Andrew left Beez and shortly afterwards they wound down their activities entirely. Andrew is personally a big fan of Durarara!!'s director and he thinks a future rerelease in the UK (with the dub) is fairly certain to happen. This isn't an announcement from him, merely an assurance that fans can be reasonably sure someone is going to release it here when it's possible.

Next up was a question about the possibility of Manga rereleasing some of its older films and OVA series on DVD or Blu-ray. Jerome said that in most cases he no longer knew who held the licenses; Andrew suggested that he might be able to draw up a list if required. Jerome acknowledged that there has been a lot of demand for movies such as Cyber City Oedo 808, Fist Of The North Star and Wicked City directed at Manga through social media channels. Unfortunately, picking up the rights to these older titles is just as expensive as picking up something new (he compared Wicked City to the popular newer titles Code Geass and Bleach). They'd be looking for an extremely good deal or a royalty split where possible and it's a complicated issue.

In contrast to the demands from older fans for classic material, the Expo crowd in particular is very young. The day before, Jerome had asked the audience who had seen Ninja Scroll before and he was shocked to see that half of the room hadn't experienced it. This generation of younger fans is mostly interested in the newest shows they've seen talked about online and through streaming, therefore the best option for Manga these days, in a commercial sense, is to work on reducing the time it takes for new series in Japan to start coming out in the UK.

It's not all bad news for lapsed licenses. Manga keep looking out for bestsellers from the past which haven't had a good DVD release over here before. There's also the possibility of exploring a steelbook edition for the UK in cases where HD masters become available from Japan. The audience were told that they shouldn't rule it out.

Jerome paused the questions momentarily to go through a few more of Manga's UK upcoming plans, first apologising for the recent setbacks such as the recall of faulty Panty And Stocking With Garterbelt discs (there are no faulty discs left in the channel, he asserted, so it was now safe to buy). They'd like to do a Blu-ray next year if all goes well now that Funimation have announced theirs and the licensor has relaxed their restriction on overseas BD releases. Manga have also had to delay Fractale, pushing it back to next year as they are co-authoring with Siren Visual, and the Blu-ray edition of Fullmetal Alchemist the Movie: Conqueror of Shamballa has suffered a similar fate caused by major problems with its masters.

Journey To Agartha (Hoshi Wo Ou Kodomo) will be coming out on 28th January 2013 on Blu-ray and DVD. Jerome tripped over the official English title of the film, Children Who Chase Lost Voices From Deep Below, and they joked about how much space it would have taken up on the packaging if they'd used that difficult-to-remember title on their version. There will be a special edition for collectors including interviews, an art book and a nice box. In December 2012 we'll get Freezing on DVD, the aforementioned Berserk movie, the Gintama movie (Gintama: Shinyaku Benizakurahen) on DVD and Tales Of Vesperia: The First Strike on Blu-ray and DVD. Hackney Picture House will be running a special screening of Ninja Scroll on 16th November to celebrate the classic movie's rerelease ten days later. The screening is a great deal as you get the movie ticket, a special limited edition signed poster and the movie Blu-ray all for the £17 entrance fee. If I was a big Ninja Scroll fan I'd be very tempted to go!

Manga's other big announcement for Expo was that they are going to be distributing Redakai, a western trading card cartoon which airs on Cartoon Network and CITV. It will be receiving a budget seven episode DVD for £9.99, intended for sale in supermarkets to help widen Manga's reach in the entertainment distribution chain. They were pleased with the results when they did something similar for the Yu-Gi-Oh! movie a while ago.

The final batch of questions kicked off with a fan asking what kind of factors the UK studios look for when choosing a title for acquisition. Andrew said the main factor for him was whether or not he personally liked the series, though when a series he isn't keen on becomes very popular he's open to reconsidering his stance.  Jerome and Tony responded that they liked to ask Andrew for his impressions too. Other factors are whether the creators have been involved in any other hit series, the Japanese home video sales figures - broadcast figures tend to be fairly useless because the numbers are so low for late night anime. As it's possible that a huge hit in Japan can turn into a sales disaster in the UK, they have to tread carefully. Figures from the US release can sometimes help but it's surprisingly difficult to obtain a clear picture from America; Walmart has a 50% share of the market and doesn't report its sales charts. Jerome used Wolf Children as an example of a situation where he'd try to use comparative data to get a rough idea of what he could expect. Summer Wars and The Girl Who Leapt Through Time both did well, and even factoring the changes in market conditions since they were released he concluded that he could reasonably expect Wolf Children to be successful here. Andrew warned that when they look at the staff working on a show, they have to be careful to make sure that they're making an accurate comparison rather than being misled by some big names.

Tony's perspective was a little different, coming from MVM's background as both an anime licensor and an online anime shop. Because the online shop stocks imported merchandise from shows which aren't available here, he's able to see how much demand there is for unreleased series title by title based on how many wall scrolls and t-shirts they're selling. Also, because MVM focus on television anime, it's often possible to check how well the original manga series is selling to measure the demand. He also puts a lot of stock in input from UK fans and personally researches titles he's asked about to see how viable a UK release might be, with the main issues being availability of a an Australian release to make PAL conversion affordable and the existence of an English dub. Now that subtitled-only is less of a "taboo" in the UK, there's a possibility that they can be more flexible on the latter point in future.

Jerome had apparently mentioned liking the new anime series Btooom! in the live podcast the day before, as this was mentioned by an audience member keen on hearing which other new titles had appealed to the representatives. Andrew said he was very interested in Magi and that Viz Europe hadn't specifically included the UK in their recent acquisition announcement... but fans could draw their own conclusions from what had been said. Jerome said the Autumn schedule this year was a busy one; as well as Btooom!, which he was discussing with Sentai, he liked Girls Und Panzer. His colleagues at Manga weren't convinced by this choice at the moment. As he also liked Strike Witches and Cat Planet Cuties, there was some teasing about his taste from the other panelists.

An anecdote from MIPCOM, the annual global entertainment market, was recounted, describing how Japanese broadcasters make much more money selling formats such as Dragon's Den (which was originally the Japanese show Manee No Tora) and Ninja Warrior (originally Sasuke in Japan), rather than anime rights. Funimation often pick up anime rights covering all English-speaking territories, sublicensing to local distributors in areas where they are not directly active themselves. Funimation's simulcasting efforts have become a big part of their business recently, probably accounting for around 15% of their annual revenue via their own site and Hulu, Netflix, iTunes and YouTube. Discussions are ongoing about some of the bigger shows they've picked up.

When asked by an audience member about Funimation's imminent release of A Certain Magical Index (Toaru Majutsu No Index), Jerome responded that Funimation don't have the UK rights which are still with Geneon (he didn't mention Geneon by name, but in context it was obvious he was referring back to the Higurashi question). He asked for a show of hands to gauge interest in the spin-off series Toaru Kagaku No Railgun to which the response was underwhelming, going on to say that he'd like to pick it up but there's pressure to license the entire Index/Railgun saga at once, including the movie, without an option to break it up into its individual series. They were still looking at the viability so there's nothing to announce at the moment.

The final question was about Toradora, which is especially of interest to fans here as it recently had a release from Hanabee in Australia with a bonus episode not present on the US edition. A fan asked if it was being considered for the UK since an Australian release means there will be PAL masters available to reduce the costs here. Jerome confirmed that he knew about the Hanabee situation - they're a brand new distributor in Australia, led by a man who used to work for Siren Visual.

The overall response from the panelists to the possibility of Toradora was positive, and it was on this good note that the session finished.

My impressions.

All in all, it was a good panel. I felt a little traitorous sitting there with my bag of US import purchases, many of which overlapped directly with upcoming titles the reps were planning to release next year - however, not all of the announcements were useless to me. I'm one of the people who was stung buying the first volume of Media Blasters' frozen Bakuman release, so if Kaze can continue it here sub-only, and possibly even on Blu-ray, there'll be at least one happy customer.

The most surprising tidbit for this blogger was the discussion about movies versus television series. As a fan from the old days when TV series rarely came to the UK at all, I'd always believed that the preference for movies and high budget OVA acquisitions was universal. It's good to hear that MVM has made the television format work for them.

Hearing confirmation that Funimation tries to get all of the English-speaking distribution rights for their new titles is frustrating. Funimation don't simulcast to the UK at all, so this is the reason that several titles end up locked away from Crunchyroll and Anime On Demand who do! Funimation sometimes eventually add the missing titles to YouTube and allow us access (Haganai was the last series I was able to sample this way) but by that time it's months after the simulcast and the home video is on the horizon; streaming entire shows by that point feels like a waste of time. I'd like to see our distributors pushing Funimation to either release the streaming rights for countries outside the US to Anime On Demand or Crunchyroll, or to stream them to us themselves on their Funimation Elite Video Subscription service, because otherwise the current arrangement completely sucks for UK fans wanting to legally watch shows such as Kingdom, Kamisama Kiss, Code: Breaker, Jormungand, or the live action Moyashimon.

Presumably the only reason that this isn't happening is the difficulty in monetising streams to the UK. I'm happy to subscribe if an ad-based model isn't viable, and paying in US dollars won't be a problem. Come on, Funimation, you're leaving money on the table!

Nico Nico Douga: Dancing Mouri and historical fashion

First of all, a beautiful video set to Megurine Luka's Mujou. Mouri Motonari of Sengoku Basara performs a sword dance. As Mouri's weapon is so unusual, the care taken to properly accommodate this in his movements makes the video especially delightful.

This clip was originally posted a few days ago but the user has made some refinements. It's not Miku Miku Dance; instead it's a comparison video showing Sengoku Basara characters next to the famous armour their original historical counterpart is associated with. A side by side view makes it easier to appreciate the way the unique designs from real life were incorporated into the exaggerated Sengoku Basara character costumes.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Event: London MCM Expo/Comic Con (October 2012)

The MCM Expo hall
Today some friends and I visited London's MCM Expo (also known as MCM Comic Con).

We usually attend on Saturdays, but due to a prior commitment this time we had to shift our visit to the Sunday. Expo on Sunday had a very different feel to our usual Saturday trips. Perhaps in part due to the bitterly cold weather, there were no cosplayers at all on the way in with only a few dotted around inside when we arrived. We usually see quite a few on the train so I was a little concerned.

We were early enough to receive the goody bags that the first few rows of people in the early entry queue are treated to. As usual the contents were nothing to rave about, but rummaging through made the time in the queue pass quickly. There were some Yu-Gi-Oh! cards which I did not keep, some marketing nicknacks, the show guide with the top secret event information that's always so difficult to find online in advance when you need it, and a free DVD. Mine was By The Will Of Genghis Khan which looks pretty terrible. One of my friends was lucky enough to receive two DVDs in their bag - except both were Skate Or Die. I'm not entirely sure whether this was a blessing or a curse.

AoD had a particularly attractive stand
For some reason even if you have an early entry pass the organisers never seem to start anywhere close to on time, so despite being close to the front of the queue my party only gained entrance to the event hall at around 10:30 in the morning, thirty minutes after the official opening. The Expo hall was wonderful at that time of day, with clear space around all of the stands and easy access to chat to the various vendors. I did all of my shopping as quickly as I could.

At noon, we went to see the Anime Industry panel featuring Manga Entertainment, Kaze UK and MVM Entertainment. This lasted just under an hour. By the time we came out, the crowds in the hall had finally swollen to their usual levels and it had become difficult to navigate in the packed frenzy of people in inconvenient costumes scrambling for discounted models and merchandise. We stayed for a little while longer to see the remaining attractions, then went home. Next time, despite the risk of missing the anime panels as we usually do, I think we'll go for Saturday again if possible; there was a definite sense of fatigue among some of the attendees and even though the cosplayers had come out in force by noon the outdoor cosplay area was emptier than I've ever seen it before. The cold weather and longer convention (it wasn't always possible to attend on Friday in the past) seemed to drain their usual hardiness away.

I didn't see any Sengoku Basara cosplayers. One artist had a picture of Mouri Motonari on their stand and that was all.

One of the pleasures of Expo is picking items up in person to save on postage, and I purchased an appropriately large amount of anime. Not shown are the lovely complimentary posters we received from Kaze UK (Tiger & Bunny and Berserk) and Viz Europe (Blue Exorcist), nor the advance copies of Bakuman volume 16 and One Piece volume 65 which Viz had on their stand. Being able to buy things up early is always good fun. As usual, most of the independent stores were selling bootlegs rather than treasure worth spending money on. There's obviously some friction about this between the traders and indeed most of the handful of legitimate stores had distanced themselves from the problem, setting up prominent notices asserting that their goods were legitimate Japanese imports.

In the picture are DVD or BD sets for Un-Go, Deadman Wonderland, C: The Money of Soul and Possibility Control, Natsume's Book Of Friends season 1 & 2, Hellsing Ultimate I-IV, Shigurui, Kaleidostar's OVA, Bunny Drop, House Of Five Leaves, Kannagi, Hakuouki, Heaven's Memo Pad, Step Up Love Story (Futari Ecchi), One Piece season 4 part 2, Ristorante Paradiso, Croisée in a Foreign Labyrinth and Intrigue in the Bakumatsu - Irohanihoheto part 1. There's also an original art book and three doujin bookmarks from a French illustrator called Eternal-S. Her work stood out as we passed by the artist alley section of the hall so I had to take a closer look.

The NIS America box sets for House Of Five Leaves and Natsume Yuujinchou are even more stunning than usual since they have gorgeous textured finishes. I love them. The former came with two sets of DVDs (there was a recall due to an audio problem with the original batch so the replacements had been attached to the packaging). With the UK edition I already had, I now own a total of three copies of House Of Five Leaves.

That wraps up my personal summary of the event. I'm going to make a second post to cover the Anime Industry panel in more detail.

Friday 26 October 2012

News roundup: Browser Sengoku Basara is to close down, and success for Kick-Heart!

It was announced today, quite unexpectedly, that Browser Sengoku Basara would be ending its service on 27th December 2012. It had only been running since June, with special character cards having been given away as incentives at special events since. Buyers of August's HD Collection were also given special promotional cards for the game as a first pressing bonus. I didn't enjoy the companion game Sengoku Basara Card Heroes very much, but Browser SenBasa (commonly abbreviated to the more concise BuraBasa) was good fun and several players had become quite addicted to it. What a shame.

The best part about the browser games is that Capcom seems to have commissioned a lot of new artwork in order to decorate the collectable cards you strive for to build your army, a mixture of new (to me) character renders and interesting hand drawn illustrations. It's particularly interesting for the Sengoku Basara 3 characters as they have rarely been shown drawn in different styles. A memorial art book of some kind would be welcome.

A mild bias may be apparent in my selection of card samples
Unrelatedly, and much more happily, Kick-Heart has met its funding goal to become the first successful anime-related Kickstarter project to date. The fight isn't over yet though; they've added more stretch goals. While some are probably impossible, the lowest target adds an extra two minutes to the film's planned run time as well as Spanish subtitles. I hope they make it!

The final newsworthy event for today's post is that Viz Europe have picked up Magi for streaming and home video distribution in Europe. This news is a little odd as Viz Europe are the people behind Kaze UK, who plainly already had the streaming rights as I've been watching it through their streaming portal for the last few weeks. It's good to know that it's coming to home video here too; I'll buy whichever English edition is the better quality so the ball's in their court.

Thursday 25 October 2012

Streaming: Kintama episode 256

"Te~he~!" - Tokiko
Today will go down in anime history as the momentous day that Kintama ended. I won't spoil the final episode; check it out for yourself on Crunchyroll if you want to see what went down between our hero Kin-san and the pretender Gintoki.

It's always sad when a good series ends, especially when it had only been on the air for four episodes after an abrupt finish earlier in the year.

With the creators being the way they are, Kintama was soon followed by the a completely unrelated short-lived high school romance series Mantama. Mantama was more interesting than most examples of its genre, featuring more cuteness and innuendo in its brief ten minutes of existence than many romantic comedies manage across entire seasons. I think it may have set some new record for the sheer number of diverse parodies in its opening sequence as well. I was ready to throw all of my support behind this new show, but staff weren't finished toying with my heart.

Ultimately, I still have absolutely no idea what's going on this season. It looks as though things are back to 'normal' at last next week with Gintoki restored to his proper place in the opening and the Gintama' title back in place, but when this renewal was first announced there was mention of it airing a mixture of new episodes and reruns. Will next week be the first proper Gintama' episode of the new series, or will it be an old classic resurrected from the vaults to buy time for them to animate the next arc? Whichever the case, I'll be watching.

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Nico Nico Douga: MMD Sengoku Basara selection

First, a silly video. No explanation is needed (and indeed, none would make sense).

Today's second video is a treat: a new video from Otthi! Accompanying Miichan's English version of Rolling Girl, Masamune and Motochika dance in beautifully modelled new costumes. It's already accumulated a respectable number of mylists in the short time it's been up.

News roundup: Nozomi's new acquisition and cute Sengoku Basara things

Nozomi Entertainment's countdown ended an hour or so ago, and the new title has been revealed: Princess Knight. As I didn't completely enjoy the series in manga form and the DVD sets will be dub-only (for reasons explained quite clearly here), I'll be passing on this particular release. It's a little cool that Nozomi have Princess Knight, Rose of Versailles and Shoujo Kakumei Utena; someone there has good taste!

The more important news for the day in my case, which came out this morning, is that Capcom announced the release details for Sengoku Basara -Moonlight Party-. Thankfully it's going straight to a box set in February with a choice of DVD or Blu-Ray and some lovely extras. I know that I need to keep my expectations in check, since I've seen the low budget trailers, but that doesn't stop me really wanting to see it - and now I can do so without having to collect a bunch of expensive singles.

Another tidbit of Sengoku Basara related news is that the cover for the second volume of Sumeragi's Mame Sengoku Basara finally appeared recently. To match up with Tokugawa Ieyasu on volume one, this time Ishida Mitsunari takes the honour. The Mame SenBasa art style is so cute...

Needless to say I have had it on order for a while, along with the upcoming Gakuen Basara 4. I was hoping to get the Mame SenBasa pins (well, the Dategun set) but they sold out before my deputy was able to place an order. It's so annoying that e-Capcom won't accept my foreign credit card.

This is going to become a Sengoku Basara blog if I don't calm down soon.

Finally, and not really news at all, I spotted an amusing (to me) ad for Sengoku Basara -The Last Party- on Anime News Network this afternoon: "The Basara boys are back and ready to whip out their swords!". I can't tell whether I need to grow up or whether Funimation has given up all pretence of avoiding double entendre and foolishness when it comes to this show. Hopefully my copy will arrive this weekend since I'm collecting some items; it's been shipping out early so there's a chance!

Tuesday 23 October 2012

News: Nozomi has a new announcement to announce!

RightStuf's licensing arm, Nozomi Entertainment, is doing it again! A mysterious countdown timer has appeared ready to reveal a surprise tomorrow. The last one of these turned out to be Rose of Versailles, so this is likely to be something good too. With the label being Nozomi it should be a premium release with some nice extras rather than a niche title for their barebones Lucky Penny label.

I really hope it's not a rescue of an older title from another company. Even if it is though, I'm glad that Nozomi make their announcements into events like this rather than stealthing new shows into their regular solicitation press releases. It makes it feel as though every title matters, and in a world where every anime is somebody's favourite show that's definitely a good thing. Kudos to them too for not dragging it out too much. One day is about right to build hype without getting carried away.

Anything which is still awaiting its sequels in the US (xxxHolic, Kyou Kara Maou, Saiunkoku Monogatari) would go down especially well, as would one of the missing noitaminA shows. Surprise me in a good way, Nozomi!

Event preview: London Comic Con MCM Expo (October 2012)

This weekend, the biannual London MCM Expo is running at the Excel. Their website is as always completely useless for anything beyond buying tickets, but its obscure sister site MCM Buzz has finally updated with the event information. I'm going to compile it all here too as using their websites stresses me out. As a visitor, I've never understood why they make it so difficult to pull all of the information together. If they have two full websites for the event already, why can you only get to see the schedule by signing up to Facebook?!

The guest list is quite disappointing this time around. There are a handful of interesting ones: Peter F. Hamilton will be in attendance (I know a certain science fiction fan who greatly appreciates his work) as will Hattie Hayridge (the female Holly from Red Dwarf). Forel and Mormont from Game Of Thrones will be there on the Saturday too, with Pycelle replacing them both on the Sunday. For anime fans, the only attendee of interest is Urotsukidoji creator Maeda Toshio, who isn't actually down as a guest but rather an exhibitor - he'll be selling artwork as Tentacle Master. I'm not a fan of his work but I might take some time to visit his booth to see the illustrations and judge for myself; it's good to see a reasonably big name getting personally involved. There is a typical selection of miscellaneous American dub actors too (none of whom I have heard of before). EDIT: Apparently the chap signing things at the Manga UK stand voiced Tokugawa Ieyasu in the Sengoku Basara 3 dub. While the dub was absolutely terrible overall, his was definitely one of the better efforts, so maybe we'll swing by creepily at some point and offer to unite and form a bond with him.

Because forcing guests to sign up to Facebook to view basic information is outrageous, here is the full event schedule for the weekend:

And here is the floor map. Most of the merchandise stands peddle awful bootleg products, but I'll definitely be visiting Koei-Tecmo and some of the other reputable commercial booths. There are some strange new exhibitors this time from CEX to the BBC so it should be interesting.

Friday 19 October 2012

Manga review: Millennium Prime Minister

A confused love triangle is messing up the politics of Japan!

Millennium Prime Minister (Seikimatsu Prime Minister) is a light four volume romance series by Eiki Eiki. It was originally released from 1998 to 2001, hence the titular 'millennium'. In the afterwords, she explains that it was supposed to end in 2000 with the third volume; things didn't quite go to plan.

Coincidentally it was in the year 2000 that I first became familiar with Eiki Eiki's work. Rather than discovering her through her properly published manga, it was actually through reading an Inuyasha doujinshi that her artwork originally caught my eye. I still have that book in my collection today, along with a number of more recent works produced by Kozouya, the doujin circle run by Eiki Eiki and her friend Zaou Taishi (Tsuda Mikiyo's doujinshi-publishing alter ego).

Having been following her doujinshi career casually for over a decade, it was actually quite a strange experience to travel back in time to get to know one of the creator's older works. The artwork in Millennium Prime Minister is initially extremely rough. The female characters come across especially poorly with chunky, awkward designs.

It's almost unnoticeable as you're reading, but the art improves drastically as time goes by; when I reached the third volume it was up to the standard I was used to from early Eiki Eiki material. The lead character, Minori, gradually becomes more feminine and attractive over the course of the series. It's almost as though Eiki Eiki hadn't spent much time drawing women in the past...

The one aspect of this short series which pleasantly surprised me was the plot. At first, I'd assumed that this was merely a fluffy romance story with the government setting only there as an excuse to draw attractive older men in suits, playing off the artist's well-publicised political links in her personal life. The male politicians are certainly drawn appealingly and the first few chapters have no real plot to speak of, introducing a typical cast of characters with the corny gimmick that this new prime minister happens to be a good looking young man, surrounded by an equally young, very masculine entourage. When Minori, a typical schoolgirl, is dragged into the prime minister's world because he has decided he wants to marry her, it's both cliche and unwholesome (he's pretty much abducting her by using his influence and popularity).

This flimsy introduction eventually gives way to a surprisingly interesting longer storyline, which actually manages to include politics, comedy, drama, mild BL and the promised romance after all. Once I'd finished with the second volume I couldn't wait to pick up the third, then the fourth. Eiki Eiki is in tune with her audience and although the plot covers complicated real world terminology it's never thrown at the reader without ample explanation. It's even more impressive that it works so well given the cultural gap; the setting is of course based on Japanese politics (from over a decade ago!). The slight quirks are all smoothly explained thanks to the lead character being just as apathetic about government policy as most other schoolgirls would be.

Instead of taking the easy route and churning out something generic with the gimmick of an attractive young prime minister holding it together, the author worked hard to create a story which stands on its own and breathes life into its characters. If I had been told when reading the early chapters that everything was going to come together by the end in a satisfying resolution, I'd have doubted that assertion. As a result of Eiki Eiki's efforts I enjoyed this series more than I'd expected to, even as an existing fan.

One of the best things about the tankoubon editions of original manga by the Kozouya girls is that they come with plenty of bonus material and notes, and these are included in the English edition. There are always some interesting insights into the inner workings of the manga industry, as well as black-hearted parodies using the characters from Millennium Prime Minister itself. Tsuda naturally pops up from time to time in the bonus material too. I was pleased with the adaptation overall. The only error I spotted was one exchange where Kanata's name was given incorrectly in the translation, making the affected pages harder to follow than they should have been.

Millennium Prime Minister was published in English under Digital Manga Publishing's Doki Doki imprint back in 2009/2010. It's still readily available for purchase in physical form through sites such as Amazon UK (links to the individual listings: 1, 2, 3, 4). In addition, Doki Doki has made sample chapters legally available on eManga.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Today's acquisitions (17th Oct 2012)

An unusual midweek batch of deliveries. Pictured is part one of Death Note, since Deep Discount was selling the two sets for under $8 apiece! $8 is unthinkably cheap for 20 episodes of a series of this quality and it was a good excuse to upgrade my PAL discs. Part two is still on the way (I hope).

Next to Death Note is the second Blu-Ray box set of Fate/Zero. It's gorgeous. My phone camera will never do it justice so there's no point in trying. From my merchandise order with Ami Ami I received two Sengoku Basara tenugui towels, both the Date Masamune edition covered in his unique catchphrases. One is for keeping in pristine condition. I'm not sure what to do with the other; at the moment it's on display, perhaps destined to end up in the kitchen. Fujii Takashi's Oh My Juliet! CD/DVD set completes the main acquisitions. It's strange to be able to buy a hit single from 2005 brand new without any problems. After having had the song itself for a while courtesy of iTunes, I now have the music video to accompany it.

The picture on the right is a close up of the two smaller items: a Date Masamune tin badge and a freebie Nyanko-sensei charm. The charm is quite well made compared to the usual extras Yesasia pack into their deliveries. I wanted to buy more of the tin badges; tragically there was a purchase limit in place.

The final treasure was my much-awaited Sengoku Basara wall scroll (or tapestry, to use the 'Japanese' word). Pictured below, it features my favourite CG illustration from the whole series: the box art from Sengoku Basara 2 Eiyuu Gaiden ("Heroes"). Kojuurou! Masamune! Standing back to back! Capcom opted for white rather than black for the structural parts of the wall scroll, giving it a tasteful look and overriding my common sense about how much importing such a frivolous thing cost.

To make things even more perfect Anime on Demand have put today's episode of Magi online. Hurrah! There were some problems with the audio last time; it seems to have been a transient issue since today's episode sounded perfect. I checked the first episode again too, to make sure, and it was fine as well.


Tuesday 16 October 2012

News: Shounen Jump goes digital in Japan

I was very interested to see that Shuueisha has finally launched a worthwhile digital manga platform on iOS today. As the descriptive name Jump Book Store helpfully indicates, the focus of their app is to provide a place to buy, collect and read various manga series associated with Shounen Jump (and the rest of the Jump family).

The English-language Viz Manga app from Viz was a enormous disappointment for users outside the US. It works beautifully on my iPad, but for reasons of corporate politics most of the worthwhile content is not available here with no alternative provided locally. It's a matter I'm rather sore about. With digital manga growing in popularity, legal methods to enjoy it are limited, especially if you want the popular shounen titles from Jump at the same time as users in Japan and America are able to read them. Being stuck in the past is being condemned to a life of reading spoilers by accident online.

Strangely, manga on the Kindle is also stuck in a rut due to Amazon's constraints on accepted formats, leaving phones and desktops as the big hopes for the medium in the digital age. It has been frustrating seeing the iTunes Store packed full of illegal manga sharing apps for months on end without much competition from the rights holders. I've tried reporting the illicit apps before with no luck - Apple don't understand the market, and don't care unless the person filing the report is someone important.

Things are at last shifting, I hope, with JManga having released a proper app for their service a few days ago and now Shuueisha tapping into the younger market in Japan itself. The main complaints from Japan so far seem to be the pricing, which is on par with with physical paperbacks rather than cheaper as had been expected, and the variety of titles on offer, which will probably improve rapidly. After playing with the app for a while myself I have to say it's a little bit twitchy compared to Viz America's slick, uselessly region-crippled effort. I tried downloading some samples in 'tachiyomi' mode to play with the interface; pictured to the right is the interface overlaid on a zoomed-in panel from Ao No Exorcist. The quality isn't as pin sharp as a printed book would be, however I can't deny that having a library stored digitally instead of upon my groaning shelves would be handy for a genre as calculatedly addictive as shounen manga. Investing a few pounds to check out the manga version of some currently-popular series is much easier than buying the heavy physical books and getting them shipped over. Not to mention considerably quicker.

It's amusing that while Japanese customers are fuming at the cost per volumes, the prices seem cheap to me, as a foreigner, entirely because they circumvent shipping fees.

I've not tested making a purchase yet. It looks as though it will work even though I'm overseas - and rightly so, because there's a natural language barrier here. Travellers, expats and students need to be able to buy material legally in languages other than those of their current country of residence if the digital world is ever going to be anything other than a joke. Having said that, it would be magnificent if Shuueisha can expand this model in future and add their English-translated versions as an option for people who aren't lucky enough to live in America. Japanese students would certainly enjoy learning English more if they were able to do so with Luffy!

Looking at the top in-app purchases on launch day shows that the series with successful anime adaptations on the air at the moment are doing particularly well.

It's great to see Japan talking about digital delivery. The Jump Book Store has clear room for improvement and it's my hope that they keep moving in the right direction to bring fans more and more ways to read manga, wherever we live and whichever languages we speak.

Kick-Heart Kickstarter progress update: two weeks remaining

Following on from my previous post, I've noticed that Production I.G has overhauled their rewards for Yuasa Masaaki's Kick-Heart Kickstarter drive. Having taken on a lot of fan feedback from the backers of the project, they're trying to add more value in the form of additional subtitle tracks, additional rewards for supporters and additional goals (which may be impossible) such as lengthening the short film substantially if there's enough demand. They've promised to make it thirty minutes longer if they can raise $400,000 rather than their original goal of $150,000, and if they can get over $1,000,000 they'll go all out and create a full feature film.

The extra rewards are interesting and I've ended up slightly raising my own bid as a result. They've added DVD editions, as some customers were complaining that they wanted something physical other than the Blu-Ray. There are also t-shirts and soundtracks on offer. The progress had slowed greatly over the last week, now sitting at $105,000 with 14 days left to make up the rest. I think they'll be able to pull it off.

Monday 15 October 2012

Nico Nico Douga: Maeda Keiji in Rainbow Girl (Remix)

Gero and Lon's version of this song is strangely addictive. I like the concept for this video, and since it's a bit of a Sengoku Basara 2 themed day it seemed appropriate.

DVD review: Butai Sengoku Basara 2

Last night I watched Butai Sengoku Basara 2. This is the DVD recording of the live Sengoku Basara 2 stage play which took place during May and June earlier in the year.

Although it's based on Sengoku Basara 2, this particular stage play came out after the very successful stage adaptation of the newer Sengoku Basara 3, which might be confusing to people expecting a chronological timeline. If you've played the second game though, or watched the second season of the anime, you'll be familiar with the core plot. It covers the rise of Toyotomi Hideyoshi and his attempts to unify Japan after Oda Nobunaga's defeat. Since this adaptation has the luxury of coming out after its own sequel it's able to include additional content for fans of the series, in the form of a number of scenes showing a fully grown Tokugawa Ieyasu and Ishida Mitsunari working in the Toyotomi forces. The games didn't properly flesh out these two characters until it was already too late to include this kind of material, and even the anime barely scratched the surface of the critical sequence of events which led to Mitsunari's bitter hatred of Ieyasu, and consequently, to the battle of Sekigahara.

Confusingly I'd already seen a few highlights from this play performed live at the summer Basara Matsuri event, which was heavily themed around the Toyotomi army. From my vantage point at the live show I'd seen how a few of the tricks were performed (after the thrill of seeing Hanbee's weapon miraculously change from a sword to a whip in the first show, I'd been keenly watching to see how it was done the second time around!). With a generous running time of 150 minutes there were thankfully ample brand new surprises on this DVD to justify a full viewing.

Butai Sengoku Basara 3 was heavy on music, which made it very accessible, but in Butai Sengoku Basara 2 it felt as though the music took a back seat to the dialogue (with the exception of abingdon boys school's then-new song WE aRE). As a result, the raw excitement was tempered while the plot felt much more coherent. Unlike the anime version, the stage play kept closer to the way events unfolded in the games and the transition to Sengoku Basara 3 wasn't so convoluted - as great as The Last Party was, rewriting everything to force Date Masamune into the lead role took a heavy toll on the other stars' characterisation.

One thing I've noticed amongst English-speaking Sengoku Basara fans is that they are very polarised when it comes to spin-offs. In one camp are the 'serious' gaming fans, who despise any sign that the series is catering towards its female-dominated audience in Japan. This group is very vocal in its derision, drowning out the voices of anyone who dares express enthusiasm towards the series unless they're talking about the technical details of the game. On the other side of the fence is the tiny community of English-speaking fans who are comfortable with the series' original demographic. This group tends to be quite knowledgeable about stage play actors and has considerable crossover with the Tenimyu/tokusatsu fandoms. I feel a little out of place in either camp since I disagree with everything the former group has to say while not being familiar enough with the live performance scene to discuss it with the latter. I've only seen a handful of stage plays in my life.

Butai Sengoku Basara, by its nature, is an easy target for the 'serious' SenBasa fans to pick apart. They don't seem to know how to take it. The costumes look exaggerated in comparison to some of the elaborate cosplay outfits they've seen (because they are designed for high energy live performances, not for still pictures and Photoshop). The special effects are simple (again, because these are live performances, not movies with Hollywood budgets and the freedom to use camera tricks). The 'serious' fans don't take the time to try to understand the dialogue, and instead pore over the details, criticising every compromise the creators made in order to stage the play using live actors. Not understanding the appeal, they react defensively by making fun of the event and its fans. In fairness, I imagine that if a live stage play adaptation was created for an action video game anywhere else in the world, even the actors and staff behind it would be tempted to churn out a cheap cash-in without enthusiasm.

Not so with Butai Sengoku Basara. The Japanese staff have treated the source material with the utmost respect. Every single actor, from the stars to the most humble black-clad soldier, is completely serious about entertaining their audience and maintaining the party atmosphere the SenBasa series is known for. The actors need to be physically fit and flexible to keep the action flowing as there are various acrobatics mixed in which make it feel like a martial arts show in its own right at times. When Capcom originally designed the characters, no consideration was made for being able to pull off their ridiculous stunts or wield their enormous weapons in real life; it's incredible that the cast has been able to pull it off as well as they have. Whenever a character reveals one of their famous moves from the game mid-fight my heart skips a beat in excitement.

The stage play staff know that the appeal of Sengoku Basara goes beyond the dark historical plot of domination and betrayal, so they include plenty of comic relief scenes to break up the action in keeping with the spirit of the source material. Several characters from Sengoku Basara 2 are missing to avoid overcomplicating the storyline. Aside from the central characters around whom the Toyotomi storyline revolves (Keiji, Hideyoshi, Hanbee, Mitsunari and Ieyasu), and the iconic poster boys whose very presence defines the series (Masamune, Yukimura and their respective allies), Kenshin's army and the Maeda couple made the cut this time. Keiji's friends and family being present give his journey a sense of gravity, with the Maedas in particular often contributing to lighter comedy scenes in between chasing after him. It's always pleasant to see a happily married couple on stage. And surprisingly rare.

If it's not obvious by now, I enjoyed this DVD a great deal. Before I finish gushing, this entry won't be complete without some observations about the cast.

First and foremost, even though he's not the main character this time, Kubota Yuuki plays Date Masamune. When I first came across the butai series I was turned off by seeing Kubota's handsome, chiselled features in Masamune's armour; he doesn't look like the character. For some reason his hair is black rather than dark brown, and the style of it combined with his eyepatch, which seems oversized for the stage, doesn't quite work for me.

In this early assessment, however, I was completely wrong. Kubota makes a brilliant Date Masamune! His face looks different but he has plenty of the one thing anyone playing the ill-tempered Oushuu Hittou needs: brazen cockiness. As soon as I saw him walking and talking (ok, shouting), I realised that he had the attitude down pat. He wears the armour well and struts around as though he owns the stage, shooting dangerous glares against anyone who crosses him. The creators were lucky to be able to find such a perfect actor for the role.

Masamune isn't let down by his loyal follower, and the attractive Yoshida Tomokazu is a devastatingly cool Katakura Kojuurou. After seeing him fooling around in his casual clothes during the summer Basara Matsuri event I'm even more impressed at how much he can take on Kojuurou's serious personality as soon as he puts the costume on. He also has a brilliantly mean face, which is a compliment - he's my favourite!

Opposite Masamune is Sanada Yukimura, here played by Hosogai Kei. Hosogai's Yukimura is adorable, not too smart and very vocal. It's amazing that he can run around at all after shouting as much as he does, let alone with two spears in his hands. In one of the curtain call extras, the cast are all giving personal thanks to the audience and they unintentionally forget to introduce Yukimura at all. His shocked reaction was very cute.

Yukimura is accompanied by Sarutobi Sasuke (Murata Youjirou) and Takeda Shingen (Nakamura Kazuto). Neither seemed to have a large part to play this time around besides acting as comic relief and supporting the leads as they ran between battlegrounds, where Sasuke occasionally had some entertaining interactions with Kasuga.

Particularly charming in a standout performance was Isaka Tatsuya as Maeda Keiji. Sengoku Basara 2 is Keiji's big chance to be a hero and this time around he took centre stage in several scenes. Isaka has a good set of lungs and a dazzling smile, switching between Keiji's playful dancing and swordplay at will. In the games, Keiji is a physically big guy and a sense of that strength came across well through his powerful-looking movements.

On the villainous side were Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Odai Ryouhei) and Takenaka Hanbee (Sakimoto Hiromi). Odai's Hideyoshi was much better looking than the original version of the character even clad in hulking armour with thick sideburns. This was actually a good thing, as it made his complicated past with Nene more plausible. He's also naturally quite tall compared to his petite tactician. In contrast, Sakitomo was menacing, cold and gorgeous - only very slightly more masculine in his portrayal than the infeasibly pretty Hanbee I'm used to. The visual effects used for his attacks were especially well done.

Tokugawa Ieyasu (Hirose Yuusuke) and Ishida Mitsunari (Nakamura Seijirou) completed the Toyotomi army. Ieyasu is a difficult character to portray with his (relatively) plain looks and (relatively) muscular build. Hirose did a good job. His friendly expression seems to come naturally and he seemed to have one of the more physically demanding jobs when it came to fight scenes. It was also easy to see how the youthful Ieyasu was wavering at times, without ever actively going against his allegiances. Nakamura too was adorable, getting immersed in his role and shouting at the audience in character even once the performance was over. His ad libbed line about being lonely without Gyoubu (who had been present in Butai Sengoku Basara 3) made me smile. I had to wonder a few times how easy it was for Nakamura to see where he was going with Mitsunari's absurd hairstyle in the way.

AKIRA makes a wonderful Uesugi Kenshin, much better than the anime version of the character who took a back seat far too often. AKIRA's take on the gunshin himself was full of grace; she's a real beauty who makes the costume look natural. It was great to see Kenshin getting to fight most of the other characters this time.

Accompanying Kenshin was of course Kasuga, played by Chinen Sayaka. I'm familiar with her from the Browser Sengoku Basara marketing campaigns, where she is - generously - quite annoying. Here she is the girliest cast member by far, adding a welcome dash of sweetness without the silliness of her real life persona. Her passion for AKIRA's gorgeous Kenshin is convincing. One romantic scene in particular made me laugh out loud so hard I almost applauded (despite being in my own living room!).

Rounding off the cast was the sengoku period's strongest couple, Maeda Toshiie (Masao) and Matsu (Beppu Ayumi). Toshiie was extremely close visually to how he appears in the game, with scars and panty-flashes intact. His actor also managed to sound similar to his normal seiyuu's speaking voice. Matsu's slightly crazed affectionate lilt in her voice was perfect, and Beppu is fun to watch. She seems to throw herself completely into her character, her ferocity contrasting well with the other (openly) female character, Kasuga.

Last but not least, there were a total of 18 extras who performed various functions from being mobs for each army to partying at a festival. A few had speaking (or singing) parts and their main job was to make the main characters shine by supporting them. They did their job splendidly and kept rushing on to be beaten up with gusto.

Ultimately every cast member was perfect. They didn't all look exactly like their game equivalents, and the stage play cast of course lack the vocal range of the seiyuu I associate with each character, but none of that matters when they're giving such energetic performances. They're all so good that they wipe the floor with the well known actors from the Sengoku Basara -MOONLIGHT PARTY- live action drama, so much so that I wondered several times over the course of my viewing why the stage play cast hadn't also been selected to act in the live action television adaptation. Perhaps the drama actors look more like their characters behind the lens of a HD camera? The stage play crew already had an established fanbase so comparisons were inevitable; a pity.

This time around I was lucky enough to pick up the special edition, which comes with a tasteful light pink slipcase, a photo pamphlet and a special bonus DVD containing 50 minutes of extra footage and interviews (including some dressing room scenes which give a closer look into the costuming). I was excited to see Hanbee without his mask! The next project in the Butai Sengoku Basara project moves the timeline forward again, this time focusing on the fan-favourite combination of Mouri Motonari and Chousokabe Motochika in Butai Sengoku Basara 3 ~Setouchi Kyouran~. It's running through November so the DVD should come out early next year. Having already covered the main plot material in the previous stage plays, I'm especially looking forward to seeing what they do with the storyline for the next one, especially as we've been promised appearances from newcomers Tachibana Muneshige and Ootomo Sourin. Let's happy ceremony!

The special edition of Butai Sengoku Basara 2 sold out before the release date with copies now changing hands for several times the original price. The standard edition is still readily available for foreigners to pick up relatively easily through stockists such as Amazon Japan and Yesasia.