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Saturday, January 10, 2015

The Winter Sols-tice Part 1: Cold Reception

Happy Belated New Year! 2015 should be an interesting year for The Land of Obscusion, and that's mainly because, for the first time in a good while, I don't have anything planned in the long-term. Last year in particular was one that I tended to have an idea as to what I'll be writing about every month, with only one or two real spur-of-the-moment decisions being made. I hope to have this year be different from that. I have my list of titles that I want to review, and I have some ideas stewing around, but after this month I'll be pretty much going off of what my fancy decides to catch... Yes, I know I said it wrong. Until then, however, allow me to torture myself with a crazy idea. In fact, it's an idea about as crazy as that of Anime Sols.

I actually talked about the launch of Anime Sols back in May of 2013, but for those unfamiliar with the site, which is likely most of you, here's a quick recap. Thought up by Sam "Quarkboy" Pinansky (a former fansubber who now works with anime in Japan), Anime Sols' basic concept can be explained as CrunchyRoll-meets-Kickstarter. Essentially, anime gets streamed on Sols' website & when they first appear there's also a crowdfunding drive to go with each title. Originally, the idea was to have the drives be for 13-episode boxsets for each show streamed; much like Kickstarter there was a time limit, but Sols's drives lasted for much longer. Unfortunately, of the original eight series attempted only two of them (Creamy Mami & Black Jack TV) actually succeeded in funding a set. As time went on Sols added Dear Brother, Pastel Yumi, & Hurricane Polymar (this one being an attempt at doing an actual "complete collection) to the mix, but of those three only Dear Brother had a success. As it is, Anime Sols' list of successes are complete funding for all four sets of Creamy Mami, all three sets of Dear Brother, & two sets of Black Jack TV (of what would be five in total), but the major problem is that nearly all of these sets were only fully funded at almost the last day; Black Jack Set 2 literally only succeeded at the last minute.

As for why Anime Sols has had such trouble, there are some valid issues. Probably the biggest one is that the site is only for people who live in the United States & Canada. This, however, is due to restrictions put down by Tezuka Pro, Pierrot, Tatsunoko, & Yomiuri TV (a.k.a. YTV), the companies that have partnered together to create this very site. Previous international licenses, like those in Europe, may create issues where a show may have to be restricted to certain countries, not to mention the larger trickiness of handling credit card information from all over the world. In short, it's a logistical nightmare that most fans, including myself, may never truly understand. Another "issue" is that the titles the site is offering aren't ones that fans are really clamoring for, leading to an absolute lack of notoriety. As for other issues, ranging from the super-barebones site to the slow delivery of DVD sets to a general lack of promotion & awareness, these come about due to one simple reason: Anime Sols literally is Sam Pinansky (minus the freelancers he hires to help with things like subtitling, timing, & DVD checking). Not just that, but Sam has an actual job outside of Anime Sols, resulting in him having to balance having an actual career alongside managing a site that was only a dream a few years ago.

Therefore, I have decided to take it upon myself to venture into the depths of Anime Sols' website & explain just what exactly they are offering. Considering it's the winter season, I dub this...

I promise to never show this logo ever again... I swear.

The latest thing Anime Sols has attempted, & by "latest" I mean starting back in July, is to simply offer a bunch of anime for streaming & instead of immediately holding drives for DVD sets they are instead holding drives to support the continued subtitling & streaming of more episodes. It should be noted that Anime Sols offers streaming for free, which means no advertisements on videos or premium memberships to pay for (so they have to make money somehow). These streaming drives (covering 13 episodes each) have no end dates, but it's obviously a "better for them to succeed sooner rather than later" situation. So what will I be doing? It's simple really: I'll be watching (roughly) the first three episodes of every show Anime Sols is streaming (because that's the least number of episodes that are available for some shows), & hopefully by doing this I'll not only have a better idea of what Sols is offering but maybe some of you will find a title or two interesting enough to put some money down on. I doubt Sam will complain, because it's free advertising. Anyway, after I cover all of the shows with existing drives I'll then also cover the stuff that failed but may one day get a second chance. There are only a small handful of exceptions, though. I will not cover Creamy Mami, Dear Brother, or Black Jack TV, since all three were successful (or at least partially for Black Jack) & therefore don't need the promotion. I also won't cover Hurricane Polymar nor the Osamu Tezuka 24-Hour TV Specials, as those are fully subbed on the site & would be worthy of individual reviews. Still, that leaves 17 shows to cover (why do I torture myself so?)... So let's start with the one show whose drive actually has a time limit to it!

The File of Young Kindaichi Returns ($2,180 of $26,000 Presently Funded for DVD Boxset; 9 Days Left)
[NOTE: Anime Sols' streaming of this show is simply a mirror of CrunchyRoll's then-simulcast. As such it is a fully available title, but the time limit for the DVD set drive makes it worth covering here.]
The first title on our venture into Anime Sols' offerings is the odd one out in that it's a recent show; in fact, it aired only last year! Though animated by Toei, this detective series is brought to Sols by way of YTV, and the fact that it's on this site means that no one else wanted it. Of all of Sols' present drives, this is the only one that's for a boxset, which covers episodes 1-14 (a.k.a. the first four mysteries). A continuation of the original series, which is also known by the far less Engrishy Kindaichi Case Files, Kindaichi Returns is about lazy school student Hajime Kindaichi, who's actually a genius when it comes to solving crimes, as he's the descendant of a renowned detective. The original series was aired alongside Case Closed/Detective Conan as a super-popular mystery hour, and when Kindaichi R was put in that same timeslot it saw similar success, consistently hitting the Top 10 highest-rated anime on TV during it's run. Still, how is it at welcoming newcomers & does the first mystery deliver the to-be-discovered goods?

Said mystery, The Hong Kong Kowloon Treasure Murder Case, covers episodes 1-4 (hence why I said "roughly" for the per-show episode watching) & has Kindaichi go to Hong Kong when his friend Miyuki is asked to cover for a idol for a quick public appearance when she goes missing. Miyuki is soon kidnapped & people at the event start dying, leaving Kindaichi & classmate Saki (who just happened to be on vacation in the city) to find Miyuki & the killer, not to mention figure out the connection all of this has to a supposed "treasure" that was around during the days when the Kowloon Walled City still existed.

Whereas Conan has been liable to enter the fantastic, what with its de-aged lead & super-technological creations, Kindaichi has been more about realistic situations & old-fashioned logic, which definitely makes it a nice compliment to the former. I remember watching these episodes as they came out via simulcast, & I certainly had a fun time with them, but others seemed to vehemently differ. They felt that this mystery was too obtuse & unpredictable, which I will admit may ring true in one way. That being said, I personally felt that the reveal & how the murderer did it wasn't unrealistic & in fact had some out-of-the-box thinking behind it, which I think is mainly why I was able to figure out who did it but not exactly how; if anything, it relied on some special tech, but nothing that wasn't in reality. More than that, however, this mystery was also interesting because of the story of the Kowloon treasure, which was admittedly more appealing & engaging than the mystery at times. Again, I didn't feel let down by the mystery, and Kindaichi himself is always fun to watch in how you try to figure out how the gears in his head are turning, but this is definitely a take it or leave it kind of show. At the very least, however, it's easy for newcomers to go straight into this title without knowing anything beforehand.

That being said, it's both cool & disappointing that Kindaichi R is having a drive on Anime Sols. It's cool because of how recent a show it is & that, in theory, should hopefully attract more potential supporters for the site. It's disappointing, however, because the fact that Kindaichi R is even on the site likely means that no other anime company was all too interested in licensing it for home video here in North America (at least, as a recent show that appeals to modernity). The fact that it's a pretty niche genre, mystery, & the mixed opinion it seemed to get also hurts it chances. As of this post the DVD set drive hasn't even reached 10% of its goal, and essentially dried up in support after about a month, but that's kind of a repeated thing with Anime Sols, honestly. With the exception of a couple of drives that started up during Black Friday back in 2013, which was when the site was doing a "Your pledge means double!" promotion, no drive really succeeded until the last few days. Personally, I think that's due to the lack of urgency that the drives have because of long time limits, but it's become a common thing with the site. As it is, Kindaichi R could very well see a miracle boost & succeed, because it certainly wouldn't be the first time it happened, but that can only happen if people put their money down. Therefore, if you enjoy mystery anime & want to see more of them on DVD here in North America, then simply pledge $40 for a DVD set of Kindaichi R (or more, you know... It's your choice if you want extra stuff); there's only a few days left.

Dororo ($540 of $2,700 Presently Funded for Episodes 14-26 Stream)
Out of all the presently streaming drives, only one has had actual success, and that's the one to stream the entire first half of Mushi Pro's 1969 adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's Dororo, brought to us via an agreement between Tezuka Pro & the Mushi Pro that now exists. It was the last anime TV series to be done completely in black & white (due to budget) & was the inaugural entry in what would become known as the World Masterpiece Theater franchise (it's also the only one based on a Japanese work). As of now the entire first half, 13 episodes, is available for streaming, with funding now going to streaming the second half, & I'll admit to this being the one that's most important to me. I've wanted to see the Dororo anime for years, and with it being such an old anime I felt that I would never have an opportunity to see it with English subtitles, especially in a legal way. So, with the opportunity now there, is the anime as good as I was hoping? Well, one look at the production staff (& their future legacies) certainly gives hope...

The first half of Dororo is filled with multi-part stories, so I decided to also watch four episodes for this look (by partaking in an extra episode that the first drive's success has brought). For full disclosure reasons, I did help fund the first half subs & am credited as a "sponsor" for episode 8. This covers two stories: Tale of Hyakkimaru, which introduces main characters Hyakkimaru & Dororo and explains the origin of Hyakkimaru, who's baby body was offered to 48 demons so that his father could receive great power & influence; and Tale of Bandai, where Hyakkimaru & Dororo wind up in a village that is occasionally attacked by a demon whenever it starts becoming rich, so the villagers always beg their "goddess" Lady Bandai for help.

I have generally heard nothing but praise for this anime, and I had caught the end of one episode when it was being shown at Otakon once, so I was really looking forward to finally seeing it. Thankfully, these four episodes alone assure me that this is an excellent anime. What makes the show work beautifully is the dedication to maintaining a haunting & uneasy atmosphere. Though the decision to be made in B&W was decided by Fuji TV, the staff behind the show seemingly took advantage of the monochrome look & made sure that it added to the eerie mood; the way this anime was made simply wouldn't work quite as well in color. Not just that, but it simply looks really nice. Sure, in terms of sheer animation it can't hold a candle to some titles that have been made since, but it's easy to see that Dororo was a high-quality product for 1969, and that production quality still impresses to this day. As for the staff that I hinted at? Well, it was directed by Gisaburo Sugii (whose legacy would only be cemented with time) & featured music by Tezuka anime veteran Isao Tomita (and the music here is perfect), but the biggest attention should be given to the list of episode directors, which nowadays reads somewhat like an all-star lineup that could never be duplicated.

The first episode was directed by the late Osamu Dezaki (who was only 25 at the time), while episodes 3 & 4 were done by future Gundam creator Yoshiyuki Tomino (age 27); Tomino also storyboarded the entire show. Future episodes would see direction by Noboru Ishiguro (age 31), Ryosuke Takahashi (age 26), Seiji Okuda (also 26), as well as a couple more episodes done by Dezaki & Tomino (alongside older veterans of the time). Hell, this anime even featured in-between animation done by a young nobody named Yoshiaki Kawajiri (age 18)! Mushi Pro's legacy essentially is that of being the starting ground for many now legendary directors, but Dororo may be the anime that showcases that the most. This can even stretch into the cast, which featured young performances by Nachi Nozawa (Hyakkimaru), Minori Matsushima (Dororo), & Goro Naya (Hyakki's father Daigo Kagemitsu), among some others.

Simply put, Dororo is likely the best thing on Anime Sols right now that is asking for funding. It's not simply because of it's historical importance as being the last B&W anime TV series, nor it's legacy as featuring a now all-star staff (who showed how good they were even back then), nor it's appeal as being the sole anime adaptation of one of Osamu Tezuka's most iconic works, nor it's categorization as being the first World Masterpiece Theater anime... Dororo deserves more support simply because it's that great of an anime. Even if it never gets a DVD release over here, it should at least get a full subtitled stream so that it can be seen in full with an English translation. Luckily, it only needs a little over $2,000 to be made into a reality; that's not a lot of money, people.

Gordian, The Warrior ($424 of $2,700 Presently Funded for Episodes 1-13 Stream)
This 1979-1981 series is brought to us by way of Tatsunoko, the home of iconic shows like Gatchaman & Casshan/Casshern, as well as more recent ones like The SoulTaker & Karas. Toshi Gordian, in particular, is the rare mech anime from the studio, with their most well known one being Gold Lightan. Airing at a time when the original Mobile Suit Gundam was challenging the mecha landscape, Gordian has more or less become forgotten as time went on (which is surprising, at it went on for 73 episodes), with it's biggest legacy mainly being that it marked the series debut of a young mecha designer named Shoji Kawamori; his first work was a "guest" design he did for Tosho Daimos. Let's see if there's anything else notable about it.

The first episode, The Nice Guy of the Wilds, has lead character Daigo Otaki head to Victor Town to join Mechadon & combat the evil forces of Madoctor. The second episode, Launch! The Hidden Fortress, sees Daigo abducted by a third party lead by Saori, a woman who claims to be Daigo's older sister & has been keeping Gordian, a three-part giant robot, safe for Daigo to use in battle. The third episode, Scream! The Red Desert, is about Daigo trying to rescue blueprints to Victor Town when they're snatched by Madoctor forces. The show in general features a wild west-stylized world, but with plenty of technology for stuff like hover vehicles & laser guns. Luckily, it suits this show very well & is part of the fun, and that's what Gordian does best.

Simply put, this show is fun to watch. Daigo is an easy-going kind of guy, though he has his more serious moments, and it's never boring when he's on screen. There's also a strong embracing of being just silly, like seeing an outlaw quick-draw three guys dead (plus a guy behind him at the same time!), followed by him asking the bartender for iced milk. It's not like the show just does these kinds of things, either, as characters will react to such silly moments, even if it's just visually. This mech anime also has a brisk pace to it, resulting in there being no dull moments & episodes ending surprisingly quickly; including the OP & ED, episodes average 22-23 minutes compared to the usual 24-25. It's not a major difference, but it actually works in the show's favor.

There is one major flaw, however, and that is the animation. While it's not poorly animated in terms of movement, there are still some pretty wonky-looking moments, especially with faces. Normally, the characters look fine, but every so often a face might look just slightly off & you'll definitely notice; you also won't forget after the episode's over. An especially noticeable error is in episode 3, where we see Saori without her bandages, which cover her lower face & chest due to burns. The problem is that later in the episode we see her with the bandages back on & the preview for episode 4 is all about her needing medical care that she's reluctant to get. The error is made all the worse by the fact that Saori's face is drawn pretty awkwardly during that error, too. Overall, it's obvious that this show was made on a tight budget, and it shows.

Still, even with the sometimes wonky animation, Gordian, The Warrior has more than enough to enjoy to overcome it's issues. This is easily a show I could continue watching & I'd say that it's definitely worth supporting, if only to see what else the show has up its sleeves. Sadly, though, I doubt that this show will ever really succeed, mainly due to its length. Even if these 13 episodes manage to get the $2,700 needed to get subbed & streamed, that only accounts for 17.8% of the show; not even 1/5 of the total length! A shame, too, because it's titles like Gordian that I want to expect from Anime Sols & see succeed in some way. I love being surprised by stuff I had little to no information on.

Space Ace  ($131 of $2,700 Presently Funded for Episodes 1-13 Stream)
This here is another Tatsunoko anime, but it's special for a reason: Space Ace is Tatsunoko's very first production, debuting in March of 1965; it's also their sole B&W production. Also, the streaming of the first three episodes on Anime Sols makes it the oldest anime TV series to be offered online legally, which is cool to see happen. Of course, that also means that Space Ace (not to be confused with Don Bluth's laserdisc arcade game that came out 20 years later) is the drive with the least support behind it. Based on the manga of the same by studio founder Tatsuo Yoshida, which ran in Shonen Jump predecessor Shonen Book, Space Ace has seen the occasional reference & cameo in other Tatsunoko productions (usually in the more comical works, with Ace himself being completely B&W), but let's see how the studio started out 50 years ago (by the way, Happy 50th Birthday, Tatsunoko!)

It all starts with Birth of Ace, which explains the origin of Ace, a young alien who crash landed on Earth while his race left their home planet for a better home before being found by Dr. Tatsunoko. Following that is Revenge Robot Ivo, where Ace has to defend himself against his family's robot Ivo, who was dumped by Ace's father & wants to kill Ace as revenge. Finishing up this preview is Earth Exile, where Ace gets exiled from the planet due to how destructive his power can be; unfortunately, a giant space jellyfish (yes, really) is heading towards Earth.

To be honest, I wasn't sure what the expect out of Space Ace. This show debuted in such an early time for TV anime, which kind of meant that it could be almost anything because there were essentially no real standards & traditions quite yet. Luckily, that kind of open field of anime was for the better, I'd say, because these first three episodes are a riot, and that's solely because of Ace. He's touted by a message from his father as the most rambunctious child on their planet, and he doesn't fail that moniker. Upon being freed from the pearl-like housing he was protected in, Ace immediately causes havoc & destruction everywhere he goes, even hitting the Leaning Tower of Pisa so hard that it straightens out. Ace is completely the reason to watch these episodes, because he's so carefree & ready to destroy. He even tries destroying Ivo right away by slamming an entire building into him before he finds out it's his robot (space radiation altered his appearance), but realizes he has to stop after Tatsunoko tells him that Ivo's irradiated body could destroy the Earth if damaged too much. It's like if Superman landed on Earth as a young boy & wasn't found by the loving Kents; Tatsunoko certainly isn't much of a guardian, really. On the technical side the show is very much of its time (i.e. super-limited animation), but there are some neat visual effects that make you try to figure out how they were done back in the mid-60s. These three episodes showcase that Tatsuo Yoshida & his brothers knew what they were doing when they decided to start an animation studio.

Still, though these episodes were really fun, Space Ace is definitely worth watching more as a historical piece than something to own on DVD or even put lots of money behind. This would work much better if all 52 episodes were simply subtitled & put out for streaming with ad support, much like what TMS is slowly doing with their catalog. Still cool to see Anime Sols give it a try, however.

Goku's Grand Adventure  ($242 of $2,700 Presently Funded for Episodes 1-13 Stream)
This series has so many names that even Sols can't seem to decide on a single one. It can be Goku's Grand Adventure, Adventure of Monkey King, simply Goku's Adventure, or you can be annoying & insist to use the original Japanese title, Goku no Daibouken. This 1967 anime was Mushi Pro's very first color TV series and is the studio's first original production. This series is technically a case of coming full circle, as Osamu Tezuka's manga take on the Journey to the West story, Boku no Son Goku, was made into a movie by Toei back in 1960, better known in English as Alakazam the Great, and it was his involvement with the movie that lead to him founding Mushi Pro. So is this technically Alakazam Mark II, or is it something completely different?

Unfortunately, I haven't seen the movie, so I can't answer that question... Oops. Anyway, how does this show start off? We begin with The Birth of Goku, which shows Goku's "birth" on Mt. Kaka, followed by him learning hermit magic & getting the Nyoi-bo to fight the evil King of Gourai, China. With his introduction out of the way, we move on to I'll Be Taking Kinto-Un, with Goku challenged by the heavens, who find him to be too dangerous of a bandit king. Finally, the Journey to the West legend truly gets going in The Number One Monk, where the monk Sanzo is brought in to free Goku, who was sealed into a rock by Shaka at the end of the previous episode, followed by a battle with the Demon King of Confusion.

Being Mushi's first forté into color, it was likely that Tezuka's studio wanted to give off the best first impression it could, because this show still looks really nice today. Sure, the highly-limited animation that was common of the 60s is still in effect, but from an artistic perspective the show is a high-quality production. Looking at the staff involved, Goku's Grand Adventure does feature some future legacies, including Osamu Dezaki, Ryosuke Takahashi, Masami Hata (Ringing Bell), & Toshio Hirata (Bobby's Girl, Pet Shop of Horrors) as episode directors, which gives it a similar "future all-star" feel as that of Dororo. It's also very much a children's show, complete with a manic pace that keeps everything moving with barely any downtime to it. Honestly, though, that manic pace actually works really well here, with Goku constantly being a cocky, self-assured lead that never outstays his welcome, and Sanzo is a timid but brave monk who's willing to go to lengths that may endanger him if it's for the greater good. This take on the legend also includes Tatsuko, the grand-daughter of the hermit who held the scrolls Goku taught himself hermit magic from. She quickly befriends Goku and follows him & Sanzo on their journey. She ends up being a bit of a conscience to Goku, reminding him of nobler deeds when he just wants to be selfish.

What's really cool about this anime, however, is how it actually is extremely focused on telling the Journey to the West legend. Having not read the story myself I am relying on basic synopses online, but the first two episodes end up covering all of Part 1 of the story, which detail from Goku's birth to his sealing in a rock, with episode 3 starting into Part 2; I would imagine that's about 1/10 of the story. Considering that the show ran for 39 episodes, that seems like a good adaptation rate & those who want to see an actual telling of the legend, instead of a variant based on it (like Dragon Ball or Saiyuki), may very well find a perfect option in this show. Sure, it plays up the comedy & was obviously aimed at kids, but it's well done & appealing enough to entertain all ages.

Overall, I say that Goku's Grand Adventure is well worth supporting, and it's not too long to feel impossible to fully get streamed, either.
So that's five of the presently running drives that Anime Sols has, Personally, I think all of them are worth watching for one reason or another, but when it comes to actually wanting to put money towards them, I'd put preference towards Dororo, Goku's Grand Adventure, & Kindaichi R. While Space Ace is entertaining I see it more as a historical piece, which is a hard sell, and Gordian, though thoroughly fun to watch, might just be too long to see as a believable success (i.e. having all of the episodes funded for streaming). Still, this is simply my opinion of the matter; any of you could feel differently (or indifferently, too).

Check back next week for the second half of the streaming drives, all of which are for shows that you may have never heard of... Well, except for one, but if you were a kid of the early 90s you likely never knew that it was anime in the first place.

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