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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

A Reminder of the Dark Side of Streaming: Team Astro is Now Gone

Maybe it's because of my age (29 is absolutely ancient, after all), but I still prefer watching anime via physical media. It's partially because I can be a lazy as hell person, but I like the idea that I can buy something I want to watch & get around to it on my (essentially non-existent) schedule. If I want to recommend something to someone I know, I can do so & (should I trust the person enough) I can even let the person borrow my DVD/BD/VHS/etc. While I've become a fan of streaming since it started becoming ubiquitous, there is a fault with it that rarely gets brought up, usually because, when it comes to anime, everyone's obsessed with simulcasts & being topical. While what I want to focus on isn't anime, it is still from Japan & is a perfect example of the fault I just alluded to...

Team Astro is no longer available via streaming by DramaFever.

A screen of TV Asahi's official promotional PDF file

For those unfamiliar with the name, which I'm sure is nearly anyone reading this, Team Astro (Astro Kyudan/Astro Baseball Team in Japan) was a baseball manga by Shiro Tozaki [a.k.a. Ai Eishi] (Zero: The Man of the Creation; story) & Norihiro Nakajima (art) that ran in Weekly Shonen Jump from 1972-1976, totaling 20 volumes. This title ran before manga like Kochikame, Ring ni Kakero, Kinnikuman, or Cobra revolutionized the way shonen manga would handle action (let alone the manga of the early "Golden Age"), and therefore it did things that were downright insane. It's the story of nine men who were all born at 9:09.09 on September 9, 1954 (Showa 29), each of which bearing a baseball-shaped mark somewhere on their bodies. Philippines-born baseball manager J. Shuro knew this day would come, because he was told so by Eiji Sawamura, one of the greatest pitchers in Japanese baseball history, during his stay in the country while fighting in World War II; it was Sawamura's dream to face the Americans on the ball field rather than the battlefield. Attempting to gather these nine mean, Shuro dreams of a baseball team filled with "Astro Supermen" who will not only take on Japan's best but also America's.

Yes, that is the honest-to-god basic plot of an actual baseball manga from the 70s. No, it isn't as absurd & ridiculous as it sounds... It's even more absurd & ridiculous than you can ever imagine! It's also a major influence for Masami Kurumada as well as a personal favorite manga of notoriously obtuse anime director Hideaki Anno, even having it be referenced in his wife Moyoco Anno's semi-biographical account of their marriage life, Insufficient Direction. In fact, old-school violent manga creator Shinji Hiramatsu, who would later have Tough & Riki-Oh's Tetsuya Saruwatari as an assistant, was an assistant to Nakajima on this very manga (as Hiramatsu debuted in 1975 with Doberman Deka). Yes, I just tied a hyper-violent title like Riki-Oh to a baseball manga. The crazy thing is that such a comparison isn't really off-base here, because Team Astro is indeed that insane. Anyway, back to the point I'm taking way too long to get to.

I first heard of Team Astro in November 2010 via Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga article about Saint Seiya (if you want a reason why I may never review that manga, it's because Jason's piece is just that damn good). The only mention of this title was in a single line where Jason brought it up alongside Ring ni Kakero as an example of how sports manga was changing in the 70s, but since I'm such a fan of Masami Kurumada's first big hit it got me curious. "What exactly is this manga that Jason felt was worth mentioning alongside one of my all-time favorite titles?" was more or less the thought that came into my mind from the one line, so I searched online & eventually (eventually) came across TV Asahi's English page for the 2005 J-Drama/tokusatsu adaptation (which I now cannot locate for the life of me... doesn't that suck?). Reading the description made me more & more curious about somehow checking this series out in some way, shape, or form. Upon some more searching, though, I found a site called DramaFever, which specializes in legally streaming Korean & Taiwanese dramas.

Oddly enough, DramaFever had a handful of Japanese live-action shows on the site, though they were either titles that had already seen DVD release (Super Robot Red Baron, Iron King) or were previously streamed before (Moyashimon [which FUNimation had simulcasted]). Among those, however, was Team Astro, the sole Japanese show DramaFever was streaming exclusively. With an opportunity in front of me, I dove in & watched this live-action adaptation. Sure, the subtitles weren't ideal (especially when it came to actually naming characters), which I mainly chalked up to the site's translators not being quite as good with Japanese as they were with Korean & Chinese, but I simply fell in love with the show. It was such an assault of sheer insanity that I sometimes couldn't truly believe what I was watching, but I knew that it was special. I had to share my feelings about this show, so in April 2011 I reviewed this J-Drama/toku on this very blog; amusingly enough, the next review would be for Ring ni Kakero 1: Sekai Taikai-hen. I knew that my review could only go so far, but I linked to DramaFever in an attempt to encourage those who read my review to give the show a try on their own, all without having the search for it like I did.

After I finished the show, I would I say that became somewhat of a fan of the series as a whole. I have since imported the first two DVDs of the show, which is where the screenshots I later inserted into the review came from, & the first 700+ page tome (of five) from Ohta Publishing, which compiles roughly the first four volumes of the original manga. I also got a hold of the sole video game based on the series, a PlayStation 2 game released the same time as the J-Drama/toku that so simple it's almost hard to explain in short; just read my review to see what I mean. I've also read up as much as I can about the original manga, hence the giant intro I gave it at the beginning of this post. Why talk this much about a show you've never seen or even heard of before? Because it really is that damn good of a show, and now I can't recommend it to people anymore.

Yes, that is indeed Sonny Chiba in the top-right corner. He plays J. Shuro.

In June I was at AnimeNEXT, and as a part of the Panel Lightning Round I did a mini-panel about Team Astro, with the intent of potentially getting people interested in at least trying out the J-Drama/toku adaptation; at the very least, I got a couple of interested parties. At that time I made sure to list every place one could find the show, and that included DramaFever, Hulu (which was a mirror of DF's stream), & Viki. Just today, though, I found an opportunity to recommend the show to Chris Kirby of The Fandom Post, and he was all for checking it out this very day... Only to find it be unavailable. DramaFever's page for the show is still up at the moment, but it states that "No episodes have been released for this series," even though all nine (45-minute) episodes had been up for the past 4-5 years. After sending an e-mail, Chris received a fast response saying that the show is not available anymore, and then it dawned on me. It's generally stated that your usual anime license lasts about 4-5 years before needing to be renewed, should the licensee want to continue having the show. It's likely the same with live-action shows, so DramaFever's original license to stream Team Astro from TV Asahi has likely expired & the company has decided not to renew. That right there is the fault I brought up at the very beginning: Streaming isn't permanent.

While a company like Sentai, FUNimation, & Discotek have the same restrictions when it comes to licensing, those companies also release (most of) their products onto physical media. Once those releases happen, they exist for as long as the medium can last (which, as long as proper care is used, is a long as hell time), but once the license expires those companies cannot do anything about outstanding stock, aside from selling it. A title like Hajime no Ippo isn't licensed anymore at the moment (minus the third series, which is still streaming), but one can still purchase Geneon's Fighting Spirit release, as it was released on DVD. The problem with streaming, though, is that once a site like DramaFever or CrunchyRoll decide to not renew the license to a show, it has to remove the episodes from the site; the pages can still exist, as the company made those, but they become graves of what once was. This was happened with CrunchyRoll, by the way, as titles like My Ordinary Life/Nichijou or Super Robot Wars OG: The Inspector are no longer streaming over there, even though they were both simulcasted & their pages may still exist (Nichijou's doesn't, but SRW's does, as linked). Did you enjoy either of those two shows? Would you recommend them to other people? Well too bad, because you can't do so anymore, at least legally. With streaming, stuff like anime & Japanese live-action aren't guaranteed continued existence after their initial relevancy, i.e. when they're "new". If they aren't pulling in good streaming numbers, then they'll be killed off as soon as the license expires, meaning that you have to watch the show on the provider's time & schedule, not yours.

Just to be safe, I'm not trying to badmouth streaming services & encourage people to stop supporting them. As I've mentioned before, I'm a fan of streaming & fully encourage others to utilize it. I just want to make sure people are aware that streaming does have faults to it that aren't normally noticed by us. CrunchyRoll, to its credit, does give advance warning when certain shows will be removed from streaming. DramaFever, to my knowledge, didn't give such a warning with Team Astro, even a month in advance (when I did my mini-panel). To be fair, Viki does still stream Team Astro, as that site received its own license, but the problem with Viki is that everything on that site is subtitled through crowd production. In other words, if no one's interested in subtitling a show, then it doesn't get subbed. Because of this, Viki's stream of Team Astro may have all nine episodes, but only the first has any sort of actual work on it, and even that is only at 81% completion.

The saddest thing is that, had Team Astro been streamed within the past year or two, I think it would have become a bit of cult classic, similar to how Aoi Honou/Blue Blazes became one last year, even without any sort of legal option. It's only been within that amount of time that the idea of streaming (or even releasing to DVD) live-action Japanese TV shows, whether it's J-Drama or tokusatsu, has been given more focus. DramaFever streaming Team Astro back in 2011 was not only a bit odd, as Japanese live-action is a somewhat different niche than Korean & Taiwanese dramas, but it was also a little ahead of the curve, much like when FUNimation simulcasted Moyashimon (which was due to the company's noitaminA deal at the time).

As it is right now, there's a good chance that Team Astro, much like it's very members are willing to do, has engaged in so much of its motto of "One Game, Full Throttle" that it's burned out its own life over here. Being streamed on a site that isn't all too well known to fans of Japanese productions gave the show next to no real promotion among those who would have likely enjoyed it the most, and the fact that it was essentially never known about by the time J-Drama & toku streaming (& even simulcasting, as evidenced by Ultraman X, Akagi, & Death Note) became more viable essentially killed its chances to ever truly gain a real audience. Those who have seen this show have generally enjoyed it, as evidenced by the ratings it has on DramaFever, but, unless another streaming site catches wind of its existence, those people (including myself) will be the only ones who know of it; it was never even illegally ripped & shared online. Personally, I'd love to have this show on DVD, but that's even less likely of ever happening.

Let this be a warning & reminder of where streaming can let people down, everyone. Even if you were never interested in Team Astro, you never know when a title you enjoy will stop streaming. Right now, I can no longer recommend this show to people in an attempt to make it more well loved (or at least appreciated or even just known); I pray this doesn't happen to a show you feel strongly about.

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