The Green Slime on Blu-ray, No. 1: Because we owe it to the Future

You don’t have to take Commander Rankin’s concerned face for it – the outlook for our future is grim. Disregarding the interstellar threats of astral collision, gamma ray bursts and the Sun’s imminent demise a few billion years from now, there’s still plenty on terra firma to worry about. Rising debt, global warming, international tension and on and on and on – the only certainty in such uncertain times is that it’s the future generations of leaders and rabble-rousers that will likely have to sort it all out, and isn’t that a cheerful thought.

And so, with all the problems we’ll be handing down to our children, do you really want be responsible for leaving them a world in which The Green Slime is not available on Blu-ray?

I know I don’t, and if you feel the same way then please sign our petition. It’s completely unofficial and there’s every chance it’ll lead nowhere at all, but if enough people sign the Warner Archive Collection just might listen. Bringing The Green Slime to Blu-ray is change I think we can all believe in, and isn’t that what democracy is all about?

More H.G. Lewis to Blu-ray in January from Vinegar Syndrome

Another day, another new cult video label, though I dare say this one has me excited. Vinegar Syndrome (a subsidiary of the Process Blue restoration lab) take their name from that horrid destructive condition that has thankfully ignored my own meager 8-and-16mm library, and their aim is to rescue as many exploitation obscurities as they can manage from that same undignified and smelly fate. They’ve taken as their debut project a triple feature (in Blu-ray / DVD combo pack) of rare Herschell Gordon Lewis sexploiters, and by virtue of the HGL pedigree alone I can’t very well not support that. They’ve got a few other tasty morsels lined up for DVD and Blu-ray release as well, like Massage Parlor MurdersSavage Water and Death by Invitation, but what really has me excited for VinSyn’s future is this tidbit from their “About” page:

Film restoration can easily become a tricky subject especially with a lack of general consensus on how to do it ‘right.’ Our goal is to as accurately as possible recreate a theatrical viewing experience. We never employ any noise/grain reduction and use digital restoration tools only to remove or reduce severe image damage.

What’s that, you say? A label that just wishes to bring their properties to home video in as authentic-to-source a manner as possible while avoiding the digital pitfalls suffered by majors and minors alike? VinSyn are pushing all sorts of the right buttons with me, and here’s hoping it translates into plenty of groovy grindhouse video releases in the process.

As for The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis triple feature Blu-ray / DVD combo pack, it streets January 8th and can be pre-ordered either directly through Vinegar Syndrome (free US shipping!) or through standard outlets like Amazon.com. The details, copied from the press release, are quoted below:

The Lost Films of Herschell Gordon Lewis
Three previously thought lost sexploitation features from Herschell Gordon Lewis, the acclaimed master of exploitation cinema.

ECSTASIES OF WOMEN (1969) is a torrid comedy/drama set in the swinging world of late 60s Los Angeles.
LINDA AND ABILENE (1969) combines the savagery of a classic Hollywood western with sequences of intense eroticism.
BLACK LOVE (1971) exposes the lovemaking habits of the contemporary black couple through a series of amusing and creative vignettes.

All three films have been restored in 2K from their original camera negatives and are being released on home video for the first time anywhere in the world!

Blu-Ray/DVD Combo Pack Bonus Features:
- Original theatrical trailers for each film
- Extensive historical liner notes
- Special edition lab cards for each film

For samples from the 2k restorations of each film check VinSyn’s blog post here. They look damn good to me, so good that I’ve already pre-ordered a copy for the Wtf-Film video shelf. After the relative disappointment of Image / Something Weird’s HGL treatments I can’t wait to get my paws on this…

Music Monday: Don’t take my man, man.

Yeah, I know. It’s technically Tuesday, but I figured I needed to get back in the swing of this weekly mini-column (and regular posting in general). By my count my last music bit was way back in September, when MOSS alum Permission To Kill was kind enough to publish my dubious top-five soundtrack piece as part of their excellent Liner Notes series.

Anyway, onward and upward. The track today is actually new (gasp!), hailing from ZZ Ward’s tremendous debut album Til the Casket Drops from October 16th. Amazon has the mp3 edition set at just $5, but better yet, the song featured here - Put the Gun Down - is at present free to download as part of their Artists on the Rise deals. The official video is below. Watch, listen, and obey!

Blu Notes: Gamera vs. Gyaos

This article deals exclusively with the 2009 Kadokawa Blu-ray release of Gamera vs. Gyaos (大怪獣空中戦 ガメラ対ギャオス / Daikaiju Kuchusen: Gamera tai Gyaosu). For coverage of the film itself, and the domestic Shout! Factory DVD, click here. Gamera vs. Gyaos is available both as a standalone and in a four-film Show Gamera boxed set from Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
7/24/2009
disc: All Region / single layer BD25
video: 1080i / 2.37:1 / color
Mpeg-4 AVC / 32.3 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 mono Japanese
subtitles: none
supplements: theatrical trailer

And slowly but surely, we make our way deeper into Kadokawa’s high-price Gamera Blu-ray boxed sets from 2009. After two of these I already feel a bit like a broken record, so I’ll be keeping this article even shorter than usual. Those who have read our coverage of Gamera and Gamera vs. Barugon know what to expect here – a Blu-ray sourced from the same HD master used by Shout! Factory for their domestic DVDs, with no English-friendly language options and only a trailer as an extra. Gamera vs. Gyaos isn’t just my favorite of the Showa Gamera series, but my favorite of all the Gamera films and one of my favorite giant monster movies, period. This disc won’t be to everyone’s taste, but yeah, I had to have it.

Image-wise the comparison below pretty well covers it all. Color, contrast and detail all tighten up well in comparison to the SD equivalent, though the picture can look a bit thin and over-yellow in places. All of the other Kadokawa Gamera HD masters have been artificially sharpened, including the ’90s films, and Gamera vs. Gyaos is no exception. Grain is course and angular, an issue no doubt exacerbated by the edge enhancement, and lends the image a gritty quality in motion. There is no window-boxing this go around (or for any of the subsequent films, thankfully), and though presented in 1080i the tech specs are certainly robust – the feature is Mpeg-4 AVC-encoded at a high average bitrate of 32.3 Mbps. The film sounds much as it has in the past, though perhaps a touch less muffled by virtue of an uncompressed LPCM encode. The old-school monophonic mix isn’t going to impress anyone, but it remains faithful to the intentions of the original production, and that’s just fine by me. There are no subtitles, English, Japanese, or otherwise.

DVD leftBlu-ray right. DVD shots were captured as lossless .png in VLC from the Shout! Factory DVD, scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% in Gimp. Click each to view full size.

 
 
 
 

What else is there to say, really? Gamera vs. Gyaos looks and plays better on Blu-ray from Kadokawa than it does in its domestic DVD equivalent, but it still has its problems, and with a retail price of  ¥4,935 (more than $60 USD) it’ll be a very tough sell for most. Recommended for crazies like myself whose lives just won’t be complete until they’ve owned the Gamera films on every format imaginable. For the rest, just sit back and enjoy the pretty pictures.

Blu-ray shots were captured as full resolution .png in VLC with yadif taking care of the interlacing, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click to enlarge.

Gamera vs. Gyaos is available on standalone Blu-ray from Kadokawa as well as in Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box I – pictured left – which includes Giant Monster Gamera (1965), Gamera vs. Barugon (1966), and Gamera vs. Viras (1968). Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box II is also available, and includes Gamera vs. Guiron (1969), Gamera vs. Jiger (1970), Gamera vs. Zigra (1971), and Space Monster Gamera (1980).

(CLOSED) Halloween Giveaway: Night of the Living Dead ’90, on Blu-ray from Twilight Time

That’s it, folks. The drawing has been held, and the winner notified. Our Halloween Giveaway is officially closed!

Twilight Time’s limited edition Blu-ray of Night of the Living Dead (1990, dir. Tom Savini) was sold out before its street date even arrived, but that doesn’t mean that all hope of owning a mint, unopened copy has passed you by. Thanks to the good folks running the label I’ve been granted ONE copy of just that to pass on to a lucky Wtf-Film reader, just in time for Halloween.

How do you enter to win, you ask? First, have an address or PO Box in the United States. Second, send your name and preferred email address to …. That’s it! Only one entry per person please – multiple entries will be ignored.

The winner will be determined by random drawing at 12:00 PM CST on the 17th of October, just one week from today, and notified immediately thereafter via email. Upon confirmation of the winner’s address the DVD will be shipped USPS First Class Mail with delivery confirmation (at our expense, of course). All other entries will be deleted upon confirmation of the winner, and none of the information collected will be used for anything beyond the completion of this contest. Easy peasy.

And that’s it. Good luck, one and all, and we’ll see you back here on the 17th!

Blu Notes: Virus – Day of Resurrection

This article deals predominantly with the new Kadokawa Blu-ray edition of Virus - Day of Resurrection (復活の日: Virus). Our rather old coverage of the film and the out of print BCI DVD can be found here. This Blu-ray is available now through Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
 9/28/2012
disc: All Region / dual layer BD50
video: 1080i / 1.90:1 / color
Mpeg-4 AVC / 33.2 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 and Dolby TrueHD 5.1
subtitles: SDH Japanese
supplements: announcements (2)theatrical trailers (2) 

Media mogul Haruki Kadokawa bet big when he, with an assist from Tokyo Broadcasting System, chose to produce an adaptation of Sakyo Komatsu’s epic 1964 sci-fi novel Day of Resurrection (復活の日) to the tune of ¥2.5 billion – at the time the most ever spent on a Japanese film. Featuring an all-star international cast including Masao Kusakari, Bo Svenson, Sonny Chiba, Glenn Ford, Olivia Hussey, Tsunehiko Watase, among many many others, the film’s production would encompass 200 days of location shoots outside Japan including a whopping 40 in Antarctica alone, and would drag on well beyond its intended release date of winter 1979 (the hastily devised big-budget hit Sengoku Jieitai / G.I. Samurai would take its place in theaters as Kadokawa’s big New Year’s offering). When it finally reached theaters in June of 1980, six months later than originally intended, Kadokawa’s Virus - Day of Resurrection (復活の日: Virus) proved a substantial hit with audiences, grossing a tremendous ¥2.4 billion, but still fell well short of covering its overwhelming production costs and massive ad campaign. Lukewarm interest abroad did nothing to help. Virus‘ abbreviated export version made it to theaters in only a few markets, and in the United States, where it might have made the most financial impact, the film was consigned directly to television and rental video.

It is through thirty years and more of video editions that interest in and appreciation for Virus – Day of Resurrection has been kindled and perpetuated, and whether through grey market copies of the cut export edition or more upstanding releases at the full 156 minutes, the film has always been in-print on video in some form or other. Still, the quality of many of these releases leaves something to be desired, and unfortunately the only legitimate domestic release of the uncut Japanese version (which appeared alongside Golgo 13: Kowloon Assignment and Bullet Train in the ill-named Sonny Chiba Action Pack 3-DVD set) died with its parent company BCI. That set now commands high prices online, even though it retailed for $15 or less upon release.

For those who don’t mind dealing with a bit of a language barrier Kadokawa’s own Blu-ray edition, released just last month, is certainly a viable option for seeing the film as it was intended. The disc is a priced-down release from the company with a modest (by Japanese standards) retail pricetag of just ¥2,940, and at the time of this writing it can be had for considerably less – just ¥1,727 (around $22) from Amazon.co.jp. Those keen to import should know that the release, though all-region compatible (it played perfectly in both my Region A PS3 and secondary Region B Blu-ray deck), is not made to be English friendly. Japanese subtitles are hardcoded to the print for the frequent English and occasional German and Russian, and the only optional subtitles are SDH Japanese.

My old BCI DVD is effectively unplayable after all these years (ah, quality!), and as such I could only manage a couple of grabs from the earliest moments of the film. Still, they’re enough to show the substantial boost offered by the Blu-ray edition. DVD screenshots appear to the left, and are scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison. Blu-ray appear to the right. Frame matches are not exact, but are certainly in the ballpark.

 
 

There’s really not much of a comparison to be made between Kadokawa’s Blu-ray edition and the older SD master, which appeared on DVD both from BCI and in a “Deluxe Edition” Japanese package. Color, contrast, and detail all improve in the expected ways over the overly smooth, yellowish SD, and the windowboxed framing is blessedly done away with. Virus is here presented in 1080i at a ratio of 1.90:1, and while the presentation is imperfect I have few substantial complaints against it. Modest damage remains in the form of light specks and dirt, but at significantly lower levels than was evident on the DVD. Contrast doesn’t have so much black-level pop as some might hope, but appears natural for the most part. Colors are healthily saturated. No efforts appear to have been made to tone down the film texture, which is fine by me (opticals and reprinted library footage have a lovely grit), and while there is undoubtedly some noisiness to its rendering the overall impression, at least, is filmic. Some modest sharpening has been applied, but not to any distracting extent, and I can’t say that it detracted a bit from my enjoyment of the presentation. It’s not the most impressive transfer in the world by any means, and a better scan might have tightened the grain a bit and drawn out a touch more detail, but in motion this still looks damned good. I’ve no complaints with the technical treatment either. The 156 minute film is spread comfortably over a dual layer BD50, and the video receives a strong Mpeg-4 AVC encode at an average bitrate of 33.2 Mbps.

An all-Japanese dub apparently exists for Virus – Day of Resurrection and has been used in television broadcasts of the film, but it is not presented here (much to the chagrin of at least one Amazon JP reviewer). What you do get are two flavors of the original multi-lingual recording, which is predominantly English and Japanese, with brief instances of German and Russian. The primary track remains true to the original recording and sounds quite robust in 16-bit LPCM 2.0. The 5.1 remix in Dolby TrueHD sounds even better, particularly with regards to the increased clarity and depth of Kentaro Haneda’s score, but also supplements the more modest original mix with new foley effects at times (most notably during the various action sequences). I didn’t find any of the alterations problematic within the context of the picture and they successfully heighten the impact of some key scenes (like the film’s second, nuclear, apocalypse), but those wishing to remain true to the theatrical intentions will want to stick with the 2.0 track. As already noted, Japanese subtitles are hardcoded to the transfer for the English/German/Russian dialogue, and a supplemental set of optional Japanese SDH subtitles are included as well. Supplements are limited to two special announcement trailers and two full theatrical trailers, all presented in SD, and like the rest of the Kadokawa Blu-rays I’ve seen the disc comes packaged in a glossy, opaque black Blu-ray case. The only paper extra is a listing of other available Kadokawa HD titles (those Yusaku Matsuda re-issues sure are tempting!).

Virus – Day of Resurrection isn’t a great film, but it’s flirtations with greatness keep it a compelling experience more than 30 years on. Director and co-writer Kinji Fukasaku’s mark is all over the tense Japanese sequences and the downright beautiful final act, and the elegant, furious montages detailing the world-ending disease’s spread are second to none. The rest is… passable, but there’s enough scenery chewing on the part of the recognizable American cast to at least keep their scenes entertaining – Bo Svenson and Henry Silva each look like they’re having a blast, and Chuck Connor’s half-assed British affectations are certainly something. I’ve no quarrel with Kadokawa’s Blu-ray, which despite its imperfections offers a very good presentation of the film, and certainly the best seen anywhere outside of its theatrical run. The price is as right as one’s ever likely to find for a Japanese release, and for those keen on the film this is an easy recommendation.

And as a side note, Sakyo Komatsu’s original novel – unseen on these shores since it was first published in 1964 – is due out in English from VIZ Media in December. Pre-order here.

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as full resolution .png in VLC Media Player with yadif handling the interlacing, and were compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the Image Magic command line tool. Click to enlarge.

Blu Notes: Night of the Living Dead ’90

It’s been 22 years since Tom Savini’s official remake (scripted by Romero himself) of the landmark 1968 horror Night of the Living Dead first reached theater screens, more than long enough for a certain nostalgia to build up around it. I must admit to having not much liked the film upon first seeing it, but in the years since I’ve developed a respect and even an affinity for it. As such I was eager to revisit Savini’s Night as film, but such a kerfuffle has erupted with regards to its Blu-ray presentation from Twilight Time that it’s utterly distracted from that process. So in lieu of a film review (one will follow later, I promise) here are my observations on the release itself.

To state the obvious, this presentation of Night of the Living Dead is significantly different, aesthetically, from any that has been made available before. There is typically no shortage of praise to be found in these pages for Sony’s archive restoration department, but their approach here certainly raises questions. Given Sony’s usual approach (either to work directly with someone involved with the production to develop the film’s aesthetic on video, or to go by past knowledge – release prints, etc.) it’s difficult to imagine the changes here passing muster without the approval of someone involved in the original production, though just who that might have been remains unknown (edit to add: The source is evidently a 2010 HD master minted with the involvement of DP Frank Prinzi. Thanks, internet!). What is known is that Tom Savini has now given his approval to the Blu-ray’s new look, making the answers to what’s “right” or “wrong” with Night of the Living Dead‘s appearance rather more ambiguous.

Now for the changes. The first major alteration to how the film has appeared begins almost as soon as the film does. The first twenty minutes of the film, straight daytime sequences in all past editions, now shift from daylight to day-for-night (or twilight, more specifically) over the course of Barbara’s opening flight from the cemetery and the early events at the farmhouse. Colors cool, contrast flattens, and darkness pervades. It’s a dramatic difference in comparison to past editions, and one I can’t say that I’m really enamored with. The problem here is that the shift just doesn’t work within the previously existing language of the film, which is veritably screaming daytime (the ambient soundtrack, full of chirping birds, is a good example) even as the new timing tells us otherwise. Minor details unnoticed before, like Ben arriving with his truck lights off, now pose problems for the new continuity, and what of the film’s montage noting the changeover from day to night? It’s still here, of course, calling into question the whole rationale of artificially clarifying a point the film already makes.

While those first 20 minutes mark the most significant diversion from the past, the rest of the film has been treated as well. The whole appearance has been flattened, from the contrast to the color, leaving the majority of the picture with a darkened and dulled, almost antique appearance. While I don’t find the overall effect objectionable within the context of the film I do find the dimness of the white levels a bit of a distraction. Areas of the image that should be hot (flood lights, a basement lamp, muzzle flashes, even the film’s one big explosion) are unnaturally cold and grey, as though the image were being projected with a defective bulb. The same (or at least a similar) effect has been applied to the daylight sequence that closes the film, lending it a similar quality to “flashed” pictures like Deliverance and McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Aside from the alterations Sony’s transfer appears sound, presenting with a very healthy level of detail and a consistent, refined layer of film grain that only rarely descends into noisiness. The image appears free of the usual brand of digital tampering, with no evidence of edge enhancement or adverse noise reduction, though the new color filtering has resulted in some unpalatable posterization effects at times (see the zombie’s face and surrounding sky in the sample below). Twilight Time have given Sony’s contentious HD master a healthy technical backing – the video is encoded Mpeg-4 AVC at a reasonable average bitrate of 26.8 Mbps, and compression artifacts are never an issue.

The audio will prove another sticking point for many. Sony, typically quite astute in their mastering of surround remixes, obviously weren’t paying quite as much attention here, and at least one key sound effect – the shutter click heard over the closing credits montage – is absent from the mix entirely (I can’t vouch for any other missing bits as I’m just not that familiar with the film). Otherwise the DTS-HD MA 5.1 track sounds quite good, with Paul McCollough’s electronic score (also available as an isolated DTS-HD MA 2.0 track) given substantially more room to breath than in more compressed past editions. Per the usual for Twilight Time’s Sony-licensed titles, optional English SDH subtitles are included. The release arrives with a Tom Savini audio commentary (ported over from the older DVD) as well as the original theatrical trailer in HD, and Julie Kirgo contributes another fine booklet of liner notes.

Twilight Time went out of their comfort zone in responding to fan requests and releasing Night of the Living Dead ’90 on Blu-ray, and while it’s a shame that the release hasn’t matched expectations the outrage that’s developed against it has been a little… well… outrageous. The label is doing their part in accepting returns from the unsatisfied customers, and otherwise there’s always the bloated resell market (this limited edition was out of print before it was even released, and is already fetching lofty prices from third party scalpers). I consider it fortunate that Night‘s sellout status has alleviated some of the pressure on me for a yea or nay recommendation. Personally speaking, I can live with the disc even as much as I don’t care for some of the changes – I’ve been relying on a decades-old VHS up until now and my pack-rat home media sensibilities mean it’s always there if I need it. Those looking to purchase are encouraged to know what they’re getting into1, particularly at the current going rates. Director Tom Savini has approved of it and I may be fine with it as well, but it’s ultimately up to your personal preferences, and mileage will vary.

1 I realize this wasn’t an option for most, as the title sold out before reviews were even possible. This is the assumed risk of limited edition collecting – either buy early, with the possibility of being disappointed by the eventual result, or wait for coverage and risk paying out the nose.

Blu-ray screenshots were taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Night of the Living Dead was reviewed from a screener graciously provided to this site by Twilight Time.

Blu Notes: Gamera vs. Barugon

This article deals exclusively with the 2009 Kadokawa Blu-ray release of Gamera vs. Barugon (大怪獣決闘 ガメラ対バルゴン / Daikaiju Ketto: Gamera tai Barugon). For coverage of the film itself, and the domestic Shout! Factory DVD, click here. Gamera vs. Barugon is available both as a standalone and in a four-film Show Gamera boxed set from Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
7/24/2009
disc: All Region / single layer BD25
video: 1080i / 2.29:1 / color
Mpeg-4 AVC / 27.4 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 mono Japanese
subtitles: none
supplements: announcementtheatrical trailer

Another day, another classic Daiei effects fantasy on Blu-ray from Kadokawa Entertainment. Released in Japan in August of 2009 (the film is as yet unavailable on Blu-ray outside its home territory) Gamera vs. Barugon is another high-price Blu-ray that will have limited appeal elsewhere. Audio is Japanese only, no subtitles are included, and supplements are limited to an original theatrical trailer and a “special announcement” trailer both Barugon and its original co-feature Daimajin. With an asking price of ¥4,935 (roughly $64.00 USD) this is going to be a tough sell for most, but one indisputable fact remains – for those looking to own Gamera vs. Barugon on Blu-ray this disc is currently the only option.

Like Giant Monster Gamera this Blu-ray is sourced from the same HD master previously used for both the Japanese 40th anniversary Gamera Z-Plan DVD boxed set (issued in 2006) and Shout! Factory’s more recent DVD, and the improvements across formats, while notable, remain pretty modest. Before my thoughts, a brief comparison:

DVD leftBlu-ray right. DVD shots were captured as lossless .png in VLC from the Shout! Factory DVD, scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% in Gimp. Click to view full size.

 
 
 
 
 

Kadokawa’s slightly windowboxed 1080i Blu-ray presentation improves in the expected areas, with detail, contrast, and color each tightening up appreciably in most areas, with the more modest effects photography seeing the least improvement. Still, this is an old HD master (six years at the youngest, and possibly older) and it looks it. The film texture is rendered in a noisy fashion that’s really anything but film – I was actually reminded of the look of some of the laserdiscs I used to own, though the effect is much more subtle here by virtue of the resolution. Detail is reasonably crisp, but a level of artificial sharpening has been applied and some edges display with modest aliasing artifacts (see the rim of Onodera’s glasses in the final shots above). I didn’t find any of the issues here overly distracting in motion, but anyone anticipating anything beyond a reasonable home presentation from this Blu-ray will be sorely disappointed. In the end it’s just the latest link in the chain of improvement for a series that I’ve owned in practically every format imaginable, with plenty of room left for improvement.

Technical specs are less robust than on the other Kadokawa Gamera Blu-rays by virtue of the length of the film (like the rest this is only a single layer BD25), but still substantial enough to support the modest transfer. Gamera vs. Barugon receives an Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a healthy average bitrate of 27.4 Mbps, and compression artifacts are never an issue. The Japanese audio is presented in 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic, and despite some flatness inherent to the original mix it sounds quite good. As previously stated there are no subtitles (English, Japanese, or otherwise) and the only supplements are an original theatrical trailer and a “special announcement” trailer for Gamera vs. Barugon and its original co-feature Daimajin. Each is presented in 1080i HD from native HD transfers. The disc appears to be all-region compatible, and played just fine both in my PS3 (Region A) and in my Region B secondary deck.

This is another disc without much of an audience beyond the more ardent Gamera devotees out there, and whether or not it will be worth it to you depends entirely on your expectations and how well you can justify the exorbitant expense. I had the disposable income available and wanted Gamera in HD, so it works for me. Your mileage will definitely vary.

Blu-ray shots were captured as full resolution .png in VLC with yadif taking care of the interlacing, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click to enlarge.

Gamera vs. Barugon is available on standalone Blu-ray from Kadokawa as well as in Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box I – pictured left – which includes Giant Monster Gamera (1965), Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967), and Gamera vs. Space Monster Viras (1968). Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box II is also available, and includes Gamera vs. Great Evil Beast Guiron (1969), Gamera vs. Great Demon Beast Jiger (1970), Gamera vs. Deep Sea Monster Zigra (1971), and Space Monster Gamera (1980).

Return of Daimajin (Daimajin Ikaru)

For our review of Daimajin on Blu-ray, click here. The Daimajin Triple Feature Blu-ray is available now from Amazon.com.

When Daimajin premiered in April of 1966 it did so to big returns, earning ¥100 million or more in its initial distribution. Producer Daiei Co. was naturally anxious to take advantage of their successful property, but the speed and efficacy with which they did so is mind-bending by the standards of modern productions. Daimajin Ikaru (大魔神怒る, previously released to domestic video as Wrath of Daimajin and here known as Return of Daimajin) debuted on a double feature with Kazuo Ikehiro’s Zatoichi Umi o Wataru (Zatoichi Across the Sea) on August 14th, 1966 – just shy of four months from the premiere of its predecessor.

Serving once more as screenwriter is Tetsuro Yoshida (who would script all three of the Daimajin films), and those familiar with the first film will find themselves in familiar territory so far as story is concerned. The kind, prosperous communities of Chigusa and Nagoshi find themselves under the envious eye of the greedy warlord Danjo, who promptly conquers each for himself. Danjo takes to his newfound affluence in the usual way, with plenty of geisha girls and alcohol, but violent encounters between his forces and the surviving royalty of Chigusa and Nagoshi prove a constant distraction. The remaining royalty are eventually captured of course, and swiftly primed for public execution. Unfortunately for Danjo local superstitions he was so quick to discredit prove to be more fact than fantasy, and dreadful divine vengeance is visited upon him in the form of one very angry giant Majin.

Though the tropes may be familiar Daimajin Ikaru benefits handily from a more vigorous approach to the material, courtesy of ace director Kenji Misumi – master of all things chanbara and one of the biggest names among Daiei’s creative staff at the time. Where Daimajin was a more sullen venture, low on action and high on stiff period dramatics, Misumi’s entry in the series is a pure action picture, with plenty of intrigue, chases and swordplay to keep viewers hooked until the fantasy comes to the fore. Misumi lends a potent vitality to the material and just plain keeps things moving. Even the requisite drama has a spring in its step, and is bolstered by Misumi’s wholesale embrace of the stereotypes of the genre. The good guys here are of such saccharine purity that it can make one’s teeth ache, and the villains are delightfully pulp – Danjo can’t so much as spit without erupting into maniacal guffaws over how clever he is. It’s tremendous stuff, and played with an unflinching earnestness that prevents it from ever falling into glib parody.

More than just an accomplished genre craftsman Misumi was also Daiei’s preeminent peddler of DeMille-ian excess, having previously thrilled audiences with 1961′s Shaka - a massive 70mm undertaking and Japan’s most direct answer to the big-name religious epics of the ’50s. That film climaxed with the epic destruction of a temple by an earthquake, a sequence that reminds heavily of the showstopping finale of DeMille’s 1949 smash Samson and Delilah, but the similarities there pale in comparison to the transparent reinterpretation of DeMille spectacle that awaits in Daimajin Ikaru. The influence of Paramount’s blockbuster The Ten Commandments on the Daimajin films, as noted in my first article, comes full circle here in one of the Japanese film industry’s most dramatic (if derivative) special effects accomplishments.

In Daimajin Ikaru the Majin (referred to simply as kami – god – in this film) resides on a holy island on a placid lake between the kingdoms of Nagoshi and Chigusa, a location that becomes a rally point for the kingdoms’ surviving royalty, and thus a target of the evil Danjo’s violent advances. As in the first film the Majin’s statue becomes a target in its own right, though Danjo’s forces do a more complete job in desecrating it – whereas the first Majin survived intact, with only a chisel embedded in its forehead to show for its troubles, the statue in this case is obliterated outright with explosives. Its destruction is only temporary of course, and when its patience is finally at its end the Majin rises, whole once more, from the depths of the lake. What follows is awesome in the original sense of the word. The island splits in twain and crumbles into the lakebed as the waters part, creating a miraculous path for the wrathful god to tread. The ode to The Ten Commandments is obvious, making the Majin’s passage through the parted “sea” as much pop art as effects extravaganza. Effects director Yoshiyuki Kuroda (assistant SFX director at the time of Shaka) and series photographer Fuji(r)o Morita pull off the concept, perhaps the most ambitious of the entire series, with nary a hitch, setting the bar still higher for what should be expected of contemporary Japanese special effects.

The rest of the giant Majin’s righteous rampage, here limited strictly to the baddies (a contrast to the violent ambivalence of Daimajin), is handled with the same flair, with Kuroda and company taking heed of their missteps in the production of the first film (particularly in the implementation of the full-scale Majin mock-up) and crafting a near seamless sequence in the process. Series composer Akira Ifukube also improves upon his efforts for the first film, providing a superior score that lends a palpable weight and added purposefulness to the Majin’s advance. Ifukube was short of resources more often than not in his film work, leaving some of his scores sounding quite ragged for want not of ability or effort, but of time. While Daimajin is a quintessential example of just that Daimajin Ikaru proves a lovely exception, and obviously benefits from whatever additional resources were thrown Ifukube’s way. The themes here are undeniably heavy, dominated by low brass and even lower woodwinds, but balanced by an almost indefinable elegance, and taken in context with the work of Misumi, Kuroda, Morita et al the effect is appropriately divine.

Even more so than with the first film, Mill Creek’s new Blu-ray presentation of Daimajin Ikaru puts past editions to shame. The initial releases on VHS and DVD from ADVision were sourced from laserdisc masters that were already out of date by the time they were licensed, but at least presented the film in its original ‘Scope ratio. The company’s second run of DVDs (those in the white cases for those seeking to avoid) needlessly complicated things for Daimajin Ikaru on that front in presenting it panned-and-scanned at a compromised ratio of just 1.78:1. With the advent of this new Blu-ray edition that past transgression can be blessedly forgotten.

Mill Creek present Daimajin Ikaru progressive at its original theatrical ratio of 2.35:1 courtesy of a fine 1080p master from Kadokawa. Like Daimajin, this is not a perfect filmic presentation, but its improvements over the SD editions of the past are such that I can live happily with its minor limitations. The worst that can be said of the transfer here is that it can look a touch processed, and by virtue of that a shade more video-like than some my prefer, but detail and texture still prevail and in motion it can look quite striking. Colors and contrast are each at natural levels, and the dust-soaked conclusion is thankfully free of the unnatural saturation of the last DVD. Detail isn’t so crisp as it perhaps should be, but makes strong advances over SD just the same, and the various composite work retains the thicker, grittier quality inherent to its production. This made for a fine home presentation for me – I dig it!

 

Technical specifications are comparable to those for the first film (which shares the same dual layer BD50). The 79-minute show receives a nice Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a healthy average bitrate of 28.1 Mbps, and artifacts are kept sufficiently at bay. The primary audio, DTS-HD MA 2.0 Japanese, is again a touch flat – a product of its original recording – but sounds quite good even without an excess of range. Ifukube’s cues certainly sound better here than they have in the past, making it easier to appreciate their instrumentation, and this may be worth the upgrade alone. The Titra-produced English dub that graced the AIP television version of the film (Return of the Giant Majin) is included, also in DTS-HD MA 2.0, but sounds quite compressed in its range compared to the Japanese – I suspect fans, forced to rely previously on bootleg tapes or Retromedia’s unimpressive double bill DVD, will be happy that it’s here at all.  Well translated optional English subtitles accompany the Japanese version, and the film is flanked by the original theatrical trailer (HD) and another substantial interview / effects discussion with cinematographer Fuji(r)o Morita (HD), both of which can be found on disc 2 of the set. Though marked for Region A only I suspect these discs to be all-region compatible – each of them booted up just fine in my secondary Region B deck.

There’s really not much else to say – this is another strong showing for Mill Creek, and another must-own for Blu-ray capable kaiju fans. The film itself makes a strong argument for being the best of the series, a fine actioner with a strong fantasy bent and an effects production that’s second to none for its time. Recommendations don’t come any easier – see it!

Blu-ray screenshots were made using our usual method – taken as full resolution .png in Totem Movie Player and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool. Click to see full size.

Daimajin Ikaru is available now at Amazon.com

Blu Notes: Giant Monster Gamera

This article deals exclusively with the 2009 Kadokawa Blu-ray release of Giant Monster Gamera (大怪獣ガメラ / Daikaiju Gamera). For coverage of the film itself, and the domestic Shout! Factory DVD, click here. Giant Monster Gamera is available now, both as a standalone and in a four-film Show Gamera boxed set, from Amazon.co.jp.

Specifications:
released:
7/24/2009
disc: All Region / single layer BD25
video: 1080i / 2.28:1 / b&w
Mpeg-4 AVC / 37.5 Mbps
audio: 16-bit LPCM 2.0 mono Japanese
subtitles: none
supplements: theatrical trailer (1080i HD)

What can I say – I love Gamera in all of his various incarnations, but thanks to their staple status in the television syndication packages of my youth my heart will forever belong to the original Showa-era films. I grew up thrilling to every moment as that most unlikely of heroes fought Barugon and Gyaos, Guiron and Zigra, and while it is those imaginative color spectacles that remain my favorites the humble, black-and-white Giant Monster Gamera is where it really all began. Produced on a B-budget by Daiei Co. in 1965, Giant Monster Gamera is beset by all the usual problems associated with first-of-their-kind productions (it was Daiei’s first true giant monster film) and quite a few others besides, but it’s an interesting effort despite its many limitations, and still a heap of fun provided you’re in the right frame of mind.

Given the absolute dearth of critical coverage (in Japanese or otherwise) of Kadokawa’s high definition releases of the classic Gamera films it was with some small reluctance that I invested (and investment is the word!) in the company’s pair of Showa-era Blu-ray boxes – two collectible packages that together comprise all 8 of the original Gamera films. I knew I was bound to be happy either way. Having lived through the days of Sandy Frank and Just 4 Kids’ ep VHS travesties I was excited at the very opportunity to own the original series in HD, but with an asking price of over $40 per film I couldn’t help but wonder just what I had gotten myself into.

It seems important to note that neither Giant Monster Gamera nor its co-features are English friendly in any but the most taunting of ways (the titles are listed on the packaging in both Japanese and English, and exclusively the latter on the disc art). Indeed, even hard-of-hearing Japanese audiences are out of luck here, as no subtitles have been included in any language. The feature audio is pure and simple 16-bit LPCM 2.0 monophonic Japanese only.

Additionally, those expecting some order of supplemental heft will find Giant Monster Gamera and its Blu-ray cohorts sorely lacking in that department. All that’s included with these discs – and I mean all – are the original theatrical trailers for each film. Similarly the two boxed sets offer little of note beyond their significantly reduced per-film prices. The Showa Gamera Blu-ray Boxes (I and II) arrive with attractive outer boxes and include a protective plastic sleeve and obi. First pressings – which mine evidently are – also include a limited lenticular 3D cover art, but no additional paper extras.

Now, what of the film? Giant Monster Gamera premieres in HD digital at the appropriate (if oddball) theatrical ratio of 2.28:1 by way of a slightly windowboxed transfer in 1080i (the rest of the Gamera Blu-rays are interlaced as well). I suspect this to be the same HD master that was originally prepared by Kadokawa for the 11-film 13-disc megabucks Gamera Z-Plan DVD Box from 2006, and it is the same HD master sourced by Shout! Factory for their domestic DVD edition. Seen in its native resolution the HD master offers an appreciable improvement in clarity and detail over the latter (comparison below), though whether or not that’s worth the investment will be up to your individual preferences. Otherwise this is a rather modest show, with an overall aesthetic that reminds of some of Fox’s older black and white HD masters. Contrast is the real weakness here, but the dull original photography appears more to blame than Kadokawa - Giant Monster Gamera has always looked pretty flat, and too much of a bump to the black levels and contrast risks rendering some of its shots downright unintelligible. There’s a certain analogue noisiness to the grain that renders it both more noticeable and less refined than it perhaps should be, but in motion I was undeterred. Otherwise the image retains a reasonable level of detail throughout, and while I suspect some sharpening has been applied it was not of sufficient stuff to distract from my viewing.

Image comparison – DVD left, Blu-ray right. DVD shots were captured as lossless .png in VLC from the Shout! Factory DVD, scaled to 1920×1080 for ease of comparison and compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% in Gimp. Click to view full size.

 
 
 

Though only single layer Kadokawa have not skimped on the technical front - Giant Monster Gamera‘s modest charms receive a robust Mpeg-4 AVC video encode at a high average bitrate of 37.4 Mbps. The lossless LPCM audio complements the image nicely, and while personal tastes will vary I found this a pleasing-enough presentation overall.

The more I see Giant Monster Gamera the more I appreciate it. That it’s derivative of Toho’s own Godzilla is undeniable, from its concept right down to many of its narrative tropes, but there’s an offbeat quality to the film that attracts me more and more. There are those who will doubtless expect more for their money from Kadokawa’s Blu-ray (which appears to be all region compatible, and played fine in my region B secondary deck), but them’s the breaks – those who want to play the Japanese import game have to learn to live with top tier pricing, the virtues of value be damned. As for the disc, I wanted Gamera in HD and I got it. It’s not perfect, and it’s certainly not up to the standards the format is capable of, but it’ll do. Recommended for the HD-hungry Gamera devotees out there. As for the rest, enjoy the pretty pictures.

More Blu-ray shots. These were captured as full size uncompressed .png in VLC with yadif taking care of the interlacing, then compressed to .jpg at a quality setting of 97% using the ImageMagick command line tool.

Giant Monster Gamera is available on standalone Blu-ray from Kadokawa as well as in Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box I – pictured left – which includes Giant Monster Duel: Gamera vs. Barugon (1966), Giant Monster Dogfight: Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967), and Gamera vs. Space Monster Viras (1968). Showa Gamera Blu-ray Box II is also available, and includes Gamera vs. Great Evil Beast Guiron (1969), Gamera vs. Great Demon Beast Jiger (1970), Gamera vs. Deep Sea Monster Zigra (1971), and Space Monster Gamera (1980).