Pretty Cure comes to America

Well, to Canada at least.  Canadian cable network YTV started broadcasting the English dub of the original Pretty Cure series yesterday morning on Canadian television.

From the reviews I’ve seen, it sounds like they did a pretty good job of localizing it without dumbing it down, and still faithfully tell the original story.  It would make my day if some TV network in the US picked it up.

Review: Angelic Layer

Misaki and Hotoko with Hikaru and Suzuku
Hotoko with Suzuka and Misaki with Hikaru

I recall seeing a description of this anime somewhere a few years ago and nothing jumped out at me as something I would enjoy (in fact, I thought it sounded kind of strange at the time), so I passed over it.  Looking back on it now, I think the description I saw just might not have been written well.  Recently, Crunchyroll picked up a license to stream it in North America, and the description jumped out at me a little bit more.  Since it was free, I figured I’d watch the first episode and see what it was like.  It hooked me, and I ended up watching the entire series over the following four days.  Although what Crunchyroll is streaming is Japanese audio with English subtitles, I noticed that all the credits were in English, and they had an English vocal cast listed in the credits in addition to the Japanese vocal cast.  This series really jumped out at me as something my kids would probably enjoy as well, so going on the clue from the credits that there must have been an English version, I checked out and sure enough, found a box set of the series in English.

The premise of the series revolves around a game in which the participants buy high tech electronic doll kits, design the dolls (called “angels”) and outfits for them, and then fight them against each other on a playing field (called “the layer”) which allows the player to control their angel via a headset that transmits their thoughts to their angel.  You win the game by having the most remaining points at the end of the 10 minute time limit, taking away all of your opponent’s remaining points, or by getting a “layer out” by knocking your opponent off the layer.  The game tables are expensive, so most people don’t own their own, but rent time at a table in local establishments resembling cyber cafes to practice or have games with each other.  If the technology really existed to do this, it would be incredibly fun to participate, I think.  The actual fights seem pretty similar in concept to the “net battles” in Mega Man NT Warrior (but no weapons, it’s all hand-to-hand combat), which my kids really enjoyed, and was why I figured they’d enjoy this, too.  The dolls only work when on the table used for the playing field, and it reminded me of the “dimensional area” concept in Mega Man NT Warrior that allows the net navis to come into the real world, but only within the dimensional area.

The series opens with the main character, Misaki, moving to Tokyo to live with her aunt Shoko.  Her father died when she was a baby, and her mother left to go to Tokyo to work when she was 5, and never came back, leaving her with her grandparents in the country for the last 7 years.  The directions she gets from her aunt for how to find her house have her changing trains at Tokyo Station, getting off the regional bullet train onto the subway to get further into town.  But she gets lost inside the station and accidentally leaves the station instead of going to the transfer area, meaning she would have to pay for a new ticket to get back in.  In the square in front of the station, an Angelic Layer game is playing on the TV above the square.  The eventual winner of game is a small white angelic-looking doll, who comes from behind to win against a larger opponent.  Misaki, being fairly small herself, becomes very enthralled with this, that someone smaller could beat a larger opponent.  It’s then that a man in a white lab coat (who had actually followed her out of the station) approaches her and offers to show her how to get involved.  She eventually makes it to her aunt’s house, but not before spending all her money buying an Angelic Layer doll and accessories.  Having no money left to buy a new train ticket, and the guy in the lab coat having disappeared (he had gotten detained by the store security because of a misunderstanding with a store worker) she ends up walking all the way to her aunt’s house.

Over the next few days, Misaki (with some random help from Icchan, the lab coat guy) more or less accidentally ends up in some matches with people at the local store, and turns out to be really good at it.  Icchan takes the liberty of entering her in the local tournament without her permission, and she reluctantly agrees to participate.  The series follows Misaki’s adventures (and also the adventures of her mother, as some of her co-workers and Aunt Shoko attempt to convice her to go back to her daughter) as she progresses through the local, regional, and national tournaments as the “Miracle Rookie.”

The following paragraph describes some of the plot points revealed later in the series which helped to define the series and created much of the drama and tear-jerking moments in the series that won me over.  Since they’re crucial plot developments, I’ve marked it with spoiler tags to avoid spoiling the show for anyone who wants to discover them on their own.

click to reveal spoilers
We eventually learn that her mother (Shuko) really has multiple sclerosis, and has lost the use of her legs.  The real reason she left home was to participate in research to try to help her walk again, and she’s embarrassed to be seen by Misaki in a wheelchair.  She and one of the doctors (Icchan) had been working on neural transmitters to allow a user to control prosthetic legs in a natural way so that they would behave like normal ones.  The research was promising, but not promising enough for the bosses at the medical equipment company Icchan works for, and the funding had been cut.  Not wanting to give up, Shuko and Icchan turn to merchandising the small dolls they had been using to test the transmitters as a game in order to make money to continue the research on their own, and thus, Angelic Layer is born.  It took off way faster than they anticipated, and much of the research ended up getting channeled towards improving the game.  Shuko is the one who controlled the small white doll Misaki had seen on TV at the train station.  The man in the lab coat who found Misaki at the train station turns out to have been Icchan.  He had been sent there to make sure Misaki changed trains correctly, but failed to make contact in the station and lost track of her until after she’d already gone out the front gates.  Seeing her interest in Angelic Layer in the square in front of the station, he had decided it might be a good way to get the mother and the daughter to meet, since Shuko was still too paranoid to let Misaki see her in a wheelchair.  Icchan and Shuko’s sister Shoko (who Misaki is now living with) try many times to convince her to go see Misaki, but she never gets up the courage to do so until the end of the semifinal match at the national tournament, with Misaki not even knowing that her mother is involved with Angelic Layer at all (let alone the co-creator of it and current national champion) the entire time.  After a tear-jerking reunion before the final match, Shuko and Misaki get to battle each other for the national title.

Throughout the 26-episode series, we learn a lot about the background stories of several of the other players, and many of them become good friends with Misaki as a result of their interactions in the games.  There’s even a touch of romance thrown in.  The end of the series is really touching, and if you’re the empathetic or emotional type, I guarantee you’ll come out of episode 25 shedding at least a few tears.

I said at the top that I found DVDs with English audio on them.  I did order them but they haven’t arrived yet as I type this.  I made the mistake (if you want to call it that) of letting my son (he’s 10) watch the first episode in Japanese with subtitles online, and sure enough, he got hooked too.  He may have the entire thing watched in Japanese before the DVDs show up for him to be able to see it in English.

Bottom line, my son and I both really enjoyed this series.  The intended target audience is probably kids about my son’s age (upper elementary).  You can watch it online for free at Crunchyroll if you are connecting from within North America (in Japanese with English subtitles).  Paid subscribers get full DVD quality (480p), non-subscribers will get a lower-resolution (but still perfectly watchable) version.  The DVDs (with English audio) are available at (and probably other places).

Finally, DRM-free anime from Toei

If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts about Anime stuff, you’ll probably know that I’m a big fan of the Pretty Cure series.

Stuff like this makes my day.

Toei publishing Anime (even Pretty Cure) in North America with English subtitles is nothing new.  They’ve had it up on Direct2Drive for a while now.  What’s new is the episodes that will be posted on Crunchyroll will be available DRM-free!  Starting this Wednesday, you can either watch a stream online for free (with commercials) or purchase the uninterrupted episodes to download for US$1.99 each, in XVid, iPod, or PSP formats, with NO DRM.

I am so going to buy every episode they post.  Not only just to express my appreciation for creating this awesome series (now that they’re giving me a way to do so) but also to show my support for finally distributing it in a way that doesn’t require me to sell my soul to Microsoft to be able to watch it.

Thank you Toei for finally understanding the Internet!

How to fix the anime industry

Justin Sevakis over at Anime News Network a couple days ago posted an open letter to the anime industry.  It’s really good and worth a read.  For those who haven’t been paying attention to the anime scene, his letter does a really good job of explaining the current state of the industry and why anime distribution of questionable legality happens the way it does.

Personally, I’m one of those people who will buy the DVDs of a show that I’ve watched when it finally becomes available in the US, because I believe in supporting the artists who create this stuff, and that’s the easiest way to do so.  But as Justin points out in his letter, 90% of the good stuff never makes it to the US, ever.  You can look back a few posts in my blog to see a list of some of the series I’ve watched.  There’s a lot.  Hardly any of them have DVDs or other merchandise available in the US yet. I haven’t shelled out very much money, just because there’s no one to give it to. Some of them actually did get licensed (Pretty Cure) and then the licensee never did anything with them.  Some actually made it to market (Ojamajo Doremi/Magical DoReMi) but didn’t survive halfway through the first season in the US (even though there were 4 seasons of it in Japan) because of poor marketing, or (by some accounts) poor execution on dubbing/editing of the English version.  My kids love Magical DoReMi, and we’ve managed to accumulate a fair bit of merchandise (doll sets, accessories, DVDs) recently for them to play with, found on clearance at local stores and on eBay.  And it wasn’t because of the US marketing (because they took it off the air years ago), but because we saw the fansubbed Japanese versions.

There are shows that do make it and do well.  Digimon, Pokémon, and Mega Man are good examples, from which we own a good few dozen DVDs. And one mustn’t forget Naruto (although nobody in my household is a fan of that one).  But from the total size of the market, that’s a very small number of shows.

I really hope the industry takes Justin’s letter to heart.  It’d make my day to be able to get this stuff from official sources, even if it cost money, although I’d personally prefer ad-supported websites 😉 .  It’s a global economy now, and thanks to the Internet, it’s a world market.  It’s time to give up on the region-locked licensing and just distribute globally from the get-go.

New anime for the fall

A couple promising series I’ve started watching from this fall’s lineup of anime are Shugo Chara! and Clannad.

Shugo Chara - Hinamori Amu w/Chibi AmuShugo Chara! is insanely cute. My first impression of it was kind of a Lizzie McGuire with a bit of magic thrown in, and set in late elementary school instead of high school. The main character, Hinamori Amu, doesn’t know how to present her feelings to those around her, and often acts like a tough girl around everyone at school, when inside, she’s really a quiet, delicate girl who likes boys and pink frilly stuff and is just scared to express herself. The first episode starts off with her rescuing a nerdy kid from a couple bullies, just by showing up and stating they were blocking her path. Her reputation as a tough girl precedes her. The bullies, upon realizing who she is, rattle off some stories they’ve heard about how tough she is and run off scared silly. Amu says “Who actually starts these rumors?” The nerdy kid is in awe and asks for an autograph, to which she scoffs at him for also blocking the way, and walks off. But this doesn’t deter him, as he still thinks she’s the coolest girl he’s ever met. The scene at the above right is as she’s walking away from the cutest boy in the school after telling him off for daring to talk to her when she first met him. “Don’t act like we’re buddies or anything” she told him. The little “Chibi Amu” coming out and attacking herself for not being nice to him is where my Lizzie McGuire reference came from (this happens frequently throughout the show, where the “Chibi Amu” will come out and tell the audience what she’s really thinking when she’s too scared to say it). In private, she continually tells us and herself about how she’s really a nice person and just wishes she could drop the tough girl act once in a while, but she worries that no one would believe it was her. The magic part comes in when she finds three eggs in her bed that turn out to be “Guardian Characters” (hence the name of the show – Shugo is Japanese for guard or protect) who, through various magic, help her to act out her real feelings. This is obviously aimed at a pre-teen audience, but it’s sooo cute, and my 6 year old daughter is already begging me to let her watch the next episode.

Clannad - Tomoya's and Nagisa's first meetingClannad is aimed at a much older audience (late teens to adult probably). It’s a high school drama based on a manga that’s been out for a while and is really popular, apparently (I’ve heard about it all over the place even before the anime was announced). I’ve never read the manga, and have no idea what the storyline is about other than what’s on the short descriptions on the various anime sites, so I have no idea what I’m in for. The story description on Wikipedia makes me wonder if I’ll really like it (it doesn’t sound like something I would normally watch from that description), but having seen the first two episodes, it’s certainly intriguing enough to draw me in and make me want to continue watching. We’ll see how it goes. So far it’s really good. Hopefully it’ll turn out better than School Days did (which had a very good story until the last two episodes when everything sort of went crazy and it had a very freaky ending).