Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse – Collection 2 (Sentai Filmworks)

May 12, 2015

Sentai’s first release went well enough.  Despite my reservations about several translation choices, I was more or less satisfied with the show’s English dub, and even hoped that, having laid down the foundation, the second half could build upon it and do even better.  So how the hell did we get here?

This is a flat-out sloppy release.  Sentai is notorious for pumping shows out at a ridiculously fast pace with little or no quality control.  I had hoped that the reasonably solid first collection was a sign that they were righting the ship, but no, here we have a release that is everything Sentai’s detractors always say about them.

Let’s start with the subtitles.  I mentioned that the first release cleaned up the Crunchyroll subtitles by standardizing the various terms, which was immensely helpful because the Crunchyroll subs were all over the place.  No such QC happened in this release, so terms like Shiranui Second and XFJ Project are referred to with various different translations (Shiranui 2, Shiranui Type 2, XFJ Plan) depending on the episode.  It’s not a question of the “right” translation – I understand and accept that the translators generally won’t have access to all the reference materials published in Japan which spell out the official English translations.  But any decent translation will have ONE translation, kept standard across the whole show, so the viewer can actually keep track of what’s going on.  This is such a basic requirement that the fact that this release turned out this way pretty much means nobody at Sentai bothered to take even a cursory pass at the subtitles.

The dub is, astonishingly, even worse.  The first collection used “2nd Lieutenant” and “1st Lieutenant” for 少尉 and 中尉, which corresponds to the actual US Army ranks.  This collection reverts back to Crunchyroll’s “Ensign” and “Lieutenant”.  Again, to a large extent, I don’t even care which one is correct – the fact that characters are referred to with two different ranks over the course of the show is what makes this such a sloppy dub.  And it gets worse!  There are several scenes in the dub where the same character is referred to by different ranks in the very same scene – once even in adjacent lines!  It boggles the mind how little care must have gone into the dub for something like this to happen so regularly.

(Also, while we’re talking about ranks, the Crunchyroll subs tended to use “Commander” as a catch-all translation for anybody above the rank of Captain, regardless of their actual rank, which is a terrible shortcut for a military show where it’s important to know who actually outranks whom.  Once upon a time, I had hoped that Sentai would correct this, but obviously that didn’t happen.)

There were many, many mistakes which give the dub a sense of being slapped together on the fly.  On at least two occasions that I counted, Yui refers to herself as “Takamura Yui”, rather than in Western name order (as she does in the first collection).  This seems to have been done not out of some sort of dedication to Japanese name order, but simply because that’s the way the Crunchyroll subs did it, and whoever wrote the dub script didn’t care enough to check what her name actually was.  On several occasions, the dub uses the word “Fleet” instead of “Flight” (as in “Argos Fleet”).  This happens often enough that it can’t just be somebody flubbing a line.  There doesn’t seem to be any pattern to when this happens.  The dub script this time is credited to a huge team of writers, and the dub has the feel of having sent different sections of the script to different writers just to get the job done on time, without any coordination between them.

And now, the worst part of the dub: there are many, many instances where lines were just flat-out not recorded at all.  There’s just a gap in the conversation where a person’s line was supposed to go, making the next character’s line incomprehensible.  These gaps always occur when a character is off-screen, making it clear what happened: the process of recording the dub was so rushed that, when recording a single character’s lines, they primarily watched for when that character’s lips were moving, and accidentally missed a few scenes when that character had a line off-screen.  That’s how rushed the production on this dub was – not only did they miss recording several lines, but when assembling the dub afterwards, they either ran out of time to call the actor back in or didn’t even realize those lines were missing at all.  I’m just flabbergasted at this point.  I can’t remember the last time I saw a dub where lines were just plain missing.

I suppose we can, at this point, talk about the dub performances.  The returning cast pretty much maintains their quality from the first collection.  I don’t have any real complaints about the returning cast, except Krystal LaPorte, who still just doesn’t sound much like Yui.  I had hoped that she might ease into the role more as Yui opens up in the second half, but if anything, she struggles with Yui’s lighter moments, playing her much more comedic and broad than Yui should be.  That’s the kind of thing a director should be helping her reign in, but unfortunately, it’s become obvious that, at least during the second half, this is not a dub that was lavished with care.  The other major roles, who are mostly filled with veterans, come across much better, perhaps as a result of their experience despite the poor conditions the dub was recorded in.  Corey Hartzog as Yuuya continues to be the strongest performance here, and it was often his work that kept me going even as the dub’s shoddy production became obvious.

Interestingly, all the major new characters in the second half are staffed with completely new actors, with no major credits for any of them.  I don’t know if that’s related to the lack of effort put into this half.  Interestingly, Yifei was played by Emily Neves (who normally plays Natalie and other minor characters) during her brief appearances in the first half, apparently because the dub staff didn’t realize she was going to be a major character.  In this half, she’s played by Sara Ornelas, and she’s probably the strongest of the new actors cast.  The rest of the new characters – Leon, Sharon, and the members of the RLF – sound pretty rough.  Again, I suspect this is because newer actors require more time and direction to hone their performances, and those things are clearly missing from the production.

The dub for the first half was a stronger effort than I had expected from a company of Sentai’s reputation, so I had hoped that it was a sign that they had started putting more effort into their dubs.  This, though, is just a mess.  It’s clearly been thrown together with the absolute minimum of money and effort.  It’s such a shame.  One reason I had looked forward to the English dub of Total Eclipse is that it is a very rare anime that is actually set in America, and in which the characters are canonically speaking English.  If it had turned out well, it could have felt even more authentic to watch the show in English than in Japanese.  I suppose it’s not a total loss – I did get to hear some very solid English voices for many of the main characters.  But this is not a dub I’ll be going back to again.  It’s a horribly wasted opportunity.

When I first heard that Sentai got the license, my immediate reaction was that I wished somebody else – anybody else – had picked it up.  I then regretted that reaction and vowed to give them a fair chance.  And now that I’ve given them a fair chance . . . I wish somebody else had picked it up.

Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse – Collection 1 (Sentai Filmworks)

January 20, 2015

Should we talk about the Sentai release?  Let’s talk about the Sentai release.

I haven’t listened to a Sentai dub in a while, because quite frankly, the ones I heard a few years ago were absolutely terrible.  I’ve heard some great dubs back in the ADV days – some clunkers too, naturally, but I know this is a talent pool capable of greatness.  But everything I heard from Sentai was just awful, and the fact that many of the actors were capable of much better only seemed to make the experience even worse.  I’ve heard they’ve improved since then, but the Sentai releases that I’ve bought in the past year are still in my backlog so I haven’t heard them yet.  So, I went into this dub with low expectations, but with the hope that it would exceed them – not unlike how I went into the anime adaptation itself, actually.

Before getting into the dub, let’s look at the subtitles a little.  I didn’t do a side-by-side comparison, but to my eye they look like a slightly cleaned-up version of the Crunchyroll subtitles. Many of the translation choices remain the same.  The rank of 少尉 is translated as “Ensign”, and 中尉 as “Lieutenant”.  These are fairly common translations for those ranks in anime (you can see them in Gundam, for instance), although they don’t strictly correlate with actual US Army ranks.  The name “Shiranui Second” is still rendered as “Shiranui Type 2”.  One thing that has changed is that names are much more standardized.  I seem to recall Ibrahim Dogulu’s name spelled three different ways in the Crunchyroll subs, but those instances have been changed to the correct spelling.  However, the worst is that, just like the Crunchyroll subtitles, the Sentai subtitles retain the Japanese words “Eishi” and “Chobi” rather than translating them.  This was by far the worst aspect of the Crunchyroll subtitles, and my greatest hope was that the Sentai release would fix it.  A shame.

The English dub, unfortunately, has a fatal flaw: it continues to use the Japanese words “Eishi” and “Chobi” in dialogue.  This is, without question, the worst decision they could have made, and it breaks the show completely.  How can anybody take seriously a show in which the lead character – an American, in the US army, assigned to a base located in America in which English is the common language, and whose defining characteristic is a hatred of anything Japanese – refers to his OWN JOB – a job invented by the Americans – with a Japanese word?  It doesn’t make any sense at all.  This is not a small mistake – Yuuya’s attitude towards the Japanese is at the very heart of the show, and now it is completely incomprehensible.  Reading the word in the subtitles was bad enough, but actually hearing an English-speaking Yuuya say the word out loud just drives home what a terrible idea this is.

For the rest of this post, I’ll do my best to review the rest of the dub, but the truth is that I went into this dub with only one major criterion: replace “Eishi” with an English word.  The fact that it didn’t is a very big strike against it in my eyes.

The dub script is an often overlooked part of an English dub, in that it has much more influence over whether or not a dub sounds good than most fans give it credit for.  The scripts for Sentai dubs used to be atrocious, and were probably the main reason the old dubs sounded so bad.  Scripts were often credited to the original translator and the ADR director, and listening to the dubs made it clear that they were simply using the subtitle scripts directly without any adaptation, and with only minimal changes done by the director when it became clear that a line wouldn’t fit the lip flaps.  This is death for a dub – lines that may sound OK when intended to be read as a translation of a different language sound unnatural and stilted when forced to be read aloud in English.  There absolutely needs to be a dedicated script adapter who actually does go through the script and rewrite lines to sound good in English.

Recent Sentai dubs do indeed credit the scripts to an actual person who isn’t just the translator, and this is probably the main reason why I’ve heard people say they’ve been improving.  The Total Eclipse script, credited to Nancy Novotny and director Kyle Jones, was pretty solid.  I often judge a dub script by how often a line is so poorly worded that I essentially try to “un-translate” the line back into Japanese to figure out what was actually being said.  In a bad dub, I’m doing this almost constantly because the badly worded lines pull me out of the experience so much.  In a good dub, I forget to do this because I get engrossed in the dub itself.  I don’t really recall doing this while watching the Total Eclipse dub, which is a very good sign.  My complaints are about mostly smaller things, individual moments rather than overall flaws.  The script sometimes takes advantage of lighthearted scenes to throw in certain modern-day slang that I wouldn’t have included.  Yamashiro at one point refers to Yui as a “bitch”, which is wildly out of character for her.  But again, these are very small nitpicks.

Unfortunately, the script doesn’t go beyond that, adding that extra layer of polish that makes a dub truly great.  It does indeed rewrite lines to sound more natural in English, but it doesn’t put in the extra effort to push it to the next level.  It’s hard for me to explain, but the best dub scripts I’ve ever heard go beyond what’s written on the page, to the actual idea embedded in each line.  And then, just as the original Japanese writers wrote the line to express that idea in Japanese, the dub writers would then write a line to express that idea in English – without being a slave to the Japanese line.  To be done right, the dub writers need both to understand fully the ideas behind the show, and be good enough writers to write a strong English script that reflects those ideas.  When it works, though, a dub is even capable of surpassing the original Japanese language version.  Of course, it goes without saying that a script writer who could write an English-speaking Yuuya describing himself with a Japanese word doesn’t understand the show well enough to do any such thing.  But considering Sentai’s previous work, I’m happy to take the more workmanlike quality they have to offer here.

(Incidentally, the dub script changes the ranks to reflect the actual US Army ranks – 2nd Lieutenant and 1st Lieutenant rather than Ensign and Lieutenant.  That was unexpected but nice, particularly since the anime’s own English screens identify Yuuya as 2nd Lieutenant.)

All right, let’s (finally) talk about the performances.  Corey Hartzog plays Yuuya, and absolutely nails the role.  Hartzog has been in a lot of Sentai dubs, but I don’t recall ever taking special notice of his roles before.  But he just knocks it out of the park here.  From the first time he opens his mouth, I instantly accept him as Yuuya.  Yuuya is a very tricky role, particularly here in the first half of the anime, because he says some pretty arrogant stuff, but you still have to buy into him as a reasonably good guy trying to do his best.  Yuuya is our window into this world, so the audience should always be able to find a way to understand him.  I always found Hartzog’s Yuuya to be relatable, and I could always see his side of things, even when objectively he was spouting a bunch of crap.  Total Eclipse is Yuuya’s story, and having such a solid performance in the lead role really sets the right tone.

I wasn’t as wild about Krystal LaPorte’s performance as Yui.  Yui is in many ways a more difficult role than Yuuya because she’s just as complicated as he is, but after the first two episodes we rarely see things from her point of view, so she’s often a mystery on the surface.  Yui fundamentally doesn’t know what she’s doing, and tries to cover it up by projecting an aura of authority and confidence that only grows thicker as she feels more uncertain.  On the surface, she should be crisp and assertive – she gives orders and brooks no dissent.  LaPorte sounds a little too soft and unsure.  She, frankly, sounds too reasonable, as if she were actually trying to reason with Yuuya rather than demanding blind obedience.  Yui should be a brick wall that Yuuya keeps slamming himself against.  I actually like LaPorte’s performance as young Yui in the first two episodes, so I don’t think the problem is she’s a bad actress.  I think she (or probably more accurately the director) just interprets Yui differently than I do.  In that sense, I actually might like her performance more in the second half of the series, as Yui really does start to soften up and become more open to other points of view.

The other major characters are generally good, but just about all of them take about an episode to really settle in.  For example, Terri Doty (Tarisa) spends her first episode with a much lower and normal-sounding voice, before settling into a higher, more exaggerated performance that suits Tarisa better.  Brittney Karbowski (Inia) sounds like a fairly typical girl in her first episode too, while afterwards she sounds much more naive and innocent.  It sounds to me like everybody is kind of figuring out their characters as they record them, rather than hashing out how their characters should sound before recording.  Sentai is pretty infamous for recording their dubs very, very quickly, and this is definitely a symptom of that.  It’s unfortunate, because once they settle in, pretty much all the major characters sound about what I would expect.  But they just may not be getting the time they need to really understand their characters beforehand if Sentai really is forcing them to record at the pace that they’re rumored to.

(Another problem with recording so quickly is that sometimes mistakes slip through and there isn’t time to fix them.  For instance, at one point Vincent refers to the Type-94 Shiranui as the “Type-49”.  It’s really obvious, considering how often the number 94 is mentioned in dialogue, but either they were too rushed to catch it or they were too rushed to correct it.)

I did notice that the men tended to settle in much faster than the women.  Blake Shepard (Vincent) and Ty Mahany (Ibrahim) sound great from the very beginning.  I suspect part of it is simply that most of the men on this show should sound “normal”, while most of the women are either more complex or more exaggerated, so they all start off with a normal range and then figure out where to go from there.

Once everybody settles in, the direction and acting turn out much like the script – acceptable but unambitious.  In a really good dub, the dialogue flows so naturally that it’s almost inconceivable that all the actors were recorded separately.  This dub avoids the stiffness and awkward pausing that plague bad dubs, but it doesn’t have the flow of a really good dub.  I don’t mean to sound too down on this dub.  Everybody sounds good and in-character.  It’s just that, with the exception of Hartzog as Yuuya, nobody is really leaving a major impression that lasts even after the episode is over.

One thing I was worried about with an international cast of characters is cheesy accents, and we get some here.  Jay Hickman (Valerio), Emily Neves (Natalie), and James Belcher (Rogovski) all put on some pretty over-the-top accents.  Hickman in particular I have a hard time even understanding sometimes.  Valerio is a pretty comedic character, but he has his moments of gravitas, and they don’t come over very well with such a thick, cheesy accent.  Natalie is a lightweight character now, but I’m a little worried about what’s coming up for her too.  I don’t mind cheesy accents in comedic shows, but Total Eclipse is a little too serious for them.

I noticed something interesting in the credits: when the Japanese cast credits were too vague, the English cast credits would occasionally have a bit of fun.  And so it came to be that the instructor in Yui’s class from the first two episodes, who was merely credited as “Instructor” in Japanese, is credited as “Professor Eyepatch” in English.  The bald, bearded base commander from episode 9, who is credited only as “Commander” in Japanese, is also credited as “Officer Lincoln” in English (that one actually took me a while to figure out who they were even referring to).  For the record, both of them have actual names (Kouzou Sanada and Georgi Barakin), but those names were assigned later and did not exist when the anime was made, so there’s certainly no way the English staff could know them.  I certainly have no problem with a bit of whimsy when it doesn’t affect the actual contents of the show.

OK, let’s move on to trivia.  The release includes the standard creditless OP/ED.  However, they also include the 2nd creditless OP/ED as well, from the Terrorist arc.  But that’s not all: the version they include is not the one from the actual episodes.  They’re from the sneak peek from the special episode that played in between episodes 19 and 20.  In the week between that special and episode 20, they actually touched up the OP/ED a little bit.  The OP doesn’t have many changes.  The second-to-last shot, with Yui and Cryska, is empty in the preview OP.  I think they also fiddled with the timing of when the RLF members appear on-screen.  The ED has more noticeable changes.  The final ED has Cryska in the UN fortified suit she wears during the Terrorist arc, but the preview ED had a shot of her wearing her usual fortified suit.  And the big pan at the end, which in the final ED includes a shot of the ruined remains of the Shiranui Second and the Berkut in combat, only has a silhouetted shot of the two TSFs standing.  It’s really interesting that the Sentai release included these versions; I imagine the person in charge of supplying the creditless OP/ED on the Japanese side simply screwed up.  I’ll be curious to see if the second collection includes the finalized OP/ED, or if it’ll still be these versions.  I really don’t care much – the differences are pretty small, and the finalized OP/ED are actually available on the anime’s YouTube site.

(Also, while we’re talking about the OP, for anybody who only watched the broadcast version of the show, the home video release actually changed the OP slightly when they entered the Soviet arc.  Go take a look!)

I’m very aware that I’m the odd one out here in thinking that Total Eclipse is an exceptional show – in Sentai’s eyes, not to mention the eyes of the North American fanbase, Total Eclipse is a low-tier show. So it does please me that this is most emphatically not a “low-tier” dub.  The scripting, excepting the problem with the Japanese words, is far above the level that Sentai was turning in a few years ago.  The actors are generally cast well and give good performances.  Nobody is going to be winning any awards here, but this is nonetheless a dub that I enjoyed listening to, which is pretty good considering how many times I’ve watched this show (and played the game) with the Japanese cast.  And with the shakiness of the first few episodes hopefully out of the way, I am cautiously looking forward to an even better second half.

Muv-Luv Alternative: Total Eclipse Game Review/Analysis

July 12, 2014

Spoiler warning: this review includes material that goes beyond the story of the anime.

Read the rest of this entry »

Grow Up!

September 19, 2013

A common complaint against many of Age’s works is that they are too preachy, that players have to sit through hours upon hours of other characters explaining what is wrong with them.  Kouki Yoshimune offers a very simple explanation for this: all of his lead characters are actually based on himself, when he was younger.  When he writes a wall of dialogue criticizing the main character, he is not lecturing “the player”, he is lecturing his younger self.  This is something I sensed subconsciously when I first played Kimi ga Nozomu Eien and became a fan of Age’s, but it wasn’t something I fully understood until much later.  Yoshimune’s stories are intensely, almost painfully personal, in a way that is very rare in otaku subculture.  All of his stories are drawn straight from his own life experiences.

The common thread throughout Yoshimune’s full-length stories – Kimi ga Nozomu Eien, Muv-Luv, and Total Eclipse – is that each of their main characters starts off as a brash, immature young man.  However, over the course of the story it becomes clear that he is completely unprepared to deal with the difficult decisions that await him in the outside world.  I’ve mentioned before how, in most anime stories, youth is considered an asset and immaturity only means that the main character is not weighed down with old ways of thinking.  Yoshimune’s stories have none of that.  Here the main character is constantly surrounded by people who are waiting for him to grow up and take responsibility for his actions.

Once you understand that the main character is supposed to be Yoshimune himself, it’s actually quite shocking how angry his scripts sound.  Yoshimune is clearly furious with the person he used to be, and with every story he writes it seems like he is almost literally trying to reach back in time, grab his younger self, and slap him across the face and tell him to grow the hell up.  Whenever I describe his stories as “mature”, this is usually what I mean.  It’s not that I am trying to pass off his writing as a complex work of art.  What I mean is that most anime stories (and especially most manga and light novels) are written by young people, so of course they celebrate youth.  Many push the idea that one is “special” – that one is better than those around him, that one is capable of changing the world.  Yoshimune writes from an older perspective (he’s 46 as of this writing), and he’s mature enough to look back and see youth as a series of grave mistakes that one hopefully learns from and grows out of.  So a character like Yuuya spends much of his time being told that he is not special, that he needs to get his shit together and join the rest of society, and it is a major source of satisfaction as we watch him do so.

Kimi ga Nozomu Eien and Muv-Luv were conceived of at the same time, and at the core their stories both focus on the theme of “nostalgia”.  After a series of emotionally brutal events, the main character begins to look back on and wish for a simpler era – his school days set in peaceful times, without any adult pressures or burdens.  A way opens up for him to return to that time, and he flees from the present day to live in his memories of what once was.  However, his selfish actions only cause even more problems for him, and ultimately even the world of his memories is affected.  In the end, he chooses to stop running from his problems, and leaves behind the world of the past in order to live in the present.  It was interesting to see the same theme told in two different ways – one as a metaphorical modern-day story, one as a more literal science fiction story – but so much time had passed since these two stories had first come out that I really wanted to see what else Yoshimune was capable of writing.

Total Eclipse definitely showed, from the very beginning, that it would not be a retread of his earlier stories.  There is, after all, not much in Yuuya’s past to get nostalgic over.  While I want to keep this post free of game spoilers, I will say that the theme of Total Eclipse is “family” – perhaps, specifically, the relationship between different generations.  Because of his father, Yuuya was shunned by those around him, and grew distrustful of people.  Because of his mother, he became obsessed with the need to prove himself and, in a sense, redeem her for his father’s mistakes.  Yui is the opposite: she was raised completely in accordance with her country’s long traditions, and adheres closely – perhaps too closely – to her parents’ ideology.  Total Eclipse is, in many ways, about how their parents shaped these two characters and how these two are supposed to relate to their parents in turn, particularly as they grow older and begin to approach the age their own parents were when they were born.

All of these stories are told from a “mature” point of view.  Nostalgia is, almost by definition, a mature theme.  People do not get nostalgic about something until many years have passed.  Very few teenagers can really understand, emotionally, what nostalgia is.  Writing about it convincingly is even harder still.  As for Total Eclipse, it too deals heavily in how the passage of time may change the way people see things – Yuuya, for example, coming to understand how his mother kept working all her life to make sure that he had some sort of connection to his Japanese heritage, or Yui coming to understand how Iwaya wanted to broaden her horizons.  All of these stories are written from the viewpoint of an older person who can reflect on the way he changed throughout his life.  There is always something in Yoshimune’s works that is almost impossible for a younger person to write.  And that, in turn, may unfortunately make it difficult for some younger fans to understand what he is trying to say.  But it’s that quality that attracts me to his stories so much.

After Muv-Luv Alternative came out, I spent years thinking about the story, really digging into it and discovering the complexities of it.  I’m very happy to have started that process on Total Eclipse now as well, being able at last to analyze it as a complete story instead of in bits and pieces.  I look back on this blog and it amazes me how much I’ve written about Total Eclipse – including over 5000 words just on these final “review” posts alone.    And I still feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface.  Unfortunately, past this point, all of the things I want to say involve spoilers from the game.  I always intended this blog to be readable by new anime viewers, but I think that for one post I will break that rule and put up a discussion of the themes of the entire story, including events past the end of the anime.  That will probably go up in 1-2 months.  If you haven’t played the game and don’t want to be spoiled, then please skip that post.  Thanks for reading what I’ve had to say over the past 1 1/2 years.

Reverse Adaptation

August 16, 2013

Total Eclipse creator Kouki Yoshimune once mentioned that one thing he wanted to try with Total Eclipse was “reverse” adaptation.  One usual path for a game adaptation is game -> anime -> manga -> novels.  Kimi ga Nozomu Eien went through that path, more or less.  He mentioned that at every step, fans would complain about the adaptation, that it would leave things out or otherwise not be exactly like the original.  Things would get worse through every step of the path, since an anime would necessarily be shorter than the game, forcing the staff to leave things out – while tie-in manga and novels are usually shorter than the anime itself, meaning even more things have to be left out.  According to Yoshimune, anime sponsors are actually very sensitive to that kind of criticism nowadays, and it is a major reason why major properties (like Muv-Luv) are sometimes slow to be adapted.

What Yoshimune wanted to do was try that path in reverse.  Start with the novelization, which is usually the most criticized for being too truncated.  Even during the serialization, Yoshimune would encourage fans to think of it as less of an original work,  and more of a novelization of a “hypothetical” longer work (the game being a pipe dream at the time).  The manga started up.  The anime aired.  The game came out.  At each stage, Yoshimune hoped the new medium would add even more material to the story, ending with the game, which would pull together all of the new material added at each stage.  In that way, Yoshimune hoped to sidestep much of the criticism usually directed towards adaptations.  He hoped that fans would enjoy an adaptation path where each new adaptation added new ideas.

I think Yoshimune sadly underestimated how resistant fans would be to this.  There is a frustrating tendency among fans to declare one version the “true’ version of events – with the implication that other versions of that event must therefore be “false”.  This is very contrary to how Yoshimune wanted to do things.  He feels (and I agree) that an adaptation that simply follows the original story word-for-word is boring, and that much of the fun in seeing the same story in a different medium is seeing how a different creative staff would put its own spin on things.  With so many different adaptations coming out around the same period – the anime, the game, the ongoing novels, the newly restarted manga – I think he delighted in obscuring the concept of an “original version”, making it very unclear which version came “first”.

A great example of this is in the way Yuuya and Yui originally clashed during the first few episodes.  The original novels were told from a neutral 3rd-person point of view, without supporting or criticizing either side.  The anime is told from a 3rd-person POV as well, but viewers had just spent two episodes watching the BETA destroy Kyoto and kill all of Yui’s friends, and they were much more likely to agree with Yui that Yuuya was not taking things seriously enough.  Finally, the game is told predominantly from Yuuya’s point of view, and these scenes in the game emphasize Yuuya’s arguments.  He strongly believes that Yui is in fact the one not taking things seriously enough, that she is far too dismissive and frankly ignorant of the dangers of being a test pilot.  He believes that people like Yui can pilot their TSFs in safety and confidence, because behind the scenes some test pilot strapped himself into a completely untested machine and put his life on the line to identify every possible way that machine could kill its pilot, and ensured that those flaws were fixed before it entered production.

Each version of this argument feels completely different – and yet, each version is “correct”.  Each version has been specifically tailored to the medium it is being told in.  There is no technical reason why Yui’s point of view could not have been included in the game.  But Yoshimune has been firm that a game should be written from the POV of its lead character, so elements like the Kyoto battle were left out.  I’ve noticed that the game does indeed strip away many of the 3rd-person scenes, keeping the focus on Yuuya.  Some are still there, when they are necessary to advance the story, but many of the lesser scenes are gone.  The anime is told from a neutral POV, so it is much easier to include viewpoints other than that of the lead character.  Yoshimune chose to tell this story in different ways after careful consideration, adapting it to the strengths of each medium.

I was curious how the other versions of TE would handle the various anime-original characters – the operator girls, Corporal Yamamoto, and Natalie.  Natalie is perhaps the most interesting, because, as I’ve mentioned before, the collected novels had stopped around the Blue Flag arc when the anime was airing.  As such, both the expanded novelization version and the game version of the start of the terrorist arc came out after the anime had finished.  Yoshimune wound up including Natalie in the game, but not in the novel, so there is still a version of the story that plays out as it originally did during the serialization, with our various heroes already gathered at the hangar when the attack begins and with none of the events of episode 20 occurring.

The collected novels had already passed the Soviet arc, so obviously Corporal Yamamoto could not be included in them.  His big scene was left out of the game, because, as I noted before, the scene where Yui kills him is a follow-up and conclusion to the scene where Yui fails to kill Yamashiro.  Since the game didn’t include the story of Yui’s past, there was no point in including Yamamoto’s death, since without that context, the scene is meaningless.  Perhaps to make up for it, Yoshimune cast one of the recurring nameless mechanics in the game with the voice of Yamamoto, and encouraged fans to think of him as a version of Yamamoto that survived the events of the Soviet arc.

The three operator girls (Lida, Phoebe, and Niram) were also included in the game, and some throwaway dialogue helped flesh them out a little more.  More interesting to me, though, was the way they were included in the new manga version.  The original manga went up to the beach episodes and then ended due to the artist’s health.  A new version started up when the anime started, picking up where the first version left off.  Obviously, the first manga didn’t include the operator girls since they didn’t exist at the time.  I had thought the new manga would simply include the girls as if they had been there all along, but instead it actually opens with an original chapter explaining that three new operators were transferring to the XFJ Project, and giving them an extended introduction.

There is one last major difference I want to mention, though, and this is something that only became clear after I had played the game.  The second half of the anime has been rewritten in several places to incorporate elements from the second half of the game.  Either Yoshimune asked the anime staff to include them, or the anime staff added them on their own after reading the scenario for the full game.  It’s a very curious thing to do, and I can only speculate that it’s because they were worried they might not get a second season, and wanted to touch on many of the themes from the second half of the game.

The major theme that gets explored is the idea that Yuuya has become a better person due to the influence of the people around him, and that he now feels it is his responsibility to pass on that gift to Cryska and Inia.  During the Blue Flag arc, Natalie tells Yuuya that all of his fellow pilots were as gloomy as he was when they first arrived, and it was the people around them that changed them.  They in turn passed that favor down to Yuuya, and now Yuuya, recognizing that Cryska is the same as him when he first arrived, wants to pass that favor down to her.  Yuuya then reiterates that idea when he fights with Cryska and Inia in the final episode.  That concept was not touched upon at all in the novels, nor does it show up in the game version of the Blue Flag or terrorist arcs.  Back when the anime was airing, I had thought that the anime staff must have come up with it since I didn’t remember ever reading about it.  But it actually comes from the second half of the game.  In fact, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the second half of the game revolves around this idea.  As I said, I suspect that either Yoshimune or the anime staff considered this concept to be so important to the story of Total Eclipse that they wanted to make sure it appeared in the anime, even if they wound up not getting a second season.

Once I realized that the anime had mined the second half of the game for ideas, I saw other examples as well.  The appearance of the Berkut is a major one.  The Berkut does not appear anywhere in the original serialization, and was only hinted at to play a major role in the future.  The anime brought it in at the end so that we could get a chance to see it animated.  The Berkut also allowed other elements from the second half of the game to be brought in.  The mysterious capsule behind Christopher in the Berkut cockpit plays a pivotal role late in the game.  We also get a glimpse at the strange blue flames that envelope the Berkut, which appear at the end of the game.  The flashbacks to Cryska and Inia’s past in episode 17, and to Yuuya and Leon’s past in episode 18, did not originally appear in the novels – obviously those were drawn from the game as well.  Like before, I think these flashbacks were important enough to understanding these characters that the anime staff wanted to be sure they got animated.  The secret mission the Infinities embarked on at the start of the terrorist arc was never explained in the original serialization either.  It was the anime that first revealed they had destroyed a Soviet laboratory.  It was explained in passing later in the game, but clearly the anime staff didn’t want to leave that thread dangling.

The original Muv-Luv saga was adapted into 7 novels.  They are extremely boring.  They are, for the most part, exact transcriptions of the game, with no new material added.  Getting through them was a chore.  I’ve never felt that way about any of the Total Eclipse adaptations.  I was always happy to see a new version of the story, and find out exactly how they had changed things up.  I was never more excited about the Total Eclipse anime than when it would surprise me.  I have two favorite memories watching the anime.  The first was at Anime Expo 2012, when Yoshimune explained that the episodes they were about to screen for us were completely anime-original, set several years before the main story, and I first realized that there had been some actual creative effort put into the anime.  The second was after episode 18 aired, as I sat there in shock and really pondered the possibility that they had created an original RLF member, cast her as a sympathetic friend of our heroes, and seeded her into the show without anybody realizing.  Even now, I still await new volumes of the novel and manga, hopeful that they too will shake things up and present new variations on the story that will surprise me.

Morality and Belief

July 6, 2013

In most science fiction, the world setting consists of two superpowers at war with each other – the bare minimum needed for conflict.  Other factions may be in play, but they are usually much smaller than the Big 2, and are usually either neutral or hostile towards both sides equally.  Even SF shows ostensibly set in “our” world divide all the existing countries up into a handful of super-alliances.  Of course it’s not hard to see why.  Nobody wants to put in the effort to sketch out all the different international policies for the HUNDREDS of countries that exist in the real world.

This is one of the reasons I was so impressed with Muv-Luv Alternative.  It was not afraid to set its story in “our” world, one in which the countries of the world have not united into a small group of superpowers but have remained as we would recognize them.  The original Alternative was heavily Japan-centric, but we got tantalizing hints of the complexity of the outside world.  When Total Eclipse was first announced, I was immediately sucked in by its promise to showcase many different countries outside Japan.  And, as promised, Total Eclipse – far more than any other Muv-Luv franchise – features a truly international cast, and showcases the different countries of the world and how they interact with one another.

During the course of the series, the main countries that come into ideological conflict with each other are America, Japan, and the Soviet Union.  But we also see the internal strife between those in Japan who back the XFJ Project and those that oppose outsourcing development to the Americans.  We see the machinations of the Alternative-V faction in America, while at the same time we understand that their goals are not shared by the other Americans we see in the show, like Yuuya.  We see how Sandek, who is normally our window into the Soviet point of view, prioritizes the Polnoye Zatmeniye Project, even stating in the final episode of the anime that he has no real love for the Soviets outside of their willingness to sponsor his research.  We see the radical views of the terrorists who oppose all of the superpowers of the world – and who themselves are a loose alliance of different groups: refugees and religious extremists, as well as people like the Master and Christopher who have their own separate agendas.  In the expanded novels and game, we see the head of Project Prominence, Klaus Hartwig, outright declaring both Alternative-IV and Alternative-V to be complete wastes of time that only distract from the obvious fact that only Project Prominence can save humanity (this scene was likely left out of the anime because it assumes too much prior knowledge of Project Alternative).

In other words, Total Eclipse portrays a world with countless different points of view, a stark contrast to most stories which can only muster 2 or 3.  And what I find to be even more impressive about this is, it refuses to break down these different viewpoints into “Good” and “Evil”.  So many stories make it clear that one side is “right”, and all the other sides are, essentially, assholes – they oppose our good guys for no real reason other than they are bad guys.  In Total Eclipse, no one side has all the answers.  They all act for the benefit of humanity, and they only come into conflict because their beliefs are in conflict.  There is a scene early in the original Muv-Luv Alternative where Yuuko stops the plot cold in order to explain clearly to Takeru that the Alternative-V faction, who are superficially the “Bad Guys” in the story, are not “Bad Guys” at all but simply human beings trying to do the right thing in order to save the human race.  And if they are a little extreme in their methods, well, Yuuko doesn’t exactly have clean hands either.  This goes to the crux of Alternative and Total Eclipse: nobody is truly evil.  All of these different people are trying to do what they think is right, and damn the consequences.  Morality is a game to be played when the stakes are low; with the fate of humanity on the line, nobody can afford to hold back from doing what they feel is necessary just because it’s dirty pool.

I think a lot of anime shows that portray this kind of morality cast their lead character in opposition to it – the adults of the world may be selfish and corrupt, but we just know that our idealistic hero can show them the error of their ways.  One of the things I admire most about Alternative and Total Eclipse is how it never succumbs to this kind of sentimentalism.  The world is what it is, and it is not within Yuuya’s power to change that.  Instead, he accepts Latrova’s advice to “know his place”, and dedicates himself to accomplishing his goals as part of a larger whole.  A common thread throughout the Muv-Luv franchises is showing characters maturing, growing out of that kind of adolescent arrogance.  They come to understand just how large the world really is, and how powerless a single individual really is.  Daisuke Ono, the voice of Yuuya, mentioned in one of the show’s audio commentaries that he first truly began to love Yuuya as a character after he returned from firing the Type-99 cannon, when he acknowledged that his accomplishment was due entirely to the people who had supported him.

I have definitely seen some people who react badly to Total Eclipse because they don’t like the world being shown.  Some get angry at the idea that humans would still be fighting each other while under alien attack.  Others get bored, wishing that the show could focus more on fighting the BETA.  But I believe the numerous different factions in the Muv-Luv universe is one of its greatest strengths.  Kouki Yoshimune himself has said that he considers the story of humanity to be the main draw of Muv-Luv, with the BETA being little more than a catalyst for further human conflict.  This is the question that faces each Muv-Luv protagonist: What will you do?  When confronted with so many different beliefs, which one will you choose?  When others oppose your choice, will you have the confidence in your convictions?  And when the person who opposes you believes in his choice just as strongly as you believe in yours, will you have the strength to stand your ground?

Man vs. Budget

May 31, 2013

I’m going to start with this one, because it is the one that stands out to me the most after doing a rewatch of the entire series.  Follow along on this tale of two men and their approach to budget problems . . .

Mecha shows are pretty widely acknowledged to be the most difficult and expensive to animate.  All fast-paced action shows are difficult, but mecha shows seem to be particularly troublesome.  I’m not an animation expert, but I would imagine the problems include: the level of detail in most mecha designs, which are more elaborate than typical character designs.  The fact that scenes involving mecha must frequently cut between the actual mech and the pilot in the cockpit.  The fact that anime mechs are so specific to the genre, needing a very special skillset to draw, unlike regular humans.  The fact that mecha shows traditionally have a much larger cast than many other shows.  These are just off the top of my head.

There’s also the fact that Total Eclipse is an adaptation of another medium.  Mecha is pretty much an anime genre, and seeing mecha in other media (ex. light novels or manga) is very rare.  Sponsors generally don’t pony up money for anime adaptations of mecha – because it’s so expensive to animate, sponsors like to have real input into the show, so they know they’re getting their money’s worth.  There’s not much input to make into an existing story.  Try to name some mecha shows that were based on an existing story – it’s slim pickings.  Now, of those, try to name some that didn’t have a shit budget.

So, considering all that, when the Total Eclipse anime was announced, I naturally assumed that it would be made on a shoestring budget.  In the months before the anime aired, I would sometimes imagine what would need to be done to cut corners.  I’ll give one specific example: in an early chapter in the novels, Yuuya is forced to pilot a Fubuki.  Why?  Oh, there’s a perfectly good story reason for it, but I think another major reason is to utilize and promote the Fubuki figures being put out at the time.  I mean, they had them lying around, so why not use one, especially since they could tie it into the conflict between Yuuya and Yui?

But the anime is different.  To use the Fubuki, they would have to build one completely from scratch in CG.  The way CG works is, you put in a lot of effort up-front to build the CG model, and then afterwards it becomes much easier and cheaper to actually use it in the animation.  But all of that effort is wasted if you build a fully functional CG model and then only use it in a single episode.  You’ve put in all the effort up-front, but you don’t get the long-term savings going forward.  That’s why one of the first changes I had imagined the anime would make would be to remove the Fubuki from the show entirely, and have Yuuya pilot the Shiranui Second that episode.  You lose a bit of the nuance, but the overall story is still the same.

(Actually, to be honest, after seeing the numerous promotional pieces using the Shiranui Second Demonstration Colors, I had thought they might even cut the Phase 1 entirely and just start the show with the Phase 2, thus eliminating another major piece of CG modeling.)

So it was a surprise to me to start episode 4 and see Yuuya still piloting the Fubuki.  At the time, I took this as a good sign – surely, if they have the money to build a Fubuki model that they’ll only use for one episode, they must be far better funded than I had originally thought!  Well, I think we all know now that that’s not true.  So what gives?

After rewatching the entire anime series, I’m convinced that the answer is that director Takayuki Inagaki is simply TOO big a fan of Total Eclipse.  If the novels had Yuuya piloting a Fubuki in this scene, then by God he’ll be piloting a Fubuki in this scene in the anime.  I’m convinced that many of the major animation problems with the series can be traced back to this devotion to the novels.

Think about this: knowing now how little budget the show had, who would dare kick the series off with a completely original 2-part episode, set in a completely different time and place than the main series, requiring that virtually every aspect of these two episodes be created totally from scratch with no guidance from the original novels, and with almost none of these elements transferrable to the rest of the series?  (Reports are that the production staff spent an entire year planning and executing these two episodes.)  Only somebody who really loved the Muv-Luv universe, and wanted to do right by it whatever the cost.  One of Inagaki’s goals in creating these episodes was to reward fans of the series who had waited so patiently for an anime adaptation, by presenting something new and exciting that they would all enjoy – and it’s safe to say that fans did indeed love these two episodes.

In a certain sense, I can understand, and even respect, the desire to bring a favorite property to life exactly as envisioned, no matter what.  But obviously such an approach isn’t going to end well.  Clearly the first two episodes wiped out the production staff.  They managed to stay afloat, more or less, until episode 9, which is such a disaster that they fired him from the director’s seat.  A new director, Masaomi Andou, was brought on to complete the Type-99 firing sequence and then finish out the series – on budget.

Let’s take a look at the Blue Flag arc.  This arc is a nightmare for an anime staff on a tight budget.  There are many TSFs that only drop by for a quick fight and then disappear from the series forever.  The anime condenses things down to four fights:

Jian-Ji 10 (Baofeng) vs. Phantom
Terminator (Idar) vs. Fighting Falcon
Shiranui Second/Active Eagle (Argos) vs. Jian-Ji 10 (Baofeng)
Jian-Ji 10 (Baofeng) vs. Raptor (Infinities)

In the original novels, Baofeng’s first fight was against Duma Flight’s Mirage 2000s, while Idar’s first fight was against Azrael Flight’s Super Tomcats.  The anime changes them to TSFs whose CG models could be recycled – the Phantom models were taken from the Gekishins in episodes 1-2, while the Fighting Falcon models would be used extensively in the upcoming terrorist arc.  The remaining TSFs are all piloted by our major characters.  This has removed the need to create throwaway CG models like the Fubuki.

Of course it’s sad that we lost out on seeing a wide variety of TSFs in this arc.  But those are the kinds of decisions that have to made when you’re watching the bottom line.  These changes saved money on a tight budget without hurting the story.  This likely led to the final terrorist arc being able to afford to animate so many fight scenes without having the production collapse.

(The game wound up following the anime’s lead in changing the Mirage 2000s to Phantoms, so it’s safe to say the original creators at Age didn’t find this change to be any big deal either.)

I was very happy with the job the anime staff did.  It’s not their fault that the show never had the budget it deserved.  I loved the first two episodes, which were made with so much love for the franchise.  But I also appreciated that the second half of the series was more consistent in its animation, and brought the production to a close without imploding on itself.  Which approach is better?  Do you want a director who loves the franchise and who will be true to the original source material, and damn the consequences?  Or do you want a director who will keep the production on track, even if it means making changes to the original?