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Review, final part – The Sealed Esoteric History -moon- (秘封活動記録-月-) – personal verdict and some thoughts

Edit, 8th December 2017: Before you wonder how I could come to that conclusion when Kyoto Fantasy Troupe‘s attempt was at clear advantage, you have to put things in perspective. At the time, I mistakenly compared this episode with Manpuku‘s whole series where I should have compared it with the current arc they were working on in the same period. I surely have to reconsider that conclusion. I may write an update at the end later if not lazy.

The Sealed Esoteric History -moon- (秘封活動記録-月-) review, final part (personal verdict and some thoughts)

Really good days for both animation and Touhou lovers

We are in a point of time that has never been so good if you’re looking for Touhou animation. We now have three series which all have their own imprint (on top of them you can add Sound Holic’s PVDs and Touhou M-1 Grand Prix and some other less major efforts). Let’s detail what I don’t like with A Summer Day’s Dream. The overall tone, the pet-like characters, all that laziness and shortcuts to fill in the time and space along with the really slow pace and completely silly plots. I can’t understand how can some of you consider it as “better”. It sure has entertainment value, with the really lovely voice acting that drives most of its tone (I really like what some seiyuu do to the characters by improvising a bit) but some of the voices are just… no.

Fantasy Kaleidoscope set a new mark or standard for Touhou animation. Allying efficiency with rapidity and unmatched care in both art, animation and sound departments. However, its target is clearly pure entertainment and a cartooney, light tone to appeal the highest number of potential viewers. It also allows itself some obvious liberties by incorporating questionable elements and not really focussing enough on storytelling. They are, at Manpuku Jinja, in a more “let’s just enjoy ourselves as that’s what really counts, as we’re over the top anyway” approach than others. Maybe they’re right after all. What I like the most is the audacity of not wanting to include voice acting. You would not see that in traditional and commercial TV animation. Ever! Yet, not only Touhou allows you to transcend the rules seen in the industry and art schools but it can also prove it can work if done more or less properly. In fact, Fantasy Kaleidoscope is a concentrate of really well thought and smart compromises when thinking about it and stepping back. Also… yes, I myself do prefer Touhou derivative works (and some other fan productions) to be unvoiced. That’s an aesthetic and personal preference (I also find characters to look a lot cuter that way, especially considering it’s an all female cast, don’t ask me why).

Now our lovely OVA from Kyoto Fantasy Troupe. Truly one of the nicest surprises of 2016. I really like how it tries to compensates for Fantasy Kaleidoscope caveats by focusing on storytelling and going easy with gags, grimaces and fan service. For a first attempt, I consider it as truly astounding. Gone are the days of that dodgy attempt Sound Holic offered us in late 2007. Some awkwardness is inevitable but I think it coped very well.

Now, my personal verdict

The moment everybody is waiting for. Do I consider this as better than Fantasy Kaleidoscope? The answer I’m going to give may surprise you or make you jump. I’m sorry, I just can’t distance myself from my usual anti-conformism.

Well, as good and neat Kyoto Fantasy Troupe’s anime is, I still think Fantasy Kaleidoscope still have its word. The lighter and more accessible tone, along with better mastered art clearly act in its favour. So, my folks, no. It is not superior to Fantasy Kaleidoscope, even with its own questionable artistic choices (mainly for Episode 6, as I consider it way too cartooney). Artistic choices and elements that you choose to include don’t make everything. Don’t forget we’re talking about Touhou derivative works, not your average TV programme that a network purchased to be aired on a given time slot. It’s all about alchemy. An alchemy that works regardless of what you put and how you’re doing it. I guess it has something to do with the soul that is blown into it. I really wish some fine/amateur animators and MMDers could take that into consideration rather than following crowds and trends. Maybe it’s just a question of open-mindedness… or I’m just going too far with my reflection (we’re just talking about a small self-product OVA).

Edit, January 27th, 2019: Some of you reading this might be wondering what the hell I smoked when I wrote this article. It was clear at the time that Kyoto Fantasy Troupe was the big winner, especially during that time where Manpuku Jinja was focussing on the flower incident arc, which was finally released on Bluray along with the Giant Youkai one during summer Comiket in 2018. It was clear that the Chinese circle did show huge storytelling savoir-faire where Manpuku had trouble find the path to follow, achieving a rather mediocre blend between nice artwork, grimaces and light-mood scenes. A Sealed Esoteric History was clearly a much more interesting watch at the time, with or without voices (voiced version released in April 2016). But it doesn’t make Fantasy Kaleidoscope that bad. The lighter mood brought by episodes 5 to 7 can find its audience in the end, especially those who preferred the approach used by Maikaze over strict retelling of the games without much input. And, as you can guess, we’ve come a long way since and Manpuku finally found its path during the Imperishable Night arc and episodes are finally offering a good blend of story, seriousness, personal input and light mood which make this arc much worthwhile than what they did before. Also, references to fanon are introduced in a more subtle manner. Episodes during this arc feel less and less out of place. In the meantime, Kyoto Fantasy Troupe still didn’t go beyond episode 2, and that’s why I still think Fantasy Kaleidoscope still has its word, even though less and less (sensible) people seems interested in it.

In any ways, I heartily recommend it, especially if you’re not fan of the cartooney aspect of Fantasy Kaleidoscope and want something more “mature”, less childish to watch, something that can bring actual reflection rather than amusement. The gorgeous art is really what strikes the most in it.

Okay, a final thought…

Well, one of the anime’s weakness doesn’t reside in the sold product actually but rather in the circle’s own communication strategy. They clearly have lot of work to do on that domain. If you compare Kyoto Fantasy Troupe’s blog to Manpuku Jinja’s one, differences are striking. It looks like KFT doesn’t like giving too much info or leaking too much material. The problem is that it prevents the future viewer of being aware of how the final product will look like. Sure we had come sketches early in development, 3 trailers and some animated GIFs later but that’s all we had, really. It looks like the circle is a bit too discreet in my taste. They clearly need to work on their advertising.

Okay, I think I’m done now. I hope my review wasn’t too long or boring. If I actually made you want to buy this, it means that I did my job well and that the circle could take inspiration from it and think about what they should say from what they shouldn’t. Thank you for your reading. I really wish the circle good luck for the future.

Review, part3 – The Sealed Esoteric History -moon- (秘封活動記録-月-) – picture and sound quality

The Sealed Esoteric History -moon- (秘封活動記録-月-) review, part3 (picture and sound quality)

The technical side: what is the quality like?

That’s why I’m sad I can’t post screenshots. You’ll only have my descriptions as to how to gauge the overall quality.

As said earlier, we have 4 files. 2 720p files of 318MB of size and 2 1080p files of 1.8GB of size. The one I watched is the 1080p subbed one. This one should have been almost flawless considering the high bitrate (8Mbps variable bitrate AVC)… except that’s not totally the case. Relatively calm parts look clean, but once it begins to have some action, some degradation and blocking start to appear (I also checked frames individually on my computer too, with a 23” Asus IPS full HD monitor, if that is any comfort to you). Indeed, action go generally pretty fast so you’ll not likely to notice it. But beware if you’re watching it on a 50+ inch TV. I really wish they used constant CRF instead of what I assume to be 2-pass encoding.

On the left, we have a calm scene and on the right a busy one (battle with Suika). I know I didn’t have permission to show direct screenshots, but Idon’t think this should be harmful as the product is not really recognizable directly. Notice the quality drop when something busy happens. Thankfully, it doesn’t go worse than that.

Audio is AAC 317kpbs with a 48KHz sample rate on all files. Again, it should be flawless… except, hum! Analyzing the waveform through Adobe Audition’s frequency analyzer reveals a lot of frequency drops at as low as 16KHz on many BGMs, meaning they used lossy files as sources when editing! How can on earth someone serious could do that? Considering the music was most likely commissioned and not downloaded. On the other hand, opening and ending songs don’t show any sign of frequency drop (they go up to 20KHz but not over, which is okay for AAC audio). In all honesty, if you’re not obsessed with audio quality you won’t notice it. But if you’re an audiophile… Again, something to work on for the next time. Never use lossy files when editing sound if especially on something of that ambition, unless you have absolutely no other choice.

Click on each to enlarge. Notice how the graph doesn’t go above 16KHz on one of the BGMs heared throughout the OVA. That’s the sign of lossy audio thrown in the mix. Notice also how the ending only drops at 20KHz, which is what you would expect from AAC audio of a bitrate that high.

I quickly looked through one of the 720p files. I think it’s safe to consider them useless, unless the device you’re using to watch has trouble with high bitrate and 1080p files (some old BD players or multimedia gateways might struggle to play them), as they are basically Youtube-tier quality.

On the practical side, let’s look through the subtitles. Well, first surprise, they weren’t positioned with overscan in mind. They’re a bit too close to the bottom edge of the screen. On a CRT TV, subs might be either be plastered over the bottom edge of your bezel or cropped/eaten up. On a modern TV, it should be a bit better. I still recommend to disable overscan on your TV if you can, or unzoom the picture if using Kodi or XBMC on an old TV. The other complaint I have is how fast some of them are shown on screen. Most subs really go too fast to be read entirely. I think they wanted all their lines to be one-line only, which has never been a practical solution. With at least 2 lines, you are wasting a bit of screen space but at least you can read them (this is what Fantasy Kaleidoscope did perfectly). Also, it seems that TPD-Subs based their timing on the original subs, which made most of their lines a bit too fast to be read as a result. If you’re not a fast reader, that will be a problem. I highly recommend looking for lines that are too short in their file in order to merge them with lines after them (probably what I’ll do).

Now, something nobody will talk about (except me), the overall loudness. This is the aspect I feared the most. That was a pleasant surprise. In fact, only the opening and ending songs can be misleading as they are quite loud (in fact they reach 0dBFS). But the rest is fairly quiet with lots of headroom. I’m happy on this point.

Just like Fantasy Kaleidoscope, a lot of headroom is given so that various sound effects can breathe and so that it doesn’t sound squashed or assault our ears. However, opening and ending songs should have been lowered by at least 4 or 6dB, considering they were mastered with some loudness in mind (just like any other modern song, Touhou doujin music including ZUN’s own albums is no exception).

To be continued on part4 (personal verdict and some thoughts)

Review, part2 – The Sealed Esoteric History -moon- (秘封活動記録-月-) – artwork and story

The Sealed Esoteric History -moon- (秘封活動記録-月-) review, part2 (artwork and story)

Artwork, sound, music and writing

The visual part is probably what this OVA is best at. Sincerely, this was ravishing. The background design is amazing of detail (thank you miss High-definition) and the animation feels really smooth and neat. My only gripe is the slightly awkward character design. Some characters might look a bit weird to some of you. Also, background detail is so high it is even visible on my SD CRT TV! I think they really outdid themselves. Also, as a side note, this makes me realize how outstanding the background work is on Fantasy Kaleidoscope too.

The background design is absolutely amazing. Look at that detail. Also, watching a 1080p file on an SDTV? What the hell is wrong with me? For the info, this is a Retrogaming/Media center PC which is plugged to it. The resolution that’s actually shown is 1280×576 50Hz interlaced with 16:9 mode enabled, coming from VGA-to-SCART conversion (this TV has a 600-TVL tube by the way so the 1280 pixels get smoothed out in a fashion similar to subpixel smoothing in Cleartype). Also, the picture of this TV looks a lot better in real life than it does on these cheap photographs. More details about this setup may be given later on this blog.

The sound part. Probably what we really can’t make an idea about when not having the product in hand. Well, it works. Let’s begin by sound effects. To be honest, they feel a little cheap at times. This is especially true for hard sounds (footsteps, cloth sounds, etc.) and everyday life sounds (lol at the same looped crowd noise we hear at every place Renko and Merry walk around… well, honestly, it’s not that noticeable :P). You can argue it adds a charm. Also, considering there is no voice, this is the only thing your brain will hold (along with the endless lipflaps) and the fact that sometimes they’re a bit too upfront doesn’t really help. All in all, it’s not that disturbing frankly. I think they have a little work to do on this part. On the other side, all other magical, spell card, attack, explosion sounds or anything that’s not supposed to be realistic sound really nice and is on par with Fantasy Kaleidoscope.

About sound, what I like the most is the music. Yonder Voice or whoever scored that did a wonderful job. Instead of the fast and rhythmic (and sometimes “mickeymoused”) things we had in Manpuku’s anime, we have a very nice and atmospheric score which deserves its own original soundtrack in my opinion.

Now, the writing… Umm… As I don’t speak Japanese, this will be very hard for me to judge that part. Just like Fantasy Kaleidoscope, the characters look like they all have something interesting to say, which I hope is the case (and it is, more or less, read below). In fact, one quality that almost everybody ignored from Manpuku’s anime is how the dialogue is really well written. However, in the meantime, TPD-Subs group released English subtitles (a link to a cleaned up ASS file will come soon) which helped me a lot to understand better what is going on. So, basically, Renko and Merry are considering a trip to the moon but appear to be short on money. While discussing about that, they begin remembering an incident that occured ten years ago (if I understand correctly) where youkai from the Earth tried invading the Moon in order to steal the Hourai Elixir (Elixir of immortality in TPD’s subs) I presume. That’s why we go back and forth between Renko and Merry in what appears to be a futuristic world and events on the moon during the whole movie.

All in all, I really liked how Kyoto Fantasy Troupe tried to push settings and characters not commonly seen and build something around them. That really brings some fresh air (the circle even makes fun of this at the end of the anime). All that makes it a very interesting watch. Also, I don’t think we have original characters there. They seem to be coming from the Cage in Lunatic Runagate story but I can’t recognize the male characters, as TPD probably didn’t transcribe them properly (they can’t be found anywhere on the web and the wiki, the only thing I found were the gatekeepers). I might be mistaken but if it’s more or less basing itself on or taking elements from Cage in Lunatic Runagate (which I didn’t read), we can consider it close to canon… but again, I’m not the best person for that. This alone makes it very desirable over Fantasy Kaleidoscope where dialogue is the only thing that add depth to their stories.

Update (2016-3-25): I got confirmed that some of the male characters we see are original and do not come from Cage in Lunatic Runagate, which would explain why no info exist on them. I guess there was some grey area on this aspect of the story that was not detailed in CiLR (I presume) which explains why they improvised a bit. I think they made more or less the right decision (even though some people criticized this decision because it moves away a little bit from canon).

No fan-service, but some unexpected and amusing cameos. Not shown here, but there’s a part showing some posters advertising fictional Touhou events, and Kyoto Fantasy Troupe made its own advertising on them! Also, in case you doubt it, the characters you see are probably cosplays, which makes sense because of said Touhou events.

To be continued on part3 (picture and sound quality)